Cinepocalypse opened here in Chicago on Thursday night with the world premier of Glenn Danzig’s debut film Verotika. I wasn’t there to see it, but I highly recommend checking out some of the hilarious Twitter reactions. It’s widely garnering comparisons to The Room, not only for its production value and vibe, but also because of its similarly charmingly unaware earnestness. Rumor has it that one of the first things Danzig said when he took the stage for his post-film Q&A was something to the tune of, “Hey, you guys laughed at a lot of parts I wouldn’t have laughed at.” LOL. Hell yeah. Glenn Danzig: Could he be horror’s Tommy Wiseau? Stay tuned.
So while Cinepocalypse officially kicked off Thursday with what sounds like a perfectly imperfect movie, my Cinepocalypse kicked off last night with what I’m fairly certain is a perfectly perfect movie. That movie is called Villains.
Settling into my theater seat, I wasn’t certain what I was in for with Villains. It doesn’t have a proper trailer, though you can find a compelling two-minute scene on YouTube that grippingly introduces the four familiar and very talented actors who make up the cast: Bill Skarsgård, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, and Maika Monroe. That, paired with the general but potential-filled plot teaser—essentially, “Two small-time thieves break into a house only to be met by sadistic homeowners they didn’t bargain for,”—was enough to sell me, and now, 12 hours after the credits rolled, I wonder if anything screening at Cinepocalypse this year could possibly top it.
While Villains is exactly what it purports to be—a subversive home invasion story—that summation feels entirely too reductive. In our must-see Cinepocalypse screenings piece, I wrote that perhaps what we could expect is something similar to Don’t Breathe but with more dark comedy, and I was absolutely wrong. Villains is nothing like Don’t Breathe, despite the fact that “subversive home invasion story” could be used, technically, to describe both films.
While Don’t Breathe’s amateur thieves were, at least initially, more serious and intentional, writer/director team Dan Berk and Robert Olsen went in a different direction with Villains. Thieves Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are fallible, unplanned, and reactionary. They constantly make split-second decisions based only on the moment’s circumstances. They’re funny and human and flawed, but never stupid or predictable or unbelievable.
There’s a similar difference between the films’ homeowners, too. In Don’t Breathe, it’s a blind man who turns out to be an absolute unit, and the film’s tension builds around a game of cat and mouse in which he plays the unlikely the cat for the majority. Who holds the power is never really in question, which gives audiences a stabilizer of sorts—you might not know exactly what’ll happen and how, but knowing who’s in charge gives you somewhere solid to put your feet.
In contrast, the tension in Villains is so powerfully persistent because you don’t have that stabilization at all, ever. Regardless of who’s tied up, appearances are deceiving, and you can never really figure out who’s in charge from moment to moment.
Opposite Mickey and Jules, we have George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick)—a pairing united in their pitch-perfect and shared psychopathy. They are immediately likeable and interesting and expressive, with an ability to flip from purely sadistic monstrosities to gentle, charmingly old-fashioned, doe-eyed lovers in just a split-second.
These are our villains, our four titular villains, and they’re insane and irrational and totally unpredictable and definitely not always (or maybe ever) good people… and yet, you just end up finding yourself absolutely taken with all of them. Their fallibility and oddness and in so many ways, completely unbreakable earnestness, makes them feel so real and human and relatable.
Villains, to me, is a prime example of an incredibly sharp script, delivered absolutely perfectly. Its absurdity and direness and utter randomness is balanced by well-timed infusions of this tonally excellent physical and verbal comedy. I went from gasping in suspense to shrieking in horror to literally shoulder-rocking guffaws—just one right after the other, like dominos—because of how naturally the story moved.
Berk and Olsen never take their audience’s attention for granted, either, which wins them all of the points. Each moment is really engaging, from its absolutely excellent dialogue to its really clever, funny, and even, at times, stunning shot compositions by cinematographer Matt Mitchell. There was a sequence I particularly liked that was a long still of a bowl of cereal being made. It was really beautifully framed, lingered for just the right amount of time, and led to another well-designed and delightfully symmetrical wide shot of a living room. It was the kind of composition that I (read: a fangirl) would assume Wes Anderson would nod his head at—not, mind you, because it was a flagrant rip-off, but because it was good in its own right.
The writer/directors are also never overly punishing to the audience, without ever having to sacrifice the reaction they’re after. There were moments that could’ve been really gratuitous—bloody, violent, arguably unnecessarily uncomfortable for everyone involved, etc.—and Berk and Olsen really did work you up into just the right state of panic every time, but then they subverted expectations and let you off with a piece of horror that was only what it needed to be. The fact that they chose to be more withholding made the whole experience even more intense and unpredictable.
Additionally, everything was underlined by what felt, at first, like a surprisingly light and happy score (by Andrew Hewitt), before you realize how constantly springy it is and how each of those bounces has been steadily fueling that ever-increasing tension you feel forming in your chest. It plays during moments of panic and humor alike, flipping in its own sort of way from part of a joke delivery to the catalyst of your next anxiety attack.
I could really go and on and on about how much I loved this movie, but I would hate to give away anything more than I already have. If you’re looking to see it—and you goddamn should be—keep your ear to the ground about a theatrical release in the fall. I’ve heard some rumors surrounding the potential since it was acquired after its premier at South by Southwest. I promise to update this if and when I hear specifics. Mark me.
See this movie, four stars, fucking check it out.