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Jonathan Weichsel Written by Jonathan Weichsel
Oct. 30, 2011 | 11:01 AM





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Screamfest Favorites

by Jonathan Weichsel

Screamfest, the largest horror festival in Los Angeles, ran from October 14th to October 22nd. I didn’t get to watch all of the films, but I did watch most of them. These are my top four favorites from the festival:

The Innkeepers:

Ti West’s new film is a throwback to the horror films of old, when character and suspense drove a story told with dashes of humor and warmth. Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are two working class nerds who manage the night shift at a hotel that is going out of business. With nothing much to do, they indulge in their hobby, paranormal investigations.

Things start to get creepy when it becomes apparent that a ghost is stalking Claire. Luckily, one of the hotel’s three guests is a professional psychic and knows a thing or two about these things.

The Innkeepers is very light on story, which is fine because the characters are interesting and well developed, the atmosphere is moody and draws you in, and the suspense keeps you on the edge of your seat.

On the one hand, Claire and Luke are throwbacks to the characters you might have found in a film produced by Spielberg when he still had a soul. They are socially awkward, but still able to engage each other. They are vulnerable, but still able to communicate their feelings. They are good enough at their jobs, but not stellar, and even though they seem like they have been working at the hotel a long time, they still make mistakes. In other words, they are authentic, likeable characters.

But on the other hand, they are both completely modern. Their hobbies and passions all revolve around the internet.
They are snarky, sarcastic, and resigned to their dead end service jobs that they are about to get laid off from.

The real fun that is to be had from The Innkeepers comes from the interaction between these two characters, and between them and the hotel’s three guests. This is not to say that the film doesn’t work as horror. It does. Although The Innkeepers starts out fun and light, with joke-scares rather than real ones, the atmosphere gradually becomes dark and brooding, and the tension and suspense gradually rise until they reach a terrifying climax.

The Innkeepers is being released theatrically in February. It is a popcorn movie for people who love popcorn movies, and is highly recommended.





Chillerama:

Horror-comedy only works for me when it is completely fucked up, twisted, and deranged. In all of these areas, Chillerama delivers. You will see a giant Spermatozoon attack New York City in an attempt to impregnate the statue of liberty. You will see Hitler bumble through a series of pratfalls as he tries to create a monster from a diary he steals from Ann Frank, whose family changed their name from Frankenstein after an ancestor’s infamous experiments. You will see homosexual werebears who turn into killers every time they are sexually aroused. And you will see an experimental film with images designed to cause the audience members to release their bowels. 

Chillerama is my new favorite movie. I’ll be bugging my facebook friends to see it every time it plays. It’s just awesome.

From the shot during the opening scene of the film of a man’s balls through the back of his legs as his dick is being bitten off by his zombie ex-wife, you know exactly what kind of film Chillerama is going to be: A stylish, fucked up horror-comedy that sews a Freudian take on human sexuality through a rich tapestry of Grindhouse cinema.

Invoking Freud here may sound pretentious, but it fits. Men getting their dicks bitten off? Giant sperm? Homosexuals who turn into killers when they are aroused? This is the kind of material that demands a Freudian interpretation.

The success of both horror and comedy rests on the effect the film has on the viewer. Chillerama had a huge effect on me. I was disgusted. I was laughing so hard my ribs hurt. I was frightened. But the most amazing thing about the film is that despite the zaniness of all of it, I found myself really caring about its main characters.

In other words, Chillerama is the most fun I have had watching a movie in years.

Chillerama is an anthology film made by some pretty established filmmakers, and is a great example of what happens when established filmmakers are able to do whatever the fuck they want. The entire project displays a real, heartfelt, and authentic love for the B movies it parodies.

Of course, no anthology film can work without a strong wraparound story. It is the last night of films at the last drive in theater in America. The proprietor is contemplating suicide because with the end of drive in theaters he sees the death of movie magic. An eclectic group of film fans is watching the final show, and many of them have crushes on each other. The zombie juice from the man who gets his dick bit off at the top of the film gets into the popcorn butter and they all find themselves in the middle of a zombie massacre.

Chillerama is a film that must be seen to be believed. It evokes gut busting laughter and true fear.





Crawl:

Crawl is the only work I have seen from Australian writer-director Paul China, who won best director at the festival, but based on this single work, I can say that the man is a master of suspense.

Crawl is a small home invasion thriller, but what makes it stand out is the skill and absolute confidence of the filmmaking. China uses the camera, rather than dialogue, to tell the story, and makes smart choices about what to show the audience, and what not to show us, in order to build the maximum amount of suspense.

Much of the home invasion sequence is done without dialogue, and China does an amazing job using visual and auditory cues to fill us in. When the girl notices a trail of blood, the camera shows us the blood from her point of view. And when the home-invader is standing on the other end of a closed door and sees the shadow cast by her feet, and hears a gun being cocked, we see it from his point of view. The woman and the home invader are both very smart, and in both cases, we see the characters thinking and trying to outsmart and outwit each other, and we understand the choices they make based on nothing more than the visual clues and the looks on their faces.

Crawl is about a bar owner who dabbles in criminal activity on the side, who hires a hit man to kill someone who owes him money. Everything goes according to plan, but as the hit man is driving out of town, he gets into a serious accident, totaling his car. He breaks into the house of a woman who works at the bar in order to get the keys to some sort of transportation. What follows is a cat and mouse chase through her house, which plays out as a battle of wits as much as it does a physical alteration.

When you go to a lot of film festivals like I do, you quickly learn how rare it is to find a director who can make a film that is visually logical. Visually, Crawl is very innovative, and Paul China does an amazing job keeping everything smart.
I look forward to more films from this talented filmmaker.





Rites of Spring:

Rites of Spring is a rare kind of movie: A commercial extreme horror film that also has a great story.

A man who was wrongfully fired from his job conspires with a criminal to kidnap the daughter of his wealthy ex-boss and hold her for ransom. Meanwhile, the woman who actually caused the crisis that got the man fired is abducted by a farmer who sacrifices women to a monster every spring to make rain come and water the crops.

The kidnapping starts to go wrong when it turns out that the criminal the man has been conspiring with is a psychopath who takes things much further than the man is willing to go, when the conspirators all start to double cross each other, and when the father of the kidnapped girl turns out to be more badass than anybody expected.

The woman escapes from the farmer and the monster, after witnessing her friend being sacrificed, and is chased by the monster through farmland until she ends up at the abandoned building where the kidnappers are hiding out. Now all of these people, who have every reason to hate one another, must work together in order to survive.

I absolutely love extreme horror when it is done well. The problem is, most of the time it isn’t. Rites of Spring has some unique torture scenes, and a lot of hardcore, realistic killings and gore, but what makes it work is that it never loses sight of the fact that it is a plot driven movie, and the plot never lets up. It also benefits from a well thought out back story that is revealed gradually throughout the film.

It is very rare that you leave an extreme horror film saying, “God, that is a really great story,” but this is exactly what I said as I was leaving the theater.





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Jonathan Weichsel Written by Jonathan Weichsel
Oct. 8, 2011 | 5:21 PM





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Shriekfest 2011 Favorites

By Jonathan Weichsel

The 11th annual Shriekfest horror film festival ran from September 29th to October 2nd at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. Shriekfest, founded and directed by Denise Gossett, is one of the longest running horror film festivals in North America. The festival features some of the most cutting edge films in the horror and sci-fi genres. This was my third year in a row reviewing Shriekfest.

I watched all eleven feature length films that screened at the festival. What follows are my four favorite films from the weekend.




The Dead Inside:

Writer-Director Travis Betz’s film Lo blew me away at the 2009 Shriekfest. It was a dark, beautiful gothic love story that stuck with me and continued to haunt me long after the festival ended. The film still haunts me. So I had very high expectations for his new film The Dead Inside. Not only did Betz’s new film meet my expectations, but it exceeded them by a lot.

This might be a shocking statement coming from a guy who writes horror reviews, but if it hasn’t been written before, let me be the first one to write it: Travis Betz is a genius. He is an important filmmaker. His films are important.

We have become accustomed to watching films that seem like mechanical exercises in story telling. Betz’s films are the perfect antidote to this. His inventive films are full of dark passion and a childlike whimsy. The overarching theme of Betz’s films is love. But his view of love is different from that of most filmmakers. Betz sees love as beautiful while it lasts, and tragic when it ends.

The Dead Inside, a supernatural musical, is about Wes (Dustin Fasching) and Fi (Sarah Lassez), two artists who live together and are in love. Wes is an artistic photographer who has to work shooting weddings in order to make ends meet, something he hates doing. Fi writes a popular series of zombie novels, but has a serious case of writer’s block. Specifically, Fi has her two zombie protagonists in a house attacking a woman, and can’t figure out how to make them open a bedroom door where their chosen victim is hiding.

Fi sings about her struggle with writer’s block, Wes sings about his dissatisfaction with his job, and they both sing about their love for each other. The tone here is really sweet, but the film gradually takes a turn towards the dark. Fi starts mutilating herself, and Wes admits her to a mental hospital. Once she is released and comes back home, Wes realizes that she has not gone crazy, but is possessed by a ghost with a tragic and mysterious past.

But no plot description can do this film justice. The Dead Inside is beautifully shot, with each shot seeming both natural and meticulously planned. The love story is engaging, and really makes you feel for the two central characters. Even the most cynical and jaded viewer will feel something, and if you are actually dead inside, this film will make you feel alive.

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Pig:

Pig, written and directed by Henry Barrial, is a twisty little mystery about a man who wakes up in the desert with a hood over his head, his hands bound behind his back, and no memory of who he is.

He is taken in and nursed back to health by a woman who lives alone in the desert with her son. The two travel to Los Angeles together in order to uncover the mystery of his identity.

In Los Angeles, the man uncovers clues to his existence. Some of these clues seem planted, while others seem organic. Many clues contradict each other, some pointing in one direction, others pointing in a wildly different one. Mysteriously, at seemingly random times, his journey ends and he wakes up in the desert again, with no memory of anything that has transpired. Whenever he wakes up in the desert, a number flashes on the bottom left of the screen, 1.2, 1.3, etc. Pig ends with a sci-fi twist, which is hinted at right at the top of the film when we see a snippet of the man in an orange jumpsuit reading a legal waver into a camera.

Pig is an excellent, well-crafted film and has been playing the festival circuit for awhile. Many critics compare it to Memento, but while both are great films that deal with amnesia, there are more differences than similarities. Memento is a puzzle-box of a film, and while Pig presents a compelling mystery, the presentation is more straightforward. Memento takes memory and how it influences our perception of reality as its major theme. Pig, on the other hand, is about identity, and how our memories affect how we perceive ourselves.

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The Millennium Bug: 

Pig and The Dead Inside are both thought provoking, intelligent films. The Millennium Bug, on the other hand, is pure adrenaline fuelled fun. The film, written and directed by Kenneth Crane, can best be summed up as the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre vs. Godzilla, but this description doesn’t really do this strange little film justice.

The Millennium Bug is a big special effects blockbuster, made for $50,000 dollars with no CGI. Instead of CGI, the film uses miniatures, models, rubber monster suits, and great art design to create a spectacle unlike anything else being made today.

The Millennium Bug is about a man, his daughter, and his new wife going on a honeymoon/camping trip in late 1999. The man is concerned that the Y2K computer bug will wreak havoc, and he wants to be away from civilization when that happens.

Things go bad when the family is kidnapped by an inbred family that lives in a dilapidated house in the woods. The inbred family wants a fresh bloodline to mate with, so that they will stop producing mutant offspring. Meanwhile, a cryptozoologist is out in the woods looking for a giant insect creature that only wakes up once every thousand years. The creature awakens, and starts attacking everybody.

In terms of scope, the film is the most ambitious I have seen at a horror festival, but what makes it work is the film’s attention to detail. I love all the little things in Millennium Bug, like the mold on the furniture and walls of the house. Little details like this anchor the craziness going on onscreen, and give a sense of a fully realized world. The little details are also a large part of what make you want to watch it over and over, just to see things you might have missed the first time.

Like Pig and The Dead Inside, The Millennium Bug has a weird little plot that eschews the traditional Hollywood formula, but still works. It is a fun, gory flick, full of weirdness and excitement. I bought a DVD at the festival so I could watch it again. You’ll want to watch it a couple of times too. A decade from now The Millennium Bug might be considered a classic, and I don’t mean the cult kind.

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Isle of Dogs:

Isle of Dogs is a stylish, twisty little film. Part neo-noir crime drama, and part home invasion thriller, the film adopts its visual style from Italian Giallo films and American Noir.

Isle of Dogs is about a man who is having an affair with an authoritarian crime boss’s wife. When the crime boss learns of the affair, he tells the man that he must murder the woman, or else he will be killed. The wife, however, turns out to be real tough to kill.

The majority of this film is nearly perfect. The acting has all the flair one would hope for from a noir thriller, the costumes and sets are appropriately sumptuous, and the camera picks everything up with class and style.

The crime-thriller aspect of Isle of Dogs is compelling, but the film really picks up during the extended home invasion sequence. The man has a clear reason for needing to kill the woman, even though he doesn’t want to, and the woman turns out to be way tougher than expected. The film takes an unexpected turn towards the comedic at the end, and reminded me of the ending of a Stuart Gordon film. Gordon is one of my favorite directors and surely an influence on Director Tammi Sutton due to her Full Moon background. Some viewers might complain that the film falls apart at the end, and in a way it does, but so does every Giallo I’ve ever seen, and it’s really all a matter of taste.

Isle of Dogs is a compelling and engaging thriller, and a must see for fans of Italian Giallo or neo-noir. 

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