Rolling through the ghostly corridors of small town 70s America, via director A.D. Calvo, rides a retro-intertextual homage to the young girl-sunk-to-madness horror films of auld. SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016) exudes such a confidently lyrical, intertextual, and retro-pastorale poetry over its nicely brief running time (78 minutes) one can forgive it for not really having anything new or even coherent to say. What is has instead is a nice slow but inexorable build of unease, some genuine corner-of-the-eye scares and moments of quiet beauty, photographed in a style reminiscent of early Vilmos Zsigmond. Stars Erin Wilhelmi and Quinn Shepherd are subtly captivating as the leads in what's essentially a two-hander character study and lord there's been a lot of them, these "which is one is crazy or a figment of the other's imagination or going to kill the other, etc" sagas. But this one, this one follows its own little whispering shadow up the attic stairs.
I also shouldn't neglect referencing how the combination of new formatting (it's 'exclusive' to Shudder, a curated horror streaming service) and old style (digital recreations of retro-analog celluloid familiarity) so eloquently sums up the easy death of 'currency.' Today, any new movie can choose to look older, like a tween at Forever 21, or worse. No one from 20 years ago would want to deliberately evoke bygone eras of filmmaking (except for confirmed horror fan Mel Brooks) but now there's just too much present to go around. I, for one, am glad the the 'everything available all the time' post-modern paralysis has reaped at least one benefit, the ability to make things made before our time. If that makes no sense, you understand it perfectly: the past is perhaps the one place we can look forward to. Anything lucky enough to have been shot on 35mm film stock now seems bumped up a star in our esteem. Loving restoration Blu-rays by Scorpion, Shout, Code Red, Blue Underground, make the lamest 80s slasher film glow like a priceless artifact in comparison to the washed-out flatness of HD video. Everything is topsy. If it will ever turvy again, well.... there's always the movies. We can make turvies today that make the topsies wince in shame.
GIRL is one such turvy.
Sent by her weary bitch of a mother to work as a helper for a secretive (and wealthy) shut-in aunt in her big, eerie Victorian house (top), friendless, taciturn bookworm Adele (Wilhelmi - above left) adjusts no problem to the job's long stretches of lonely tedium. She listens to music on her headphones, does the shopping, makes and leaves the meals on a tray by the door, etc. We never even see the aunt at all except in glimpses through the mirror. Is she even her aunt or some creepy monster lady hiding itself in there? If you've seen any movie made in the 70s, you'll naturally be suspicious. The house is big and very still and lonesome, quiet enough to make the suffocating tick-tocking of the house in CRIES AND WHISPERS seem like a sock hop; and the Gothic gloom of Adele's situation begins to get to us almost immediately, way more than it does to her. Bronte-esque as she is, Adele just bops along listening to lit FM pop songs on her possibly slightly anachronistic walkman, shopping for auntie's sardines. And... wait, who's that chick?
It's Beth (Quinn Shepherd), rocking a delectable 70s midriff, holding a tell-tale apple and the gaze of a long-haired shop clerk. The two girls strike up a friendship and soon Beth is dropping by the Victorian mansion and bad influencing Adele into all sorts of things (stealing from the aunt's petty cash, etc.), until it's too late to extract her old persona from the vortex. Not that we want her to, but what's the deal? Who's leading who on? Don't think about it, I won't tell if you just enjoy the eerie vibe Calvo generates using little more than the odd deep shadow--such as the dark, empty nearly Edward Hopper-esque chasm space of the local watering hole.
The 'two opposite female personas melting into one another' artsy subgenre of the 60s-70s (3 WOMEN, PERSONA), the 'wild free spirit helps alienated young wallflower open than tries to kill her and take her place' lesbian thriller (POISON IVY, THE BLACK SWAN); the cautionary mental breakdown after-school 70s special episode ( GO ASK ALICE); the 'is this all a dream of Jane Eyre's crazy attic dweller post-Lewton Victorian Gothic' descent to the underworld; and the cracker factory "distortedly loud ambient sound" am I alive or dead genre (REPULSION (1965), CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1968), LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH)--are all here, deftly blended with Satanic supernatural subdivisions. Fans of 60s-70s feminine psyche horror mind-fuckery like BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), the "A Drop of Water" segment from Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963), and of course the 1970-72 lesbian vampire 'Carmilla-wave.' and THE SENTINEL will love, as I did, mostly, scenes like the girls' dallying through the graveyard with their brass rubbing materials, peeking in at dead child coffins; their long sapphic gazes; trying on Victorian attic clothes, sneaking a peak into the invalid aunt's room, etc. Calvo touches the touchstones of 70s paranoid feminist horror like he's rounding bases after a grand slam. I hope you didn't consider all that a spoiler. Am I just showing off my vast 70s feminist horror acumen again?
That said, being able to predict future scares doesn't make them less enjoyable when they come. Rather, there's an almost Godard-esque cross-referencing between disparate sources that made me, for one, yell out the names of referenced films like I was recording the footnote commentary (in ways I hadn't done since SUBMARINE) and annoying my fellow viewer. The erotic story of a beach tryst Beth tells Adele during their getaway is lifted wholesale from PERSONA (1966), which is then seen, briefly, very very briefly, on TV, and further checked via some 'was their lesbian tryst / psychic merge a dream or real?' facial merging (the way it is referenced too in Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE). Things start to get really real when... well, I've said too much.
|Beth in bed at the cabin (Note Pazuzu on night table at left)|
While these references are really all it has under its sleeve, SWEET fits nicely next to recent work discussed elsewhere in this site, like AMER, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and IT FOLLOWS, KISS OF THE DAMNED, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and Ann Biller's THE LOVE WITCH. The emerging retro-modernists operate on the principle you've already seen the movies they love, and rather than remaking them or working around them, they incorporate their direct thematic tropes like colors on a palette or a song in the hands of a jazz improviser. Their retro-analog stylistics intensify the melancholy of half-remembered small town suburban isolation, the giddy feeling of renting movies for Halloween parties as kids coupled to the dreamy mixture of after-school special and women's lib horror with sexual awakening pastorales in all the best female-centered horror. In other words, not just the tropes but the love, what drew them to these films. These are labors of love and the sincerest form of flattery, even if in the end, little else besides.
Those who know all the films I've mentioned here should have no problem respecting Calvo's homage as a real film as, for the most part, Calvo quotes his sources like a man, a man who's not afraid of dipping his unmoored eye down into the split-feminine psyche (even the tale of the beach tryst lifted wholesale from PERSONA has an echo--in Godard's lifting Batailles' Story of the Eye for a similar part of WEEKEND). People can argue about men doing split-subject female movies but I think it's natural, and too bad more women don't do the same with men. As of late there's only Kathryn Bigelow, whose HURT LOCKER is still probably the most profound movie about the split masculine psyche since RED RIVER. As per Jung, the unconscious ego/anima of every sane man is an insane woman; all demons are haunted by their inner angel or vice versa. The nature of the universe consists of a weird balancing act of gravitational, everything spinning everything madly around itself on both sub-atomic and macro-galaxial reality level, everything interlocked and reflected so that every Rochester has a madwoman in the attic. Thus, as the enigmatic Beth, Shepherd is both alive/seductive and zombie-like her motives stay shadowy, she's a composite; she not only lifts that sexy beach narrative in Persona but notes the Jane Eyre reference herself. Don't ask questions or you become guilty of listening, but to whom?
If you get your anima to even talk to you at all, you must be either crazy or lucky. Lock her away behind thick Victorian wood and she still passes you empty notes and whispers unintelligible secrets.
The gay or lesbian pair-bond confounds traditional Jungian dialectics, of course. The result is like electric guitar feedback, the creative inner voice looping on itself and drowning out the male ego altogether. One reason men are so drawn to the subject of lesbians in films hinges on this aspect (even more than --as bitter feminists presume--some kinky three-way fantasy) --it's a kind of death-drive freedom to imagine our complete lack of our own presence. We do no factor into the equation. We can't get jealous of another woman. Put a man in there and we wince- now we have competition. Now we must reincarnate. And we were just getting comfortable.
Exiting the film, the Shudder, the TV, it's the truly unnerving work by Wilhelmi that lingers in the mind. With a face that seems at times very old and others like a child, she has a homeschool Heather Graham-ish vulnerable good cheer in the face of utter ambivalence from both mom and aunt we come to admire even if it's a little strange. We wonder how quickly we'd lapse into morose depression in similar circumstances (or maybe already have) so her ability to keep trying, her can-do spirit, however wan, wins us over and then--when she gets slightly bonkers--we realize we're already in too deep to escape. We thought we were escaping via this movie, escaping maybe from other less captivating retro-genre pastiches, like THE VOID. But now, well, we're stuck deep.
The only drawbacks to LONELY GIRL that I can bring to mind are 1) yet another in the decade's apparently inexhaustible joyless HBO-brand rutting smash-cuts to signify a kind of depressed ambivalence (you know the kind, a girl and guy meet for the first time at a tawdry bar and we smash cut to the girl's expressionless face as the dude mechanically ruts at her from behind like some spastic dog; and 2) the Lite FM 70s hits by the likes of Classic IV, Bread (cover), Lobo, and the unfortunately-named Starbuck ("Moonlight Feels Right") which feels kind of like a missed opportunity. Music is so integral to doing these retro films right, and one dreads to imagine similar pop music burdening the amazing analog synth scores of Disasterpiece (IT FOLLOWS), Tom Raybould (THE MACHINE), Dixon and Stein (STRANGER THINGS), Sinoa Caves (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW), The Gifted (SOUTHBOUND) and so forth. Luckily, the songs aren't the whole thing. SWEET SWEET LONELY composer Joe Carrano does however rely on overly familiar eerie string sustains and scales, bongos and rattles making one wonder if they weren't secretly culled from some 70s PD cue library. Sound mixing is sometimes totally psychedelic, but the tinkling bell outside the aunt's room should have been a big shock (since she's dead) and instead it's buried under a cascade of piano mashes and stuttering drums and Beth whispering her name close into the mike, "Adele..."
listen, man. I don't mind, man, that even unto the last frame we're never quite sure--anymore--what is real, and at the very end, one more final reference, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, below) brings the Val Lewton savvy full fore.
1. for my curated list of cool retro-analog synth scores from 2015-16, have Spotify and go here.