By Elias Savada.
An escalating madness is the center of the disturbing world of Luciferous, a slow boil screamer presented at this year’s Spookyfest. The normalcy of city life for young, intelligent professionals Alex and Mahsa, and their vibrant 7-year-old daughter Mina is stretched to the limits of sanity, as demons, whether real or imagined, beckon them to the edge of lunacy. Gums bleed, pets get lost or worse, and nightmares begin. The veneer of a calm, content, and happy family unit crumbles as paranoia and dread loom just around their high-rise apartment door jam, in the building’s ominously dark basement storage/dumpster area, or when entering a living room filled with unnerving, ghostly beings. Don’t ask how the 35 wine glasses got there. Without noticing, you have journeyed off the edge of your seat.
The subtlety (yes, subtlety) of this debut feature from the husband-wife team Alex Gorelick and Mahsa Ghorbankarimi, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it (yes, with their 7-year-old daughter Mina) is masked in the film’s creeping edginess, its short, segmented editing style, and the fly-on-the-wall observational approach. Alex’s routine suffers the family’s first portent of misery when he is apparently assaulted while on a run in the woods, suffering a memory-losing head injury that grows into a menacing, months-long deterioration instead of the expected recovery. Eventually the entire family ends up hospitalized with unexplainable maladies. The clipped structure forces you to gather more information about the characters and surroundings (within the limited storyline) as the camera picks up pieces of their daily lives. Swimming (bad idea). Driving (not pleasant). Vlogging (what the heck is happening to me!).
This multi-hyphenate and multi-cultural (she’s a Muslim from Tehran, he’s a Jew from the former Soviet Union) family filmed the project in their Toronto apartment. A nice, easy commute over the course of the two years they took off from successful careers in the world of animation (Alex in stop motion work, Mahsa in lighting and compositing), to forge this family-and-friends supported effort. Among other household members behind the camera are Mahsa’s brother, Mohammad “Mo” Ghorbankarimi, the film’s cinematographer, and his wife, Nassim Azadi, the sound engineer. Mahsa’s parents, Mahvash Tehrani and Hosseinali Ghorbankarimi, served as the film’s script supervisor and production manager, respectively.
There are no special effects here, other than some photographic edits that suggest an added, eerie uneasiness. These visual artifacts change the imagery just enough to up the anxiety quotient. There’s very little use of music, and the low key sound design, often a bass decibel drone, adds to the spiraling disquiet.
Poltergeist? Ghosts? Group hysteria? Fracking? (No, just throwing that into the mix, trying to lighten things up.). Chemical and hormonal imbalances? Or, as Alex believes, “This apartment is FUCKED!” Well, I won’t say, but it is a real creepy experience the family is sharing with the viewer. Luciferous adeptly blends irritable characters, mesmerizing and unsettling images (and shadows), red herrings, and some harrowing episodes that will disturb. There are also more than a few WTF didn’t-see-that-coming surprises (particularly late in the film).
In Luciferous, things go bump in the cold, wintry night just as much as they do in the overcast light of day. There’s an authentic feel to the film you are unlikely to find in anything else of recent memory. This home grown invasive horror film offers a work of intense dismay that will make you question the trust we too easily place on ourselves and on our friends.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.