Phoenix Film Festival 2019 posters

2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 10

Events Movies Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Hola! Hal Astell here from Apocalypse Later. Here’s my coverage of day 10 at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival (PFF) and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival (IHSFFF).

Yes, day 10! We’re done. Stick a fork in us. Now we can sleep. Well, a little at least. LepreCon 45 is coming up over the Easter weekend and there’s still work to be done there.

It’s been an enjoyable 10 days. The PFF seemed to play very well, with a high average standard for competition films over the first weekend. I was beginning to worry about the IHSFFF though, as there was an unusual number of less worthy showcase features this year, but it pulled back up with a great one today and an excellent set of competition films on the second weekend.

The final tally for sold out screenings was 51, which is down from last year’s 66, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That might suggest less attendees but it might also suggest that attendees were more evenly distributed across a number of films at any one time. After all, it’s better for films to almost sell out than to actually do so, because sold out screenings mean that people miss out.

There weren’t too many changes this year but most were for the better. I liked the increase in competition features, both PFF and IHSFFF, and firmly believe that the consistent quality underlined how that was a good decision. Now, let’s give the World track the same support. It’s worth mentioning too that five of my six favourite IHSFFF features this year were in competition and that’s not usually the case. Showcase quality was surprisingly down this year but competition quality was notably up.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I adored the scheduling this year, which was easier than it’s ever been to work with. I also appreciated how IHSFFF tracks were given their own designated theatres: it was great to watch everything in competition in a track in a single day. I’ve only mentioned one negative, which was line control, and should add that this seems to be a communication issue as the volunteers doing the job have been a joy throughout.

But you’re here to read about films. We only saw three today, because I apparently slipped up on acquiring tickets for Raising Buchanan, which was sold out, so we came home instead. I’ll catch that later; someone will have a screener.

To Tokyo

The only IHSFFF competition feature we didn’t see over the last two days was this one, To Tokyo, the debut of a British filmmaker, Caspar Seale-Jones, who wrote and directed. Befitting the tiny budget, it’s a family affair, as his mother produced, his sister appears in a supporting role and his father wrote the wonderful score, as he did on a whole bunch of movies that you’ve seen. I guess that he came out of retirement for this, given that he hadn’t scored a film since 2011. I’m very happy he did.

The first thing to know about To Tokyo is that isn’t going to be for everyone. If I point out that it could easily be compressed into an eight minute short without losing a single word of dialogue, you might start to realise just how unusual this film is. I could add that most of it features a young lady on a very long walk, but that’s just a little misleading. This isn’t The Lord of the Rings, after all.

This young lady (IMDb says she’s Al but I’m not sure I caught her name in the film) is hiding in a remote Japanese village, running from the abuse of her stepfather and struggling with her demons. Her stepsister asks her to come back home with her, as her mother is dying. With four days before the flight out of Tokyo, she embarks on a sort of spirit quest within herself to put those demons to rest once and for all.

That spirit quest comprises the majority of the picture and features her on a long walk through a variety of landscapes, mostly shot in South Africa. A beast has kidnapped her and left her in a forest; she runs away, slowing as the trees give way to sand dunes. At one point she finds a hut and uses the materials found there to paint her face in a tribal fashion. On and on she goes, with the beast close behind her, until she finally reaches Tokyo and takes a very decisive action.

Seale-Jones was in attendance and listed his influences as Stanley Kubrick and anime, which is precisely what’s on show here. Most of this picture is shown rather than told, with Seale-Jones creating visuals that the audience convert into her story. It’s a quintessential Kubrick approach. The anime is more obvious late in the film, when that decisive action is taken, with some very confident and capable editing and sound.

While it’s probably not the best film to schedule on a Sunday morning after ten days of little sleep, I was absorbed in this slow, picturesque, mostly silent trip and would very much like to see it again.

The Invisible Man

Yes, this is the 1933 version of The Invisible Man, screening as part of a retro showcase called 9 Under 90, featuring films under ninety minutes. Any opportunity to see a pre-code on the big screen is a good opportunity and I only regret not being able to fit Duck Soup into my schedule too.

You know the story of The Invisible Man, I’m sure, and you’ve had well over eighty years to catch up. Dr. Jack Griffin has invented a chemical formula that made him invisible. Without an undo potion, he runs from his work and his girl (the daughter of his boss) to take residence in a country inn for a month, where he hopes to discover what’s needed to restore him to normal.

Of course, that doesn’t happen. The locals pester him and rattle him, and he’s unaware that one of his key ingredients sends its subjects mad. Before long, he’s assaulting and murdering and taunting the police. Wikipedia has a grand phrase to describe Griffin: “an enthusiast of random and irresponsible violence”. That was perfect for the pre-code era.

This has long been a favourite of mine, directed by the great James Whale and co-adapted from the H. G. Wells novel by future great Preston Sturges. Claude Rains, in what is usually called his American debut because he’d had a small role in a 50m British film in 1920, is utterly dominant as Griffin, even though we don’t see any part of his body until the very last shot. His daughter later said that it was the only film of his that he ever watched. The legendary effects work still stands up today, though there are a few flaws apparent to modern eyes.

Beyond just sitting back and enjoying this on the big screen, I watched to see what would flag up for attention; I haven’t seen this for a long time and I’ve learned a lot since then.

Una O’Connor, as the shrieking landlady of the Lion’s Head, stealing every scene she’s in didn’t surprise me in the slightest because she did that in most of her movies. I blinked and missed Dwight Frye again as a reporter. I didn’t feel that Gloria Stuart gave a strong performance here; she did much better in other early films before finding unexpected late fame as the old Rose in Titanic. William Harrigan was also patchy as Kemp, Griffin’s fellow assistnat to Dr. Cranley, played very capably by Henry Travers.

I didn’t recall the ladies drinking in a tiny area below the stairs because I didn’t know that pubs were segregated by gender last time I saw this. The class structure struck me this time too: Griffin gets away with some things because he’s insane and vehement, but he has the confidence of a different class to the villagers. The landlady rules the landlord and he rules in his pub, but Griffin effortless rules the landlady. There are stereotypical PC Plods here, but those in charge of the police take care of business rather well, all things considered.

The precode nature of the film is perhaps most obvious in how freely Griffin kills with abandon, for no other reason than he can. The train crash, which claims the lives of a hundred, is handled quickly, but it’s brutal stuff. It wouldn’t have happened a couple of years later.

I applaud the festival for bringing in classic films that are underseen and hope that they go back to the precodes next year too instead of focusing on much more recent fare.

I’ll Take Your Dead

Chad Archibald is building quite the reputation with films like Bite and The Heretics under his belt as a director and many more, including The Sublet, an IHSFFF selection in 2016, as a producer.

This is more of a thriller than a horror movie, though it contains a number of horror elements and fits well in a horror festival. The title refers to William, who’s a sort of cleaner on retainer to the bad guys. Put simplest, they bring him bodies and he makes them go away. He’s done this for a while and is regarded as a sort of bogeyman—killers talk about him eating bodies or creating Frankenstein monsters—but he’s actually not all that he seems.

We start to learn this when we meet his twelve year old daughter, Gloria, but with almost the entire film taking place inside his farmhouse, there’s plenty of time for character development. Much of that is triggered by the fact that the latest batch of bodies include one that isn’t actually dead. What William does with Jackie is telling and she generates the rest of the script.

While we learn much about William, the film is told primarily from Gloria’s perspective and Ava Preston does an impressive job as a girl who’s creepy at points but not at others. Aidan Devine, an experienced character actor, does very well too in an unusual lead role.

While the cast are good, it’s the claustrophobic location and a quirky sense of danger that shine brightest here, at least metaphorically speaking. We’re on the side of the Candy Butcher and his daughter from moment one, but we’re kept from seeing them entirely as good guys or as bad guys because of clever filmmaking, not just the things they do but all the cinematic cues that tell us to run from them even as we emphathise with them.

There’s a supernatural element here too, in that Gloria sees ghosts and this has wider meaning later on, but mostly it unfolds as a very calm thriller, a not particularly surprising one but a very effective one. We know from the moment that William doesn’t immediately kill the body that wakes up on his table where we’re going but it explores some worthy territory before it gets there.

I liked this a lot and it was a great way for the showcase feature component of the IHSFFF to wrap up for 2019.

Awards

Last night saw the second awards ceremony of the weekend, which covered the IHSFFF side of the house and the Arizona films. Winners were:

Best Arizona Feature – Raising Buchanan
Best Arizona Short – Teaching in Arizona
Arizona Filmmaker of the Year – Joe Gruberman

Best Horror Feature – My Soul to Keep
Best Sci-Fi Feature – Last Sunrise
Best Horror Short – Zombied
Best Sci-Fi Short – The Way the Future Was

It’s relatively commonplace for me to be surprised at IHSFFF award winners, but not this year. The programmers went the way I would for both features and, while I’d have picked two different shorts (Keloid and Hot Knife Cold Butter), the winners were my runners up, so I ain’t complainin’ at all.

It’s worth mentioning that the sci-fi features were top notch this year. I enjoyed all four and three of them would be worthy winners. I have no doubt that The Spiral and Volition will both win many awards on the circuit. Also, of all the films that I saw this week, The Spiral and To Tokyo are the ones I’m going to seek out first.

Wrap up

And so that’s it for my daily coverage of the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival.

We’ve driven 631.2 miles there and back over eleven days (we pick up passes on opening night but can’t see anything until the next day) and I’ve seen 60 films in 39 scheduling slots. After getting home, I wrote up 23,806 words of daily coverage. I haven’t slept much.

We ate a lot of burritos, enchiladas and tacos at Mr. Mesquite, which is a rare example of a food place in that location continuing to be there for a second year. They’re friendly folk who make good food. We also got our usual bento boxes at Yoshi Bento too and tried out the Tea Light Cafe for the first time. Their spring rolls are interesting.

I chatted with a lot of wonderful people. There’s a real community at IHSFFF that only grows stronger when we sit in the same theater to watch the same movies all day. I adore many of the regulars. The festival organisers are always approachable and it was great to be able to chat with so many of them over the course of the weekend too. I wasn’t expecting to get to chat with Dan Harkins too, so that was an added bonus.

And that’s me signing out because sleep is calling. See you next year, if not before!

Here and there ...

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