Monday, November 17, 2014

Coming Soon: Good Night, Sleep Clean (2014)

Back in 2012, I tagged Gregg Holtgrewe here on the blog as one of the new horror directors I was keeping an eye out for.

Holtgrewe is the mastermind behind 2009’s Dawning, a subversive, original, and splendidly-visualized (if micro-budgeted) variation on the “cabin in the woods”-type genre narrative.

I appreciated that film so much because it took an idea that all horror fans are well-acquainted with, and -- with almost no budgetary resources -- corkscrewed it into something fresh and new: a story of burgeoning paranoia, of nagging interior voices made manifest as an “evil” force.

Instead of a monster loose in the woods, Dawning was about the little monsters inside all of us, the ones that make us doubt ourselves and our most treasured relationships.

Well, Holtgrewe is back -- this time alongside collaborator and choreographer Leslie O’Neill -- with another unconventional film project that, on some level, could also be considered part of the horror genre.

Good Night, Sleep Clean is a twenty-minute short that would, actually, be a perfect fit in a genre anthology. The film is also, counter-intuitively, a modern dance film, which means that emotions and anxieties are expressed through physical movement. 

Normally, a short film featuring modern dance would not exactly be in my purview here on the blog, but Holtgrewe and O’Neill have crafted a mesmerizing work of art that appears to fit, at least spiritually, right alongside Dawning. 

Specifically, Good Night, Sleep Clean conveys acute psychological terror, not merely through dance and performance, but through the co-directors' selection of expressive imagery and canny compositions.

In stark terms, Good Night, Sleep Clean, involves a woman who descends into mental illness.

In particular, she suffers from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Her name is Katie, and her descent into madness begins with something apparently ordinary. One day Katie awakens from bed and finds a bug bite on her body.

But Katie keeps scratching that bite until it bleeds. 

Then she takes a vacuum cleaner to her mattress. 

And then Katie searches every nook and cranny in her house for the culprit, and finds insect carcasses and cast-off spider webs in dark corners.  

Meanwhile, she keeps scratching, growing ever more desperate, and her husband realizes that Katie needs help.

That help -- a patronizing therapist -- isn’t the answer, and Katie slips further and further away from our consensus reality…

Gazing back into horror history, one of the most unforgettable episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1969 – 1973) was called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and it utilized expressive visuals to chart one boy’s descent into apathy and perhaps, autism. The episode (narrated by Orson Welles) used imagery of blizzards and ice and to suggest the boy’s emotional “deep freeze.” A hanging chandelier became an icicle, for example.

Good Night, Sleep Clean adopts a similar visual tack, treading in the terrain not just of modern dance, but overt formalism or visual symbolism. In one unforgettably vetted scene, Katie transforms herself into the equivalent of a spider -- an insect predator -- meticulously webbing her entire dining room, in hopes of catching the bug that bit her.

This scene works so effectively for a few reasons. Not only has Katie lost her humanity in a sense, because of her illness (becoming that metaphorical spider...), but the scene suggests that she has become a ghost in her own life as well.

As we witness the development of the spider's web in the dining room over time, we also see Katie tending to it, in different poses, in different places. These images, these positions, overlap. Thus, we soon realize that the compulsion has taken over everything about Katie. The illness has become her life, so that she is no longer an active presence in the important things; the things that you and I take for granted on a daily basis.

When Katie becomes obsessed with the possibility of bed bugs infecting her home -- and feeding off her body -- Good Night, Sleep Clean seems to literally pulse with her uneasiness.  Once seen, these bugs can't be unseen, and Katie seems to break with the rest of the world.

Katie actually goes in and out of focus, as if irretrievably un-tethered from our reality. Katie starts to slip away, and the out-of-focus imagery actually conveys this slippage beautifully. Here, Holtgrewe and O'Neill find the perfect approach to suggest how it actually feels to have a panic attack, and no dialogue is necessary to convey that information.

After a scene with the therapist, in which Katie shouts for help to her husband, but is not heard or acknowledged, she has a seizure and is taken to the hospital. 

Intriguingly, the hospital is depicted on-screen as a rushing river, a bed and chair, but otherwise no trappings of such a facility. 

The idea -- with the stationary chair and bed, but constantly-moving water -- is of life standing still for Katie because she is sick. Meanwhile, life passes normally for everyone else, just like the unceasing movement of that river.

Devoid of pretension, and crisply-shot and edited, Good Night, Sleep Clean feels like an extension of Dawning's aesthetic, capturing the way that our thoughts and compulsions can, in the end, isolate us from others, and even from reality itself. The film is under a half-hour in length, as I noted above, and every single shot is picture perfect, composed and orchestrated to expressively transmit the story on multiple levels of meaning. The imagery is haunting but captivating, and it carries you away with Katie, as all semblance of reality is, finally, lost. The film features no wasted moments, and is instead, a "clean" meditation on madness that leaves you, at its ending, feeling breathless.

Delightfully, you'll be able to see Good Night, Sleep Clean for yourself before the end of the year. On December 18th, the short film will premiere online for two hours (7:00 pm to 9:00 pm.). I will provide links as the time gets closer...

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