Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

An intense psychological thriller, a horror movie about the scars of war, and a crime drama-cum-fairy tale

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.

Retro Review: Nightmare City

Its own special brand of terrible

Italy. Directed by Umberto Lenzi, 1980. Starring Mel Ferrer, Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter. 88 minutes. 3/10

Intrepid television-news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) bides his time at an anonymous European airport, waiting for the impending arrival of an important nuclear scientist or something.

That’s when an unexpected military aircraft makes an emergency landing. Air traffic control is not able to make contact with the plane and the police assemble to investigate, as do Miller and his cameraman. A swarm of people–some of them appearing to have congealed beef gravy smeared on their faces–disembark from the plane, draw guns and knives and make short work of the police. (One of the killers is the scientist Miller was waiting for.) That being settled, they descend upon the city and wreak havoc.

Miller escapes with footage of the massacre, but when he attempts to broadcast it, the imperious General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) arrives and puts the kibosh on it, because blah blah blah military blah blah blah mass panic.

The plane came from some sort of top-secret nuclear facility; radiation mutated its passengers into murderous fiends. (It turns out the beef gravy is actually radiation burns.) They need to drink blood to survive, and the mutations have driven their cellular regeneration systems into overdrive. Only by destroying a certain part of the brain may one incapacitate them, as it disrupts the healing factor.

These blood-drinking, zomboid freaks target locations of strategic importance, including the television station where Miller works, the hospital where Miller’s wife Anna (Jill Trotter) assists with a crucial surgery, and the estate where Gen. Murchison’s daughter lives with her new husband. The ranks of the fiends swell as more planes filled with them arrive. Even worse, their affliction is apparently virulent.

While the military try to contain the chaos, Miller seeks to rescue his wife. Can they make it out of the country alive? Can Murchison devise a plan to defeat the freaks?

Or is all of humanity completely fucked?

In 1979, a little movie called Dawn of the Dead took the world by storm. It was especially notorious in western Europe, where it was known as Zombie (or variations thereof). European production companies specializing in cheap exploitation responded to its runaway success the only way they knew how: either by adding zombies to every film on their production slate, or commissioning a pile of rip-offs of Dawn. Some of these were good, most were bad, and Emmanuelle probably appeared in at least one of them.

Then there’s Incubo sulla città contaminata, variously known in the U.S. as either Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with City of the Living Dead, an alternate title for Fulci’s Gates of Hell), which is so very special that it merits specific attention.

According to IMDB, various corporate entities hired director Umberto Lenzi to make 65 films between 1958 and 1992, so it seems that someone thought he knew how to assemble a coherent motion picture. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a claim is very thin on the ground in Nightmare City.

The film includes two or three of the most hilarious continuity errors I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill things like “a scene is set at night, and the interiors reflect that, but the exteriors were shot at high god-damn noon,” although, yes, that is a thing that does happen. We’re talking higher orders of discontinuity here. Late in the film, a soldier shoots a zombie in the head, blowing it clean off her shoulders. In the very next shot, said head is attached to the body again. Cinema is magic! Consider, also, the case of an extra who dies at least twice, maybe three times, over the course of a scene.

Let’s not forget all those extras who fall victim to zombie attack by running towards clearly visible monsters instead of away from them. I don’t know who’s at fault here; could be Lenzi, could be the editor(s). But whoever paid them should ask for their money back.

And then there’s the sight of three or four zombies, leaning against a car and drinking bottles of Cherry Coke. I will never be able to make sense of that as long as I live. I’m hoping that when I die, someone in the afterlife will be able to explain it to me.

As for the script, you really can’t call it a story without using ironic air quotes. The degree of contrivance is astonishing: after the brouhaha at the airport, they somehow manage to strike three or four places in the entire city where important characters were congregating. Their prey-stalking technique is incomprehensible: one apparently breaks into a house, vandalizes the inhabitant’s artwork, and then lays low for at least twenty-four hours before striking again.

The script spends a good five minutes explaining why zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, a question very few people require answered in order to enjoy a tale of flesh-eating ghouls, but doesn’t bother establishing how the mutation is transmitted from person to person. Indeed, I spent the most of the film thinking it wasn’t–until the very end, when the screenwriters evidently noticed they forgot to write a scene forcing a character to kill a zombified loved one and duly added it.

And the less said about the ending, the better.

In the writers’ defense, they gave their movie a social conscience. Actually, never mind–Claudio Fragasso also gave Hell of the Living Dead and Troll 2 a social conscience. So, hell with them, then. There’s no defense for this nonsense.

Are there any good points? Well, Silvio Cipriani’s score is top-notch, in aesthetic terms. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t often wildly inappropriate compared to what’s going on in the movie. Like any good European exploitation film, there’s plenty of gratuitous female nudity involving attractive actresses. And of course, me being me, I really appreciated the scene in which zombies attack the Solid Gold Dancers…but I’m not really prepared to discuss my fetish for women in workout or dance attire with anyone other than my therapist.

But, honestly, the only compelling reason to watch this film is to make fun of it. If you want to see a vintage Italian zombie movie that’s actually good, I recommend you look elsewhere.

Nightmare City poster

Retro Review: The Nameless

Sometimes competent, sometimes a trainwreck, mostly mediocre

AKA Los sin nombre. Spain. Directed by Jaume Balagueró, 1999. Starring Emma Vilarasau, Karra Elejalde, Tristán Ulloa. 102 minutes. 4/10

In a water hole in an abandoned, desolate warehouse, the police make a gruesome discovery: the mutilated body of a young girl. Numerous puncture wounds and acid burns, inflicted while she was still alive, mar her skin. Her teeth destroyed, her fingerprints destroyed by corrosion, her remains are almost impossible to identify.Almost. The girl had a physical deformity: one of her legs was five centimeters shorter than the other. And a single personal affect–a bracelet–was found at the scene. Based on this evidence, the authorities determine the corpse is that of Ángela Gifford, whose parents, Marc and Claudia, recently reported her missing.Five years later, the Giffords’ marriage is ruins. Marc returned to London, while Claudia (Emma Vilarasaud) remained in Spain, working as an editor, fending off an obsessive suitor, addicted to tranquilizers, unable to come to terms with her daughter’s death.

One night, the phone rings. “It’s me, Mommy,” a voice–unmistakable–pleads. “Please, come get me.”

Ángela tells her mother she’s being held captive at an abandoned beachfront health clinic. Claudia arrives, finding the grounds deserted, but she finds clues indicating her daughter’s survival–and hints towards who took her. She teams up with Bruno Massera (Karra Elejalde), the now-retired police detective who investigated Ángela’s disappearance, and Quiroga (Tristan Ulloa), a writer for a Fortean magazine who holds another piece of the puzzle.

All the clues point to a horrible truth: Ángela is in the hands of the Nameless, a brutal and depraved cult dedicated to nothing less to discovering the essence of pure evil.

The Nameless is based on a 1981 novel by Ramsey Campbell, the legendary and prolific British horrorist. Not being familiar with that novel, or indeed the bulk of his written work (I’ve really only read his Cthulhu Mythos fiction), I can’t say how faithful this 1999 adaptation, the début feature from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró (who’d go on to co-create the [REC] franchise), is.

can say that the film is a god-damned mess, and on those grounds I hope it’s not particularly faithful.

The script is filled with logical flaws, weird leaps in logic, and incoherent storytelling. I immediately figured out why the Nameless took great pains to eliminate all identifying factors on the fake corpse except for what is arguably the most important one: the shorter leg. So I was a bit gobsmacked when the cops, who actually mention this incongruity in the dialogue, sweep it under the rug on some spurious grounds relating to the psychology of ritual murderers. (And, I should point out, something that was news to me, and I’ve actually researched ritual murder.)

Characters fade in and out of the narrative seemingly at random. I get the feeling that the film’s Big Bad is someone I’m supposed to recognize, but don’t. I also want to know what happened to the guy with the facial scar. Then there’s Claudia’s “ex-boyfriend” Toni, laughably underwritten and yet occupying more space in the narrative than he ought.

Let’s not forget bizarre scenes such as the following:

Massera (to Quiroga): I think you can help us.
Quiroga: But how?
(Massera walks away.)

As for the Nameless themselves…the dialogue tries too hard to suggest true menace. I didn’t count the number of times characters referred to the cult’s time at the Dachau death camp during World War II, but I think it was at least half a dozen. Even in 1999, evoking Nazis was a lazy tactic. The constant yammering about the “synthesis of evil” borders on silly technobabble. And when a clunky infodump reveals the cult’s ultimate goal, I found myself wondering, Why the fuck would anyone ever want to do that? Sorry, but “They’re evil! And also Dachau!” doesn’t cut it for me.

This is not a movie you watch for strong plotting, cracking storytelling or believable characters.

Thankfully, the rest of the production isn’t a complete wash. Balaguerós direction isn’t particularly inspired–it’s basically one part Seven and one part The Silence of the Lambs–but it’s at least competent, especially early on in the film. I doubt it’s likely to creep out anyone other than the easily creeped-out, but it just about does the job. The fake corpse is a gem of effects work and is the most effective thing the film has to offer.

And the cast is strong, with one or two exceptions. Vilarasau, Elejalde, Ulloa, and Carles Penyet (as the cult’s leader) do their best with what little they have, and their best is pretty damned good. Carlos Lasarte, who plays the cult’s imprisoned leader, steals his single scene and deserves a much better movie than this. The lone black mark comes from Pep Tosar (the protagonist of Nacho Cerdá’s notorious Aftermath), who plays Toni as a cartoonish asshole, too over-the-top to pose any real threat.

Profoundly flawed but getting a few important things right, The Nameless is hard to either love or hate. Indeed, it is neither good nor bad enough to stick in the memory for very long (corpse props and story issues notwithstanding). Considering the eponymous cult’s commitment to exploring the darkest depths of evil, the film’s mediocrity may well be its greatest sin.

The Nameless poster