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Ulises [Celluloid 10.13.08] movie review horror

Year: 2007
Release date: Unknown
Director: Rona Mark
Writer: Rona Mark
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: 7 out of 10

The Bottom Line: A poor man’s John Waters-esque film about twin sisters on a rampage, the film has its clever moments and twists. But it’s a bit unfocused, and like many John Waters films, it leaves you with a sense that many opportunities were missed.

Rona Marx’ film, Strange Girls, doesn’t take long in turning expectation on its head. When we meet Dr. Karp (Adrienne Wehr), the friendly, eager, new head of staff assigned to the Mayfield Psychiatric Institute, the movie very quickly becomes about her. She’s acclimating to her new surroundings, meeting badly dubbed characters (including Max, the gosh-darn-it security guard) who snicker behind her back, “She’s a nice girl. She’ll last five months.” And when she meets her two most interesting patients—twins who never speak to anyone except each other, and who have this weird, eerie tendency to do everything in unison—we figure, okay, it’s going to be Dr. Karp against the twins. Kind of like Awakenings meets Dead Ringers with bits of Serial Mom thrown in, right?

Nope. The movie slashes away that assumption quite emphatically. The story isn’t about the lovable, huggable Dr. Karp. It’s about the twins, Virginia and Georgia, and their quest to be released from the hospital, write the next great romance novel, perform brain surgery, and, oh, kill anyone who wants to sidetrack their plans.

Strange Girls straddles the line between dark comedy and slasher, even as it firmly entrenches itself within the realm of camp. It’s a character study of two maladjusted sisters who aren’t adjusting to their new surroundings, but rather adjusting their new surroundings to them. And while the film produces some interesting moments thanks to the unbalanced power dynamic between the two presumably synchronized sisters, it also fails to deliver on the promise of its opening act of…um…artistic impression. Trust me, it’ll make sense in a moment.

So, okay, we already established that Strange Girls is about creepy twins Virginia and Georgia (because if it had been about Dr. Karp, a more fitting title would have been Strange Doctor, or Dr. Karp vs. Strange Girls, or Awakening of the Dead Ringer Serial Moms). Virginia and Georgia are, well, a bit odd. We’re told early on that they haven’t said a word to anyone in more than 14 years. They speak to each other in twin-speak, a sort of encoded pseudo-English that only they can understand. When they feel the need to communicate with the outside world, it’s through handwritten notes. And they’re good at labeling themselves: Virginia always wears green, and Georgia always wears purple, so as to not confuse anyone.

That’s not all. It seems they do everything together, too. And I do mean everything. They walk in lock step side by side, making the exact same turns, twists, and stops no matter where they’re walking. And this, understandably enough, makes people nervous. Especially the good folks at the institute. But, wouldn’t you know? They’re about to be released, because the staff figures, yep, they’re creepy as hell, but they’re not exactly killing anyone. Until, that is, Dr. Karp shows up.

Dr. Karp is of the opinion that the girls aren’t quite ready for prime time. The sisters, originally giving Dr. Karp the silent treatment, decide to break their silence and write her a note saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “Hey, we were kinda lookin’ forward to our release, hope ya won’t get in the way”. And Dr. Karp, all happy and full of new energy, basically says, “nuh-uh, I want ya to stay a bit longer cos I really want to make ya talk to me.” This is where we realize the sisters will do anything to ensure their plans move forward. Suffice it to say, they’re released from the hospital right on schedule.

Liberated from the world of white walls and perky doctors, Virginia (Angela Berliner) and Georgia (Jordana Berliner) are set up in a halfway house, living with their landlord, a cantankerous old lady who doesn’t like noise, black people, or sluts. In other words, there’s absolutely no chance anything will go wrong there, right?

You have to give them credit, at least. They’re trying to forge a new life for themselves, and their main ambition is to write the next great romance novel, a 17th century tale of love set in France featuring a heroine named Marlena. “Art is the lie that tells the truth,” is their creative philosophy. And so, every day, the two sisters sit back to back, taking turns handwriting the pages of their novel, and writing intimate journal entries where they reveal their relationship isn’t as hunky-dory as they want people to believe. In particular, it seems there’s a definite chain of command between them, with Georgia assuming the mantle of bossy big sister, and Virginia assuming the role of resentful but obedient baby sister.

It doesn’t seem their relationship has suffered too much from Georgia’s power grab. That is, until we meet their next-door neighbors, including Oyo Stax (Alem Brhan Sapp), a handsome black man who welcomes the chance to sleep with the two creepy sisters but who ultimately falls for Virginia.

Suddenly, there’s a break in the sisters’ we-do-everything-together approach to life. Because before Oyo’s entry, they even have the same number of boyfriends—three apiece, all of them prison inmates with whom they correspond via mail. But Oyo doesn’t just fancy Virginia; he makes her rebel against Georgia. What’s her act of rebellion? Having the audacity to speak on her own (the sisters’ public façade, after all, is never speaking to anyone).

With the love triangle in place, it’s only a matter of time before Georgia decides to fix things. And while some of it involves a bit of trickery (remember, Virginia ALWAYS wears green, so you know it’s her if she’s wearing green, right?), her ultimate solution is the same one she used to deal with Dr. Karp, the cantankerous landlady, an obnoxious neighbor, and so on. Fortunately, by then, the film’s comically inept police finally get a clue, thanks to the Hardy Boys-like detective work of Max (Michael Gilbert). You know, that nice, gosh-darn-it security guy from the hospital? The only person in the state who somehow figured it wasn’t a plot-convenient stalker boyfriend who’d prematurely ended Dr. Karp’s friendly, eager tenure at the institute?

The film’s end will resolve the love triangle, and establish the final allegiances between the sisters once and for all. Will Virginia go for Oyo and his playa lifestyle? Or will she choose to obey her bloodthirsty sister one more time? The ending seemed a bit too literal, and maybe just a bit anti-climactic. Oh, the drama…

Strange Girls certainly has its share of interesting moments of character study. For all their presumed creepiness, Virginia and Georgia prove to be more conniving than creepy. Their silent-sister act to the world is a façade that masks their artistic ambitions—and their willingness to do whatever it takes to make sure they succeed. In fact, Georgia confesses that serial killers are the most interesting subgroup of people, mostly because an occasional killing is actually quite poetic. They are artists who want to fashion the world in their image, escaping to 17th century France to mold and live out their shared tale of love and vindication (and occasionally indulging in a form of poetic killing, but that’s another story). It’s fitting, then, that Oyo’s entry is the first time an outside event shapes their vision, instead of being shaped by it. Georgia catches Virginia inserting a new character into Marlena’s tale, and wryly points out that there were no “brothas from the hood” back in 17th century France.

The power dynamic between Virginia and Georgia also makes for some interesting moments. In particular, Oyo’s entry into the narrative brings out Virginia’s first act of open defiance: individuality. Much to Georgia’s horror, Virginia speaks, acts, and moves by herself in public. It’s deviance through individuality, and it’s fairly clever. Nor is the dynamic between Virginia and Oyo any less interesting. Oyo is a player, but we find out that he actually grows to care about her. And while his maturity is always fleeting, his revelation that Virginia makes him feel grown up for the first time in his life is one of the film’s most earnest moments. It makes us think that, behind Virginia’s willingness to play the part of would-be artist molding the world in her image, she’s just as capable of affecting the world around her in a positive manner.

Still, Strange Girls falls a bit short on the promise of its character study. The film is campy; there’s just no way around it. Between some borderline bad acting, some cheesy lines, and some very cheesy effects (including the very literal finale), it’s hard to think of the film as anything but camp. And that’s fine, because campy doesn’t equal bad if done right. But some of the plot points are held together by some very tenuous and overly convenient (i.e., campy) devices. For example, the previously mentioned stalker boyfriend, whose convenient mention in the movie gives the police, and the movie, a quick, easy way of explaining how Dr. Karp could be…um…dismissed without raising suspicions about the sisters. And when Max, the gosh-darn-it security guard, finds the ‘evidence’ that links them to Dr. Karp’s fate, well, let’s just say, if police work were that easy and convenient, there’d be no unsolved crimes.

Strange Girls is also a movie of missed opportunities. That the sisters are willing to kill to get their way is fine, but I wish this plot element had been better refined. Their first murder makes perfect sense because it drives the plot. But their ensuing murders (possibly involving a cantankerous landlady and an obnoxious neighbor) simply don’t. They elevate the body count and give Georgia an excuse to try her hand at brain surgery, but that’s about it. On the other hand, if the sisters had pursued a similar course of action when they get their rejection letter from the publisher (a rather nasty one, too, that calls their “illegible handwritten adolescent prose…inadequate for harlequin romance”), then we’d be getting somewhere. Then the film could have followed a more natural, and more interesting, storyline about the sisters’ willingness to shape the world in their image, by force if necessary. (And, frankly, it would have been a great way to rib the publishing industry, which you can argue figuratively kills writers left and right.) Their philosophies on the poetic and redeeming nature of serial killings would have made more sense. But as it stands, their killings seemed almost petty.

Like your standard John Waters film, Strange Girls is difficult to categorize, because it straddles the line between seemingly incompatible genres, and it defies expectations enough times to jar your senses. But like many of Waters’ films, it’s also missing the mark somewhat. A high camp factor and some missed narrative opportunities failed to capitalize on the promising idea of two sisters whose idea of artistic impression just happens to involve some light killing. Still, the film is worth watching, because buried under its camp and its random killings are some nuggets of psychoanalytic pay dirt and some relatively interesting characters. And if that’s not enough, just remember, there’s Max, the gosh-darn-it security guard.

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Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

The character Oyo Stax was played by Andre Delawrence Rice Jr. Not Alem Brhan Sapp. Get your facts straight before publishing.

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