The possession tale has become so synonymous with horror films that everyone knows the playbook. The slow reveal of the demonic presence, the reluctance to believe the individual/family, the manifestation of supernatural powers (speaking in tongues, telekinesis, newfound flexibility), the intervention of the church, and the cleansing of the possessed through some form of prayer or exorcism. What I am describing is, of course, the playbook written by Exorcist director William Friedkin in 1973 which has been used by his many imitators that have followed in his stead.
Over the past two decades, primarily fueled by the Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring franchises, the tropes of the possession story have been worn threadbare by less talented filmmakers focused on imitation over ingenuity, resulting in many forgettable, cringe-worthy horror films. The problem, however, is that these types of horror films have proven to be extremely popular, making it difficult for any director/writer to break free from the shackles of conformity.
The films that separate themselves from these pitfalls usually originate from up-and-coming directors and independent studios (A24) that are not chasing dollars, as much as looking to connect with audiences outside of the normal theater-going crowd. Luz’s Tilman Singer certainly fits the bill and successfully breaks from tradition with a atmospheric take on the tried and true possession sub-genre.
Many critics have compared Singer’s style to Italian masters Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, and the comparison is partly accurate. Luz does play like a fever dream, and camera distance from the viewer varies from long, wide shots to close-ups of faces, lips, objects, with the expected weirdness associated with the shots and story. Where Singer differs is in his slow pacing with these images, building tension out of nothing ala modern day auteurs like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. Stringer uses this brand of story telling technique to create said tension, but Luz also appears to be grounded in reality more than an Italian giallo, even when things become strange such as when our title character, a young cab driver from South America, is questioned about her involvement in an accident by a police officer and a hypnotherapist. This is the scene that certainly harkens back to the Argento and Fulci films with washed out lenses, fog and light, and use of mirrors (in this case, a rear view mirror) as well as some voice and character switching that is intentionally disorienting, yet the viewer is never lost in the scene either.
Luz is Singer’s first feature film and also his final student film, used to earn his diploma at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. The German-language 16mm film’s run time is just over an hour and does focus on style and technique more than story (no doubt ranked highly on the rubric that accompanied this assignment). Even with some of the obvious constraints associated with the budget, Luz looks much better than any student film I’ve ever seen, and this fact may have contributed to the unique nature of the film. There is very little gore (another major departure from Argento and Fulci) aside from some bloody lips and head trauma. The special effects budget also eliminates all but one direct sign of the supernatural, adding to the realism and understated nature of the horror film. When possession occurs in a number of characters, it is clear what is transpiring without going the whole gonzo route (smoky white contacts also help of course) as the actors enact the transformation on screen.
The principal cast, featuring only six players, is also surprisingly competent on screen, with Jan Bluthardt and Julia Riedler’s odd seduction bar scene standing out among the other performances in the film. As is the case with some student films, Luz could have just as easily been a stage play, and this helps Singer deliver an atypical supernatural horror story.
It is clear that Singer has “done his homework” for Luz, taking influences and using techniques from the best sources, and Luz will most likely get the young director some Hollywood jobs if he so desires. Let’s just hope Singer is able to exhibit the same restraint with a bigger budget (and avoid too much meddling from executives looking for jump scares and spinning heads).
Luz will screen at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas in September and has also begun to play around the country, so be sure to check the official Luz website for showtimes and where the film may be playing in your area.