I’ve seen more than my fair share of “low budget” horror, and usually it isn’t a pretty sight. The acting is typically bad, the writing cliché ridden, and the direction passable at best. Most of those helming the films are fanboys who shouldn’t plan on moving out of their parents’ basements any time soon. Women, for some reason, don’t make many horror films. That’s one reason why “The Commune” deserves some ink. Not only is it written by a woman, but Elisabeth Fies also directs, produces and writes a few of the songs on the soundtrack. I don’t want to sell “The Commune” short, though. The film is noteworthy for more than just the gender of its director. It’s also a compelling, increasingly disturbing, effort that on first thought is reminiscent of such cult classics as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Wicker Man,” and then on further examination feels a lot like “Twin Peaks.” It seriously needs some time on a psychiatrist’s couch.
“The Commune” centers on the virginal, soon-to-turn-16-year-old, Jenny Cross (Chauntal Lewis), who, for the last decade, has been raised by her mother (Fies). Her father, a chiropractor and resident shaman (Stuart G. Bennett), has been too busy heading up a commune to take any interest in his child, however, that’s about to change. Because of a custody battle, Jenny has to spend a month with him, and she isn’t pleased. As she tells her mom via the cell phone “there is wiggy shit going down here … we’re talking full on cult.” Some of the “wiggy shit” involves a horned god, vivid dreams, and people running around wearing masks. Jenny finds some solace in a local Goth-y guy named Puck (David Lago), but even he can’t save her from her horrible fate.
Several things raise “The Commune” above your typical low-budget fare. First, cinematographer Marc Shap makes the most of the film’s beautiful locale – Isis Oasis, a retreat center and ocelot wildlife preserve in Geyserville, Calif. – and his captivating leading lady, Lewis. Second, speaking of Lewis, although she is undeniably not 15-going-on 16, she has so much charm and youthful vibrancy that it isn’t too difficult to suspend your disbelief. With her blonde hair, blue eyes and petite frame, she reminded me of Sheryl Lee, who years ago, also played a very beautiful yet sadly tragic character. You might remember her as Laura Palmer. Considering everything that Lewis has going for her, it’s surprising that she isn’t a bigger star. (To date, she’s only really played cameo roles.) The same could be said for her co-star, Lago, who plays Raul Guittierez on “The Young and the Restless.” Looking a bit like a sexy vampire and sporting black eyeliner and fingernail polish, Puck exudes a palpable rocker cool. Even when he turns out to be less than gentlemanly, you can forgive him. He’s someone you wish you hand tangled with back in the day. Third, the script obviously contains real life moments, because, for the most part, it feels honest. For instance, the sex scene between Lewis and Lago could have been ripped from any teen girl’s diary. Gone are the ridiculous panting and confident pumping that we see so often in Hollywood films, and in its place is a girl who is nervous and unsure. This scene alone should be screened at high schools across the country to give everyone a better perspective on sex. In addition, you get the feeling that Fies, who lives in California, is sketching these “macaroni crafters” from her own experiences. Some of the dialogue, too, is quotable. I’d like to see “you reek of French fries” on a bumper sticker.
One person has commented that “The Commune” is what Neil LaBute’s “The Wicker Man” remake should have been. This isn’t saying much, as ANYTHING would have been better than this train wreck of a movie. The point is well taken, though. “The Commune” accomplishes something that films with a much larger budget can’t even do – and that is to entertain. So far, Fies’ film has only been to a few festivals – it was official selection at Dances with Films – and that’s a shame. It deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Hear that Lion’s Gate? Pick this up, tout de suite! If you can give Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever” a chance – and I still hold that against you – you can give this film one, too. Even if “The Commune” disappears into the ether, here’s to hoping that Fies is writing another feature with Lewis in the lead. I’ll be the first to see it.