As you can imagine, I was intrigued when I received an invitation via email to yesterday's hush-hush New York screening of Manic Monday, the debut film from Canadian director Dex Baxter. I'm usually not a big fan of music video directors switching to feature films, but the stuff he put together for bands like Antigone's Veil and Wormsign has been pretty striking to say the least, and so I was actually kind of intrigued to see what he was capable of. As it turned out, my curiosity was more than warranted.
Pretty much everyone inside the industry who would actually speak to me about it over the past month or two assured me that Manic Monday was going to be 2010's Paranormal Activity, to the 10th power. At first, I was annoyed when I couldn't find a damn thing about the project anywhere on the internet, but after enough exasperated searching, I became impressed that the studio has been able to keep such a tight lid on this thing. Obviously, the suits are finally learning from the lessons of the past.
Remembering the air-tight confidentiality that surrounded the whole deal, I wasn't surprised to find that when the curtain of secrecy was finally pulled back for yesterday afternoon's screening at the brand-new Steiner Studios in New York's historic Brooklyn Navy Yards, not very many people were there. After all, there was a very limited number of people even made aware of it, so I was grateful just to be there. Plus, I never pass up an opportunity to go back to my hometown.
It's hard to write about what I saw yesterday without plunging into hyperbole, so bear with me. You may not have heard too much about Manic Monday yet, but trust me, you're going to, and soon. Now that the cat is out of the bag, it's pretty obvious to me that this movie is going to make some major waves. Honestly, I don't think I've seen a horror film that affected me this much since the first time I watched the original Dawn of the Dead, some 20 years ago, curled up by myself in my best friend's girlfriend's den (don't ask.)
Lots of horror movies have been made about things like ouija boards and opening up portals to hell and all that stuff, so I wouldn't blame you if you went in thinking it was going to be some hackneyed bit of cliched nonsense. But I have to point out that you'd be very wrong. Manic Monday, as far as I'm concerned, takes its place amongst the likes of Trick 'r Treat, [REC] and Let the Right One In as one of the most astonishing and inventive horror flicks of the century thus far.
Filled with relatively unknown actors, the realism quotient is very high. I recognized Elaine Barstow, the actress who plays the mother to the troubled girl who opens said portal, from the short-lived '90s Melrose Place rip-off Taylor's Ridge, but for the most part these are people who are completely new to me. And watching Barstow struggle to remove her little daughter's arm from a garbage disposal before it turns itself on, set to the strains of Aerosmith's Dream On, is certainly a far cry from the soapy schmaltz of TV melodrama.
Of the entire cast, however, it's Tom Huston as the enigmatic Ezekiel Smit who stands out the most. Not young by any means, it's remarkable how he's managed to slip under the horror radar--reminds me of Deranged, the 1974 serial killer movie that put middle-aged and largely unknown Roberts Blossom on the map. Huston (seen here in the obscure Canadian sitcom Salad Days) is destined to become the cult-figure for fans of this movie, playing a horror villain unlike anything we've seen in a while. Credit is due to Baxter for the unflinching material that's written for this character.
Obviously, as I've said, the concept of supernatural invasion is nothing new to the horror genre. This movie benefits greatly from the influence of Lovecraft, and if I had to pin it down, I might say it's something like The Gate meets Poltergeist. And yet, that does absolutely no justice to the film whatsoever, since it's actually far superior to either one of those films. The core subject matter may not be anything new, but it's what Baxter does with it that will leave audiences in stunned silence.
Lately, it seems like so many horror films are trying to push the envelope to become that "IT" film that everyone talks about, that it's becoming harder and harder to achieve that. But make no mistake, Manic Monday is destined to be exactly that, and perhaps a large part of it is directly because of the almost total lack of hype surrounding it. As someone who works in marketing, I can relate to the temptation to get the word out, and the difficulty involved in creating a bona fide buzz in this era of over-saturated markets. So I respect what these guys accomplished here, and now that the word is out, it's going to be interesting to watch it pay off. I hope more films can be so well-guarded--reminds me of the old days of rifling through issues of Starlog just to find a few scant hints about upcoming projects.
Several of the reports I've managed to get my hands on seemed to be under the impression that part of the reason the movie was so heavily protected has to do with some of the extremely shocking content pertaining to Heather, the little girl who is both victimized by Smit and exposed to some unthinkable horrors over the course of the film. Everyone seems to get up in arms when a child is in peril in a movie, and I can't say I don't totally understand, being a parent myself. Maybe it does go a little too far, or maybe I'm just getting too old to stomach it. But I certainly acknowledge its raw power, and completely understand why the filmmakers went in that direction.
Depending on who you see this movie with, you're going to find it challenges a lot of convictions and even basic assumptions about morality, and human nature in general. I saw it by myself, which in a way only intensified its effect, since I literally had no one to talk with about it, and had to internally process everything I had seen on the screen without the benefit of feedback. But in a way, I much prefer that, since I can't imagine very many people I know who wouldn't have wanted to walk out in the middle. This is not a film for the squeamish, or for those who only occasionally challenge themselves with a horror film or otherwise disturbing picture. This is the kind of movie that makes your non-geek friends think you're a complete sicko for liking it.
And so, I can only strongly recommend that those who do take their horror seriously check this film out as soon as it gets an official release, which presumably is going to be happening sometime in late spring. This movie is so powerful in so many ways, that it's almost hard to encapsulate everything in a review. Certainly Walter Podolak's relentlessly grim cinematography is a big part of it, as is the bleak, minimalist score of Turkish wunderkind Galiba Yanlış.
Yesterday, a handful of my illustrious colleagues were also blessed with the opportunity to check out Manic Monday at similar screenings in their respective nearby urban centers, so expect the buzz to only continue to grow. Reviews have already been posted from the likes of Billy Loves Stu, Heart in a Jar, The Drunken Severed Head, Chuck Norris Ate My Baby, The Horror Digest and the one and only Day of the Woman (you're welcome for the screener passes, BJ!)