In an interview for the 2000 documentary The American Nightmare, director Tobe Hooper talked about how he used images and music to create the palpable sense of fear in his most famous film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
“I intended it to wheedle its way into the unconscious mind,” Hooper said, “where the nightmares are. It leaves a harmonic hanging there, buzzing in your head. That’s mixed with another little nasty [sound] that sits there and quivers with the other one. And if you can get enough of these things going, and then you slam the door, it takes on a whole different tone.”
Upstream Color isn’t a horror film, but its use of imagery and sound to create an almost nightmarish sense of tension is something Hooper would probably admire. Writer, director, producer and actor Shane Carruth made his mark in 2004 with Primer – a low-budget, intelligent and infuriatingly complicated science fiction drama that won independent film awards all over the place.
Upstream Color is Carruth’s first film since Primer, and if anything, it’s even more enigmatic and perplexing than his debut. Where Primer was cerebral and realistic, Upstream Color is elliptical, dreamlike and often disturbing.
Amy Seimetz plays Kris, a career-minded woman whose life unravels when she’s tricked into swallowing some form of parasitic maggot by a young thief. Like those hideous eels from Star Trek II, this parasite has the ability to control minds, and the thief uses its powers to trick Kris into signing over a considerable sum of money.
Sometime later, and with her career in tatters, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), an accountant with a similarly troubled past. As the pair form an awkward relationship, it transpires that Jeff’s encountered the parasite himself, and that both their fates may be inexplicably bound to a pair of piglets living on the farm of an avant garde keyboard player.
Like a wet bar of soap, Upstream Color slips out of your grasp whenever you think you’ve got to grips with its story. But while its narrative slithers and slides, its imagery and noises hypnotise; acting as director, cinematographer and musician, Carruth has crafted a low-budget film that is both beautiful and unnerving. There are moments of visual poetry that recall Terrence Malick, but there are snippets of body horror that churn the stomach. There are shifts in time and place reminiscent of vintage Nicolas Roeg, and surreal occurrences akin to vintage Lynch.
From beginning to end, it fills your head with unexpected noises and images, and unbalances you with story threads which weave, interconnect and sometimes abruptly end without explanation. But like Primer, Upstream Color deserves to be deconstructed and talked about after the fact – though attempting to make sense of its inscrutable symbolism may prove too much for some.
Seimetz puts in a superb performance, taking her character from surety to the brink of despair and confusion with apparent ease. Carruth’s decision to place himself in front of the camera – as well as performing all the filmmaking tasks behind it – may sound like the height of vanity, but he’s equally good as the dignified, damaged Jeff.
The pair’s screen relationship is the human thread that ties Carruth’s bewildering fever dream together. That it’s partly about a parasite that somehow passes from plants to swine to humans and back might suggest that it’s science fiction, but Upstream Color isn’t so much a genre film as an abstract mood piece with occasional dramatic flourishes. Some will be mesmerised by it, others will dismiss it as merely pretentious.
Like a Rorschach test, I suspect it’s possible for an entire room full of people to watch Upstream Color and come back with entirely individual interpretations and reactions. Personally, I found its shifts in tone and weird scenes of decaying animals and wriggling parasites faintly terrifying, like a David Cronenberg movie running in slow motion.
Whatever you make of Upstream Color afterwards, it’s undoubtedly worth experiencing. A filmmaker more interested, perhaps, in exploring ideas and creating moods than telling conventional stories, Carruth has an unwavering eye for beautifully-framed images, and a keen ear for murmuring, unsettling music.
To paraphrase Tobe Hooper, Upstream Color wheedles its way into the subconscious mind and lodges there, like one of Carruth’s dreadful pale parasites.
Upstream Color is out now in the UK.
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