February is a movie as chilly as the month it’s named after. Set on the campus of a Catholic school over winter break, it takes place amidst blankets of cold, damp snow under sheets of sky colored either bone-white or pale gray. The color is desaturated and even daylight scenes seem to be floating through a haze of murk and shadow. Everything feels dreary and lifeless. If nothing else, the directorial debut of Osgood — son of Anthony — Perkins is one of the most convincingly “winter-y” movies I have seen.
And it isn’t just the scenery that is so icy. The people who populate this movie feel like they are walking through the tundra. Everyone is morose, glum, seemingly devoid of an emotional undercurrent beyond either sadness or complete numbness. This is a movie of voids wandering through the landscape, cold and cut off, isolated from themselves, their environment and each other.
Maybe that’s the point. This is a movie about isolation. Loneliness. There is a meaty, chewy subtext here about how being lonely, needing company, needing someone, anyone, to be there, only to have your advances rebuffed at every turn, can let the darkness creep in. To take over. To destroy you and everyone around you. There is stuff here, wanting to be discussed, bubbling under the surface. It’s unfortunate that the execution, the surface, leaves much to be desired.
There are slow burns. And then there is just slow. February doles out its revelations and scares in inches, building to revelations and violence, but it does so with too little energy, too little life. It aims for ratcheting up tension, but it more often than not flatlines. The moroseness only exacerbates matters. It is a movie with no life, torpid and benumbed, and horror needs a life. Horror is dark but vibrant and needs a beating heart to pump blood before it spills it. If the film is bloodless — and I don’t mean lacking in gore — then any attempts to scare us shrivel up and die.
I haven’t mentioned the plot yet. I can’t much. If I did, it would spoil the twists, and the movie already does that enough for you — it springs surprises, but it’s predictable and any halfway attentive viewer will guess each one coming, so that every revelation resounds with a shrug. I will say it is, ultimately, a possession movie. It is told non-linearly, cutting back and forth between two stories — in one, Bramford School students Kat (Kiernan Shipka, of Mad Men fame) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are left behind at school when their parents forget to pick them up. Rose is asked to look after freshmen Kat, and strange things begin to happen. Then there’s Emma Roberts as a skittish young woman, apparently escaped from a mental hospital and hitching a ride with a bickering middle aged couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly.)
It isn’t all bad, and makes you hope the best for Perkins’ next feature. Visually, it really captures the feel of a cold, Northern winter, and Perkins is an obviously confident craftsmen, playing with time and editing in ways that would be clever, had the script settled for less obviousness. The actors are good, particularly the lead actresses, who are all terrific — especially Roberts, who brings nuance to an obtuse role, though Shipka does her best despite being stuck with a character that’s alien and one-note from the beginning. Thanks to the actors, there are individual scenes that crackle with energy and electricity, but they are few and far between, and never cohere into a satisfying whole. February is possessed of a stultifying glumness. instead of doing things with the possession genre, it merely puts it on ice.
February isn’t the only possession tale to hit Fantastic Fest opening night. Marcin Wrona’s Polish-language Demon takes a wryer look at the subgenre, and successfully does more interesting things with it then the more formally experimental February does. Too bad it’s a bittersweet success — Wrona recently passed away at 42, only three films into his career, just days after his latest made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
One thing that separates Demon from a lot of the possession pack — and the generic title isn’t it — is the change of focus on the victim, putting the onus not on your usual tremulous young gal, but on a strapping young man — the handsome and likable Piotr (Itay Tiran), a London native who agrees to move to the small Polish hometown of his beloved Zaneta to marry her. The night before his wedding, Piotr is digging a hole for the pool he plans to install in the backyard of the ancestral family home bequeathed to the couple as a gift from her father, when he discovers a human skeleton. Shocked, Piotr falls into the hole and passes out — awakening the next day just in time to get ready for his wedding.
At first the event is boisterous and happy, but has the night progresses Piotr begins to see visions and act increasingly strangely, even frighteningly. At first, Zaneta and her brother blame it on too much alcohol, while her father suspects that Piotr may be secretly epileptic. But soon it becomes clear that the poor young man may be possessed of something worse — a spirit of Jewish folklore called a dybbuk.
Though it kicks off with a moment of foreboding as Piotr, on a ferry, spies what may either be a baptism or an exorcism at the waters edge as he passes, Demon isn’t really all about the scares. This slight, modest effort is more interested showing how the characters deal with Piotr’s sudden change from affable bloke to screaming, crying, back-bending nutter. Zaneta develops a steely determination to get to the bottom of everything, while her father attempts to ply his guests into a drunken stupor with free vodka, lest his community standing shrinks. Wrona delivers this dry humor and mild creeps, never one for a big scare or gnarly grossout. That keeps Demon from being truly great — it’s too unassuming, too timid to really grab your throat. And, by film’s end, Wrona works himself into a corner, as the climax seems to just outright give up, pushing narrative aside for an out-of-nowhere descent into schematic surrealness the film hasn’t earned.
Demon is a film that takes after its lead character, who is slim in physique and affable in spirit, someone you are inclined to root for. Demon may not have much meat on its bones, but damned if it isn’t at least a bit endearing and makes you wonder what Wrona could’ve done had he not passed away so soon.