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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:
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.
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 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.