Chicago Critics Film Festival 2015: Midnight Insanity

So a couple of years ago I saw a short film named Air Conditions at a Terror in the Aisles event and I fell in love with it immediately. Its director, Ryan Oliver, premiered his follow-up effort Restoration last October, and it’s garnered enough regard to play this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box Theater.

At forty-five minutes, Restoration just about qualifies as feature-length so local filmmaker and critic Collin Souter curated a selection of short films to accompany it, which he dubbed “Midnight Insanity.”

When introducing the short film block, Souter explained that not all the selections qualified as “horror” but they all fit the “midnight movie” aesthetic.


Cruising Electric (Brumby Boylston, 2014)

A fake commercial for a Tyco-style electric racing set themed after the 1980 film Cruising–you know, the one where Al Pacino goes undercover as a leather daddy to catch a serial killer stalking New York’s gay community.

It does somewhat require the viewer to be aware of Cruising and its reputation for maximum effect, but other than that it’s goddamn hysterical. Easily one of the funniest sixty seconds I’ve experienced in a long time. The “hanky code” bit alone is worth the price of admission.


A scene from GROWING PAINS.

Growing Pains (Vokseværk) (Tor Fruergaard, 2014)

Lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty isn’t exactly a recent idea–it goes back at least to I Was a Teenage Werewolf–but it’s become a bit more prominent since Ginger Snaps specifically equated shapeshifting with menstruation in 2000. Growing Pains takes a look at the idea from the male perspective with Growing Pains, whose adolescent protagonist Fabian turns into a wolf when sexually aroused.

Growing Pains is silly and funny and poignant and…I don’t know if I’d actually say scary, but I’d say it genuinely qualifies as horror. I don’t think it juggles the various tones as effectively as it could, but for the most part, it works very well. For me, though, what puts it over the top is the animation style, which combines 3D “generated” elements and 2D “drawn” elements. Great stuff.


A scene from THE TIDE KEEPER.

The Tide Keeper (Alyx Duncan, 2014)

The Tide Keeper combines stop-motion, puppetry and live-action to tell the story of a grizzled old sailor who…

…honestly, I’m not entirely sure exactly what I’m supposed to think is happening to him. (I read the CCFF synopsis, and it doesn’t much match what I decided was going on.) That doesn’t bug me too much, though, because dark though it is, it’s a real charmer. I especially loved the bits where the bedsheets swelled and waved like the ocean and the little ship sailed on top of them.

Enchanting is probably the best word I can think of to describe it.


A scene from TEETH.

Teeth (Daniel Gray & Tom Brown, 2014)

Other than Cruising ElectricTeeth was probably the highlight of the shorts program. Animated in an almost Bill Plympton sort of style, it’s the sharp and biting (sorry) tale of a man’s complex relationship with his teeth. The scene where he drags the teeth of a steak knife against his own really made me squirm, and the ending is perfect.

Apparently the CCFF had two copies of this: one with Richard E. Grant narrating from the protagonist’s point of view, explaining everything, and one without. The one with is apparently the official and complete version, but the CCFF ran the other version. Collin Souter apologized for this and ran the correct one before Restoration.

Teeth tells its story effectively enough that it really doesn’t need the narration–it didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t worked out already. So that’s the version I prefer. On the other hand, Grant’s intrinsic smarm and arrogance are a great match for the character, giving the protagonist a bit of dimension that offsets what the film loses by over-explaining.


A scene from ILL WILL.

Ill WIll (Lester Brown, 2014)

Ill Will is one of my favorite kind of horror shorts: a compressed lump of nastiness without much in the way of redeeming social value. Some kid beats an old geezer up, so to get revenge, the geezer steals the kid’s bike and puts a surprise in it. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will tell you it involves a katana.

Fun for children of all ages, in other words.

A scene from RESTORATION.

Restoration (Ryan Oliver, 2014)

Restoration is a very different animal from the Lovecraftian Air Conditions. It’s about a guy who buys an old car and tows it to his garage to the city, where he plans to restore it. Unfortunately, the car is haunted by a little girl who died in it in the ’50s, and is none too happy about finding herself uprooted.

Once again, it’s not the story that sells me, it’s the aesthetic. I’m not sure if Stephen King’s Christine was a conscious or unconscious influence on Oliver but the big thing the two share, other than the idea of a haunted car, is its retro-’50s revivalism. It’s the sort of movie in which muscular, tattooed, pierced tough guys wear duck’s-ass haircuts and listen to Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.

My absolute favorite scene isn’t a creepy or violent one: there’s a party at the garage, and everybody’s dancing to a live rockabilly band, the kind where “bass” means “double bass” instead of “bass guitar.” And you have this gaggle of characters who look like they could have been extras on Sons of Anarchy dancing along to it. I thought that was great.

Also, that little girl? Hella spooky.


*   *   *

So as you can tell, I liked everything. The one I liked least was probably Growing Pains and I still loved that to bits. It was a very strong program overall. I hope turnout and response were positive enough to encourage the CCFF to schedule more programs of such ilk for future festivals.

Until the next event, seeya later!

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