Machination: A COVID hysteria horror story
By Thomas M. Sipos
Less than two months after the lockdown began in March 2020, filmmakers were already marketing finished films with COVID storylines and themes. (I screen entries for a film festival and see this stuff fresh from the editing room.) Most were shorts, but by summer 2020, features were ready for viewing. Some were shot in apartments "under lockdown." Others were Zoom "films," just a computer screen with multiple faces, the actors performing their roles from home. Still others were one-man projects shot on iPhones.
By now the "COVID film genre" likely includes hundreds of productions from around the world. Most were, I suspect, an attempt to exploit a hot "ripped from today's headlines!" topic. But among them are some interesting works.
Co-directors Sarah Jayne and Ivan Malekin's Machination was shot "during the pandemic" (according to its promotional material). In this short feature film (62 minutes), a young office worker, Maria (Steffi Thake), exemplifies COVID hysteria. Maria is not merely cautious; she's turned hypochondriac. Upon coming home from work, she strips to her undies, disinfects her feet, her hands and arms, her shoes, her purse, and throws all her clothes into the washer.
When Maria showers, we see the red bruises where she's scrubbed herself raw. She has groceries delivered, refuses to open the door until the delivery man leaves, then disinfects her packaged food. When her landlord enters, she panics, social distances by escaping into her bathroom, and shouts that the rent money is in her bedroom side table drawer. Just take it and please leave!
Perhaps because COVID is no longer a hot topic, Machination is marketed as a psychological horror film. That's not entirely dishonest. Jayne and Malekin employ horror aesthetics in their story. Eerie music and sinister whispers convey Maria's fears upon seeing ordinary objects. As the film progresses, so does her mental breakdown. She hallucinates and sees worms upon her phone, her food, and throughout her apartment.
Despite its weighty topic, Machination also employs exploitation film techniques. Thake spends an awful lot of screen time walking about in her undies. And the shower scenes needn't be so long.
Despite these skin shots, a feminist theme ironically emerges. Why is Maria a hypochondriac? It turns out she was sexually abused as a child. This made her feel dirty. But she had suppressed her feelings of unwholesomeness, and perhaps the memories as well. Then COVID burst upon the world and threatened to contaminate Maria. And no amount of social distancing or disinfection suffices to protect her, to help her feel safe and clean, because she already feels polluted.
And so Machination opens as an "unprogressive" critique of COVID hysteria, but ends safely deep in progressive territory as Maria is revealed to be a victim of the patriarchy.
But then I wondered. Maria is crazy because she's suffered sexual abuse, but she's still crazy. The co-directors have even stated that their film is about, among other things, mental illness. And so the message remains that you must be crazy to overreact to COVID like Maria is doing, whatever the cause of her hypochondria.
Perhaps to dilute that dangerously "MAGA conservative" message, Maria's brother, Yorgen (Rambert Attard), spouts conspiracy theories about 5G and metal-contaminated vaccines. He's the film's villain, the man who sexually abused Maria when they were young. Thematically, this translates into: Maria's exaggerated fears of COVID are crazy, but Yorgen's conspiracy theories are evil.
Machination was shot on Malta. Its cast all speak English with an accent, so I assume all the actors are Maltese. Steffi Thake is both talented and looks great in underwear.
This is a low-budget, indie affair; the distributor claims it cost 6,000 Euros. It was shot mostly in an apartment, mostly with just Maria. Nevertheless, it's an interesting, at times powerful film. An oddball mix of COVID skepticism, feminist critique, and exploitation horror.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.