Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Four

Final batch of reviews. Relaxer, Heavy Trip, The Appearance, and more short films.

Relaxer

Relaxer

Early on in Relaxer, the protagonist—a shirtless, pantsless slacker named Abbie—vomits what looks like a quart of milk all over himself. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the cinematic experience the film offers. The plot—at least, what passes for it—requires Abbie to best the world-record Pac-Man score* before he can leave his couch. If you think spending ninety minutes watching someone fiddle with a Nintendo controller sounds dull, guess what: it’s actually worse than it sounds. The script, largely devoid of incident, tends to focus on the largely unlikable characters engaging in interminable bickering (Abbie spends what seems like 10 to 15 minutes arguing with a “friend” over a bottle of cherry-flavored Faygo), separated by long, silent sequences focusing on lead actor Joshua Burge’s slack, dead-eyed stare. Not even a half-assed attempt at a subplot involving a pair of 3-D glasses that give Abbie telekinetic powers can relieve the monotony. If there’s an allegory here, I’m not finding it. Pointless, tedious, and actively unpleasant.

* Long story short: the world-record Pac-Man score (something in excess of 3.3 million points) cannot ever be beaten, because it represents reaching level 256 and scoring every possible point on all of those boards. Due to a quirk in the game software, it’s impossible to progress past 256, the game’s legendary “kill screen.”

United States. Directed by Joshua Potrykus.

Heavy Trip

Heavy Trip

Scandinavian black metal gets its very own equivalent to The Blues Brothers with this strangely feel-good comedy. The “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandic metal” band Impaled Rektum has been practicing at their guitarist’s father’s small-town slaughterhouse for twelve years but has never played an actual gig. That all changes when the promoter of a Norwegian heavy-metal festival pays a visit to the slaughterhouse, and soon the band finds itself on a quest to play said festival (even though they’re not actually invited). While the ensuing plot is more than a little familiar, the film succeeds with flying colors thanks to a rapid stream of hilarious gags and situations, strong performances and endearingly goofy characters (particularly Max Ovaska as the guitarist, who gets the film’s by-far best line). Probably the best tribute to heavy metal and its fandom since Saxon’s “Denim and Leather.”

Finland/Norway. Directed by Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren.

The Appearance

The Appearance

Jake Stormoen and Game of Thrones fan favorite Kristian “Hodor” Nairn play a pair of inquisitors investigating accusations of devilry at a medieval monastery in Kurt Knight’s historical horror The Appearance. Remixing a number of standard elements from the sub-genre—including a wide-eyed girl accused of witchcraft, a hard-assed, cruel abbot, a series of ghastly murders, and more secrets than you can shake the Latin mass at—The Appearance occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its familiarity (its overlong run time—I’m not sure how long it is, but the 90-minute time cited in the Cinepocalypse program was definitely wrong—doesn’t help matters). But Knight maintains a thick, eerie atmosphere throughout, and most of the cast (particularly Stormoen, Nairn, and Baylee Self) put in fine performances. If only they could have done something about those accents…

United States. Directed by Kurt Knight.

My Monster

Short Films

My Monster

Screened alongside Await Further Instructions.

Brea Grant finds herself plagued by both a hideous monster and a clueless husband(/boyfriend/partner/whatever) in this brief horror-comedy. I’ll pretty much watch Brea Grant in anything, and she didn’t disappoint me here, but overall My Monster didn’t do much for me.

Canine

Screened alongside Gags.

A man searches his neighborhood for his missing dog. I sussed out the twist pretty early, but I still enjoyed it.

Spell Claire

Screened alongside Relaxer.

The titular ’80s-obsessed Claire finds a Speak & Spell at a garage sale. It doesn’t like her. Have you ever wanted to watch a movie about an evil Speak & Spell? Here’s your chance. I’ll say it again for the kids in the back: EVIL SPEAK & SPELL! Winning performance by Wendy Jung.

Festival Overview

Ranking of all the movies I watched

The great:

  1. Heavy Trip
  2. Await Further Instructions
  3. Empathy Inc.

The good:

  1. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss…
  2. Clara’s Ghost
  3. What Keeps You Alive
  4. The Devil’s Doorway
  5. The Appearance
  6. Satan’s Slaves
  7. The Russian Bride

The meh:

  1. The Ranger
  2. Gags
  3. Malicious

The bad:

  1. The Brink
  2. Hover
  3. Relaxer

Various achievements

Best director: Yedidya Gorsetman, Empathy Inc.

Best actress: Paula Neidert Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best supporting actress: Abby Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best actor: Zack Robidas, Empathy Inc.

Best supporting actor: Max Ovaska, Heavy Trip

Best screenplay: Gavin Williams, Await Further Instructions

Best original score: Omri Anghel, Empathy Inc.

Best use of non-original music: “Georgy Girl,” performed by the Seekers, Clara’s Ghost

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Three

Satan’s Slaves, Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss…, The Russian Bride, Gags.

Satan's Slaves

Satan’s Slaves

If you like Asian horror, jump-scares, and overpowering musical scores that punctuate every incident—scary or otherwise—with a SINISTER DRAMATIC SWELL OR STING!, you might find Joko Anwar’s remake of the Indonesian horror classic Satan’s Slaves worth a watch. For myself, I felt the film—which finds a family in dire financial straits under siege from both mundane and supernatural threats after their matriarch passes away, leaving behind a pile of nasty secrets—meant well, but simply tried too hard, especially in the third act. In its defense, it does feature three or four genuinely effective scares alongside some fine performances. I just tend to prefer a less over-the-top approach to horror.

Indonesia. Directed by Joko Anwar.

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss...

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

The preciousness of Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh doesn’t stop at the title, or the presence of Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates) at the head of the cast. Micucci and Sam Huntington play a young couple starting a new life in Los Angeles, only to discover that their cheap apartment has been appropriated as a shrine by a suicide cult founded by one Reginald E. Storsh (Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok). At times, the film threatens to collapse under the weight of its own quirk, and its “cast of thousands“—including Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty), Rhea Seahorn (Better Call Saul), Mark McKinney (The Kids in the Hall), and Maria Bamford (Lady Dynamite), among others—occasionally proves more of a distraction than a benefit. But when Seven Stages… works, it really works, thanks to director Vivieno Caldinelli’s commitment to the absurdity and brilliant performances by Micucci, Huntington, and Harmon.

United States. Directed by Viveno Caldinelli.

The Russian Bride

Single Russian mother Nina (Oksana Orlan) dreams of a new life for her and her young daughter (Kristina Pimenova) in America—but her dreams turn into a nightmare when the two move in with Nina’s internet love match, a retired surgeon played by Corbin Bernsen. Writer/director Michael Ojeda (The Amityville Terror) wastes too much time before finally ratcheting up the craziness, but Bernsen’s sinister master plan finally comes to light in the third act and the film practically explodes in a fireball of blood, diesel, and cocaine. It’s hardly destined to go down in the annals of genre history as a classic, but the sets and location work are gorgeous, and Bernsen’s return to the “psychotic medical practitioner” trope is most welcome.

United States. Directed by Michael S. Ojeda.

Gags

Sightings of a creepy clown have the entire city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, on edge in Adam Krause’s feature-length début Gags. The disjointed and meandering narrative follows four separate storylines of citizens responding to the clown-related madness, to varying effect. The most effective plots center around Heather Duprey (Lauren Ashley Carter of The Woman and Darling), an embattled local news anchor reluctantly following the story, and Charles Wright (Dead Weight’s Aaron Christensen), a conservative podcast host hunting the freako terrorizing his city on streaming video. While much of the commentary works—particularly when it comes to examining the relationship between “independent” and “mainstream” media—much of the humor falls flat, and too much time on a storyline involving stupid teenaged pranksters who behave like stupid teenaged pranksters in every horror movie ever. However, Carter and Christensen rock the house, and the whole thing culminates in ten minutes of brilliant weirdness.

United States. Directed by Adam Krause.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Two

The Brink, Empathy Inc., Malicious, Clara’s Ghost, and the Short Trip to Hell short film program.

Mainline

Short Film Program: Short Trip to Hell

Page One

Abunch of actors in a zombie movie are attacked by actual zombies, and then they get into a huge fight because the survivor who has the best head on their shoulders is a redshirt extra that certain people consider themselves above having to listen to. (The extra is black and the people who don’t like him are white, so I’m detecting a bit of a metaphor here.) It was entertaining enough, I guess, but I had a bit of difficulty trying to remember it a couple days afterward.

Stay

A coven enacts a human sacrifice ritual to summon a demon and one of the witches enters a sexual relationship with it, and a lot of bodies pile up before she realizes it really isn’t into commitment. Pretty damn funny, actually. If you’ve ever heard/read me use the phrase “gnarly cock of Satan,” I’m pretty sure it appears in Stay.

The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds

A bunch of years ago I saw a short film called, I think, The Ballad of Stumpy Sam. It was a musical horror-comedy set at a summer camp and the main song told the story of the titular slasher that plagued the camp. This is pretty much the same thing, but in this case the slasher is called “Squirt Reynolds” because he wears a Burt Reynolds mask. It’s probably a lot funnier if you haven’t already seen the Stumpy Sam film. I do hope the big cowboy hat is a reference to the “oversized hat” Norm MacDonald wore while playing Reynolds, um, I mean Turd Ferguson, in the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy skits.

Brace Face

A local girl wears one of those big awkward headgear things, presumably to keep her braces in place, so of course the local asshole kids make fun of her. It turns out she doesn’t actually wear braces. The actors playing the parents give their characters a sort of conservative-1950s-Jesus-freak vibe, giving the entire production a bit of a campier feel than a straight-up synopsis of the action would suggest.

The Daughters of Virtue

More retro religious zealot antics, although this time the aesthetics invoke the late ’70s and early ’80s. A quintet of seemingly upstanding, God-fearing ladies turn on one of their members when it turns out her friend’s husband has been bending her over the barrel and showing her the fifty states. It really didn’t do much for me, except for the final shot.

Quiver

If someone were to make a tutorial video on how to summon the Cenobites without the assistance of a Lemarchand Box, it would probably look a lot like Quiver. Which makes it sound like I should have liked it, but ultimately, it did nothing for me.

The Chairman

I tend to feel that short films are best when they’re condensed and focused; pretty much the opposite of The Chairman. It’s got something to do with psychics and conspiracies, and corporate shenanigans, and advertising. The protagonists are a telepathic father taken hostage by a shadowy business combine, and his equally telepathic daughter. The suits are driving the daughter to suicide for some reason, because they need the father to make mental contact with her and convince her not to, which he refuses to do because he doesn’t want to give the bad guys what they want. At least that’s what I think is going on; I had a hard time following it. It would probably have been a lot better at feature-length.

Mainline

When I say “condensed and focused,” Mainline is what I’m talking about: one actor, one room, a lot of Bob Loblaw about time travel. As with The Chairman, I wasn’t entirely sure why the character was doing what he did—something to do with eliminating paradoxical doubles left over from previous time-travel experiments—but the story was so laser-focused, the atmosphere so intense, it didn’t really matter to me.

Oxford Coma

You ever see someone get killed with punctuation? Easily my favorite of the program.

The Brink

The Brink

The Brink isn’t so much of a movie as a loose framework for first-time director Jonathan Lin to hang a series of action sequences on. The action sequences are genuinely remarkable, particularly the third-act set pieces that take place on a boat in the middle of a fucking typhoon. Unfortunately for me, I found the material not involving people beating the shit out of each other less than compelling. It’s really hard for me to accept a cop as “heroic” when he’s as reckless and ruthless as The Brink‘s protagonist—and his attitude towards his job, which places him squarely to the the right of Donnie Wahlberg’s character on Blue Bloods, did little to endear me to him. So I didn’t find the overall experience a pleasurable one, but there’s clearly an audience for this sort of thing, so.

China. Directed by Jonathan Li.

Empathy Inc.

Empathy Inc.

Yedida Gorsetman serves up science-fiction and social commentary in equal measures with Empathy Inc. Zach Roditas stars as a disgraced financial advisor who sees a shot at redemption when a college friend gives him an opportunity to invest in a new tech startup—a VR experience that allows the rich to walk in the shoes of the disadvantaged. Could it be that things aren’t what they seem? Insightful and thought-provoking, Empathy Inc. examines the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, and comes to the conclusion that even the most well-intentioned attempts to work within the capitalistic system can be corrupted. Gorsetman has more to offer than a sermon, delivering memorable images in crisp monochrome; the cast, including Roditas, Kathy Searle (as Roditas’ wife), Eric Berryman (as his college buddy), and Jay Kleitz (as the developer of the technology). Not to be missed.

United States. Directed by Yedidya Gorsetman.

Malicious

Malicious

Michael Winnick’s tale of a young couple plagued by an evil spirit taking the form of their stillborn daughter isn’t out-and-out bad, but neither is it particularly memorable—it provides a bland viewing experience, and much of it slips out of one’s memory within a couple hours of viewing. Winnick borrows his one effective moment—you’ll know it when you see it; it involves the phrase “you don’t”—feels copied wholesale from the Blumhouse/James Wan playbook; not even Delroy Lindo can elevate this material. If there’s not much to say about this one, it’s because there’s so little there.

United States. Directed by Michael Winnick.

Clara's Ghost

Clara’s Ghost (U.S.: dir. Bridey Elliott)

Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost doesn’t find much new to say about the personal lives of actors—turns out they’re totes fucked up; who knew?—but she doesn’t pull punches and much of her directorial début (she also wrote) is fall-on-the-floor hilarious. Bridey’s mother Paula Niedert Elliott stars as the titular Clara, a washed-up and somewhat unstable alcoholic actress who finds herself the target of a ghostly visitor (Isidore Goreshter of the U.S. version of Shameless) on the eve of a photo shoot…all to the consternation of her husband Ted (Bridey’s father Chris Elliott…you know, from the Letterman show) and daughters Julie (Bridey’s sister Abby) and Riley (Bridey herself), all of whom are also actors. The hilarity that ensues is dark indeed. The plot tends to stagger vaguely from set-piece to set-piece, and I wish Bridey had the courage of her convictions when it came to the ending. But fans of sardonic dysfunctional-family comedies such as Arrested Development should find lots to love here.

Larry Fessenden makes a memorable brief appearance, increasing the festival’s Fessenden Count to 2.

United States. Directed by Bridey Elliott.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger, The Devil’s Doorway, Hover, Await Further Instructions, and What Keeps You Alive.

The Ranger

The Ranger

Director/co-writer Jenn Wexler pits a pack of post-adolescent punk rockers (led by Chloe Levine) against a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, who’s recently done turns on House of Cards and Mr. Robot) in her feature début. Wexler shifts between two different approaches here: the first posits the titular Ranger as a campy slasher who quotes Park Service regulations at his victims; the second explores the twisted psychological relationship between the Final Girl and her nemesis. Sadly, Wexler never balances the two approaches so that they feel like they belong in the same movie. On the plus side, Levine delivers a bravura performance, Holm both amuses and menaces, and I liked the effects work, so it’s not an entire wash.

Larry Fessenden appears in flashbacks as Levine’s uncle, kicking off my traditional genre festival Larry Fessenden Watch. My very first film brings Cinepocalypse 2018’s Fessenden Count to 1.

United States. Directed by Jenn Wexler.

The Devil's Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway

The found-footage trend has (mercifully) passed, but you can still find the occasional movie made in the format. Writer-director Aislinn Clarke sets her stab at it in Sixties Ireland, putting the camera—stocked with actual film, natch—in the hands of a pair of priests investigating an apparent miracle at a “Magdalene house” (a church-run workhouse for unwed mothers and promiscuous young woman—think Philomena). The story itself is a factory-standard demonic-possession narrative featuring two priests (one old, one young; one a true believer, one a skeptic), steely, cruel nuns, an innocent victim suffering the tortures of the damned, and enough secrets to fill an abbey. But Clarke makes The Devil’s Doorway worth watching by emphasizing the thick Irish-gothic atmosphere.

Ireland. Directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Hover

Hover

Set in an ominous near-future world of assisted suicide machines, AI-driven security drones, and slabs of thick plastic doubling as tablet computers, Hover practically begs comparisons to Black Mirror. Unfortunately for director Matt Osterman and writer/star Cleopatra Coleman, that comparison wouldn’t be a favorable one. The premise is sound, but the execution is faulty; the world-building is weak, the characters thinly-drawn and forgettable. (Even the script forgets about the protagonist’s incompetent trainee, abandoning her mid-film until the story requires a shock reveal at the climax.) You can pretty much guess every twist before it happens, most of the performances are lackluster, and even the effects are shitty. And there’s gotta be a more efficient way of killing vermin than exploding their heads with microwaves. It’s probably possible to make a good movie with this premise; but Hover sure ain’t it.

United States. Directed by Matt Osterman.

Await Further Instructions

Await Further Instructions

If you’ve recently found yourself thinking, “Gee, we sure could use a Videodrome for the Trump/Brexit/Fox News era,” director Johnny Kevorkian and writer Gavin Williams have the answer to your prayers. Await Further Instructions seals the fractious Milgram family (if you know get that reference, that’s your first clue) in its home at Christmas, their only contact with the outside world a series of increasingly bizarre instructions delivered by some unknown force through the television. Long-simmering familial resentments boil over in the form of a vicious power struggle as the paranoia and the craziness escalate, and everything culminates in a climax I could not have seen coming in a million years. Add brilliant performances (especially from Grant Masters and living legend David Bradley, aka Argus Filch, Walder Frey, the creepy guy from the first series of Broadchurch, and the third First Doctor Who), a light touch of throwback (note how all the TVs are CRTs), and some brilliantly original effects sequences, and you get something really special.

United Kingdom. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian.

What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive

Canadian writer/director Colin Minihan—one-half of the Vicious Brothers team responsible for the Grave Encounters series, Extraterrestrial, and It Stains the Sands Red—strips human conflict down to basics in this survival-horror exercise. Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen star as a married couple celebrating their first anniversary at a remote lake house, but a chance encounter triggers a series of events, culminating in a devastating betrayal. Minihan doesn’t develop the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked—took me far too long to suss out a couple of major clues, so maybe it’s just me—but he makes the most of his beautiful remote locations, and Anderson and Allen both deliver strong performances. You like your horror intense? Here’s your movie.

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan.

Cinepocalypse: Trench 11; Animals

A period horror film and a Lynchian nightmare

I saw two films on the final two days of the festival, Trench 11 and Animals.

Trench 11

Trench 11

Canada. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Ted Atherton, Shaun Benson, Robert Stadlober, Karine Vanasse. 90 minutes.

As one of the bloodiest, most destructive, and most senseless mass conflicts of the last few centuries, World War I provides fertile dramatic fodder for horror narratives, and Cronenberg protégé Leo Scherman exploits it to maximum effect in his latest effort Trench 11. Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald) heads an excellent cast as Berton, a Canadian tunneler assigned to an Allied Powers taskforce, led by Brits and supported by Americans. Their assignment: investigate an apparently deserted warren deep beneath the German trenches, rumored to house the laboratories of a notorious engineer of chemical and biological weapons.

Scherman milks the dimly-lit, underground setting for all it’s worth, and once our team of “heroes” reaches the tunnels, the tension never lets up. He pulls no punches when it comes to grue (an effective mix of practical effects and CGI), but wisely uses the infected test subjects as an environmental hazard, not as the primary threat. The antagonists (only the deranged Reiner, a German weapons expert, qualifies as a villain) remain identifiably human, helping the horror work on multiple levels.

Bottom line: highly recommended for those who like their horror unremittingly grim.

Animals (Tiere)

Germany. Directed by Greg Zglinski. Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski. 95 minutes.

A relationship on the rocks turns into a surreal nightmare in Animals. Anna, writer of children’s books, heads to Switzerland with her husband Nick in a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, but an automobile accident proves to be the first of a series of unsettling and increasingly bizarre occurrences. Meanwhile, Mischa, the young woman hired to look after Anna and Nick’s apartment finds herself stalked by a man who thinks she’s his ex-girlfriend.

Writers Greg Zglinski (who also directed) and Jörg Kalt pile absurdity on top of absurdity: events occur out of order, Anna loses time and appears in two places at once; the talking cat and the giant fork sticking out of the sea are two of the less inexplicable anomalies. The film exhibits a distinct Lynchian influence, although the climax at least provides something that could pass for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this style of film just isn’t my cup of tea: I found it too disjointed. (I think understanding the film uses what I call “wedding ring logic,” after the visual device the viewer should use to tell the Jake Gyllenhaals apart in Enemy. In other words, it requires me to notice things I don’t normally pay attention to.) It didn’t help that I found funny several elements the filmmakers seem to have intended as creepy. (The talking cat is at the top of that list.) On the other hand, fans of Mulholland Dr. and other Lynchian puzzle movies should find this one worth the watch.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s it for the first Cinepocalypse. Unfortunately I was only able to catch about half of the new features offered; and scheduling conflicts forced me to skip several films I would have liked to see, such as Poor AgnesThe Lodgers, and especially Psychopaths (having to miss Mickey Keating joining forces with Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, Jeremy Gardner, and Matt Mercer hurts). And It Came from the Desert sucked hard as a secret screening choice. But other than Desert, I’m pretty happy with my spread of screenings.

Top Five (Non-Repertory) Movies of the Festival, as Far as I’m Concerned:

  1. Mohawk
  2. The Crescent
  3. Trench 11
  4. Applecart
  5. Housewife

Best Director: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Best Writer(s): Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, Mohawk

Best Actress: Kaniehtto Horn, Mohawk

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Crampton, Applecart

Best Actor: Rossif Sutherland, Trench 11

Best Supporting Actor: Ezra Buzzington, Mohawk

Best Score: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Cinepocalypse: Mohawk; Applecart; secret screening

An angry period thriller, a clever meta-horror film, and the secret screening

My fourth day of screenings (and sixth day of the festival overall) brought me MohawkApplecart, and the much-anticipated secret screening.

Mohawk

Mohawk

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan. Starring Kaniehtiio Horn, Justin Rain, Eamon Farren, Ezra Buzzington, Jonathan Huber. 91 minutes.

Ted Geoghegan’s follow-up to We Are Still Here finds the filmmaker in an angry mood. Set in unsettled New York territory during the War of 1812, Mohawk pits the Mohawk couple Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), and their mutual lover, Englishman Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) against a small squadron of American soldiers led by the ruthless Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington). The Americans’ goal is to secure the Mohawk as allies against the British—and to treat them as enemies if the tribe refuses. If you know anything about American dealings with the country’s indigenous peoples, you don’t need me to tell you that things go south pretty quick.

Geoghegan mixes genres unapologetically here, but the main vibe is that of a hunt/chase film with a hint of horror and a large portion of tragedy, with sharp and brutal action sequences; you can almost feel the musket ball as it tears through flesh. The three leads put in fine performances and have fantastic chemistry, but the American soldiers, villainous though they are, are drawn fully as characters; particularly memorable are WWE wrester Jon Huber as the hulking but strangely honorable Lachlan and Noah Segal as the foppish, cowardly translator Yancy.

The suspense, action, and overall intensity of the film help deliver its powerful social commentary. Mohawk’s resistance to the whitewashing (pun very much intended) of American history is especially important, for reasons I hope are obvious.

Applecart

Applecart

United States. Directed by Brad Baruh. Starring Brea Grant, AJ Bowen, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Dalah, Elise Luthman, Joshua Hoffman. 80 minutes.

Director/co-writer Brad Baruh (a protégé of Don Coscarelli, who executive-produced) subjected his feature début, Applecart, to “radical changes” since rolling it out at Fantastic Fest to what seems to have been a largely negative reception. I gather opinion of this “definitive cut” is still polarized, but fuck it, I really liked it.

Brea Grant and AJ Bowen play the parents of two teenagers (today in “You Are Old”: Brea Grant is old enough to play the mother of teenaged children) who head to an isolated cabin in the woods with their daughter’s plus-one; the horror starts when Bowen happens across an unconscious Barbara Crampton in the woods. Baruh and co-screenwriter Irving Walker interpolate the plot with scenes from a future episode of a true-crime reality show (shades of The Final Broadcast) focusing on the family’s tragic massacre at the cabin. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), the two versions of events don’t jive.

Baruh delivers top-notch gore and fantastic performances from his cast (particularly Grant and daughter Sophie Dalah, but Crampton steals the show), but what I really loved was the structure and commentary. Without it, all you have is another cheap Evil Dead knock of. Instead, Applecart delivers a wallop of a message about the importance of “controlling the narrative”—a powerful and devastating lesson, but a vital one in today’s post-truth culture.

It Came from the Desert

Secret Screening: It Came from the Desert

United States/Canada/Finland. Directed by Marko Mäkilaakso. Starring Harry Lister Smith, Alex Mills, Vanessa Grasse.

It is as Mark, the Elevator Operator, told us on the night we met David S. Pumpkins: “Hey, look, it’s a Hundred Floors of Frights. They’re not all gonna be winners.”

And so it was with the secret screening. After initially trying to wrongfoot the audience with the first twenty or so minutes of Barney’s Great Adventure (the first act of which bears an uncanny resemblance to, I bull you no shit, Troll 2), the programmers revealed It Came from the Desert, a dudebros-versus-giant-ants extravaganza with all the charm and appeal of an Asylum production: that is to say, none.

I gave up after about half an hour and went home. It’s conceivable that it improved after that…

…no, I take that back, it’s not actually conceivable.

Next

My last two movies of the festival will be the Canadian wartime horror Trench 11 tomorrow and the surreal-looking Animals on Thursday.

Cinepocalypse: Sequence Break; Dead Shack; Suspiria

An urban legend for the video game age, a family of zombies in the woods, and an uncut classic in its native language

On my third day at the festival, I saw two shorts (Feeding Time and Blood Shed), along with two new films (Sequence Break and Dead Shack), along with the Chicago premiere of the uncut, Italian-language, 35mm print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer.

Feeding Time

Short Film: Feeding Time

Directed by Matt Mercer, 2016. Starring Stacy Snyder, Graham Skipper, Najarra Townsend. 13 minutes.

Matt Mercer wrote and directed this delightful little horror-comedy, about a hapless teenager (Stacy Snyder) hired by an eccentric couple (Graham Skipper, of whom more later, and Mercer’s Contracted co-star Najarra Townsend) to babysit. Just lovely.

Sequence Break

Sequence Break

United States. Directed by Graham Skipper. Starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanouse. 80 minutes.

According to an urban legend first recorded in 2000, several units of an arcade game called “Polybius” manufactured by “Sinneslöschen” appeared in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1981. The game was very popular, even though players suffered from side effects like seizures and hallucinations. Black-suited government agents occasionally showed up to download data from the units. After a month, the machines disappeared.

Genre mainstay Graham Skipper takes on the Polybius legend for latest directorial effort Sequence Break. Skipper reunites John Dies at the End power couple Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese as, respectively, an arcade-game refurbisher named Oz and an aspiring writer named Tess, who find themselves mysteriously drawn to an unnamed game cabinet in the corner of Oz’s work space, which begins to have sinister effects on the couple as they play it.

Skipper connects the Polybius story with the technology-as-flesh motif of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Unfortunately Sequence Break doesn’t display the wit or depth of the Cronenberg work. In compensation, the film offers some strikingly creative practical effects work, while Williamson and Therese prove engaging leads. It’s a perfectly enjoyable middle-of-the-road low-budget horror film, probably not something that you’ll regard as a classic in ten years, but a fun way to scratch your horror itch while also engaging in some ’80s arcade nostalgia.

Blood Shed

Short Film: Blood Shed

United Kingdom. Directed by James Moran. Starring Sally Phillips, Shaun Dooley. 13 minutes.

In this hilarious British short, cost-cutting measures result in a DIY garden shed that eats flesh and pukes buckets of blood on its owners. The shed’s name is Bunty, and it’s a she, because we all know that sheds are girls, just like cars are.

Dead Shack

Dead Shack

Canada. Directed by Peter Ricq. Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Donavon Stinson, Valerie Tian, Lauren Holly. 85 minutes.

Aaaaagh, I just could not get into this one at all. Fourteen-year-old Jason goes off on a camping trip with his asshole friend Colin, Colin’s asshole sister Summer, Colin and Summer’s asshole father Roger, and Roger’s girlfriend Lisa. There, they run into Lauren Holly, who’s raising a family of zombies.

As you can probably guess, I decided early on that I hated all the characters, although I expect I was supposed to find them funny. I just found their constant bickering and insults annoying. Judging from the consistent bursts of laughter from the audience, I’m probably alone in that.

I didn’t completely hate the film—I believe I chuckled once or twice, and appreciated the makeup work and production values overall—but this is not going to rank as one of the festival highlights in my memory.

Suspiria

Suspiria

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1976. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett. 98 minutes.

Look, I understand why people like Suspiria so damn much. Even today, there’s not much out there that looks or sounds quite like it, and that’s after forty-plus years as one of the most influential horror films ever made. So in 1976, American horror fans must have felt like they were viewing something produced on another planet.

But for myself, while I don’t dislike the film, it does have an actual plot. And I tend to feel that a film that has an actual plot should take care to make sure said plot makes a bare minimum of sense. Suspiria takes place in a world where the standard laws of cause and effect never existed. What does the rain of maggots have to do with anything? Why would a ballet school keep an entire room filled with coiled razor wire? Why doesn’t Sara tell Suzy what Pat told her before running off into the night? Why doesn’t Suzy ask Sara to tell her?

(On a positive note, I have finally seen the scene where Daniel gets kicked out of the academy, so the reasoning for his murder makes more sense now. And seeing the film in Italian means Madame Blanc’s line about “fifty of your American dollars” doesn’t stick out.)

The point is, Suspiria (to quote the Village Voice) “only makes sense to the eye.” (I would argue that it only makes sense to the eye and the ear: Goblin’s atypically dissonant and discordant score pushes even mundane scenes over the edge into insanity. Suzy enters the “world of madness” not when she crosses the threshold of the Tanz Akademie, but when she walks out the door of the airport in Freiburg.) I prefer movies that make sense to the brain as well. As a result, while I like Suspiria somewhat, I will never love it.

Next

On Tuesday, Ted Geoghegan drops Mohawk, his follow-up to We Are Still Here; genre legends Barbara Crampton and AJ Bowen team up in the Don Coscarelli-produced Applecart; plus: secret screening!

Cinepocalypse: The Crescent; Housewife

A neo-psychedelic story of grief and a giallo-influenced journey into the weird

My second day at the festival (actually the festival’s fourth day overall, Sunday, November 5) included screenings of The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Baskin director Can Evrenol.

The Crescent

The Crescent

Canada. Directed by Seth A. Smith. Starring Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murphy, Britt Loder. 99 minutes.

Canadian filmmaker Seth A. Smith takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns the Infinite into a full-on psychedelic experience with The Crescent, using an artistic technique called “paper marbling” as a symbolic element while lulling the audience into a state of emotional suggestion with dense electronic-ambient soundscapes.

Oh, and there’s a story in there as well. Recently-widowed mother Beth (Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) navigate the not-entirely-metaphorical waters of grief at Beth’s mother’s remote seaside house. There they come to the attention of old, creepy Joseph (Terrance Murphy) and young, enigmatic Sam (Britt Loder), representing opposed forces who want to use Beth and Lowen—mostly Lowen—for their own ends.

I could have done without the plot’s development into a supernatural thriller complete with third-act twist, but I don’t think that hurt my overall impression of the film. Even so, I don’t think there are too many other filmmakers out there doing this kind of thing, so I’m in.

Housewife

Housewife

Turkey. Directed by Can Evrenol. Starring Clémentine Poidatz, David Sakurai, Ali Aksöz, Alicia Kapudag, Defne Halman. 82 minutes.

The giallo influence on Can Evrenol’s sophomore effort has been overstated somewhat, but it’s certainly there: primary-color lighting sources abound, and lead Clémentine Poidatz has the look of someone who should really be in a Forzani-Cattet film. The plotline—a young girl watches her mother murder her sister and father, and grows up to gain the attention of a cult called the Umbrella of Love and Mind, two events that are strongly entwined—is 100% pure Modern Weird Fiction, not too far off from a short story Tom Ligotti or Laird Barron might write.

Housewife is as weird and violent as Baskin, but largely not as unsettling: the ULM and its rock-star-ish leader (David Sakurai) are too over-the-top to take seriously (even though I’ve seen video footage of Scientology conferences bearing a resemblance to the ULM seminar we see here). On the plus side, I was impressed by the screenplay’s clever structure.

One other thing—if Clive Barker’s serious about doing that Hellraise remake, Evrenol should be at the top of his wish list to direct.

Next

On Monday, scream king Graham Skipper (The Mind’s EyeBeyond the Gates) steps behind the camera for his directorial début Sequence Break, Canada offers up a zombie-comedy with Dead Shack, and the 33mm Italian-language print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer finally gets its hometown screening.

Cinepocalypse: Tragedy Girls; Get My Gun

A dark high school comedy and an intense tale of revenge

This November marks the inaugural Cinepocalypse. While it can’t accurately be said to be Chicago’s first film festival dedicated to genre (Willy Atkins’ Chicago Horror and Indie Horror Film Festivals probably deserve that distinction), it does seem to be the first one with major power behind it. Co-organized by one of the minds behind the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival and boasting sponsorship from IFC Midnight, Bloody Disgusting and the AV Club, the basic idea seems to be Fantastic Fest-type fare, with 100% less Devin Feraci. The festival takes over Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theater for eight days, running from November 2 to 9.

And, of course, I’ll be there. I plan to see a dozen films, and as always, I’ll pass my opinions along to you—starting with my Friday screenings, Tragedy Girls and Get My Gun.

Tragedy Girls

Tragedy Girls

United States. Directed by Tyler MacIntyre. Starring Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Jack Quaid, Kevin Durand, Josh Hutcherson. 90 minutes.

We haven’t had a teen horror movie since…uh, Happy Death Day, I think. I haven’t seen that yet, but don’t judge me; I was busy covering CIFF. Anyway, the dark high school comedy Tragedy Girls stars Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) and Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton) as the titular Girls, a pair of morbid BFFs with a nascent social media empire. When a serial killer (Kevin Durand) takes up residence in their town, the Girls sieze their chance to boost their numbers by committing a few murders themselves.

So of course with a movie like this the major reference point will be Heathers (pay close attention when the Girls reveal the serial killer’s name) and the ’90s works of Kevin Williamson. What makes Heathers work, for me at least, is the fact that even if Winona Ryder’s character isn’t an actual outsider per se she has outsider cred. This means that, number one, she sees the high school social hierarchy for the steaming pile of bullshit it is, and number two, the target audience, whose members probably see themselves as outsiders, have an identification figure.

The Tragedy Girls, on the other hand, are two of the most popular students in their class—they’re cheerleaders, they run the Prom Committee. They pass for normal, and apparently always have, partially because almost all of their classmates are also sociopaths, and partially because everyone in town in any position of real authority is an idiot. They’re don’t want to burn the system down because the system sucks, they want to burn it down because they like burning shit down.

Now, none of this is automatically wrong per se, but since I found myself unable to root for the Tragedy Girls and the one other possible identification character was clearly doomed from the start, I felt adrift. Tragedy Girls is a comedy, and a lot of it is very funny. I liked the sly commentary about how important social media has become in our lives (and I found a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the neo-fascist “alt-right” movement about halfway through the film…at least I hope I did). I liked the visual shout-out to Cannibal Holocaust. I liked all the performances, particularly Hildebrand and Josh Hutcherson as a shallow kid who hilariously pretends to be deep.

But I also noticed I was only laughing along with the audience about half the time. Clearly they were seeing something else in the film I wasn’t.

Get My Gun

Get My Gun

United States. Directed by Brian Darwas. Starring Kate Hoffman, Christy Casey, Rosanne Rubino, William Jousett. 90 minutes.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through Get My Gun, its protagonist Amanda (Kate Hoffman) screams, “How the FUCK is this my life!” By this point, she’s been raped, impregnated by her rapist, and discovered that the woman who’d agreed to adopt Amanda’s unborn child has, shall we say, severe emotional and mental issues. We can reasonably assume things are not going to get better without getting much worse first.

Filmmaker Brian Darwas, alongside co-screenwriter Jennifer Carchietta, cast Get My Gun squarely in the tradition of exploitation classics such as Ms. 45 (and if you want to put the word “classics” in ironic air quotes, add I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture). The overall film doesn’t focus as much on revenge as the opening scenes—which include Amanda clad in a nun’s habit, pointing a shotgun at a creep and demanding he “Get in the fucking car!”—imply. Instead, Darwas and Carchietta just keep throwing shitty situation after shitty situation at her, seeing how much she can take before she finally breaks.

Even with the filmmakers portraying Amanda’s rape as sensitively as possible without losing its intensity, this isn’t an easy watch, and I respect the filmmakers and the cast for their commitment to the material. Hoffman displays extraordinary vulnerability and bravery in her performance. Unfortunately, the introduction of Catherine (the psycho who wants Amanda’s child) sees the film stray too far into slasher-film territory. The script leaves too many gaps between characters: Amanda’s best friend sets up the practical joke which leads to her rape, but this doesn’t change their relationship at all. The final third of the film sees multiple characters gain superheroic abilities to suffer multiple potentially fatal injuries and not only survive, but not suffer any side effects.

I really wanted to like Get My Gun more than I did, but that third act pretty much killed it for me. Oh well.

Next

My next screenings are on Sunday night: the Canadian film The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Turkish director Cam Evrenol (Baskin).

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Offenders / Have a Nice Day

A sociological thriller and an animated neo-noir

My third and final clump consisted of two World Cinema offerings: Offenders and Have a Nice Day.

Offenders

Offenders (Izgrednici)

Serbia. Directed by Dejan Zecevic. 107 minutes.

The CIFF program described Offenders as a “Serbian Pi” and certainly the film shares a few stylistic elements with Aronofsky’s début: the black-and-white presentation, the menacing EDM score, an academic discipline used as the basis for a thriller, the portrayal of an obsessed mind in free-fall. But Offenders is very much its own thing.

Using the classic video game Tetris as a metaphor for how ordered systems inevitably descend into chaos, a maverick sociology professor guides his three master’s candidates through a bizarre project: introduce chaotic elements into the Belgrade cityscape—a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bags of garbage deposited in a pedestrian tunnel—and observe the decay these elements incite. However, the arrival of the mythical “Statistanislav” triggers entropy in the experimenters as well as in the experiment.

It’s a fascinating study, but what made the film for me is its sharp monochrome cinematography, rendering Belgrade as a character unto itself, vivid as any human in the film. Great stuff, but then again, I could probably spend entire days watching footage of Cold War-era European architecture.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day (Hao ji le)

China. Directed by Jian Liu. 77 minutes.

A duffel bag containing one million yuan serves as the McGuffin in Have a Nice Day, a Chinese neo-noir in the Coen Brothers tradition: think Fargo, except animated, in Mandarin, and much shorter. The bag starts off stolen from a crime boss by one of his low-level couriers, who wants to use the money to pay for his girlfriend’s cosmetic surgery, and from there it makes its way through the usual assortment of fools, thugs, dreamers, or combinations thereof.

The plot drags a bit—I didn’t feel the story contained enough incident to justify its scant 77 minutes—and it never feels like there’s much going on under the surface (possibly the result of my ignorance of Chinese culture), but the characters entertain and engage and the animation, while not done in a style I much care for, fits the material well.

Overall I think there was a lot here that got lost in translation for me, but I still enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone who might think it’s their type of thing.