Velvet Buzzsaw is the newest addition in a recent string of attempts to revive the horror genre with innovative ideas, after years of stagnation and poor quality. In this, it is relatively successful, as it delivers genuine suspense with only a few badly executed or underdeveloped elements. It is a film that has a lot of potential, much of which is not wasted.
The film follows a group of critics, artists, and gallery owners in the Miami art world who start to experience strange phenomena after they market the paintings of a dead recluse who never wanted his work to be released. The film, as such, can be seen as a critique of the vacuity of modern art and the culture around it. While the specific critiques that it seems to make are neither original or interesting (that the art world is pretentious, shallow, and over commercialised), the way these ideas are presented does make up for this.
The film uses elements from cosmic horror, in that the suspense and intrigue are derived from a fear of the unknown and mysterious. This sense of fear and foreboding intensifies as more information is revealed. The effect of this is retained until the end, where its origin is explained enough to be satisfactory but is still mysterious enough to not ruin the film.
This film does contain a few generic horror film tropes, especially in the gorier scenes which serve as climaxes to sequences of suspense. It is not clear whether or not the film is trying to use these in a critical and ironic way, as in films like It Follows (2014), but either way, they are often presented using poorly executed CGI and could probably have been left out. This CGI was particularly disappointing given the promising use of genuinely unsettling camerawork elsewhere in the film.
This is not a film that contains any particularly sympathetic or relatable characters. While this does prevent the viewer from being fully invested in the plot in the beginning, by the end, given the film’s focus on critiquing the superficiality and arrogance of members of the art elite, this element of the film does seem appropriate.
There are some undeveloped aspects of the film. The sound design and music were used sparsely, and this sparseness often contributed to the creation of tension. It seems, however, like the music that was used could have stood out more. While a sense of uneasiness and anticipation was really effectively created, the climaxes of this anticipation, including the last ten minutes of the film, failed to fully live up to it.
Despite this, Velvet Buzzsaw is an engaging two hours of cinema, with tremendous performances from Zawe Ashton and Jake Gyllenhaal, and is a definite improvement on much of modern horror.
Image: Claudette Barius/Netflix