Wednesday, September 21, 2016

House of Black Wings (2010)

Because her music career and her private life have hit rock bottom because of violent tragedy, bad luck, and bad decisions, rock musician Nicky Tarot (Leah Myette) returns to her home city, where she renames herself into Kate Stone and tries to put the past behind her wholesale. Kate is lent a helping hand by her artist friend Robyn (Katherine Herrera), the only one of her old buddies who still wants anything to do with her.

Robyn has inherited a curious apartment building named Blackwood whose handful of tenants are students and artists, so she provides Kate with an apartment of her own and a job as the place’s super. Robyn lives in the building too, so Kate even has a friendly face around.

Unfortunately, Blackwood is not a good home to nurse one’s grief and one’s guilt in. As soon as she has moved in, Kate is plagued by nightmares, the noise of wings in the walls, and everything else to keep a woman off balance. Worse still, the nightmares soon intersect with Kate’s waking world in various disturbing ways; and Kate might not be the only one living in Blackwood touched in this way. It is as if the house pushes its tenants to create art – art that seems to function as a doorway to drag the artist into the cosmic void.

David Schmidt’s House of Black Wings is as fine an example of micro-budget indie horror, a film that not only feels like a labour of love but also avoids many of the pitfalls this sort of film can so easily stumble into - not necessarily because the people involved are lacking in passion or talent but because they are lacking in experience and funds which very often means a film only has limited opportunities to correct problems and mistakes.

The only typical indie horror problem House of Black Wings shows is a certain slowness in the middle, where it might have lost ten minutes or so, but that’s not a terrible problem for a film to have. It’s also not to be confused with that micro budget thing where scenes go on and on and on for no good reason whatsoever – Schmidt knows when to end scenes, and it is clear he also has a clear picture of why any given scene is part of the narrative. This may sound like a curious thing to praise but just putting scenes into a film without any narrative (or atmospheric) reason for them to be there is a problem you’ll encounter in mainstream horror right now nearly as often as in micro budget films (whose makers at least have better excuses for this particular failing), so Schmidt is actually doing a lot better than many of the rich kids do.

The film’s heart, concerning earnest thoughts about art, guilt and life and their collision with cosmic horror, isn’t anything you’d find in a more mainstream film either. It’s the sort of thing that could become rather pretentious pretty fast, but the way Schmidt film’s plays it, it feels organic and right, the cosmic horror and the inner struggle of the characters working as reflections of each other.

And the cosmic horror is fine indeed. There are of course more than just hints of Lovecraft and other greats of weird fiction running through the movie but this is not a film in the business of putting the correct nerdy mythos reference at the forefront, so there’s a decided lack of Cthulhu cults and Iäs on display. Instead of the most superficial bits and pieces of the weird, House of Black WIngs opts for its spirit, made visible through some very original effects work. Well, and quite a few maggots and worms. The film uses stop motion as well as digital and practical effects, and even includes some shadow puppet work when Kate reads a wonderful expository children’s book, most of it shown in short bursts and flashes and demonstrating a degree of thematic coherence that I wish more films would aim for when presenting the supernatural.

The acting is on the mark too, with Myette (and Herrera to a degree) carrying the film quite capably. The film aims for naturalness in most character interactions, so despite content that would lend itself to stiffness, melodrama, or just all-around gothiness, things never feel that way. These women are portrayed as actual believable women, so their run-in with the Outside gains more weight once it turns their world unnatural.

House of Black Wings really is a wonderful film, full of lovingly created detail like the shadow puppet bit or Robyn’s doll house from hell, and even some expertly realized suspense sequences that make great use out of people crawling between the house’s walls (and what they find there), with some moody locations and a script that’s thoughtful, never confusing the weird with the random.

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