Antibirth Dir. Danny Perez

[IFC; 2016]

Styles: sci-fi/horror, body horror, black comedy, cautionary tale
Others: Street Trash, Buzzard, Trash Humpers, The Doom Generation, Withnail and I

Boasting a perfect-for-cult-status mixed critical reception and glancingly boilerplate title, ODDSAC director Danny Perez has struck out with a horror brimming over with promising signature flash. Much like Murder Party and Blood Simple before it, Antibirth is a feature-length debut with so much creativity behind it that some of the less polished elements (namely the garish practical effects) lend a surreal charm. It is the sort of oblique shocker that will take many movie night adventurers by surprise. More than any other genre, horror has the ability subvert formula and not make the audience feel robbed of their emotional beats. Pure shock isn’t quite the stranglehold draw it used to be, so there’s room for inventive film makers to do more with an interesting cast.

Everyone is pitch perfect, but Natasha Lyonne runs the show as Lou. She seems to have an intuitive lock on the lurching, lucid, to swimming in confusion rhythm that Perez favors. In a film rife with heightened visual elements (some fresh, some classical) she exists as another layer of intrigue rather than a place holding candidate for distortion. Her take on the loveable waste-case may waft of the sort of offhand grace notes employed by Billy Crudup or Joaquin Phoenix in the past, but it builds on the trope masterfully. Lou is dim, but she’s fatalistically grounded. She’s emotional but distracted, reaching blindly for more mundane indulgence. She’s not a ubiquitous antihero, so much as a housecat with an owner that’s abandoned it, dryly scratching at a reality that, while increasingly alarming, lands squarely on disagreeable. More Gregor Samsa than Ignatius Reilly, Lou is resolutely shuffling through the same murkily parodic muck as the incredulous viewer.

This is the sort of film that works best when you don’t take the less overt moments for granted. An early one of these moments consists of little more than Lou and her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny, perfection as usual) casually dancing around the room to Suicide in an offhand yet committed fashion that radiates a droopy sort of glee (a la pitch perfect, Samantha Morton). Lou is a cartoonish, wily hedgehog, but Lyonne sells her rambling, trashy (either loudly digressive or pleasantly inane) dialogue and keeps the whole nightmare raggedly cogent. After seeing veterinarian friend, Anha about a mysterious condition, Lou scoffs at her advice (go to a doctor), offhandedly alleging that Anha once got a dog addicted to heroin. In Antibirth’s shithole universe, that anecdote could easily be gospel or just the passing detritus of a substance beset consciousness. There’s another memorable, yet fairly consequence-free scene where Lou is having an episode in a drug store parking lot while a homeless man urgently pounds on her window and demands money. The scene hits really hard on its own terms, regardless of whether it’s meant as a red herring or not.

So we’re not talking Cronenberg, or even The Thing, but Antibirth is decidedly more engrossing than “classic” impulse views like From Beyond or Xtro, as far as sci-fi horror goes. It couldn’t be more different of an experience, but it matches Stranger Things’s ability to inject some memorable character idiosyncrasies into its grueling viscera. This film doesn’t quite have you feeling much for anybody, but the jarring pitch of its more horrific set pieces comes down to Lyonne selling Lou’s nascent terror. She’s aloof, but steadily consumed with encroaching dread and through the deft pivoting of her performance, her fear becomes our own. While Antibirth may not be particularly frightening as a whole, it does possess a sneaky power. This power is assisted by a slamming guttural soundtrack featuring The Gories, Dead Moon (fuck yes —ed.), Tonetta, Black Dice, and others, that uncannily wrestles you down to the movie’s seedy level.

Meg Tilly’s character Lorna (a portentous wandering bag lady that seems to have Forest Whitaker’s “I feel things” gift from Species) was surprising and fun till she gets into some overlong alien plotstuff that threatens to normalize her and throw off the film’s delicate surrealist fetish b-movie/generic trash balance. Also, Sadie (Sevigny) gets neither a crazy death sequence, nor any other interesting moments beyond the dance scene. She ,too, seems to wind up as a place holder for clunky story machinations that don’t quite bear scrutiny. Sketchy dudes Gabriel and Warren effectively hover around the sinister, but their shady dealings ultimately lead to more stultifying exposition. Perez has the look and staging of every character down beautifully, but Lou is the only one who sustains both aesthetic and narrative momentum. The director is still, perhaps, a better music video director (though his work has helped to elevate what that can be) than a genre one, but this cockamamie story still hangs together better than a lot of what he is competing with. And despite all flaws, its cozily dyspeptic purgatory gathers in the skull like some janky C.G. fog.

For many, Antibirth will be a “what the hell did I just watch?” sort of affair. But I’d argue that this is fine. After all, it’s not an inappropriate thing to exclaim when we’ve seen something exceptional.

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