Phoenix FearCon 2012: The nearly picked

Well, just about recovered from our fifth horror film festival, which took place last month in Scottsdale – at a “proper” i.e. mainstream cinema, for the first time. I think the owners might have had second thoughts, especially when a zombie apocalypse broke out in the lobby. That required all of Chris’s diplomatic skills to soothe. As ever, it was an utterly exhausting but immensely fulfilling day, with the biggest turn-out we’ve ever had, and we’re looking forward to next year’s event – we’ll be starting work on that as soon as the calendar turns to 2013 (Mayan apocalypse permitting…). Many, many thanks are to due to all the volunteers who helped out, guests like Fred Williamson and Tiffany Shepis, and everyone who showed up to support the event.

I’ve already covered the four films which were actually screened, but that was just the tip of iceberg, as we also had a record number of submissions, both shorts and features. The latter, in particular, covered an incredibly broad spectrum of the genre, and we wish we had time to screen more of them [next year, sponsorship permitting, we hope to extend the festival to a two-day event]. Below, you’ll find reviews of the most interesting submissions that couldn’t be fitted in. Even the ones I didn’t actually “like,” still had aspects that were admirable and/or well-done, and as a whole, they provide an excellent showcase for the breadth and depth of independent horror moviemaking today – and not just here in the United States, but also from Britain, Mexico and even India.

[Important note: the following reviews are entirely my own opinions, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Phoenix FearCon. So don’t complain to anyone else but me!]

?: A Question Mark (2012)

Rating: C+

Dir: Yash Dave, Allison Patel
Star: Varun Thakur, Vicky Chatwal, Maanvi Gagroo, Chirag Jain

Yep, that’s the title. As in “question mark”. “A group of friends went to shoot their film project, but never returned. A few days later, their camera was found.” Hmm. That sounds familiar. For this is an Indian take on The Blair Witch Project, and is fairly shameless in its thievery, right from its lifting of the introductory text. Here, the victims (and there’s no doubt that’s what they’ll be) are making a short film, under director Vicky (Chatwal), set in a house deep in the Indian countryside. However, it’s not long before strange stuff starts to happen, escalating through people being dragged about, and apparent possession by evil spirits – by the end, it feels more like a found-footage version of The Evil Dead, perhaps, though the level of special effects is a lot lower. The cast all use their real names, and the dialogue was improvised, so even with the editing of the footage which apparently occurred, it’s clearly about as far from your typical Bollywood film as you can imagine: no glossy production values, and absolutely no singing whatsoever.

That’s both a strength and a weakness. To the Indian audience, for whom it was made, this could be entirely innovative. To a Western viweer, however – for whom the words “found-footage” trigger a reflex rolling of the eyeballs – not so much. And I hated Blair Witch. Ok, I didn’t hate it; but definitely found it vastly over-rated. 15 years later, I’m not sure I want another. However, this does a better job of keeping the camera steady, and the characters are less irritating. You certainly have to pay attention, because when things happen, they tend to happen extremely quickly, and not for long. The results have their fair share of impact, but also provokes some unintentional laughs, not least through some prudish subtitling: when one character clearly yells “Fuck!”, the subs inexplicably claim he says, “Gosh!” The obviously derivative nature is a significant mark against, though overall I did prefer it to BWP, and a couple of moments were genuinely creepy, even for a jaded viewer like me. Those chills probably justify its existence, though it’s an occasionally close call.

Alucardos, Retrato de un Vampiro (2011)

Rating: C

Dir: Ulises Guzman

It was only some way into this surreal drama-documentary about the life of Juan Lopez Moctezuma, that I realized who he was – the director of cult lesbian vampire classic Alucarda, also known as Sisters of Satan. I knew nothing about the man beyond that: I’m not sure I know much more, or at least, I’m not sure I can claim much more factual knowledge. This is certainly an odd story, partly telling Moctezuma’s life, from his work as a producer with Jodorowsky, through a spell running a TV channel in Spain, then his return to Mexico, where he made the movie for which he is best known, before descending into insanity. But the other half tells the story of two even more bizarre fans, Manolo and Lalo, who are obsessed with Alucarda: they track the director to the asylum in which he is institutionalized, break him out, and when they discover he doesn’t know who he is, start showing Moctezuma his own films, and taking him to the locations where they were made, in the hope of triggering a return to his sense.

The main problem is the threads take far too long to join up: initially, you’re left completely in the dark as to Manolo and Lolo’s significance, or even relevance to proceedings, despite their pivotal role. It’s a hard slog for the viewer until the connection is finally made, and Chris opted for sleep instead. I persevered: knowing of Moctezuma’s work is perhaps a leg up, and I found the longer this went on, the more engrossing it became, though it retained a weird, dreamlike quality which left me unsure how much was fact, and how much fiction. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if you can take this for what it is – more of a reimagining than a hardcore documentary – it’s unique. Just don’t expect it to provide all the answers, or even ask the basic questions.

The Awakened (2012)

Rating: C-

Dir: Lou Simon + Douglas Villalba
Star: Stephanie Pitts, Nikolas Holmes, Jonathan ‘Legacy’ Perez, John J Thomassen

With a hurricane bearing down on Miami, five friends hole up in a house, barricade the windows and prepare to sit out the storm, having loaded up on enough Corona and associated Corona products [let’s just say, the product placement here isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle] for the night. The main power soon goes out, taking with it most forms of entertainment, and also the cellphones; after running out of conversational topics, they opt to restage a spiritual healing ceremony one of them went through recently, I guess they couldn’t find a ouija board in the cupboard for the usual seance. Needless to say, this doesn’t go well, and as the title suggests, something is awakened by their ill-considered dabbling. It seems upset, and the residents of the house fine themselves unable to leave, as the unseen presence assaults them.

Despite my sarcasm, this isn’t awful. However, its micro-budget origins are ill-concealed, with a single location and an evil spirit which conveniently turns all the lights out before doing anything nasty, thereby removing the need for any of those pesky (and expensive) visual effects. The former does work for the movie to some extent, generating a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the tensions that result between the ill-matched companions are credible. On the other hand, having all the deaths happen effectively off-camera feels far too much like a cheat: you can get away with it once, no more than that. The performances aren’t bad, with Pitts decent enough as the lead, and the rest of the cast sympathetic or irritating as appropriate. However, what you have here barely gets above PG-rated horror, with far too much restraint to be properly effective.

Blood Rush (2012)

Rating: C

Dir: Evan Marlowe
Star: Kerry Finlayson. Don Donnelley, Christy Lee Hughes, Helen Soraya

A small-town take on the small-budget zombie flick, this contains a series of interweaved threads about the inhabitants of a rural community, who finds themselves being taken over by an infection. This causes the victims to have an uncontrollable craving for raw meat – but, interestingly, doesn’t destroy their intelligence, at least initially. So, they still function normally in some ways: they’re just a bit bitey. The heroine, Kara (Finlayson, who also wrote the script), has to make her way through the town in search of help for her sister Emma, while also taking care of a heavily-pregnant friend. Meanwhile, a group of the other residents, under the local mayor and town doctor, is deliberating ponderously over the epidemic, torn between waiting for help from outside that may never come, and taking action themselves, possibly against entirely the wrong target as a result of their own prejudices.

In tone and era, this seems to be going for something like Brain Dead: an uber-polite society faced with a threat that’s the extreme opposite, and its an interestingly-subversive concept. However, the technical aspects are a good deal more wobbly: early on, there’s a supposed shovel hit which is about the least convincing thing I’ve seen this year, and though there’s nothing else quite as bad, its early placement is a bad first impression. The performances are similarly a bit variable, and it feels almost as if some actors were taking it seriously, and others slyly winking at the camera. However, it does have one of the best lines in this year’s submissions: “All I know is, I ate up that man’s German Shepherd, and it tasted good – that ain’t right!” If borrowing too much from other, better movies, this one does have some of its own thoughts as well, and ends up retaining our interest as a whole.

Cost Of The Living: A Zom Rom Com (2011)

Rating: C+

Dir: Daniel Lee White
Star: Kevin Killavey, Sarah Nicklin, Gio Castellano, Samantha Acampora

This film is less concerned with the zombie apocalypse than the aftermath, when most of the zeds have been pacified, and trained to perform menial tasks in society. However, there are still feral packs of unmodified creatures outside the city, and the rich have decided to uproot and head offshore, to live on artificial islands. It’s an uneasy situation, with some members of society abusing the unfortunate victims, and others convinced they are an abomination against God, that need to be taken down. In the middle of this stands Andrew (Killavey) and his new girlfriend Emily (Nicklin): the former lives outside the walls and safety of the city with his sister, who hates the zombies with a passion, while the latter still keeps her pacified, undead mother around the house. Nothing good can come of that, needless to say. There’s also Emily’s ex-boyfriend, a sleazy salesman of those islands who wants out of town, with or without her.

The opening credits are really, really good, a mix of viral videos, news reports, commercials and other found footage that sets the scene brilliantly. That’s about the zenith of the film, though there are other, nicely worked ideas to be had here, such as the religious justification for killing zombies – basically, Jesus is the only one allowed to come back from the dead, and everything else is blasphemy. It might have been better not to give itself a subtitle which sets the bar for comparison too high, and perhaps unrealistically. For this is no Shaun of the Dead, with the rest of it not up to the same high standard set by the opening. That’s particularly true with regard to dialogue which frequently seems unnatural and stilted, perhaps because it’s badly delivered in terms of timing: more than once, we were mouthing the expected line, well ahead of the characters.

At over 100 minutes, this is likely too long; not through any shortage of ideas, but because the “rom” aspects are overdeveloped compared to the “zom” and “com”. That’s another aspect which Shaun handled much more deftly, striking a balance and blending the elements with little apparent effort. However, credit is due for the makers not just churning out another low-budget zombie apocalypse, instead preferring to go through that and see what the world might be like on the other side. While their vision is clearly satirical to a degree, it’s not too far from possible truth, with the zoms becoming a source of cheap labour to be exploited, resulting in societal tensions. Rein in your expectations, i.e. forget Shaun of the Dead, and this will be a suitably different take on the genre.

Gut (2012)

Rating: C-

Dir: Elias
Star: Jason Vail, Nicholas Wilder, Sarah Schoofs, Kirstianna Mueller

Tom (Vail) isn’t exactly happy with his life. He is trying to settle down with his wife (Schoofs), but hates his job, and his best friend Dan (Wilder) is upset over the loss of his pal, missing the all-night horror movie marathons they used to have. Dan finally lures Tom over with the promise of something ‘different’, obtained online: it turns out to be an apparent snuff film, depicting the disembowelment of a young woman. The two react very differently to the work: Tom is haunted by the images, to the point that it threatens to destroy his relationship with his spouse, and begs his friend to destroy the DVD. However, Dan is imbued with new-found confidence, finally plucking up courage to ask the waitress at their regular diner out, and orders more of the same series. He’s in for a nasty shock.

I liked this a lot better on seeing it the first time, when it was called Videodrome. Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but the debt to Cronenberg is clear – and unfortunately, so is the shortfall, in script, acting and direction. Part of the problem is that the snuff film is less disturbing than your average Discovery Channel surgery doc, making Tom’s reaction, in particular, way overblown. “Elias” also seems far too fond of shots, or even entire scenes, where someone stares off-camera, looking concerned, while a somewhat threatening rumble/drone plays on the soundtrack. All told, it’s a common criticism with some feature films, that they would be better off as shorts, but that’s certainly the case here. At 20 or 30 minutes, this has potential, and there are occasional moments which do work. But as a feature – especially with an ending which seems more underwritten than ambiguous – this comes over as less the intended “slow-burn” horror, and more slightly-damp squib.

Lluvia de Luna (2011)

Rating: C-

Dir: Maryse Sistach
Star: Maria Filippini, Naian Gonzalez, Alan Estrada, Luisa Pardo

Angela (Fillipini) is a singer and single mother with a teenage daughter, Lisa (Gonzalez), who is as rebellious as her kind usually are. Lisa finds the wallet of Pablo (Estrada), a musician at a party she attended and is delighted to have an excuse to meet him again, declaring Pablo her “soul mate.” While sneaking out to do so, she suffers a fatal fall, the shock destroying Angela’s will to sing. Taking her daughter’s ashes to the beach to scatter them, Angela eventually re-finds her voice, but the act somehow triggers a resurrection, and the dead girl is “reborn” on the beach, where Pablo and his three girl-friends [which seems more than a bit greedy to me] are having a weekend chill-out. Pablo’s current girlfriend, Chabe (Pardo) is not too impressed with the new arrival, or Pablo’s growing attraction for her, and a conflict is inevitable.

It’d make a great short film, but at 90 minutes, is about, oh, seventy too long. Particularly in the first half, this is both confusing and over-stretched, starting with Lisa being dead, and the girls phoning Pablo, then jumping back to happier, more alive times. For the first half, Chris kept asking “Is this a horror movie?” and it’s fair comment since, even when the supernatural elements come forward later on, the content remains fringe at best, and is handled too gently to generate any darkness of feelings. Instead my main reaction was confirmation of my belief that young women should be kept chained up in the house until the age of 21: nothing good can come from letting them out before then. There’s a final twist which I’d called an hour previously, then promptly forgotten about, so was somewhat surprised when it was revealed. Not sure that’s necessarily a good thing, and I doubt the rest of film will stick in my memory either.

Red Kingdom Rising (2012)

Rating: B-

Dir: Navin Dev
Star: Emily Stride, Silvana Maimone, Etalia Turnbull, David Caron

In an effort to come to terms with a murky past which she has suppressed, Mary Ann (Stride) returns home, only to find her mother (Maimone) a virtual hermit on the edge of insanity, tormented by her religious convictions and what happened previously. Against her better judgment, Mary Ann opts to stay and ensure Mom is okay. But after being force-fed a noxious substance, she finds herself trapped in an alternate dreamscape, which has more than a hint of Alice in Wonderland – which, by no coincidence, happens to be the bedtime story her father (Caron) liked to read to her as a child. Most obviously, there’s a young girl (Turnbull), with a Cheshire Cat mask, who appears to be the key to Mary Ann finding her way back to reality, and away from the Red King, whose intentions are very clearly, very evil.

There’s a lot to appreciate here. For a low budget, it looks remarkably good: if a little short of 35mm quality, that works for things, rather than against them, enhancing the “other worldly” nature of things. The performances are a little variable. Maimone is likely the standout, delivering a maternal figure with a really creepy edge, to the extent that it is difficult for the others to match, though they’re decent enough. The main issue is that, right from the opening scene, we were almost always one step ahead of the film, and worked out where it was going, long before the movie (and Mary Ann) did. That said, this isn’t a film that depends on a revelation, and there’s more enough to enjoy and appreciate, such as Martin Thornton’s soundtrack, while reminded me occasionally of Hellraiser.

Video Diary of a Lost Girl (2012)

Rating: C-

Dir: Lindsay Denniberg
Star: Priscilla McEver, Chris Shields, Casey Puccini, Monica Panzarino

Back before Adam had Eve, he had Lilith, who was cast out from the Garden of Eden. The offspring of her and her demonic lovers were the Lilin, who have an unusual mode of survival. Every 28 days. they have to have sex with a man, or they’ll bleed to death. However, if they do, their victim dies. They’re still around in the modern world, and Louise (McEver) is one, a young Lilin balancing her needs with a job in a video-store. She doesn’t realize that the men she kills can come back, and so she’s startled to see Charlie (Shields), the apparent reincarnation of an earlier love whom she killed. As her feelings for Charlie start to grow, there’s a real sense that the second verse might end up going just the same as the first.

Well, it’s certainly different. There’s a whole hodgepodge of influences here: clips from public-domain horrors like Carnival of SoulsNosferatu and Night of the Living Dead, an obvious affection for Louise Brooke in both the lead character’s name and the movie title (there’s a Brooks film Diary of a Lost Girl), the surrealism of Guy Maddin and early David Lynch, copious amounts of green-screen and lurid video effects. Hell, you could even throw in Cat People, both because of the heroine’s attempts to suppress her sexually carnivorous nature, and the copious nudity (though much of it here is not exactly sensual). What results, however, from all these different sources, pulling in radically-different directions, is probably one of a kind, particularly on the visual side.

However, it’s solid evidence that “different” does not necessarily equate to “good,” especially for someone like me, who considers Eraserhead one of the most over-rated concoctions in cinematic history. This has some interesting ideas, not least in the main narrative. The concept of demonic spawn having to get jobs and deal with everyday life in the 21st century is appealing, in a Lost Girl kind of way – yeah, another influence! But, too often, this descends into what could be labelled as “art wank”: self-important posturing that is nowhere near as smart as it likes to think, with a grating soundtrack and too interested in what it considers style, rather than substance.