03rd Aug2021

Sundance London 2021: ‘The Blazing World’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Vinessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney, John Karna, Soko, Lillie Frank, Liz Mikel | Written and Directed by Carlson Young

Actress Carlson Young (best known for Scream: The TV Series) turns writer-director-star with this trippy horror debut, adapted from her own 2018 short film. Inspired by a 1666 sci-fi novel by pioneering author Margaret Cavendish (titled “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World”), The Blazing World delivers delivers nightmarish imagery and some decent jump scares, but the simplistic script struggles to match the quality of the visuals.

Young plays Margaret (presumably named in tribute to Cavendish), a depressed student who’s still haunted by the mysterious death of her twin sister Elizabeth (Lillie Frank), who drowned in the swimming pool when they were both children. In particular, she has recurring memories of a sinister figure (Udo Kier) who appeared just before the death, seemingly beckoning both sisters into a black hole.

When Margaret’s frequently bickering parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) announce their intention to sell the family mansion, Margaret reluctantly returns home, only to discover the sinister man by the pool once again. Convinced that he holds the answers to her sister’s death, Margaret follows the man into a portal and is transported into another dimension where she undertakes a quest that may or may not provide the closure she seeks.

Young sets up the alternate dimension idea nicely early on, by establishing Margaret as a devotee of self-help guru Dr. Cruz (Liz Mikel), who has some similar notions. However, Dr. Cruz doesn’t prove much help when Margaret randomly bumps into her in a parking lot and asks her if she thinks it’s possible her sister is trapped in another dimension. Instead, she receives the amusing, but not very useful reply, “You should watch the work of Doctor Who, it’s on the BBC.”

That clumsy line isn’t the only in-your-face reference on display here. The script explicitly alludes to Alice in Wonderland (there’s a lot of talk of going down the rabbit hole even before she enters the portal) and there are echoes of various other films, from Pan’s Labyrinth to David Lynch movies – at any rate, Kier’s poolside waving feels very Lynchian, whether by accident or design.

The Blazing World‘s nightmarish visuals are a key part of the film’s appeal. Accordingly, Young and her team – including production designer Rodney F. Becker and cinematographer Shane F. Kelly – go all out on the trippy imagery, creating twisted versions of the family home (one room filled with rats, another with dying flowers) as well as surreal desert landscapes, all suffused with unsettling lighting.

The intense atmosphere is further heightened by composer Isom Innis, whose insistent, frequently operatic score is the main reason the jump scares are so effective. On that note, Young has also cast the film really well – if you want your audience to be scared by a face suddenly appearing in the dark (several times), casting Udo Kier is the right way to go about it.

Similarly, Young acquits herself nicely in the lead role, while Mulroney and Shaw are given plenty to do as the parents. Mulroney is particularly good, suggesting a hint of alcohol-fuelled darkness in his character that the script leaves frustratingly unexplored.

That’s indicative of The Blazing World‘s main problem, in that the script is too simplisitic and fails to wring any emotional depth from the story as a result. The ending is especially disappointing in that regard, feeling both overly familiar and decidedly misjudged in its execution. One shot in particular is so jarring (in a bad way) that it takes you out of the film.

However, despite the disappointing dialogue and fumbled climax, there’s ultimately enough here to make this worth your while. Visually, at least, The Blazing World marks an impressive debut, so here’s hoping Young comes up with a better script for her follow-up feature.

*** 3/5

The Blazing World screened as part of this years Sundance London.

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