Not for the faint of eyeball, Canadian director Panos Cosmatos’ debut film is one of the most trippy films made in Canada or anywhere in recent memory, as visually gorgeous as it is befuddling. The entire film is like a rapturous visual scrapbook of vintage sci-fi horror images, with echoes of Scanners, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Inspired by the lurid covers of old VHS horror films, Cosmatos (son of director George Cosmatos) has created an intoxicating visual ode to a genre with no more than a nod to narrative conventions that seems custom-made for the midnight movie cult status.
The setting is a rejuvenation clinic named Arborin, which, we learn from a ‘70’s-style TV ad presented by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), is aimed at creating “serenity through technology” using drugs and other techniques. The story moves forward to 1983, when the clinic appears to be down to its last patient. A mute young woman, Elena (Eva Allan) is kept prisoner and research subject by creepy Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). Elena has special psychic powers – of the blowing-up-heads variety – but Dr. Nyle keeps her under control with drugs. Both Dr. Nyle, his wife (Marilyn Norry),and his aged Dr. Arborio are all sustained by a pharmaceutical substance derived from the clinic.
Apparently, whatever he’s taking is not good for you. Dr. Nyle goes progressively insane, and eventually Elena escapes, taking the story outside the clinic’s walls into almost conventional horror thriller territory. Of much more interest is the way the film works visually, as a sustained hallucinatory fever dream with the colour-saturated backdrops behind the faces, close-ups of eyeballs and needles puncturing skin, all accompanied by the ominous throbbing and synthesizer growls of the soundtrack by composer Sinoia Caves. The tingles of pleasure here have nothing to do with traditional scares but but the anticipation with whatever new bizarre or striking image the filmmakers will present next. Credit here goes to the co-ordinated efforts of Cosmatos, director of photography Norm Li and production designer Bob Bottieri.