Horror fans are accustomed to film characters making bad decisions, but the titular character in Marla may be going for an all-timer when she receives a complimentary IUD from a family friend. Yes, you read that correctly. Needless to say, calamity ensues as Marla quickly discovers that intercourse is now lethal, leading to some of the bloodiest, grossest practical effects to ever grace the micro-budget screen.
Turning attention first to the elephant in the room, the setup may seem familiar to a well-known 2007 cult film. Taking a comedic approach, Teeth explored themes of puberty, sexual assault, and incest (among others). Lisa van Dam-Bates’s debut film, however, differs in several key respects. Most notably absent are the slapstick comedy and effects of the former. In addition, Marla‘s titular character is a young adult, already confident in her sexuality. Rather than grappling with bodily changes associated with puberty, she instead deals with emotional and physical consequences of contraception.
For the uninitiated, IUD stands for “intra-uterine device” and comes in both hormonal and copper forms. Van Dam-Bates’s script appears to deal with copper IUDs, which release copper ions that are toxic to sperm. Like all forms of contraception, IUD users are subject to both clinical and anecdotal side effects. Whether van Dam-Bates draws from her own experiences or simply thought up a gnarly story to tell is unclear.
Marla bears clear markers of a film produced on a self-financed budget. Scenes are generally not well lit, and audio quality clearly suffers in parts. In addition, performances show a marked lack of acting experience. That’s not to say that any given performance is objectively bad, but none of them are particularly good either. Everyone appears to be earnestly doing their best without reaching beyond their abilities.
These artifacts will, unfortunately, turn off many viewers from an intriguing premise that also bears all the hallmarks of a true passion project. Taking the roles of writer, director, lead actress, and special effects artist, Marla is Lisa van Dam-Bates’s film from start to finish. While she undoubtedly would have executed certain aspects differently given more knowledge and resources, there is no denying that the film results from a singular vision. For me, at least, the raw passion shines through the flaws to deliver a truly moving piece of indie cinema capped off by inspired visual effects.
Marla is bookmarked by a handful of cornerstone set pieces around which the story hinges. Bathtubs of blood and assorted mangled viscera adorn the screen in a realistic, albeit over-the-top, manner. Van Dam-Bates pulls off the impossible by providing a truly unique experience with each kill, while also maintaining consistency—as Marla has but one “weapon.”
Ultimately, the execution of these key scenes push the film beyond its technical limitations. Avoiding repetition while also avoiding the clichéd invention of new abilities demonstrates the talent and promise of an up-and-coming filmmaker. I do recommend Marla for anyone wanting to dip their toe into the micro-budget indie waters to ride that gory wave of blood that ensues.
Marla is available on VOD and DVD on November 5, 2019.
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