I flirted with visual effects after stalling post-high school for a couple of years. I wound up moving to Orlando, Florida while I went to a school called Full Sail. Take a look around a couple of movie websites and you’re bound to see their ads. They sold themselves as a cutting edge music, film and digital media school that fast tracked degrees but it turned out that they were the media equivalent of ITT Tech with a killer marketing team. Things may be different these days, but I graduated with a degree that was heavily tuned for CD ROM multimedia at a time when the web was rapidly replacing the need for CDs. Get my drift?
It’s not all bad, though. One of my good friends from those days went out to Hollywood and wound up lead compositor on some big-ass blockbuster pictures like the Pirates of the Carribean sequels and the last Terminator. The school also produced director Adam Wingard who has been turning out a range of narcotic nightmares since 2004. Pop Skull is my first trip into Wingard’s world and it turns out that it’s a shrine to the possibilities of the genre.
Daniel’s life kind of sucks these days. He ingests a galaxy of pills, both over the conter and prescription, in obscene quantities. His girlfirned, the one, broke up with him to date some douche bag actor. He’s slipping away from sanity, minute by minute and he may or may not be haunted by the ghosts of two murderous brothers and their victim. Pop Skull is a portrait of loneliness, desperation and drug-induced psychosis.
I hate to wheel out adjectives like Lynchian and Kafkaesque while reviewing a movie like this because this typically implies that the reviewer has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Usually, those flowery terms suggest that I’ve just watched some surreal piece of arthouse that doesn’t really care if I’m following it or not but it’s still up to me to sort it all out so I can spend a thousand words telling you whether or not you should see it. So let me cut this short and just make it plainly obvious without evoking David Lynch or Franz Kafka.
Yes. You should see Pop Skull.
Kafka isn’t exactly the right name to bring up. What’s happening in Pop Skull is a lot more like A Scanner Darkly had it been written by Stephen King. All of the Phillip K. Dick hallmarks are there. It’s a winding, hallucinatory tale that only occasionally pulls the veil aside to show the greater plan at work in reality yet at the same time comes off like The Shining with its chicken or the egg approach to the horror set up. Is Daniel prone to his fate because of the drugs and overwhelming sadness or does it have more to do with history of the property and the horrific events that transpired? To worsen matters, Wingard’s script flies off the rails where it becomes impossible to orient yourself in the framework of the story. Ordinarily, this would sink a movie, but the entirety of Pop Skull is out to take you down with it.
The David Lynch comparison is still intact, though. Wingard’s direction and editing absolutely screams modern-era David Lynch! It’s a fractured style that tales no prisoners. Pop Skull even warns you as it begins that it’s not for people prone to seizures. It’s not kidding, either. Wingard utilizes rapid successions of flashing colors and double images to disorient you and put you in the shoes of Daniel; and it works! The end result is consciousness-altering horror movies that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Though, stylistically, it rings of David Lynch, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s an outstanding piece of drug addled southern gothic that also reminds me, at times, of the writing of Poppy Z. Brite, minus all the dudesex.
The film sports an adequate cast that is obviously wise to the local Louisiana culture. Though, they won’t be winning any awards any time soon, they have that twenty-something lethargy that I’m intimately familiar with having experienced it, myself, in an albeit much further northern setting. They’re still technically kids with nothing to do and the hopelessness and boredom of their surroundings drives them to drugs and alcohol out of sheer desperation for some kind of amusement.
Pop Skull isn’t for everyone, though. It’s not your typical horror movie and even though it is fairly violent and spooky, it’s missing a lot of the hallmarks that would make this a crossover success. It is wildly experimental with what a horror movie can be and takes the genre to interesting places. True psychedelia and surrealism in horror is hard to come by and this one leaps over any expectations you may have about spooky and trippy combining in one movie. It even crosses over into other Wingard films, making obvious references to his previous film, Homesick. If you’re like me and you’re a horror fan with a mind open wide, you’re going to find a lot of reward in Pop Skull.