Neuchatel 2023 Review: PANDEMONIUM, New Vision of the Afterlife

Quarxx directed; Ophélia Kolb, Hugo Dillon, and Arben Bajraktaraj star in 'three supernatural stories about the gruesome exploration of lost souls and the tragedy of everyday life.'

Contributing Writer; Chicago, IL (@anotherKyleL)
Neuchatel 2023 Review: PANDEMONIUM, New Vision of the Afterlife

The first third or so of writer/director (as well as painter and photographer) Quarxx’s new film Pandemonium feels almost like a stage play.

Nathan (Hugo Dillon) wakes up in the middle of a winding mountain road and is shocked to find himself unhurt after a car and motorcycle accident. Daniel (Arben Bajraktaraj), who was on the motorcycle, has already been up for a while; he died instantly, unlike Nathan, and takes it upon himself to explain to Nathan that they are dead.

Their conversation plays over some familiar territory for fiction about the afterlife. Nathan goes through denial before facing his corpse, there are questions of how much they can interact with the physical world, and, of course, questions of whether they will face judgment for their mortal actions.

The intense gray fog and harsh rock of the setting and the ominous low end ambient score add a sense of doom to these scenes. In moments of stress, Quarxx moves the camera chaotically through the space, making significant use of zooms. It’s a formal combination that works well to instill both a frantic and diffuse anxiety in the audience.

But things get more interesting when two doors appear on the road on either side of the men, beckoning them to their heavenly or hellish afterlives. It’s with these doors that Pandemonium shifts into something that will likely be a major “in or out” moment for audiences. We follow one of the men through the door to hell, and there he discovers a barren landscape littered with corpses, corpses that offer him a vision of their sins when he touches them.

At this point, Pandemonium essentially becomes an anthology film. Significant portions of the runtime are dedicated to telling stories about these other souls in hell, but it’s not exactly clear how they ended up here, and as with all anthologies some segments are better than others.

The first (or is it second?) segment centers on the young Nina (Manon Maindivide) who lives in a gothic mansion with her parents and younger sister. There are all the classic images of gothic horror; long shadows, candelabras, and large staircases abound, but it’s not a period story. In fact, there are short scenes of interviews with Nina that have a distinct digital grain and are shot found-footage style. It’s more fascinating and bewildering than effective in any specific way, but it marks the film’s transformation into something stranger than what its opening scenes promised.

Nina’s story follows her as she and her (likely imaginary) friend Tony (Carl Laforêt) attempt to make the best of their life in the giant house after the death of her parents. But questions remain about their death, and whether or not Nina played a role in it.

The other short segment follows Julia (Ophélia Kolb), who discovers her daughter’s corpse after she has died by suicide. This segment hops around in time, showing the brutal bullying that daughter Chloé (Sidwell Weber) experienced and Julia’s lack of empathy for her daughter, and the aftermath of Chloé’s death as Julia refuses to accept her death and speaks to the corpse as if her daughter were still alive. This story isn’t as interesting as the previous two stories, but one scene of bullying is the most viscerally upsetting sequence in the film, and that’s worth something.

Pandemonium looks great throughout, both in the macro, with its crisp cinematography, and micro, with a brief appearance from a computer-generated creature that has an amazing design and a number of fantastic practical effects masks. There are some shockingly brutal moments that are effectively deployed. And it’s clearly got some bones to pick with the whole eternal judgment thing.

Mostly though, it’s hard to pin down; whether that sounds like a compliment or a complaint is up to you.

The film screens at the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival this week. 

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Arben BajraktarajFranceHugo DillonNeuchatel International Fantastic Film FestivalOphélia Kolb

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