When you think of horror films, what names come to mind? If you’re going old school, you’ll get John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Mary Lambert, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, Takashi, Miike, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg. Feeling more modern, you’ll get James Wan, Karyn Musama, Ana Lily Amirpour, Mike Flanagan, Jordan Peele, Fede Alvarez, Ari Aster, and Panos Cosmatos. The men and women of horror are so vast, endless articles are constructed around the best and brightest. Making his mark on the genre in his feature debut is Tilman Singer with Luz, an homage to the horror films of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s that makes its own mark. Though there’s a split in audiences around what constitutes horror – intense violence, gore galore, supernatural interaction, thrills, chills, and bloody spills – the one thing that’s agreed upon is that the genre seeks to unsettle and provoke. In this regard, Singer’s Luz is an undeniable triumph.
Taxi driver Luz Carrara (Luana Velis) walks herself into the police station after having been in an accident. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a woman (Julia Riedler) engages Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) in an intense conversation, even though he appears to be seeking a quiet drink while on duty. As the night goes on, all three individuals are pulled together, putting their lives, and the lives of everyone around them in jeopardy as a demonic entity searches for Luz.
The first thing audiences will notice about Luz is the absolute stillness present. Favoring long takes over fast cuts, Singer wants the audience to lean in to Luz allowing him to weaponize their anticipation so that every scene seems ready to explode. With the consistent use of long takes, Luz also takes on a feeling of a play. To the audience, it’s obvious that everything is happening according to a script, but the execution demonstrates an exacting deliberateness from within the narrative, as well. Characters only move as they need to and only as much as required, like pieces on a chess board being shuffled, though whether it’s for survival or domination is a matter of perspective. In this regard, Luz requires multiple watches as expectation for the unraveling of events is based upon presumptions of the genre as the pray and the hunter are not always what they seem. Take the opening scene of the film which sees Luz walk into the police station. With slow, deliberate steps, Luz enters, walks toward the desk sergeant, stops, turns away from the camera, shuffles toward the drink machine, gets a beverage, and returns to her original position before the desk sergeant. Through the stillness of the camera and pacing of Velis’s movement, the entire scene becomes constipated with tension. Even as she returns back to her original position, Velis faces the camera, as though staring the audience down. Later, when Rossini is introduced at the bar, the audience sees him sitting and then a voice out of our sight speaks to him. Whereas other directors would’ve used a cut to show us the voice’s position, Singer opts for a small shift in camera position and angle, revealing Riedler’s woman sitting at the end of the bar. It’s a small trick, but also ties wonderfully to the underlying theme within Luz of perception, revelations, and truth. In a later sequence, the police put Luz under hypnosis to get her side of a story they don’t fully comprehend and that’s where perception takes center stage. Singer beautifully melds the physical world the characters are in with the world from Luz’s memory – sight, sounds, movements all recreated as the two worlds overlap and merge. Rather than utilizing jump scares or unnecessary violence, Singer constantly utilizes the tangible to create tension again and again until the final moments.
Staging only works if the rest of the set and performances match the intensity. In her first feature film, Velis is spectacular, demonstrating an energy and precision of an actor with far more experience. Considering Luz’s character arc and journey, Velis is required to present a myriad of emotions, often while engaged in conflicting physical movements. So much of Luz falls upon Velis and she shoulders the responsibility completely. Her primary scene partner is Bluthardt, also a first time feature performer, whose look and delivery seems ripped straight from the ‘70’s. He manages to match her energy, often exceeding it, without ever overtaking a scene. Their strength as performers is brought out through Singer’s precise direction. In another extended take, the police prepare a room for Luz’s hypnotized-induced interview and Bluhardt’s Rossini remains still the entire time as the camera slowly moves in. Rather than appearing awkward, Bluthardt exudes an energy of control and patient anticipation. By themselves, the performances are strong and engaging, but Paul Faltz’s cinematography brings it all together. Singer’s narrative possesses a continuous undercurrent of merging – coupling, mixing of drinks at a bar, truth vs fiction – that the subtext begins to overtake the set as blues, whites, and purples begin to appear. Rather than seeming strange or unsettling, the infusion of color fits within the reality of scene, wonderfully supporting the performances from the actors and communicating the theme to the audience.
As strong a statement as Luz makes as a feature debut, it’s not without a singular concern. So much of what makes Luz evocative is the way Singer organizes what the audience learns and how. Doing so causes a challenge in perception regarding rightness and wrongness, good and evil. These cognitive shifts blended with the direction and cinematography send audiences tumbling down a rabbit hole leading to a strangely abstract ending even though it’s resoundingly concrete. So much of Luz is about perception that it makes sense for the ending to possess an aura of uncertainty. However, that’s bound to frustrate even the most avid of horror fans. That said, Luz is a strong opening salvo from a director with a clear vision and the talent to back it up. If nothing else, the greatest compliment one could give Luz is its ability to incite conversation upon its conclusion. I, for one, am ready to dissect this one, so buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
In select theaters beginning July 19th, 2019. To find a screening near you, head to Luz‘s website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.