Backpacking abroad and locked-room thrillers are common exploitation movie scenarios, but writer/director Cate Shortland (Somersault) uses both to stoke fear and dread in more artful ways in Berlin Syndrome (****), her unsettling adaptation of Melanie Joosten’s novel about an Australian photographer whose instant attraction to a local Berlin man develops into an all-too-plausible nightmare scenario.
The film – which received its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival over the weekend – is tense without succumbing to obvious genre beats, hinging instead on Teresa Palmer’s enigmatic turn as the life-experience-seeking Clare, whose openness to the world she’s documenting on her extended trip attracts the attention of school teacher Andi (Max Riemelt).
He seems like a nice guy on the surface, but as their relationship takes a turn for the sensuous, Clare finds to her horror that his gentle demeanour is part of a calculated strategy to keep her in his life against her will.
What follows is a skilful, delicately wrought character study, punctuated with moments of extreme horror that reinforce its heroine’s resilience in a toxic world she refuses to give up on.
There was more genre subversion on display in the festival in Hello, My Name is Doris (****), a fantastic showcase for Sally Field, cast here in the lead as an eccentric, pushing-70 office worker who develops an obsessive crush on her 20-something boss (Max Greenfield).
Unlike a lot of films about older protagonists (Lady in the Van, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), this doesn’t present her plight in a condescending way. Instead it treats it humanely and naturalistically, letting the comedy (it’s often very funny) emerge organically from the character as she becomes embroiled in a world of New York hipsters.
Co-written and directed by Michael Showalter, best known for creating TV shows Wet Hot American Summer and current critical smash Search Party, the film is shot very much in the style of the latter, offering a slyly satirical look at the generational divide between baby boomers and millennials that simultaneously bridges that divide beautifully: this is funny, sweet and moving whatever age you happen to be.
Catfight (**), on the other hand, proved disappointingly facile given its provocative premise calls for stars Anne Heche and Sandra Oh to beat the living daylights out of one another. They play former college friends whose enmity resurfaces years later against the backdrop of a presidential election that looks set to plunge the country into chaos.
If that sounds timely, its broad approach has been overtaken by reality: none of its satirical punches land. The film screens again this week.
Much more relevant is Here Come the Videofreex (***), which also screens later this week. It’s a fascinating documentary about the eponymous filmmaking collective who embraced the introduction of video technology in America in the late 1960s and started documenting the political upheaval happening all around them.
Though the story is conventionally told, the footage – much of it unseen – is remarkable, not least for how closely it resembles what’s happening on the streets of America right now.
*The Glasgow Film Festival runs until 26 February. www.glasgowfilm.org/festival