If you have been paying any attention to the independent horror scene over the last five years, you are undoubtedly familiar with the work of actor Graham Skipper. From his star-making turn as Dr. Herbert West in the stage version of the Re-Animator musical to his leading man turns in the films of director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) to his role in Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates to seemingly countless supporting roles in everything from Tales of Halloween to Carnage Park to The Devil’s Dolls, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to watch a modern independent horror movie and not have Graham Skipper show up. While I’m always delighted to see him pop up in something I’m watching—I know that for however long he’s on screen, I am in good hands—that kind of ubiquity doesn’t automatically lend itself to talent behind the camera. So when I learned that Skipper had written and directed a feature, Sequence Break, I was excited, intrigued, and cautiously optimistic.
Having now seen Sequence Break as part of Cinepocalypse 2017, I can say that any concerns I may have had were unfair and unfounded. As a filmmaker, Skipper isn’t just “good for an actor.” He’s a good filmmaker, full stop. His latest feature (following 2016’s Space Clown, a movie still unseen by me) is confident and assured, beautiful and hypnotic, challenging, and ultimately kind of sweet. It’s a film with some big ideas about generational malaise presented in the guise of a Cronenbergian body horror—a comparison Skipper willfully leans into, borrowing heavily from the great Videodrome, only swapping out arcade games for television. The difference here is that Skipper isn’t attempting to comment on video games the way Cronenberg was TV; the games are just a metaphor for the more human issues the movie tackles.
Chase Williamson (who’s quickly becoming a ubiquitous presence in indie horror himself, and a welcome one at that) plays Oz, an introverted guy who works repairing old arcade games and is comfortable in the bubble he’s built for himself. On the very same day he learns that he’ll be out of work when his shop closes at the end of the month, he meets a girl, Tess (Fabienne Therese), who shows an interest in him and begins to bring him out of his comfort zone. At the same time, Oz discovers a mysterious game that has physical effects on him as he plays, many of them hyper-sexual, and causes him to hallucinate even when he’s not playing. What is this new game and what is it doing to Oz?
We’re nearly at critical mass when it comes to ’80s-influenced horror movies. I get it. The generation of filmmakers who are making movies now grew up on the same movies I did, and those influences are bound to come through in their work. But there’s a world of difference between the kind of horror movie that invokes 1980s signifiers for the sake of a nostalgic cash in and one that feels like it understands what made those films special while still functioning as its own thing. With its homegrown adventure, its pulsing synth score, and its reliance on VHS tapes as a plot device, Beyond the Gates was the latter kind of ’80s-influenced horror. So is Sequence Break, a film that reminds me in a lot of ways of Beyond the Gates—a comparison I mean as high praise. It makes sense, too, seeing as how Sequence Break stars one of the two main actors from Beyond the Gates and is written and directed by the other. Like Gates, this movie features interesting, likable characters played by incredibly appealing actors. It has its own amazing synth score—this one by Van Hughes, much more Vangelis/Tangerine Dream than John Carpenter—and uses ’80s technology as its central plot device, though here it's arcade games instead of VHS board games. In both instances, the outdated tech is a representation of characters who are frozen in time, stuck at a point in their lives and unable to move forward.
It’s the human story that makes Sequence Break resonate, with Chase Williamson once again using his sleepy charm to give another unassumingly sweet performance and Fabienne Therese proving, as usual, to be an invaluable resource in any genre movie. It’s unfortunate that she’s written to be a variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a sort of nerd fantasy – but Therese is so alive and so present that she makes the material feel natural. Because Skipper is an actor, I’m not surprised that he’s written good roles and given his cast plenty of room to live in their characters. What is more surprising is how adept he is behind the camera, creating bold, surreal imagery and taking real chances with the way he shoots the story. The lighting scheme in the horror sequences is all early ‘80s Italian horror, saturating the frame in greens and reds. The editing is bold and disorienting until a brilliant split-screen sequence (hello, fellow De Palma fan!) late in the film begins pulling the ideas together – ironically, at the same time things are fracturing more than ever. Skipper pushes the sexuality of Oz’s interactions with the game to a gross and outrageous degree, and while it’s exciting to see a filmmaker take chances with insane visuals like this, it’s just as exciting to see the imagery used for a real thematic purpose. It’s not an accident that we see Oz get physical with the arcade game but his intimacy with Tess happens only off screen.
Sequence Break is the kind of horror film that’s still with me hours after seeing it, and I suspect it’s going to stick with me for days longer. I love that Graham Skipper has captured the boldness and the strangeness of old Cronenberg films and some of the formalism of Argento, but combines both with a genuine human story about potential and the path not taken. There’s a easier version of this film that’s inscrutable for the sake of being inscrutable, but Skipper uses the clothes of a challenging mindfuck as a way of dressing a much warmer film that genuinely cares about its characters. Few films are able to successfully have it both ways. This one does.
Movie Score: 4/5
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