Catch Rec is a new series where the Complex Pop Culture team recommends movies, TV shows, or books that we're big fans of but might not be on your radar.
Horror films have a long history of basing psychologically demented stories around female characters. Within the genre's all-time classics, there are Roman Polanski's two masterworks of dread-soaked atmosphere and twisted characterization: Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). In the indie, underground circuit, there's DIY filmmaker Lucky McKee's sorely underappreciated murderess-coming-of-age oddity May (2002), and in between those two extremes (universally revered and mostly obscure), there are countless other examples of ladies on the edge of both sanity and mortality in cinema: Paranormal Activity (2009), Antichrist (2009), Sisters (1973), and Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), to name a few.
All of which are analyzed and put into candid, unflinching personal contexts in veteran genre film journalist/programmer Kier-La Janisse's excellent piece of memoir/critical writing, House of Psychotic Women, released last September. Subtitled "An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films," Janisse's compelling work of non-fiction is exactly the kind of book in which Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva's new film Magic Magic (released on DVD and Blu-ray this week, without any prior theatrical run outside of various festival screenings) should be discussed. If the midnight movie culture of old were still in effect, Magic Magic would also be perfect fodder for a modern-day revamping of film critics J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum's landmark book Midnight Movies, published in 1983.
In regards to Janisse's book,, Silva's beguiling film centers on a introverted and disturbed American girl, Alicia (played by Juno Temple), who gradually loses her mind, with nightmarish results, while visiting her cousin, Sarah (Emily Browning), in Chile. And for the Hoberman/Rosenbaum tome, Magic Magic achieves maximum freak-out status during its brain-rattling third act. It's worthy of an enduring cult following if enough people catch wind of the film. At the very least, Michael Cera's turn as a probably gay, definitely bothersome antagonist warrants a look from his Superbad/Arrested Development fans—it's an against-type high-wire act that begins at "flamboyant weirdo," evolves into "reprehensible bully," and, through Silva's clever screenwriting, ends up somewhere near "empathetic witness."
That's where we come in. In an ass-backwards market where disposable dreck like Sharknado gets a splashy theatrical release, Magic Magic has been unfairly relegated to DVD shelves. Not that Silva's film would've given The Conjuring any major box office competition had it received a multiplex unveiling. Slowly paced, hard to categorize, and unpredictable, Magic Magic isn't a crowd-pleaser—in fact, for viewers who demand neatly wrapped explanations and zero ambiguity, it's surely a crowd-pisser-offer. And for anyone who's intrigued by the earlier mention of "horror," be on guard—the creeps and skin-crawls derive from everyday sights, interactions, and occurrences. A group of young friends diving off of a rock cliff into the ocean. An overly aggressive and horny herding dog that likes to hump legs. Phone calls with loved ones that don't go as expected. There's nothing supernatural or inhuman about Magic Magic. Hell is other people. Terror is relative.
With the unstable Alicia, it's all poisonous graffiti covering her brain's phrenology chart. She's powerless against her own insecurities and fears. When she arrives in Chile, Alicia's already a bit off, as evidenced by her timid greetings to Sarah's boyfriend, Agustín (Agustín Silva), his sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and Agustín's eccentric, flamboyant American friend Brink (Cera). A very strange girl in a strange land, Alicia doesn't respond positively to Sarah's friends' ways of life, particularly the casual cruelty they show toward animals—a heartless maneuver pulled on a sick, stray puppy pierces her emotions, though that pales in comparison to her reaction to Brink shooting a bird dead on its blood-drenched wings. In her eyes, they're all "sadists," and their seemingly mundane evil is slowly but surely altering her mood from antisocial to dangerously neurotic.
Once Silva introduces hypnosis into the plot, Alicia quickly degenerates into the most effectively unreliable of protagonists. Is everything she's seeing and hearing real, or only partially authentic and partially the product of having become cuckoo? Is she still hypnotized? Was she ever hypnotized to begin with?
Always the best thing about her quirky indie movies, Juno Temple is bolder than ever here. It's a performance of helpless vulnerability and raging instability that's right up there with Catherine Deneuve's work in Polanski's Repulsion. As Alicia sinks deeper and deeper into her own abyss, Temple never lets you view Magic Magic as you would an atmosphere-over-character, labyrinth like, say, David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006), in which Laura Dern convincingly descends into madness yet can't help but play second fiddle to the film's other extremities. Even though Silva's film kicks the heebie-jeebies into overdrive in its final half-hour, Temple's puppy-dog eyes, angelic face, and fragile demeanor give her precedence over the unnerving sound design and distorted visuals.
Temple commands your sympathy at all times. Through her sheer force, Magic Magic reaches a conclusion that's as heartbreaking as it is chilling and inevitable.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)