Last year, Panos Cosmatos’ acid-trip-from-hell Mandy seized the horror world by storm. Fans demanded more theater screenings across the country, Cheddar Goblin became a horror icon, and Nicolas Cage solidified his batshit-crazy persona. It is a film that is the definition of style over substance, and yet it gained a cult following. Mitzi Peirone’s Braid deserves this same treatment. From its unhinged protagonists to jarring visuals, it showcases the talent and creativity of women directors, whose work is just like, if not better, than their male counterparts.
At its core, Braid is a film about female friendship and its strange forms. It begins with Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hays), two friends-turned-drug-dealers who are desperate for cash. Their solution is to head to the dilapidated mansion of their friend, Daphne (Madeline Brewer), who lives in a fantasy world and plays a game of House with three simple rules: Everybody plays, No outsiders, and No one leaves. Petula and Tilda believe that if they can play her game long enough, they’ll find a safe full of cash and all of their problems will disappear. But, Daphne has other plans. Her game descends into madness, a Lewis-Carroll-esque rabbit hole of bright colors, strange horrors, and plenty of cups of tea.
Peirone makes sure to jump right into Daphne’s demented game, rather than linger on exposition and backstory. She dangles answers in front of your face like a carrot through flashbacks triggered by PCP, letting the strange friendship between these three women unfold in shades of fluorescent pink. While some may find the story too disjointed, it echoes the worst acid trip you’ve ever had in a wonderfully sinister way.
Cinematographer Todd Banhazi’s camerawork truly embodies this acid-trip aesthetic, utilizing Dutch angles, close-ups, and even flipping shots upside down to create a physically uncomfortable experience. Everything feels just a little off, as your eyes have to work a little harder to make sense of what’s on screen. Some of his shots resemble a perverted Baroque painting, featuring beautiful costumes and women posed in hellish positions. Banhazi puts the viewer through the same sense of unease and discomfort that Petula and Tilda run in to every step of the game.
None of these visuals would land without the support of three phenomenal performances by Brewer, Hays, and Waterhouse. Each tap into a dark part of themselves to embody the madness of their situation; they cackle, scream, play with every ounce of their beings. Brewer in particular is a force to be reckoned with, a vision of hell dressed like a 1950s housewife. She treads a line between psychotic and sickly sweet with such precision that you are just waiting for her to snap. Between Braid and her performance in Cam, Brewer is a name to look out for in the horror genre.
One of my reservations about Braid was its use of mental illness. Horror doesn’t have a good track record with its portrayals of mental illness, weaponizing it and making it a purely negative trait that can only lead to horrific violence. At first, Daphne seems to be no different. She is declared “a psycho” and seems to be schizophrenic, though it is never explicitly stated. Her mental illness has made her a spectacle, a crazy woman who wants to play a strange game just so she can have some kind of companionship. This mental illness makes her violent, stabbing, hitting, attacking anyone who crosses her. But, there is a twist on her mental illness I did not expect. All I will say is keep an open mind with this aspect of the plot; you may just be pleasantly surprised.
Playing House has never looked so cruel in Peirone’s Braid. This film is a testament to the creative and beautifully sick minds of women working in horror. This is a film that refuses to provide concrete answers or to satisfyingly tie each narrative up in a little bow. Peirone instead opts to assault the senses and create a hellish world full of hammers, surgical instruments, and dolls. If you rooted for Mandy, also root for Braid; root for the women who are willing to take risks and showcase a side of creativity you’ve never seen.