I don’t even want to argue that genre isn’t at its best anymore. Horror and sci-fi could not be better right now. Why? Because the days of films being made exclusively by white men, for white men, are becoming less and less the norm. Women and minorities continue to make their voices heard through film with new stories and perspectives, continuing with Level 16…
…As a white male, I’m ashamed to admit that it is only in the past decade that I’ve really noticed how cruel and controlling the world is to women. Growing up, I would hear about these things, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t understand them. But it’s my hope that more of those like myself are beginning to wake up to the wrongs that have been attributed towards women. A film like Level 16 is a perfect catalyst for such a lesson. Written/directed by Danishka Esterhazy, Level 16 revolves around a group of girls trapped at the Vestalis Academy, a prison-like boarding school that teaches feminine “virtues” and how to be a lady, all so that the girls will be ready for adoption at the age of 16. Sixteen-year old Vivien (Katie Douglas) soon learns that there is a dark secret behind the school after she and her friend Sophia (Celina Martin) begin looking for answers.
Level 16 is more of a sci-fi drama than a horror film, but damnit, this story consistently chills viewers to the bone. In the opening, we meet a young Vivien (Sarah DaSilva) as she and other girls are in line for a nightly face wash routine to get “clean”, all of which is done in front of a security camera. But when Vivien misses her turn after trying to help a younger Sophia (Lori Phun), an alarm goes off and she is dragged away by guards to receive punishment…whatever that is. Level 16 is full of moments like this, made all the more frightening that things like this are happening to 16-year old girls, or younger.
The academy works, in a sense, as a metaphor for the male dominated prison which society has built for women, beginning from the moment they’re born. Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge) and Miss Brixil (Sara Canning) work to give the place some normalcy. The academy is dolled up to distract from its true menace, giving things cute names, like referring to Vivien’s new hall on Level 16 as “Rose Hall”, or calling the bathroom the “water closet”. The same is done in society. Sedation by means of making something seem harmless. You would be less afraid of a twenty-limbed spider-dog monster if it had an adorable name, right? Maybe? The point is, these girls are being led to believe that everything is all right, trapped in a life of ideals laid out by their elders. And while Outerbridge has great presence, it is Canning who truly stands out as a villain with how easily she is able to turn her back on these young ladies while watching them suffer from the sexist ideals assaulting her as well.
Each year at the academy, the girls move up a level. They are force fed ideas about what makes a perfect young woman in such a way that it will sicken you. Cleanliness. Obedience. Patience. Humility. These are the key virtues which these young girls are taught. Esterhazy litters her script with subtle hints at how awful life is at the academy. These girls get one “moving pictures” night a week, but are shown the same “ladylike” films so often, they’ve mesmerized every. Single. Word. And they’re fed the same boring rabbit food to a degree where rule-worshipping Ava (Alexis Whelan) is excited about cabbage day. Fucking cabbage day. And don’t even get me started on the different colored “vitamins” the girls are forced to take. With virtues like “obedience” working as the laws which Vivien and the others live by, the academy is like that bastard husband that takes his wife out for their anniversary, and says she has to eat a salad or she’ll get fat, while his overweight ass gobbles down a double cheese-burger. Level 16 highlights that chauvinistic layer underneath society where women are forced into false beliefs that they are not beautiful if they’re not skinny, not a good wife if they’re not obedient, all of that bullshit, the sort of BS which often goes unnoticed by men, either willingly or unknowingly. The bland visuals of gray walls only help to exaggerate the sort of boring, house-wife lifestyle which these girls are being bred into.
Leading us through the horrors of these male constructs, Katie Douglas is excellent as Vivien. Douglas brings this film to another level. Intense and able to express heartbreak in a way which shatters our own black hearts, Douglas carries herself with an impressive display of defiance and intelligence. She’s 16 going on 30 in terms of womanhood in Level 16, and it’s an awesome journey to watch. These girls (all of whom are excellent) are not what you’d expect from your average sixteen-year-old. Raised in what is essentially captivity their entire lives, they lack an understanding of the world. Hell, they don’t even know how to read. This gives them a childish persona that will endear you immediately, since these characters are so painfully innocent. Like children, they’re eager to test the rules, as we so often do in society. And, as in society, that often leads to some nasty horror.
And this is where Esterhazy flexes her suspense muscles with Level 16. There are moments in this film that are truly jaw-dropping. I’m talking moments that will make you re-examine the world we live in and say to yourself “this is all fucked”. Level 16 pummels the viewer with one shocking reveal after another. Men will (hopefully) recognize the statements which Level 16 is making against male driven society, while women will likely nod, sadly able to relate to all of it. Level 16 lives in subtlety, and is not the kind of film to throw gore and visual horror in your face, but what it does is creep inside you so deeply, your skin will crawl right off your bones, which would not be good for your beauty.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the themes in this film will make you angry, but in the most inspiring way possible. Level 16 may introduce legitimate terror, but the real horror is the maddening ideas, such as the belief of Dr. Miro that “hysteria” is a great risk for young women. If I asked a group of women to raise their hand if they’ve ever been called hysterical, I bet every single one would put a hand up. Level 16 smashes male constructs with a triumphant stomp. This is a film fed up with the false labels and sexist “rules” which women have endured for too long, going as far as to use the “tools” which most men associate with women, such as an iron, against them. Dr. Miro justifies what Vivien and the rest of the girls go through by claiming he took care of them or helped them, and in return, Vivien becomes the scream of rage every woman has ever felt when a man tries to mansplain to her that his awful behavior is for her best interest.
Level 16 is a darkly beautiful film. It redefines what true beauty is, turning chauvinistic ideas on their heads and spitting in their face. The lack of justice served in this film will likely leave some viewers wishing for more, but the message of the film is clear, and it’s an important one. Sexism is far from dead, but films like Level 16 have a knife to its throat. If she wasn’t on your radar before, Esterhazy has made a bold statement with Level 16, and I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.
Level 16 releases in limited theaters and on VOD from Dark Sky Films on March 1rst.
By Matt Konopka