The fun of film festivals like Fantastic Fest is discovering new, innovative voices. Whether that’s in the form of a screenwriter, director, actor, or other less well-known crew members — it doesn’t matter. If you do something remarkable, the people that flood Austin every year in September will recognize it. One of the films I am going to talk about, Vanishing Waves, got that recognition this year and nearly swept the Fantastic Features jury awards, racking up Best Picture and Best Director for Kristina Buozyte, Best Screenplay for Bruno Samper and Buozyte, and Best Actress for Jurga Jutaite. Check out my thoughts below, along with a take on the moody horror flick, Sinister.
Vanishing Waves (Kristina Buozyte)
Vanishing Waves is an atmospheric creation that is smart enough to overcome the drawn out story with an intriguing premise that seems to never stop evolving. We follow a neuroscientist and his team’s attempts to connect a human brain to a comatose patient and see what is going on. They expect to see brain waves and fuzz, but instead the main character finds a fully interactive human within the subject’s mindspace. The problem is that he doesn’t let his team know because it’s a beautiful woman that seems to be as into him and he is into her. Through fuzzy dream sequences and a sharp musical score, we realize that not is all that it appears. The issue is that this is supposed to be a double-blind experiment where neither are supposed to interact with each other, and that’s definitely not the case.
While his relationship foundation seems to be on solid ground, the rendezvous with this mystery person — remember, he doesn’t see the subject’s physical form in real life –starts to eat him up. He begins acting out and soon enough he becomes downright obsessed with going back to the experiment for longer periods of time. That would be well enough, but the sound design, score, and visual touches help create a vivid dreamscape and allow the viewer to become absorbed by what’s on screen. There aren’t a lot of easy answers, but the beauty here is that life can move in unexpected places and our subject’s is no different. With smarts, visually stunning camerawork, and two protagonists that seem fully invested, Vanishing Waves elevates itself to a film that should be sought out.
Sinister (Scott Derickson)
Being thoroughly chilling isn’t a mistake. To give audiences goosebumps, it takes dedication and attention to detail that often is missing in horror films these days. This is why director Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is such a profoundly affecting horror feature: they focus on the small things. For instance, the interpersonal relationships, primarily between true crime author Ellison (Ethan Hawke) and his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), are given the time to breathe. At one point Ellison and Tracy have a lengthy argument that feels more at home in a straight drama than a horror film. The result is that we not only genuinely care about the main character, but also the people in the periphery like Ellison’s wife and two children. Their lives are given value in this world. None of them can die without it being affecting, and thus as the film unfolds and the stakes continue to rise, we fear for the whole Ellison crew.
Of course, making sure that Ellison is likeable and someone we root for is also helpful in filmmaking, which is why Sinister is all the more impressive because you constantly second guess his decisions. The fact that it works is largely due to the excellent Hawke, who is near the top of his game. His desire to provide for his family isn’t what is blinding him. Instead it is his insistence and loss of focus on the fact that while trying to leave a lasting legacy, he is endangering the one he already has: his family, a universally relatable theme. Most of us desire to be more than a blip on the human radar, and getting that taste of 15 minutes of fame and sensing that you are on the verge of one more hoorah is understandably enticing.
The horror aspects here are quite good as well. Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill is familiar with the occult and the supernatural, and he has crafted an original creation that is incredibly creepy and effective. The look is a huge part of what makes it work, and the slow reveal and lead in are part of that fun as well. We participate in the detective work, and we can see where things are headed. And yes, I am being purposefully vague about the horror element. There are jump scares here and there, but instead of being the big climax of a sequence they are usually just a portion of the elevation and sometimes the starting point. All of those smaller elements so many directors and screenwriters think are unnecessary is exactly why Sinister has more to give than just your average horror flick.
Sinister and Vanishing Waves are currently screening at Fantastic Fest.
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