Moon Garden

MOON GARDEN (2022) is a strange little fantasy film from writer/director (and also editor, and sound designer, and production designer, and art director, and visual effects artist, and colorist, and animator) Ryan Stevens Harris. Oscilloscope Laboratories gave it an arthouse theatrical run, and recently put it on blu-ray and DVD, and it’s also on Shudder at the moment, though I wouldn’t really think of it as a horror movie.

I realize I’ve written more than one review lately that starts out by saying how simple the concept is, but that seems silly now because this is a simple one. A little girl named Emma (Haven Lee Harris, seven year old daughter of the director) falls down some stairs, goes into a coma, finds herself in a creepy dream world where she can kind of hear things from reality, and sometimes goes into her memories, as she tries to wake up. There’s a little more to it that I will go into in a minute, but mostly it’s not about talking, she doesn’t seem to have much scripted dialogue, the sound effects are more important than most of the words that are spoken. It’s mostly a series of strange experiences, encounters and images, an Alice in Wonderland/RETURN TO OZ type of story, but very DIY, and stylistically and tonally reminiscent of the works of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay. It also made me think of Phil Tippet’s MAD GOD, though Harris said he hadn’t seen that yet when he was promoting this. And I suppose there’s a trace of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD in there.

As in most movies of this type, the short opening in the real world is less impressive than the fantasy stuff. Unusually, though, it’s not just bookends, it really does create the context that makes this a story with an arc to it. It begins with Emma’s mother Sara (Augie Duke, SPRING, ACCELERATION, Mayans M.C.) waking her up late at night telling her they have to leave. Emma is very confused why her dad Alex (Brionne Davis, REST STOP: DON’T LOOK BACK, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT) isn’t going, but Sara assures her it’s a lady’s trip and it will be fun. Then she bursts into tears.

Alex stops them, it turns into a loud fight, this is when Emma gets upset and has her fall. She finds herself in a foggy forest, and follows a firefly (a flashlight checking her eyes?) to a pair of red and blue lights that work as TV screens and speakers. She’s hearing the voices of the EMTs trying to resuscitate her, but she’s too young and/or out of it to understand. Soon she encounters strange pumping engines and tubes that I imagine are inspired by the sounds she hears in the hospital. She maybe gets a better idea of what’s going on when she finds herself watching through a window as medical professionals attend to her unconscious body, her parents still not getting along, but at least focused on something important. Emma bangs on the glass crying “I’m here!,” but nobody notices. It’s heartbreaking.

That’s one of the movie’s secrets: this kid seems completely natural. She doesn’t have to do any convoluted kids movie shit, she’s just reacting to strange puppets and things. At first it feels like it’s gonna be too upsetting to watch such a young person being terrorized by a nightmare – especially when she finds herself underwater with a strange hand pulling down on her leg. When she makes it to the surface it’s a different time, a beautiful sunny day, her mom is teaching her how to swim and her dad is on the shore, smiling and cheering her on. I like how these flashbacks give her pieces of advice that help her survive the coma world – in this case, “Don’t forget to kick your feet!” But I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a knot in my stomach seeing that kid get yanked under water. I got some ideas how they could’ve faked it but I wasn’t sure enough about it to be un-horrified. But I was glad the intensity didn’t stay at that level.

Unfortunately, the parents don’t feel as real to me. I respect that their story needs to be established economically, but the way they do it (straight up saying stuff like “the only thing you care about is your writing!”) feels pretty forced. The relationship troubles turn out to be less cut-and-dry than they seemed initially, and they get closer as they spend time together in the hospital and learn from Emma’s innocent perspective of the world. That kept me drawn in, but with Alex depicted as so mean and threatening and the two of them throwing shit at each other in the opening do we really want them to stay together? I don’t know. Still, the characters work well as distant voices talking to Emma through a little battery powered radio she carries around, so I got more invested in them.

The things her parents say to her in the hospital being broadcast inside the dream world is a cool gimmick. At one point Sara sings Badfinger’s “Without You” as a lullaby, and she’s very good! Emma meets an organist (Phillip E. Walker, “President [uncredited],” EDGE OF DARKNESS) who plays along with the singing. The distortion adds an eerie quality to it, but mostly it’s sweet, and the tune comes back periodically throughout the ordeal.

It’s not a full-on journey through Oz or anything, but she meets a few weirdos such as a princess (Maria Olsen, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE: DEJA VU), who sits with her on a cloud and says the things her mom is saying to her, but in a different accent; and “Teeth” (Morgana Ignis, SATANIC HISPANICS), a being decked in black with a featureless face like The Blank from DICK TRACY. She tears it open to create a large black void and places a pair of chattering chompers inside. And by the way, she’ll get you in the end (by which I mean she rises up out of a toilet in one scene.)

There are bits of stop motion, time lapse, miniature models, puppets, animated drawings, reverse photography (like when the man smashes his organ to pieces with a mallet – to us he’s unsmashing the pieces into a working instrument). A firefly turns into an apple that drops and rots and then a slimy hand comes out of the ground and turns into a hairless person who does a rickety dance to industrial music playing on speakers that rise out of the soil. Emma turns a switch that turns on a machine that stirs thick black oil that pumps through a tube and dumps on the bald person’s head. Or Emma is in a hole underground and a structure around her rises up and it’s shaped like a giant rhinoceros that she controls by yanking on a series of vines. That sort of thing.

An obscure movie this made me remember is MIRRORMASK, produced by the Jim Henson company, written by Neil Gaiman, and directed by the comic book artist Dave McKean. It’s got a similar hand-made, let’s-put-on-a-show, also-this-is-a-child’s-dream-world-so-it-doesn’t-make-sense sort of thing going for it, though McKean was experimenting with lots of digital effects and this is firmly in the Practical Effects Are King camp.

And it looks beautiful. They shot on 35mm, using 16 different cameras including a hand-cranked one from the ’20s, expired film stock, and “upcycled vintage camera lenses” (confession: I don’t know what that means).

Harris is one of those filmmakers who has built up a bunch of skills working in various departments of all kinds of films – he calls editing his day job in interviews – and then unleashes them directing music videos and passion projects like this. He’s worked as a cinematographer (TALONS), an editor (Christploitation movies GONE ASTRAY and FORGIVEN, Julius Nasso’s action movie DARC, the Michael Jai White vehicle THE HARD WAY), and animator (the opening sequence of the Verne Troyer movie GNOME ALONE, the epilogue of the Roland Emmerich movie MIDWAY). He was both editor and sound designer of Emmerich’s MOONFALL. If it was me I would never stop bragging about working on this pair of MOON movies. In my opinion MOON GARDEN does take place in the MOONFALLverse, so the full moon she keeps seeing and talking about is in fact an artificial megastructure. Fuck the moon.

I assumed this was Harris’ first feature, and I’ve seen it reported as such, but he previously directed what appears to be a more straight forward sci-fi/horror movie (2010’s VIRUS X). His IMDb lists a 2017 short called Every Dream is a Child with Teeth (2017), which was actually a proof of concept for this, shot entirely in his garage, and used as the end of the movie.

The biggest danger for a movie like this is that you absolutely have to be in the right mind frame to let it sweep over you. If not you will get distracted and it will be game over. So I’m positive it worked better for people in theaters than it does on streaming, and admittedly I think it could be stronger by being shorter than its 96 minutes. On the other hand, the journey of the parents really did bring some structure to it that kept pulling me in, I love its look, its sense of experimentation, its unrestrained imagination. And I look forward to seeing what this guy comes up with next. In lieu of MOONFALL 2, he’s trying to do one called FIRESTOKER that he considers a companion piece to MOON GARDEN. Keep an eye out.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 26th, 2024 at 7:08 am and is filed under Reviews, Fantasy/Swords. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

6 Responses to “Moon Garden”

  1. I like when Shudder dips into these weird horror-adjacent handmade fantasias. They have an old one on there called WOLF HOUSE that’s fairly indescribable. I feel like if you’re gonna go trippy, go full MAD GOD or go home. I did too much acid back in the 90s to abide half measures.

  2. Oh yeah, I tried to watch WOLF HOUSE and could not get into it story-wise, but it looks absolutely amazing. They did some animation in BEAU IS AFRAID also.

  3. Apparently, WOLF HOUSE is not an old movie. Came out in 2018. I fell for the TEXAS CHAINSAW style bogus disclaimer at the beginning. I am getting way too credulous in my old age.

  4. Vern/Mr. Majestik:

    Great review Vern and Mr. Majestik Mad God was excellent nightmare fuel and the couple of Svankmajer pics I’ve seen were pretty wild as well. Caught the trailer for this on Shudder and added it to my watch list. I’m not familiar with Wolf House though but will check it out.

    Watched Road House and other than Post Malone and Dalton getting knocked up on to the boat near the end I enjoyed it a lot. I agree with your take. And I recommend Immaculate. Caught it last night on the big screen and really glad I didn’t wait until streaming. Next up is Late Night with the Devil

  5. This sounds right up my alley, I’ll have to seek it out (it’s not on Shudder UK…)

    THE WOLF HOUSE is amazing – it’s another one of those movies where you absolutely need to be in the right frame of mind, but if you are it hits like a hammer. Creepy as all hell, and technically it’s unimpeachable. I’d very highly recommend it if you like this sort of thing.
    @Majestyk – the old timey introduction is there to establish that the whole movie is a bit of propaganda made within Colonia Dignidad in Chile, an actual historical Pinochet-backed cult-like compound run by a bona-fide nazi that ran for decades. COLONIA with Emma Watson was about the same place.

  6. I dug this one as well. It was really impressive looking given its modest budget and had Terry Gilliam vibes that I appreciated. I will have to look into WOLF HOUSE.

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