Laguna Ave, 2021.
Directed by David Buchanan.
Starring Dan Crane, Stephanie Brait, Jeff Hilliard, James Markham Hall Jr., Russell Steinberg, and Sheridan Ward.
A disaffected former musician with a prosthetic hand is drawn into the mysterious and sinister world of his downstairs neighbor.
Likely to be one of the more polarising films of this year’s Frightfest, Laguna Ave wears its rough-hewn conception on its sleeve to tell a disarmingly odd body horror tale that, despite its ambition, doesn’t quite cohere into a fully compelling whole.
The festival’s liner notes tout the film as the unruly bastard child of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and John Waters, and though the nods to Shinya Tsukamoto’s cult classic are apparent throughout, its DNA feels perhaps more aptly rooted in the stylings of early Kevin Smith and David Lynch.
One of the film’s first sights is more irreverent than its moody monochrome visuals might suggest; our protagonist, Russell (Russell Steinberg), taking a late-night protest dump in an office, set to peppy rock music. After losing his hand in a car accident, former musician Russell is struggling to find steady work, while also dealing with suspicions that his girlfriend Rita (Stephanie Brait) is cheating on him.
He’s also forced to contend with a mysterious downstairs neighbour, Gary (James Markham Hall Jr.), whose noisy after-hours predilections keep Russell awake at night. But Russell soon discovers that Gary isn’t merely an inconsiderate neighbour, instead offering him an extreme, transformative solution to his problems which may have wider, destructive implications for all of humanity.
Though it doesn’t always work, Laguna Ave is certainly a singular piece of work, convincing audiences to lower their guard with its laid-back, vaguely witty early character banter. There’s an undeniably slung-together, student film vibe to the affair in terms of both its occasionally overwritten dialogue and off-key performances, though this is compensated for somewhat by the well-defined weirdos at the core.
Examining Los Angeles and indeed America as a soulless cesspool will be a tireless well for satire until the end of time, and Paul Papadeas’ script absolutely conveys a solid sense of place in that regard; the young hopefuls keen to make it, the sleazy character actors, and the Adderall-hoofing agents again confirming that Hollywood is more a bellowing void than a land of opportunity.
But this story of a man trying to reclaim his humdrum life takes a sharp left-turn at the mid-way point into Tetsuo-inspired transhumanism, marking a fair tonal and aesthetic break from the more grounded first half. And though Buchanan doesn’t go nearly far enough with it – perhaps due to the obvious budgetary constraints – no film which features a character receiving a liquid LSD enema can really be dinged too much for its restraint.
Again, audiences are likely to be divided and beguiled by this film, unsure whether its more eccentric sights and line readings are supposed to be funny or not. James Markham Hall Jr.’s wildly campy performance as Russell’s technologically-enhanced neighbour Gary is seemingly the biggest hint that the movie is indeed largely in on the joke, though there are certainly moments where it feels like the execution doesn’t quite land.
The super-duper low budget does result in some charmingly daft VFX moments, though, and Buchanan deserves credit for a kaleidoscopic final sequence which, if nothing else, ends things on a hypnotic high. It’s tough to fault the film’s energy or its sensibly brief 80-minute runtime, yet it strikes several awkward tonal notes and doesn’t quite feel developed enough to carry itself through to the finish.
Laguna Ave wears its genre influences on its sleeve – namely Tetsuo: The Iron Man – though fails to deliver quite the same sense of giddy, inspired mayhem.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.