Reviewed by D.W. Bostaph Jr.
Staring Terry T. Smith, Don Kirsch, Ruth Thoma Andrews, Richard Ropp
Directed by John C. Lyons
“If the thing were there — and if I were not dreaming — the implications would be quite beyond the power of the human spirit to bear. What tormented me most was my momentary inability to feel that my surroundings were a dream.”
Too often in horror we get lost in the notion of death, that the loss of life is the worst thing that can happen, when in effect this is far from the truth. I can think of so many other instances where the thought of death would serve as a blessed release. The slow deliberate loss of one’s grip on reality is paramount within the echelon of horrors born of the human mind, whether they be real or fictitious. All we have is this life, the people, and our experiences. No chainsaw or machete on the planet could compare to the unyielding madness that comes from such illnesses as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
A purist may argue that a film like Schism has little or nothing to do with the horror genre, but they would be comprehensively wrong. The antagonist within Schism may not be a hockey mask killer, but it is just as relentless. The madness may not have its origins encased in prophecies of tentacle coated terrors from a void hidden between the stars, and yet its devastation is just as complete. Schism dances within the delicately tactile world of real horror. The realm of the fantastic in this type of film is that each and every day people actually have this happen to them.
The story centers on Neil Woodard, who is sent to live in a nursing home after he injures his hip. Accustomed to living alone, Neil is being forced into an alien lifestyle that affords him no control over the situation. He is a product, he is a number, he is just another old person in an extended care facility. Neil knows this and hates it. You can tell from the depth of the wounded he wears on his face that Neil was a strong independent person who never saw this sort of situation in the cards for him. He feels betrayed by the outside world. How could life do this to him? How did he get here? How long till he gets out?
Neil’s solace comes from the others whom are in his same situation. They are similar souls living within the home. Intrusive at first, they are unwilling to let Neil stay hidden beneath his shell. Soon a bond is formed between Neil and another infirmed patient named Roger. The two soon become inseparable. Time passes, and as the days pass into weeks, Neil comes to begrudgingly accept his new life.
Yet things are not as they seem. Neil’s family visits and calls sporadically, and when they do come, there is a distinct disconnect between them and Neil. His children have different lives, and eerily enough a different story as to what is happening within Neil’s world. Neil is confused. In reaching out to his family, he is repeatedly shunned. The world makes less sense to him, a resentment grows, and his only recourse is to attach himself further to the new people and environment he is forced to dwell along side him.
Director John C. Lyons uses Neil as our narrator without voiceover. We do not literally hear the inner mechanizations of Neil’s mind, but we do see every thought and feeling vividly play out across his face. Terry T. Smith is amazing in his flawless portrayal of Neil. He uses his ever emotive eyes and face to speak volumes. Under Lyon’s direction, the skin and age of Neil is so vividly photographed and depicted, that we are able to almost feel his aging as our own.
Remove the hyperbole of Bruce Campbell’s Elvis from Bubba Ho-tep and you get the core idea of what we are dealing with here. One of my favorite things with the Coscarelli film was the natural, deep connection we felt for Jack and Elvis. As cartoony as their characters may have seemed, the friendship evolved and was presented strongly via the character and the conversations that defined them. Schism presents this sort of idea without the supernatural, hypernatural world of Bubba; good friends face down an unimaginable horror that they are unable to ignore or escape from.
The supporting cast does a decent job with filling in the story with a bit of color. I just wish that they had been given some better dialogue in the film. There are moments where they are talking that Lyon’s dialogue is just shy of “Golly Gee Willikers”, and it is a disservice to the care that is given to everything else in the film. The banter between the core group of friends is at times hilarious, sometimes sad, and sometimes painful. I know that one does not want to walk down the Grumpy Old Men lane, but the when the conversations should be at their best, they just come up bland, and awkward for the actors to deliver.
In developing the characters Lyons does allow them to occupy a lot of the screen time, and there is a good 15-20 minutes that could be trimmed from the film. I found myself amused at the quaint moments within the film, but there were so many of them that the film tends to sag in the middle. Neil arrives, makes friends, and begins his steady decent into dementia; the story is strong enough. I feel that the lackluster dialogue is linked with the elongated runtime. The characters and relationships feel forced and awkward at times, and thus as they are not evolving in a naturalistic manner. We spend a lot of time being with the characters, but evolving them slowly and awkwardly. A richer spate of conversations, especially between Neil and Roger, would have grown the friendship with more realism.
Personally, I would have loved to see Schism done as a silent film. Instead of filling our ears with cutesy elderly banter, we should have instead been forced to bathe in Lyon’s impeccable direction and cinematography. Lyons and his partner, Dorota Swies, share the cinematography credit for the film. As you watch them work their magic on the screen, you would have to be blind and cinematically ignorant not to see the influence of Stanley Kubrick. This film has some of the most fantastic lighting I have ever seen in an independent film. We hitch a ride behind Neil’s eyes as he falls further down the mental rabbit hole, and are treated to horrific images and scenarios that are all the more effective because they are not the product of an alien presence, psychotropic drug, or sensory deprivation. No, Neil’s one way journey leaves you shaken and ultimately touched because it is concrete.
From the audacious opening scene on we treated to Lyon’s kinetic camera style. The damn things just keeps moving, but never in that uber-hip, ultra-annoying shakeycam style. Instead we are treated to circular tracking shots, continuous shots, and sweeping crane maneuvers that make one feel uneasy about the world forming around them. Just as David Lynch captured the essence of the dream, Lyons has triumphed in depicting the quiet queasiness of mental anguish. The final sequences of the film are as touching as they are astounding. They never fail to keep the tension tightening on and around us, and at the very last minute show us a sublime revelation that will ask much of us as it answers. There is just as much revelation in the last moments of Schism as there is with the birth of the Starchild at the end of 2001. We are taken somewhere that is too close to home, somewhere dangerous, somewhere inescapable.
Schism is a study in the inevitability of age, and the horror that comes with it. Lurking just off in the distance, hidden under the waves of time, we all must dance with the reaper at some point or another. It is our destiny to pay the life debt that we owe. It is unfortunate that some of us are going to travel down the intellectual inferno of dementia. Locked away with a cruel prison, we will then wait for death to deliver us from that perpetual evil of life without escape. In some regard the cruel twist of fate is that in the real world, the only one who can truly stop the horror is death itself.
3 1/2 out of 5
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