Phoenix Film Festival 2019 posters

2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 6

Events Movies Sci-Fi & Fantasy

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

Tonight was another weeknight with two more IHSFFF showcase features. This time the two films were completely different but were both interesting. Whether the “interesting” is a good thing or a bad thing may depend on the viewer.

Assassinaut

Every year, there seems to be a film at IHSFFF that I enjoy, to some degree or other, but don’t quite grasp. Last year that was Imitation Girl and this year it’s Assassinaut.

It’s a Drew Bolduc feature, which intrigued me. I’ve seen both his previous features and enjoyed them to different degrees. The Taint, which I reviewed at Apocalypse Later back in 2010 when he sent me a copy, is a riot, with more exploding penises than I’ve still ever seen in a single movie. I remember screening 2014’s Science Team for a film festival and liking it without raving about it.

While even the ultra-indie The Taint was well shot, Assassinaut is easily the best looking feature Bolduc has made. Technically, it’s always good to look at and it’s often beautiful. Cinematographer Kunitaro Ohi is only the first name to praise. The next is Bolduc himself with his team of effects techs, both on the physical effects side, creating a memorable alien inside a human stomach, and the visual effects side, neatly transporting four kids into space. Darius Holbert’s score is strong too.

The story is where I’m having trouble. We follow those four kids as they’re transported up to the President of Earth’s far flung space station so that they can be ambassadors of peace to some alien planet. No, I have no idea how any of that is supposed to work. Let me just add that we won a war with an alien race when the President nuked her own planet from orbit, killing all the aliens but millions of humans too. Ten years later, there are still alien sympathisers who paint their faces and commit terrorist acts.

And that’s where this optimistic story goes south with a vengeance. Just as our four kids have strapped on their colour coded jumpsuits, one of those rebels shoots the President and dies, revealing that he’s an activated bomb. Out jettison the kids and the President in separate capsules to land on an alien world and the whole film changes as our ambassadors of peace have to a) survive and b) track down the President to save her life.

The tone here is odd because it’s an amalgam of two wildly different genres. This is a pretty brutal movie, with a number of gruesome deaths made all the more gruesome by very excellent physical effects work. The alien we see is nothing like fifties Hollywood sci-fi and the later effects reach homage to The Incredible Melting Man levels.

Yet our lead is Sarah, one of the kids, who wants to go into space to make a difference and help people. That mindset reminds of old school fifties space exploration novels like the juveniles of Robert A. Heinlein. The second half certainly seems to set up a Tunnel in the Sky type story, rather than, say, a Lord of the Flies approach. And, of the other four prominent characters, three are kids.

So this is a fifties kids adventure story but it transforms into an eighties slasher. The only thing odder than that is that the tone remains consistent, as if this outrageous gore isn’t outrageous for these kids. Maybe Bolduc was going for a kids adventure story that feels like it was written by a wildly precocious kid. That would absolutely prompt gruesome scenes, even ones that would shock the kid who wrote them later on when he sees the footage.

I can’t say I didn’t like this, because I did. I was caught up in the kids’ adventure and I liked the actors and characters both. However, I would be happier if I could be sure what was really going on and I have a whole slew of questions. Without those, I’d have liked this a lot more.

They’re Inside

While I didn’t grasp what Assassinaut was trying to do, that wasn’t my issue here. I understood what was going on fine. I just don’t know why.

For quite a while, it’s an intriguing film. A young filmmaker called Robin won the use of a spacious winter home as a film location and we’re here to watch her and her tiny cast and crew shoot the film. It’s autobiographical, based on a trip Robin and her boyfriend (now husband) took that involved the telling of secrets. Some of it touches on some truly brutal moments in her life and that of her sister, who is shooting the behind the scenes footage.

As you can imagine, that means shakycam, though it’s mostly not too bad. In fact, it’s the point where it stops being shakycam that we really start to wonder what’s going on. Someone else is clearly watching what we’re watching and the realisation of that is pretty damn cool. The title gives away some of what’s to come and the opening scene, featuring a vlogger being stabbed to death while he records his show, adds some more, but this is far from as simple as it looks.

Initially, it’s pretty good. The acting is capable and the story intriguing. The scene where they shoot the toughest scene comes a little out of nowhere and it’s very powerful indeed. The growing mental torment stemming not just from that but a string of annoyances is very promising and there are a few very cool shock moments to come.

Where I think the film goes wrong is in doing too much. The masked killers in the prologue remind strongly of The Strangers and there’s certainly a lot of that film here. However, we never truly understand their motivation. Arguably, we find that we understand it less and less as the film runs on, because John-Paul Panelli, writing his second feature and debuting as a director, keeps adding layers and twists and levels to the story that mostly serve to confuse.

Sadly, I can’t explore any of them here without spoilers, so I’ll have to wrap up with the suggestion that They’re Inside is at least half an hour of a decent movie, but how much more of it remains decent depends absolutely on our understanding of what and how and why and I’m coming up short right now on all of those questions.

At least, it’ll prompt discussion between fans around tomorrow’s screenings. That’s one of the best things about IHSFFF, especially with the way that the screenings have been structured. A core group of regulars tends to watch the same movies throughout the week and during the festival’s second weekend, so these screenings start to feel like family nights out. While the last three showcase features have been lesser or less explainable choices, they’re all good fodder for conversation.

Here and there ...

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