The Blazing World, 2021.
Directed by Carlson Young.
Starring Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, John Karna, Liz Mikel, Sophia Bernard, Josie Fink, Lillie Fink, Ace Anderson, and Soko.
Decades after the accidental drowning of her twin sister, a self-destructive young woman returns to her family home, finding herself drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive.
It would be disingenuous to say that The Blazing World is all style and no substance. However, there is an overwhelming amount of style drowning out co-writer/director Carlson Young’s (also starring in the lead role, she has based the dreamlike hallucinogenic trip on a combination of her dreams, her short film of the same name, and the novel by Margaret Cavendish) themes regarding childhood trauma, depression, and grieving loss. Fortunately, in losing her grip on the film narratively and somewhat emotionally (the performances and visuals are enough to generate a reaction, but once the casting of the spell is over the story and script leave a lot to be desired on further analysis), Carlson Young doesn’t stumble into an insensitive portrayal of these mental health concerns. A graphic depiction? Yes, but nothing that feels false or dishonest.
Admittedly, the first 40 minutes or so of The Blazing World are a lumbering drag. Aside from a prologue of Margaret and her twin sister Elizabeth as children that establishes the aforementioned trauma, the story simply takes too much time getting to its implied alternate dimension (that, really, is bursting with so much Alice in Wonderland imagery there is a response of disbelief that Lewis Carroll is not among the listed credits). As for the trauma, that is inflicted when parents Tom and Alice (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw, respectively) get into an argument that spirals into domestic abuse, doubling as negligence considering Elizabeth falls and drowns inside the family swimming pool. Simultaneously, a creepy Udo Kier appears, seemingly inviting Margaret to another world (standing by a dimensional portal).
Flash forward to the present day, Margaret is a slacking college student sponging up crockpot television theorizing about the possibilities of alternate dimensions and time travel. Her parents are also getting ready to sell their countryside manor, encouraging one final visit and saying goodbye to the place she presumably lived most of her entire life. Immediately as Margaret arrives, there’s a sense that something is off with the parents; mom is neurotic, and dad seems to be having a breakdown while sorting through household valuables. This is followed up by a far-too-long stretch of Margaret hanging out with friends and taking some acid, inevitably bringing her into a warped version of her own reality.
The inside of the manor now resembles a haunted house, complete with smoke filters, neon-smothered lighting, and all-around darkly fantastical production design that’s both striking to look at and hugely impressive factoring in whatever shoestring budget Carlson Young was given. There is also a playful approach to the visuals, winkingly aware that some aspects (especially the CGI) are a relic from another place in time. Sound design comically uses loud noises in conjunction with crash zooms. Carlson Young also appears to be intentionally given a forced performance that works in tandem with this cheesy horror charm (as a result, her acting is actually decent and endearing).
Watching The Blazing World also brought to mind that piece of garbage Malignant, if only because Carlson Young appears to be going for a similar campy, B-movie vibe. The difference is that, outside of characterization, she remains in full control of her vision as an assault on the senses. In contrast, James Wan had no focus and was all over the map in terms of genre and tone until the grand reveal, which is what all 120 minutes of that movie should have been. Here, creative choices seem to have been made about how the film will be executed in reality versus the dark recesses of her mind. There’s a consistency that makes the experience immensely more digestible, even in slower parts.
Comparisons aside, inside the eerie and decrepit take on the mansion, Margaret is confronted by Udo Kier’s Lained (he’s having a blast going for weird eccentricity with an undercurrent of dangerous insanity), who, like someone out of a video game, explains that if Margaret goes into three different doors containing particular challenges and retrieves a special key from each, she will be able to unlock another area where she’ll be reunited with Elizabeth. Like additional portals, Margaret is taken to a desert, a nightmarish depiction of her childhood bedroom, and the unknown. Each locale is as hypnotically crafted as the mansion itself, although the other appeal to these sequences is the tense situations that arise from trying to find and escape with the key. Again, it’s not unlike a video game, and perhaps that’s another reason I remained invested. It’s rare for a horror movie to take on the form of survival horror with such an effective atmosphere.
Carlson Young (writing alongside Pierce Brown) definitely could have reworked parts of The Blazing World for flow and found more substance inside the characters (there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the ending, but it doesn’t leave an impression beyond the point of the matter). She has settled for style over substance, which is allowable when the work is this entrancing. It’s an imaginative twisted fable with idiosyncratically memorable performances and an undeniably unsettling, trippy sheen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com