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by Jay Seaver

"Occasionally dys-gusting, seldom dys-missable."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 BOSTON HORROR SHOW: Maude Michaud's "Dys-" looks to be on the path to dystopia as it starts, but as with many stories that start with an outbreak, that turns out to be the background for some intense dysfunction. It's the sort of movie that is going to push some a bit too far, but will be absolutely riveting for others.

It starts with some of the usual disturbing signs - news reports of a nasty strain of the flu going around, and a possibly-related murder suicide with rumors of cannibalism. A lot of people in a Montreal photography class are absent, with one heading out just as Sam (Alex Goldrich) starts to deliver his lecture. He's distracted for other reasons; his marriage to model and longtime muse Eva (Shannon Lark) is falling apart. She's finally set to start a new job at a bank when the government institutes a travel ban, and even before a tense dinner with their neighbor (and Sam's best friend) James (Dega Lazare) ends with him coughing up blood in Eva's direction, there are times when you just don't want to be stuck in a small space with certain people.

Hallucinations may be a symptom of this "flu" - or maybe not - and when Michaud combines that with her intentions to reveal these characters' complete backstory slowly, the audience is in for some serious uncertainty from moment to moment. Michaud doesn't just count on everyone being a potentially unreliable narrator, though, finding ways to make the situation incrementally worse before the time for serious rug-pulling comes. She's also quite good at presenting things just a bit larger than completely necessary so that they are remembered later, whether as an explanation or a bit of a fake-out.

And while bits of the apartment's descent from tension to outright madness are a bit rickety - Eva's mother (Lynn Lowry) is almost absurdly awful in a way certainly meant to contribute to a shocking decision that I can't quite wrap my head around - I suspect that may be me, as a guy, not being able to quite get outside my own experience. Michaud and Shannon Lark do create an intriguing exaggeration of what's demanded of women here, making something supposed to be instinctively satisfying a threat and giving Eva an interesting relationship with her appearance - it defines her professionally, which sometimes hampers her other ambitions, but also gives her a means to assert control in a chaotic situation. Not completely - it's also a good way to lose said control - and that's part of what makes Lark's performance memorable; there's a sense of capability and power to Eva that can also be undermined, adding levels to her paranoia and madness.

As much as this is mostly Lark's movie, Alex Goldrich never allows Sam to feel like just an outside actor on Eva. It's not quite so rich a character, but Goldrich and Michaud does well to capture how men in his situation can have perfectly good motives and still be easily resentable, and that's before a certain level of insanity consumes the entire cast of characters. Dega Lazare has what initially seems like a small, throwaway role, but he plays James just right.

Some of that is just standing still for jump scenes; as much as Michaud is looking to get into Eva's and Sam's heads, she is making the sort of movie where one might wind up doing it with a hammer, or something even more gruesome. She does an impressive job of escalating this, starting from a polished, tony atmosphere and ending up with a lot of blood and several wince-inducing shots. Flashbacks put one of the most disturbing in the right place on the continuum, although its aftermath is something that both creates a bit of a thematic muddle and tends to call attention to itself as a little too much.

That's the trick with making a horror movie that means to do more than just repeat familiar tropes - there's little point in using horror as a vehicle if the filmmaker is going to shy away from painting in broad, bloody strokes, but people can still snicker while being grossed out. "Dys-" does well enough that it's worth digging into, even if its flavor of nasty practical effects aren't your thing.

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originally posted: 01/30/15 08:16:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Maude Michaud

Written by
  Maude Michaud

  Shannon Lark
  Alex Goldrich
  Dega Lazare
  Lynn Lowry

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