Written and Directed by Richard Burgin, Fang (2022) really caught us by surprise. In this particular case, the film delivers something significantly outside of initial expectations based on the plot line in IMDB. What we saw seemed to fall more in line with Darren Arnofsky’s work than standard horror fare.
It’s winter in Chicago and Billy Cochran (Dylan LaRay) can’t stop alienating the people around him. His mother Gina (Lynn Lowry) is in and out of the hospital and her mind is breaking down, caught between her glory days as a Southern belle and her current state of decay. One night, Billy gets an unexpected visitor: a rat that springs out of his bathroom and bites him. At first, everything seems okay. Billy comes home, drowsy from the tetanus shot, and bonds with Gina’s lovely new caregiver Myra (Jess Paul). Then the rat fur appears. It grows out of Billy’s skin, then goes away like it was never there. The more Billy looks in the mirror and scratches, the more he’s forced to face the unthinkable: he might be turning into a rat. Billy is plunged into a waking nightmare where he slowly discovers the truth about himself as he unleashes the ferocious depths of the human and rodent soul.
We thought this would be an ode to body horror, or even a throwback to simple days of half-man half-somethings like The Mole People (1956) or The Alligator People (1959). Instead Richard Burgin delivers a descent into madness and psychological horror. While painstakingly detailing the downward spiral of his lead character, Billy Cochran (Dylan LaRay), Burgin manages a parallel narrative on the struggles dementia and declining metal health. More importantly, he unveils a society that lacks empathy for those suffering from catastrophic mental health ailments.
Mental health as a multi-faceted horror plot
The films begins with Billy. Something is not right about Billy. He is emotionally distant and has difficulty navigating the world. His hobby is an obsessive compulsion to document a fantasy world of his own creation through art and illustration. Eventually, Burgin reveals that Billy is autistic. That’s not a spoiler. In fact, its not even extremely relevant to the plot of the movie. Billy’s condition is really just a thread in a much larger tapestry that describes a larger struggle with mental health.
In addition to his own struggles, his mother, Gina Cochran (Lynn Lowery, The Crazies – 1973) suffers from late stage Parkinson’s. Gina’s condition has progressed well beyond the point in which she requires 24/7 care. Billy, can barely take care of himself, much less his mother. Secretly he harbors a deep resentment of her and the burden in which she has become. Billy also works for a narcissistic boss that could care less about his problems or his mothers. Only one person, Gina’s caregiver Myra (Jess Paul), seems to care about Billy and Gina’s situation.
All of this pressure builds and builds on Billy until he finally cracks.
As an aside, Richard mentions in his own bio that his own struggles with mental health help to inform is work. We think that this lends itself to his ability to subtly address Billy’s state of mind without putting a sign around his neck that says autism. This delicate treatment of the matter breaths authenticity into the story.
When I first heard about Fang, I suspected that I was in for a Kafka-eqe transmutation from a man into a rat. Likewise, I expected a heaping helping of body horror as the transformation takes place. Instead, Fang uses the rat as a metaphor for all the ugliness that people try to lock deep inside themselves while they try to be what society expects them to be. Once, that hidden evil finds a seam in which to escape, it erupts with disastrous consequences.
Richard Burgin does use some body horror to illustrate Billy’s unraveling, the more impactful imagery comes from the visions in his head. These include maggot infested rodents, the ugly facets of his mother and even a personified “King” rat. The psychological window into Billy’s brains feels much more like the work of Darren Arnofsky. In fact, some of the imagery pays homage to Requiem for a Dream (2000). Anyone for a pulsating pus filled boil on the forearm? It also shows reverence to the jarring soundscapes in Arnofsky’s Pi (1998).
Burgin’s departure from the realm of physical horror into the psychological realm makes this film much more impactful than the average low-budget independent film. Brian Cunningham took a similar direction in an indie film called Wretch (2018). Psychological horror provides an infinite landscape in which produce a horror film on limited resources.
Interestingly enough, despite Billy’s obvious struggles with his mind, Richard Burgin carefully ensures that his ailments do not constitute an excuse. At the end of the film, Burgin’s intentional fence sitting allows the audience to consider Billy a victim, but at no point is the audience willing to forgive him of his eventual transgressions.
Fang does a lot of things really well. Starting with the cinematography, the film begins with an erratic (not so) steady-cam shot that trucks right through the front door and into Billy’s bedroom. The camera work by Jason Kraynek has depth and looks very professional. The scenes seem well choreographed to story boards and they provide a graphic novel style presentation. The production team also make extremely good use of light. In some scenes the lights paints a chaotic background that shows the instability of Billy’s mind.
We would recommend spending a moment with recognizing the crew on the Fang IMDB page. There are simple too many accolades to give out in this short review. Everything from the sound design, visual effects, lighting, practical effects and film editing contribute greatly to the overall quality of the film.
Fang punches way above its weight for an independent horror film. Of course, we could find some things to nitpick, but that seems petty when this team pulled together such a compelling psychological horror movie. If the story doesn’t move you, the the audio and visual landscape will. We strongly recommend Fang, especially for fans of Independent horror film.
We would also like to thank Richard Burgin for reaching out to us directly. Had he not, we might have missed this one. We’ll look forward to seeing more from him in the future.