Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review: Soft Matter

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Soft Matter
Directed by Jim Hickcox
Wild Eye Releasing / Demon Janx / MVD Visual
72 minutes, 2018

First of all, the definition of "soft matter," according to the School of Physics and Astronomy website, “is a convenient term for materials that are easily deformed by thermal fluctuations and external forces. In short, it refers to 'all things squishy'! Everyday examples include paint, blood, milk, spreads and ice cream.”

This is an odd little film by a first feature director (he’s done some shorts), and I don’t know what I was expecting. From the trailer, from what I could cull, it seemed like a psychedelic hip-hop version of The Shape of Water. And some of that is true. Especially the squishy hip-hop.

Mary Anzalone, Hal Schneider
The film starts off with a prologue showing a duo of questionable scientists, Grist (Hal Schneider) and Kriegspiel (Mary Anzalone), in an abandoned hospice (a real, supposedly haunted location), who seem to be doing experiments with fish and crustaceans, among other creatures, trying to humanize them for dubious means. It’s all very Island of Dr. Moreau. Nobody seems to really like each other much, and there’s lots of Nickelodeon-ish slime. But the word that seems most appropriate about the whole feeling of the piece is moist. Yeah, it is squishy and gross, and deadpan humorous.

Next we meet up-and-coming graffiti artist Haircut (Devyn Placide) and his friend Kish (Ruby Lee Dove II), the latter of whom, for some reason, has a handlebar-style mustache (drawn?) (tattooed?) on her face. She wants to set up an art show to promote ‘Cut, so guess where she picks as a locale?

Of Fish and Men (and Womyn) worlds collide of course, and we get to partake in viewing the action. But this film is probably different than most you’ve ever seen before, which in my opinion is a plus. Now, it’s not what I would call arty as it’s a bit too non-cryptic and somewhat straightforward for that; however it is both quirky and certainly imaginative to the point of little WTF details. A lot of films that rely on “WTF details” annoy be because the quirkiness is there for the sake of ego and that quirkiness. But this has a different feel to it, hence the term “imaginative.”

Ruby Lee Dove II
For example, the space where the creatures are being created for the sake of figuring out immortality (yeah, I know) is downright disgusting and dirty – the stuff that was actually left in the closed hospice – not the sort of laboratory setting one might expect for such a lofty goal. And the sheer animosity of the scientists to both their subjects and each other makes one (well, me, anyway) wonder if there is some kind of leaking gas or contaminant effecting their personalities. Since we don’t meet them before the events, there is no real exposition to understand how this is all affecting them. And then one of the creatures called Mr. Sacks (Bradley Creel) starts to bust a move to a solid groove.

As for the creature on the cover of the box, he/she/it is referred to as a sea god (Sam Stinson, voice by Mykal Monroe), with no explanation on how he/she/it got there, who seems to live in a water bucket (see DVD cover). And no one else, neither scientists nor artists, act as if there is a social contract, but rather all seem to be motivating as if they are the ones who (soft) matter, not the social good – even though they claim that the immortality for humanity is their goal (more likely for themselves, as a piece of dialogue indicates).

Speaking of social, there is a very nice commentary on the art world as two pretentious patrons of the arts, Miss Teath (Catherine Grady) and Rudolph (Mark Blumberg) show up at Haircut’s show, and can’t tell the difference between the reality of creatures on a killing spree and performance art (“Are they actors?” one asks early on). Yes, some art – and I’ve seen my share – is so obtuse and pompous – almost as much as some of its followers (remember Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s Nuni and Nuni characters from “SNL”?). Even as destruction and eminent death are close, one states, “I’ve never been to a better art opening.” I definitely smiled at that one.

I don’t want to pass on the opportunity to mention some of the animation that shows up every once in a while, including the use of blacklight. It just adds to the whole wondrous WTF-ness of it all.

Mr. Sacks pumpin' the jam
As for the extras, well, there are two full-length commentaries by the writer and director. The first one presented is Hickcox by himself (sitting in his backyard in Austin, Texas, at 2 AM). He rambles a bit as he still manages to say a lot of interesting things about the actual shoot and location, techniques, and certain technical aspects. The second commentary is Hickcox and academic / film historian Jason Michelitch. Unfortunately, Michelitch was seeing the film for the first time during the commentary so the talk is less deep about the meaning than it could have been. It’s a bit more interesting than the other commentary, but I would have liked a bit more substance about signifying.

Also included among the extras is 2015 short lasting 12:07 called Slow Creep, which is an interesting take on Ringu (aka The Ring), with a creature that follows a rented videotape and the three teens trying to watch it. It’s a fun piece of fluff that’s worth the view, and the sudden music video at the end is icing on the cake. The last extra is a series of different film trailers, as Wild Eye Releasing is wont to do with their – err – releases.

My fear is that this might be dismissed by people who just like blood and gore, torture porn, boobs, and otherworldly serial killers. Sure, this has a relatively straight narrative, but there is so much going on that is off the beaten path that it’s easy to just give up rather than seeing deeper than the weirdness and unusual elements that are consistent on both a low scale to a grand level of bada-bing. If you want to stretch your palate a bit, this might be a nice step.

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