Jul 042012

When’s the last time you saw a talking cow? How about one that said “you’re dead fucked”? If you’re not schizophrenic, an answer other than “never” to these questions would probably mean that, like the steroidal jock Bluto (Robert Hoffman) in Shrooms, you were hallucinating on one of several mind-bending drugs. Well, it’s certainly no secret which one’s at issue here—the title eponymously informs us that “magic mushrooms” are the film’s psychedelic of choice.

Shrooms tells the familiar story of a group of American college buds imbibing illicit substances in a secluded location. Only in this case, it’s outside the land of the stars and stripes. The gang has flown to Ireland to visit a mutual friend, Jake (Jack Huston), their guru and guide to the art of tripping. From the airport, they travel out to the remote wilderness of the Irish forests to hand-select some choice specimens.

Their excursion turns nasty when Tara (Lindsey Haun)—a sometime Catholic schoolgirl yearning for the deeply spiritual and inhibition-releasing experience that apparently only shrooms can afford—wanders off from her companions and encounters some of the lethal black-capped mushrooms, the fabled “death’s head shrooms.” While Tara is off meandering, Jake informs the others of this variety’s sinister power: partakers who aren’t killed instantly by them become endowed with the “gifts” of clairvoyance and “shape-shifting.”

From this point forward, the film inexorably turns down a dark and twisted path. While Tara is lying in her tent, still tripping balls and beset by hellfire visions of dancing satyrs, Jake sets the scene by telling his mates a campfire “ghost story” based on supposedly real events. Somewhere nearby are the dilapidated remains of a sanitarium that in former times was run by a wantonly cruel monk who tortured and killed the young kids in his charge—their spirits haunt the forest where the party is camping out. And we are soon to find out that our heroine (anti-heroine?) Tara has ineluctably become part of their spectral world.

Tara’s friends are soon picked off one by one, but who’s the culprit? She presciently witnesses their murders at the hands of the twisted, soot-colored phantoms-come-to-life of Jake’s grisly tale. Yet we know that can’t be real—the point, after all, is that they’re tripping. Maybe this is just the worst trip they’ve ever had. Or it could be that the perpetrator is in their very midst.

It is, of course, another case of building suspense by toying with the viewer’s perception of fantasy versus reality—and that has to be one of the most overused dichotomies in film. But ask yourself this: how often have drugs, and shrooms in particular, been featured as the sole causative agent of a murderous rampage in the woods?

Though many have disparaged the film for its self-conscious twist ending, I question whether the denouement itself, unlike that of many other horror thrillers, is really the point. Two times, at the picture’s beginning and end, we see a clip of Tara running frantically through the woods as if something is chasing her. This scene accentuates the deeper twist that, I believe, the film wants us to recognize. In “overdosing on the heroin of shrooms,” Tara has become entrapped by her imagination: she no longer recognizes the world outside the forest as reality. Her mind is destined to wander forever through a fantasy world. Thus, the normal distinction between reality and imagination is turned on its head. Reality is most typically seen as the everyday prison we are trying to escape from, while imagination represents the ability to free ourselves from these fetters. Otherwise, why even take drugs? But if we mess with the mind’s natural equilibrium, the line between imagination and reality can become so distorted that we become locked inside our imaginations. Thus, imagination paradoxically becomes the cage.

Despite this mildly compelling premise, I’m certainly not going to contend that Shrooms is great cinema or argue with those who have criticized the film’s teen-scream aspects such as its trite dialogue, often predictable scares, and cardboard acting. But horror movies, after all, aren’t generally known for profound characterization any more than they are for intricate and well-crafted plots. The good ones are all about twists and concepts. Shrooms, unlike so many other “slasher flicks,” at least has a message to offer besides gore and cheap thrills. Give it a view; I think you’ll find the trip at least somewhat worthwhile.

Joe’s Grade: B-

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