While most horror fans cluster around the popular names in the crop of contemporary directors—Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard—for my money I get excited most for the work of Calvin Lee Reeder.
Now don’t get me wrong, the people named above are all amazing at what they do, but with only two feature length films I’m especially impressed by Reeder’s knack to tell deep-seeded stories in the guise of horrors that not only test audiences but brings a new avenue to the kinds of stories that work in the mold of genre filmmaking.
At this point you may be asking yourself, "who the hell is Calvin Lee Reeder?" Don’t hand in your horror pass just yet, if you’re not keen to the film festival circuit it’s not likely you’ve seen his shorts or his debut feature "The Oregonian"—though I recommend you get it through Netflix. (Let me try to put a face to the name: he played the ringleader of the robbers in the interlude segments of "V/H/S").
Reeder burst onto the scene at 2011’s Sundance Film Festival with "The Oregonian," which was programmed in the Midnight section. Reeder made the press rounds in Park City giving the disclaimer, "although it’s a scary film, it’s an art film," and he wasn’t joking. Starring his girlfriend Lindsay Pulsipher in the lead role, we follow her as she wonders in limbo between life and death after being in a car accident. The film’s slow burn and surprising scares instantly became a polarizing title at the fest. The Hollywood Reporter called it a "tedious horror experiment [that] steals gimmicks from actual avant-garde works and makes them look dull," while Slant described it as "the kind of movie you’d find in someone’s VHS collection, decide to watch based on the box art and title, and end up switching out for 'The House of the Devil' instead." However, The Village Voice got it, stating Reeder "isn’t interested in satisfying the conventional expectations of an audience," and Time Out New York wrote that the film "advocates of bad-trip cinema, you may commence cult-worshipping this warped nightmare now."
I caught one of the last press screenings, which maybe because of its split amongst the press corps or perhaps it was just an evening filled with a lot of parties, only had a handful of attendees. But that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the film—in fact it probably heightened it. Unlike most horrors, you don’t need audience participation to enjoy Reeder’s films, in fact, the more secluded you are the better. In that almost empty theater I was riding shotgun in this journey through a parallel universe that was filled with red necks, a crazy white haired lady and moving images of loss and despair, which, for my two cents, felt part David Lynch, part Nina Menkes.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
The film got a small theatrical release where it built a cult following. The beginning of the film was even reenacted by a group of college students who put it up on YouTube.
Today Reeder’s second feature, "The Rambler," will open in very limited release (then on DVD June 25) and it has everything I loved about "The Oregonian" but this time with name actors (Dermot Mulroney and Natasha Lyonne) and a slicker look (guess Calvin got a bit more money thanks to said names).
Based on Reeder’s 2008 short film of the same title, Mulroney plays "The Rambler," a soft talking, sunglasses wearing, guitar carrying good ol’ boy whose just been released from prison and is trying to adapt to normal life. He’s picked up from jail by his slutty girlfriend (Lyonne) and returns to his old thrift store job, though the memories of his time in prison have changed him. Fed up with his life he leaves his wife and takes off to the dusty roads of Roswell, New Mexico. He quickly hitches a ride with an elderly man who says he’s a scientist and has a device that can look into people’s memories, which he then transfers onto VHS. Thus begins the madness as we’re hit with a barrage of striking images and weird encounters for the rest of the movie. Exploding heads, a boxing match against a man with a hook for a hand, and an extremely long vomit scene. It’s almost like Reeder is testing how far he can antagonize and disgust us. However, through the grime Reeder is expressing his unconventional notion of storytelling. That we don’t have to be fed plot points every other scene to keep our attention, or forced to feel a certain way by how the score is played is a refreshing notion.
Some people haven’t seen it this way. Following the film’s premiere at Sundance this year HitFix’s Drew McWeeney listed it as one the worst he saw at the fest, calling the film an "embarrassment." Reeder caught wind and fired back via Facebook. If anything, it raised Reeder’s profile a little more (at the point he’s at in his career, a little dust up like this can only help).
Reeder will likely always be something of a misunderstood director, but there are many such artists who use that branding to build incredible careers. I’m excited to see what he has up his sleeve next and will be looking forward to jumping down the rabbit hole once more into his dark dreams and refreshing storytelling.