Not every movie we managed to see this year’s Fantastic Fest could get a full review or discussion. There’s just too many and not enough time. However, we wanted to share as much as we could, so here are some quick thoughts and first impressions on films screened.
United States, 2015
U.S. Premiere, 90 min
Director – Sean Byrne
This Austin-set heavy metal update on the Amityville Horror formula by Byrne is one of those movies that’s a blast from start to finish, but once it’s over and you start to think about it, the whole thing falls to pieces. Uniformly strong performances (lead by Ethan Embry as he continues his fun transition into being a genre actor) initially make the film work. Embry is Jesse, an artist and metal enthusiast who moves his family in a new home that he and his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) can just barely afford but couldn’t pass up the deal. Why was the house so cheap? Murders occurred in the house in the recent past. A demonic presence almost immediately starts to influence Jesse while setting its sights on his daughter and fellow metalhead Zooey (Kiara Glasco, who shows the chops to be a future scream queen , a box office superstar, or both). To its credit, the film doesn’t go where you expect it to, preventing it from being a rehash of Amityville. It veers into slasher territory thanks to Pruitt Taylor Vince as the deranged previous victim of the house’s evil influence. I wanted to love this film. I only wish it held up better. Using metal for the score and one of Jesse and Zooey’s defining character traits is novel, but feels overused from the start, like Byrne was pushing for it just a little much. There’s also a subplot involving an art dealer interested in Jesse’s work that goes nowhere and unnecessarily suggests the dealer is the Devil. This character has no other relationship to the house and simply should have been cut completely. The finale is sufficiently tense, but stumbles on a few too many tired horror tropes and strains credibility a times. But the finale still manages to arouse a deserving applause from the audience, which is probably all that you can ask for in a film like this one.
US Premiere, 81 min
Director – Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Filmmaker Hadzihalilovic (director/writer of Innocence and occasional collaborator of Gaspar Noé) offers up a dark new entry to the body horror genre. Set on a small Mediterranean island, Evolution depicts a mysterious village populated by mothers and sons. No fathers or young girls are present, nor is their absence explained. Preteen Nicholas is told by his mother that he’s sickly, a side effect of growing up. He must regularly take an unidentified medicine to keep him well as he prepares to change, as she likens puberty to the way a reptile or mollusk molts. Soon Nicholas and his friends are in a hospital, all undergoing the next stage of the treatment for their mysterious ailment. The treatment entails some sort of procedure on their stomach. No one is giving them answers until a young nurse who takes a liking to Nicholas begins to help him unravel the bizarre and seemingly sinister goings-on in the village.
With its gorgeous cinematography and exotic location, Evolution hooks viewers with first shots. The mysterious surrounding the characters unravel, but Hadzihalilovic doesn’t offer easy answers. She’s constructed a film that begs to be watched more than once. She provides us with images though their meanings aren’t exactly clear. We’re outsiders to the world she’s brings to life and must accept the challenge to learn its foreign ways. I’m excited to make future trips into to this strange island and explore it some more.
German directors Buttgereit, Kosakowski, and Marschall bring us an anthology of horrors. Buttgereit (most famously known for the Nekromantik films) takes the lead with “Final Girl,” about a teen girl seemingly alone in her home, except for her guinea pigs and the man tied up in another room. It was refreshing to see Buttgereit has retained his style in the 28 years since the first Nekromantik but it appears he has learned a bit of restraint. Some of the most horrific moments are left to the imagination as Buttgereit either cut away or focused on close-ups away from the gore. For someone known for his graphic visuals, it was a bit of a let down.
Next came “Make A Wish” by Kosakowski (director of Zero Killed), offered more of a high-concept film–Freaky Friday meets A Clockwork Orange. A young deaf couple is tormented by a group of thugs. The tables turn when a family artifact allows the deaf male to swap bodies with the skinhead leader of the group. Instead of taking the opportunity to escape with his girlfriend, he’s driven into a violent hysteria, reveling in the torture of his tormentor who is trapped in his old body. There’s flashbacks to the origins of the necklace and another body-swapping ordeal involving Nazis, of course. Everything about this film felt like it was trying hard to be mean and upsetting, but it never fully accomplished that because it lingered on a superficial level.
The final segment is “Alraune” by Marschall. It’s the most fun and engaging of the three, with story that feels like an episode of The Red Shoe Diaries written by H.P. Lovecraft (note: I now plan to pitch a show like that to HBO). A photographer on the outs with his girlfriend decides to meet up with a stranger from the internet and winds up in a Berlin sex club where pleasure comes with a price he never expected but nonetheless paid. The film felt suitably trashy, balancing sexiness and horror perfectly. It builds its own mythology without slowing down the pace. I was unfamiliar with Marschall before the viewing, but I’m now eager to see his feature films.
As a whole, I didn’t love German Angst, or even like it very much. Each segment had its pros and cons, with “Alraune” being the most successful of the three. True to its title, it’s a very German film, so if that’s your jam, it’s worth checking out.
United States, 2015
Regional Premiere, 107 min
Director – Dennis Hauck
Based on the audience reaction, Too Late is going to be a stand-out of the festival. I can’t say I agree with the overall consensus. Dennis Hauck has crafted a technically impressive film without a doubt. This film could be a masterclass in camera work. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the substance to back that up. This modern-day noir tale about a private eye seeking revenge for the death of a girl he once met tries so hard to be so many things (think the look of Robert Altman and P.T. Anderson mixed with the words of Raymond Chandler and Quentin Tarantino) and it just doesn’t get there. The dialogue is overwritten and contrived, striving for that noir style. If used sparingly, it might have been more effective, but when every line feels finessed to be memorable and clever, the effect is the opposite. The problems start there and then extends to the acting, which is largely uneven. John Hawkes is terrific in the lead. He acts the hell of every bit of dialogue he’s given. If the entire cast was on his level, my feelings on the film might be different. But watching the film, I got the sense that Hauck isn’t an actor’s director. For all his technical accomplishments in this film, he does not get strong performances out of all his actors. Veterans like Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey turn in serviceable but somewhat phoned-in performances and then there’s Rider Strong whose performance is just abysmal – it seems he’s in a completely different film than Hawkes. Vail Bloom was the greatest stand-out next to Hawkes, with a fearless and revealing performance that’ll remind some of Julianne Moore in Short Cuts. When she and Hawkes shared a scene, my hopes for the film raised greatly, but the film never achieved that level again. Too little, too late, as it were.