There has always been a cinematic quality to darkwave duo Boy Harsher (AKA Jae Matthews and Augustus Muller), whose brooding beats and synth-heavy atmospherics filled the walls of arts venues and fetish clubs alike – before the pandemic hit.
Unable to tour and disinterested in making “club music”, Muller sketched out ideas for a visual project. Meanwhile, Matthews had been diagnosed with MS, and in a period of convalescence kept thinking about a sinister character: a woman running through the woods. It was uncertain what these pieces would become other than catharsis, but together the duo developed this image into a short film that explores lust, compulsion, and the horrific tendencies of seduction. The result is The Runner, their debut horror, featuring breakout performances by musician Kris Esfandiari (better known as the lead singer of King Woman), performance artist Sigrid Lauren (one-half of duo FlucT), and musician Cooper B. Handy (AKA Lucy).
Written, directed, and produced by Matthews and Muller, The Runner follows a strange woman as she travels to a secluded, rural town where her violent compulsions are slowly revealed. The story is intertwined with footage of Boy Harsher performing on a public access channel, and a meta-style “documentary” about their recording process. The soundtrack – a balance of eerie instrumentals and boundary-pushing pop, which serves as an album in its own right – scores the woman's descent deeper into the unknown.
We asked Matthews and Muller to take us through their influences for the film. The results range from body horror and neo-noir, to teenage apocalypse, auto-erotica and, cinema’s current favourite genre: nunsploitation.
‘POSSESSION’ (1981, Dir: Andrzej Żuławski)
“Maybe this is something all couples go through.”
Jae Matthews: I recommend this one a lot. I’ll admit it’s not without its faults, but it defines such a moment for me that I must discuss Andrzej Żulawski’s 1981 ballad of a bad breakup, Possession.
I first saw this film over ten years ago. At the time it was out of print, but a friend had the VHS and he really wanted me to watch. Thank god, because Possession changed my life. The abject, blatant sexuality of Isabella Adjani’s character, Anna, has inspired most characters I write to this day, and although it’s become a meme, the subway station freakout/miscarriage is so mesmerising. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it. This year, I was lucky enough to watch the 4K restoration in the theatre and, for the most part, the film holds up.
Set against a very bleak, divided Berlin, Żulawski sets up a horrific portrait of domestic cruelty, that delves into body horror and sexual deviancy. The deteriorating couple, Anna and Mark (Sam Neil) fight (yell, smack, wallow, beg) for the duration of the two-hour film. Clearly, Żulawski presents Mark as the character that deserves sympathy, but it's now 2022 and I align most with Anna, who discovers that the secret to her tortured sexuality is quite literally a monster. If sex is power, then Anna’s the victor, at least up until the very end. Love it or hate it - the film gives us such iconic lines as (Anna): “I can't exist by myself because I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil.”
It was around the time that the same friend also showed me Cafe Flesh, remarkable, post-apocalyptic porn, which still haunts me to this day.
‘ROLLING THUNDER’ (1977, Dir: John Flynn)
“You're the strong silent type, aren't you?”
Gus Muller: I was on a serious Paul Schrader kick last year and this film really stood out. Schrader wrote the screenplay in ‘77 following the success of Taxi Driver. I love this movie because on the surface it seems like your run-of-the-mill, campy, exploitation film, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll find a powerful anti-war statement. William Devane's performance as the wounded soldier, Major Charles Rane, is smoky and cool, but also completely unhinged.
Rolling Thunder gets a lot of praise for its realistic and brutal action sequences, but I’m really drawn to some of the quieter moments. In one scene, the community presents Major Rane with a convertible and a thousand silver dollars, in a city park full of boy scouts. The gesture is performative and clueless. Devane merely nods and mumbles thank you without ever removing his aviator sunglasses. America had no idea how to handle their vets and Flynn presents this in a dry, matter of fact way.
Jae: Sidenote – a vocal sample from Rolling Thunder is featured in my favourite Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney song, “Blood Embrace”.
‘THE LIVING END’ (1992, Dir: Greg Araki)
“Fuck the world.”
Gus: This film could make this list on soundtrack alone, which was apparently licensed from Wax Trax at a bargain. The Living End is an important time capsule from the peak of the AIDS crisis. Araki shows how terrifying life was at the time. When Jon (Craig Gilmore) tests positive he’s met with zero safety net. As he spirals and becomes more reckless you’re right there with him. Why respect a world that has no respect for you? The Living End was made on a shoestring 20K budget. Imagining Araki blasting around LA with a 16mm camera is a true inspiration.
‘LOST HIGHWAY’ (1997, Dir: David Lynch)
“We've met before, haven't we?”
Jae: Going in order of films that impacted my young, vulnerable brain - next up we have David Lynch’s spooky neo-noir Lost Highway. The film, ostensibly about an incriminated husband, but really about doubt, jealousy and transformation, follows Fred (Bill Pullman) and his smoking hot wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) as they are haunted / stalked by an unknown assailant who leaves cryptic videotapes on their doorstep. The videos at first are benign, then devolve into footage of them sleeping. This set-up alone scares me, but then Fred meets a terrifying Robert Blake as The Mystery Man, who reveals that he is in Fred’s house …. and possibly a facet of Fred himself.
This film is a wild, stylish ride through a nineties-era LA landscape, stocked full of aggressive mid-century mansions and sleek and intimidating characters. Paired with a “hard rock” soundtrack, curated by Trent Reznor, Lost Highway is as intoxicating as it is bizarre. I find the film truly frightening, without an actual entity to be fearful of - except maybe Blake. Definitely, a big inspiration to create content with feeling, rather than narrative structure. And the film still makes me want to move to Los Angeles.
‘MANHUNTER’ (1986, Dir: Michael Mann)
“Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black”.
Gus: I wanted to put this on the list just to roast it. It’s Michael Mann at his best and at his worst. Mann takes a best-selling crime-thriller and injects it with as much machismo as possible. William Peterson, Mann’s angsty lead Will Graham, will go on to play the exact same hard-boiled psycho-cop for CSI (Crime Scene Investigations). Peterson throws a reporter into a car windshield for asking too many questions. And it’s not supposed to be funny. The dialogue is all punchy one-liners and mic-dropping comebacks. None of this would be an issue, except the fact that Mann takes the film so seriously.
With all that said, it’s a real treat to watch a young Mann coming into his style. While he was setting the bar for misogyny in Hollywood, he was also raising it for directing. You can tell he took a risk with shot design and lighting and it still feels cutting-edge today. The soundtrack is also next level. Michael Mann is a real music lover and found some heady deep-cut synth tracks (Shriekback and Michel Rubini anyone?) for the film.
‘BEAU TRAVAIL’ (1999, Dir: Claire Denis)
“A wild way to say good-bye.”
Jae: I have dreams to recreate the end scene of this film, where Denis Lavant dances with abandon to Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night”.
Claire Denis’ methodical and tense film about French legionnaires in Djibouti, Beau Travail (meaning “Good Work”) probes masculinity in the best sorta way. The young, blithe soldiers fill their aimless days (due to the utter absence of conflict) performing strenuous tasks and war training under the guardianship of Galoup (Lavant). When the men aren’t melting in the desert heat, they are dancing at a nightclub. What draws me most to this film is the juxtaposition between the rigorous macho toy soldier behaviour and the nightclub sensuality, silk shirts and sashaying.
There’s a story here about repression and fear, as Galoup’s actions become increasingly unhinged towards one young man in particular. To covet is a deadly sin. Denis puts this film together so carefully, it’s a masterclass in editing and story structure alone. Combined with the exhilarating and tireless performance by Denis Lavant, Beau Travail is truly *chef’s kiss* when it comes to filmmaking. That ending - the Corona dance scene, allegedly was shot in a single take.
‘CRASH’ (1996, Dir: David Cronenberg)
“They felt like traffic accidents.”
Jae: Ugh! David Cronenberg films, my favs. Typically, I’d go for one of his earlier “body horror” numbers, but Crash is a special combination of his earlier body gore and later psychological thrillers. Based on JG Ballard’s book of the same name, Crash follows James Ballard (lol ok!) and his wife Catherine as they fall into the world of symphorophilia. In particular car crashes and accident victims. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger give strange, dispassionate performances - which makes the graphic sex and violence that much more curious. I’d say even more erotic.
This film is dark, it’s provocative, it’s cold, and is supposedly hated by Francis Ford Coppola. I love it. It’s one of those movies that enables you to live vicariously in a world pretty much unapproachable: the fatal fetish world. Met with tons of controversy and even censorship upon its release, Crash has a polarising effect. Not everyone can appreciate the perverse ways our protagonists get their knocks off, however, I highly recommend it. Try it out on a first date?
‘BENEDETTA’ (2021, Dir: Paul Verhoeven)
“I’m coming Lord. I’m coming!”
Gus: This movie is campy as hell, but I love it. Biopics are usually pretty loaded because they try to twist history to fit some tidy narrative. Benedetta doesn’t do that, because honestly, I don’t think there’s a message at all. Was Sister Benedetta visited by Jesus? Is she a saint? It actually doesn’t matter, here are some sexy lesbian nun scenes. I’m looking forward to buying an overpriced bootleg VHS in 20 years.
‘TITANE’ (2021, Dir: Julia Ducournau)
“The first thing is that Titane was born with the idea of putting love at the centre of the narrative - unconditional love, absolute love” - Julia Ducournau
Jae: I went to see this film on a whim. It was a late-night screening and I was not familiar with Ducournau, nor did I know anything about the content. I am so deeply happy I kept it a surprise, because it was a real trip to go into this one blind.
Agathe Rousselle deftly plays Alexia, an exotic car dancer who could be part of our Crash world, as she seems to have some steamy mechanophilia [a sexual attraction to machines], but the vehicle feelings are clearly mutual. She also murders *whomever* without compunction or reason. When getting dangerously close to discovery, she pretends to be Vincent’s (Vincent Lyndon) long lost son. Lyndon’s performance as the former gloried, desperately seeking father is out of this world. His eyes are always wet as if he’s been crying. The way Ducournau allows us to see the pain and love between this unexpected duo is truly heartening. Which makes the utter graphic violence of the rest of the film that much more surreal. Or forgivable? I don’t know - you tell me.