Lane Hughes, Brandon Carroll, Maggie Henry, Hannah Hughes
Adam Wingard, Lane Hughes
NR (Equivalent to "R" rating in all likelihood)
Halo 8, Wild Bunch
You know you're in for a unique film experience when the film is preceded by a spoken warning that those with seizure disorders may want to think twice about watching the film.
"Pop Skull," screened recently during the 2008 Indianapolis International Film Festival and winner of the festival's American Spectrum Award, earns such a warning with a nearly relentless flood of auditory and visual hallucinatory images that penetrate the screen in layer upon layer as we companion Daniel (co-writer Lane Hughes) on a downward spiral involving flashbacks of a murder once committed in his backyard, grief over a recent ended relationship and an increasing drug habit that makes it all feel like it's all either one gigantic hallucination or the psychotic breakdown of a young man who can barely breathe without some sort of a traumatic break.
As co-written and directed by Adam Wingard, "Pop Skull" is an exhausting and yet oddly exhilarating experience. A unique blend of acid horror and psychological torture, it's the sort of film that many experimental filmmakers have attempted to make and extremely few have succeeded.
"Pop Skull" kept reminding me of "Midlothia" on acid. The latter film, a remarkable indie flick from last year that ended up on my Top 10 for the year, was an unusually insightful and honest take on friendship, loyalty and micro-society in a small town. "Pop Skull" is pretty much the exact same thing, but on acid.
Obsessed with his now out-of-reach ex-girlfriend (Maggie Henry), Daniel spends most of his days in a fog that vacillates between hallucinogenic and psychotic. His only friend, Jeff (Brandon Carroll), is the more traditional "work all day, drink all night" type with a beautiful girlfriend (Hannah Hughes) who seems to harbor a crush on Daniel that is part lust-centered and part maternal.
Unfortunately, it's hard to fuck or trust when you're hallucinating every other minute.
Filmed on a stunningly low $3,000 budget, Wingard paid his cast $100 a day over the course of the film's less than one week shoot and managed to get performances out of his ensemble cast that blow away virtually anything else released in the horror market in the past year.
Lane Hughes is authentically haunting as the rapidly disintegrating Daniel, giving off a vibe that is part Manson and part Michael Pitt from Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." The film opens with Daniel narrating the story of the murder that occurred in his back yard...in other words, Wingard never gives the audience a chance to "like" Daniel. Yet, somehow, Hughes quietly creates a character that is oddly sympathetic even as his behavior worsens over the course of the film.
As his best and only friend, Brandon Carroll wisely plays it fairly straightforward. Carroll's Jeff knows that Daniel is fucked up and yet for the vast majority of the film he's staunchly by his side until there's no choice but to confront. Carroll's performance gives Jeff multiple refreshing layers that are gradually peeled away over the course of the film.
While her role is relatively minor, Hannah Hughes also shines as Jeff's girlfriend who is simultaneously bewildered by and drawn to Daniel.
Despite his low budget, Wingard's cinematography perfectly incorporates DigiBeta vid lensing and Jonathan Thornton's surprisingly effective special effects to give the film a weary, stained look that flips about during the course of the film. Accompanied by a thumping, techno score from Kyle McKinnon and Justin Leigh, "Pop Skull" is an full-on sensory experience backed by performances that make it all feel right even when it doesn't exactly make sense.
I saw "Pop Skull" on a day that I had five films on my agenda. "Pop Skull" was the fourth film of the evening, and after the screening I found myself so emotionally and physically exhausted that I was done for the day.
There are movies that inspire. There are movies that entertain. There are movies that educate. There are movies that terrify. Then, there are movies that simply fuck with your mind and never let go.
"Pop Skull" fucks with your mind and never lets go. While "Pop Skull" is undoubtedly not for everyone, for the adventurous moviegoer who craves authentic filmmaking with guts, "Pop Skull" is a must see.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic