Make Believe 2024: Breaking the Cycle of The Wheel of Heaven

Image courtesy of Make Believe Film Festival

I was first turned on to Joe Badon’s films back in April 2021, when Sister Tempest, Badon’s second feature film, played at the tail end of the Soho Horror Film Festival. The film was quirky and dreamlike, profoundly weird yet visually stunning. Badon struck me as the kind of auteur I could get behind. The following year, I leaped at the chance to talk with Badon when his short film, The Blood of the Dinosaurs, found its way to the Chattanooga Film Festival. Joyously, Badon was only getting stranger with his movies. The Blood of the Dinosaurs, a prologue to The Wheel of Heaven and now its opening, became a delightfully absurd surprise at the festival, creating many conversations with others about its enjoyable mind-flaying absurdity. I had no choice once I saw that the Make Believe Film Festival was hosting the finished feature. Badon’s films have some existential hold on me.

The poster for The Wheel of heaven is displayed like the Determine your own destiny book from the film with a burning coffin, a church, and a spaceship.

There’s no easy way to sum up The Wheel of Heaven. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. While that statement can be taken positively, I mean it in the logical sense. It is literally not like anything else. Badon has taken a handful of short films and Frankenstein-ed them together to create a miniseries that tells the story of a multiversal woman (Kali Russell) journeying between interconnected mythical realities as different versions of herself. Russell plays a space captain, an artist, a mechanic, and Purity, a woman who follows her Christmas twin into the woods, gets chased by a masked monster, and is brought to a party by a vampire. Meanwhile, the movie itself takes on a meta angle, and Kali Russell becomes a character as she works with Joe Badon behind the scenes.

The entirety of The Wheel of Heaven plays out like the dreams of someone falling asleep while channel surfing through cable in the mid-90s. There’s infused sitcom laughter, jazz transitions, and advertisements. What’s harder to explain is the character entanglement, which almost feels like the diaphanous membrane of one collapsing dream seeping into another. Like some sequences in the film, most dreams only last a few minutes. If you’ve ever had a dream where the plot is a bit scattered, it could be because you’re stitching together multiple dreams at the same time and trying to mold them into a linear narrative. The Wheel of Heaven can sometimes feel this amorphous.

However, as the movie progresses, the messy, tangled cosmic threads of chaotic absurdity are woven into a wondrous tapestry about reincarnation. Badon runs with the interpretation in the literal sense within the film but also hints at a metaphor about rebirth through choice. The whole idea behind the cyclical title, The Wheel of Heaven, suggests the idea, too. Yet, the determine-your-destiny book cleverly furthers the idea of growing as a person, learning from our past mistakes, and finding strength enough to break that cycle. Characters share parallels, such as one reading the script for the movie while another reads a “determine-your-destiny” book, each telling a story within the story. Russell does a tremendous job differentiating her personas, while Badon switches between cameras, lighting schemas, and aesthetics.

A woman with a bouffant in a space uniform against a purple and green background

The connective tissue between chapters in the movie is littered with faux commercials of men teaching YouTube Lamaze classes and skateboarding attorneys. When accompanied by plot points of Badon dismissing Russell’s plea for the removal of a scene, an embattled children’s show host, and Marge the mechanic ignoring her bosses’ unfiltered sexist remarks, the cycles of abuse from sh*tty men in positions of power shift into focus as Russell’s dynamic characters begin to break free from the continuous loop.

A portion of the film feels a little Lynchian by way of Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance. It’s almost as if Badon took the idea of Twin Peaks Black Lodge, applied it to a defunct dentist’s office, and littered it with iconic fantasy characters, deadly sins, and Laura Palmer’s innocence via Russell’s Purity. Add in the massive array of symbolism, color contrasts, and general dream logic, and The Wheel of Heaven is an interesting assortment of artistic charms.

Many scenes resemble the eye-popping colors used to flourish a Wes Anderson film. Yet, whenever Badon highlights that type of eye-appeasing artistry, it is then combatted by stark, rigorous horror imagery. The result is trippy. At times, it’s a funny, mellow acid trip, but then it takes a hard left into nightmare town.Mythical creatures and storybook characters sit in what looks like a waiting room. among them are Death, a fairy, and Snow White.

By the film’s finale, Badon somehow manages to take every seemingly disassociated thing you’ve seen on screen and make something beautiful from it. Now, as I say, “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” I mean it in the other context. The Wheel of Heaven is weird and beguiling but also a relentless masterstroke of genius. The mere idea to have the story fold in on itself with an anthology-like premise of pop-up book characters that fold in on each other as a soul flourishes between the pages to inhabit the next life.

I felt a real connection to The Wheel of Heaven. Four years ago, when the world went to hell, I started betting on myself. I left my job and decided to try walking down some new avenues I never would have ventured down before. It isn’t always easy, but nothing worth it ever is. Badon’s film can be seen as cautionary, hopeful, or fatalistic—it is a choose-your-own-adventure book, after all—but the idea is that we have the power to change our trajectories and construct new possibilities.

The everyday filmgoer will likely feel ill-prepared for the structure of the film. But, if you’re a fan of the strange, Badon is making some of the best, most creative genre cinema out there right now. His films are getting stranger, and he’s perfecting his talents with every scene. Kali Russell also shows some true versatility in the role, switching between distinctive hairstyles, accents, and even the way she carries herself. The whole banquet of The Wheel of Heaven may be bombastic, but it’s very human, and I again enjoyed the metaphysical mindf*ck roller coaster Badon strapped me into.

The Wheel of Heaven played as part of the Make Believe Seattle Film Festival on March 26. The movie continues to play at film festivals across the US this Spring.

Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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