2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 7

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

I was very happy with tonight’s double bill of IHSFFF showcase features and I breathed a sigh of relief. The showcase features tend to be the gimmes at this festival, especially under Monte Yazzie: a varied set of features that are all good or interesting or both. However, this year’s haven’t been playing that way thus far.

The Hole in the Ground and I Trapped the Devil were good to look at but didn’t achieve what they could have done. Survival of the Film Freaks was solid but a relatively safe documentary. The Bastard’s Fig Tree was great but not really a genre film. Redcon-1 sucked. They’re Inside tried way too hard and Assassinaut was interesting but inexplicable. Only One Cut of the Dead has really stood out thus far as a horror/sci-fi showcase feature to still be talking about next year.

Body at Brighton Rock

And then Body at Brighton Rock came along and all was right with the world. It isn’t the greatest film the festival has ever screened, but it told its story well, did so in an unusual manner and wrapped up with style. I liked it a lot.

It’s the story of Wendy McHolmes, a part time summer employee at the Brighton Rock Recreation Area, some sort of national park. I missed the first couple of minutes but it’s pretty clear that she took on a more dangerous job than she’s qualified for just to prove that she can. What she finds is that she has to prove a lot more than she ever thought, just to survive.

She’s only pinning up safety posters but she’s on a rough trail late into the day and she gets lost. A startled deer knocks her over and she loses her map. Finding high ground and calling in, her cellphone dies. Just before that last happens though, she gets an interesting text back from base: “Who’s that behind you in the pic?” Who would be a dead body, that’s been there for a few days, and so Wendy finds herself stuck there overnight to secure the area and guard what may be a crime scene.

While there’s quite the cast list, this is almost entirely Wendy’s film; she’s the only human being we see for the vast majority of the running time. A fellow employee gets one scene early on and a mysterious stranger gets a few in the heart of the film, acting suspiciously around the body. Other than that, it’s just voices on her radio outside the bookends. The good news is that Karina Fontes, appearing in only her second feature—the first was one episode in an anthology film—does an excellent job in an emphatic lead role.

There’s a lot to impress here, most obviously the location which is gorgeous, though I missed the end credit to tell me where. Much of it emerges from the psychological torture Wendy puts herself through, as she finds a way to cope with the dangers of being out alone at night in what her colleagues happily told her was a haunted park. It could have been a lot scarier and I couldn’t buy into the external threats too much, but this isn’t just about the fear of what’s out there, it’s the fear of being wrong and being incapable and being judged by your colleagues when you fail in the ways they predicted. That was much more palpable.

And this aided the believability of the situation too. We’ve all seen far too many films where the cast paint themselves into terrible situations and horror movie cliché does the rest: cellphones have no signal, cars won’t start, girls trip in the woods. You know the drill. Here, Wendy does stupid things but they all feel entirely believable, partly because they’re handled well but mostly because they’re the product of inexperience, panic and growing self doubt.

While it’s obvious that not everything we see is real, Wendy’s mind conjuring up dangers that aren’t there, I didn’t see the twist coming, even though it’s reasonably obvious in hindsight. I had different thoughts in mind, so the real ending caught me by surprise and impressed me in the process. Roxanne Benjamin was the writer and director and deserves much of the credit that doesn’t go to Karina Fontes.

This was a good way to start an evening.

Automata

And Automata was a good way to finish one. It’s a gothic horror that mixes a Hammer horror setting with a giallo mindset and it’s pretty effective, with a disturbing undertone that wasn’t played up anywhere near as much as Sarah Daly, the writer, suggested in her introduction.

We’re in Scotland, at the 18th century laird’s mansion called the House of Dun, a fantastic location for a film like this. It sets the scene gloriously and emphasises so much of what’s to come. So do the fantastic costumes, not just in the modern day but especially in the various 18th century flashback scenes which gradually intertwine with the present. The uniforms might be a little too clean, but they look glorious and those of the aristocracy look even better.

In the film, this house is the place to which Dr. Brendan Cole is summoned, with his stepdaughter Rose, to be hired for an odd assignment. Cole is an antiques expert and he wrote a book on a supposedly mythical automaton by the name of the Immortal Princess, one of three books about the gentleman who created it. The catch is that this mythical creation has been located found and its new owner wants Cole to authenticate it. One million pounds for one week’s work! He can’t turn it down.

The most obvious problem with Automata is the acting. Jamie Scott Gordon and Victoria Lucie aren’t bad, and they certainly have good scenes, but they’re bad enough to make their acting obvious and drop us out of the moment quite often, especially early on in the slower scenes. They are much better than the many soldiers we see, all of which are presumably not played by actors. The other characters that show up tend to be wildly overplayed for effect, especially Jonathan Hansler as the General who starts with some Klaus Kinski and hams it up from there.

The best performance by far is from Alexandra Hulme, though I failed utterly to realise that I’ve screened some of her films in my roadshow before. She’s very good as Talia, the General’s 18th century daughter, and truly fantastic as a clockwork doll based on her likeness, the automaton of the title, the Immortal Princess. Not moving is one of the hardest jobs in acting and she’s amazing at it. When she does move, she does so with perfect motion control, especially in her clockwork dance scene.

This all sounds happy, but it isn’t. The Princess is supposed to be able to perform five tasks and Cole has to figure out how to make that happen. As he does so, he learns more about her and her background, with her time merging with his in true giallo fashion, and it’s not a pleasant background. There’s a real history here that threatens to reenact itself in the present and that doesn’t bode well for Cole and Rose.

I dug this a great deal. It nails the mindbending aspect required of giallo, with as much red lighting as you can handle, but does so in a Hammer horror setting. There’s less of a Hammer horror feel here than I expected, with the gothic side of things more reminiscent of the Roger Corman Poe movies. That remains a powerful combination though: can you imagine Dario Argento writing a gothic picture for Corman. What would The Terror have been like as a giallo?

There’s very little wrong with Automata that can’t be highlighted by a list of actors. Perhaps some of it runs a little slowly. Maybe it could have been a little edgier in its treatment of the taboo underpinnings of the story: a Hammer horror certainly would have been.

Whatever its flaws, I’m very thankful I saw this and, with Body at Brighton Rock, it restores my faith in this year’s showcase features, with some of the most anticipated still to come, like Darlin’, In Fabric and Nightmare Cinema. I’m looking forward to a busy IHSFFF weekend!

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