In the indie horror/comedy Lace Crater, writer/director Harrison Atkins has created a film bizarrely removed from the usual "boy meets girl" formula. Here, girl meets ghost; girl has one-night stand with ghost; girl contracts a sexually transmitted disease from ghost; and girl experiences such horrific side effects as waking up in viscous fluids, vomiting and erratic visions. It's not exactly the kind of film suitable for "Netflix and chill."
The girl in question is Ruth (Lindsay Burdge), a mousey twentysomething whose doomed tryst happens after a weekend visit to a friend's house in the Hamptons for an ol' fashioned drug kickback—as twentysomethings in horror films are wont to do. After a jump-cut-laden scene of Jacuzzis, pill popping and beer guzzling, Ruth heads to her room for the night, where a burlap-sack-bedecked ghost named Michael (Peter Vack) appears with a casual "hi." After some intellectual conversations and queries, the two have sex in another jump-cut montage. The next day, Ruth immediately begins experiencing sinister body changes, from throwing up strange black liquids to skin peeling off her hands to her mental clarity diminishing. It isn't until her doctor runs tests and discovers the cause is a mysterious STD that Ruth begins to put two and two together.
Lace Crater's humor and horror moments are subtle, held in modest, intimate conversations reserved for a mumblecore film. So it's right that Atkins chose to give the film an icky atmosphere of uneasiness to drum up anxieties such as the consequences for raging libidos. This is aided by shaky handheld cameras, jump cuts, closeups and a cold, sterile color palette. Right into the film's cold open, you're thrust into a feverish series of jump cuts of Ruth and her friends on the road, talking shit and conversing as normal, letting you in on this tight-knit group's world. As the film goes on, edits and angles become more surreal. Prior to working on this film, Atkins was a cinematographer and editor, so the dude is adept at disorienting the viewer to visually echo Ruth's experiences.
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This film is rife with relatable issues on dating, intimacy and sexual tensions, and on a sardonic level, it works as a cautionary tale against sex with paranormal beings. But it's hard to tell whether this film would be seen as slut shaming its female heroine. As women in horror movies are brutally killed off for having sex, a woman getting an STD also seems like a condemnation (wouldn't Laura Mulvey agree?). On the other hand, Ruth endures the worst behavior from the men around her while retaining her giggly, personable conviction. In one scene, Ruth agrees to meet with an ex-boyfriend whom she assumes wants her back, only to have him explain that he wants to let her know he's seeing someone else; the pang of disappointment on her face is visible, even if it lasts a millisecond.
Indeed, Ruth's character is a noteworthy portrait of modern loneliness, used and abused by the people around her. In the group drug-trip scene, Ruth's bolder, more outgoing friend Claudette (Jennifer Kim) makes a move on a guy friend while a dejected Ruth glumly looks on. Claudette and Ruth are also both interested in the same manbun-sporting hipster friend—and although he makes passes at both women, Ruth plays off her feelings for him only because she doesn't want to compete with her best friend. The only person truly sympathetic toward Ruth is Michael, and without getting too spoiler-y, he ends up being the only character who treats her decently.
For a horror film that delves into physical, gross-out horror territory, Atkins could have pushed that factor even further to really get under our skin; at the moment, even the most disgusting vomiting scenes seem tame enough for viewers with weak constitutions to sit through. Despite this, it's good to see Lace Crater continuing the tradition of the body-horror genre made famous by the early films of maestros David Cronenberg, Peter Jackson and Shin'ya Tsukamoto. Those directors set out to subvert social and political mores regarding sexuality, taboos and societal standards of their time with Shivers, Dead Alive and Tetsuo the Iron Man, respectively. With its original storyline and contemporary aesthetic and vision, Lace Crater could be an addition to that collection, easily making Atkins the next creepy film director to keep an eye on in the years to come.
Lace Crater was written and directed by Harrison Atkins; and stars Lindsay Burdge, Peter Vack and Jennifer Kim. The film screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Regency South Coast Village, 1561 W. Sunflower Blvd., Santa Ana; www.newportbeachfilmfestival.com. April 23, 9 p.m. $15.