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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.09.15] horror fantasy

Pity Hermann Haig. Unemployed and living with his mother, since childhood all he's wanted is to be recognised as a brilliant artist, but his desire is far outweighed by his sheer mediocrity. His sculptures - flimsy mobiles made from found objects - are terrible, and his mother is getting tired of supporting him. A call for advice to his uncle Felix, himself a rich and successful artist, results in the offer of an empty studio apartment, and the mysterious promise that there Hermann will find all the inspiration he needs. Michael Medaglia's surreal and darkly comic thriller Deep Dark stands out primarily for its sheer oddness, but as far as unsettling and original storytelling goes, it's absolutely the real deal.

Following one of the most effectively gruesome opening scenes in quite some time (ostensibly there to set the tone, yet indicative of an altogether different kind of film), we're introduced to Hermann (Sean McGrath) as he toils in his mother's basement. Hermann makes mobiles from bicycle parts, bits of plastic, and even hot dogs, which he then exhibits at the local community gallery. A bitter rivalry with fellow artist Joel (Tabor Helton) reaches peak jealousy when Joel is offered a show at the prestigious Devora Klein gallery, prompting Hermann to hold up in his uncle's dilapidated studio in an attempt to create something truly original - a last ditch effort before giving up on art forever. Finding inspiration in short supply, Hermann is on the verge of cutting off his own hands in frustration, when suddenly he spies a note stuck in a small hole in the wall: "Relax, I can help."

The hole plops out a viscous globule which contains a strange sort of warped, green-blue pearl. Hermann affixes this gooey object to his latest mobile, takes it straight to Devora Klein herself (Anne Sorce), and is immediately hailed as the new rising star of the modern art world. Hermann is thrilled as his blob-infused mobiles begin to sell for thousands of dollars and his dreams start coming true. The hole, however, starts talking... and it's lonely. It wants company in exchange for more of its weird produce. It wants to be kissed, then it wants more than just kisses. It grows bigger, meaner, and increasingly jealous of Hermann's success. The question is, what is Hermann willing to do, and how far is he willing to go, to maintain his popularity?

The hole is voiced by Denise Poirier, best known as Aeon Flux in the animated series, and it's a superb piece of casting. Her voice is both seductive and authoritative - like the computer on a futuristic starship - and that we don't really question Hermann's decision to go along with events (never once pausing to consider the hole's existence) is partially down to Poirier's mellifluous tones. The entire film in fact, seems to exists within a slightly altered reality, where every second person is an artist, and everybody else would at least like to represent one, so it's ultimately fitting that there's a hole in the wall offering 'instant art' in exchange for love. McGrath plays Hermann as the desperate loser, hitting the right notes in making him clumsy and pathetic, but never overstepping the mark by portraying him as dumb. He may be a failure, but give Hermann the chance and he's remarkably adept at pretending to be a winner. Similarly, Sorce and Helton are more than adequate in their supporting roles, both convincingly slimy and duplicitous - curious about Hermann's overnight success, but willing to indulge him if it means getting closer to its source.

Medaglia's direction is smooth and assured, and the film looks extremely polished for what I assume was a relatively limited budget. A fish-eye style lens provides point-of-view shots for the hole, and split screen techniques come into play as more holes start to develop around the studio, which was a nice touch. Consistently creative compositions keep things visually interesting, while the film manages to sustain a brisk pace, feeling more like a long short than a feature (I count this as a positive, especially when you're watching a preview copy on a laptop, on your own), which is in part down to confident, snappy editing. Personally, I would have liked to have seen some more of Hermann's rise through the art world (we're privy only to one unveiling of a new piece, to some fawning groupies) which might have made for some good observational humour, but on the whole there is lot to enjoy here.

There are shades of other movies in Deep Dark too. I immediately thought of the Coen's Barton Fink, another bleak and dream-like odyssey, dealing with the pressure of artistic integrity; and of Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoff and Dan Clowes' underrated (though admittedly flawed), cynical comedy about the desperation to succeed in the backstabbing world of contemporary art. I could also mention the film Slaves of New York, but it's probably a bit obscure. Anyway, while those films were ostensibly 'offbeat' (a wretched word, I know) comedies, Deep Dark swerves part way through, from a peculiar and, at times, slightly grotesque farce, into something approaching outright horror. It's an awkward shift which can't really be said to work. The film establishes itself as a slightly loopy allegorical fantasy containing some larger-than-life characters, but in its third act this set-up is shaken by several startlingly gory moments which feel like they belong in another film. That said, I don't consider this a major problem. The film is easy to recommend, despite undermining itself by throwing a bucket of gore around the place at the last minute.

Deep Dark is refreshingly bizarre in regard to its premise, and although uncertain at times as to whether it's a comedy about bad artists, or a fantasy about a talking hole, or indeed, a horror film, it sort of works in just doing its own thing: a kind of curiosity piece which attempts to blend all three. While this approach falters at times, it works well as an entertaining 80 minutes of weirdness, and that's definitely worth something.

Recommended Release: Barton Fink

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