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Language is the primary component in how we express emotions, how we explain the world to others and ourselves. The films of legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris looked towards an understanding of the complicated balance between what and how people express themselves through language. And Morris, whose innovation behind the camera is notable in every single film, positions his subjects in intimidating yet vulnerable positions, many times looking straight into the camera lens, almost talking to the viewer.

The popular true crime stories (look no further than Netflix’s most recent water cooler conversation starter Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), provide viewers with an inside look into the crimes, pop culture, and history of some of the most infamous criminals in history. While some may not completely understand the appeal of these shows, they are undoubtedly fascinating insights from a safe distance into the perspective of people who have committed some of the most violent acts against humanity.

In Colin Bemis’ feature debut, Strawberry Flavored Plastic, a filmmaker aptly named Errol (Nicholas Urda) examines the composition of humanity—and inhumanity—for a fictional serial killer named Noel (Aidan Bristow) in the suburbs of New York. Through a combination of first-person interviews, found footage photography, and documentary style filmmaking techniques, Strawberry Flavored Plastic composes an introspective analysis of horror that is disquieting, lonely, uncomfortable, and unsettling.

The film structure of Strawberry Flavored Plastic starts with a combination of every single technique horror films have utilized to a point of exhaustion over the last decade. It’s initially annoying, however, once these aspects become accompanied by Noel, the killer in question, the form changes. Where these initial moments come off as frustratingly familiar, they morph and change into something surprisingly interesting as the film team and Noel utilize the different techniques to begin the examination of habits, behaviors, mannerisms, and journey into darkness for the killer. When the film changes to the first-person perspective, typically shot on a GoPro, you begin to feel the uneasiness of tension build as the dread of bad things to come lingers on a shaky frame of someone walking into a home or down unfamiliar hallways. It’s disturbing.

Mr. Bemis, who also wrote this film, does an impressive job building the slow-burn narrative to a palatable position; a place where Noel’s character is slowly stripped away, peeling off the layers of introspection, of charm, of trauma, of history, of self-pity, of cowardice, of arrogance, all the way down to the layer of analysis into the spectrum of evil Noel discovers and struggles within himself. It’s unnerving to listen to the language Noel uses, a mix of emotional outbursts on the filmmaking crew and unsuspecting bystanders, sweet musings towards his young daughter, misguided intellect when the camera is at attention on Noel and his exploits, and unhinged explicit screams into the faces of people Noel feels have disrespected him. It progresses from an innocent charm into pure disturbed derangement.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic pushes its purpose strongly in the third act, perhaps going on about 10 minutes longer than it should have. Still, this is a film that uses expectation and familiarity to blindside the viewer. What you see and hear may seem familiar, but it moves and progresses into territory that gets underneath your skin, that pushes you to feel something for characters only to challenge your perception and move you to moments of understanding that are difficult to watch. Director Colin Bemis has composed a unique and unexpected genre film.

Movie Score: 3.5/5

(Trailer via Rue Morgue)

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