Is Mumblehorror a Thing?
Are We Not Cats
I always find it fascinating the kinds of videos that end up being watched million times over on YouTube. One such example involves what we in the horror genre would call body horror. In particular, it seems that people like to watch videos where doctors pop/lance huge blisters. I don't share or, frankly, understand this fascination. I mean, I guess it's kind of like our attraction to horror: the feeling of watching something so disturbing or gross that we're unable to look away. What I find amusing is how squeamish our culture is, when it comes to our bodies and their functions. Yet, we apparently find it oddly satisfying to watch pus get expunged. I mean, to each their own. Personally, I don't have the stomach for it.
Which brings me to Are We Not Cats.
Facts are Facts
Writer: Xander Robin
Director: Xander Robin
Gayly: cinematography and soundtrack stuns
Dreadful: falling down the Google image rabbit hole of "human hairballs"
Pairs With: not dinner, that's for sure
Availability: Shudder, Prime, VOD, etc.
Are We Not Cats stars the absolutely grungy cutie Michael Patrick Nicholson as Eli, a down-on-his-luck garbage man with nervous tendencies. He picks at his dirt-filled nails and has a rash on his back that he can't keep from scratching. As the film opens, he's making a stop at his ex-girlfriend's house en garbage route. She's moved on and turns him down. Then he's fired from his garbage duty by his partner, who's tired of his shit. Then he finds out his parents have sold their house and are moving to sunny Arizona, leaving him only with his bedroom furniture and a large moving truck. "Visit Us," his mother squeaks in a hilarious camera pan that in any other horror movie could have been a jump scare. Consider this a jump laugh?
So, Eli, now homelessly living in his truck, takes a delivery job to drop off an engine in some more remote part of the state. This job brings him in contact with Kyle (Michael Godere), with whom he slurps what I can only assume was anti-freeze, before meeting Kyle's wisp of a girlfriend, Anya (Chelsea LJ Lopez) at a dingy industrial concert in the basement of some derelict building. Anya is alluring and sexual and Eli is smitten. Even though she's currently dating Kyle, Eli makes the first tentative steps toward romance and maybe getting his life together.
Oh. And did I mention Anya suffers from trichotillomania and trichophagia?
Trichotillomania: a compulsive desire to pull out one's hair.
Trichophagia: the compulsive eating of hair associated with trichotillomania.
It's love at first sight. Eli, himself, often picks at his skin and his hair before stuffing it into his mouth; it's a gross tic that, nonetheless, is based on a real-life affliction that writer/director Xander Robin shares (though not to the degree, one would assume, as in this story). And after the whirlwind night spent at the concert with her and Kyle, they pass out in his moving truck. He wakens to see Anya tugging at (and systematically eating) some wisps of hair under her pink wig and realizes he's found a kindred soul. I'll admit, it's a weird thing to base a relationship on, but who am I to judge.
Are We Not Cats is Robin's debut film. It's astonishingly shot by cinematographer Matt Clegg and I imagine he has a bright future as a cinematographer. His work, coupled by the soundtrack, is what really sells the weirdness. I was also impressed with the opening titles, which become a stunning declaration of the weird and dark film you're about to watch. With its dark and intense close-up shots, striking lettering and bombastic wailing blues, it reminds me of the style David Fincher brings to his opening credits, like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
After this abruptly dark opening, Clegg's stunning camerawork takes on a more naturalistic style that, for awhile, made me think I was watching a mumblecore movie. The themes are all there. Aimless, young protagonist who's trying to make sense of this thing called life. Naturalistic performances, with some improvisation. Focus on dialogue and characters over plot, with an emphasis on romance and being unable to articulate their own desires.
But the environments turn from the big cityscapes, open and sterile, into post-industrial rust and decay, culminating in that dilapidated basement concert before moving again to a more whimsical, but no less industrial and sinister, apartment owned by Anya. The locations become dingy and dark, the camerawork has a hard time focusing on details and everything has a haze to it. And just as the camerawork and environments grow more sinister, so too does the story. It's a drug-fueled fever dream, without the drugs: a mumblecore descent into madness.
Accompanying the stunning camerawork is a soundtrack that surprisingly leans heavily on funk and soul, with pounding beats, electric jazzfunk and soulful wails. I immediately want it on vinyl. It incongruously adds to the film, contrasting the industrial zones and weird subject matter with a tuneful and old school soul. It has a pulsing beat but an old school charm that brings a feeling of romance to the decidedly non-traditional romantic story unfolding. It is a perfect accompaniment to this oddity of a film.
If you were to have filmed me while I watched this movie, I imagine I would have the same look as those who watch those boil-popping videos. It was a mix of morbid curiosity, followed by revulsion and a deep-seated dread that permeates the entire film. It's a somber movie, with bursts of dark humor; the kind that makes you question whether you should be laughing or not. It stumbles here and there; the writing isn't very strong and some of the narrative contrivances almost derail the movie. And I'm not really convinced that the climax of the film is possible from an amateur, but it does provide a grotesque payoff in the same way as a boil being popped.
I'm curious to see what Xander Robin will do next, particularly if he works with Matt Clegg. For a debut, Are We Not Cats is pretty ambitious and artsy, but never dull. It's not for everyone. Hell, I don't even know if it's for me. But for someone looking for an offbeat genre-busting mix of body horror, romance and mumblecore, well...I mean, I don't think there's another option out there.