Assassination Nation

2018
Dir. Sam Levinson

A dark satire offering commentary on a whole host of issues pertinent to current times, Assassination Nation can perhaps be viewed as the millennial generation’s proverbial middle finger to its critics. The horror central to the film, which is conveniently set in Salem, consist of an array of frenzied witch hunts, as an unidentified hacker taps into all its citizens’ private digital lives, and exposes them to the whole town. First, the targets are figures of authority; an anti-LGBTQIA rights mayoral candidate is exposed in his hypocritical ways, and accusations of paedophilia towards the high school principal. The focus then shifts towards ordinary folks in the town and everyone in Salem becomes a target.

The film centres on Lily (Odessa Young), a Lolita stereotype, who also has a secret vulnerable to exposure. Alongside her three friends, she becomes the target of the witch hunt overnight, in part due to the exposure of her secret, but also due to her becoming scapegoated as the source of the hacking.

In its aesthetics and sentiments, Assassination Nation is of the generation grown up with certain aspects of social media, namely the over-(self) sexualisation of young women on Instagram, and the voyeurism of violence and public humiliation, à la WorldStarHipHop. The editing is fast paced, sometimes with the use of split screens, resulting in a sensory overload perhaps akin to the continuous scrolling on social media in reality.

Dealing with an array of issues, such as slut shaming, toxic masculinity and transphobia, the film itself is aware of its direct commentary on these issues, to the point where it contains a disclaimer of these contents at the very beginning of the film. However, the film does not commit to any one particular issue, and delve into it in greater depth with any substantial message. Where the film does offer an interesting point for discussion is in its exposure to the increasingly precarious nature of our digital lives.

Possum

2018
Dir. Matthew Holness

Adapted from his own short story, Possum is a character focused atmospheric horror film written and directed by Matthew Holness, who is perhaps previously better known as his dark comedic character Garth Marenghi. The film follows Philip (Sean Harris), a quiet and socially awkward local “weirdo”, and his complicated relationship with his disused grotesque puppet. Through the progression of the film, we find out that Philip has suffered some kind of trauma, and literally carries around the emotional baggage as a result of that trauma, manifested in the form of a zip-up leather bag that the puppet is stuffed into, which he attempts to destroy every day but fails to do so. He is also taunted by an older male figure, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), with whom he resides, but the nature of their relationship is ambiguous until the very end.

During the introduction of the special screening, Holness told the audience that Possum was largely influenced by the German silent horror films of the 1920s, which deal with subjects such as war trauma, and he set out to make a silent horror film for the modern day. This is largely achieved through the minimalist dialogue and a focus on the visceral rather than the narrative. The film foregrounds the images, and the feelings these evoke, rather than the progression of the narrative itself. The specific details of Philip’s trauma are hinted through his nightmarish dreams, or perhaps fragmented memories within his psyche, and the recitation of the poem book of Possum, which appear to give life to the inanimate puppet.

Possum does utilise some familiar tropes specific to the genre: the device of the secret behind the door, suppressed memories, the ambiguity of whether the threat stems from the supernatural or the psychological, and so forth. However, Harris’ skilful (method) acting, and more specifically his subtle yet revealing facial expressions which are haunting yet full of pain, brings freshness to the well traversed territory of representations of psychological horrors. Equally, Armstrong is excellent as the villainous Morris, as each sneer or grunt intensifies the sinister nature of his character. Additionally, the location of the Norfolk countryside, and the folk and electronic soundtrack provided by the Radiophonic Workshop perfectly thread together the eeriness that underpins the film.

Mandy

2018
Dir. Panos Cosmatos

Mandy is the perfect vehicle for the renaissance of Nicholas Cage’s stardom in recent years, amidst a glut of YouTube clips and memes, and showcases his unique brand of acting to its full effect.

The plot is straightforward and follows the general template for a revenge horror film, but it is extreme in every other aspect: visually it is surreal, the violence is horrifically gory, and Cage’s over-stylised performance as Red encapsulates the excruciating pain of loss, which is then transformed into acute hatred towards the perpetrators of the death of his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Those responsible comprise of a seemingly supernatural trio of characters - reminiscent of the cenobites from the Hellraiser films - known as the Black Skulls, and the members of a cult that has summoned them, led by disgruntled failed musician Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache).

The portrayal of Red and Mandy’s loving relationship in the first third is engaging and convincing, as we see them eat their TV dinners, discuss childhood traumas and share their favourite planets with each other. The introduction of the cult, and the Black Skulls, and the subsequent violence towards the couple in the mid-section of the film is tense and uncomfortable to watch. But it is Red’s mission for revenge which propels the film to another level of enjoyment. “Cage Rage” is in full effect henceforth, starting with a prolonged sequence of agony from grief in his bathroom. What follows is a collection of surreal, psychedelic and extreme acts of violence, which sometimes verge on the absurd.

As we delve deeper into Red’s inner world, the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred, as the Pacific Southwest landscape appear to transform into a dreamscape, resembling Mandy’s paintings shown earlier in the film, and the revenge plot plays out like the fantasy novels that she reads. Interspersed with animated sequences featuring a sorrowful Mandy, which come to represent Red’s nightmares, there is a tender quality to his search for revenge, almost like a final love letter to his dead partner.