Limbo (1999)

If an actor made their feature film debut tomorrow and worked steadily for the next 25 years, it would still be a tall order to reach the lofty heights set by the filmography of Tina Krause. A screen veteran of more than 120 film productions, she made her mark in the mid-1990s as an in-demand scream queen for the shoestring-budget independent company W.A.V.E. Productions, and over the course of her career appeared in films by directors like Frank Henenlotter (BASKET CASE, BRAIN DAMAGE) and indie maven Mark Polonia (FEEDERS, LETHAL NIGHTMARE) among many others.

It was, at least in part, due to a sense of fatigue with this micro-budget horror movie space – playing sexy vampires, taking inexplicable showers that served no narrative purpose, or getting chased, shot, stabbed, or strangled by some creepy male killer – that inspired Krause to make her own feature film from a script she wrote. The type of horror that seemed to dominate the market and constrained her acting options at that time – e.g., tedious “boobs and blood” shot-on-video slasher fare – paled creatively in comparison to the horror that she grew up loving; she craved films with sharper psychological edges like David Cronenberg’s SCANNERS or John Carpenter’s THE THING.

It’s this career pretext, combined with the influence of an unintended drug experience, that contributed to 1999’s LIMBO, the first and only film written and directed by Krause. It plays like an experimental video collage that blends elements of mid-1990s industrial music videos, the death-trip dread of JACOB’S LADDER, the frayed metaphysics of David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, found-footage horror, and the snappy but often cringey dialogue of CLERKS. In the making-of featurette included on the excellent 2020 release from AGFA and Bleeding Skull!, Krause offers that viewers can and should come away with their own interpretations of what happens in the film while also confessing that under the veneer of the visuals, there is indeed a coherent storyline.

In the main story thread, a woman named Catherine/Elizabeth (and without end cast credits, it’s unclear whether this is Suze Daufler or Susan McAnnich) visits a noisy, crowded bar and sits alone at a table; the air is thick with cigarette smoke, cheap cologne, and misogynist braggadocio. A group of mysterious long-haired men dressed in leather jackets and puffy shirts hold court around a pool table. A pair of sleazy friends – one of them played by film editor Mike Lisa – sit at the bar and trade taunts and crude remarks about the present clientele (including Catherine). The former editor of FANGORIA, Michael Gingold, is eating lousy pub food. Krause herself plays a server who checks in with Catherine periodically as her wine glass is barely touched, offering mostly salt and sarcasm while collecting bills, fighting off creeps, and waiting for her shift to end.

During her stay, Catherine knocks a random drunk who attempts to hit on her on his ass with some sort of psychic energy that activates when she removes her sunglasses. Over her drink, she’s visited by a disembodied voice (we occasionally see his hands) that seems to shame her over some unspoken past transgression (“You think they’ll forgive you for what you’ve done?”) From the pool room, a member of the puffy shirt gang mimes the “shush” gesture at her. Flashes of abstract imagery from other settings – some mundane, some horrifying – interrupt Catherine’s thoughts in strobes and streams.

Throughout the remainder of the film’s 55-minute runtime, chaos takes hold. There are looming figures in dark hallways, static television screens, women with no identifiable facial features, glow paint freakouts, screaming male figures in bloody showers, twitching weirdos, night drives on the highway, bodies under plastic sheeting, creepy candle circles, and plenty of figures in masks. To tally up much beyond that or attempt to connect these scenes together would not only be a fruitless effort, it would also cheat potential viewers the joy and surprise of how friggin’ bananas the film becomes.

For me, the video aesthetic works quite well for a narrative structure that is somewhat intentionally messy. It doesn’t appear as though the original video footage was captured on the latest-and-greatest DV format of the time period – it’s difficult to say, as the AGFA release was restored from the original S-VHS master tape – but just about all of the scenes are competently shot and there are interesting choices in shooting angles and camera movement (and keep in mind, this was a direct reflection of the low-budget and what media format was available to the filmmaker as opposed to being a stylistic choice). The use of different camera effects, warped sounds, and disjointed editing impart the film with an unnerving vibe. Amidst the video, Krause uses other film formats as inserts and there are clever dissolves and uses of superimposition and strobing images to suggest fraying lines of reality or perception. In the back-half of the film, there are specific sequences and isolated frames that I can recall with disturbing clarity that are nightmarish. The director also gets fantastic production value from the warehouse in which many of the scenes were filmed – it’s a truly menacing setting.

There’s a secondary, parallel story thread that features the director’s sister, Jessica Krause, as a teenage girl who drops off a weird mask for a male friend and then disappears into the subway that didn’t fully coalesce for me but I’m likely splitting hairs. Due to its non-linear storytelling approach and use of “pro-sumer”-grade media format, this movie isn’t going to be for everyone; if you need a coherent story and high-definition video resolution as a baseline to enjoy a cinematic work, you may have a bad time. However, in a world where V/H/S is now a successful, decade-old horror film franchise and your favorite photo filter is some wannabe variation of Hi8 tape playback, LIMBO feels like both a prediction and an alternate vision for the convergence of horror film and video-art aesthetic. Recommended.

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