Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Lane Hughes, Brandon Carroll, Maggie Henry, Hannah Hughes
Directed by Adam Wingard
How to describe a movie like Pop Skull… there really isn’t any way you can without making it sound like something it’s not. It’s a strange film about a strange person who does and experiences some very strange things, and it’s really not like anything I’ve seen before.
One issue I did have with it was its over-reliance on flashing strobe effects and jostling imagery to try and convey what’s going on in the lead character’s head for most of the film. Seems to me there are more effective ways of conveying how disturbed he is rather than putting in the kind of camera and editing tricks that force them to have to put a warning to anyone with epilepsy at the beginning of the movie.
Pop Skull follows the downward spiral of Daniel (Hughes), a lonely and depressed guy living in Alabama. Since his girlfriend Natalie (Henry) left him for another guy, he’s pretty much turned into a useless sack of drug abuse, overmedicating himself with all manner of over the counter pills to try and keep from having to face anything approaching reality. It’s never said if he was a pill addict before his Natalie left, but if he was, it’s pretty easy to understand why she wanted to get away from him.
As he gets worse and becomes even more disconnected from reality, he starts seeing things. Ghosts, perhaps; maybe demons. The film opens with a voice-over story about a pair of brothers who lived in the same town that had, for reasons no one could understand, kidnapped a girl, tied her up in their backyard and tortured her for days before she finally died. The brothers killed themselves shortly after so their reasons for doing this were never clear (as if such things can ever be understood), but as Daniel gets further and further from the real world, one of the brothers starts to show up at the strangest of times.
Eventually Daniel’s madness, grief and rage lead him to the place where you might expect; committing all those nasty sins society still says are so very wrong. One thing Pop Skull is not, aside from anything conventional, is a feel-good movie. There’s no triumph of the human spirit or overcoming of one’s limitations here; Pop Skull is about as dreary and disheartening as they come.
I know that director Wingard went into Pop Skull wanting to make something as far from most indie horror films as one can get, and in that he succeeded admirably. Far removed from his first feature, Home Sick (a movie still waiting for release from Synapse Films), Pop Skull shows a maturity in storytelling and an approach to madness and killer instinct that is unhurried and indifferent about pleasing its audience. Indeed, some of the disjointed visuals during Daniel’s pill-induced euphoria will likely make your eyes hurt and your brain request a few moments to collect itself when it’s all over.
Pop Skull contains no easy or simple answers, and as is usually the case with movies involving depression and addiction, no one is quite what they seem at first. Strong performances by everyone involved enhance this experience; once again it’s a case of an indie that wouldn’t be half as good if it weren’t for the wise casting choices made, most of which are friends of the creators, something that very rarely comes out as a positive factor, so good on them.
Pop Skull is not a film for everyone. The moments of horror are few and far between, but all the more shocking and jostling for that when they do occur, but more than anything you’re dealing with a slowly dissolving personality. The visual style doesn’t conform to any set practice, though I will admit that most of the time it does come across as artsy for the sake of being artsy, but it’s forgivable considering they were trying something new.
Pop Skull is a headfuck in all the best possible meanings, and because of that I’m sure a lot of people aren’t going to “get it”. If and when you get a chance to see it, just make sure you go in with no expectations because no matter what they are, I doubt Pop Skull would find a place in them.
3 1/2 out of 5
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