Phoenix Film Festival 2019 posters

2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 8

Events Movies Sci-Fi & Fantasy

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

Day eight means that things busy back up again for the first day of a three day weekend, with all the theatres back in play throughout the day and the IHSFFF side of the event coming to the fore.

The excellent scheduling this year has meant that theatre 4 will run sci-fi competition films for a couple of days, with the complete line up showing in different orders on each day, and theatre 5 will do the same for horror. We spent today working through the horror track and we’ll shift to sci-fi on the morrow.

Isabelle

The first of four horror competition features, Isabelle played well for me for most of its running time, but I’m really not fond of the way it ended.

We find ourselves in Saratoga Springs to watch the Matt and Larissa Kane move into their new house. Larissa is pregnant and not far off due so this will be their first family home, but she collapses on the street, while introducing herself to her neighbour, Ann Pelway, spends a minute dead on the operating table and loses her baby in the process. It’s stillborn.

That’s brutal and, needless to say, she dives into an ocean of grief as she attempts to come to terms with their loss. What makes things notably worse is that Ann’s own daughter, Isabelle, who looks like an export from a Japanese horror movie and sits alone in her window looking out at the world in sinister fashion, may be a contributing factor.

This is a great way to start a horror movie and there’s a lot of potential in the grief of two mothers. Larissa’s grief is clear but Isabelle was born with spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to move or speak. A quick internet search throws up the news that she was also abused by her father in a satanic ritual abuse case that led him to prison. It’s easy to see Ann’s grief weaving in and out of Larissa’s.

Well, that’s not quite where we go but where we go is good. Larissa has a bad time of it, her grief leading her into paranoia and despair. We’re left with a number of possibilities of how to interpret what she sees, hallucinations or visions that increasingly involve Isabelle doing things that she’s simply not capable of doing.

The core of this film is its script, written by Donald Martin. It starts well, expands well and builds very nicely, hinting at ideas well explored back in the seventies, like haunted houses, possession and satanism, but bringing all that firmly into the modern day, Isabelle’s look being particularly 21st century.

The rest of the production bolsters the script well: the acting, the location, the direction, the score… However, it lives or dies on that script and that takes a couple of important turns at the end. I won’t spoil them but one is a brutal twist indeed that I thoroughly appreciated, but the others felt almost like copouts, as if Martin wasn’t convinced enough by where he was going that he gave us twin endings, one of them dark and one of them happy.

Maybe a second viewing might explain all that away, but I doubt it, leaving this film worthwhile but less than it could have been.

Horror Shorts A

While IHSFFF competition features expanded from three to four this year in each genre, horror and sci-fi, each kept two sets of shorts. Horror Shorts A included seven films, which were a mixed bag.

It started with the two minute blitzkrieg that is Plastic Hip, one of those films that simply is what it is. It’s a short claymation music video for an unknown death metal band that begins with hip surgery, performed by a madman who turns into Satan himself and progresses into the gory destruction of the occupants of a nursing home. The gore is often imaginative but you’re going to know whether you’ll dig this or not just from this paragraph.

Third Wheel is another short short that depicts a date gone wrong, through the introduction of a very unlikely third wheel. Again, it is what it is. It’s fun to watch but quickly forgettable.

This set really kicked into gear with Keloid, a fantastic short that mixes comedy with depth. Libby loves her fiancé Dom so much that she donates one of her kidneys to keep him alive. But then he dumps her, rather viciously. “I think we need some time apart,” he tells her, on the next gurney over. He sends someone over to get his stuff and texts her to hope they can still be friends. Libby is devastated and a chance meeting with a nurse sets a plan in motion. She decides to get her kidney back. Keloid runs twenty minutes but it has plenty of twists and turns to make it well worthwhile, with solid acting, great dialogue and some neatly twisted moments.

Rotsy reminded me that former Phoenix actor Jose Rosete must have appeared in more films at IHSFFF over the years than any other. Here, he’s one of a group of serial killers who get together to eat, drink and talk about their escapades. This gets serious when Rotsy the killer clown reveals a secret. It’s not bad but it runs too long and doesn’t always hit the mark.

If Rotsy was a little close in tone to Third Wheel and Keloid, all of them being horror comedies, Songbird and The Leshiy thankfully mix that up.

Songbird is an agreeably original film, following a dubious busker who takes home a box from an alley that contains a camera that has interesting powers. Whatever he takes a photo of vanishes from reality to be confined within the developed image. This moves in wild directions and I liked it a lot, though again it runs a little long. The Leshiy, shot in black and white, explores a folktale from the perspective of how to get out of a curse. It’s reasonably straightforward but it’s made very well.

And that leaves The Foodies, surely the most divisive film on the roster in 2019. It’s a long French short that features a family of cannibals who are as filthy and disgusting as you can imagine and really don’t care. However, it isn’t the potential for offence and disgust that’s divisive. That’s the approach taken by the actors, which is extreme. The family consists of five adults who are overplayed with abandon, as if none of them has a mental age above six. It’s made very well indeed and there’s an actual story arc that’s pretty interesting but some audience members hated this with a passion while others loved it. The only way it could have been more divisive is if it had been performed by actors with Down Syndrome.

The Chicken Party

I haven’t seen a film of two quite so distinct halves as The Chicken Party since maybe Full Metal Jacket and that makes for an interesting film.

The first half of this horror competition feature is a light hearted drama, in which the Watanabe sisters from Tokyo travel to Los Angeles to celebrate Sakura’s 21st birthday. Her elder sister Koume is paying for it, partly as a gift and partly to lessen the impact of news that she’s planning to move to Spain to take a job there.

Koume is the deeper sister and Megumi Kabe plays her well, but there’s not much to stretch her or Ami Shimada during this first half, even though they rarely leave the screen and rarely interact with anyone else at any point, even though they clearly do in the story. The exception is a couple of nice American girls who give them directions when they get lost. Samantha speaks Japanese and Sarah is learning. And they invite the Watanabes to a chicken party that they’re hosting at the end of the week.

What is a chicken party? Well, that would be telling but it’s phrased as a social gathering to introduce people from other countries to each other and to their American hosts. It sounds like a pretty cool idea, but then this is a horror movie and that’s where the second half takes us.

When it does, it does so with emphasis, going from fluffy to brutal on the turn of a dime and staying there for uncomfortably long scene after scene. I should add that these scenes are meant to be uncomfortable but it’s easy to say that and less easy to imagine just how long they seem to run. Unlike its earlier competitor, Isabelle, I appreciated the ending very much, because of both what it did and what it didn’t do.

Amazingly, this was inspired by a true story, but one bereft of any of the brutal scenes. Writer/director Carlos R. Valencia went to a chicken party in South Korea and had a good time, but got to wondering what a bad time could have been like. This feature constitutes a pretty good answer to that idle thought.

Horror Shorts B

If Horror Shorts A was heavier on horror comedy, Horror Shorts B is less so and it featured half a dozen neatly different takes on the genre.

It starts seriously with a tense short called Peep, in which a young woman who has recently moved into a new apartment finds herself terrorised by a mysterious figure that knocks on her door at two in the morning and stands threateningly in her hallway. Things escalate well and wrap up even better with an excellent and swift ending. This is precisely what so many seven or eight minute horror shorts try to do but so often fail.

If Peep was good, Zombied is even better. Yes, it’s yet another attempt at a zombie comedy but this one gets it absolutely right, exploring a heck of a lot in its fifteen minute running time. Jordan is a shift employee at an all night supermarket who gets bitten by a zombie on her smoke break but resists the very idea of it until she simply can’t any longer. Jules Forsberg-Lary is fantastic as Jordan and she has great banter with Jake Swain as Hesch, a co-worker. Everything about this short works and the theatre echoed with a lot of laughter because of it.

With Frozen in Terror a short but sweet interlude that exists only to deliver its last line, we move on to The Whistler, that walked very familiar ground but found something new to say. Lindsey starts to read a bedtime story to Becky, her younger sister, but gives up and instead tells her the real background to the story. Of course, it then comes true and Becky vanishes, along with a whole bunch of other kids. I liked this and there are some wonderful shots, but I wasn’t sold on the ending, which feels like undeserved karma.

That left surely the weirdest two shorts in this set, Exhibit Man and A Doll Distorted.

Exhibit Man visits some fantastic cult film territory but with hilariously straight dialogue. Beery Leetch is a forensic photographer in small town Canada but some sort of alien worm creature moves into his skin and what follows, during an outbreak of violence and murder, gets often hilariously inappropriate. Production values are high on this short and the actors are top notch. Most will remember it for the creature effects though, which are also excellent.

A Doll Distorted would have been my favourite horror short from this year if only it knew how to wrap things up properly. At seventeen minutes, it’s too long and, worse, it’s too long because it gets repetitive in its montages so that we wonder if we ended up in a time loop. And that’s a real shame, as it otherwise rocks absolutely. It’s the story of Jane, who suffers from a fear of human touch so orders a sex doll online and everything gets weird.

This is an original concept married to an excellent performance from Nicci Brighten and fantastic work from Niall Shukla in a host of different roles. He wrote and directed the film, but I’d also call out his editing, his cinematography and his score. He also handled the effects, the production design and, no doubt, made the tea during the shoot. I’d love to see this one again and I hope he releases a slightly trimmed version, as this is a glorious film that could be even more so.

My Soul to Keep

I’ve been waiting for really great IHSFFF features this year and One Cut of the Dead is the only film so far to make that, erm, cut. My Soul to Keep, which is a horror competition feature, makes it two, a vague cross between Stranger Things, A Nightmare on Elm Street and House III: The Horror Show.

It starts out pretty conventionally with nine year old Eli Braverman’s fear that there’s some sort of evil living in his basement, behind the furnace, but that’s a serious generalisation. For a start, we find out about this during show and tell as he explains his theories to a horrified class and an unappreciative teacher. The dialogue is glorious, as is the delivery from a set of child actors and some adult compatriots.

Parker Smerek is note perfect as Eli and Remington Gielniak is excellent as Sam, his best friend. Arielle Olkhovsky does a great job too, but doesn’t get as much opportunity. These three, especially the first two, have some great shared charisma and they bounce dialogue off each other with panache.

His parents are cool, which is far from the norm, though he has a bitch of an elder sister, Emily, played well by Emmanuelle Turco. The actors all do great work here, though the characters not so much. For all that Mr. & Mrs. Braverman are cool parents that most kids would kill to have as their own, they trust in Emily and that really doesn’t turn out well.

This is pretty slick stuff. Beyond the acting, it’s very well shot, neatly lit and with a superb score and impressive effects. It’s very professional indeed, doing more on what is presumably a reasonably low budget than many films are able to do with large ones. It simply feels right and it deserves to succeed and succeed wildly.

In fact, it’s hard to figure out what my favourite aspect of the picture is, having so much to choose from. There’s so much positive here that it becomes a little overwhelming and I look forward to a fresh viewing to figure that out. For now, I’ll go with the dialogue, the ending and the cool parents. I might change those next time out and the one after that too.

I have one more horror competition feature to go, To Tokyo, which I’ll see on Sunday morning, but it’s going to have to be something special to outdo My Soul to Keep.

In Fabric

Wow, this wandered into some strange territory! It’s a British feature with recognisable faces, such as Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Gwendoline Christie, that imagines a seventies London populated in equal measure by surrealism and black comedy. It’s too long but it’s fascinating.

The lead character is a red dress, size 36, which appears to have a life of its own and continues on when other characters don’t. Half the film follows Sheila, a divorced mother of an adult son who’s starting to date again. The other half follows Reg, a washing machine repairman nearing his wedding day, and his fiancée, Babs. Sheila buys the dress from Bentley and Soper’s and wears it on some dates, but it ends up on Reg at his stag night.

We never quite figure out what the dress means but I’m sure there is meaning to be found and it’s surely caught up in the bizarre employees at Bentley & Soper’s, which has hypnotic advertising and a cult-like work environment of vaguely robotic French sales assistants and their fetishistic love for nude mannequins. Oh yeah, this gets weird.

Much of the script seems to have been built out of a few strange linguistic affectations. The employees at Bentley & Soper’s talk in overly pretentious language, which contrasts wildly with the overtly down to earth people who browse at their sales. Reg knows his way around a washing machine but, when he attempts to explain its workings to others in a monotone voice, they all descend into a trance. And, perhaps best of all, Sheila’s pair of bosses at Waingel’s bank explore corporate speak in a weirdly cheerful and intrusive fashion. The sheer surreality of all these is frankly hilarious.

With a willingness on everyone’s part to go wherever writer/director Peter Strickland wants to go and with outstanding production design, the problems here always come back to the script. While it kept me fascinated throughout with its linguistic play, its character drama and its sheer strangeness, I’m at a loss as to what it’s trying to say.

The dress seems like more than a MacGuffin but I don’t know what it’s meant to represent. I don’t get why Bentley & Soper’s is the way it is and what a number of magnetic scenes there are trying to tell me. Frankly, I’m not sure I understand anything here, so I’d love to read a good review that explains it. I grew up in Essex not too much later than the presumed period but I’m still at a loss.

Darlin’

There’s a heritage here that’s worth exploring before I begin. The late Jack Ketchum published a legendary horror novel in 1980 called Off Season, which I reviewed after his death last year. He wrote a sequel called Offspring in 1991, which was adapted into a feature film in 2009. These books are about a clan of American cannibals. The lead character in the film of Offspring was played by Pollyanna McIntosh, who reprised her role in 2011 in a film named for her character, The Woman, which became a cult hit.

Eight years later, we have a third film, Darlin’, set about the same period after the end of The Woman. That film ended with the Woman escaping from a brutal captivity, taking the youngest daughter of the family with her. Her elder sister follows behind. Here, the Woman returns to civilisation in an odd attempt to push Darlin’ into a hospital, though it doesn’t take long to figure out why, even though she’s feral and mute.

Unfortunately, the hospital has been taken over by the church and, without anything obvious wrong with her but no family that they’re aware of, she’s released into the custody of Sister Jennifer at St. Philomena’s Group Home for Girls. There, she slowly starts to revert to civilisation, regaining a voice and studying hard.

I had a lot of problems with Darlin’, which focuses far more on her than on the Woman, whose scenes don’t seem to contribute much until the end. Most of them tied to believability and some of which I can’t mention because they’d constitute spoilers. However, neither Darlin’s behaviour nor progress ring true for me and I couldn’t figure out the point of the story, beyond church leaders being bad but gay nurses being good. Somehow I don’t think that’s a key consideration here.

Much of the film unfolds as a drama, with the bishop in charge of the home taking in Darlin’ with the goal of rehabilitating her on film so that the ensuing press will ensure future funding for St. Philomena’s. Of course, it doesn’t work out anywhere near how he expected, but shrug. The actors are fine, it’s the script that lets them down. In fact, my favourite character was Mona, played with panache by Eugenie Bondurant, but she really has no reason to be in the movie.

Darlin’ isn’t a bad film but it’s hardly a good one either. It doesn’t help The Woman, which was an excellent feature, and it doesn’t strike out on its own with any real emphasis. Maybe it’ll serve as a link between The Woman and a future fourth film in the series. Who knows.

Whew. That’s it for tonight and I need to grab a couple of hours sleep ahead of a full day of sci-fi competition films tomorrow. See you after them!

Here and there ...

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