90’s VHS video art featuring dogs and loneliness. A Carrie remake starring cats. An isolated artist who thinks he’s found a connection in life… but things don’t turn out as they should. These elements make up the plot of She’s Allergic to Cats, one of the most unusual, stylized and poignant films to grace the fantastic festival circuit in the past months, now screening at Boston Underground Film Festival this weekend.
Michael Reich makes his directorial debut with the story of Mike (Mike Pinkey), a video artist who makes a living as a dog groomer. His greatest dream is to create a remake of Carrie featuring only cats, but his producer – played by YouTube celebrity Flula Borg in a fascinating change of pace – is unenthused by the prospect. Consumed by self-doubt, living in a rat-infested apartment, Mike is unable to find fulfillment; but when he meets Cora, played by Sonja Kinski, he thinks there may be hope. Personal desire and ambition collide in a tragic series of events, however, when Mike finds his feline Sissy Spacek.
The film’s style is bold – all the footage downgraded by VHS transfers so it resembles Mike’s own art, images of dogs laid over his own self-pitying text. Reich uses this style to great effect: we are embedded in Mike’s perspective. The ethereal score and Pinkey’s down-to-earth performance further immerse the audience in a state of playful melancholy. Mike’s loneliness is universal to every artist who has fought to execute an image that only they care about, while struggling to make a living and maintain relationships as well. This is the core of the film, and grounds it in emotion, preventing it from just being an exercise in style.
Reich creates a world full of quirks as well – Mike’s producer friend is gleefully foul-mouthed; and his landlord is a hapless street performer whose attempts at helpfulness are totally uninformed. Kinski plays Cora with enigmatic charm, but never allows her to be just alluring – there’s heart in her, too. Mike’s environment is full of strange, mundane miseries, such as rotting bananas and mice infestations, which embed themselves in his video-art-dreams. The video images speak to the social media obsession with animals, what some might argue is an empty escape. For such an irreverent and simple plot, this film connects its elements extremely well. The emotional core is strong, and each scene pays off in the conclusion, a sequence full of unexpected despair.
While the video art is often strange and unsettling, this film is far from a typical “horror” offering. The connection to Carrie and Mike’s foreboding dreams create an atmosphere of weird dread that speaks to the anxiety any artist feels – and feeds into a tragic ending. Audiences expecting a frightening or disturbing film will be disappointed. This is more emotional terror, full of catharsis.
The plot is certainly slight, some may even argue too thin for its own good, but the unconscious effect of the film’s events is powerful enough to make up for that. Michael Reich has crafted a highly original exploration of loneliness and artistic vision. The audience for this is undoubtedly limited, but it’s got a vitality to it that will affect the viewers for whom it is made. There’s dread, sadness, and beauty within the bizarre world of Mike’s videos – those of us fighting to create can find something honest in this.