By Jake Watt
14th September 2019

It’s comforting to see a writer/director exploring a different sort of horror trope as Mitzi Peirone does with her debut film, ‘Braid’ - one whose roots lie less with Eli Roth or Rob Zombie than with the likes of Dario Argento and Roman Polanski. That said, and despite some moments of bloodshed and chilling beauty, ‘Braid’ is a surprisingly benign enterprise, slowly building enough momentum to keep viewers interested, but never really terrified.

The fairytale-like story follows Petula (Imogen Waterhouse, ‘Nocturnal Animals’) and Tilda (Sarah Hay, TV’s ‘Flesh and Bone’), two 20-something drug dealers. In an annoying blur of noise and duelling camera techniques, the girls suddenly have to run from their downtown apartment to avoid the NYC cops, leaving their drug stash behind as a result. Owing money to their supplier, the surly pair hop a train (replete with a foot fetishist ticket inspector) and decide to pay a visit to their wealthy childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer, ‘Cam’, TV’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’), who lives alone in a vast gated mansion. When they arrive at the dilapidated manor, their goal is to find the hidden safe in the house, which they believe contains a fortune in cash.

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The fact that Daphne is clearly unhinged and that the mansion’s gloomy and cavernous interior makes the Bates Motel look like a Toys 'R' Us store doesn’t seem to pose a problem for the two scavengers, who foolishly venture inside and spend the rest of the movie running from their former friend and a ton of repressed psychological trauma. It’s a similar basic setup to Fede Álvarez’s ‘Don’t Breathe’ but a little closer thematically to Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s ‘Livid’ in the way the story seems to focus on young adults who are frozen in a state of damaged adolescence.

While one girl looks for the safe, the other one distracts Daphne by playing her game, an elaborate roleplay where Daphne is “mother” (who is obsessed with clean fingernails), one of her friends is her “daughter” and the other one is “doctor”. The house rules are: everyone must play, no outsiders are allowed, and nobody leaves. It sounds innocent enough but, almost immediately, someone is bopped on the knee with a giant meat tenderiser and you know it’s only going to get darker from there.

While the film’s pivotal horror scenes offer up very few actual scares (preferring to lean heavily on psychological discomfort), they do contain some impressive production design (via Annie Simeone) which, when coupled with Todd Banhazi's cinematography, make the movie’s mood utterly disturbing. The film’s lighting at times creates a living nightmare of colour, giallo-style.

The house rules are: everyone must play, no outsiders allowed and nobody leaves. It sounds innocent enough but, almost immediately, someone is bopped on the knee with a giant meat tenderiser and you know it’s only going to get darker from there.

Such accoutrements add punch to a sometimes lagging storyline and provide for some thrillingly grisly scenes during the movie’s mid-point and climax that are diabolic in its use of blood and violence. Horror fans will eat it up.

As it progresses, ‘Braid’ becomes an increasingly strange and esoteric film laced with moody tension and an ethereal beauty that even pervades the more violent events. There are many moments that raise questions within the film and many of them will remain unanswered, but they all add to the tenor of the experience as the narrative stretches further from the reality we are comfortable with. This isn’t to say that there isn’t any sense to be made out of it; many aspects have a purpose and some of the unexplained even imply some meaning. But it does come to a point where the story spins so far into dream logic territory that the effect of satisfaction delivered by the rest of the film feels diminished in the wake of narrative confusion. The actors, particularly Brewer, give strong enough performances to keep making the shenanigans watchable.

Rooted in Polanski-like psycho horror and with an ending that is interpretively ambiguous, this film comes with a little haughtiness that suggests pretension. But, while leaving something to be desired as a story, ‘Braid’ still establishes Mitzi Peirone as a respectful and respectable risk-taker who demonstrates a true love of the genre and of the medium.

Looking for more Sydney Underground Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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