Horror with fresh eyes
Child Eater **** (4/5)
Director and script: Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen. Cinematography: John Wakayama Carey. Editing: Robert Grigsby Wilson. Set design: Ramsey Scott. Costumes: Annie Simon. Makeup: Fiona Tyson. Music: Einar Sv. Tryggvason. Lead roles: Cait Bliss, Colin Critchley, Jason Martin, Dave Klasko and Melinda Chilton. 82 min. USA/Iceland, 2016.
On Halloween the fresh Icelandic-American horror movie, Child Eater, was premiered in Bíó Paradís. The film’s director, Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen, recently finished studying filmmaking at Columbia University in New York. His graduation project comprised of the short films Child Eater and The Banishing. Both received favourable reception and have been shown at numerous film festivals. Child Eater is Thoroddsen’s first feature length movie and is based on the previously mentioned short and features the same leading actress. The movie is an independent production and financed by the production team.
Child Eater takes place in a decrepit small town in New York state and tells the story of Helen (Cait Bliss), a young waitress that is asked to babysit one evening a boy named Lucas (Colin Critchley). Lucas has just moved with his father into an isolated ghost house which is located in the forested town outskirts. For years, an urban legend has been in circulation which states that this forest is inhabited by a crazy man, Robert Bowery (Jason Martin), who hunts children and eats their eyes to prevent his own blindness. When Lucas goes to bed, he informs Helen that he had seen this man earlier that day and that he constantly monitors Lucas wherever he is and wherever he goes. Helen tries to comfort Lucas but does it half-heartedly since at that moment Tom (Dave Klaso), her boyfriend, knocks on the door. Tom is self-centred and wants to play around while Helen had found out earlier that day that she is pregnant, hence they need put their things in order. When Lucas calls again and tells Helen that Bowery is in his closet she reacts angrily but she is disconcerted when Lucas disappears without a trace from his bed a little later. This starts a nightmarish rescue mission and a bloody battle where many will be slain before the movie comes to a conclusion.
Thoroddsen is obviously well versed in the nature of horror movies – their history and cultural relevance. In the script, he works systematically with the audience’s expectations and the tradition, but at the same time he deconstructs and rebuilds it. He spices his potion with themes for literary history which results in a multi-layered symbolic tale, excessively laden with references but instead of drowning in a semantic pit the movie becomes a playful and witty image feast. The movie for example depicts a witch with a poisoned apple, a monster with an eye fetish reminiscent of H.C. Andersen’s The Dream God, a monster in a closet/basement/forest and a vampire-ish zombie. To this mixture, Thoroddsen adds the movie’s main thesis about white storks delivering babies to prospecting parents while black storks can remove and eat the children of unfit parents.
The script is well thought-out and the narrative is solidly constructed all the way from the opening scene, which revisits the tale of a young girl in a shining white laced dress that narrowly escapes from the clutches of Bowery, the monster, having lost one of her eyes. Quarter of a century later this victim, Ginger (Melinda Chilton), has in her own right become a crazed monster who thinks she is the protector of lost children but is in fact a vengeful witch. The movie’s storyline is diabolically thought-out, scary and blood infused but still on occasions very funny. The movie in fact revives the horror movies of the 80s, as Scream did in 1996. The scripts of both movies are elegantly interwoven with sarcastic references to old formulas and social satire. Both movies also mix inappropriate jokes with over the top violence of the slash serial killer movies to parody and exalt the clichés of the classic horror movies.
The movie is well acted and the audience is worried about Lucas’s wellbeing all through the movie. They cheer Helen in her rescue efforts and laugh at Tom’s irresponsibility. Ginger is so exciting that she on occasions steals the scene and Bowery, the eye consuming monster, is the embodiment of horror. He immediately rises in standing and takes his place among the best-known horror movie serial killers: Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Bowery is an amorphous and immortal fiend, neither dead nor alive. Not only does he hunt children to consume their eyes, but he forces them first to play hide and seek where they are blinded with a raggedy doll-like death mask. His presence on its own is terrifying. He hovers like a big, slow and all-consuming shadow, often making the audience and characters unable to ascertain whether he is standing close by or if the darkness is deceiving them. It is like this until he suddenly moves, knocks the victims down or grabs them and eats their eyes like a ferocious predator.
The heroes of the movie are not defenceless maidens or minor victims that strong masculine heroes need to rescue. It is the other way around. The victims are mostly cocky males and they are all killed midway through the movie in a hilarious chapter that gives the terrified audience a welcome opportunity to let out steam and laugh out loud. From a technical perspective, the movie is also a surprise, where playful use of wide angle lens is of note. It distorts distances and confuses both the characters and the audience, making them feel as if they are both trapped and succumbing to agoraphobia. The hegemony of the darkness also fits well within the set and lighting with everything contributing to the creation of an effective, very funny and terrifying horror movie.
This review, “Hryllingur með ferskum augum”, was published in the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið November 4, 2016.
Translated by Steindór J. Erlingsson