Tuesday, August 7, 2012

DVD Review: Headspace: Director’s Cut

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2012
Images from the Internet

Headspace: Director’s Cut
Directed by Andrew van den Houten                    
Modern Cine, 2005 / 2012
84 minutes, USD $14.95   

As this film shows, it’s not who you know, it’s where you go to film school. Put together by recent New York University film school grads, it is absolutely astounding the sheer level of talent that is present in this production.

But first, let me step back. The director is one Andrew van den Houten (I thought the Dutch were chased outta New York in 1674?*), who started as a director (he looks like he’s about 12 in his cameo as an EMT), and is currently a producer who runs Modern Cine, helping others who choose to direct (including some of the actors here).

Starting in a small-town, we see an idyllic family as they celebrate one of two pre-tween brothers’ birthday. From here, thing turn strange to ugly very quickly, resulting in one of the best effects in the film, and there are many.

From there we head off to New Amsterda… I mean New York in the present (well, 2005, anyway), where we meet handsome and shy Alex, the protagonist of the story (not counting in a brief prologue, making all of this either a backflash, or a backflash within a backflash). Alex’s job is house-sitting (in my head, I hear a Yiddish accent asking, “Nu? From this he makes a living?”), giving him time to roam around the city. Newcomer Christopher Denham (who has since appeared in the likes of Shutter Island and Sound of My Voice) plays Alex at first with a bit of awe and shyness, and then towards the end of the film with, well, some froth and madness. He’ll really powerful as an actor, with a wide range.

Also strong and a newcomer as well, is Erick Kastel, as Harry, who uses the money the makes as a chess shark to fund his paintings. As with Alex, who he casually meets in a park while playing the master’s game, he goes from a bit bitter yet together, to completely manic as time and events progress. When Erick and Christopher work together, they feed off each other’s energies and make a really powerful team. Their scenes together are especially fun.

One of the main motifs of this film is whether it is monsters of the mind (they play with possible substance abuse or schizophrenia) or demons of the pit , making them both possible or improbably. This also leads to one of the questions I have about the film, being does bleeding lead to you being attacked by creatures, or does it turn you into one? Or perhaps it could go either way, and if so, what makes the choice? This comes across as a hole in the story for me, but it is not enough to put a dent in its strength. Though I also need to say I say that while the final “shock” came as no surprise at all, it was fun nonetheless.

Now, about those guest stars… One of the first scenes (though the last one filmed, apparently) has Catwoman wannabe Sean Young as the nice mom of the brothers. Yep, the Blade Runner’s squeeze (1982). And, of course, she does a great job with the little time she’s onscreen. Glad she’s back in action.

In the story, for some reason, a page is taken from Phenomenon (1996), and Alex gets headaches and starts becoming smarter in increasing degrees. After passing out, he is sent to a series of doctors, each with their own increasingly physical to metaphysical agendas. We start of with the first pair of neurologists in a hospital: one is played by Dee Wallace (Stone), more famously known as the lead in the classic The Howling (1981; a publicity still of her and real-life late husband Christopher Stone from that film is framed on the wall of her character’s office) and as E.T.’s “mom” (1982). It’s always good to see her as she has such a naturalistic acting style. The other doctor is William Atherton, most famously (infamously?) known as Walter Peck, the officious idjit-stick who shuts down the grid in Ghostbusters (1984; I do hope he embraces the often-used reference, because he helped make that movie the hit it was). They both bring a level of legitimacy to this nearly-student film.

When nothing can be found with the neurologists, Alex then gets directed to a spiritualist-based psychiatrist played by Olivia Hussey. Now, any straight male my age most likely had some level of crush on her when she starred as the lead in Romeo and Juliet (1968).  Sadly, she goes through the film looking like she’s in a confused daze, with eyebrows knit and a blank expression on her face. She’s a much better actor than she lets on here, but it’s still great to see her and I am certainly glad she accepted the role.

Then, of course, there is Udo Kier as a priest in a small, yet pivotal role. Supposedly, he was asked to play one of the neurologists, but thought the priest would be more fun, and he was right. Now, Kier is – and never has been – a great actor, but he is always fun to watch, even going back to the Andy Warhol versions of Frankenstein (1973) and Dracula (1974). I think I can say quite honestly that I would rather watch Udo do some scenery chewing than, say, Leonardo DeCaprio’s arguably top-notch acting. And Udo’s in fine, bloody form here. I stand to salute you.

Now that I’m sitting again, I’d also like to mention, while we’re talking talent, Pollyanna McIntosh, who plays an incidental role (and the only female nudity, which is stunning), but shows she has some chops by stealing many of the scenes she’s in; I’m looking forward to see her star turn in another Modern Cine release, The Woman (2012) at some point. The trailer for this film and others from this company is included in the extras.

Let’s get back to Headspace. It isn’t just the star power that makes this such a watchable film, it’s the entire zeitgeist. But you’re asking yourself, how are the effects? Nearly all of them are prosthetics (there are exactly two quick CGI shots), and the feature is certainly the better for it. Sure the blood is juuuuust a bit too thick and dark, and the creatures look a bit like people in rubber suits (something I know they were trying to avoid by the commentary) covered in slime, but most of the look of gore, make-up and FX is totally enjoyable, especially the first big set piece, as I said earlier.

 There are a number of good extra features here. Usually when there is more than one commentary track, I think, oh, great, that’s 4 hours I have to spend with a film. However, they are both worthwhile, I’m happy to say, to hear process, some exposition, and many other annecdotes of dealing with the star cast. Then there is the choice of captioning (I usually like to turn it on, for some reason), an Edited, Extended Scenes and Alternate Takes segment (though I understand why most of it was removed, it helped clear up some storyline questions), and a selection of FX photos. And…

There are two documentary featurettes attached, at about 20 minutes each. The first is called “Fractured Skulls: The Making of Headspace,” which was filmed at the time of creation and is enjoyable from beginning to end. The second is “Headspace Revisited,” where director van den Houten and star Christopher Denham meet up in 2012 and sit in a park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where some scenes were shot. They discuss windmills… I mean reminisce about the shoot through a rearview mirror, with hindsight. While not as appealing as the first feature, it is still interesting enough to sit all the way through it.

Usually when graduate film students try to take themselves seriously, they fall flat on their faces (though sometimes it’s worse when they try to do a comedy). Not this troupe. This film has rightfully won a bunch of film festival awards, and it’s no doubt in my mind why.

* That’s a joke

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