The drug is the spirit in this convulsive October Chiller.
The first frame in Pop Skull is a still which reads: "WARNING: The following motion picture contains scenes which may not be suitable for individuals diagnosed with epilepsy." The warning might feel like a cheap gimmick, like any still in front of a scary movie which reads Inspired by true events -- but like the warning at the end of Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone, that savage utterance that cried something gruesome this way comes, this warning is founded, and true, and describes an approaching onslaught not suited for the squeamish.
Convulsions? Hell, yeah. And I'm sooo envious of anyone who rode this ride on the silver screen.
Pop Skull is a deeply unnerving tour de force in contemporary low-budget filmmaking. With precision cut editing and the creepiest audio dynamics, it shows what a determined young filmmaker can do with 6,000 measly bucks. Like the greats in shoestring cinema (Eraserhead and Pi being the first that leap to mind), it utilizes pulsating imagery and an amplified texture of sound to push the extremes of a surrealist conquest on anyone who gets in its way.
Also similar to the three mentioned films, Pop Skull is the story of a man rattled in the head, unraveling at the seams, ready to uncork like DeNiro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. At any moment either the film or its central character Daniel could lose all ability in distinguishing between hallucinogenic dreams and nightmare reality. The title is somewhat the plot. You never know when this skull will finally pop.
Daniel (Lane Hughes, above, more recently known as Zak in V/H/S) is an over-the-counter pill popper at the end of a long-term relationship. A guitar player with no band and going nowhere fast, Daniel sits sullenly in his parents' basement, either cranking his electric and washing away in the maze of his music, or consuming and zoning out to his purchased pills. Benadryl, Zicam, Coricidin, Dramamine, whatever he can get his hands on are bought daily, while he nervously utters to himself to get out the pharmacy door. He wants what he needs and he needs to get his fix and leave -- hopefully in peace, unquestioned, left to down it all again at night.
He's exercising that right that some of us know, the one we addicts know all too well. We think it's our right to claim our own self-destruction. The mind of an addict is full of endless possibilities which steal our joy, trading a moment's bliss for the robbing of our lives. Like so many addicts, if depression is Daniel's excuse, he's drowning out the loss of his girlfriend and blaming it on her. But the truth is that he, and we, do it no matter the reason. The pills inch their way slowly into the system, and in scenes of haunted intensity, we visit with Daniel's fears, and his terrifying ghosts. Some are imagined, some perhaps very real.
As a child Daniel was told about a murder and double-suicide that took place in his back yard before he moved in. No one knows why two guys would tie up a girl, or why the night ended with the three of them dead. Either the thought of this haunts Daniel, or he is tripping way too hard, because the events seem to unfold when he's using. He is freaked and afraid, but the pattern can't stop. Daniel faces himself all alone with the spirits in his basement -- night after night after endless, horrifying night.
There comes a point in addiction where the hole in your soul becomes the crater that was once your life. The suffering inside you leaks out, only to consume you and swallow you whole. The same blackened eyes that stare into the mirror are the chasm of all that's left; everyone's gone because you pushed or you scared them away. You'll destroy yourself, whether you want to or not, and you might take your loved ones right with you. Pop Skull is very personal to me, as I've lived through many of Daniel's harrowing scenes. I am thankful today that I've found a few ways out.
There's so much truth here to the way addiction works to change our perceptions. There's truth to the visions of ghosts we encounter in our haze. There's truth to the idea that this is a road which leads to misery, with only jail, institutions, or death at the end.
If Pop Skull and its addicted Daniel aren't the very definition of horror, then I honestly don't know what is.