A scene from BONE TOMAHAWK.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Eight

The final day! Featuring: Kurt Russell’s new Western Bone TomahawkLove and Peace, the latest from Japanese director Sion Sono; Sean Byrne’s sophomore effort The Devil’s Candy; the Czech documentary Daniel’s World.

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The Witch

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Six

On the sixth day, I watched: the John Hawkes-led neo-noir Too Late; the colonial-era horror film The Witch; the Polish supernatural drama Demon; the “extreme” and “controversial” anthology German Angst; Isaac Ezban’s Twilight Zone-inspired The Similars.

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A scene from FEBRUARY.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Five

Day five gave us: the surreal German black comedy Der Bunker; the Emma Roberts horror vehicle February; Schneider vs. Bax, the latest from Borgman director Alex van Warmerdam; the French remake of Mario Bava’s crime drama Rabid Dogs; and more!

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A scene from AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR

At the Devil’s Door

United States. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy, 2014. Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera, Ashley Rickards. 91 minutes.

Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy builds At the Devil’s Door with a venerable old trope. He starts with a teenaged girl named Heather (Ashley Rickards) selling her soul to the devil for $500.

I’ll give McCarthy some credit: at least he’s taking the hoary and overused and trying to employ it in a slightly different way, as he did with his earlier film, The Pact. A single shell game in 1987 ends up butterfly-affecting lives decades down the road. Real-estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) ends up hired to sell the house Heather character grew up in, and finds herself at the mercy of an evil force; and Leigh’s involvement draws in her free-spirited artist sister Vera (Naya Rivera). Okay, the setup has some promise.

As with The Pact, the problem is story development. My biggest issue is that the film doesn’t seem to have a protagonist, but it doesn’t feel like an ensemble piece, either. The film’s pacing is like driving an old car with a bad transmission: it rarely picks up enough speed to carry the audience along, and even when it does, it’ll soon start coughing and sputtering and slowing down. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that whenever something interesting starts happening, you’ve only got a couple of minutes before the story’s focus shifts to something entirely different that’s less compelling, usually something from earlier in the film that you forgot about.

A lot of this comes from the characterization. I have no doubt that McCarthy thinks he’s writing strong female characters, but he’s really not. He’s writing watered-down, cliché-ridden carbon-copies of strong female characters and relying on the actresses to do the heavy lifting. (Again, he did this with The Pact, and I promise that’s the last time I’ll make the comparison.) I spent much of Rickards’s scenes wondering if she was going to have more than one facial expression. Eventually I realized that the problem was that Heather isn’t the sort of girl who has more than one facial expression, and that Rickards was coping as best she could. In retrospect, she’s the most memorable thing about the film, although that probably doesn’t say much since one of my “types” is apparently angry brunettes with ’80s hair.

It’s up to Sandino Moreno and Rivera to carry the film, and they have their work cut out for them. Vera’s character is so cookie-cutter that you can figure out what conversations she’s going to have before she even has them. (When her latest one-night stand approaches her at a showing, I thought, “This is the point where he asks if he can see her again; she says no, and doesn’t even bother to let him down gently.” Which is exactly what happened.) When she says she’s never going to get married and have kids, even though her tone says she doesn’t really want a family, you know she really does because this is just not the kind of movie that would allow her to not secretly crave a husband and rugrats. And she gets off easy compared to Sandino Moreno: the sum total of Leigh’s characterization appears to be “Latina, accent, real estate agent, wants sister to have family.”

And it’s a shame, because Sandino Moreno, Rivera and Rickards deserve a lot better than this. They’re not the sole reason I didn’t walk away from the film in disgust: there are some great visuals and two or three scenes that are genuinely freaky. But it’s hard to not be disappointed with At the Devil’s Door on the whole.

At the Devil's Door poster

A scene from JUG FACE

Jug Face

United States. Directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle, 2013. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young. 81 minutes. 6/10

The pact the backwoods community have with the pit has been in place for generations.

Every so often, the pit demands a sacrifice. The simple-minded Dawai (Sean Bridgers) enters a trance; the pit shows him a face of a member of the community. He crafts a jug bearing that person’s face, remembering nothing afterwards. Then he takes the jug to the elders. The elders take the sacrifice to the pit and slit his throat, his blood flowing into the pit. In return for sacrifices, the pit heals injury and sickness.

One day Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers Dawai’s latest jug. It bears her face.

That’s enough to scare any young woman, but Ada harbors a dark secret–she’s pregnant. Two additional factors complicate things. First, the father of her child is her brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche). Second, her parents Sustin and Loriss (Larry Fessenden and Sean Young, respectively) have arranged for her to be “joined”–married–to a boy from another family.

So she steals the “jug face” and hides it. Understandable, perhaps–but she doesn’t know what happened the last time the pit didn’t get the sacrifice it asked for. She doesn’t just put her own life, and her unborn chil at risk. Her family, her friends and her neighbors will all pay the price for what she does.

A terrible force has been unleashed in this small rural community…and it will not stop until its desire has been sated.

As a rule of thumb, the more obvious a horror trope seems, the harder it is to get right. All too often, creators depend on the tropes themselves to provide the scares instead of actually investing them with anything the audience might care about. “Put a clown in it,” they think, and that’s all they need to do, because everybody’s scared of clowns! By this principle, “hillbilly horror” is one of the trickiest subgenres to pull off. (Or at least I think it is; whoever it is that keeps greenlighting Texas Chain Saw Massacre reboots/remakes/sequels/prequels clearly disagrees.) And let’s be honest, the entertainment industry’s characteristic contempt of any place that isn’t New York or California doesn’t help.

Thankfully, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle actually bothers to develop his backwoods community beyond the level of “religious zealots with Hee Haw accents.” The characters have more to them than typical yokel ignorance, and even less sympathetic characters such as Loriss operate on understandable, relatable motivations. Kinkle wisely avoids making the community’s pit-worship an obvious Christian allegory, allowing their religion to stand in for any unquestioned received wisdom.

I also enjoyed the characterization, for the most part. Most of the parts are written well (we’ll cover the exception in a bit), and characters who easily could have been comedy yokels instead have genuine personalities.

I appreciated how the film portrays the incestuous relationship between Ada and Jessaby with sensitivity, not sensationalism. The story places Loriss, not Sustin, in the obligatory abusive-parent role without letting Sustin off the hook for his actions. Not only is this a refreshing twist on the usual dysfunctional-family dynamic, it also strengthens the social commentary (conscious or otherwise) by detailing how both male and female roles perpetuate unjust social systems.

That’s pretty heavy stuff for a low-budget horror flick, but Jug Face delivers plenty of entertainment value in the form of solid plotting, creepy middle-of-nowhere atmosphere, and what the MPAA describes as “bloody violence, language and brief sexuality.”

It’s clear that Kinkle has ambitions beyond making a run-of-the-mill hillbilly horror picture, and he mostly succeeds, but a couple elements of the production stymie his vision somewhat. The direction and cinematography are competent and occasionally impressive, but occasionally fall prey to editing and effects that make it look like SyFy schedule spackle.

Relative newcomer Lauren Ashley Carter and onetime child star Daniel Manche have the wrong kind of chemistry with each other. This is a huge problem as Ada is apparently supposed to be in love with Jessaby. From the actors’ dynamic, I’d assumed what little consent she granted in the incestuous relationship was grudging at best. Sean Bridgers, hewing more closely to Deadwood’s Johnny Burns than The Woman’s Chris Cleek, also seems a little off.

The exception, and the cast’s weak link, is Sean Young. I feel for her somewhat because Loriss is the least developed of the main characters. But it can’t be denied that she plays Loriss exactly as the the shrill and unsympathetic caricature that was written.

None of these performances are bad, not even Young’s, but they’re just not entirely convincing.

Jug Face is an enjoyable horror flick that at least tries to do a little something different. Kinkle swings for the fences and though he doesn’t hit a home run, I appreciate the effort.

Jug Face poster