Sundance Review: TRASH FIRE

 

It’s hard to find good Gothic cinema these days. And I don’t mean the twee fey of Tim Burton – I’m talking grotesque, blackly humorous, and eviscerating works that examine the extreme darkness of humanity. Who would have known that this genre could be revived by a film about millennials with relationship issues? Leave it to Richard Bates Jr. to bring us a masterpiece in the form of TRASH FIRE.

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After seeing Excision several years ago, I’ve kept an eye on Richard Bates. His nihilistic, tonally various and visually gorgeous style is wholly unique in modern horror. I didn’t expect him to surpass his previous efforts with this film about a man who can’t deal with the death of his parents: in a fire that he thinks he started. When his girlfriend gets pregnant and threatens to leave him, however, he is forced to confront his past: literally. They take a high-stakes trip to his grandmother’s house, where his burned sister lives, so he can reconcile. But that’s the least of his worries.

The cast here is phenomenal. Adrian Grenier is repugnant and sympathetic at once, Angela Trimbur is empowering as his vulnerable but adamant girlfriend – but Fionnula Flanagan and Annalynne McCord truly shine as the family left behind. The former rivals Bette Davis for a Grand Guignol villain, and the latter is heartbreaking (but dangerous), the only character who has really done no wrong. Yet. Place all of these great actors in a creepy Southern house, add some snakes and fire and hallucinations, and you’ve got this film.

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It isn’t a horror movie in modern sense – it will not frighten or startle like a ghost story or survival flick. Instead, it attacks the mind, exploring very real situations with a vicious eye and finding the rot underneath. Bates reaches the heights of Robert Aldritch with his revelations, all without a supernatural occurrence. It’s Baby Jane meets Shirley Jackson meets Gen Y. This combination may not be ‘mainstream,’ but it’s all the more horrific because of that. The ending will leave you shaking and torn between morals.

Hearing Bates talk about his process after the Q&A only cemented my love for this movie. He is so passionate about these stories, and pours his own soul into them – which is why they feel so human. His personal touch makes these tales of terror touch the soul, finding their dread in humanity, but also their heart. Once the shock wore off, I felt a sense of deep melancholy – a feeling from which this film was born. I wanted to cry for these characters. That sense of catharsis and connection is the reason I love horror so much. It exposes these dark emotions in a way that we can examine and confront.

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Those who like their horror superficial can turn away now. But for a cathartic, gorgeous, funny and disturbing experience, TRASH FIRE won’t be surpassed. Bates has revived the true Gothic film – let’s hope it stays alive.

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