Black Circle (2018)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2023


If there was one benefit to watching horror movies every day for six years – and also, due to the point of the site, thinking about and then writing about them – it’s that I was able to fine tune my ability to tell the difference between a bad movie and a movie that just wasn’t for me. There was definitely a time in my life where I could have hated Black Circle and told folks to stay away from it because it was terrible or something, but now I know better. Now I know that there’s a select group of genre fans who will eat this up (and not because they’re drunk and having “so bad it’s good” fun), and I am simply not in that group. Thank the Beneath the Mississippis of the world for helping me learn the difference.

To be fair, this one had me hooked in at the beginning, at least. Our hero Celeste is your typical slacker in her twenties who isn’t making enough of her life, and apparently her sister Isa was once the same way. But now she’s doing quite well at her job, dressing nicely, etc – she’s got her shit together, in other words, and chalks it up to listening to a self-help record from the 70s (that’s what the title refers to, for you young “music is only available through streaming services and nothing else” types). Isa lets Celeste borrow it to see if it can yield the same results, and it does, but almost instantly Isa shows up all frazzled and insane sounding, claiming she’s being followed… is the record to blame? Well, yes, otherwise they wouldn’t have named the movie after it.

So for a while it follows the usual haunted object kind of movie scenario – Celeste sees ghostly figures, has weird dreams, etc. One can assume that she will have to track the record maker down to save her and her sister before it’s too late, like Naomi Watts figuring out where the VHS tape comes from, and they’d be right… but fewer could assume the hard left the movie takes into lo-fi sci-fi as opposed to supernatural horror suggested by the first half hour. At a certain point, out of completely nowhere, we meet a young couple who can communicate telepathically and have been sent by “The Supreme” (don’t ask, we never get much more info) to warn Lena (Christina Lindberg from Thriller aka They Call Her One Eye*), who is indeed the one that made the record, that Celeste and Isa are about to arrive. For a while this trio basically takes center stage of the film as if it’s been about them all along, and the film never quite recovers from the switch for me.

At least we start getting some answers as to what is going on. As it turns out, what the record does is separate all the negative parts of yourself (so that all that’s left is the ambitious and “good” parts, hence the life improvements), but those parts end up being a doppelganger that believes itself to be the original and wants to take over for good. Lena and her X-Men-like charges work to fuse the two back together, and naturally things don’t go smoothly. Not a terrible idea, but at this point the movie just tailspins into nonsense, with both of the sisters’ doubles making erratic appearances while the others carry out the experiment, drawing itself out until all the creepy stuff of the first act becomes a distant memory by the time it finally ends an hour later. The “70s self-help techniques are bad” backstory recalled The Brood a bit, but as the telepaths took over I started thinking more about the silly Scanners sequels instead.

Personally, I’d rather a movie be confusing at first and slowly start to gel together until I’m fully engrossed in its off-kilter vibes (Cloud Atlas comes to mind as a good example; I was almost ready to walk out after 20 minutes but I stuck with it and by the end of the first hour I was completely on board) instead of the other way around, but as I said, there’s definitely folks for whom this will check every box. It reminded me of things like Beyond the Black Rainbow or Altered States, i.e. trippy sci-fi without spaceships and laser guns, and again that sort of thing is fine, but I wish it hadn’t lured me in with the promise of a traditional curse/possession type horror movie. Maybe a second viewing would improve things, now that I knew what direction it was going, but not enough to completely change my tune, since the movie gave more than ample time to adjust to the cerebral slant of the back half. Sure, I was disappointed it forgot about being a horror movie as it went on, but I was also left cold by its confusing presentation and abrupt story turns. I actually rewound the movie for a bit assuming I merely missed something with the introduction of the two telepathic kids, but nope – they just show up out of nowhere and the reveal of their powers is given no fanfare, introduced as casually as one might inform the audience what kind of pet or job this new character has. It’s a lot to ask!

I should note that it’s also a curious film that probably works best late at night when your brain is operating at a different level (and you are perhaps stoned), but it also has several hypnotizing scenes (including a lengthy one that kicks the film off, before we meet Celeste) that are quite effective. And by that I mean I fell asleep the first time I tried watching, literally during one such scene. I course corrected and watched the rest around lunchtime the following day, so that I’d be safe from dozing, but it would probably take a month to get through it if I tried only at night. I’m sure this played midnight slots at festivals back when it was making its run, and for a properly wired audience it was probably quite mesmerizing. But I just had to take it as it was, and I just couldn’t ever get back on its wavelength after Lindberg was introduced, and the film practically daring me to fall asleep again at regular intervals didn’t help.

But if you’re a fan of Lindberg, you’ll probably a. be happy to see her again (this and another film from around the same time were the first features she made since 1982!) and b. be even happier that the blu-ray has an hour long interview with her, conducted by Bogliano. I wish it was a more traditional one where we don’t see the interviewer at all, since he is constantly saying “sure” and “right” as she speaks which gets incredibly annoying, but she covers a lot of her career, why she stopped acting, how Thriller is perceived then vs now, etc – it’s a pretty thorough chat. Bogliano also provides a commentary where he almost never stops speaking, name checking his influences and pointing out who did drawings or what crew member played this or that bit part in between explaining some of his choices, mentioning some post production trouble (some money never came through), etc. Then there’s the short film, which is basically just two early scenes from the film, albeit slightly truncated, with a different ending, giving it a traditional short film twist ending instead of proceeding with the narrative as the feature does. A featurette and trailer are also included, so it’s a pretty well rounded package that the film’s fans will certainly get their money’s worth from. But a blind buy is not recommended unless the above mentioned titles are all in your all time faves list.

What say you?

*Which was randomly the “pile” movie I watched before this one, having no idea she was in both. It wasn’t horror and it was just an unpleasant r**e revenge movie, but if you like that sort of thing, I guess it qualifies as one of the more interesting ones since it spends the middle of the narrative showing how she trains in secret to be the avenging woman of the finale that her peers just suddenly turn into.


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