Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Welcome to the Circle

They call themselves “The Circle” and they are big on “circle of life” symbolism. Yet, they are not as troubling as The Lion King, because unlike Disney, they are not complicit in the Xinjiang genocide of the Uyghurs. It might be a malevolent homicidal cult with apparent supernatural powers, but it has some kind of moral standards. Nevertheless, the mixture of horror and fantastical elements is frequently unnerving in screenwriter-director David Fowler’s Welcome to the Circle, which releases today on DVD and VOD.

“Fortunately” for Greg and his daughter Samantha, Circle cult-members Lotus Cloud and Sky happened along after their tent was mauled by a bear—at least that is their explanation. While the injured father recuperates, they initiate Sam in a crash course of indoctrination. Their flower child rhetoric sounds appealing to the young girl, but when the father comes to, he immediately suspects they are in a profoundly dangerous spot, as indeed they are.

According Mathew, who seems to have more authority than the women, their “community” was founded by Percy Stephens. According to anecdotes, he was a rather colorful adventurer, but the strange man seen at in distance in several surreal photos displayed around the compound looks banally evil, in a rather severe way. The film shifts gears dramatically around the halfway point, when we meet the spectacularly abrasive Grady, a cult deprogrammer hired by Gabriella and James to abduct/liberate their wife and sister. However, Grady declined to disclose his personal connection to the Circle, until it really starts to hit the fan.

It hits hard too. The secrets of the Circle are absolutely bonkers, including shifting identities, feedback loops, and mannequin-doppelgangers that appear to be uncannily generated. Think of it as Moorhead & Benson’s
The Endless fused with Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, on peyote. There are times when Welcome might have actually been scarier if it had been a bit more grounded, but its inventiveness is truly (and literally) a trip. The way Fowler brings everything back to the circular theme is particularly intriguing. It is not merely hippy-dippy doublespeak. It is this essence of what the cult is and how it operates.

Even though the character initially comes on way too strong by any rational standard, Ben Cotton’s portrayal of Grady’s surly defiance in the face of the Circle’s sinister, disorienting machinations is an awesome force to behold. He even compares to Bruce Campbell in the
Evil Dead franchise.

Young Taylor Dianne Robinson is equally magnetic and electrifying as the time-biding Samantha, but in a stone-cold cerebral way. Grady calls her “crafty” and is she ever. Together, they are a heck of a one-two punch, who power the film through intermittent rough patches. Some of the cult-members are not so well cast, but Cotton and Robinson largely keep us distracted from the weak links.

They also get key contributions from the design team, led by Niko Vilaivongs. The photos of Stephens are eerie in a subtly unsettling way, while the mannequins are just in-your-face creepy. It would be scarier to talk a leisurely stroll through the Circle’s grounds than to be chased by Jason Voorhees through Camp Crystal Lake. Fowler wrote several Disney nature documentaries, including
Born in China, but don’t hold that against him. This is a wonderfully strange and dark mind-bender that takes the cult-based horror movie to an entirely new place. Highly recommended, Welcome to the Circle releases today (10/27) on DVD and VOD.