I’m gonna be honest about a couple of things. First, I don’t really dig Indie horror films. They work on my brain when I’m alone and I don’t like it; not to mention these days they are mostly gore, super light on story and rarely well-acted. Second, I had two other films in mind, but the lines were uber-long at the 2007 AFI Fest. Since I don't like feeling like a joiner, I walked into this film thinking I was going to see something called Popsicle – swear to God - Popsicle. But then the event programmer steps up and says “I hope you are ready to be creeped out”. And I suddenly think, “Oh no...”
But I stayed! Those other films obviously don’t need the press. And I’m a grown-up. I can handle this, right…
Pop Skull is a story about a boy who loses the one girl that he can’t live without. Daniel (Lane Hughes) is completely obsessed with Natalie (Maggie Henry), even after she broke up with him to date Victor (L.C. Holt), an actor-type. By day, it’s not really clear what he does, but by night, he’s a miserable, pill-popping, self-loathing loser who spends as little time in a lucid state of mind as possible. He trips on whatever he can get his hands on: over the counter drugs, prescriptions, tiny white pills, oblong pink ones; whatever it takes to be taken away from reality completely.
Seemingly, his only link to the real world is his beer guzzling buddy, Jeff (Brandon Carroll). Jeff has a girl, Morgan (Hannah Hughes), a trailer and probably a job. He is Daniel’s only friend, even though it is not clear who chose whom to befriend. Morgan is very cute, very blonde, very demure and it is unclear if she is actually interested in Daniel or not. It’s always hard to tell when people are falling down drunk. But there is a connection between them.
Through Daniel’s narration, we learn that he lives in a home where two brothers once kidnapped and murdered a girl, then committed suicide themselves. Since losing Natalie, Daniel’s mind-trips have become more violent and more vivid. His hallucinations begin to bleed beyond the dream realm and into his perception of the real world. He sees and hears things even when he’s not high. Is it a residual effect of the ODing, or is he really being haunted? Daniel decides it is the latter. But can he find a way to exorcise the ghosts of the dead brothers before he is seduced by them?
I liked this movie. It doesn’t give you all the answers, but rather leaves the audience with just enough questions to be intrigued and enough clues to let us decide for ourselves exactly what the hell is going on in that house. Lane Hughes gives off a truly magnetic Manson vibe the entire time, allowing director Adam Wingard to make great use of the extreme close-up. In a cinematic landscape filled with only scary rednecks, I found the loyal character of Jeff refreshing. Brandon Carroll’s performance of 'good ole boy' Jeff was nuanced without being clichéd; well done.
Director Adam Wingard does an impressive job on many levels. His composition of images in the frame is excellent. His superb use of light and shadow is judicious and smart. The pacing of the tension is extremely well done, aided by but not overtaken by the music in the reality moments. The violence was graphic, but not gory, leaving the worst parts to the imagination. There were several opportunities to up the gore factor that Wingard didn’t take. (Thank you) Instead, Wingard allowed the drama of the scene to play at the forefront. Wingard makes very even-handed, well-crafted storytelling of this genre; I’m impressed.
Pop Skull is a multimedia assault on your senses and that is perhaps the greatest strength of the piece. The lines between dream and reality become progressively blurred as Daniel descends into his psychotic abyss. There is a strobe warning at the top of the film that is to be taken very seriously.
That thing that works on my brain in the middle of the night: it’s the sound. The volume and intensity of Pop Skull's soundtrack may be too much for some, but it's what I will remember the most about this movie . The soundtrack occasionally spikes as images jump out at you. But mostly, it is a drone-filled stream of pulsing tangled melodies intertwined with hard sound effects and haunting voices. Sometimes shredding, sometimes simmering, the sound design of this film was great.
Pop Skull may not be for linear thinkers or for those who need closure in the tale being told. But it absolutely works as a story being told through the free form collage of images and sound and acting. Get ready for the chill to run up your spine, but don’t be afraid to go see this film.
Pop Skull is part of the Dark Horizons series at the 2007 AFI Fest.
For ticketing information please phone 1.866.AFI FEST
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