Film Reviews: Three Vigorous Exercises in Horror from Rookie Directors

By Peter Keough

Three gruesome films by debut directors put the horror back in vacui.

birth/rebirth, directed by Laura Moss (at the AMC Liberty Tree Mall 20 in Danvers and available on streaming November 10 on Shudder).

Brightwood, directed by Dane Elcar (available on DVD from Kino Lorber and digitally on Kino Now).

Dude Bro Party Massacre III, directed by Tomm Jacobsen, Michael Rousselet, and Jon Salmon (2015; available On Demand September 1).

Three horror movies by first-time directors confront, as good horror movies must, the irresolvable mysteries of human existence. Here the profundities are birth, death, love, and Reagan-era college fraternities.

A scene from birth/rebirth

Mary Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein, it has been surmised, came from her guilt at her mother dying while giving birth to her and from her grief at the death of her own daughter a few days after a premature birth. A variation on that first tragedy is enacted in the opening — and closing — minutes of birth/rebirth, Laura Moss’s inventive, subversive, and gross (shades of De Humani Corporis Fabrica) reimagining of Shelley’s masterpiece.

Surrounded by the terrifying claustrophobia of machines, masked faces, and urgent, clinical voices, a pregnant woman is rushed in an ambulance to an OR. One attendant is compassionate, Celie Morales (Julie Reyes in a fiery performance), a maternity nurse who takes the frightened woman’s hand and offers tender encouragement. But it’s not enough — the baby lives but the mother ends up gutted and naked on an autopsy table under the cold eye of Reyes’s opposite number, the morgue pathologist, Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland in a nuanced, disturbing performance).

Casper, Moss’s version of Victor Frankenstein, has her own hidden agenda — she’s been covertly working on an unethical if not unnatural project — to “cure” death. Her subject is a charming pig and she has been drawing on materials from her own body to pursue her experiments. But, when an opportunity arises to cross into more taboo territory, she does not hesitate. That inadvertently puts her into contact with Morales, who has her own desperate situation, and their uneasy liaison settles into an odd couple relationship of sometimes touching domesticity.

For both are victims of a patriarchal, privileged system that disenfranchises them — Morales a working-class woman whose dedication to her calling does not earn her much compensation or respect, and Casper is a female professional in a male-dominated field where even her male subordinates treat her with barely veiled disdain. Moss does not belabor this theme, but it jumps out in passing details, as when a young doctor attending Casper as a patient refers to her as “Miss.” Casper corrects him, saying “Doctor.” “Yes I am,” he says. Like death, this system is omnipresent and ineluctable. But don’t underestimate the power of a woman with a cause — or the implacable resolve of a mother’s love.

As Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” To that insight add Flann O’Brien’s memorable description in The Third Policeman: “Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.”

A scene from Brightwood. Photo: Cinephobia Releasing

Both points of view are illustrated in Dane Elcar’s brilliantly sardonic Brightwood, in which on-the-outs spouses Jen (Dana Berger) and Dan (Max Woertendyke, who also produced the film) give their relationship one last run for the money. Literally, as they go jogging together around a lake (or a pond — they argue about that too), which becomes a diabolical metaphor for their centrifugal, collapsing, but apparently never-ending relationship. As they circle the route, Jen notices that the path from the lake to the world outside has disappeared. With increasing desperation they run back and forth in search of it, their mutual quest sometimes tenuously reuniting them, more often dividing them into nagging fractiousness.

But then there are signs, including a battered “no swimming” notice, that serve as a cryptic focal point. Earbuds very similar to Jen’s keep multiplying spaghetti-like, scattered along the endless loop. And there are the others whom they encounter along the way, spectral forms that bump into them and disappear: they are both hideously alien and grotesquely familiar. Throughout this ordeal Berger and Woertendyke manage a light, layered touch in their performances; as the disjointed timelines intersect, entangle, and collide, they sustain a tone that ranges from demonic hilarity and petulant annoyance to cosmic horror.

As some have pointed out, Brightwood is reminiscent of other head-scratching films, such as Nacho Vigalondo’s brilliant bauble Timecrimes (2007) and maybe a bit of Groundhog Day (1993). But I’d say it also draws from a more fundamental source: This hell is truly Dantesque, and its punishment for the crime of a bad marriage combines the fates of the lovers Paolo and Francesca and the hideous doom of the monstrous Count Ugolino.

“Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life,” advises Dean Vernon Wormer in Animal House (1978) — though countless examples to the contrary over the past 35 years would indicate otherwise. Not so in the comedy troupe 5secondfilms’s debut feature Dude Bro Party Massacre III (2015; available On Demand on September 1), a messy, overlong, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally incisive slasher satire inspired no doubt by the scatological shenanigans of Delta Tau Chi.

Here the fat, drunk, and stupid members of the Delta Bi Theta fraternity at East Chico University are celebrating the excesses of the ’80s Reagan era with beer bashes, hazings, and lethal pranks. The latter have included, among other atrocities, the overthrow of a Central American dictator and the destruction of a local dam, which flooded a nearby town, wiped out the inhabitants, and opened up new properties for real estate developers.

A scene from Dude Bro Party Massacre III. Photo: 5 Second Films

For the most part they have operated with impunity, but when they burned down a sorority house in a panty raid gone wrong they released the nemesis of Motherface, the severely burned house mother who survived the conflagration and would butcher Delta Bis in a reign of terror. When she was defeated her daughter sliced off her mother’s face, donned it, and continued the relentless, murderous pursuit of vengeance until she too was defeated and destroyed by the inept, asinine, and unconquerable bros of Delta Bi.

Such are the premises of the no longer extant Dude Bro Party Massacre and Dude Bro Party Massacre II. In the opening of Part III we are told that these two films were all banned by order of President Reagan, and this one survives only because some kid taped its final showing on a midnight TV show (and you thought the bogus premises of Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project were overwrought). It begins as Brent Chirino (Alec Owen) joins the frat to investigate the gruesome murder of his twin brother Brock. As he does so, other brothers meet ingenious and risible demises that illustrate their predominant vice and ultimate fear, such as the incontinent beer swiller who gets his brain tapped, or the macho alpha male braggart with a tiny dog penis who is torn apart by tiny dogs.

Could this be the work of the third appearance of Motherface, the deathless feminist avenger? Or maybe an operator from the Reagan administration, wiping out its covert and unwitting Delta Bi force before it gets out of hand? Either way, count on the bros learning nothing, and their ethos of witless hedonism and malignant narcissism prevailing as it takes us into the looming MAGA horror that awaits in 2024.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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