Horrors of the mind and body were in strong supply at Sydney, Australia’s recent A Night of Horror and Fantastic Planet film festivals. American indie effort Ayla and German/Canadian co-production Replace are two vivid examples.
Ayla is the latest from Elias, writer of Dark (2015) and writer/director of Gut (2012). He handled both scripting and helming duties here, delivering an offbeat character study of a man obsessed by the death of his sister when they were children. Elton (Nicholas Wilder, who co-starred in Gut) has the support of his loving girlfriend Alex (Sarah Schoofs, another Gut co-star), his mother Susan (genre film legend Dee Wallace), and his younger brother James (D’Angelo Midili); however, he is haunted by the death at four years old of his young sister Ayla. He has been obsessed with the life she could have had, and that he could have had with her, to the point of cutting himself as a way to deal with his psychological pain.
Susan had moved on long before, but Elton cannot do that. In a supernatural turn, he brings Ayla to life as an adult (Tristan Risk). She cannot or does not speak, but the two siblings form a disturbingly close bond. His mother and brother refuse to accept that this new stranger is indeed Ayla, and as Eliot pushes himself further away from his family and girlfriend, events become increasingly chilling.
Ayla is a dark, sometimes disturbing meditation on grief and loss. Dread and gloom permeate the film as Elias focuses on psychological horror rather than visceral shocks, and on presenting a mood piece rather than a traditional narrative. The cast all turn in solid performances — including genre film stalwart Bill Oberst Jr. as two different motel employees — with Wilder standing out as a troubled man who becomes more unhinged as his lifelong desire to be reunited with his dead sister drives him ever further away from those who love him. Jeremy Berg’s cinematography puts viewers right at the heart of matters in an unwavering, unflinching manner, and Chad Bernhard’s brooding score is a fine fit for the proceedings.
German director Norbert Keil’s Replace is a bold, brash, and confrontational film that tackles the psychological fears of aging, how different factors of society play into that, and what some people are willing to do to avoid looking older. Rebecca Forsythe gives a bravura performance as Kira Mabon, a young woman who fears getting old, and who wakes up one morning in a mentally clouded state to find herself living in what she thought was the apartment of a man she went home with the night before, though others insist it is her long-time home. Her neighbor Sophia Demereaux (Lucie Aron) tries to help her with her seemingly lost memories, announcing her love for her in the bargain. Dr. Rafaela Crober (genre favorite Barbara Crampton in a gripping performance) treats Kira for her troubling skin condition, but the latter cannot remember her visits to the doctor’s mysterious clinic.
Kira accidentally discovers a way to temporarily heal her skin condition, which involves using the skin of either a living person or a very fresh corpse. It’s hard to imagine that many willing living donors would exist, so Kira must find victims on her own.
Keil co-wrote Replace with genre film maverick Richard Stanley, and the two have crafted a story that borrows from Cronenbergian body horror and classic 1950s and 1960s science fiction and horror movies, but that serves up a unique and alarmingly timely slice of cinema. Viewers are as in the dark about the early events of the film as Kira is, but as the film’s mysteries unravel, the ride winds up being a rewarding one.
Keil directs with a fearless hand, and his use of neon and shadows creates a cold, sterile, yet oddly beautiful world. Replace ruminates on the beauty of the human form and unsettles with graphic scenes of body horror. Keil balances the horror and science fiction elements masterfully, and gets the most out of his top-notch cast. Replace has a few predictable tropes to it, but overall it is a daring piece of filmmaking that deserves to find a wide audience.
Ayla and Replace screened at the A Night of Horror and Fantastic Planet film festivals, held November 29–December 3 in Sydney, Australia.