The point of any genre film is to exploit our prevailing cultural anxieties, but the really good ones get there first. In VIFF’s Altered States program, we’re given a menu of postmillennial concerns delivered with the kind of bang that usually comes with movies destined for long-term cult devotion and a future of eternal midnight screenings.
Chief among these is Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah!, which takes a bunch of Brit comics and plops them into a world where humans have devolved into nonverbal eating-fucking-killing machines. Between scenes of Prince Harry getting covered in spunk, Lucy Honigman pooping on the kitchen floor, and Tom Meeten respectfully cleaning writer-director-star Oram’s penis in a silent display of tribal supplication, this is a film that really knows how to win you over. A little less sensationally, Aaaaaaaah! is considerably more honest about the state of British society in 2015—and way funnier—than any of those market-tooled comedies starring Bill Nighy that seem to arrive in our theatres every 20 minutes or so. If you can take it, that is.
From the other side of the Atlantic, Cop Car takes a more traditional approach to its storytelling, although it’s no less alarmed by the cultural decline it observes. In this case, the cruiser of the title is taken on a joyride by two 10-year-old runaways, with Kevin Bacon’s psycho small-town sheriff in murderous pursuit. That’s already bad enough, but the introduction of an arsenal of loaded guns takes the tension to an intolerable place. Cop Car isn’t a film for squeamish parents, in other words.
“That was the point,” says writer-director Jon Watts, calling the Straight from L.A. “To fully commit to the idea and the implications and just to try to be, in a way, really honest about what would happen. What would these kids really do if they found some guns? They’d probably play with them. I mean, it’s terrible, but it’s true.”
Watts’s concept and script are so tight that Bacon leaped at the role, even sending his director Photoshopped mockups of his character’s mustache. “That was the best,” Watts sniggers. “And basically every line he has is a lie,” he adds, of a role marked by scant dialogue and a prominently filthy singlet. “I think he really just thought that would be fun.”
For the filmmaker, his attachment to Cop Car turns out to be deeply personal. Its wide-screen scope and prairie setting speak to a certain mythic cinematic America stretching back to Badlands and Duel—catnip to movie hounds—but that’s also where Watts happened to grow up. Cop Car, in fact, was shot around his hometown of Fountain, Colorado.
“Those are literally the same fields I would walk through when I was a little kid,” he says. “The feeling of life and death, it’s present, always. That’s how I felt as a kid.” More precisely still, the film is based on a recurring nightmare Watts has endured for his entire life, in which he’s sitting in a car being driven ever faster by his 10-year-old friend Travis.
“I haven’t had it since, so this movie cured me,” he states. Actually, he just passed it along to us.