Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pop Skull

Adam Wingard | 2007 | 86 mins | USA

The first thing I heard about Pop Skull, before hearing what the film is about or whether it's any good, is that it was made for something in the neighbourhood of $3,000. An impressive feat for a feature length film that's getting decent reviews and film fest play, to be sure. In fact, the crazily low price tag is kind of reason enough to go see the film - just to see what the ambitious young filmmakers managed to accomplish with so little.

As it turns out, they managed a lot. Low budget creepy horror films can be really, really bad when the filmmakers are unable to reconcile a grand vision with a shoestring budget. Pop Skull stands out for fully using these limitations to its advantage.

Most of all, the film succeeds because it's clever. The story is about a young over-the-counter pill addict who's pining over a lost love and may or may not be seeing ghosts (but who knows, when he's high on cough syrup all the time). The writing is good, the structure is creepy and suspenseful and best of all, at no point does Pop Skull look or feel cheap. In fact, the low-fi video look is used brilliantly to achieve a trippy, dark aesthetic. Everything about Pop Skull seems well thought out and intentional, and not like a compromise that could have been executed better with more cash.

I guess technically it is a 'horror' film (if we have to be so rigid about our genre definitions), but it's definitely not a startle-a-minute gore fest. The pace is slow, contemplative and meandering, and creates an atmosphere of unease and discomfort that settles over the viewer like a warm blanket made of bugs.

People like director Adam Wingard prove a really important, oft-forgotten point that it's easy to lose sight of: money can't buy smarts, and a million dollars (or 80) can't make up for a lack of good ideas or competent writing. Highly recommended, though now that it's done screening at Toronto's Over The Top Fest, it may be a while before the film is available again. Fingers crossed for a good DVD release.

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