For many, the most frightening thing about art are the price tags and gatekeeping, both of which get a solid knock in Netflix's latest original movie, Velvet Buzzsaw. The irony of the movie being one of the service's attempt at gaining scene cred, their second movie premiering at Sundance for a burnish of "legitimacy" days before it starts streaming on Feb. 1, is pretty thick. But though this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, the real test of the horror movie's mettle will be finding out just how scary Velvet Buzzsaw really is.
The film follows pretentious art critic Morf Vandewalt, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, as he makes his smug way through the art world. His pronouncements on art and artists aren't based on the actual work, but on cementing his opinion as make-or-break in the vicious and catty world of high art. Toni Collette and Rene Russo are gallery folk more obsessed on the money end, and John Malkovich plays a still-famous but washed up artist whose talent was always questionable.
Director/writer Dan Gilroy has worked with Gyllenhaal and (real-life wife) Russo before, on the eerie cautionary tale Nightcrawler. That film, about a young man (Gyllenhaal) who falls into photographing grisly crime scenes at the behest of a jaded news editor (Russo) who pushes him to go further, mirrors Velvet Buzzsaw in many ways — the objects supposedly at the center of each (violence and art, respectively) don't actually matter so much as the manipulators around them using them for their own gains. Where the question comes up naturally in Nightcrawler, as we can see the physical damage and pain being recorded, Velvet Buzzsaw has a supernatural mirror held up to the horrors.
If r/CreepyArt keeps you up at night, this movie will probably have you permanently revoking your MoMA membership. When a now-deceased artist's work is discovered by his gallery-adjacent neighbor, everyone, including Morf, believes they can manipulate the works into The Next Big Thing. That the pieces actually elicit emotion is merely bonus. It comes out that the paintings were specifically requested destroyed by their creator, who spent significant time in an institution for the criminally insane, and were created using real blood.
While this brings up a separate issue, namely that once again a Netflix product appears to lean heavily (and lazily) on the trope of mental illness as shorthand for villainy or distrust, there's also the difficulty of making paintings coming to life frightening. The trailer leans heavily on images of monkeys in one painting reaching out and attacking a man - if you're afraid of monkeys that might be truly terrifying, but art coming to life in movie's been more silly than scary. Delia Deetz's admittedly eerie sculptures coming to life through animation and puppetry in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice is played for laughs; even Ghostbusters II, where the portrait of Vigo the Carpathian becoming a portal for his vicious spirit to return is the entire plot, isn't exactly terrifying. That last example hasn't gone unnoticed by fans of the franchise — there's already a mashup of Gyllenhaal's critic reviewing Ghostbusters' painting out in the world.
If you're truly horrified by art world excesses and hypocrisies, you'll likely get satisfaction from Buzzsaw's depictions of outsider art comeuppance, and if you're one of the art world stereotypes targeted, it's likely you'll be more tickled than terrified seeing scene folk get torn apart or, in one image, literally colored by the works you're judging. For everyone else, Velvet Buzzsaw looks like an indulgence of shorthand ideas about art and the wealthy without offering more than some jump scares — if one of Jeff Koons' hideous balloon sculptures were to come to vengeful life, even if you felt in danger, would you be scared? Whether Velvet Buzzsaw manages to instill fear in installations remains to be seen, but it's unlikely to truly frighten any but those with a fear of gallery markups.