Los Angeles’ Egyptian Theater played host to Beyond Fest this past week, a 94-year old Egyptian Revivalist stone monolith that set the chilling, imposing mood for the catalogue of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy cinema on offer. The highest-attended genre festival in the U.S., this year Beyond Fest screened new 3-D film conversions, beloved films of yore like Taxi Driver, and 25 West Coast premieres.
Let’s start with Bad Batch.
Bad Batch is jaw-droppingly engaging, novel, and stunning, with truly insane production value, from start to finish. A gorgeous follow-up to her first feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour’s newest oeuvre is a revelation throughout, and without trying to be too hyperbolic, is clearly the work of one of the most assured, imposing filmmakers of the last few years.
Without giving too much away, because this film really is best seen coming in tabula rasa, it’s a film that’s ostensibly about a group of cannibals living off the grid in a netherland outside the governmental boundaries of the United States, where the “Bad Batch” members go. Why they’re ear-marked (literally: with tattooed numbers) “Bad Batch” is multifarious. Either they’re mentally ill, socially unequipped for society, dangerous criminals, or physically unwell—whatever it is, they’ve been decreed as unwanted by modern society. Left to fend for themselves in makeshift society at the deserted, desert edge of America south of Texas, they clothe themselves from toxic waste dump sites and feed on rabbits and crows.
A more sturdy, muscular group of outliers, however, are the cannibals from whose clutch our heroine escapes, but not before being amputated by the inhumane hunger of the group. She escapes to a commune known as Comfort, the de facto president of which (played with sotto, skeezy aplomb by Keanu Reeves) lives in an abandoned bank with his harem of pregnant women whose shirts all read “The Dream Lives Inside Me.”
Shot in the existentially beautiful, simmering Slab City, using almost exclusively its real outlier inhabitants as the film’s extras, Bad Batch’s camera work by the masterful Lyle Vincent is astonishingly assured. The camera stalks its vast desert landscape, positively languishes in long close-ups of its striking characters. The soundtrack soars with electronic gruff, Darkside and Nicolas Jaar pulsating from the dystopian scenes.
I kept looking for singe-marks on the screen because cargo ship of a man Jason Momoa literally singes every take, his broad mass of muscles burning the retinas of the audience as the camera takes its sweet, sweet time sweeping across his utter cathedral of a bod. Talk about monoliths! The magnetic Suki Waterhouse sulks through the film, cunning and discerning, though neither barely speak until the last quarter of the film. Dialogue is altogether sparse here: the camera, production design, setting, and allusions to Trump-era immigration politics and the death of the American dream do most of the work.
Oh, and in the Q&A afterwards when Amirpour referenced Jim Carrey, my jaw dropped and I yelled to the stranger next to me – “NO! That was HIM?!” Utterly unrecognizable and pitch-perfectly good, Carrey plays the spectre of the mute interlocutor between these abandoned worlds.
Bad Batch asks some pretty gripping ideological questions about individualism versus reliance, about which gods we choose to follow, and takes a look at what happens when society breaks down around its edges, middle, and core. And goddamn does it do it with some palpitating panache.
Set almost entirely in a car on a rainy road, Brian Bertino’s Monster is about a young, immature, alcoholic, divorced mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to her dad’s late at night. They would have been on the road earlier so as to avoid the ghouls and goblins of nighttime, but despite repeated efforts to wake her, Kathy was too hungover to arise before the afternoon. Vacillating between flashbacks and the interior of the long car drive, we see Lizzy’s depressing childhood play out slowly, and rather thoughtfully for a horror film. The precocious young girl was caught between two alcoholic parents who fought all the time (one dizzyingly quick Scott Speedman cameo as the father who violently, drunkenly grabs the car keys from Lizzy holding them hostage in her play tent), then alone with her divorced mother, forced to care for herself and ultimately, forced to hate her mother.
Without resorting to feeble alcoholic mom archetypes, and also undoubtedly dependent on a very powerful performances from both Kazan and Ballentine, the slow-build to the car-ride leads us to feel empathy for both daughter and mother. Kathy couldn’t have been more than 16 when she was thrust into motherhood, and for the most part still behaves as though she’s preternaturally stuck in adolescence, utterly unwilling and unable to cope with the responsibilities of motherhood and adulthood.
While on the rainy road, a wolf appears in the headlights too late and they slam into it, leaving it bloody on the road. Their car won’t start, so they call for help. In the meantime, they notice that the wolf is gone – completely vanished. Lizzy’s mother somehow, juvenile and irrational as she is, allows her to investigate in the cover of the freaky-deaky torrentially rainy night, where she spots a monstrous thing, a creature who is never quite explained or justified, but just lives out there, in the forest, and apparently attacking and killing living things at will. What follows is a tense hour in which we swing, for the most part terrified, on a hammock between memory and present, between monsters of the past and the monster of the now. Ultimately, this movie isn’t about the unknowable creature of the dark; rather it’s both a symbol of the unnamed vitriol that lies between the mother and daughter and an impetus for them to move past their enmity and achieve – you guessed it – forgiveness. Quite the lackluster end, but a valiant albeit low-budget looking effort.