Spoiling of the Sweet: The Hives Between Nia DaCosta’s Candyman

In response to a Tweet talking about Candyman, I said:

“What I love is that build up and the false Candyman right before the real one just comes in, and you hear his voice echoing in Helen’s mind, booming, but also quiet. And he is so calm. So collected. And Helen is entranced by him in terror, and awe. He only loses his cool at the end.

“But as Tony Todd recites those delicious lines from “The Forbidden,” you feel that power resonate in a way not unlike, but not like buzzing. And you know, without a doubt, that he is in control here. He is the nightmare. And is bringing her home.”

And these Tweets, and Facebook comments got me some pushback, as some people believed I was spoiling Nia DaCosta’s Candyman film — directed and co-written by her, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld where, in actuality, I was referring to Tony Todd’s performance as the created urban legend in Bernard Rose’s classic 1992 film. At first, I was annoyed at people not bothering to read, or examine what I was saying more closely, but now in retrospect I can’t particularly blame them.

I mean, they are both called Candyman even though DaCosta’s film is the remade sequel to the events from Rose’s movie: possibly creating a new continuity diverging from its previous sequels. And both films share beats with the original 1986 short story from whence it came: Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden.”

I’m very interested in the creation of myths, and stories. Folklore, and more contemporary urban legends, and even electronic creepypastas have different iterations of themselves, though like a twisted Campbell mono-myth they come from an original narrative, or at least common human themes. Many people have already mentioned how Clive Barker’s Candyman differs from the one transmitted into the films. He is more of an elemental, wilder being, like some kind of Celtic god of sweets and blood: the painted, end continuing result of a class of people so trapped by gentrification and class that they glorify the horror and violence they can’t escape, worshipping it to stay it off, but also feel a sense of importance and perhaps even catharsis with the sacrifice of innocence, and death of an outsider. He also has a hook for a hand, just like “The Hook” or the “Hookman” urban legend, but being situated in the Spector Street Estate in England, and having British almost pagan roots when you consider his almost agrarian characteristics  with the bees inside his body. And, unlike the Candyman played by Tony Todd in Rose’s film, he doesn’t have the Bloody Mary element: in that you don’t need to say his name five times in front of a mirror to summon him.

He will come to you if you search for him, or attempt to dissect his myth. More often than not, he is content to simply be an idea and let others tell stories about his atrocities, his cautionary tales, and occasionally have someone enact murders in his name: unless, of course, an outsider like Helen Buchanan — a cold, detached and rather shallow student of “sociology and aesthetics” in this short story caring only about proving herself right, and even her sense of conscience in exploiting the suffering of a lower-working class neighbourhood — begins investigating too closely. From Butts’ Court, to Ruskin in Spector Street, murders and mutilations are attributed to this figure, but they only become more immediate and real to Helen when Anne-Marie — the single mother she’s been talking with in her flat about the graffiti and the homicides — is caught in her own tragedy as her infant son Kerry has his throat slit by the Candyman himself. In fact, the reader doesn’t even see the Candyman’s name mentioned until later in the story, and he only appears himself far towards its end. We never get an origin story for this boogeyman, as he simply exists in the hearts and minds of the people of Spector Street and — eventually — Helen’s as well.

Helen becomes interested in this figure, past her love to document graffiti as some kind of urban cultural or historical art, mostly to spite her husband Trevor: who she has a jaded, and often adversarial relationship with, as well as her equally shallow and insincere academic peers and friends. Trevor already cheats on her, with several women, and she is just over it. Barker is not flattering to anyone in these depictions: not even Anne-Marie who, for all her grief and then her nervousness over Kerry’s death, becomes almost effulgent during his funeral: as though she is, from Helen’s perspective, the centre of attention for the first time in her whole life, or made illuminated by this ritual sacrifice of a child. The whole neighbourhood is in on placating, and worshipping this Candyman — this immediate specimen of primal and bloody divinity, forged from visceral and personal tragedy — and even Helen, deep down, feeling distant and empty in her own life of background homicide news and papers, wants to be a part of the story. She wants immortality. 

What you fear is what you desire in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection at least, where “The Forbidden” is included. Helen ends up trying to find Kerry’s corpse, which is secretly held in the pyre the people are building — to bring his body as evidence to the police to prove there is a conspiracy going on at Spectator Street — only for the Candyman to hold there, and they burn together under the flames of his worshippers. Murderer, victim, and child sacrifice are made archetypes, and Helen — deep down in a horrible place — secretly wants this. The story ends with Helen wanting to haunt Trevor, in a line not unlike that from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and it all has this particular Wicker Man feel to it when you look at how Helen is lured into the story of the neighbourhood: albeit more enticed by a lack in her life, than a stringent sense of duty. 

Then we get to Bernard Rose’s Candyman. Most of you all know this one. Rose moves the Candyman’s location from Liverpool, England and Spectator Street to Chicago, in America and the Cabrini-Green housing project: a Black neighourhood abandoned by white society, and terrorized by violence and crime. It is a film whose themes focus on both gentrification, and race. Helen Lyle is, straight-out, a semiotics student of Chicago and is fascinated with urban legends: wanting to do a publication on it with her friend Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh. Bernadette is in the Clive Barker short story, but she is mostly just someone in a conversation about the murders in Spector Street, and nothing more is really said about her. In Rose’s film, she is a Black graduate student and best friend of Helen’s and — for the most — seems to have more common sense, or at least street-smarts than she does. There is a bit of the stereotypical “sassy Black woman” combined with “the Black best friend” trope.

Helen is more sympathetic, however, and seems genuinely interested in the urban cultural legend of the Candyman, and its implications. Anne-Marie McCoy, a single Black mother, with her son named Anthony, are also more humanized than in the short story. Cabrini-Green doesn’t worship the Candyman. Its residents are terrified of him, and Anne-Marie is absolutely and ferociously protective of her son. We find out that the Candyman was once the son of a slave, who was educated at the finest schools, and became a master painter: an artist that, unfortunately in the 1890, fell in love with a rich man’s white daughter, got her pregnant, and was tortured and murdered by a lynch mob organized by her father. He gets his hook after having his hand cut off with a rusty saw, he’s stung to death by bees, and his ashes are scattered all over the site of what will become Cabrini-Green: a ritual of hatred laying the groundwork of Black generational suffering to come due to gentrification, and his restless spectre.

In a Fangoria column and interview Problematic Films: In Defense of Candyman (1992) Sean Abley and William O. Tyler discuss Tony Todd’s Candyman, in which Tyler notes his “black and white checkered pants that you see line cooks wear” combined with his fur coat symbolizing a working class man or street denizen “elevated to this theatrical, supernatural being”:  a fairly different depiction of him from Barker’s version.

Helen and Bernadette are fairly methodical, in that Helen realizes her apartment is sister to the one in Cabrini-Green where a woman reportedly killed by the Candyman: realizing her mirror is attached to another room. This same mindset works against them as they both utter his name, with Bernadette doing it four times, and Helen completing the fifth. This is where the horror icon develops. We also get a sense of the gentrification and the ghettoization of Cabrini-Green from Helen and Trevor’s more affluent neighbourhood: even though they were both made by the same developers. This similar, but mirror-opposite — if you will pardon the pun — arrangement gave me some major Jordan Peele’s Us vibes, which given what we are talking about makes sense after the fact.  

In Fangoria Volume 2, Issue 12, in his article “Reconsidering Bernard Rose’s Candyman,”  Richard Newey focuses on “the mirror component of the urban legend”: on Candyman being a projection of white guilt and I would add gaslighting: as if all the violence, hatred, and fear white society creates doesn’t exist, and it is all in the minds of its victims. Newey goes on to say that Helen Lyle is “a tourist of the Black American experience who seeks to devour an aspect of Black culture and reduce it into pedagogy [… ] she uses academia as a means to catalog and quantify Black suffering.” It reminds me of the schoolteacher in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who goes out of his way to methodically write down and quantify the characteristics of the slaves in the plantation of Sweet Home: though with less conscious and cruel intentions, but still paternalistic in a lot of ways.

Helen’s society — where she comes from — informs her behaviour, and she doesn’t realize its consequences to her, and those around her, until she interacts with Cabrini-Green. Helen summons the Candyman by trying to find him and calling out his name. She investigates the apartment room, the mirror to the one across from her, and finds his shrine there: except it is not in a maisonette or flat, but another room not far from where Anne-Marie and Anthony are staying. But after “disproving” his existence by being attacked by a gang member with a hook, and betraying the child who trusted her with the secret of the public restroom where the mutilation of a developmentally challenged young man took place — in both the short story and this film some time back — the spectre himself is called upon to intervene directly.

And he makes her face her actions, and the influences that brought her there. He tells her to “be his victim.” And then it occured to me — after reading Newey’s article what that might mean in another context: that in framing Helen, perhaps even possessing her, to kill Anne-Marie’s dog, to steal and hide Anthony away, and to murder Bernadette and the psychriatrist Dr. Burke, holding her in a mental institution — that perhaps she begins to know what it is like to have crimes attributed to her by the system that once benefitted her, and be punished for it: showing her her privilege and what it is like to be scapegoated. If the Candyman functions as a mirror, as a horror created by white racism, he is the oppression made by society now oppressing Helen, a white woman, who dared to summon him for her interests: to let him in.

This especially works if Helen is truly the reincarnation of the woman he loved and died for. It is no coincidence that Rose changed Helen’s last name from Buchanan to Lyle, which according to a quote from Barker’s in Phil and Sarah Stokes’ “Say His Name” was the name of one of the people that made “a golden syrup” in which “The makers of this syrup put on their can a picture of the partially rotted corpse of a lion with bees flying around it, and the Biblical quote…[from Judges 14: 14.] “And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Not only is this origin for “Sweets to the sweet,” even though Barker quotes it from Hamlet, but one of the makers of this English honey is called Lyle, to which Rose probably made a homage. This links Helen far more directly to the Candyman, and his entire legacy. She is the sweet he died for, and also the sweet made by the society that killed him.

The overall film mythology here is that of Father, Mother, and Child: something of a twisted holy trinity or a thwarted life, though the way this story ends is Helen attempting to save Anthony’s life — and succeeding — at the cost of her own, only to become a cautionary tale and murderous entity in her own right after supposedly destroying the Candyman with fire in the pyre. The people of Cabrini-Green seem to exorcise him, even if some had once worshipped him or tried to keep him at bay with offerings of candies and razor blades, and replace Helen as their saviour-figure: with the problematic elements of that fairly clear in her being white. 

It is interesting to consider that, like William Marshall with the character of Mamuwalde in Blacula before him, that figure also being the result of racist violence turning a Black man against his own people, representing the perpetuation of hate in a cycle, Tony Todd apparently created — or had great influence expanding on — the Candyman’s backstory. And while we are looking at concepts,  according to Phil Nobile Jr. in the Fangoria Terror Teletype of August 27, 2021 in the script that existed before Nia DaCosta was tapped to direct and co-write the 2021 Candyman, it was Helen — who had killed her unfaithful husband that summoned her — that attempts to continue the cycle of resurrecting Candyman: through his chosen host.

Nia DaCosta, however, does something a little different. It is all about a piece of art. It is all about a ritual. It is all about a structure, and a cycle. She tries to show us, to truly illustrate, how the candy, and its rot are made.

DaCosta goes back to the hive, and much farther back than you might think. She follows history, shifting most of the residents of Cabrini-Green out, and leaving it a shadow of what it is in 2019: attempting to “white-wash” it further, but instead of focusing on an apartment building, we focus more on “row-houses” not unlike the flats or maisonettes in “The Forbidden.” She refers to Helen Lyle, but distorts her story from the perspective of the storyteller’s: making the other characters believe she was a white student that went insane, attempted to kill a child, and ended up burning herself alive in a pyre in Cabrini-Green when she failed. Instead of being remembered as a victim, or a saviour, Helen becomes the monster that she changes into at the end of the first film: at least, to those who weren’t there in 1992. DaCosta retains the name of Daniel Robitaille for the Candyman, taking it perhaps from Farewell to the Flesh, but in a way that mirrors — again, that unintentional pun — the foreshadowing of the haunted apartment room with Helen’s from the 1992 film.

But if Helen’s parallel apartment was the setup, the beginning of DaCosta’s film is a dress rehearsal. She takes us back to 1977, before Rose’s film, but long after the events of the 1890: to show us a whole other kind of Candyman. It is startling, at first, but later as the character of Burke — perhaps named after the doctor killed in the previous film — explains to Brianna Cartwright, and her boyfriend Anthony McCoy before her, Sherman Fields — a developmentally challenged, homeless, but kind man with a hook for a hand — was beaten and killed by white police on suspicion of planting razor blades in candy that injured a white girl.

However, it is only after he’s dead that the razors continued to appear, and it was realized that Fields was innocent. But he became the Candyman, and was summoned by Burke’s sister in the bathroom: killing her. Even throughout the film, when he appears to someone, candies are laid on the ground: filled with razors, a bit of a different slant on both Barker’s and Rose’s Candyman characters. This is not contradictory with Daniel Robitaille’s legend, or apparently others after as according to Burke Candyman is “the whole damn hive:” a collective of Black men tormented, destroyed, and distorted by white racism to haunt the area of Cabrini-Green.

It makes sense. Gods themselves, going back to the first elemental Candyman of Barker’s creation, have different appearances, aspects, or facets depending on what roles they are supposed to fulfill, and based on from what areas they originate. A more contemporary example of this is how the television adaptation of American Gods turned William “Froggy” James into a furious ghost haunting Black people in Cairo, Illinois for not preventing his lynching and mutilation in 1909. That pluralistic approach to the urban legend — this myth — and the racist violence and trauma creates a cycle. It is certainly no coincidence that it is told that Fields’ face is beaten so bloody it doesn’t exist anymore: as if he could be any Black man at this point.

And Anthony McCoy fits into this archetype. The 2021 Candyman of DaCosta does match the beats of Rose’s 1992 film. Helen Lyle sought urban legends as a semiotics graduate student, but Anthony McCoy — the child that she saved from the fire and the Candyman — is a visual artist attempting to jog himself out of a creative slump: a painter needing inspiration. It all comes full circle, when you consider that Daniel Robitaille was a portrait painter himself before his murder and destruction, and subsequent transformation into the Candyman. Nia DaCosta, in her interview with Natalie Erika Jones in Fangoria Issue 12, explains that some of her central themes in this film are sibling relationships, absent parents, and the emotional burden and labour of Black women. 

And while she says this specifically towards Brianna Cartwright and her own past with her suicidal father, her emotionally distant mother, her relation with her brother Troy, and dealing with Anthony’s deteriorating mental state, you can easily apply this to Anthony as well. The Candymen — or the Candyman hive — are all brothers. They are all men murdered and remembered as victims turned into monsters by the system and belief that made them. Anne-Marie, Anthony’s mother, lied to him — or omitted — his kidnapping and kept from him his lost history with Cabrini-Green. You can even argue that Helen and the Candyman are  Anthony’s absent surrogate mother and father, the former having attempted to save his life, and the other endeavouring  to take it and make it his own, their spectres always there even if he didn’t remember them personally. Even Burke, the laundromat owner who he goes to for information on the Candyman — who turns out to be his worshiper, a follower who wants to resurrect him — seems to fill a paternal role he never had: as we don’t know what happened to his biological father. 

The loss of Anthony’s history, the gentrification he grew up in, the inherently racist society he struggles against, his stereotypical absentee or dead Black father, and an estranged mother combined with the sensitivity of his artististic sensibilities, all become like the background buzzing — the “white noise” of violence and fear — we hear throughout the entire film.

The Candyman’s bees seem to always be there. And even they, these harbingers of the spectre, are not immune to the cycle of destruction. DaCosta tells Jones that she wanted more emphasis on body horror in this film, and this is fulfilled when a bee stings Anthony’s hand: a sting that injects a venom that slowly infects him over time, and incubates more of the creatures inside of him. But before that, the bee loses its stinger. It does, and Anthony watches a swarm of ants consume the helpless being: a microcosmic version of the puppet dioramas where white police murder helpless Black men who become part of the Candyman. Interestingly enough, that ant swarm is a callback to Barker’s “The Forbidden”: where Anne-Marie is dealing with an ant infestation — the insects supposedly coming and surviving from Egypt — in the pipe system of her flat, and the entire Estate. She tells Helen, in that story, that the whole Estate is “infected” by them, and that no one will fix the problem. It is an interesting metaphor for an intentionally broken system, and a great coincidence or bit of creative synchronicity if nothing else.

Anthony himself tells the less than covertly racist art critic of his show about gentrification and touches on the idea of “white tourism” into Black spaces, talking from personal experiences, while Burke — when ranting to Brianna about the need for a Candyman — mentions the rot that occurs from white society: like an infestation you can’t stop.

Beats and mirrors. As DaCosta states to Jones: “I think it’s the cyclical nature of that story in particular, but also stories and urban legends in general and the place they have in our communities as a way of scaring us, but also searing us to protect us from it happening again. Like a warning, you know? The more horrifying the story is, the more important it is that we keep telling it.” There is definitely a transformation, or a broader understanding of the figure of the Candyman in DaCosta’s film from the rest of the mythos: for while he represents the power of fear and stories in Clive Barker’s work, and a cycle of hatred, and even internalized racism through the agency of Black male violence on Black people in Rose’s work, Burke — and through him DaCosta — wants to reclaim that power: to use it to defend Black people, or redirect it against the white system that created it.

But there is something else that DaCosta said in her Fangoria interview that sticks with me. She says, with regards to the lines she wants to cross with her film — as “a psychological brutal thriller” and a body horror work — that she doesn’t “want to traffic in Black pain to have a career.” It is something that comes up in the film narrative as well. Anthony, arguably, utilizes this to create his exhibit and attempt to get back into the art world from behind Brianna’s shadow, but it turns out that what he’s really looking for is a truth to fill the emptiness and anger in itself that he finds in the worst way possible. The story of Cabrini-Green is Anthony’s story, and Black pain is Anthony’s pain which he uses to create his art until it corrodes him from the inside, and despair takes him at the end. And you realize, that what we are seeing is not only the dissolution of a protagonist in this process, but the creation of the monster: especially as we see Burke cut off Anthony’s rotten arm with a saw, and replace it with a hook right in front of Brianna’s eyes: intending her, a Black woman, to be his first victim. His first sacrifice.

Yet Brianna isn’t going to have that. I wondered, a few days after I watched the film, just what Brianna’s function was in the Candyman mythos DaCosta creates. She has her own backstory, with her tormented artistic father who kills himself in front of her, a mother that leaves her to her own devices, a gay younger brother she feels protective towards, and seeking her own career while feeling like she has to take care of her boyfriend Anthony. She isn’t like Bernadette Walsh. She’s not a sidekick or a victim to be fridged for Anthony’s development into a monster. Brianna is a survivor. She’s had to remain strong, but she doesn’t let herself become the victim of male violence. And she doesn’t want to profit from it either. Brianna is reluctant to engage with a system of white racism that instilled mental-illness and imbalance in Anthony, in the art that she links in her mind to her father’s suicide — a style perhaps reminiscent of Anthony’s more blatant violent imagery in his paintings — and she won’t let Anthony, or Burke kill her.

In the end, she empathizes with Anthony’s agony, and grieves when the white police — summoned by Burke before she kills him — murder Anthony in cold-blood, in her arms. And it’s only when the police capture her, threatening her to testify on their behalf or she will face jail … or worse, that’s when she does it. That is the moment where Brianna embraces the art of violence — of murder — and utilizes Anthony’s torment and death, both of which she vehemently hates, to summon him as the Candyman: to protect herself from the white racist system.

Before this point, whenever we saw the Candyman kill people in DaCosta’s film he was always invisible, or seen as Sherman Fields’ grisly form in a mirror. And all his victims in 2019 are white: who saw his story as a lark. But now, we see Anthony infested fully by the bees, flying with impunity, an avenging golem as he massacres all the police officers in his way. It is a bloody, extra-judicial vengeance, a mirror turned on its perpetrators, and all Brianna had to do was look at herself hard in the front view mirror of a police car, turned to face her by a coercive officer at her own request, and sacrifice her boyfriend’s soul — already taken by Burke and the Candyman’s machinations from the first film, as he knew Anthony was part of his plan, that he needed to change — and her own morality to survive. To compromise. To become complicit. To use the system against itself. To live.

And she gets to live, afterwards, to continue to tell the story of the Candyman, no longer forgotten by the Cabrini-Green residents that left, nor left blissfully ignored by white society, and sent on her way by the man who no longer resembles Anthony McCoy, but rather Daniel Robitaille himself: the Candyman that so many horror fans had been waiting to see again.

And that is how the story ends. Yet we see it is only one story. We see more dioramas. More puppets as Black men are beaten and gunned down. We see them fall, and then rise. They rise with hooks. They rise up, and take vengeance on those that wronged them. Anthony McCoy returned to the row-house from which he first took pictures for his art, coming back to that part of another cell in the hive. It ends where it began, and as it begins again the way it first started, with bees pollinating twisted life in flowers of hatred and leaving their stingers in candied spoils of urban war, I don’t think this is over. 

Roads Past Uncertainty: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2021

Here I am at the Etheria Film Festival, in spirit again. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the Festival was forced to move from its physical Theatre viewing locations in the United States onto the online platform of Shudder. These have been uncertain times, and I didn’t know if I would ever cover — or even see — a similar event again.

But if I were to say that the Etheria Film Shorts of 2021 have a unifying theme or motif, it would be uncertainty: of being lost, or remaining in transition, and trying to find your way off a familiar path. 

So let’s get into it. Heidi Honeycutt, the founder and Director of Programming of Etheria introduces this round of female-directed short films across genres, and then introduces the 2021 Etheria Inspiration Award. It is presented to The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang by the legendary film and television producer Gale Anne Hurd: who herself had actually won the Award in 2019. One thing that Hurd mentions with regards to Kang’s work is that she is excellent at telling character-driven stories: which is fitting given how most of the cinematic stories in this current anthology are, by necessity, directed by the trajectory of their protagonists wherever they might go. 

Our viewing night begins with Kelsey Bollig’s The Fourth Wall: a film about a resentful actress who has to essentially share her next big theatre production with three other idiots while suffering from what seems to be a series of seizures, or the beginning of a nervous breakdown. The director’s statement on the Etheria website, which I’d suggest you check out as some of them provide a bit of background for their films, explains that she wanted to take the story back to the origins of cinema, and perhaps even cinematic or theatrical experimentation: which she identifies as France. As the protagonist’s nose bleeds, and her hallucinations with regards to her resentment over her peers continues, you wonder where this will go. And I have to say, when she makes her decision, when she lashes out, it is satisfying. It’s a tame Grand Guignol — a naturalistic, graphic, amoral horror show where gruesome acts like murder seem so real — within a flimsy production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I have to add that there is something truly great about what she does to the American actress who is only there because her father is the director, and she doesn’t bother to learn how to speak passable French beforehand: expecting others to accommodate her. Essentially, I love the fact that the Etheria Film Festival starts itself off with a foreign language film and, after dealing with reading about several film viewers subtitles and wanting to hear English dubs — it feels like a tremendous “fuck you” to that contingent that I greatly respect. I also want to add that I appreciate the fact that English captions do not interfere with foreign subtitles on Shudder: at least for how the Etheria Film Festival is formatted. 

So we break The Fourth Wall with a commentary on Murder being the tenth muse, and wondering what the protagonist will do next after her moment of transgressive narrative effulgence is over, to find someone on another Narrow path as directed by Anna Chazelle. Like The Fourth Wall, I didn’t know what was going on at first. Is the protagonist being haunted by ghosts? Is this a dystopian death match? Will leaving the path of dirt and gravel which she can’t step around lead to the ghosts of her victims getting her? It is fairly clear that she is terrified of leaving that trail, even ignoring screams of agony and pleading. She’s surviving, and you can tell that she’s been doing this for a while. I didn’t know that this was a post-apocalyptic story, even after watching it, though Chazelle identifying it in the lens of personal stories told in after such world-ending events — about individual lives trying to make sense of a now senseless world in line with what Hurd says about Kang’s work at the introduction to the Festival. At the end though, despite all that effort, the main character has to make a choice: one that tests her faith, or her certainty. It’s like Orpheus, except there is no Eurydice, and you have to wonder if it is the promise that makes her decision: or simply being so tired of this constricting road of life? There is a reason why it turns to night when she leaves, however — into darkness — and as a viewer you are left in this haunting meditation of that fact.

Narrow isn’t the only film with a character that steps off her path. In fact, I would venture to say that so far two protagonists have done this: one ending in glorious murder, and the other being consumed by the roars of the night. You Will Never Be Back is almost an answer to the end of Narrow, but unlike its predecessor it isn’t an ending. That would be too merciful. Mónica Mateo presents us with another foreign-language film, this time in Spanish, in which her protagonist Ana leaves her partner David to go to an event, only to find a small portal in the hallway of their apartment. It only takes one moment for everything Ana knows to be stolen from her, to have never happened to begin with, and to know — as only the mentally-challenged or dying are aware of who she is — that she will never escape this place: this dim, floral, Mobius strip forever trapping her in a temporal purgatory. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there is something even more sinister when you consider how mundane and everyday this story begins, and due to one small decision everything in one person’s life — and their relationships — is over, and they are lost. It’s … especially timely given the current climate.

And it really doesn’t end there, does it? We come to Katy Erin’s Bootstrapped. A casual movie night between two lesbian partners turns weird when one of the partners, a physicist, comes back from the future begging her partner not to break up with her. As she explains to her partner, it is because she broke up with her this particular night that made her obsessed with her work, and discover time travel. The problem is that corporations and the rich took advantage of her work and abused this power, leaving masses of people in war and fear in order to colonize the future: where they wouldn’t have to deal with any of it. It’s only she apparently learned that she could travel to the past. Of course, the reason the breakup happens is revealed by this future incarnation, and it makes it happen. It figures that the end of the human species would be the result of a failed relationship, although you realize just how self-serving the time-traveler had really been. Hell, the other protagonist even asks her why she wouldn’t talk with her past self, and seems like less an issue of paradox, and more the fact that she is afraid of “affecting her own memory.” So perhaps the end of human civilization, or existence is more of the result of human pettiness and selfishness more than anything. It’s funny too, as I just rediscovered Jeremy Lalonde’s James Vs. His Future Self, in which this film is a nice counterpoint. I guess the traveler, in this case, bootstrapped herself, in more ways than one. 

And then, we go from supreme selfishness to the opposite in a serious situation. In Ciani Rey Walker’s Misfits, it is 1960s America and we find ourselves in a chapter house of the Black Panthers. Everyone there seems to be Black university students and activists. There are two leaders: a young woman who studies law, or a book of law, and another who understands that sometimes you have to take physical action in order to do what needs to be done. We have scenes of comradery. There is even a White student who is friends with this chapter. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know, or I wasn’t sure that the Black Panthers had white allies though I know the Freedom Rides definitely had Black and White participants. But the scene starts off, not with mobilizing, but just young people surviving daily life, and kidding around with each other until the news comes on: Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. 

Misfits is a film that can, and should, have an entire article or review dedicated to it. Suffice to say, the chapter house organizes to protest, but one of their own gets beaten nearly to death by a police officer: who is shot by the White student. And then, these Black students and activists, they have to make a choice in a system that would destroy — and has destroyed — them. There is so much I want to say about this film. It is easily, along with last year’s Conversion Therapy one of my favourites, and it is unfortunately timely. The fact that the movie begins with a young woman attempting to memorize a legal text, and ends with another holding the barrel of a gun says a lot and what might be criminal to one person, at one time in history — or just — is explored here. And the film ends with a list of names “In Loving Memory:” Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black lives taken by police brutality. It is a powerful, sombre ending to a film that takes place in the 1960s, but whose violence and injustice it depicts continues to this very day.

Myra Aquino’s The Gray also has a police officer, or at least a former one. And he is also dead. However, this former officer is in Purgatory: in an office place processing people to Heaven, and Hell based on his own black and white ideals. He’s been there for a while, and his contemporaries are attempting to get him to retire: to choose where he needs to pass on. This character is different in a lot of ways from the wounded cop in Misfits. He has a strong sense of justice and morality, to a point where it ruled both his life and his afterlife. He had also been in a mixed race relationship with his Filipino wife before his death. And, up until the events of this madcap weird fantasy afterlife comedy, he’s never compromised: until he sees his son in Purgatory. I’d like to think that, based on what happens and the decisions he makes, that God or whatever powers exist in that afterlife arranged a situation that challenges this man’s thinking — and he finally decides to truly let go of the rules to do what he thinks in his heart is right. It’s both a light-hearted, and moving film as the former officer seems to sacrifice himself to hell in order to give his son another chance to live, and take care of his mother. And while we don’t need the clarification of what happens from Aquino, it is nice to have it nonetheless. Also, can I say that the threat of the bureaucracy taking away the protagonist’s “subtitle privileges” reminds me of The Fourth Wall, feels like another hilarious jibe at subtitle haters?

While love helps someone leave their narrow path of bureaucratic certainty to make their own “leap of faith” such as it is, another protagonist finds it — or the beginning of loneliness’ end — in Silvia Conesa’s Spanish language film POLVOTRON 500. A man in the future attempts to sleep in an old automated sex booth, but accidentally activates one of its sapient hologram sex workers. And while he first wants nothing to do with her, and she just desires to provide her function, they actually begin a conversation together and he realizes that they both have something in common: they are both lonely, and they want company. It could have easily ended in a cynical transactional manner, or something saccharine but I like the fact that she is still a sex worker artificial intelligence, and he is a paying credits-customer, but that human connection between them outside the beaten path feels incredibly real in a time of great disconnection.

I’d like to say that Aislinn Clarke’s Eye Exam is the weird film of the nine. It is essentially about a protagonist who goes to an optometrist who is looking for … eyes. She ends up lying in her exam, just to get away, like a man before her who runs out of the room, and the building. It’s hard for me to fit this into the thematic structure I’m identifying. Perhaps, in that dark room the danger is staying the course and telling the truth so that the monstrous voice and Cyclopean visions around the protagonist can get her eyes, as they tried to with the man before her, and it’s only through looking away, through lying, through deciding to veer away from this path, that she can save herself. It is a counterpoint to POLVOTRON 500 for sure in that holograms are visual constructs, and while the protagonist attempts to also ignore what he sees, to wait it out, or eventually leave, he accepts the more positive situation. The character in Eye Exam, however, seems to have dodged being taken by something worse in deciding not to accept it.

And this brings us to the final film in the Etheria Film Festival: Astrid Thorvaldsen’s Who Goes There. I’m almost surprised that the Festival ended with this movie. This isn’t because it is a bad film: far from it. Three Norwegian sisters live in a remote cabin on the American frontier. Their parents seem to have died of a fever, while one of the sisters is slowly being consumed by it. Then, a mysterious man finds them, and after Ingrid — the oldest sister — saves him from dying of thirst, he offers his services as a doctor for their dying sister: for a price. It is a film about survival, being afraid of death and possible treachery, of caution, and the price of letting something in: be it having a prayer answered, or simply opening a door. In the end, unlike the protagonist from Eye Exam, someone gets what she prayed for, another gets what she asks, others die, and perhaps it’s survival — and living — that is the final punishment. When I think about it, perhaps Who Goes There is appropriate in that it ends off with an uncertainty of both identity, and of what the future holds. 

It is my opinion that it is no coincidence that the Etheria Film Festival of 2021 ends with a film that tangentially deals with sickness, but also infection of a more infernal kind. I always wondered, when thinking about many other events such as the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, if a group of judges had already chosen a few film entries before the Pandemic. And while the After Dark might not have had the opportunity, I feel like the Etheria Film Festival might have had all of their entries, and chosen them accordingly. At the Film Festival’s introduction, we are told — half-jokingly — that nine great films had been chosen but didn’t make it due to “distribution problems” or something to that effect. While last year’s Etheria theme, to me, was about interconnection is a disconnected world, I feel like this year’s verges from going behind the scenes of a trite situation, to teetering off a slim line of reality and getting lost in time, sabotaging yourself and others in a cycle, to hard choices in impossible, enclosed situations, to selfishness and selflessness, and knowing when to run, or let something inside.

As of right now, even though I know Etheria is publishing their past films through Amazon in its own series, I don’t know if — even in a year — we will see this Festival online anymore. That is a path branching from uncertainty as well. It is a new time, beginning, and while it is still dangerous, the potential is there too, and I’m glad that whatever else happens, I got to see one more Etheria Film Festival.

And please check out the Etheria Film Festival website. There are more Director’s Statements there, and they are worth checking out: as is this event, which ends on July 25, 2021. 

Ephemera of Disconnection, and Moments of Painful Clarity: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020

It’s hard writing about anthologies. And the only film anthologies I’ve ever written about — Tales of Halloween and XX — have been in the auspices of the horror genre. And then, you have an event like the Etheria Film Festival.

This is an unusual situation, I’m given to understand. Usually, the Etheria Film Night Shorts are shown in the Egyptian Theatre, and Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to a live audience. However, due to COVID-19 the film entries for the 2020 Etheria Film Festival are all available on Shudder until July the 20th. These are unfortunate, and unprecedented times, and it’s only fitting that these nine short films possess both unique elements, and misfortune for quite a few of their characters.

Tales of Halloween and XX had framing narratives, a film that basically attempts to bring all of its other cinematic stories together. I know that, in the case of XX — another woman-directed, written, and acted anthology — a unifying theme had developed: that of family. The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020 do not have a framing story woven through them, even though Heidi Honeycutt — the director of programming — introduces the anthology, and then just leaves us to experience the films for ourselves.

The Etheria Film Festival features short science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird films created by female directors, and the 2020 selection is no exception. However, even without an overall narrative, I began to pick out something of a theme due to how each film is curated and ordered one after the other. If I were to really sit down, and think about the themes presented in the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts, I would settle on the danger of a superficial world of disconnect in a time of intense connection.

Many of the films feel like the feminist elements of XX meeting the dystopian banal technological reality of Black Mirror. The shallow, transactional “swipe-left” relationships displayed in “Waffle,” directed by Carlyn Hudson, and written by Katie Marovich and Kerry Barker are in some ways far more terrifying than even a self-entitled psychopath. After all, what is more deadly: a predator that takes advantage of a system, or a system that normalizes such hollow relationships to be exploited? This definitely bleeds — figuratively and literally — into Mia’kate Russell’s film “Maggie May” which focuses on the dangers of self-centredness and that evil doesn’t so much happen when “good men” do nothing, but when banal people only care about themselves, and will do anything to avoid personal responsibility or consequences.

And if “Maggie May” is about a character who ignores what is right in front of her out of convenience despite having so many ways to correct the situation, and claiming to have no impetus to do so, then “Basic Witch” — written by Lauren Cannon and directed by Yoko Okumura — has one character use her power to make another face what he has done to her. It’s so deceptively gentle at first, complete with a sunny background and a latte and what looks like an episode of Charmed that teaches one person — perhaps even both characters — the lessons of consent. In a short period of time, we see a myriad of different thoughts and emotions between the characters and a form of communication that is usually so difficult to express is made manifest through radical empathy. It manages to make fun of parts of itself while also allowing its message to be painfully clear. The nuance and depth and that gradual horror but level ground of understanding in it makes it one of my favourite films in the whole anthology.

My other favourite movie in the Etheria Film Night Shorts is one I’d heard about when this event was being advertised online: “Conversion Therapist.” There are so many ways this short film could have gone, or been introduced, and Bears Rebecca Fonté subverts all of these expectations. Imagine a group of pansexual, polyamorous people utilizing a gruesome yet poetically justified set of techniques against a captive Evangelist conversion therapist. It is dark, what they do, and you can be terrified at their cruelty until you realize they are just using the tools of the oppressor against one of their tormentors. The moment I saw the man with the rainbow coloured T-shirt, I just knew what their prisoner had done, and that he was so utterly fucked. It’s not certain, to me, whether or not he did everything his torturers claim he thinks about or enjoys, but what we know he has done is enough to warrant the vengeance happening to him, and others of his kind. Talk about queer ultra violence.

So, at first you might be forgiven into thinking “Conversion Therapist” breaks the pattern I’m trying to work with, but aside from the fact that it takes what happens in “Basic Witch” to a much darker and more punitive level, it goes back to the hypocritical double-standards of a society or a social system that fails to understand its humanity. “Offbeat,” written by Chiara Aerts and directed by Myrte Ouwerkerk, is the non-English subtitled film in the anthology — made in the Netherlands — which displays just what happens when a dystopian society called the Dome creates the only clean highly technological environment built on conflicting ideals and statistics without humanity, while claiming to embrace diversity. It is here that the protagonist has to face the stigma of labeling while watching other characters like a disabled man, and a transgender woman struggle through tests of admission try to stay true to his own self and basic decency.

And this societal critique of a system that inherently discriminates in a cycle, while pretending at fairness, again literally bleeds over from science-fiction to horror tropes in the form of “The Final Girl Returns.” Alexandria Perez explores the idea of a survivor of a horror serial slasher being condemned to rescue the horror trope’s “final girl” only to have each one die to the murderer from she supposedly escaped each time. I am not entirely sure, but all of the characters seem to be people of colour — just as the protagonist from “Offbeat” is — and the subtext about the authorities never dealing with, or capturing each serial killer in this self-aware horror genre universe speaks very intersectional volumes, and is very timely.

Taryn O’Neill’s “LIVE” is a nice transition considering that each character from the last two films is attempting to survive, but “LIVE” goes back to a similar conceit as “Waffle” in that the world is ruled by social media but in this case the protagonist is forced to engage in something of a fight club for views along with other nearly 24/7 streaming activities just to survive a world where the growth of AI has made most human activity irrelevant. This is a reality where everything is, again, transactional and the only way to stand out is to give up your sense of privacy for spectacle and drama and so many more views.

This lack of privacy seems to be a theme in itself within “Man in the Corner” written by Daniel Ross Noble and Kelli Breslin, the latter of whom is the director. After viewing this short film, I tend to think that it can be a metaphor for “catfishing” — of meeting someone online who is under a false identity, except this is interpreted as physical — or ignoring the red flags of the situation around a hook-up for the physical immediacy of the experience. It is a surreal atmosphere, whose reality is unclear and both the protagonist and the reader wonder if they are involved in a dream, or a nightmare.

But I think the film that took me off guard the most is the last film of the anthology. “Ava in the End,” written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, starts off as a story about another seemingly shallow, hollow science-fiction dystopia — this time with people being able to upload their consciousness into a digital cloud — where a young woman has an interaction with an AI called “Bae,” but as events unfold in such a short period of time you feel for both of them. In fact, I think what makes this film the strongest is that these two characters — who start off in one place — find a commonality, a humanity, an empathy with each other, a sense of connection that can happen in a world that is supposed to be so connected.

That is how the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts end. From superficial rent-a-friend and dysfunctional familial interactions, to revelations of harm caused through a lack of connection, to systems of impossible perfection and literal cycles of horror confronted, and the threat of privacy as an illusion to be preyed upon, it all concludes with two lost souls reaching for each other across the digital darkness to make some meaning — to share some solace — in their terrifying existence. And if the results of what should have been a live showing of the 2020 Etheria Film Festival doesn’t capture this contemporary feeling right now online, where so many of us now live even more so than before, I don’t know what does.