Sibling relationships are among the most complex we have as humans. Siblings share understandings and experiences between them that aren't shared by any other person on earth, as well as the obvious shared genetic material. In addition to this shared biological and ineffable stuff of life, the differences between siblings in the manifestation of otherwise shared traits of nature and personality are even more fascinating. I suspect these similarities and differences are even stronger in twins, though I know I need to be careful here. I am friends with twins who helpfully point out the often ridiculous media stereotypes about twins, stereotypes that those of us who aren't twins have too often uncritically internalized. Still, twins share even more experience between them than other siblings due to their shared age, while identical twins clearly share more genetic material. This similarity and closeness often has the effect of amplifying the differences between twins. Regularly unfairly portrayed in the media as a two-headed single entity, it's unfortunate that twins aren't regarded often enough as separate individuals with separate interests, goals, personality quirks, and personal lives. It's also clear, though, that twins have a deep connection to each other that I'm sure those of us who aren't twins can't begin to understand.
These are obvious points I'm making, but they are gracefully and subtly illustrated in British writer/director/animator Robert Morgan's stop-motion animation short The Separation. The 10-minute short begins with a pair of conjoined twin brothers in a hospital room. The brothers are joined at the side, a few inches above the waist. Soon, we see the aftermath of an operation to separate the two, and later, their work as dollmakers. The brothers have very different reactions to their separation, but each in his own way pines to be reattached, though their reasons are also very different. I'll leave it here.
The Separation is a visually beautiful short that manages to be both disturbing and touching, both creepy and sweet. Though the brothers are identical twins, their movements, facial expressions, and personalities make them easy to tell apart, no mean trick in a short piece of animation. Morgan is a skilled animator and director, and his characters and their backgrounds (the hospital, the doll factory), movements, and clothes are highly detailed and impressive. Morgan's decision to use only background sound and no dialogue was a wise choice. Without dialogue, every movement, every facial expression, every action carries emotional and narrative weight, and pulls the viewer into a dreamy but intensely focused level of engagement. In just a few minutes, Morgan makes you care a great deal for tiny, handmade figures that never say anything.
This level of handmade detail is especially welcome in this young century of computer animation, CGI, and green screen effects. A master craftsman slowly and painstakingly creating narrative and emotion with skilled hands and a camera is an art that is slowly disappearing. As someone who loves handmade FX, I find this cultural change depressing. Convenience, corporate money, and mediocrity tend to triumph in capitalist countries, but pockets of beauty like this survive in the margins. We're all going to lose the war, but battles can still be won in the nooks and crannies too small for the winners to bother lowering their giant heads and craning their oversized necks to see. The audiences are smaller, but they're more open and engaged.
Since 1997, Robert Morgan has written, directed, and animated four stop-motion shorts (The Man in the Lower-Left Hand Corner of the Photograph, The Cat with Hands, The Separation, and Bobby Yeah) and written and directed a live-action short (Monsters), and the rock band Tool used a reedited version of The Separation for one of their music videos. Morgan is contributing a segment to the sequel for the Drafthouse Films anthology The ABCs of Death. His shorts are widely available on YouTube and Vimeo, as well as his own website, and The Separation is on DVD on the international horror and cult movie shorts anthology Small Gauge Trauma. On the strength of The Separation, I'm definitely going to check out his other stuff. I have embedded it for you right here.
Thanks to the success of John Boorman's 1972 adaptation of James Dickey's Deliverance, a new horror subgenre enjoyed a brief period of fashionability. There isn't any official name for this subgenre, so I call it the middle-aged-guys-go-into-the-wilderness-and-terrible-shit-happens movie. I'm predisposed to like this kind of thing, but I will admit there are some less than stellar examples. Rituals is one of the more obscure nutzo wilderness movies, and until recently wasn't even available on DVD, but don't hold that against it. If you're only going to watch a handful of these kind of films, and you've already seen Deliverance, you need to throw Rituals near the top of the pile.
Rituals is a low-budget independent Canadian production, but its lack of shiny Hollywood polish is a blessing. Director Peter Carter is no master visual stylist and the screenplay fails to flesh out any of the characters, but the movie is big on suspense, atmosphere, dread, and raw, visceral intensity. This is a dark, tough, tense film that doesn't ever let up, and its location shooting in the remote Ontario wilderness and lack of back story give it an unsettling documentary feel. A bit too visually pedestrian and schematically written to be a great movie, Rituals is still a damn good genre film and deserves a larger audience.
Rituals opens with our characters, five middle-aged doctors, preparing to board a small plane that will drop them off in a remote chunk of the Canadian wild for six days of camping. The five friends vacation in a different location together every year, but this year's trip seems fraught with tension from the beginning. Two of the quintet, who happen to be brothers, are battling substance abuse problems. One of the two, Martin (Robin Gammell), has lost his practice due to his alcoholism and is the on-call physician at a steel mill. There are also major tensions between Harry (Hal Holbrook) and the rest of the men, especially Mitzi (Lawrence Dane). Harry is an ethical guy who thinks his old friends are more concerned with corporatizing and franchising their medical practices and procedures than with helping their patients. Things start off tense and only get worse, though there are a few brief moments of comic relief from the plane's goofball pilot (Murray Westgate).
Once the men arrive at their destination, they realize it's even more remote than they had anticipated, but they roll with it. They argue with and complain to and about each other in between moments of levity and inexperienced camping errors. It's all fun and games and angry bickering until all their boots are stolen and ominous ritualistic symbolic animal mutilation occurs near their campsite. Spooked, the men send one of the brothers off to a remote outpost to attempt to find some better quality footwear. Soon, a series of terrible things happens to the men, and it becomes horrifyingly clear that a skilled yet crazed outdoorsman is stalking them. But why?
Carter does a nice job increasing the tension to nearly unbearable levels, and he skillfully avoids the repetition inherent in the plot and setting. Holbrook and the supporting cast of Canadian character actors do a lot with the thinly written parts, especially Holbrook, and I liked the conceit of making the men doctors. They can treat their injuries, which makes them less helpless victims and more challenging prey than the random horny teenagers in more generic slasher films. I was also impressed at the film's progressive-for-the-time treatment of Martin's homosexuality. It's revealed in a no-big-deal way midway through the film, and he's treated as an equal and a friend by the rest of the men. Other than one jokingly effeminate line of dialogue and an unsympathetic character calling Martin a "faggot" in a moment of anger and weakness, the character's sexuality is never made an issue. This character you've just spent 30 minutes with is gay, the movie says, because gay people exist. You're going to spend another hour with him, and his sexuality is not an issue. I don't want to overstate Rituals as some kind of civil rights landmark, but it was a very surprising thing to see in a 1970s genre film.
Rituals is a solid horror film that taps into the primal fears of the remote wilderness. What happens when you're isolated from modern civilization, when you no longer have control over your environment, when there's something out there that wants to get you and it knows what it's doing? This is not a groundbreaking film, but it's scary and intense and a fine way to spend an hour and a half.
Dr. Mystery, aka Robot X, aka Raul "Sous Chef" Mendoza, aka Josh Krauter was killed in a brawl in a Pizza Hut parking lot after expressing his disappointment with the "Dippin' Strips" pizza. His skeleton was saved and inserted into an apesuit-wearing robot powered by an electrical current emanating from the still-beating heart of deceased actor Zero Mostel. He is also a limited liability company and writes the weekly advice column, "Pull Your Head Outta Your Ass," for the Vermont Luthiers Annual Newsletter.