Velvet Buzzsaw offers a new glimpse at the sub-genre of haunted-art horror, which otherwise may have reached its popular zenith with 1989’s Ghostbusters II.
After an opening scene at a Miami Beach art conference where we’re introduced to the ridiculous, self-regarding and pretentious players of the US gallery scene, writer/director Dan Gilroy’s tonally askew satire-horror heads to Los Angeles and stays there.
Jake Gyllenhaal, arguably Hollywood’s chief pick for portraying intense, intelligent, white oddballs under 40, leads as the terrifically named art critic Morf Vandewalt. Rene Russo plays hard-nosed art gallery owner Rhodora Haze (another top-drawer name), while Zawe Ashton is Josephina, a fledgling agent employed by Haze and desired by Vandewalt. Before Vandewalt wins the affections of Josephina, he’s shown lounging nude while a naked man wanders his apartment in conversation with him. Vandewalt’s potential bisexuality is never referenced again.
When Josephina discovers a dead man named Vetril Dease in the hallway of her apartment block, she pokes around in his home, finds his paintings and steals them to show Vandewaltz and Haze. The pair love what they see and, with the patronage of two such influential figures, there’s soon a clamour for Dease’s work. As the wider industry gets wind of Dease, assistants and others working around his art start dying in mysterious circumstances.
The influence of giallo has become common in recent years, with the work of filmmakers such as Peter Strickland paying tribute to classic Italian horror directors. Then in 2018, Luca Guadagnino went a step further and remade Dario Argento’s Suspiria, with mixed results. Velvet Buzzsaw is most reminiscent of Argento’s 1970 giallo touchstone The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, most overtly because of its gallery setting and murder but particularly for its overall feel of menace and atmosphere of dread.
There are certainly some fine jump scares and satisfyingly bloody deaths. The grisly fate of one supporting character provides the film’s best comic moment: a corpse is mistaken for art and left in the middle of a busy gallery while children stomp around in its congealed pools of blood.
Anticipation for Velvet Buzzsaw was through the roof when it was announced that Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and Russo were reuniting, their previous collaboration yielding the sinister treats of 2014’s Nightcrawler. That film offered a damning assessment of LA’s TV news business and featured savage turns from Gyllenhaal and Russo. The art world’s pomposity is punctured here and the two actors once again have fun playing two people one would not want to get stuck talking to at a party. Elsewhere, Toni Colette and John Malkovich have small, fun roles as a grasping assistant and a creatively blocked artist respectively.
But Velvet Buzzsaw suffers slightly from being not quite depraved enough. Death scenes notwithstanding, there seems to be a reluctance from Gilroy to really push the film’s visual strangeness, which is sometimes lurid and unusual (melting paintings and what appear to be monkeys leaping around inside a mirror are two demented highlights) but used too sparingly. It’s as if the actors are being allowed full intensity in their performances but the film as a whole isn’t. In trying to be both horror and satire, has slightly fallen between two stools – to its detriment.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a solid take on a glamorous, aspirational part of the culture industry from Gilroy and makes an interesting companion piece to Nightcrawler. But those who prefer their contemporary LA satire more extreme may prefer David Cronenberg’s Map to The Stars (2014) or Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016).