Two strangers meet in the woods, in an area well known for one thing in particular. Much like Aokigahara in Japan people come to these woods in Portugal for one reason, to commit suicide. After bumping into each other, the pair belay their deaths and explore the forest to see what they can find. The two of them begin to bond, however, one of them isn’t who they appear to be.
Whenever we were asked what ScreenAnarchy’s previous incarnation was in its early days the best way we could describe it was we were where the Arthouse meets the Grindhouse. A film like José Pedro Lopes' The Forest of Lost Souls is an embodiment of that description, a genre story that is set against the backdrop and to the energy of the art house genre. Like other art house horror contemporaries The Eyes of My Mother and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night they all share the same sense of pacing, tone and direction.
The first thing you will notice about The Forest of Lost Souls is how visually striking it is. Like those other two films Lopes shot his film in black and white, so there is a great visual appeal but it also imposes a heavier tone to his film. Devoid of color and visual cues to cheer us up as the second half of the film comes about that sense of looming dread is maintained with the muted tones. When Lopes and I talked about his film he cited Andrei Tarkovsky, and that filmmaker’s choice of very wide cinematography, as an influence in his directing decisions.
Then, half an hour in, Lopes reveals the psycho killer.
In his debut film Lopes presents to us a contemporized killer, one that can exist in the every day. One that lives in your neighbourhood, even next door. One with enough tech savvy that they use a victim’s cellphone to corral together the next ones, and create their alibi. Here is a killer that we will not be able to separate from reality. This becomes all the more unsettling when we follow Lopes’ killer throughout the epilogue.
The end result is a psycho killer film that is a slow burn effort that culminates with a rash of victims near the very end. Immediately it defies a convention in the psycho killer genre - kill early and kill often - and continues to linger in the second half, making us beg for the killings to commence.
After a follow-up viewing I came to a conclusion that Lopes skipped another convention of the psycho killer genre, that one where victim realization eventually leads to confrontation with the killer. Lopes has eliminated a third act from his film where a victim, or victims, rally against the killer. Whether out of necessity or by choice this may frustrate purists. Psycho killer films usually rely on a final confrontation but Lopez’s film does not focus so much on his victims. As much as he fleshes most of them out for us and humanizes them adequately, he divides attention between them and his psycho killer, who is silently stalking their prey.
There is a chasm of unawareness between the killer and their victims in the second half. This omniscient narrative for the viewer though can be terrifying because the victims never have a clue what is going on outside their door as the killer patiently wait for night to fall. Lopes simply eggs us along as we catch glimpses of the psycho killer stalking their next victims, patiently waiting for night to come. It will be unnerving as hell.
The violence is quick and savage, yet intimate. It is not aiming for gore and shock but the feel of real-life violence. Understanding some physical limitations of his psycho killer (read - not a supernatural psycho like those in the 80s) Lopes admittedly had to rethink how his killer dispatched their victims, which helps keep it further grounded in the realm of the possible and uncomfortably real.
There are unanswered questions, the killer’s motivations and reasons for one, because we always want to know why they do it. Isn’t it why we call them psychos in the first place? You see, here the point is not the why but the whom. There is a little bit of the how thrown in there that will resonate in our digital age, and I cannot say enough how this has contemporized this quick little horror film.
Fans of the art house horror genre, like the examples mentioned earlier in this review, will find much to like in Lopes’ feature film debut.
(The Forest of Lost Souls had its world premiere yesterday on home turf in Portugal at the Fantasporto International Film Festival.)
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