By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
While certainly not everyone’s bucket of fried chicken, is a wildly creative reflection of life, love and the real threat of losing our souls – and our dreams – to the corporate, capitalist machine.”
Premiering earlier in the year at Sundance and making its Canadian premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, Strawberry Manson was co-written and co-directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, with Audley in the starring role as a soulless tax collector in a rainbow-coloured anachronistic dystopian future who, thanks to a neon helmet and true love, has his eyes opened to the reality he lives in by escaping into a fantasy dreamscape. It was, without any hesitation, Audley’s name that first drew me to this film, with the striking promotional stills accompanying it really the icing on the cake. While having established an impressive filmography as a director, writer, and actor already, for myself Audley’s name is instantly synonymous with the two directorial features of Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (2012) and, more recently, She Dies Tomorrow (2020).With Audley co-starring alongside fellow long-time Seimetz collaborator Kate Lyn Shiel, it is in Sun Don’t Shine in particular that Audley consolidated his enormously strong place in my memory as a creative to watch, becoming one of those names that will instantly draw me to a project based solely on his involvement alone. As a key, driving figure both in front of and behind the camera in the extremely un-Seimetz-like Strawberry Mansion, once again, Audley does not disappoint.
Strawberry Mansion concerns the corruption of our dreams, both literally and figuratively. Drenched to its rococo core with complex and increasingly frenzied imagery, the film’s fantastic conceit will either irk or charm, with little room in between for alternate reactions. For those of us who fall firmly into the latter category, Strawberry Mansion is a film to admire not just for its psychedelic aesthetic delirium, but also for its pure moxie, its gleeful embrace of the very idea of filmmaking itself, and the socialist thematic core that lies at its unabashed romantic heart. And from its opening moments alone, Strawberry Mansion comes out fighting. We begin in a small kitchen that has been painted completely bright pink (echoes of the use of that color in J. Lee Thompson’s What a Way to Go! with Shirley MacLaine from 1964 are surely not coincidental here). In sharp contrast, a drained looking man wearing a conservative, retro-styled suit collapses with stomach pain, falling in slow motion; it is only when a friendly, Hawaiian shirt-clad buddy appears (to the sound of heralding angels on the soundtrack, no less) wielding a bucket of fried chicken to assuage the hunger pains that things begin to look up. “You can count on me!” his perky friend assures him, as they sit at the pink table in the pink room and enjoy their meal.
This dream belongs to the man in the suit, a government bureaucrat called James Preble, played by Alder himself. The particular positioning of Cap’n Kelly fried chicken is no small detail in his dream; in fact, in this curious anachronistic dystopian vision of the future, dreams are sponsored by corporations and heavily branded. They are also taxed by the government for whom Preble works, and it is his job as a kind of dream auditor to charge the required taxable amounts for the various content that turns up in everyone’s dreams, which are recorded en masse for this precise purpose. It is this that leads him to Bella (Penny Fuller), a kind, older artist who lives in the pink-coloured house of the film’s title. She has, effectively, reported herself for dream tax evasion, which leads Preble to her door. Despite using an older, videotape-like format that is now out of date, Preble attempts to neutralize Bella’s generous, welcoming hospitality so he can get down to work and provide a fiscal report of amounts owed, based on these dream recordings. But, as Bella soon tells him, the reason she wanted him there was not about the tax – she just wanted someone to share her dreams with.
It is in between his time with the older Bella in what is loosely presented as ‘reality’ and a younger version of herself (played by Grace Glowicki) that Preble himself begins to change. Learning from the older woman not only the fact that dreams contain branded content (something that, while pervasive, has gone broadly unnoticed) but also how to make your dreams commodification-proof, Preble undertakes an emotional, romantic, and ideological transformation. With the film increasingly drifting away from the already pretty wobbly notion of ‘reality’ that it begins with, the final third of the film in particular veritably explodes in a fantasy narrative as he and young Bella run wild, their imaginations freed from corporate control and, with their hearts left to their own devices, they are able to connect in a way that for Preble is completely life-altering.
Strawberry Mansion takes place in a hazy daydream world, a dayglo wild, weird fantasy land, albeit one with a dark underbelly. This is a slightly cracked, faded vision of Americana where brand signage is aplenty, but so too is isolation – a rainbow fantasyland where Marx’s theory of alienation is tucked into every nook and cranny that seemingly exists outside the doors of Bella’s candy pink house. And yet, despite the America-specific nature of the film, it is the British series The Mighty Boosh and its equally unhinged, wholly liberated palette of strange imaginary creatures in strange imaginary scenarios that feels just as embedded into the core of Strawberry Mansion; like the cult Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett series, there is even a creepily wonderful videotape monster in Strawberry Mansion, highly reminiscent (if not a direct reference to) Rich Fulcher’s Betamax Bandit from the 2005 Boosh episode, “The Priest and the Beast”. But there is nothing derivative here; Birney and Audley have their own vision and go their own way in this extraordinary film that, while certainly not everyone’s bucket of fried chicken, is a wildly creative reflection of life, love and the real threat of losing our souls – and our dreams – to the corporate, capitalist machine.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.