‘I have a fire in me. It doesn’t hurt me – I’m a man’ – thus begins one of the most memorable monologues of this year’s personal, wild, trippy, and sometimes completely rambling blend of horror and fantasy: The Blazing World. Directed by Carlson Young, being a hit at this year’s Sundance Festival and selected to open the Sydney Science Fiction Film Festival, it is an expansion of Young’s previous 2018 homonymous short, and loosely inspired by Margaret Cavendish’s similarly titled novel – a book written in 1666! – so, clearly, this was a hugely ambitious undertaking. But is it worthy of being called one of the best movies of 2021, or is it just an exercise in stylish filmmaking?
A comparison to the short, and then the book, is practically required since people who are familiar with either one will want to know how the movie feels when pitted against its predecessors. In the short film, Young, as a director, already showed an incredible grasp on atmosphere, visuals and sound design. She also played the same character, a girl named Margaret. The story was different, though – the Guardian visited her with a map and there was no missing sister plot. Instead, Margaret had a brother figure, with whom she smoked pot, and portals appeared all around her – at home and at school. The ‘vomiting pink goo’ visual motif was a lot more prominent – one could ask why it was almost eliminated from the feature film. In the end, Margaret makes a decision to go to the other world, assuring the boy ‘Don’t worry – I have a map!’. It almost seemed that the full film was to be a much more faithful adaptation of the book than it ended up being.
The book itself is a far stranger item to consider: both philosophical and naturalistic, with a plot concerning a young woman who becomes supreme ruler of a world different than our own. It can be compared to the writings of A.S. Byatt, as it touches upon observing nature, scientific theories, waging war, and the best way to rule over one’s subjects. Indeed, if you’re familiar with the book, you might ask why the film ends up being so distanced from it, especially since it’s a fascinating read. The easy answer might reside in Gen Y and Z directors being more interested in the self, but just like M. Night Shyamalan with ‘Old‘, one should not blame creators for telling the stories they want to tell, and instead analyze them with fairness and appreciate them for what they are if they do manage to strike a chord with viewers.
It’s fashionable now to start your movie analysis with a sweeping statement, like ‘Let’s get this out of the way – this movie was [adjective]!’, and something of the sort might be said about Young’s creative vision. A visual acid-trip like few others, The Blazing World is, above all else, a triumph of production design – art direction, set decoration, visual effects, makeup, costumes, and a calling card for a young director. In that sense, it is the natural successor of Alice Waddington’s ‘Paradise Hills‘, and of long-form music videos/visual albums like ‘K-12‘, or a whole decade of music videos using Alice in Wonderland motifs, everything from Grimes to Ryn Weaver to Madison Beer, or the much earlier The Chemical Brothers’ ‘The Trip‘. But it is also new-wave/’elevated’ horror, as it deals in themes like trauma, grief and all-consuming obsession. It owes a lot to the acid-horror subgenre (as it deals in the effects of hallucinogens), there are some nods to Argento and oddly there is some camp in its performances, particularly that of Udo Kier – but when it comes down to it, Kier is a huge part of the ending working the way it does.
The Blazing World just might be the most distinctive and radical Alice riff since Jonathan Miller’s 1966 tv play, which was filled with language games and featured an untrained, but up to the task actor (Anne-Marie Mallik) playing a narcoleptic, but smart and solemn Alice who wasn’t in Wonderland to save anyone, but to figure out her place in the strange world. Similarly, The Blazing World is novel in its approach. It’s modern. It’s rambling. It’s ‘disruptive’. Young, as Margaret, has a lot of Mallik’s natural expressiveness and slowness, and ever since her sister drowns in the pool in the mysterious opening her character undergoes a change. She becomes obsessed with the idea that she might not have died at all, but been taken to another world and kept prisoner there. She has nightmares in which the Guardian of that world is drowning her in her bathtub and she sees and hears him everywhere while awake. She consults an occult writer who warns her that if normal answers don’t satisfy her, she will go down a ‘rabbit hole’.
Margaret returns home to her bickering parents and after a night of partying and reconnecting with old friends, she finally enters a portal to the other world. Instead of borrowing from the complex structure of the 1666 book, the script is deceptively simple: this is a story of a young woman stuck in an almost military situation against her trauma, which she must face and vanquish or risk being devoured by. Her grief is manifested as four demons – one of them, Lained (Udo Kier), her guide and Guardian, is mostly benevolent. Her victory over each demon will result in a key and the assembled four keys will free her sister, this Lained promises Margaret. So she travels to different parts of the world, through doorways, facing physical exhaustion and being changed by the environment even as she continues her introspective side of the journey: first, she faces her ‘negative weight’, that which drags her down. She faces temptation. Then, she faces toxic male behavior from someone close to her, who justifies this behavior in a heartrending scene. And finally, she faces her imprisonment, the whole of her captive self.
That toxic masculinity segment needs further dissecting because of its sheer power – the man in question is shown to be an inveterate alcoholic. He invites Margaret to drink with him because ‘a man shouldn’t drink alone’. Then he starts rambling – The Blazing World often does this – going on tirades against some sort of perceived imbalance in the world (some people have likened that to psychoanalysis and, depending on your tolerance to dramatic monologues, this will be a make-or-break aspect of the film). He is convinced that he has a fire in him that only he can tame and that everyone who comes into contact with him wants to steal from him. He won’t let Margaret take the key from him – this is the mythmaking of a man so convinced of his own magnificence that he can’t let go of even a small part of himself, positive that he is a god, that he can’t concede, can’t ‘lose’. Or he’ll lose himself. And he’s already whole.
The scene, both because of who that character actually is and the way the conflict is resolved, might be one of the most brilliant moments of 2021 in cinema and certainly continues the conversation started by movies like ‘The Craft: Legacy‘, ‘Censor‘, ‘Amulet‘ or ‘Relic‘, all of which are horror films directed by women. It also brings to mind Veronica Kedar’s singular 2017 horror film, ‘Family‘, and there’s even a much stronger scene after that, involving Kier’s Lained and him acting both as Margaret’s jailer and her friend and just acting his heart out – this will surely delight his many fans, and the climax might be as strong as the haunting ending of this year’s ‘Titane‘.
The one thing The Blazing World requires of its viewer is that they are still young at heart and see Young’s rapid-fire associations and myriad of influences as a strong (starting) point. There might be a link between the generational divide and the enjoyment derived from this movie, but the more introspective moments and the tidal wave of an ending show sheer brilliance because Young and her team master the art of tonal shifts and mood dissonance to create an affecting story, one that might brave the test of time, just like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth‘ (or just ‘Labyrinth‘, for that matter) did. It’s definitely a shame that Young didn’t lean in to the book’s aspects regarding ruling a fantasy world (if you want that, you might want to check out Kieron Gillen’s masterful ‘Die‘ comics ), or that the script has some weaknesses, but that doesn’t take away anything from the fact that the movie will strike a chord with both fans of ‘elevated horror’ and fantasy, or with viewers who are interested in novel approaches to storytelling. The Blazing World IS one of the year’s best, in that regard. Now, if only there were more of that pink goo…