I am a sucker for highly stylized horror- especially when it is paired with an equally compelling soundtrack. A lurid combination of sight and sound, while the touchstone of all cinema, is absolutely requisite for horror. Perhaps no better example of perfection in such an amalgamation is Italian horror from the 70s and 80s. Masters of the genre like Fulci, Argento, and Bava knew exactly how to harness terror through stunning visuals paired with piercingly dramatic musical cues. Though Nicolas Pesce’s new film PIERCING certainly isn’t just another retread of the splatter classics, it pays the best type of homage to the greats by following the same rule book in its own unique format while borrowing heavily from the musical legacy of that cinematic era.
Based on Ryû Mirukami’s novel of the same name, the film begins as our protagonist, Reed, prepares for a business trip away from his wife and infant daughter. It is immediately apparent that Reed suffers from anxiety and possibly an even more insidious psychosis...which is very soon confirmed when it is revealed that Reed’s true MO for his travels is to hire and murder an S&M prostitute. Reed is meticulous in his planning- acting out and timing each sordid leg of his endeavor. When it’s finally showtime, his plan is derailed by the equally tortured hooker, Jackie, who catches the wannabe assailant off guard with her own brand of crazy. This summation may swerve a bit into spoiler territory, but I assure you that there is much more to PIERCING than mere table turning.
First off, there is Pesce’s incredibly stylized, timeless aesthetic. While there are some definite mid-century themes, the overall vibe is ensconced in rich, dark colors that emanate a timeless underworld vibe while appearing quite lush and beautiful. Though not a period piece per say, there are no cell phones, pop culture references, or other signs pointing to a specific era. The lack of a definite time stamp helps create an overall feeling of isolation and detachment.
Another interesting visual choice by Pesce is his use of miniatures for exterior shots of the cityscape in which the characters live. The perfection in the endless array of towers with lights beaming from ubiquitous office spaces and dwellings not only provides a stark contrast to the other onscreen calamity, it also provides an inconspicuous sense that much can go on behind closed doors that is never seen.
As mentioned in my intro, perhaps the most compelling element of PIERCING is the music. With a majority of the film’s music by Italian maestro Bruno Nicolai-and a few Goblin selections too boot- the strong overtures throughout the film are nearly a character themselves. Though some sequences are accented by lounge music and even some soul, it is the musical throwback to the great gaillos that sucked me into the quirky horror.
In the lead roles, Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska are perfectly paired as the equally sadistic paramours.
Abbott’s undeniable handsomeness is accentuated by his subtle and overall apprehensive performance. His take on Reed seems dangerous without being the least bit menacing, and also somehow sympathetic even though he is clearly maniacal.
Wasikowska is as captivating as ever in the role of the hooker without a heart of gold. She completely embodies the vulnerability of a troubled person while also revealing the complex and demented side of someone who sells sex and pain.
Aside from compelling visuals, epic music, and captivating performances, Pesce also features some pretty great visual effects throughout the film. There's some convincing gore, a harrowing trip scene, and even some terrific creature work at play within the dark story. PIERCING is packed with all the good stuff thriller/horror fans love.
It’s rare in a film to cheer for and against both main characters, and in PIERCING Pesce has done just that. The film hits theaters this December, and I highly recommend this dark and unique story about personal demons and the sinister tendencies they can arouse. Stayed tuned for part one of my interview with director Nicolas Pesce later this week. Thanks for reading.