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Laplace's Demon, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Like little else out there, by (inevitable) design."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Laplace's Demon" is the sort of movie that feels like a throwback until you try and remember just what it's throwing back to. After all, when movies had this sort of look, not many people were actually making this sort of sci-fi/horror; the crisp monochrome photography, ornate setting, and trickily-mounted set pieces were too much for genre productions unless they got to shoot one the not-yet-disassembled set of a classier film. Like the films made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, these films are speculative fiction in terms of style as well as story, though this nifty film is contemporary in its setting.

It's not immediately obvious that it's taking place in the present day until someone pulls out a laptop. Six men (Silvano Bertolin, Fernando D'Urbano, Duccio Giulivi, Walter Smorti, Simone Valeri & Alessandro Zonfrilli) and one woman (Carlotta Mazzoncini) are traveling to "Rock's Nest", a magnificent but isolated mansion on a craggy island in the Mediterranean to meet with the mysterious Dr. Cornelius on the matter of predictive algorithms, brought there on a ship captained by Alfred (Simone Moscato), who naturally is none too pleased to find that there seems to be nobody on the island to give him his money and the weather makes leaving immediately impossible. He's not nearly so intrigued as the self-described "specialists in applied presumption" to find a scale model of the house in the main chamber, connected to a complex clockwork mechanism that controls eight chessmen - pawns - that follow their movements. There is also a queen moving through miniature house, and they are soon reminded that queens capture pawns far more often than vice versa.

From the start, it's extraordinarily easy to imagine the premise of The Laplace's Demon laid out by either the mad scientist in a pulp magazine or the stalwart genius opposing him, a spot illustration captioned with a line from the text on the facing page, but while director Giordano Giulivi and he collaborators will eventually get there, the film is a kick to watch on the way. It's full of grainy black-and-white photography, slightly heightened performances, and effects that are not shy about being visual effects rather than real things, and Giulivi uses that seemingly less-refined style not just to show a winking fondness for genre trappings of a simpler time, but to plunge the audience into a world where what the characters are fighting is more elemental - not just in the striking death-representing visual of its "monster", but in a philosophical determinism that implies that every step a person makes is predictable. The music by Duccio Giulivi announces the film's genre and influences, and that's fine - even if style weren't half of what makes this movie what it is, the score makes a good jump from atmospheric to frantic the same way the movie does.

And as just a "people get picked off in an old dark house" movie, The Laplace's Demon is a lot of fun - it's Ten Little Indians with something outright paranormal at its center, and the filmmakers do a lot of nifty things with the actual winnowing, coming up with an extremely cool way to show something while keeping the monster in the shadows until it's time to stop messing around and genuinely terrific use of said monster, which is powerful in its simplicity rather than having a bunch of noodly details. Giulivi and his team find a lot of atmosphere and potential in mostly skipping gore; not only is what's just off-screen often more unnerving in general, but people vanishing mysteriously creates more mysteries to explore than mangled corpses.

It also helps create the "lost 1930s B-movie" vibe, to which the cast happily contributes. Many of the Italian cast also worked behind the scenes - so as a practical matter, the guy being played by the cinematographer has a big ol' target on him - and are likely more hobbyists than actors, but they're able to play things in just theatrical enough a way that it feels like a throwback rather than hamming it up. Like anything that's basically a slasher, there are initially too many characters, but enough establish themselves on the boat to have their exits matter, even if many feel disposable.

Though it doesn't necessarily affect the objective quality of the final product, the way that Giulivi et al filmed this is interesting - they kind of did a reverse Sky Captain, digitally rendering a bunch of environments and elements and then rear-projecting them for the actors to play against. It's a technique relatively little-used today (and mostly used to make actors in a parked car appear to be moving historically), but it probably doesn't hurt to give this cast something visible, if not tangible, to work against while also giving the film an old-fashioned look even when sleek CGI creations appear on-screen. It makes for a precisely-executed but playful film at times, kicking up happy memories but also letting it look like very little else.

It's one for horror fans who appreciate the old school, even if they don't want a slavish imitation. I don't know how well it does when off the festival circuit - the film is at its best with an audience that enjoys the things it pays homage to and a post-screening conversation about how they made the thing - but it's small enough that it can afford to just be for those fans and not worry about anything else.

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originally posted: 09/30/17 03:28:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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