Reviews Short Narrative

Odyssey of the Disturbed (2019) – 0.5 stars

Director: Dean Houlihan

Writers: Dean Houlihan

Cast: Dan Vaughan, Alan Mcloughlin, Nedra Cullen-O’Brien, Laurajane Sherlock, Holly Ruth Bailey

Running time: 13 mins

There are many things filmmakers need to do to avoid the wrath of the critics lying in wait to sythe their creation in two – but only one they really need take heed of when distributing. The most golden rule: “Thou shalt flog thine product honestly.” Film festivals and cinemas will not fall for any stunt you pull to dress something up as more than it seems, and some will feel actively lied to, making it harder to interface with them in coming years. In future, it is a rule Dean Houlihan, the man almost exclusively behind Odyssey of the Disturbed, would do well to abide by more closely.

When something bills itself as being an “80s inspired horror film”, I am being invited to think of a gore-laden golden age for the genre. 80s horror conjures images of some unspeakable portion of The Thing scuttling about in the shadows; Bub letting forth a howling moan as he tries to understand his remaining scraps of humanity; Freddy Krueger stalking the hallways of a dimly lit school after-hours. 80s horror does not connote several ageing teens larking about in a sunny park, bouncing wadded up paper off each other for laughs, or palling about in a day-lit pub while families with push-chairs arrive for their Sunday lunch.

It’s not just that Odyssey of the Disturbed fails to tap into the mise-en-scène of your traditional horror fare.  The plot to the film is tenuous enough that Houlihan seems to have somewhat cynically slapped the word “experimental” on its marketing too. Let’s be clear, this might be nonsensical enough to pass for a fever-dream, but “experimental” it is not. The film makes clear attempts to fulfil traditional narrative criteria – presumably before someone tapped its Writer/Director/Editor/Head-Chef/Chief-of-Police on the shoulder during editing and said, “Mate, this doesn’t make a lick of sense.” His response? Easy – just call it “experimental”!

As a result, 95% of the film’s content is utterly devoid of any meaning, let alone a meaning that approaches being scary. The characters are the avatars of a bumbling inconsequentiality that sees the film routinely side-tracked. At the very beginning, we encounter a clown-mask which presumably could be found at the local fancy-dress shop ahead of Halloween. It growls, and vanishes – permanently – as we discover this was the dream sequence of a school girl. She awakes in a plume of smoke that, rather than giving off some eerie otherworldly effect, gives off the vibe that somebody’s vape pen is malfunctioning close by.

She becomes our framing device for what little action then unfolds. Maybe the things we see are the product of her ‘overly active’ imagination – writing about her exceedingly dull class-mates – maybe they are real. It literally makes no difference, because the things which may be imaginary are so painfully vanilla, as an audience we begin to daydream something more ambitious as a result.

One curly-haired kid, who comes as close as anyone to being the protagonist, has a nice wholesome time with a girl he meets in an excruciating segment that seems to last six hours. The edgy kid (great showing-not-telling; he has a denim-vest, bum-fluff on his face and a ponytail to show he’s clearly not to be messed with!) goes to the arcade and wins at Pac-Man. Then he hangs out with his girlfriend and gets a kiss. None of this seems to offer up anything to justify the film’s “experimental horror” billing.

Call that a knife?

In fact, perhaps the scariest thing about this sequence is that you begin to wonder if it will ever end. “Will I be trapped forever in this endless circle of fuzzy, flu-like dreams?” you begin to worry. That’s why, when the edgy character ‘threatened’ curly, I had to actively pinch myself. Was I hallucinating action in this film? Was I imagining the fact he was jokingly menacing our protagonist with a… with a flip-comb?

Aside from this gritty portrayal of gang-violence between modern youth, however, Odyssey of the Disturbed soon lurches away from so-bad-its-good territory, and back into its earlier, distracted rhythm. That rhythm of young people hanging about in the tamest and most sterile of locations, and looking bored that there’s not really much to do.

An ending materialises, mercifully, though it seems utterly divorced on what little story or character development came before. It almost doesn’t feel part of the movie – like some merciful film god has taken note of the suffering this film has inflicted upon any audience it has incidentally found. A man takes an excessively watery piss on a copy of The Third Man and is summarily stabbed in the neck by one of our lead characters.

This is actually the only moment I will single out for something approaching praise. It might be a clumsily executed act of Tarrantino-esque violence directed at ‘the enemies of cinema’ – but at least 1. It is loosely horror orientated, and 2. It shows a flitter or ambition. The filmmaker had an idea and he tried to realise it on screen. We have a pulse! We have signs of life after all!

I don’t mean that in a patronising “well done for trying” sense, either. I can relate to what happened here because I know being self-taught as a filmmaker is hard. You see, I did my homework on Dean Houlihan. His bio on FilmFreeway for example states that he “has been passionate about filmmaking since 2008 at the age of 14 when he began making short films with his friends on a cheap camcorder.”

Unfortunately, from the state of Odyssey of the Disturbed, his filmmaking hasn’t evolved much past that; mucking about with mates and a camcorder. However, if taken outside of the slap-dash mess of the rest of the film, there is at least one thematic idea that – while poorly realised – shows a capacity for something more interesting. While this particular effort was dead on arrival, then, Dean Houlihan has something in there. If he can learn to focus that, and build a film around it, maybe he can evolve beyond that.

Sometimes we need to be cruel to be kind. If someone is going to hone their craft, they need to be told in no uncertain terms that critics, festivals and – most importantly of all – audiences are not going to enjoy frittering away time on what their group of mates did while screwing around with a JVC over the weekend. Treat people viewing your film with some respect, and either come back with a more focused, planned and streamlined approach; or refrain from slapping “horror” and “experimental” labels on the same amateur output you’ve been producing since 2008.

Are you a filmmaker looking for independent professional feedback like this? For honest, straightforward opinions and constructive insight into how you can improve your work, submit your work to Indy Film Library on FilmFreeway now.

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