Carlson Young (“Scream: The TV Series”) directs and stars as Margaret Winter in this feature-length version of her 2018 short film of the same name. The movie, a fantasy-meets-horror-meets-drug trip exploration of trauma’s effect on the subconscious, plays with familiar tropes in unoriginal ways. After the tragic drowning of her sister (Lillie Fink, in her debut), survivor’s guilt plagues Margaret’s psyche, sparking nightmares and an interest in metaphysical spirituality. The audience is taken along on one of these rich and dramatic dreams for a journey that is too unbelievable to be enthralling.
I’m not sure if there is anything in “The Blazing World” that I had not seen before, though the source material was far too varied to feel like an homage to any particular filmic trend. That said, in Sundance’s post-screening Q&A, cinematographer Shane F. Kelly (“Boyhood”) cited Young’s love of obscure German horror from the ’80s as an influence; I confess I am ignorant of German horror, regardless of decade or degree of obscurity, so I cannot evaluate this claim.
However, other apparent influences draw on a larger spectrum of film, from “Citizen Kane” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Spirited Away.” The viewer is met with a barrage of filmmaking techniques, none of which necessarily complement one another, many relying on excessive CGI.
Most troubling of all is the oversimplicity of the narrative. In this way, the film feels like nothing more than a dragged-on short. We are never sure what is reality and what is dreamscape, so the “American Psycho”-like final revelation is not shocking or interesting. The beyond-cliché tale in which a timid girl gains confidence through a quest is poorly executed, as there is no gradual change. The timid girl remains timid and afraid, with just enough determination to endure the quest’s challenges, and confidence comes as a deluge with minutes remaining in the film. This is not a story of growth though, even if it is set up to be.
On top of this limp formula, the lesson Margaret learns is eye-rollingly trite: We carry the dead within ourselves as memories. By the end of the film, the viewer is still in the dark about what is real and what is not. This lack of clarity blunts the effect of the film’s premise, that unresolved trauma can infect our dreams.
Moreover, the idea that an event so tragic as to provoke decades of nightmares intoxicated by guilt and confusion could be dismissed by the simple realization that the dead are preserved in memory is an insult to trauma victims and trauma therapists everywhere. Those on the precipice of suicide or self-destruction are not rejuvenated with such ease.
Perhaps it is the utter simplicity of the film’s narrative elements that makes the blizzard of influences and otherworldliness so banal and campy. The camp element is not alleviated by the actors’ lack of dramatic range or odd high-school hangout scenes reminiscent of, dare I say it, “The Babysitter.” Unfortunately for Young, “The Babysitter” was funny — “The Blazing World” is not.
I will give credit to the set and lighting designers, as these elements would have been sufficient for a strong fantasy film had the story been better and the cinematography more focused. The abundance of flora within the stately, Southern-gothic home brings the “Alice in Wonderland” element front of mind. Composed by Isom Innis (“Foster the People”), the film’s score is also a highlight, except when it is not. A luscious blend of old-school cinematic horns with fantastical harp and immersive synth, the film opens with promise.
However, in a misguided attempt to emphasize every shadow in the corner and every sinister glance, the score overpowers the action on more than one occasion. As a stand-alone work of art, Innis’s score would evoke the emotions sought onscreen; alongside the visual, the strength of sound only highlights the weak storytelling.
The most imaginative creators must know when to pull back and let the story tell itself. It is eminently clear that Young is a highly imaginative filmmaker; she just hasn’t quite struck the balance between visual grandeur and a cohesive narrative. As a campy fantasy film with a few out-of-place scenes, “The Blazing World” will satisfy the undiscerning audience. As a cult-classic or entrant into the fantasy-horror canon, the film falls short.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at email@example.com.