Monday, December 30, 2019

John Strysik's The Spirit Gallery

A shot-on-video horror movie from the '90s has resurfaced on DVD.

Shot on video in the summer of 1991, writer/director John Strysik's movie The Spirit Gallery apparently received some kind of release in 1995, but it seemed to pass by most viewers. I was completely unaware of its existence until this year, when it was revealed that SOVhorror would be bringing the movie to DVD for the first time ever - with SRS Cinema also offering a new, limited edition VHS release.

Strysik has collaborated with the likes of genre legends George A. Romero, Charles Band, and Stuart Gordon over the course of his time working in film and television, and he directed episodes of the popular genre shows Tales from the Darkside and Monsters, so it's a shame that his association with those people and projects didn't draw more attention to The Spirit Gallery sooner. This is a really good movie that deserved better than to get lost in obscurity for twenty-five years.

That said, it's certainly not for everyone, as the viewers who will fully embrace it will need to get beyond the fact that it was shot on video - although this is one of the best looking SOV movies you could ever hope to see - and appreciate the fact that it is deeply strange. Described by Strysik as Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray but "in reverse", the movie draws inspiration from the works of David Lynch and Luis Buñuel to tell the story of a reclusive artist who is sought out by an obsessive fan... a fan who has actually never even seen any of his work.

Holly Riddle stars as Gwendolyn Creed, who gets a job as assistant to art agent Gideon Haul (Leonard Parnell) because she's fascinated by stories of one of his clients, the mysterious B. A. Catch (Jim Burkhart). A devout Christian, Gwendolyn loves art because she believes that all art comes from God's divine inspiration. She's interested in learning more about B.A. Catch because she has read that his art had an addictive quality, as it was able to project the essential goodness of humanity. Gwendolyn believes that goodness is man's true nature, and she doesn't believe in evil.

She doesn't know for sure that Catch's work was so amazing because none of his work is on display anywhere, and there aren't even any pictures of his art. But she's determined to find out more about it. And him.

Gwendolyn will eventually come in contact with Catch, who hasn't worked in years because he hasn't found the right model, someone with the goodness worthy of being captured. Of course, Gwendolyn turns out to be just the model he's been waiting for... But the situation isn't pleasant as it may seem. As soon as Gwendolyn becomes involved with Haul and Catch, her life takes a turn for the surreal. She begins having dreams that are also psychic visions, and has troubling hallucinations and experiences with an odd religious edge to them; she's presented with a crown of thorns, she imagines she has stigmata, etc. Catch is also not a very nice guy, he interrupts her when she tries to talk to him and demands that she remove her crucifix necklace.

Haul is no angel himself - while fondling a face mould made by Catch, he frequently daydreams he's being beaten to a pulp by masked attackers and then comforted by an angelic woman. Catch's previous model.

It's obvious from the start that Gwendolyn should have found a different artist to pursue, and things only get worse for her as the film goes on.

The Spirit Gallery is a very unusual film that kept me wondering just what was going on and went in directions I didn't expect at all. And those directions tended to be disturbing, sometimes disgusting. Although Strysik acknowledges the influence of other filmmakers on his movie, he brought the story to the screen with his own unique vision - this is the sort of movie that only could have come from its specific filmmaker, no one else would have made something quite like this.

The actors Strysik assembled all did good work in their roles; the Gwendolyn character is so good-natured and naive, she could have come off as grating or silly if the role hadn't been cast just right. Riddle brought Gwendolyn to life in a way that makes her believable and likeable, while Parnell and Burkhart are equal measures intriguing and creepy in their roles. We know Gwendolyn shouldn't trust them, but what exactly are they up to?

I was very impressed by The Spirit Gallery overall. This is one of the best SOV horror movies I've seen, and I hope it will find its audience through this re-release.

The DVD includes an interesting director's commentary in which Strysik discusses art, the inspirations behind the story (the opening of King Tut's tomb among them), and what it was like to make this movie nearly thirty years ago.

Another bonus feature is a 6 minute short film Strysik made before The Spirit Gallery. Called Young People in Trouble, it's an arthouse-style black and white short and I'm not quite sure I understood it in the end, but it's another example of Strysik having a very unique vision.

If you're into SOV horror, the art world, and/or the works of Lynch and Buñuel, I recommend picking up a copy of The Spirit Gallery from

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