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.

A scene from WE ARE STILL HERE.

We Are Still Here

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan, 2015. Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, Lisa Marie, Monte Markham. 84 minutes.

I’ve always had a complex relationship with Lucio Fulci’s films. In theory, I should consider his œvure some of the best horror films ever made, featuring as they do beautiful imagery, existential themes, and strikingly-designed, well-executed gore sequences guaranteed to make the stomach churn. In practice, however, his screenplays tend to lack coherency, which irritates me because I’m mostly a story person. For me, the archetypal example of this is 1981’s House by the Cemetery, in which several minor characters insist the protagonist has a daughter he denies exists (and whose subplot disappears early in the film with no explanation), amongst other bizarre story elements and plot developments.

That being said, let’s turn our eye to Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig star as Anne and Paul Sacchetti, who move into a rambling old house in the wake of the tragic death of their son Bobby. Almost immediately, Anne becomes convinced that Bobby’s spiritual presence has joined them in the new house; not too long after, they learn the nasty history of the house and its first residents, the Dagmar family. They invite their spiritualist friends Jacob and May McCabe to help them sort out the strange phenomena.

Now, if you’ve seen The House by the Cemetery, you’ll understand why I brought it up. For the uninitiated, the most obvious similarity comes with the character names, many of which Geoghegan borrowed from Cemetery’s characters, cast, and crew. The references don’t stop there: both We Are Still Here and Cemetery’s predecessor The Beyond feature a tradesman named Joe who suffers a traumatic experience in a basement. Indeed, Geoghegan’s film shares many thematic elements that link Fulci’s loose “Gates of Hell Trilogy” (which includes City of the Living Dead along with The Beyond and Cemetery).

Now, I’ve spent so much time pointing out the ways in which We Are Still Here obviously cribs from Fulci’s work that I’d forgive you for thinking I was going to turn in an unfavorable review. On the contrary, the film encapsulates the things I like about Fulci’s films while improving on (what I perceive as being) their shortcomings in every way.

The plot, by and large, makes sense, and when it doesn’t, it’s not impossible to see an internal logic at play. The characters are genuine characters, and not thinly-drawn effigies who only exist in the plot to suffer from disgustingly gory demises. The performances are very strong for the most part, particularly Crampton, Sensenig, and a scene-stealing Monte Markham as a creepy local old-timer who clearly knows a lot more about what’s going on than he’s saying. I do have to admit that Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie go a bit over the top as Jacob and May, but, hey, it helps give a bit of variance to an otherwise solidly somber-toned film so it’s not unforgivable.

The cherry on top is Geoghegan’s superb direction, understated and lyrical for much of the running time, then suddenly shifting into overdrive for the film’s blood-soaked climax, an effects-driven set-piece defined by some sickeningly memorable death scenes and a lot of icky, gooey gore.

Best of all, We Are Still Here is that rarest treat of the horror pastiche-slash-homage: the one that stands entirely on its own and doesn’t require the audience to know jack-all about the source material to enjoy it. Sure, it helps to be familiar with Fulci’s work to get the references and in-jokes, but it’s not necessary. This excellent film has plenty to delight fans of both atmospheric and gruesome horror regardless.

WE ARE STILL HERE poster