Everyone remembers their first heartbreak. To some, the memory might be hazy and distant, but to others the pain is all too fresh and real. I’ve had my own experiences with having my heart broken and dealing with rocky break-ups, some even leaving me feeling like I lost everything, even myself.
Director/co-writer Adam Wingard and co-writer/actor Lane Hughes are no strangers to heartbreak either, and were so upset by past breakups that they decided to make a film gleaned from their experiences. With writer E.L. Katz, they crafted an idea for a film and this idea eventually became Pop Skull, a trippy, hallucinatory movie about the unhinging of the lead character’s mind after his first break-up.
Daniel (Lane Hughes) is depressed and addicted to over-the-counter pills after his girlfriend breaks up with him for another guy. In his mind altered state he begins to see all sorts of things – until he can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. Is something really haunting to him or is it just his mind on the verge of collapse?
The synopsis might not make Pop Skull seem like much, but as soon as you begin watching it envelopes you in its madness. The film shows Daniel’s unraveling in an artistic and inventive way…and you feel like you are right beside him. It makes you darkly dream, drifting further and further into yourself until you feel as hopeless and shut out of the world as Daniel does. A story that sweeps you up like that is a rarity, especially in a low-budget film, but that is precisely what Pop Skull does.
Pop Skull’s story wouldn’t be nearly as successful if the filmmakers hadn’t tapped into their own personal tales of woe and heartbreak, but thanks to those experiences we get a fantastic story as well as a truly mesmerizing performance by Lane Hughes as the quickly deteriorating Daniel. From Daniel’s heartfelt voiceovers with a tone that just oozes vulnerability and brokenness to his hypnotizing performance, Hughes completely owns the role. Don’t get me wrong, the other actors do a fine job as well, but Hughes completely steals the show and kept my eyes glued to the screen. He was just so darn believable and I could wholeheartedly relate to his feelings of desperation and hopelessness!
In regards to visuals, Pop Skull is beautifully filmed, though there are some scenes featuring flickering, pulsating or flashing images that just might induce seizures (a disclaimer in the beginning of the film urges epileptics to skip the film). The entire film was made for $3,000, and many shots were captured by director Adam Wingard and actor Lane Hughes just wandering around in the dead of night or at the crack of dawn. Sun-drenched exterior shots of Daniel and his ex-girlfriend kissing in an open field are juxtaposed with dark and gritty interior scenes in Daniel’s threadbare bedroom or his friend’s small house. I loved this contrast and thought it added a lot of depth to the film. The editing is also very creative, giving the film an artsy feel that elevates it above most low-budget horror films. Sure, some of the sequences of rapidly-flashing scenes were a bit hard to look at, but they effectively showed how disoriented Daniel’s mind was becoming.
Though Pop Skull is definitely not your typical horror film, there are quite a few effective scares peppered throughout the film. The jarring shots of the “things” Daniel sees in his home, imagined or not, are pretty freaky and caused me to jump more than once. The sound design also helped set the foreboding feeling. Though the music featured throughout was ambient most of the time, at key moments it distorted into awful noises to disturb the viewer with a double-whammy of jarring noise and frightening visuals.
Pop Skull is a disorienting, hallucinogenic and dream-like horror film unlike anything I’ve seen lately. It’s mesmerizing to watch the damaged lead character being pushed to the breaking point and experiencing just what he experiences, not knowing if its reality or fantasy. Plus, the ending is just riveting and probably the creepiest scene in the movie!
This low-budget film is not for everyone, but if you have an appreciation for slow-burning, artsy, independent films I highly urge you to take a dark journey with Pop Skull.
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