Cinepocalypse: Mohawk; Applecart; 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.

Synchronicity

Synchronicity

Synchronicity

United States. Directed by Jacob Gentry, 2015. Starring Chadrian McKnight, Brianne Davis, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Michael Ironside. 101 minutes. 5/10

Few ideas in science fiction tantalize or intrigue like that of time travel. But let’s get real: if it were possible, what would we actually do with it? That question has an obvious answer, succinctly summed up in a line of dialogue in the last act of Synchronicity, the latest film from writer/director Jacob Gentry (The SignalMy Super Psycho Sweet 16): we’d use it to get laid.

Admittedly, that’s probably not how the film’s protagonist, Jim Beale (Chadrian McKnight), thinks of it. Beale and his two assistants (played by genre stalwarts AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress) conduct cutting-edge research on time travel through the creation and manipulation of wormholes, but they depend on venture capitalist Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside) for financing. Matters complicate further when Abby (Brianne Davis), a raven-haired gothic bombshell with a mysterious connection to Meisner, enters the picture. Beale quickly falls for her, and she seems to reciprocate…but mysterious forces seem to conspire to keep them apart. In order to learn the truth and win Abby’s heart, Beale makes a snap decision that could prove to have disastrous consequences.

Synchronicity’s publicity makes much of comparisons to Dark City, whose influence manifests most clearly in the film’s “future noir” imagery and puzzle-box plot construction. If you can forgive the film’s depopulated locales (presumably due to the low budget, although it does add to a lovely eerie atmosphere throughout), the occasional crummy CGI, and what I’ve dubbed “That Ubiquitous Blue Filter,” Synchronicity certainly looks good. Similarly, its plotting impresses with its cleverness.

Yet its lack of thematic depth and world-building keeps Synchronicity from standing beside influences such as Dark CityBlade Runner, and (less obviously) Donnie Darko. It may seem unfair to constantly judge the film in the light of its forebears, but by constantly going out of his way to invite those comparisons, Gentry leaves the audience little choice. The odd, retro-futuristic devices and dystopian trappings look nice, but they’re only there for show. Similarly, The film has little insight or substance to say about human relationships, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in thought-provoking philosophical flights of fancy. That’s not to say the it’s all style and no substance, but what you see is largely what you get. Like too many “puzzle movies,” once solved, it gives the viewer little reason to tackle it again.

That all being said, Synchronicity has enough in its favor to justify a look see. McKnight and Davis work as the leads, possessing enough chemistry to make a romantic subplot even if you can’t imagine their relationship lasting much past the end titles. But the real MVPs are the support players, especially Ironside, who seems to relish the chance to play a somewhat different kind of villain. Bowen also turns in a strong performance, proving once again why he’s the go-to guy for movies like this. Composer Ben Lovett also deserves special mention for his score; while retro analog-synth-based scores have become all the rage over the past few years, he delivers one of the few truly distinct examples of the form since It Follows.

As much as I enjoyed Synchronicity, it sadly seems destined to obscurity. It doesn’t distinguish itself enough to merit eventual cult classic status.

synchronicity poster

Conal Byrne stars in THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO.

The Reconstruction of William Zero

United States. Directed by Dan Bush, 2014. Starring Conal Byrne, Amy Siemetz, Melissa McBride, Adam Fristoe, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Tim Habeger, Lake Roberts. 98 minutes. 6/10

The concept of identity and what exactly makes an individual that specific individual has long been a popular concept in science fiction; with The Reconstruction of William Zero, Dan Bush, co-director of The Signal (not the one from last year), becomes the latest filmmaker to take the idea on. Conal Byrne (who co-wrote with Bush) stars as the titular William, a geneticist who emerges from a coma with only the sketchiest of memories. His twin brother helps him gradually relearn who he is…

…only to find out he’s not who he thinks he is–or more accurately, who he’s being taught to believe he is. He’s actually a “proxy,” or clone, of his “brother,” the real William Blakeley. The reasons for his creation are…complicated, but suffice it to say, the tragic death of William’s young son in an auto accident and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage to Jules (Amy Siemetz) form the basis of the original’s motivation.

As intriguing as the questions Reconstruction poses are–not just “what makes ourselves ourselves” but also “can we train someone else who’s not us to become us” and other philosophical meanderings–I had a hard time grasping exactly why some of the characters did what they did. Creating a clone of oneself and then teaching that clone to replace one doesn’t strike me as the most obviously intuitive thing for a brilliant scientist with a dead son and the secret of cloning to do. That doesn’t make it a plot hole, not exactly, but it seems a weird thing to do in a fantastical situation even without murky motivations on William’s part.

Nor does the story make the best of Next Corporation, the Williams’ mysterious employer. The boss may be full of cryptic pronouncements such as “this isn’t the sort of job you just quit,” but even a pool of shadowy, vaguely threatening operatives (including one played by AJ Bowen) can’t give Next a sinister or threatening, conspiratorial vibe. Sometimes a little ambiguity goes a long way, but in this case there’s just not enough meat on the bone.

On the plus side, Byrne practically radiates a sort of open blankness perfect for William; you can readily accept him as an empty vessel, looking for something–anything–of meaning to fill himself with (and his performances take on a new dimension once the third-act twist is revealed). Siemetz and Bowen always show up in movies like this; Siemetz in particular has an easy confidence in her role, it’s something she could do in her sleep. Bush keeps the suspense building up (despite a few awkward expository scenes, especially towards the end) and has a good eye. It’s all topped off with an analog-drenched synth score–nowhere near the same league as The Guest and It Follows, but better than the thousand others I’ve heard this year.

While The Reconstruction of William Zero doesn’t quite gel as solidly as it could have, it’s still worth watching: thoughtful and provocative, proof that science fiction doesn’t need big effects to work on screen.

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO poster

A scene from FAULTS.

Faults

United States. Directed by Riley Stearns, 2014. Starring Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Ellis. 89 minutes.

We meet Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) as he pretends to pay for breakfast at a motel restaurant. “Pretends” because voucher he uses has already been redeemed. By Roth himself, it turns out–the manager remembers him from the evening before. When the staff attempts to forcibly eject Roth, he hunkers down, refusing on the grounds that he’s still eating, and shoveling ketchup into his mouth to make the point.

That’s Ansel Roth in a nutshell: broke, desperate, and something of a jerk. Once a respected psychologist and expert on cults and brainwashing, he fell on hard times after a cultist he “deprogrammed” committed suicide. But when a middle-aged couple approach him, asking for his help in rescuing their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the American remake of The Returned) from an apparently new cult named “Faults,” Roth sees a possible chance at redemption. Or, at least, a chance to pay the debt he owes his ex-manager.

Writer/director Riley Stearns places Roth’s history, bitterness, and desperation at the emotional center of Faults, a psychological thriller cut with a heavy dose of irony. The film primarily serves as a portrait of Roth’s psyche. Roth is undeniably pathetic and arrogant, but damned if I didn’t find myself sympathizing with him at a few points. Orser has built a career around playing characters existing in a seemingly perpetual state of pained anguish (SevenThe Guest); he’s well-suited to roles like Ansel Roth. Similarly, Winstead’s girl-next-door charm go a long way in counteracting the creepiness in Claire.

While Orser and Winstead dominate the film, each performance is memorable and there isn’t a dud in the cast; Jon Gries (as Roth’s effete manager), Lance Reddick (as a bolo-tie-wearing enforcer), Brian Ellis (as Claire’s father) and AJ Bowen (in a cameo as the brother of one of Roth’s “subjects”) all deserve special mention.

Despite the general darkness of the story, the film borders on comedy at times–particularly when Gries and Riddick are involved. But Stearns perfectly balances the quirky aspects of the story with the darker ones in much the same way a good Coen brothers black comedy does (and in a way that the Coens’ acolytes often miss). I also tip my hat to Stearns for slipping the big plot twist under my radar–by rights, I should have seen it coming ten miles away.

Faults is worth watching for Orser and Winstead’s performances alone, but its intensity and black streak of humor add to the enjoyment. A must-see for fans of Fargo and similar movies.

FAULTS

The Guest

The Guest

United States, 2014. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser. 100 minutes.

Filmmaker Adam Wingard began his career making so-called “mumblegore” films in the low-budget, naturalistic vein as his frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg, but 2011’s You’re Next saw him adapt a unabashedly “retro” and less lo-fi style similar to that of colleague Ti West. Wingard’s latest effort, The Guest, continues in the same direction.

The Peterson family are struggling with the recent death of their son Caleb, a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan, when a young man appears on their doorstep. He gives his name as David Collins and claims to have been a good friend and fellow soldier of Caleb’s, and was with him when he died. Caleb’s dying wish was for David to visit his family after his discharge, to look after them and tell them how much their son loved them. With nowhere else to go and no real plan for the future, the Peterson parents insist David stay with them for a few days, an offer he reluctantly takes them up on.

As David integrates himself into the family unit, befriending daughter Anna’s peer group and helping son Luke cope with bullies, it soon becomes clear that David is not what–or who–he seems. The Guest gradually escalates from family drama to suspense thriller to full-blown action movie, complete with explosions and fully automatic gunfire. But Wingard and longtime screenwriting partner Simon Barrett keep the scale low and the story grounded. Instead of delivering an over-the-top extravaganza, Wingard maintains a tight focus on the dynamic between David and the Petersons. This is a story not about the awesomeness of violence but its corrupting and poisoning effect.

The effect is similar to John Carpenter’s low-scale action films such as Assault on Precinct 13, a parallel reinforced by Steve Moore’s arpeggiated-synth score and a soundtrack featuring Goth acts such as Love and Rockets, Clan of Xymox, and the Sisters of Mercy. (Even the titles join the fun, being printed in Albertus, Carpenter’s signature font.)

Apart from Wingard’s direction, The Guest also serves as a showcase for its lead actor, Dan Stevens (late of Downton Abbey). In playing David, he keeps a tight rein on the titular Guest’s emotions, always kind and smiling but occasionally showing glimpses of the violence roiling beneath the surface. This is best displayed in a chilling scene where David starts out telling Luke not to let bullies pick on him and ending with him advising his charge to burn his enemies’ houses down if defending himself doesn’t get them off his case.

Stevens provides the film’s center and anchor but all of the performances that orbit his are strong, especially Maika Moore and Brendan Meyer, respectively, as Anna and Luke. Also watch out for the great Lance Reddick (of Oz and Fringe) as a determined military officer and a brief appearance from AJ Bowen, the fourth member of the Wingard/West/Swanberg alliance.

The Guest is another excellent entry in Wingard’s increasingly impressive oevure, and it has much to offer fans of horror, thrillers, and action films. Indeed, I’d name it one of the best genre films of 2014. Look it up.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

A scene from THE SACRAMENT

The Sacrament

United States. Directed by Ti West, 2013. Starring AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley, Amy Siemetz. 95 minutes.

Ti West burst onto the scene in 2009 with the brilliant House of the Devil (well…not really, but we don’t talk about Cabin Fever 2) but his subsequent work–the pretty-but-pointless Innkeepers and lackluster contributions to VHS and The ABCs of Death–has largely failed to live up to expectations. That all changes with The Sacrament.

West is a consummate stylist but in a stroke of irony, he finds his return to form in the guise of found-footage. AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucky Audley star as a trio of photojournalists who journey to Africa to make a documentary for VICE. The subject is Audley’s sister (Amy Siemetz), who dropped out of Western society, joined with several hundred like-minded souls and helped build a commune named Eden Parish in the African forest. Led by “Father,” real name Charles Anderson Reed (Gene Jones), the Parish’s residents describe it as the perfect place to get away from the bullshit that clogs modern civilization, get back to nature and get closer to God. But the Parish has a dark side, one that makes itself known with a vengeance when a series of incidents escalates beyond Father’s control.

Drawing on pop-cultural memories of religious fervor gone tragically wrong, West paints a harrowing portrait of fanaticism and brainwashing. Nobody familiar with his work will be surprised to hear that he’s more than happy to deliver scenes of horror and violence, but the scariest thing about The Sacrament is how, well, normal everybody seems. Siemetz and her fellow-travelers talk a bit more about God and the corrupting influence of capitalism a bit more than most, but their demeanors are calm and cheerful, if a bit aloof–none of yer picket-sign doomsday ranting here. Even Father, with his silver tongue and easy charm, seems more like a retired insurance salesman than a preacher. We have seen the face of the cultist, and it’s disturbingly familiar.

West’s dedication to his thesis has garnered criticism from some corners: once you figure out where The Sacrament is going–and believe me, it’s not hard–you know exactly where and how it will end. I admire West for not pulling a third-act twist out of his ass just for the sake of it; I found that refreshing, just as I found the lack of bullshit and pretension he brought to House of the Devil refreshing. At any rate, this is one of those movies that’s more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fascinating journey. West keeps the tension high and the pacing taut, and the inevitable progression of events feels like a tragedy that can’t be averted, not a series of lazy, predictable plot points. And I was impressed with how skillfully he was able to use the found-footage tropes to build suspense.

Bowen, Swanberg, and Siemetz have been working together for so long now (they’re part of Adam Wingard’s rep company) that they’re like a well-oiled machine; they’re comfortable enough that they know exactly how to play off each other. Audley turns in a good performance as well. But Gene Jones owns this movie lock, stock and barrel. He needs to, obviously–if the audience can’t buy how dozens, hundreds of people could be drawn in by Father’s aw-shucks down-country good-ole-boy demeanor, they won’t buy the rest of the film no matter how good his castmates are. Jones delivers the goods and then some, and manages to do so without going over the top, an easy-to-make but potentially fatal mistake.

With The Sacrament, Ti West takes an intense journey to the heart of darkness, and the truth he finds there will disturb and haunt audiences for years to come.

The Sacrament poster

Alessa Ramsey in RITES OF SPRING

Rites of Spring

United States. Directed by Padraic Reynolds, 2011. Starring AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Sonny Marinelli. 80 minutes. 6/10

For almost thirty years, every spring, women have disappeared. Their bodies are never found. Nobody knows what happened to them.

Rachel (Anessa Ramsey) lost her firm an important client. Even worse, she allowed someone else to take the fall. After a night at the bar with her co-worker Alyssa (Hannah Bryan), she resolves to come clean to her boss and make things right. She never gets the chance: a hooded stranger (Marco St. John) abducts the two.

They come to, tied up, in a rural barn. Who has kidnapped them, and why? What will happen to them? The stranger doesn’t give them a straight answer. He asks the women “Are you clean?” and makes enigmatic references to a sacrifice. Then he takes out a bowl and knife.

Under a trapdoor in the barn, a hideous creature stirs.

Ben (AJ Bowen) is down on his luck, recently fired from his job for a fuck-up he had nothing to do with, and half a million dollars in debt. He’s gotten involved with Paul (Sonny Marinelli), a career criminal heading up a kidnapping job. Also working the job are Ben’s wife Amy (Katherine Randolph) and brother Tommy (Andrew Breland). The take is two million dollars, split equally four ways. The target is the young daughter of Ben’s former boss Ryan Hayden (James Bartz).

The job doesn’t go off as planned, but that’s the least of the criminals’ worries. Because Rachel, having escaped the stranger, bursts into their lives, covered in blood, begging for help, and telling a wild story about being chased by a murderous monster.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a horror film so committed to succeeding despite itself as Rites of Spring.

The story combines the setup for a bog-standard horror movie (plucky heroine kidnapped by psychotic weirdo and must escape from murderous monster) and the setup for a bog-standard crime picture (down-on-his-luck anti-hero gets drawn into a caper and finds himself in over his head). Writer/director Padraig Reynolds seems to believe that merely marrying the two setups will result in a fresh take on both subgenres, but it doesn’t, not really.

The problem isn’t the over-familiarity of the premises, but the relentless predictability of the plot development. Everything that happens in a crime-gone-wrong story happens to Ben, and everything that happens in a slasher movie happens to Rachel (and eventually Ben) as well. The identity of Paul’s “person on the inside” is obvious from the moment he mentions said person. Alyssa’s status as cannon fodder is so obvious from the beginning that it barely seems like a spoiler.

On top of this is the most problematic individual plot point, the massive web of coincidence that connects the two stories. If you read between the lines of my synopsis it’s not too hard to figure out that Rachel committed the multi-million-dollar cock-up Ben went down for, and that Hayden is both the boss Rachel plans to confess to and the target of Paul’s ransom plan.

I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why this development is necessary (and like every other plot twist in the film, it’s presented as a major reveal when, in fact, it’s blatantly obvious from the moment the pieces start to fit into place). I guess maybe it’s to give Ben and Rachel more of a motivation to help each other, although considering they are both on the run from a bloodthirsty rampaging freak, I can’t imagine they’d need more motivation. In fact, the twist hinders, not helps, the film, as it makes suspension of disbelief, already a difficult thing for this film, that much harder.

About that aforementioned bloodthirsty rampaging freak: man, was I disappointed. The Stranger’s dialogue foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of some sort of Lovecraftian Thing that Should Not Be, but what we get is a guy in some grotesque makeup running around, beheading victims with a scythe. It’s like being promised Pinhead but actually getting a third-rate Jason Voorhees.

And yet Rites of Spring is much more enjoyable than it ought. Reynolds’s direction creates suspense where his script lacks it and creates a couple of genuine scares. (The “bloodletting” sequence is probably the film’s highlight.) Characterization is quite deft and effective. To be sure, the characters are rats in a maze, but at least they’re fascinating rats.

The real draw here is the cast. If you absolutely must have a Final Girl in your horror movie, you could do much worse than Anessa Ramsey, who was impressive in The Signal and a bright spot in the desperately uneven Yellowbrickroad. Her Signal castmate, the ubiquitous AJ Bowen, stretches out a bit (in 2011, he was mostly known for psychos and villains), and while his take on Ben isn’t entirely successful, it mostly works. Hannah Bryan’s take on Alyssa is better than the film deserves, Marco St. John’s Stranger is one creepy fuck, and Sonny Marinelli’s ruthless Paul makes for a great second-string villain.

All of this is to say that Rites of Spring doesn’t seem to hold much promise but mostly works. It probably isn’t anybody’s idea of a modern horror classic, but it’s a perfectly decent way to kill 80 minutes of free time.

Rites of Spring poster