In its unsettling blend of visual and aural disturbances and eruptions — including some radical strobe effects — “Pop Skull” powerfully points toward a new subgenre: acid horror. Director-lenser-editor and co-writer Adam Wingard constructs a subjective universe that, true to the title, places viewers almost entirely inside the frazzled mind of a 20-ish Alabama guy haunted by murders, forlorn over a breakup and popping way too many pills. AFI and Rome fest dates set up pic for potentially strong global and domestic niche biz, with trippy cult status in store.
Daniel (star and co-writer Lane Hughes), who also narrates in a zonked-out state, is drowning in pills to get over a split with ex-g.f. Natalie (Maggie Henry), but what also dogs him are recurring images of horrific murders that took place in his backyard. Time gap between the grisly killings and the present remains undefined, but their immediacy in Daniel’s subconscious — which nearly amounts to the film’s central character — trumps chronology, giving “Pop Skull” a strong sense of cinematic dislocation.
Friends try to keep Daniel in the present, so buddy Jeff (Brandon Carroll) urges him to chat up Morgan (Hannah Hughes). Feeling his pain, Morgan reminds Daniel that a lost love always feels like the end of the world — until we realize the world goes on.
“Pop Skull” stands alongside two other notable American indies this year, “Frownland” and “Loren Cass,” as a distinctive, visually powerful and uncompromising look at a disturbed, alienated young man battling inner demons while trying to make some human connections with the outside world. Wingard’s choice to literally put auds inside Daniel’s skull — in which startling bursts of strobe effects and loud explosions on the soundtrack genuinely warrant an opening title warning — is a radical, risky and generally brilliant one.
In the end, Daniel can’t ward off the murderous ghosts of the past, and, despite Morgan’s wise words and Jeff’s friendship, he builds up a slow rage at Natalie’s new beau. Though his final actions may appear somewhat predictable, the closing images allow for an open ending rife with disturbing possibilities.
Hughes makes a large contribution on the script and as Daniel — a role reportedly at least a shade autobiographical — in a perf that amounts to a slow meltdown in front of the camera. Wingard matches Daniel’s woozy condition by opting for low-grade DigiBeta vid lensing, with images that looked stained in urine. Kyle McKinnon and Justin Leigh’s trancelike score is a superb case of musicians responding to a film with precisely the right sound, subtly reinforcing the film’s queasy psycho-tremors.