By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
“Strawberry Lane” (2016), the outstanding and enigmatic twenty-three minute and fifteen second debut from writer-directors Jeremy Arruda and Aaron Babcock, is thematically and visually designed to unnerve. Arruda and Babcock have created a living nightmare on celluloid. This is via a collection of sinisterly striking images. All of which, even down to the otherwise simplistic visage of the child’s doll and ventriloquist’s dummy casually spied in the second half, are guaranteed to linger in the subconscious long after they are viewed. The upshot of these brilliantly delivered constituents is undoubtedly an extension of horror in its purest sense. We, the audience, are continually made to feel uncomfortable, apprehensive and alarmed. Yet, we are wholly engaged and intrigued throughout. This is by the notions and scenarios that are unfolding. Likewise, those that could potentially be right around the corner. In an era where most related yarns are more than content to go the safe route, with jump scares and routine motions galore, Arruda and Babcock give us a presentation of credible, sobering and unwavering darkness. It is one that is anything but predictable. The unsettling quote from American serial killer Albert Fish glimpsed in the opening moments set the clinical atmosphere and violent chain of events which are to follow quickly and proficiently.
Adding to the tonal ingenuity at hand, this wonderfully creepy concoction derives heavy inspiration from avant-garde maestro David Lynch, most notably Eraserhead (1977), as well as the chairman of many controversial comedies, John Waters. The eerily erected commencing and closing credits, made increasingly incredible and unflinchingly bizarre by the deliberately old-fashioned music from Arruda, make this point sharply evident. Such augments an endlessly intense, marvelously macabre impression. It is one which pulsates proudly through every frame of the proceedings. Such beautifully mirrors the exploitation features of the 1970’s. This is with Tobe Hooper’s quintessential masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), frequently coming to the forefront. Yet, the anti-heroes that pose as our leads are appropriately repulsive, menacing and impossibly mesmerizing. Such is in the tradition of the best cinematic villains. The duo of murderers who form this uncommon “love story”, as it is declared in the sub-title of the depiction, Harry Meyland (in a performance by Kris Salvi that is terrific) and Billy (in an enactment by Justin Thibault that is just as accomplished as that of Salvi) summon a certain parallel to Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Such iconic entities were found in Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture Academy Award- winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991). These aforesaid mirrors to the past also provide an undercurrent of nostalgia to the piece. Such makes the overall feel of the labor akin to watching a long-lost classic for the first time.
All of this is punctuated, memorably and appropriately, by an extended, ardently gut-wrenching and impressive finale. Such readily calls to mind the oft banned invention of fright, Nekromantik (1987), from German auteur Jorg Buttgereit. The combination of these influences results in an artistically satisfying and courageous endeavor. Such is especially true when considering that these sights are set within the haunting, gorgeously gritty cinematography conducted by Babcock. This is also an undeniably potent display of the behind the lens capabilities Arruda and Babcock encompass. Their tough, taut and meticulously paced script, co-authored by Dave Orten, compliments these attributes splendidly. Arruda and Babcock utilize a uniquely fashioned, boldly constructed narrative. It is one that wisely leaves as much to the captivated psyche to ponder as it paints explicitly blood red. The team craft sparsely delivered, but authentic, dialogue. Such casts a painstaking eye for believability in all details of the effort. The plot, which contains just a touch of pulp, is gripping. Such makes the undertaking seamless; a deft exhibition of raw, uncompromising aptitude.
Arruda and Babcock chronicle an unexpected conflict that erupts with the introverted transvestite Harry Meyland. He is a psychotic maniac. More specifically, one who abducts and slaughters the women of the local Magdalene Escort Service. This act is made more dangerous by the fact that it is where he is employed. All the while, the near demonic sounding voice of his mother (exceptionally issued by Arruda) guides him along. Yet, he encounters a grave challenge. This is as Billy, who delights in the same fatal indulgences, takes Harry’s work into his own hands. What starts as a competition between Harry and Billy soon evolves into a strange affinity; one that is as strangely absorbing and twisted as the fiction itself.
The composition also benefits from other various components that are just as attention-garnering. Crystal Correa is phenomenal as Trisha. Geneve Lanouette is just as astounding in her turn as The Captive Woman. Carlo Barbieri III, Arruda and Kristen McNulty play Masked Figure 1-3 respectively. Their presence is unforgettable. They are seen fleetingly in an assembly of surprising instances which are heavily reminiscent of Bryan Bertino’s criminally underrated The Strangers (2008). Such apparently random illustrations hypnotically reinforce the brute, jarring strength of the visuals herein. A death sequence that transpires in the beginning minutes, worthy of Hitchcock in conception and delivery, only reaffirm this trait. Such is greatly enhanced by the slickly constructed editing Arruda and Babcock invoke.
Shot over the course of two years, this Zeta Wave Productions release is guaranteed to be a new favorite of fellow genre addicts. More importantly, it signifies the arrival of a tremendous pair of filmmakers. Both of whom have an obvious admiration for and wide-reaching knowledge of the history of moving picture terror. Best of all, they are equally versed in how to evoke fear and confidently, expertly project it on-screen. “Strawberry Lane” confirms this at every turn. The outcome of this is an astonishing tour de force; a brief affair that is far more satisfying, evocative and in-depth than most full-length exertions. That only offers further proof of their photographic command. Because of this, I greatly anticipate what gruesome marvels Arruda and Babcock bring to life in upcoming collaborations.