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{Panic Fest 2023} Agatha

Every once in a while, a festival will program a movie so weird, so original, so different that you are reminded that the true joy of festivals is getting to experience a wide variety of movies that may or may not get general releases. The first time this happened was at Fantastic Fest when one of the international programmers excitedly announced a runaway Bull movie with thousands of extras. Jallikattu went on to win many hearts and awards. It was also the film I was excited to tell everyone about it. This time at Panic Fest, the fifty-minute, bizarrely animated Agatha will be that movie. It is a dark, rotoscoped nightmare that I can’t quit thinking about.

Thanks to the rotoscope, the entire film seems to squirm on the screen with unsettling undulations that will carry over into your dreams. I was terrified despite knowing virtually nothing about what happened in the film. The official summary does little to describe what Agatha seems to be going for. “Hoping to find a cure to his sickness – “The Professor” follows Agatha on a strange and risky journey into a forgotten but not entirely deserted urban wasteland.”

The urban wasteland looks and resembles many of our suburban neighborhoods. The neighborhood, which once seemed upper middle class, has been transformed through rotoscope into a nineteenth-century London filled with murder, violence, monsters, and a slithering fog that seems to infect everything and everyone it touches. Orrin Grey once described a movie as mostly vibes. That is an apt description of this film that seems less interested in creating a frightening narrative and more interested in being a cursed film on its own. I felt infected after watching it.

First-time writers and directors Kelly Bigelow Becerra and Roland Becerra set out to create a movie that reflects their roots in Bridgeport which itself is described by the artists as a post-industrial small town that seems to be forgotten by the cities around it while deeply reflecting its own dark history. That history includes troubling events, like witch trials and executions. That history in Agatha seems to swirl around the film as much as the ever-present fog. It influences every scene without ever getting fully fleshed out in exposition. In many ways, the rotoscope animation gives the setting a “ripped from the timeline” feel. As if everyone in the town does not remember how they got here but knows they don’t belong.

The performances are solid and understated. The characters mostly exist as part of the environment. As products directly of the weird setting as opposed to from that weird setting. As a result, the narrative feels as fractured as the environment. The fifty-minute run time is perfect in that regard. A full ninety minutes might require a bit more linear plot, but coming in under an hour, Agatha feels more like a hallucination than a feature film. In the crowded field of genre cinema, Agatha manages to stand out by the risks it takes.

It has been a very long time since I have seen a movie that looks and feels like a nightmare. Agatha feels like it takes place in the near future but with a world stuck in the near past. The artistic design makes everything in the film feel haunted. There is very little dialogue which gives it a Haxan or Nosferatu feel about it. The film does not veer away from the issues surrounding modern technology. This is a near future where the world looks spooky, but we still have access to our phones. At least with the end of the world, I don’t need to keep up on my Facebook and Twitter (maybe in that regard, Agatha exists in a world that is slightly better than ours, even with the fog and monsters).

The directors use phones more as artistic tools, and weapons of investigation and less as entertainment devices. The monsters are ever present, always lurking in the shadows. With all that praise, it is important to note that the film itself is pretty bleak. It is also pretty mean. I don’t always love movies that lean into being mean, but with Agatha, it totally works and does not feel exploitative. Bad things happen in that weird world, and we all have to deal with it.

Agatha is set to play later this week as part of Panic Fest’s virtual film festival. Its short runtime and bonkers animation make it a low-risk and high-reward watch. Who knows when it will get a wider release, so figure out a way to take a look before it disappears. Agatha remains the very reason why film festivals exist.