John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Get your fill of terror with 'Alena,' 'Jonestown'

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'ALENA' (AMAZON, OVIDTV, SHUDDER) Things aren't right in a private boarding school for girls, but when are they ever? In this Swedish film, a disadvantaged girl arrives to find animosity among the existing student body, and her already damaged existence becomes further pummeled by elitist bullies. But there might be something else going on as well, and a horror movie tone hangs on the drama to play with your mind.

Upon arrival, Alena (Amalia Holm ) is marked by her difference. She's transferring from the local public school and will attend as a day student among a population of wealthy boarders. One way of helping her fit in and make friends is to allow her a place on the lacrosse team. But that brews a fiery form of toxicity, especially from star player Filippa (Molly Nutley), a bratty, affluent bully who commands her teammates' social decisions allegiances and wages a sadistic war against Alena in order prove her power.

But Alena is not alone in her experience. On one hand, she's building a connection with another student, Fabienne (Felice Jankell), who distances herself from Filippa's army. On the other, Alena is burdened by her past, so much so that it takes destructive form in her present, and the ability to put it in its proper place proves nearly impossible as Alena struggles to keep herself and everything around her under control.

Director Daniel di Grado wields his camera in elegant ways, depicting the beauty of cruelty as it manifests among teenage girls. It's really a tale of the rage of entitlement when threatened, of the resolve of privileged bullies who would use their agenda of fear to retain control through fear. In some ways, Filippa is a cartoonish character, but as the film unfolds and becomes more and more immersed in Alena's viewpoint, it becomes apparent that human minds don't create the monsters, but they formulate the characterization of them to match their actions and in some way explain how someone could be so horrible. The insight of di Grado is that he's matched the way the mind works when terrified with the way horror reflects that terror not in a true way, but as a distorted nightmare that circles back to the poor victims.


The tragic events in Jonestown in the 1970s have created a popular culture cautionary tale about cults, but in its word-of-mouth form, it's taken on flourishes undercut the cautionary aspect, most notably in the characterization of leader Jim Jones. The accepted impression of weak-minded followers rallying around a mad man, following him willingly to their own deaths in a spiritual congregation is undercut by the four-part "Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle" by gathering the people who were actually there for interviews.

It's the participation of former Peoples Temple members — including Jones' biological and adopted sons — that makes this effort so compelling, offering a fuller view of the church than any given outsider's account. That's important because the story of the Peoples Temple is one about the need of a community for people and their bonding and building together that supersedes the misguided power at the top that helmed its creation. In these recollections, the Peoples Temple during its stay in San Francisco was a force of social justice that forged a family out of its congregation. Though Jones' mental state was on the decline and manifesting as improper practices within the church, it still hadn't infiltrated every interaction between every follower.

You won't find yourself understanding how you, too, could have ended up in Jonestown, but you will gain some understanding of how some did. Most importantly, the story itself and the honest, touching insight provided by surviving church member reveal how need and cult of personalities can collide to create instances of self-destruction. Narcissism is a personality disorder that both creates and provides emotional satisfaction for its marks. Once the mark has realized the terrible trap they have fallen into, it's too late. Jonestown is not the only time in history that has happened, and it's happening still. There is no such thing as brainwashing because that implies people don't go on these paths willingly. As "Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle" shows, it's the exact opposite, and until we understand that and protect ourselves with that knowledge, there will always be a Jim Jones among us somewhere.



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