Cinema has unbounded potential to give even the most sober of viewers access to the subjective experience of drug-takers, where it can be devilishly difficult to sort the hallucinatory from the real. Recently Requiem for a Dream, Spun and A Scanner Darkly have all depicted the user’s altered state of perception in dizzying detail – and now Paddy Breathnach’s Shrooms exploits that no-man’s land between the veracious and the visionary to cook up one hell of a bad trip.
American student Tara (Lindsey Haun) joins her English sometime boyfriend Jake (Jack Huston) and four other friends (Max Kasch, Alice Greczyn, Robert Hoffman, Maya Hazen) camping in the Irish backwoods. There they plan to sample the local magic mushrooms – but before the party has really started, Tara accidentally ingests a notorious death’s head fungus, said to confer (on those it does not kill outright) the power to commune with the dead, to shift shape and to see the future.
Tara is certainly having wild visions, and soon Jake’s campfire stories about a Lonely Twin, a Feral Creature and a murderous Black Brother, all linked to a nearby school building that has long since been abandoned, come to terrifying life as members of the group start dying violently one by one. Tara must either get her head together or learn quickly how to use her newly gained skills in clairvoyance if she is to survive the horrors lurking in the woods.
As perhaps befits a film so concerned with being ‘under the influence’, Breathnach’s hallucinogen-driven giallo turns its very derivativeness into a virtue, confounding viewers with a gleeful overdose of cinematic references. The disposable co-eds are familiar from any slice-and-dice, two in-bred hillbillies (Don Wycherley, Sean McGinley) are close cousins to the rednecks from Deliverance, they live in the cabin from The Evil Dead in a haunted forest straight out of The Blair Witch Project, the deserted, wheelchair-strewn building (along with the general psychodrama) recalls Session 9, and the juddery spectres are pure J-horror.
Yet once all these clichd ingredients have been blended together in the Shrooms pot, they make for a heady brew where the supernatural, the psychotropic and the downright psychotic all become deliriously intermixed. You will lose your grip trying to work out what is really going on – even if in the end it all comes ingeniously together.
The students who venture into the Irish hinterland go looking for a life-changing experience. Shrooms is hardly that – but it should be commended for pushing its low budget to the outer limits, with sequences of paranoia and hysteria that redefine over-the-top, and a tricksy narrative that will keep you guessing till the final act. In other words, it is a daft trip with plenty of twists and turns, and a grimly satisfying comedown.