Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Plank Face

by Patrick Bromley
I will see anything these guys make.

On the basis of the two movies they've released in 2016, first Harvest Lake and now Plank Face, filmmakers Scott Schirmer and Brian K. Williams (who together make up Bandit Motion Pictures) are some of the most exciting voices in independent horror right now. Their movies don't look or feel like other stuff out there. They cannot be easily classified. They are concerned more with horror's hypnotic potential than with its ability to create visceral scares, which distinguishes them from the larger crop of horror movies built out of jump scares or gore moments. This is not to dismiss jump scares or gore moments -- I have been a real fan of both -- but just to suggest that anyone going into one of Bandit's films would do right not to expect something traditional.

In Plank Face, Nathaniel Barrett and Ellie Church play Max and Stacey, a young couple who go camping in the woods, where they run into trouble almost immediately. After demonstrating his own survival instincts, Max is taken captive by a feral family -- consisting of Granny (Susan M. Martin), The Bride (Brigid Macauley) and Bunny Girl (Alyss Winkler) -- who begin the process of remaking him as their patriarch.
I have admitted already that Schirmer's last film, Harvest Lake, spun my head around a little, leaving me unsure of what to make of it on a single viewing. But then the movie refused to leave my brain, as specific moments and images kept replaying (and not only the ones you think, pervs) and the film's overall tone carried with me over the subsequent weeks. If the goal of the movie was to put me in a trance, it worked; it has since gone on to become one of my favorite horror movies of the year. That experience prepared me more readily for Plank Face, which is often similarly abstract and hypnotic; the difference this time around was that I had a better idea what to expect and could tune into the film's wavelength much more quickly.

It's an offbeat wavelength. The violence is brutal, the sex is raw. There are long passages of the movie that play out without any dialogue at all. But what Plank Face does so well is one of my favorite things for horror movies to do, which is to mess around with audience sympathies. It's the reason that Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects is such a great film: he constantly shifts the perspective of the protagonists and uses cinematic language so cleverly that at a certain point, we find ourselves rooting for the horrible murderers to prevail. That's not exactly what Schirmer and Williams are getting at in Plank Face, but there are echoes of the same idea. There are clear villains presented early on, but as the film continues our notions about who the monsters are begin to disappear. We exist completely in the world of this feral family, and we're made to understand that they care about one another and are simply trying to survive the way they know how. Imagine Jack Ketchum's Offspring or The Hills Have Eyes told entirely from the point of view of the cannibals, minus the "normal" families included as "heroic" audience surrogates. It's all a matter of perspective.
Though it once again focuses on a group of people out in the woods (of Indiana, where both movies were shot), Plank Face is a very different film than Harvest Lake. The latter movie is all about casting a spell; its pervasive sexuality much more about eroticism and luring the audience in with beautiful people going to town on one another. The sexuality of Plank Face is just as prevalent, but it's harder, more animalistic. While the word "fearless" gets thrown around a lot in relation to acting, there aren't many better ways to describe what the actors in Plank Face are asked to do -- they are naked both physically and emotionally, their performances raw like exposed wounds. They must scream and cry, fight and fuck, hurt and be hurt, often without the use of any traditional language. There's something thrilling about seeing actors so willing to lay themselves bare (pun intended) within the horror genre, which so often creates distance between the actors and material through special effects or stylization or just plan ironic disconnection. Plank Face demands 100% buy in from both sides of the screen.
Ultimately, Plank Face is a movie about identity. Is Max still the guy under the mask? Or is it the mask that's made him whole? My asking of these questions in the context of this review makes them sound trite -- the ramblings of a 15-year old trying weed for the first time -- but they are not treated as such within the movie. I love that the movie is willing to immerse us so deeply into a family of who would be, in any other horror film, the monsters. I love the way that between Found, Harvest Lake and now this movie, co-writer/director Scott Schirmer continues to explore recognizable subgenres in ways that feel totally original. The photography and (especially) the score by co-writer/DP Brian K. Williams are beautiful in the way they capture animal savagery but do not comment on it other than as a way of living for these characters. Plank Face is challenging, original horror from a group of filmmakers who have created a name for themselves making movies that continue to fit that description. That's so exciting.


  1. I really liked Found and just the other day I was wondering what was up with that guy. I'm glad to see he's made something that is good. I'll put both on the list!

    1. Agreed, Found was great (the movie within the movie, Headless if I remember correctly) not so much. I was lukewarm to HL but this one wasn't even on my radar so, yep, going on the watchlist!