If your definition of the term auteur has less to do with a filmmaker being a critical darling or a household name than it does one simply putting something on-screen that represents a singular personal vision, then Oklahoman writer/director Mickey Reece definitely fits the bill.
Though he’s only been making movies since 2008, Reece has already been able to develop his style and explore his thematic fixations over an almost shockingly plentiful body of work – he’s made over two dozen microbudget features and shorts in the decade he’s been in the game. Last year, he released an oddball Elvis Presley biopic titled Mickey Reece’s Alien, and, according to the IMDB, he’s currently in production on a 2019 feature with many of the same actors that he’s used on previous films.
In between those two movies (chronologically, at least), is Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart, which takes its title from a lyric in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and, most assuredly, moves to the beat of a different drummer – though it’s Reece, not the Velvets’ legendary Moe Tucker, who’s beating out its discordant rhythm.
It’s easy to describe Strike, Dear Mistress, but much tougher to get across just how weird and unsettling the experience of watching it is. The film is a psychological drama with some horror elements, but it walks the line of tongue-in-cheek parody throughout and, while it often emulates the kind of upper-class familial melodrama that you might see on Masterpiece Theatre, there’s an undercurrent of the macabre that keeps things pretty far outside the realm of PBS. It’s got bits of literary-sounding voiceover narration, the production design is purposely anachronistic and makes the time period impossible to pin down (it’s not every day you see someone in a movie wearing an ascot while talking on a smartphone), and its characters speak, with an intentionally stilted effect, in the mannered, verbose style of a 19th century novel – occasionally punctuated by jarring bursts of very modern-sounding profanity. There are creepy demonic visions and projectile vomiting and a weird fixation on German chocolate cake, and the sheer “what the hell am I seeing” factor makes even the film’s numerous slow spots worth sticking through.
“…purchase and renovate a quaint urban hotel that, the selling agent assures them, absolutely doesn’t have a dark and scary history.”
Strange as it is, Strike, Dear Mistress isn’t purely surrealistic, and unlike the inscrutable avant-garde project it sometimes threatens it might become, it does have a (mostly) easy-to-follow narrative. The film mostly belongs to an unhappily married character named Madeline (Audrey Wagner) whose husband, David (Jacob Snovel), has endeavored to purchase and renovate a quaint urban hotel that, the selling agent assures them, absolutely doesn’t have a dark and scary history. That, surprisingly, turns out to be true, but Madeline brings her own past trauma to the place when she invites her estranged, formerly world-famous concert pianist mother (Mary Buss) to live with her and her husband – along with Madeline’s invalid sister (Elise Langer), rendered nearly comatose in some unexplained tragic accident years earlier. Family tensions run expectedly high, and when a hairy, shadowy demon figure begins appearing during fraught domestic scenes, the stage is set for something deeply frightening whether the thing is a hallucination or not.
For a while, this all makes for a beguiling stew of characters, plot, and quirkiness in which it’s impossible to predict what might get tossed into the mix next (there’s even a crew of Italian laborers, called the Risotto brothers, on hand to provide mild comic relief). But although Strike, Dear Mistress excels at creating bizarre, ominous, blackly comedic atmosphere, even for a feature that runs just under 70 minutes, it loses steam and drags too frequently – especially in the second half, once it’s established a limit of how far into absurdism and out-and-out horror it’s willing to go. Reece occasionally hints at something like a Ken Russell psychedelic freakout to come, but aside from a memorably demented climax, he never quite cuts loose to that degree. Though it’s never boring, exactly, a little bit of his approach goes a long way, and once the novelty has worn off some, Strike, Dear Mistress sometimes feels more alienating than it is intriguing.
“…an abundance of piercing stares, intense brooding, and energetically theatrical confrontations.”
For their part, Reece’s actors all seem game to follow the filmmaker’s eccentric vision. The daughter-and-mother pair of Wagner and Buss particularly give it their all, contributing between them an abundance of piercing stares, intense brooding, and energetically theatrical confrontations. Snovel is quite good, as well, his melancholic, milquetoast character about as far from Elvis as can be imagined. Framed in mostly static, classically composed shots that nicely capture and perfectly suit their heightened staginess, the performances suggest Reece’s keen ability to get exactly what he’s looking for out of his cast – whether the material made any sense to them on-set or not.
All of which, of course, brings us back around to the idea of Reese as an auteur, and just how far Strike, Dear Mistress goes to confirm that notion. It’s the kind of film that makes a viewer step back and realize how very much alike most movies they see are; even the scrappiest of low-budget productions often feel as if, with a bigger budget and a name cast, they’d be largely indistinguishable from millions of other films both mainstream and independent. That’s absolutely not the case here, and Reece’s dedication to playfully experimenting within the medium – rather than offering up yet another calling card for bigger, more festival- and audience-friendly work, is admirable. It’s pretty entertaining to a point, also, and although Reece is already on to other things, at least for the moment, Strike, Dear Mistress deserves its chance to represent what he’s all about.
Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart (2018) Written and directed by Mickey Reece. Starring Audrey Wagner, Jacob Snovel, Mary Buss, Andrew Appleyard, Elise Langer, Kato Buss, Mickey Reece, voice of Cate Jones
3 ½ stars out of 5