Reviews Short Narrative

The Dandelion Cortex (2020) – 4.5 stars

Director: Nico Fulton Lavachek

Writers: Nico Fulton Lavachek

Cast: Sarah Doerner, Susanna Matza, Tara Kaye Burgh, James Warfield, Ryan Kearton

Running time: 22mins

Contrary to what some of you might think, my favourite experience as a critic is not eviscerating someone over a piece of work I found to be sub-standard. Rather, the absolute apex of my time assessing other people’s films has come from seeing the progression in the craft of the fledgling filmmakers I have reviewed. Not only have the likes of Dia Taylor, Christopher Beauchamp, Xavier Wehrli and Sam E. Flanagan taken my occasionally heavy-handed criticism in good faith – in a way I often doubt I would manage were I on the other end of the process – they have taken on board the flaws I have picked up on to bounce back as stronger artists.

While Nico Fulton Lavachek might have evaded the more savage chewing out which those filmmakers received, I am so happy to include him among their ranks, as a returning filmmaker who has demonstrated a clear and exciting evolution in his unfolding filmography. In my write-up of Lavachek’s previous effort, Blaze Beat Jitters –  which eventually went on to win the Audience Choice Award at our Student Shorts Showcase (shows what I know) – I suggested that he needed to be more restrained in his filmmaking, having bitten off slightly more than he could chew, while learning to box clever with a limited budget.

The Dandelion Cortex is a resounding response to those critiques; it is an innovative, imaginative and startling film – the likes of which it seems inconceivable the director behind a feel-good musical comedy would have made. The strange and unsettling universe Lavachek has crafted here suggests he has the knack for the kind of diverse filmmaking which makes John Carpenter, John Landis and Edgar Wright such intriguing directors; capable of consistently wrong-footing his audience in terms of what they will expect from them next.

With regards to avoiding biting off more than can be chewed, the move into horror is inspired here, partially because it is a genre which thrives on the un-seen. Quinn (the impeccable Sarah Doerner) lays dying alongside the body of her younger sister Bunny (Susanna Matza), amid the burning wreckage of her house following a gas explosion. While this might sound ambitious for a student film to carry off, we only see exactly the things we need to know the vague back-story. We can see and hear the roar of a blazing fire, we are shown shrapnel impaling Quinn’s hand leaving her with a kind of infernal stigmata, and we see Bunny’s unblinking body staring back at her as Quinn cries for forgiveness.

Quinn soon loses consciousness from this living hell, only for her guilty mind to find itself trapped in a labyrinthine nightmare. Initially we assume she feels responsible for Bunny’s death – but as the story unfolds, her regrets seem less and less benign. As a result of this, having fed on her guilt and anger for years, the darkest corner of her mind entraps her in a series of sickening tests. The first of these is a ‘funeral,’ at which Quinn delivers a heart-felt eulogy before another of the attendees (Tara Kaye Burgh) delivers an infuriating monologue suggesting she knew Bunny better, as she had seen her dark side. Initially, we can see the blurred outline of other figures sitting with Quinn as she grimaces through the speech, but as the Pastor (James Warfield) finally implores us to pray for Quinn, these vague figures are nowhere to be seen. It leaves us vicariously feeling as though the rug has been pulled from under our feet, and this secure and familiar scenario taking place in public has suddenly left us exposed and alone.

While this demonstrates an excellent awareness of how to build an unnerving psychological scare without resorting to jump-tactics, it also stands in stark contrast to the concert at the end of Blaze Beat Jitters, where it was apparent there were fewer people in the audience than we were being led to believe. In this case, the framing of the scene has suggested there are more people than we expected – to chilling effect. As I said, evolution!

The real test begins as the darkest part of Quinn’s mind then takes on a physical form however. The ghastly masked humanoid known as a Rotling (voiced menacingly by a gurgling Ryan Kearton) proceeds to torment Quinn regarding her unspoken feelings toward Bunny. She has never addressed the jealousy and resentment which so many older siblings watching will be able to relate to – instead consigning them to the Rotling’s dungeon to fester. According to the grotesque figure, Bunny – and indeed everyone else – has their own Rotling consisting of their own repressed thoughts and desires – and if they do not succeed in confronting them, they can never know peace. It has more than a little of Frankenstein to it for that reason – a creation lamenting that his creator will not acknowledge his existence, and vowing to destroy or be destroyed by them as a result.

While the Rotling’s design is perhaps a little pedestrian – think a lovechild between Jason Voorhees and Jigsaw – in terms of what it does for the plot, it is an excellent construction. Every human being has demented and vicious thoughts about even their most cherished loved ones – and many shy away from that as a guilty secret, rather than a healthier attitude that it’s just the consequence of sustained human interaction, and looking to address the issues which might have caused it. This is something which will undoubtedly leave viewers not only checking over their shoulder after the screening, but dreading what they might see in themselves next time they look in the mirror.

The end confrontation between the two suffers from having to wrap up a little too hastily, and relies on a couple of odd-seeming jumps to make their chronology work. However, thanks to the bizarre world the film’s visuals have made it clear we are in, these can be forgiven, blurring into the broader hallucinatory style of the film. The strange and spiralling effects which accompany Quinn’s transitions through this horrific world are psychedelic enough to make us forget that much of the world seems to consist of grey rooms with relatively little to look at beside the characters.

While there might have been a little more work put into the mise-en-scene of the chambers of Quinn’s mind, these visuals, accompanied by Lavachek’s booming synth sound design mean there is enough textural contrast for us to feel like we are descending into a holistic, visceral world of horror – much like the Hellworld inhabited by Pinhead and co in Hellraiser, or the relatively straight-forward settings of Mandy, which relied more on its score and trippy artwork than its darkened setting to show we were in a reality removed from our own.

This is a horror film in good company then, bringing to mind some of the most iconic settings, monsters and themes, while managing to be sufficiently original to keep viewers guessing where it is going. Lavachek has used the genre as a proving ground to build on his earlier positives – snappy writing, impeccable acting, vivid visuals and cracking sound-design – while fortifying the weaker elements of his earlier efforts.

As a self-confessed horror lover, it gives me great pleasure to see a film which understands what makes the genre tick. It pleases me even more than it comes from a filmmaker showing rapid progression, and huge potential in the future. Above all, I could not be prouder to announce The Dandelion Cortex as being part of Indy Film Library’s upcoming Halloween Horror Showcase, where I have no doubt it will capture the imaginations of its viewers, just as Lavachek’s last film did.

The Indy Film Library Halloween Horror Showcase will take place from October 23rd, and will host seven terrifying short films which viewers will be able to select an Audience Choice Award from. More information is set to appear on this website in the coming days – so stay tuned.


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