Film at Horla (February 2021)




IN its story of a young girl entering the heady world of high fashion, the Neon Demon manages to pack in cannibalism, ferocious wild animals, occult witchy weirdness, and a spot of lesbian necrophilia. The latter provoked calls by the Daily Mail for the British Board of Film Classification to ban the film.

But so much of the atmosphere of the film is generated by the level of threat that surrounds Jesse (Elle Fanning), the sixteen-year-old aspiring model who comes to Los Angeles and whose presence has a strange mesmeric effect on those she encounters.

One and all, they seem desperate to leach her youth and spark and absorb it, as if by osmosis. As Jesse moves through parties, photo shoots and shows soaked in neon purples and blues, the luminous lighting and aetheric sound give the film a feeling of unreality, while ghost-like camera lens flares and Cliff Martinez’s electronica score accentuate the effect. And in the midst of all this, body parts get chewed up, regurgitated and cheerfully re-devoured.

Fanning(left) gives a terrific performance, given the difficult job of having to convince us that she really is as hypnotic as the rest of the cast supposes. Fanning manages this effortlessly, fairly glowing onscreen, a fascinating and enthralling presence. A lot of this is rooted in her portrayal of the character’s ambitious self-possession, despite seeming vulnerable and naïve. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee Kershaw give charismatic turns as rival models who circle Jesse like vipers while luxuriating in her company, and Karl Glusman provides a welcome anchor of normalcy and kindness in the sea of self-absorption.

The film is so effective at making us buy into the world-devouring importance of surface beauty, that at one point our heroine is struck and her being in peril is not even the main reason we are sitting bolt upright, because we are too busy screaming “not the face!” Unusually for a horror film, we’re not just worried about our heroine’s safety. We are worried about her turning into one of the narcissistic, empty people she deals with.

Released in 2016, one of the criticisms levelled at the film was that it was hollow, all dazzling images and lacking in depth. I disagree. Full of incredible, immersive audio-visual scenes, some of the most absorbing occur when Desmond Harrington is all too briefly on the screen. Previously seen in roles such as Detective Quinn in Dexter as a toned, confident sex-machine, he is utterly transformed as the hard-eyed fashion photographer in the Neon Demon.

Emaciated to the point where each line in his face has the depth of a ravine, his eyes empty and stark, he appraises Jesse from head to toe with invasive scrutiny, orders the set closed and sends everyone away. This includes Jesse’s friend Ruby (Jena Malone), who is clearly worried about leaving her alone with him. With a few terse words he orders Jesse to remove all of her clothes, then plunges the room into darkness. 

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A light illuminates Jesse’s face, and we see Harrington approach in silhouette from roughly a thousand miles away (the photography studio looks about the size of an aircraft hangar), something dripping from his hand.

He looks at Jesse as if grateful to share the creation of something beautiful between them, as if seeing her as a person rather than as a vessel, but only for a moment. The look fades to regret, then hollowness as he closes himself off from anything resembling human tenderness before striding away to his camera. This is typical of one of the film’s strengths, where very little is said and almost everything is communicated through movement and gesture.

It is as if his role as a fashion photographer, constantly searching for perfection, has drained him of the ability to allow himself to feel, not to mention his health and seemingly all of his bodily fluids. That the depths show through, just for a moment, speaks volumes regarding Harrington’s talents, and the skill of director Nicolas Winding Refn.  

There are problems. Some characters such as Christina Hendricks’s modelling agent appear then disappear as if just passing through. Keanu Reeves gives a great performance and his slickly vile motel manager is creepy as hell. So it seems rather daft that Jesse keeps coming back, and doesn’t just up sticks and find a slightly less life-threatening motel when her modelling takes off and the cash starts coming in.

Certain elements are overly vague or hinted at without being resolved, such as what is going on with the recurrent intersecting triangle thing that Jesse sees a lot of. Also, lying naked on the floor, drenched in moonlight in front of a vast window looking out on a city might feel fey and romantic, but wouldn’t all that blood pouring from your genitals make a horrible mess of that lovely wood flooring? Luckily, the narrative is strong enough to pull us past these issues.

The film has some interesting things to say about transience and being consumed by an industry or an ideal. That cosmetic beauty is not enough – there needs to be something intangible beneath to make it truly fascinating. But the film works best as an experience to revel in.

You can catch glimpses of Brian Yuzna’s Society or Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou in the more surreal moments, but the film has a look and feel that in places is almost soporific, entirely its own. Upon its release, the film opened to polarized reviews and quickly tanked at the box office. It deserved better.


Andrew Kolarik (left) lives and works in Cambridge, England. He is a research psychologist. His fiction has appeared in Pulp Metal MagazineSupernatural TalesCarillon, Eunoia Review and at Horla. For a number of years he wrote post-punk lyrics for live performances in London  (he hails from South London) and Cardiff.

Photo credit – Picture of Fanning: Elle Fanning at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in Los Angeles, California on March 14, 2019 – Photo by Glenn Francis of