Upon finishing the charmingly lo-fi Strawberry Mansion, which I and much of the rest of society missed this past February (it earned a little over $97 thousand at the box office), I went into one of those semi-deranged Google search death spirals, so vexed by the memory of some reminiscent genre-bending pastiche. The movie in question was 2015’s The Forbidden Room, directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, ostensibly about a submarine crew running out of oxygen (society took an even harder pass on this one; it earned just over $34 thousand domestically).
If memory serves, The Forbidden Room plays like a fever dream of Z-grade schlock you once saw on TV at 2:00 in the morning and nobody at the video store knows what you’re talking about. Without the Internet, The Forbidden Room might have remained that half-remembered fever dream. Now I can stream it for three dollars. I’m not sure I want to.
James Preble (Kentucker Audley, also co-director), the bureaucratic protagonist of Strawberry Mansion, is able to purchase the consumer goods that haunt his dreams. Dreams are itemized and taxed in this dystopian future, making them prime, uncontested real estate for advertisers as well. I’m reminded of the notion that a majority of Americans reportedly dreamed in black and white during the 1940s, the height of movie-going attendance. Though Preble works for the government and audits dreams for a living, he’s nonetheless mortified to discover that marketing has penetrated his subconscious. Strawberry Mansion’s satire is woefully quaint in a cultural ecosystem in which reaction videos to Comic Con movie trailers have become their own cottage industry.
No matter. Preble is tasked with auditing an elderly woman (Penny Fuller), who bucks government regulations by recording her dreams on analog VHS, the tapes piling like stalagmites within her quirky home. The woman, Arabella, has constructed a helmet that blocks invasive mental advertisements. Covered in blinking Christmas lights, the helmet has a tactile do-it-yourself quality that runs throughout Strawberry Mansion, down to its grainy celluloid aesthetic. Directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney used a 16mm “film out” process in which the movie was shot with digital cameras and then converted to film. Strawberry Mansion is a deeply nostalgic movie, but it’s a fragmentary, flickering nostalgia of vaguely familiar reference points.
Clad in the uncomfortable looking helmet, Preble’s dreams become more vivid and disturbing than the claustrophobically monochromatic setting to which his government mandated dreams were confined. He falls in love with a memory from one of Arabella’s tapes (Grace Glowicki), and searches for her in his own subconscious. It’s here that Audley and Birney’s imaginations go wild; stop motion trickery and animal headed weirdos abound. At one point Preble finds himself the captain of a ship with two humanoid rats for crew, and I’m reminded of the rabbit-headed sitcom from Inland Empire and nightmare fuel like Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. I had another anthropomorphic phantasm in mind from the 1970s/80s whose title now escapes me and am faced with too many of the like to sift through. The future is perhaps less sterilized and inventoried than it may seem.
Strawberry Mansion (2021)
Runtime: 91 minutes
MPA Rating: No rating
Streaming: Available to rent