Reviews Short Narrative

Photalgia (2020) – 1 star

Director: Michael McCallum

Writers: Wulf Hogan, Bobbi Newman, Eric Shalayko & Michael McCallum

Cast: William C. McCallum, Wulf Hogan, Michael McCallum, Bobbi Newman.

Running time: 6mins

For more information on Photalgia, visit the film’s IMDb page.

Fittingly, Photalgia takes its name from the pain the human eye feels resulting from exposure to bright light. Unfortunately, the pain it will cause viewers will not be confined to a simple corneal inflammation. Such is the strain which it will place on their little grey cells, desperately scratching around in a vain search for meaning it, that it will also leave them nursing a throbbing migraine, and quite possibly a nasty case of haemorrhoids.

It’s difficult to really explain just where it went wrong for Photalgia, but since what passes for a plot here is cyclical, we may as well start at the end. In the vein of schlock auteurs John De Hear, Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau before him, writer-director-producer-director-of-photography-editor-lead-actor-sound-effects-artist-craft-services-provider Michael McCallum names himself repeatedly throughout his film’s two-minute credit sequence. If that was not enough of a red flag for you, what comes next is truly chilling.

In October 2019, a murder suspect in Florida told police he killed three people on the orders of ‘God.’ Arguing he was “a prophet, not a serial killer,” the suspect was not the first, and sadly will not be the last to lay blame for something disgraceful at the door of the almighty. Illustrating this, the closing hours of McCallum’s credits sequence also contain a special thanks segment in which he duly exalts the big man-and-or-woman upstairs.

As for the meat of the movie itself, aside from two excellent shots of the full moon accompanied by the brooding buzz of electrical lighting, it consists of two slim vignettes which retread a near-identical story without progression. First, an elderly man in overalls (the director’s father, William C. McCallum) answers the door to self-important art critic Roger Mulkey (Wulf Hogan), who he proceeds to lure into his basement with the promise of non-descript “sculptures,” before going to town on him with a hacksaw and welding iron (perhaps I should scale back my criticism…)

It’s a bewildering sequence, not least because it is hard to understand why the preening and pretentious critic would be so willing to wander into a gruff and grimy stranger’s cellar – apparently without any proof there was art to be judged, or telling anybody where he was going. Even accounting for the suspension of disbelief which is necessary to buy into a character behaving in this way in your bog-standard horror flick, it is not executed well at all. We are given no chance to build any kind of relationship with the victim. Even if he isn’t sympathetic, we get no chance at all to see any kind of relatable human behaviour for him which would help us ignore his bizarre choice to descend into the world’s most obvious murder-hole.

Having dispatched his victim – a presumably gruesome act which it would have been too difficult and/or costly to go to the trouble of showing us – McCallum Senior takes a seat in a blackened room, next to an ominously flickering, buzzing lamp. It is admittedly an unnerving shot, well-constructed, and strange enough to capture our imaginations in among what has been a depressingly derivative film so far. Staring unblinkingly at the light, suddenly the killer is his younger self (played by McCallum Junior) – and for a second, there is a hint at some kind of potential here. Is this some kind of cycle, through which he can stave off his encroaching mortality, or some kind of flashback which will explain the hows and the whys behind his need to kill?

Sadly, neither option is adequately highlighted to help re-engage us with its highly pedestrian plot. McCallum’s killer simply goes through the same motions only younger – this time ensnaring a young woman credited simply as ‘Flower Child’ (Bobbi Newman) in his web of tedium. He dispatches her, hurriedly stows her away in a crudely built coffin, and returns to his bleak seat next to the house’s only working light. The two McCallums seem to look each other up and down in a classic two-shot, though the wide angle shows they are not together, suggesting some kind of internal reflection, but ultimately yielding nothing of import to the audience.

The closing shot is of the moon, accompanied by that same frenzied buzz from the electric lighting, and that’s literally it. We have traced a particularly aimless circle, and been left somehow feeling as though a film lasting the length of an average bowel movement could have wasted our time.

Just to be clear, a circular plot is a non-linear plot which should progress more or less chronologically, and ends with its protagonist returning to a situation similar to the one at the beginning of the story. It’s the kind of thing that filmmakers like the Coen brothers have mastered, and if you want to see plots where this works, their filmography should be your first port of call.

Photalgia is not a circular plot – it is an aimless and meandering yarn without anything in the way of progress, or remotely approaching a punch line. Whichever textbook McCallum drew his understanding of circular storytelling from, then, he should go to work on it with that blowtorch of his, before sealing the ashes away in a crate marked “unfit for human consumption.

A while ago, I scored Rolf Gunnar Hjalmarsson’s Bardo 1 star, because I found it difficult to imagine how such “a terminally lazy film” could have come into existence without being at least partially tongue-in-cheek. It is important to note that I do not think the writing of Photalgia is lazy, just incompetent. It’s not much of a positive, I know, but it’s a start. There were possibilities to have built a rich, intertwining narrative here – cyclical or otherwise – while the editing is snappy, and the cinematography creative enough that with better writing a film on this topic could conceivably work. It doesn’t though, and the issues which hold it back – its pacing, its lack of emotional impact, its lack of engaging dialogue – stem almost entirely from the story itself.

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