Psychosis is psychological horror framed as a Noir. It’s the brainchild of an inventive South Australian filmmaker named Pirie Martin, his first full-length feature, which he writes, produces, directs, edits, and even foleys. His previous films include the shorts Andy’s Venture, A Job Well Done, and Cheaters, all released in 2017.
The plot: Cliff Van Aarle (Derryn Amoroso), a criminal “fixer,” is pressed into service to first clean up after and then track down Joubini (James McCluskey-Garcia), a misshapen mastermind who uses a designer drug called “Syn” to turn users into zombies and do his bidding. Cliff is reluctant: the crime world has taken its toll on him, and he and his comatose sister (Louise Byrne) have suffered at the hands of their father, a leading researcher. But Dad gave Cliff a special psychic sensitivity, and that plus copious amounts of coffee send him, jittery and bemused, out into the field, because (in true Noir fashion), he’s The Only One Who Can Do It, and besides, it’s One Last Job Before He Retires (emphasis mine).
Shot almost entirely in black and white (with flashes of color), Psychosis wears its low budget creds proudly. Not as technically astute (nor opting to be) as Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, it’s more along the lines of lo-fi classics like Guy Maddin’s films (Tales of the Gimli Hospital) and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, worthy company indeed. DP Isaac Szepessy’s high-contrast black and white palette gives the film a raw feel, while the square screen ratio boxes in the action, making it more intense. In fact, it’s all reminiscent of the early silent films and their sense of discovery, even with dorky graphic overlays to suggest states of mind.
But silent it ain’t. Psychosis is layered, whether by design or to save it in post-production. Whatever: it works.
Layer 1 is action and narrative, what we see on the screen. Layer 2 is a voiceover narration that provides backstory while Lindsay Dunn’s dulcet tones provide legitimacy. Layer 3 is an incidental but very effective electronic score by Mat Morison and Adrian Schmidt Mumm.
Layer 4 is the voices in Cliff’s head, jabbering away at his own doubt and misgivings, in a bright stereo mix (also by Mr. Martin). Cliff’s head contains multitudes, and their voices are there from the opening, popping out of a black screen, telling Cliff to “Relax,” “You’re not alone,” “Go back to bed,” and my personal favorite, “You used to have standards.” They intensify and recede as his situation does.
The action is played in tight, suggested rather than shown, with strobe effects and rapid-fire montage, in an homage to George Romero’s original The Night of the Living Dead. One sequence, from Cliff’s point of view while hanging from his ankles, is upside down on the screen.
Derryn Amoroso plays Cliff with Noir antihero’s ennui, aided and abetted by a host of foils and sidekicks: Hess (Kate Holly Hall), Brodie (Henry Errington), and Aaron (Michael Wilikop), actors who constitute a sort of repertory company for Mr. Martin, having been involved in his short Andy’s Venture. Colorful underworld types include Lonewolf (PJ Van Gyen), No Arms (Mark Healy), and Skeleton (Dorian Tisato). The entire Aussie cast gives solid performances, which help elevate this diminutive project.
Put all those sound layers together with confident and unique visuals on shifting cacophonous planes and you have an experience enjoyed most fully on a big flatscreen and with headphones.
Psychosis premieres at the 2023 Popcorn Frights Festival, which runs from August 10-20, 2023, and features new works like the subject of this review as well as many old favorites like The Band Brothers’ Parasite in 3-D, and Hershell Gordon Lewis’ classic Blood Feast. The festival looks to carry all the risks, repulsion, and fun we expect from the horror genre. Find it at https://popcornfrights.com/2023
Psychosis. Written and directed by Pirie Martin. 98 minutes. 2023.