The advertising is that Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ horror thriller ANTEBELLUM comes from the producers of the genre hits “Get Out” and “We”. But even if the marketing doesn’t even create false expectations, this comparison also illustrates that not everyone can direct such clever horror fare as Jordan Peele. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Antebellum (USA 2020)
Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe) is living through a nightmare that has come true: The successful best-selling author is trapped in a disturbing parallel world in which she has to work as a slave on a cotton plantation and is regularly tormented by her overseers. These experiences make them question everything: their past, present and future. Can she find a way out before it’s all too late? And what if their experiences on the plantation are not a dream at all, but a bitter reality?
Thanks to his horror milestone “Get Out,” director and writer Jordan Peele has instantly become one of the most exciting genre directors of his generation. He was able to underline this status two years later with “We”, so that together with Ari Aster (“Hereditary”, “Midsommar”), Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) and Robert Eggers (“The Witch”, “The Lighthouse”) ) is one of the co-founders of a genre that could best be described as a “new intellectual horror”. Under the guise of ghost stories, the filmmakers tell of deep interpersonal problems and global political dilemmas. Since Jordan Peele has made it his mission to tell his stories from within the Black community, it makes sense that the marketing for Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s feature film debut “Antebellum” is advertised as “from the makers of ‘Get Out’ and ‘We'”. But you shouldn’t be deceived by this promise: “Antebellum” is not a Jordan Peele film, but was only supervised by Sean McKittrick, Raymond Mansfield and Edward H. Hamm Jr. – three of whom also worked on “Get Out” and “We “Producers involved who, in addition to these two masterpieces, also supervised projects such as “The Wrong Missy”, “Pride and Prejudice & Zombies” and “The Box”.
Veronica spends a relaxing evening with her friends.
In terms of content and tone, “Antebellum” has nothing in common with the three film productions mentioned above and yet one cannot avoid comparing it with the historical film-zombie mashup. In Burr Steers’ horror grotesque, two actually incompatible worlds collide, neither of which ultimately receives the necessary attention. But while you can have 100 minutes of silly fun with the extensive splatter escapades of the elegantly dressed undead, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who are responsible for the direction and script, aim for something completely different, something more serious, in “Antebellum”. They make this clear with a William Faulkner quote at the beginning of the film: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the Past (“Don’t Breathe”) in a five-minute sequence about a huge cotton plantation, shows toiling slave bodies, a failed escape and the punishment that follows. All in irritatingly beguiling images that, despite the brutality depicted, have an undeniable beauty. The low sun, the beads of sweat sparkling on the prisoners’ foreheads in close-up, the blooming cotton panoramas – everything gains in opulence and elegance in the super slow motion presented here.
“In the next moment, cameraman Pedro Luque drives over a huge cotton plantation in a five-minute sequence, showing toiling slave bodies, a failed escape and the punishment that follows. All in irritatingly beguiling images that, despite the brutality depicted, have an undeniable beauty.”
However, it is not clear what purpose the filmmakers are pursuing with this undoubtedly outstanding aesthetic. The depiction of the physical and mental abuse of the slaves even seems exploitative; The fact that the second third of the film follows the same style underlines this impression. If the trailer and marketing hadn’t made it the focus from the start, the hard break after about 35 minutes would have been a real mindfuck moment, but all of the (moving) images from “Antebellum” already communicated in advance that the film takes place in two worlds. Than Janelle Monaé’s (“Moonlight”) When the embodied slave Eden falls asleep after being raped, she wakes up the next moment as Veronica in the present, who reports that she has just had “a bad dream”. Veronica is a successful author who is a public advocate for the rights and equality of African-American women, giving lectures and giving television interviews with politicians. The previously established Hollywood high-gloss look remains the same – only from now on we are in an ultra-modern luxury apartment, a luxury hotel or an elegant restaurant. “Antebellum” is a different film now. The events of the first half hour are no longer mentioned. Instead, we follow Veronica on her appointments and on dates with friends, “American Horror Story” star Gabourey Sidibe plays the epitome of the funny African-American sidekick stereotype. Given the subject matter, another irritating decision.
Veronica (Janelle Monáe) with her daughter.
We don’t want to reveal anything more at this point than that “Antebellum” ends after a tough 100 minutes back on the plantation. And of course not what all this is about. A comparison with a film from the early noughties would be enough to demystify the mystery (if you like, you can find out the film title in question below this review). The problem with this is not necessarily that a very similar scenario to that in “Antebellum” has already happened before. Rather, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz do not present it nearly as elegantly as their colleague did 16 years ago. For over an hour and a half, the two of them work towards a certain tracking shot, which they probably intended as an absolute mindfuck moment. But it’s not just the overly clumsy marketing, which anticipates the all-important twist, that thwarts both of their plans. In terms of craftsmanship, “Antebellum” is simply far too coarse to keep you going until the last minute. The scenes on the plantation look beautiful, but with the exception of a painful miscarriage scene in an open field, there is hardly a memorable moment. As Veronica in the present, Janelle Monáe acts so aloof that it is difficult to establish a connection between her as Veronica and her as Eden. It’s as if we were watching two characters acting independently of each other, drawn like templates, whose story is never told to the end. Only the final motif is literally burned into the viewer’s mind – but also primarily due to the outstanding camera work.
“A comparison with a film from the early noughties would demystify the mystery.”
And the horror aspect? This hardly comes into play in “Antebellum”. Some sequences that hint at the supernatural in the trailer don’t even appear in the film. And the brief appearance of a small, scary girl as a kind of harbinger of bad luck seems so out of place that you get the impression that this scene was staged just to lay a threadbare false trail in the trailer – as if you didn’t already know what it was about the story boils down to. The dissolution of the whole thing is something that could be described as “horror”. But this is not due to a style staged using appropriate stylistic devices, but rather to the subject matter itself. Jordan Peele would certainly have achieved something oppressive with his sleight of hand. “Antebellum,” on the other hand, is a failed sleight of hand.
Conclusion: The outstandingly photographed horror thriller “Antebellum” aims at a single final point that you can piece together after the trailer and marketing, but at the latest after about half of the film. And not only do you already know this punch line from another, much better film, but it is also the only thing that remains in your memory about the incompletely told and directed film.
“Antebellum” will soon be shown in USA cinemas.
(The film we’re using for comparison is M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 “The Village.”)