Last week the 12th annual Screamfest Horror Film Festival took place in downtown Los Angeles. The big winner was American Mary, which we covered at Fantastic Fest, winning Best Picture, Best Actress (Katharine Isabelle), Best Directors (Jen and Sylvia Soska) and Best Cinematography. They also showed Fantastic Fest holdover The Collection, SXSW selection Thale and Sundance selection Excision, but the rest were all new for me to watch and recap:
After seeing a lot of low budget horror films making the most out of what they’ve got, it was really nice to see a really well dressed set and action that looked like it could come from a Hollywood movie. Crawlspace starts out really well. Eve (Amber Clayton) wakes up in a corridor and tries to figure out where she is, while a military team comes in to wipe out the facility, or something. I guess that’s what they’re there for, or to extract somebody. Doesn’t matter. When the squad is fighting monsters, it’s a really solid Aliens knock-off. The soldiers are stock characters, but the actors are good. The volatile hothead, the wiseass, the scaredy Bill Paxton character, they’re respectable about these archetypes. Then the facility’s work in psychic research is revealed and the rest of the movie becomes a convoluted psychic thriller. I’m sorry, watching people shake their faces to pretend their brain is being manipulated is not as visually pleasing as shooting actual monsters. It also takes a lot of talking and explaining to describe what exactly is going on, and doesn’t totally make it clear. There are interesting themes, but it still all boils down to the military complex is trying to control something that became a greater threat to them. So, Aliens.
Is Warner Brothers still releasing this? Their logo is still on it but after the Joel Silver/Dark Castle debacle I don’t know. It’s funny how Dark Castle struggled to make horror genre movies. They’re mimicking serial killer movies here but it’s no Se7en or even Saw. Det. Mike Fletcher (John Cusack) is looking for a serial killer/kidnapper (Dallas Roberts) who targets prostitutes. The killer’s M.O. is unpleasant but the film shies away from the worst parts, probably a studio note to ensure the most mainstream audience possible. Mike’s daughter Abby (Mae Whitman) gets kidnapped so he really has to step up the case with his partner, Kelsey (Jennifer Carpenter). It’s a really generic procedural with lots of talk of cold cases and hostile interrogations. It’s competently shot so it’s not hard to watch, you just know it’s not amounting to anything. Cusack is really trying, especially with the family scenes, to make it something but it’s not there. Volatile rebellious teen, mother (Sonya Walger) rules with an iron fist and that doesn’t work. (Note to parents: If you rule with an iron fist your daughter will run away and get caught by a serial killer. So be more flexible.) Whitman is great as Abby though, I just can’t imagine why her agents didn’t say, “Don’t play the victim in a serial killer movie. We can find you something else.” There are also tons of high speed driving shots because that’s the only way they know how to convey a frantic pursuit. And Abby’s room is decorated with Green Day and Avril Lavigne posters, because I guess that’s what their research told them teenage girls in 2011 listened to.
The shorts programs at Screamfest were impressive, most looking like actual features and not student films. But the best one by far was an actual student film. From a team of FSU graduates, Killer Kart is about a shopping cart that eats the baggers and cashiers. You read that right. It doesn’t kill them by running them over. It eats them. Killer Kart has the perfect comic tone because it is sincere. By contrast, a subsequent short was all condescending and spoofy, but Killer Kart is beautiful. They achieve some really elaborate cart kills too. I really hope the got an A on this project, and somebody needs to distribute it on iTunes or VOD so everyone can see it. Writer/director James Feeney, I’m sold on your first feature film, whatever it is.
This German serial killer movie is well done and holds your interest until it goes totally overboard with twist after twist. The Night Slasher calls in radio host Doc Rock challenging him to a game to keep his latest victim alive. The listeners are riveted, but the actual audience is cautiously intrigued. I mean, we kinda know he won’t kill her before the end of the movie, but there’s still damage he can do if Doc Rock doesn’t cooperate. The psychological elements work but once the story starts to resolve, On Air goes on way too long. It’s no longer psychological and it keeps trying to one-up itself, like the Saw sequels where this is connected to this and that is connected to that! I love those connections but you have to earn them or it gets tiring.
Outpost: Black Sun
The only Screamfest movie that was really just no fun at all. I haven’t seen Outpost 1 but it couldn’t possibly have made a difference. This movie took all the fun out of Nazi zombies. After a solid opening where Lena (Catherine Steadman) serves justice to a Nazi war criminal like Magneto in X-Men: First Class, Outpost 2 devolves into a dark, blue lit, shaky cam, fast running zombie exposition fest. Lena follows Wallace (Richard Coyle) to find some machine the Nazis built and they run into a military squad looking for the same machine along the way. I really did not catch what the machine did no matter how many times they explained it, but fine, it’s the MacGuffin. They’re using an EMP to disable it, or EMP is being used against them. Whatever. Generic plot aside, the zombies are no fun. It’s all shaky so you can’t see anything, but also just firing machine guns at zombie hordes is not exciting. So you mow them all down, where’s the thrill? The zombies have no rules whatsoever. They not only run, which we have to grudgingly accept these days, but they use knives and get in fistfights. So why even make them zombies if they have the same properties as a generic extra in an action movie? I will not watch Outpost but if it was just like this then here’s another one.
Resolution is a great comic psychological thriller, and I can’t even tell you the best parts because that would really ruin things. Mike (Peter Cilella) visits his friend Chris (Vinny Curran) who’s tweaking on meth, in order to force detox him. Mike constantly finds out more and more problems Chris created, and has to deal with them to keep the detox on track. Mike also starts finding stuff, films and slides with morbid images on them. The detox story can be funny and real, and Resolution creates a really interesting mythology with its use of all the different visual technologies that capture images. You really don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s the ultimate in storytelling.
Under the Bed
Brad Miska of Bloody-Disgusting.com produced this monster movie from director Steven C. Miller (The Aggression Scale). It’s a good little thriller about kids dealing with a monster and their parents don’t believe them. Neal (Jonny Weston) returns home from an institution, and with his little brother Paulie (Gattlin Griffith) comes up with ways to avoid waking the monster under their bed. It’s an intentionally slow burn, slower than it needs to be but the kids are good, better than the grown-up actors. It all pays off in an awesome third act with a real, practical monster and gory, badass finale.
Would You Rather
This moral torture game is obviously derivative of Saw but it’s damned good fun. Iris (Brittany Snow) attends a dinner hosted by Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs, so you know she should’ve said no) presumably to earn a charitable grant to pay for her brother’s cancer treatments. Lambrick’s party, however, is a game of choices where they go around the table trying to choose which torture they would rather inflict on themselves or each other. It’s the kid’s game of “Would You Rather,” but really it’s Let’s Make a Deal for your life instead of money, or if that’s before your time, Deal or No Deal. The story really finds amusingly twisted ways to manipulate its characters. Lembrick is a great role for Combs, but he’s the anti-Jigsaw, making people do bad things instead of challenging them to be good. The dinner guests are at least two-note, and even if you know what they’re going to decide, the actors play them convincingly. The volatile Amy (Sasha Gray) is obviously going to choose the most F’ed up solution to her dilemmas, and do-gooder Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) will do his best to spare others, but Lambrick has already anticipated that. Would You Rather does exactly what it strives to do, although perhaps it could have striven for a little more depth, but it sure is fun to watch these characters squirm. Also it makes you appreciate the difference really good, professional actors make. They can play pain really convincingly, so you’re never taken out of the movie by not believing they’re in this situation. IFC is distributing Would You Rather so you’ll get to see it.
Wrong Turn 5
Wrong Turn 5 is the best Wrong Turn movie I’ve seen. It’s not what you could call “good,” but it’s kind of fun to see a schlocky slasher movie with the Screamfest audience. It has no pretensions, but just being blatantly clichéd and gory still isn’t enough to equal quality. A group of teenagers heads to Fairlake, VA for the Mountain Man Music Festival, which a news reporter assures us is as big as Coachella. The inbred cannibal hillbillies start killing people, and now we meet their leader Maynard (Doug Bradley). A sheriff (Camilla Arfwedson) arrests Maynard and the teens after an automobile accident, so the hillbillies come to break Maynard out. It moves from the trees to an empty street facade and sheriff’s office, with the absolute least amount of production design possible. I mean, there’s barely holding cells at the police station. There are some elaborate kills, more like rejected Saw traps. I’m really surprised how many of the Screamfest movies owe something to Saw, considering the genre was supposedly moving on from that aesthetic. Guess it was more important than you realized. I told you so. Anyway, when Gus (Paul Luebke) and Lita (Roxanne McKee) have the emotional moment, it’s obviously a joke but it’s also not funny. The script seems to really struggle to set up a very basic premise and characters continue explaining things and can barely seem to get the words out. It’s not the actors’ fault. They’re being asked to say stuff that doesn’t need to be said, like how dire their situation is and what they need to do stop the killers. Bradley makes it work though. He’s got this covered. On DVD and Blu-ray this week.