I made it out to Ottawa’s gorgeously storied Mayfair Theatre a couple of weeks back (something I don’t do nearly enough) to see Jason Banker’s latest film, Felt, because I admired his earlier Toad Road (2012).
I was glad I did. While it finally fails to “work” both as a horror film and as an artistic manifesto, its uneasy fusion of these modes succeeds in other ways. Felt made me acutely uncomfortable, and the discomfort it engendered kept me thinking long after leaving the theatre.
Felt is the result of an unusual collaboration between director Jason Banker and artist/co-writer/lead actor Amy Everson. Banker’s only previous feature Toad Road is a slow-burn exercise in gutter-cosmic horror (to borrow an apt term from writer Nicole Cushing) reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly re-imagined by Harmony Korine. A hypnotic trip down an acid-burn rabbit hole, Toad Road has earned its cult status, a status sadly inflected by the early death of its lead actor Sara Anne Jones not long after the film’s release.
Like Toad Road, Felt aggressively perforates the skin that separates documentary from fictional horror, and does so in ways worlds apart from the found-footage format that has come to dominate so many contemporary horror films. In Felt, Everson portrays Amy, an artist who tries to use her creations to cope with, and overcome, her trauma as the survivor of unspecified sexual assault(s) that occurred prior to the film’s opening. Felt is remarkable in its refusal to frame the sexual abuse that Amy suffered onscreen. In this, it resists the easy aestheticization of sexualized violence that so many thrillers and horror films exploit, and deviates from the rape-revenge films it, in other respects, invokes.
Like Everson herself, Amy creates sculptures, costumes, and found-object installations, most of them grotesquely exaggerated genitalia and/or satirical emblems of traditional gender roles (it is worth pointing out that the film’s title is a double entendre also reflected in the title of the website Everson runs with her partner Michael Lovan; ifeltyourpenis.com offers clients made-to-order felt penis replicas.) The film often seems to want to be a documentary about Everson and her art, and in one sense, it might have been more effective if it had been allowed to become such, rather than adopting the basic narrative structure of a rape-revenge film. Still, Felt achieves some powerful effects by uneasily fusing Everson’s activist art with Banker’s fascination for exploitation horror.
Felt explores Amy’s struggles through desultory scenes, contrasting her troubled interpersonal relationships with the meaning and security she finds in her creations. The most unforgettable scenes in the film are those depicting Amy’s solitary burlesques, as she sheds her anxiety, her awkwardness, her self by becoming the costumes she has created. She lopes predatorily through a forest wearing a coarse mask, skin-tight white catsuit and heavily dangling belted dildo; she poses on a hilltop before a stunning San Francisco sunset, flexing her massive prosthetic biceps, rotating her masked head until the sun silhouettes her Schwarzeneggeresque profile. Such scenes are made more effective by the subdued, almost Debussyan score that accompanies them.
On the other hand, those scenes in which Amy interacts with other characters are often painfully awkward, involving jarring cuts, pore-popping close-ups, and grating non-sequiturs. This contrast illuminates the power of the mask-uline identity Amy armours herself with, as opposed to the fear and frustration of her thwarted attempts to find intimacy and trust.
In terms of its plot, Felt finally holds few surprises; it is obvious from the outset that Amy will inevitably propagate the violence she’s experienced. Spoiler warnings about the film’s conclusion seem pointless, since its sever-and-spurt climax is so obviously foreshadowed. Equally pointless, it seems to me, are complaints about how unrealistic its final act of violence looks; by its closing scenes, Felt burlesques the rape-revenge films it critiques. Like its protagonist, it sheds its nuance as it loses itself in a grotesque caricature, failing to fulfill its possibilities by crawling inside a generic prosthesis.