Originally published on Elements of Madness.
Inception (2010) may be one of the most well-known movies about dreams from the last 20 years, but the indie masterpiece Strawberry Mansion is by far one of the most creative and enchanting. From the minds of co-writers and directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, Strawberry Mansion tells a story about love, imagination, and the importance of dreams, exploring these themes in a rich fantasy world that emulates the sci-fi classics of the VHS era. With a limited budget and a very specific vision for what they wanted to create, Birney and Audley worked for years to make Strawberry Mansion happen. Their years of dedication most definitely paid off, and they succeeded in making a breathtaking and unforgettable movie that transports viewers back to a time when actors in animal costumes was the peak of sci-fi / fantasy production design. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2021 and went on to screen at the Fantasia International Film Festival later that year. Starting June 21, 2022, Strawberry Mansion will be available on Blu-ray and DVD for fantasy lovers everywhere to add to their home video collections.
Strawberry Mansion is set in the year 2035. James Preble (Kentucker Audley), a shy and lonely employee of the federal government, is visiting the home of an elderly woman named Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) to perform a tax audit. But he’s not there to evaluate her physical assets or collect W2s. He’s there to audit Arabella’s dreams. That’s right, in the not-so-distant future, the government taxes dreams based on what kind of objects and images appear in them. While most citizens collect their dreams using high-tech recording devices, Arabella (or Bella, as she prefers to be called) still records hers on video tape. Her home, a large and inviting strawberry-colored mansion, is full of thousands of video tapes containing dreams from throughout her life. As Preble begins to audit the dreams, he meets a younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) and begins to develop feelings for her. Soon, however, Preble realizes that taxes aren’t the only way the government is regulating dreams. What starts as a routine audit soon turns into a life-changing adventure that takes Preble to places he never thought he’d go.
For a film that’s so full of wonder and creativity, you’d expect the home release to be something special. It’s safe to say that the DVD and Blu-ray won’t disappoint. For starters, the home release includes a set of ‘90s-inspired trading cards that each feature a character from the film. Once you put the disc into your Blu-ray or DVD player, you’ll be instantly transported to the VHS era. When you get to the disc’s main menu, you’ll see a picture of Bella’s bright pink mansion that’s distorted by the tell-tale blips and static of an old VHS tape. The menu options are also written in a VHS-style font, setting the tone for the stylistic masterpiece that is Strawberry Mansion. The movie, which was shot digitally and then transferred to 16mm film, brings together the best of old and new technology. Without knowing when it was made, you might mistake Strawberry Mansion for a decades-old movie. The unique combination of digital and practical effects gives the film its defining “retro futuristic” style (as Audley calls it in the “Strawberry Beginnings” featurette), an absolutely delightful aesthetic that will fill you with nostalgia. The home release gives viewers the chance to immerse themselves even deeper into that unforgettable style and learn how Birney and Audley went about achieving it.
The two most insightful features on the disc are the “Strawberry Beginnings” featurette, a 41-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie, and the audio commentary with Birney and Audley. “Strawberry Beginnings” covers everything from Birney and Audley’s early conceptions for the film to their reflections on the final product. Throughout the featurette, the co-directors share background information about the script, cast, cinematography, special effects, score, set design, and editing process. The audio commentary offers similar background information with more specific examples, helping viewers appreciate details in the movie that they wouldn’t otherwise notice or think to look for. If you’re interested in the production design and special effects of Strawberry Mansion, be sure to check out the test footage and animation reels included on the disc. These eight behind-the-scenes snippets explore just some of the many different digital and practical effects that Birney, Audley, and the Strawberry Mansion crew used to bring their vision to life.
Among the many incredible stylistic aspects of Strawberry Mansion is Dan Deacon’s seductive score, which adds an emotional dimension to the film that the visuals alone could not achieve. Much like the special effects, Deacon’s synth-heavy score celebrates retro aesthetics and transports the audience back to childhood. It bridges the gap between the viewer in their living room and the magic on screen, bringing that magic to life with mechanical whirrs and twinkling trills. The home release includes a score-only version of the film and a music video featuring the main theme. While the score-only version is a unique feature that sets the disc apart as a unique item for DVD / Blu-ray collectors, there aren’t many situations where you’d actually sit down and watch the whole movie without dialogue. The music video, however, is an absolute treat that gives viewers yet another chance to bask in Strawberry Mansion’s distinctive style. As a good music video should, it functions like a short film and draws you in with unforgettable surrealist images. You don’t have to have seen the full movie to enjoy and appreciate the Strawberry Mansion music video.
During “Strawberry Beginnings,” Birney and Audley also discuss their individual skills, backgrounds and interests, noting how their unique perspectives work together to make Strawberry Mansion special. While Audley has more experience working on narrative films, Birney’s background is in animation and surrealism. If you’re interested in seeing more of Birney’s work, you can watch two of his short films, “Cactus” and “Buzzer,” which are included on the Strawberry Mansion DVD and Blu-ray. You’ll also want to check out “The Fly Story,” a brief interview with Birney about the making of “Buzzer” in which he reveals how the same exact fly ended up in both the short and in Strawberry Mansion. The two short films complement Strawberry Mansion perfectly, allowing viewers to see Birney’s surrealist style in other contexts.
If you have any appreciation for sci-fi, fantasy, VHS nostalgia, or filmmaking in general, you have to see Strawberry Mansion. Birney and Audley’s work is truly incredible, and their sincere passion for filmmaking shines through in every shot of the film.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."