Review by Keith Watson
It might be strange to criticize a movie whose central premise involves a woman having sex with a ghost for not being odd enough, but that’s precisely the problem with “Lace Crater,” a film that becomes less interesting as it starts to make more sense. What begins as an engagingly off-kilter mumblecore-horror-comedy (mumblehorredy?), gradually devolves into a fairly obvious metaphor for casual sex and STDs. While writer-director Harrison Atkins’ sensibility is too eccentric and deadpan to be confused for mainstream fare, the need to wrap everything up into a nice, digestible allegory ultimately hamstrings the film, forcing his odder instincts to operate within the limitations of a literary code.
Atkins is at his best when he refuses to hold the audience’s hand. The first third of “Lace Crater” is full of awkward, rambling conversations among a group of socially inept hipsters. It’s not clear whether Atkins is doing his best imitation of Bujalskian mumblecore or a parody of the same. Ruth (Lindsay Burge) and her friends speak in clumsy stutters, filled with “um”s and “like”s, the kind of hyper-naturalistic dialogue that defines a certain kind of indie film and tends to feel more like an improvisatory acting exercise than “real speech.” Of course, once the stammering, neurotic dialogue starts coming out of the mouth of a burlap-clad phantasm, the idea that this is all, on some level, intended as comedy comes into focus.
Ruth and her friends are hanging out in the house of one of the guy’s parents. They take drugs, share stories, and get close, but Ruth, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, is rebuffed, returning to her bedroom stoned and lonely when Kevin (Peter Vack) appears from the shadows clad in a hooded robe made out of potato sacks. He’s shy and ungainly, but they share an intimate moment, and it leads to sex. The next day Ruth awakes unsure of whether Kevin was even real. Soon, she starts experiencing very weird symptoms like waking up coated in ectoplasm and coughing up black bile.
At this point, Atkins’ lets the clear parallels to STDs overwhelm the film. More interesting, if somewhat underdeveloped, is a different strand coursing through the film: the idea that sex and the stigma around casual hookups disrupt all social interactions, making it impossible for anyone to say what he or she really means. Polite discourse forces us to stammer around the point, avoiding saying what we actually mean (e.g., “I want to fuck you” or “Please don’t fuck that guy you like because I want to fuck him”), which results in a lot of aimless stumbling. Unfortunately, these smaller moments often get drowned out by Atkins’ over-reaching for metaphorical significance and his somewhat ham-handed approach to horror (mostly dream sequences and arty artifacting video montages). But if “Lace Crater” is not quite fully formed—overdirected in some sections, underdirected in others; too cryptic in some scenes, overly obvious in others—Atkins’s sensitivity to the nuances of social interactions paired with his fondness for offbeat ideas nonetheless marks him as a director with considerable potential.