Thursday 13 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Seven

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Wednesday 12th, which is Day 7.

And that's it for us, as we can't get back tomorrow for the closing night film. However, we got to see every single feature and short from the IHSFFF side of things, plus three other films that could easily have fit there. Oh, and only one other, so it was a real genre festival for us this year. And a good one too!

Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for these last two films after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival, of course, as the festival is almost done.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 24: Sequence Break (2016)
The IHSFFF feature that blew me away this year was Hounds of Love but this one's likely to end up second on the list. I gave Happy Hunting a higher rating, but I know that's not going to change, while I have a feeling that I'm going to up this one on a second viewing.

While it's so influenced by David Cronenberg's body horror films that some will see this as an homage rather than an original work, I'd argue that it finds its way pretty well. We follow Oz, a young man born in the wrong time, given that he repairs arcade machines for a living in our now and doesn't own a phone. With his job about to be lost to progress and an actual nerdy girl talking to him and kissing him on rooftops, he's going to have to face the present and that's a scary proposition.

What we watch is really a love triangle between Oz, that girl, whose name is Tess, and a mysterious arcade machine. If you're wondering how that can be remotely possible, then you probably haven't seen Videodrome. This ups the ante nicely, with the effects work really good for a film that was completed in a stunningly short time: exactly one year from the beginning of pre-production to its first festival screening.

For those who enjoyed the short film, Spell Claire, earlier in the weekend but wanted to explore that concept in a longer and less comedic framework, this is the picture for you, as long as you're not repulsed by the body horror of Cronenberg or the hallucinations of Ken Russell. Graham Skipper, the writer and director, attended and mentioned 'Altered States' as his other primary influence. That makes sense, though these are toned down hallucinations, more sexual or sinister than blasphemous.

The other thing I'll mention here is the Tangerine Dream-style electronic score by Van Hughes, which serves as a thoroughly appropriate background to Oz's living out of time.

If the references in this brief touch on Sequence Break make it sound like your cup of tea, then you're going to adore it, but, if Cronenberg makes you go 'ick', then this really isn't going to be something for you.

Here's Graham Skipper, with producer and actor Lyle Kanouse and some random British critic in a kilt:

Block 25: Game of Death (2017)
I've been really impressed this year by how Festival Director Monte Yazzie organised the showcase features. It often felt like he was programming them with the variety but thematic flow that you might expect from a set of shorts, but over multiple nights with feature films.

This was the perfect palate cleanser to wrap up the IHSFFF because it began like a recap of the week: the acid party of The 6th Friend, the late ambulances of Killing Ground and the game theme from Sequence Break, not to mention the male masturbation scene from a surprising number of films (the most frequent elements were drone shots and male masturbaton). However, it also provided a counter to vague pictures like Tonight She Comes and Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl by playing as straight as it can.

The regular IHSFFF audience has been theorising about who was born at the end of Tonight She Comes and what the heck happened in Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, but Game of Death is simple. There's a game. Of death. That's it. No twists. No surprises. Just a game of death. There is no more honest advertising than this!

All the recap moments I mentioned happen during the opening scenes, which are full of young idiots doing all the usual young idiot things: partying with sex, drugs and alcohol. Then they find a game called Game of Death and, like the young idiots they are, start playing.

How do you play? Well it's pretty simple. They each start with a finger on a plastic skull around the rim; it pricks those fingers and steals a little blood, then provides a random number of 24. That's how many people they have to kill to end the game. If they don't kill someone within a time limit, the game will kill one of them, so it's kill or be killed. And, they quickly realise that it's real when their heads start exploding and the game's count drops with a 'One down!' and an electronic giggle.

Yes, this is dumber than a bag of rocks. For a start, why is there an open Game of Death sitting on a shelf in a house? Either it's sitting out in a room covered in blood or it's never been opened. And who would create such a game to begin with? This movie is not for those who ask fair questions like those. It's for those who want to see blood, because it has that in copious quantities.

The effects are spectacularly good and the dark humour is rather enjoyable. One of the Harkins folk walked in to do his routine check right at the point a bullet was revolving through the air in ultra-slow motion, to return to normal speed at the point it reaches a young lady's head, which splatters all over the ceiling. He promptly left again. That was so appropriate that it was almost part of the movie for me.

There's a little effort made to keep the story interesting by having some of the characters wonder about murder vs suicide, playing along or dying with their morals intact, killing innocents or just anyone, but only a little. This isn't remotely deep. However it is a lot of fun.

And it has manatees. While they have precisely nothing to do with the price of fish in Denmark, they're all over this movie like a rash. It's the horror movie of choice for manatee fans.

I've had an absolute blast this week. I was buzzed for the first IHSFFF in a new three year set with Monte Yazzie ready to shape it to his vision and he delivered a fantastic year. I'm a week without much sleep and I can't wait for next year!

Wednesday 12 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Six

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Tuesday 11th, which is Day 6.

While the weekdays at PFF are a great opportunity to catch award winners or other notable films being given extra slots, the highlight for us is always the IHSFFF showcase features, which continue on at the rate of two per night.

I got to see those two tonight. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for them after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 22: A Dark Song (2016)
Last night, we saw an impromptu black magic ritual performed in Tonight She Comes. It was fast and bloody and agreeably icky, driven by a wild but knowledgeable lady. Tonight, we see another black magic ritual, but in an emphatically different way.

For a start, it isn't fast. In fact, the preparation for the ritual takes a long time all on its own and the ritual itself takes much longer. Let's just say that the two characters we watch lose track of which month it is. Is it March or May? We have no idea either. This is a serious ritual and it takes months of meticulous work to get right. Which means two thirds of the movie.

It's also not bloody. It consists of a lot of study (of languages as much as rituals), purification and increasingly intricate circles. You can be sure that it's going to get somewhere much darker when we reach the third act, but that's an hour away when we begin.

And it's hardly icky. When that third act arrives, there's some madness, some tension and some scares, not to mention some revelations, but this is not about icky. There's a little blood drinking but it couldn't be further away from what we saw in Tonight She Comes if it tried.

However, it's still refreshing. I read a lot of horror novels back in the eighties about characters who delved into ritual magic, astral travel and all that jazz. Some were good and some were bad, but I've never seen the equivalent on screen. The magic rituals I've seen in movies tend to result in demons that play like zombies with horns, aching to eat everyone around them. That's not what we get here.

What's more, ritual magicians tend to be well groomed gentlemen in black with goatees and piercing eyes. Steve Oram plays Joseph Solomon like a guy you'd meet down the pub, a balding man with a common as muck accent and a shouty and abrasive personality. Catherine Walker is a higher class lady, a teacher of religious education, who is driven to make this ritual happen, even if she finds it abhorrent. Those are refreshing characters.

I have no idea if the ritual we're watching is remotely accurate or not, but to a fascinated non-expert, the detail rings incredibly true and I'm happy I've finally been able to see this attempted on film. I also saw a lot of the others factors that rarely get touched on, like the sheer dedication needed to do something like this, the risks that come with it and the costs that it takes.

The catch, of course, is that filmgoers wanting something with jump scares and sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are going to be sadly disappointed. This feature from across the pond, set in Wales and shot in Ireland, is for the more discerning fan who prefers a good location, good acting and a good if slow build. The twists are far from surprising but they're right, just like this movie.

Block 23: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)
A few features this year have left me scratching my head while the credits rolled but I was able to figure them out, or at least I think I was. This one, however still has me thoroughly confused.

Initially, it seems straightforward enough. A young lady named Adele moves into a dusty Victorian mansion to take care of her crazy aunt Dora, a cranky old agarophobic who communicates with her mostly through notes. Plain and naive, she finds herself drawn to Beth, apparently the only other young lady in town.

It's quite obvious that the two are opposites. Beth is a mild goth with a smouldering beauty, an impulsive spirit and a taste for the darker side. Adele, on the other hand, is plain, restrained and apparently without any hobbies except writing in her diary. If we didn't grasp it, Beth is mostly dressed in black and red, with Adele entirely in white or pale colours. Opposites, of course, attract and the two begin a tentative relationship, during which Beth's corrupting influence rubs off on Adele, and she starts to do things that she wouldn't have done previously.

Clearly influenced by seventies genre movies (and not grindhouse ones for a change), this is well shot, well situated and well grown. It's another slow build but it's a really good one until, well, the film ends. Just as I was ready for the second act to escalate into the third, it escalated into the end credits instead. The third act is basically one scene and one image and that feels like a real cheat.

And I sat there wondering what I'd missed. I saw two thirds of a story that still had the potential to move in a few different directions. Who is Beth? Is this a ghost story? If it is, who's the ghost? Why is Aunt Dora the way she is? What's with the ring? And the necklace? I was eager to find out how writer/director A. D. Calvo was going to wrap things up and then he didn't. Instead, I'm puzzling as to what that image means and what the final scene means. And three hours later, I'm no further, so I invite your theories.

For now, though, it feels like two thirds of a great film that could well have been made forty years ago, and a couple of missing reels.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Five

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Monday 10th, which is Day 5.

The busiest time at the PFF is the weekend, which is now over and hopefully everyone got some long overdue sleep. However, the festival continues into the following week, with reduced theatre and film counts but with encore screenings of award winners and other worthy pictures. On the IHSFFF side, the showcase features continue on with two each night and that's what I'll be covering this week.

I got to see two features today. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for them after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 20: Found Footage 3D (2016)
I hadn't read up on Found Footage 3D (which screened in 2D) beforehand so I was hoping that it wouldn't be a shakycam movie, as those things have a habit of giving me motion sickness. It wasn't, with the exception of a scene here and there, but it also wasn't at all what I expected otherwise.

It's a found footage movie about the making of a found footage movie and the meta aspects don't end there. The film that we watch being shot, Spectre of Death, is about a married couple patching up their marriage stay in a haunted cabin in Texas that used to belong to her great uncle, who murdered his wife there. Well, it turns out that that describes the leads and the production too.

This sort of nesting of levels is surprisingly well done. Once we realise that Found Footage 3D is mirroring Spectre of Death and vice versa, we start to wonder whether what we're seeing is our film or theirs. What's more, we start to see the setups for that mirroring and anticipate how things are going to unfold, only for writer/director Steven DeGennaro to manipulate us a little more.

The humour is a major aspect too, with Spectre of Death's director, Andrew, possibly the most accurate avatar for the audience I've ever seen. Almost every line that comes out of his mouth is what we're thinking. We need an avatar too because the arrogant star, Derek, inhabits his own reality, to the degree that he decides to shoot a found footage movie in 3D, a concept which makes absolutely no sense at all.

I won't mention most of the problems I had with parts of the story, because there's such a close tie between the film and the film within a film that they may not be negatives after all and watching for a second time may well show that they're more like intentional goofs. That includes the ending, which felt a little cheap; maybe it should and maybe it shouldn't.

More when I tackle this one for a full review at Apocalypse Later. I may watch it again as a double bill with Brutal Massacre: A Comedy to see how different approaches to a similar concept compare.

Block 21: Tonight She Comes (2016)
I'd heard that Tonight She Comes was the most outrageous film in the showcase features block, inheriting that mantle from Night of Something Strange in 2016 and Deathgasm a year earlier. And, let me tell you, it certainly went there, where 'there' is a little bit further than you're thinking right now.

As a piece of cinematic art, it's a powerful statement, something that will stay in the mind and serve as a baseline for comparisons to future movies. As a story, I'm not sure how much sense it actually makes, but I certainly have a host of questions about why this and how that. As a metaphor, it may be an impressive way to suggest that the seventies kicked the ass of the eighties when it came to genre cinema.

Initially, everything we see is eighties, with some young idiots doing the sort of things that young idiots do in horror movies. We're clearly setting up for a slasher movie and we all know how those go.

The point where we start to doubt that is when the bloody naked corpse of Kristy walks into a lake, because that really isn't the sort of thing that the eighties did. It's what the seventies did and, before long, we find we aren't in Kansas any more, Toto. We're in a... well, I won't spoil where it goes but it's thoroughly seventies in style, subject matter and even goofs.

And that's why I'm mentioning this. There are all sorts of errors here, in character motivation, plot continuity and human nature, but I'm pretty sure that they're intentional. The gimme was when the time was announced twice, as eleven fifty six and three minutes to midnight. I don't buy that writer/director Matt Stuertz didn't notice something that blatant before sending it out to film festivals, so I'm assuming that the other errors are deliberate too, especially as the type of problem varies depending on which half of the film we're in. In the eighties half, it's things like ridiculous decision-making on behalf of pretty much all the characters. In the seventies half, it's more day/night continuity or weirdly overdone accents.

While the lengths to which this one goes are going to be the primary reason for horror fans to watch, I have to call out the acting performance of Jenna McDonald who plays Felicity as a fantastic shade of off, knowing precisely what she has to do at any point and doing it without any hint of awkwardness or knowledge of social space. It's a tricky role to get right and she nails it absolutely.

This film is certainly going to be for everyone (let's just say that ritual magic really should be a bloody mess but I've never seen it quite like this before). However, those it's for will be bringing it up in conversation for years.

Monday 10 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Four

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Sunday 9th, which is Day 4.

With scheduling for the IHSFFF so good nowadays, I mainlined that over Friday and Saturday, catching every competition feature and short, as well as the showcase features in the evening. With those done, I spent most of Sunday catching a few PFF competition features, always favourites of mine.

I got to see five features and two sets of short films today. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival or look out for them after they're released.

The AARP commercial is getting a little more annoying. Now I'm trying to figure out why the AARP dude teleports forward six inches halfway through his dialogue.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 15: Unnerved (2017)
While Unnerved was a PFF competition feature, it could easily have played the IHSFFF. It's likely to be described as a paranormal horror thriller but it's really a love story that happens to be set against the backdrop of a haunting.

We begin where most horror movies usually end, with a couple leaving their house, with their child left behind, just so that they can survive. As Frank says to his wife, Mallory, he's not going to lose her as well. Unfortunately she's seriously traumatised by whatever went down, to the degree that she grabs the wheel at speed, flipping them over a number of times.

Fast forward a few years and they've moved five times, finally to a lakeside cabin that Frank won't leave, remaining inside in the wheelchair his crash injuries earned him. However, they are still a couple; even if they have to fight Frank's self-pity and Mallory's guilt, they are at least still fighting to stay together during an ongoing nightmare that would have claimed most relationships.

The problem is that something is following them, something that does many of the usual paranormal things we know from crappy Hollywood movies but which are shown in an unusual way. This movie isn't about jump scares and visual effects, just as the lady this couple hire to help them is not your usual ghosthunter. This means that, while much of what we see isn't remotely new, it's all presented in a refreshing way and the focus on the couple is the most refreshing of all.

While it's cleverly written and capably shot, it would have failed horribly if the acting wasn't up to snuff because its success hangs on three actors. Fortunately they're all superb, especially Katie Morrison as Mallory, who gets the most to do, Frank being restricted in motion and their paranormal investigator Eleanor not showing up until quite a way into the picture. I was surprised to find that this was only her second picture and I look forward to seeing more.

'Unnerved' was a great way to start the day, as well as the PFF side of the festival for me. It didn't win anything tonight at the awards, but I felt that it was stronger and more consistent than the Best Picture winner, for which see two films below.

Block 16: Painless (2017)
While Painless was also a PFF competition feature it too could easily have played the IHSFFF. It's a drama but one with a strong science fiction base, namely the efforts of one man to find a cure for the disorder from which he's suffered since birth: the inability to feel pain. This leads to all sorts of odd alleys, especially trading studies of his body to a medical researcher for a restricted chemical that he needs for his experiments.

This disorder might sound like a wonderful thing to have, especially if you just stubbed your toe, but, as this man explains, pain keeps us safe and not feeling it means that you wouldn't tend to know when you've been hurt and that can be so dangerous that it could kill you. He's Henry Long and he puts ice cubes into cartons of Chinese food just to make sure that he won't burn his mouth. Think about it.

To Long, 'everything is a threat' and the story extrapolates from that line of dialogue to produce a lonely man who avoids relationships and any other 'distraction' from his quest to feel pain like everyone else. One fantastic angle, raised and left to resonate, is that every living thing experiences pain, even fish, so what does that make him? That must be the most extreme form of loneliness, to be unlike anything living.

It's the ideas that succeed the most here, courtesy of writer/director Jordan Horowitz, but Joey Klein nails the part of Henry too. He's Canadian but he appears like the love child of Christopher Walken and Tom Sizemore and he sells the part absolutely. We really feel for him, pun well and truly not intended, even if he's his own enemy and we feel for some of the people who have to deal with him as well.

The film was represented in person by writer/director Jordan Horowitz (no, not the one from the Oscars) and one of the producers, Anthony Ambrosino (I think). The lady on the left is Phoenix filmmaker and critic Shari K. Green.

Block 17: Brave New Jersey (2016)
While Brave New Jersey was another PFF competition feature, it was a third... well, the trend doesn't quite continue, but this drama was written out of the notorious Mercury Players broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, so it certainly has interest to genre fans.

I'll have to be really careful both here and especially when I dig deeper later on in a full Apocalypse Later review because it's really a 'stupid Americans' movie. We're in the small town of Lullaby, NJ, where the small town folk who live there are going about their small town lives until, that is, they tune into the radio and hear about Martians invading a town only a couple of hours away.

It's fair to say that 'panic sets in' but that's a wild oversimplification and this film does a great job of digging deep into what it really means, especially in an environment where the leadership is almost non-existent. The priest has lost his faith, the sheriff is a moron and the mayor is the odd job man around town whom everyone looks past. That means that Captain Ambrose P. Collins, the local PTSD sufferer, gets to rile them all up into making a stand.

For a film set in 1938, it also feels very timely. Faced with an unknown external threat that they can't quantify, the townsfolk leap into fighting, hiding or blaming but none leap into reading or checking the facts. That sounds like Facebook eighty years later. Other than Collins, who has his own agenda, only a little girl is savvy enough to realise what's actually going on.

Brave New Jersey won three awards tonight, including Best Picture and I can't argue too much. It looks great, it sounds great and the acting, from a string of recognisable faces from film and TV, is top notch. The script tops them all though, because it explores a host of different mindsets but never gets lost. There's a lot to read into this and I'll have fun writing a more detailed review.

The only downside for me was restricted to the unrealistic Hollywood ending, which was unworthy of the material that went before it.

Block 18: The Good Goering (2016)
Unless I get to see Land of the Little People, which looks utterly fascinating, The Good Goering is the only world cinema feature I'll get to see this year. It's a look at Albert Goering the lesser known but still notable younger brother of Herman, Hitler's right hand man.

While Herman was a Nazi from the beginning, being wounded in Hitler's coup attempt in 1923, the Beer Hall Putsch, Albert was opposed to the Nazis from moment one and he stayed there throughout his life; this film suggests that he saved a thousand people from death at the hands of the Nazis, many of them Jews.

The film combines a number of approaches into what could be regarded as a docudrama. There's stock footage and a number of interviews with relatives of the key players, including the Goerings. However, most of it is dramatised, with actors playing real people in scenes that fit the known facts but still extrapolate for poetic license. For instance, there's a great scene with the two brothers and a couple of ladies, both famous German actors, one of them Herman's latest wife. It revolves around Nazi jokes, of which Herman was an unusual fan, but beyond knowing that these people met at this time, nobody knows what they actually said. It just rings true.

This isn't the sort of film that you enjoy, but it takes an interesting look at an unusual angle of a well-known era, a well-known public figure and his unjustly obscure brother. It deserves to be seen.

Block 19: Hounds of Love (2016)
The IHSFFF showcase features I saw over the last couple of days have been interesting but haven't wowed me. Well, until now. I'm eager to see this film again because I want to see how it stands up now that I know how it unfolds. Right now, it feels like the best horror movie I've seen in a long, long time and, finishing up a weekend where I've puzzled over endings over and over again, it demonstrates clearly how they should be done. I know roughly where this would end up, but I didn't know how it would get there or what would happen on the way and it made me very happy indeed.

It's a tough film and, like Unnerved, it's not really a horror movie first. It's a drama about mothers, which unfolds against a horror framework in Perth, Western Australia.

One is Maggie Maloney, who has left her surgeon husband and moved into a rough neighbourhood; she gets her daughter Vicki two nights a week and has no compunctions about grounding her when her grades are bad. Given that dad buys her a puppy and lets her do what she wants, you can guess who she likes most and who she blames for the breakup.

The other is Evelyn White, one of a married couple a couple of streets from Maggie's house, who abduct young girls to feed their perverse sexual needs, then murder them and bury them in the vast woods not far out of town; Vicki is their latest acquisition. However, unlike her husband, John, who is your standard run of the mill sexual psychopath, Evelyn is a massively complex character. She's certainly not a good person, but there's a lot more going on in her head than in his. The parallels between her and Maggie only begin with them both being mothers who do not have custody of their children.

Parts of this felt familiar and this ground has certainly been trod before, but I don't recall a film that shifted the torture porn off into a bedroom while we watch the other half struggle with what's happening. Evie grew up with abuse and has continued the cycle, but she loves and hates John at the same time and she's acutely jealous of the girls who steal his attention away from her. We always know how John will act but we keep wondering what Evie will do next and that plays out with aplomb.

Emma Booth is a revelation here in a part that can't have been easy to play. There are scenes where she has to change her emotions half a dozen times as she walks down a corridor and she nails it absolutely. This has been a great festival for actresses, with The 6th Friend, Anti Matter and Killing Ground, not to mention Unnerved and Brave New Jersey today, but it keeps getting better and better.

As an IHSFFF showcase feature, Hounds of Love is only playing once but it'll become available somewhere you can access it and I recommend that you do so as soon as you can.


Sunday night is awards night at the Phoenix Film Festival. Here's the full list of winners with congratulations to each of them:

Here's the full line up of winners:

Best Arizona Short - One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts
Best Animated Short - Pearl
Best College Short - Jewish Blind Date
Best Live Action Short - The Babysitter Murders
Best Documentary Short - Happy (the short)
Best World Cinema Short - Friday Night
Best Latino American Directed Short - Written Off
Best African American Directed Short - Ori Inu: In Search of Self
Best Native American Directed Short - Legacy

Best Sci-Fi Short - Real Artists
Best Sci-Fi Feature - The Open
Best Horror Short - Wandering Soul
Best Horror Feature - The Night Watchmen

Arizona Filmmaker of the Year - Ryan Thomas Andersen
Volunteer of the Year - Randy Robinson

Best World Cinema Director - Yaniv Berman for Land of the Little People
Best World Cinema Feature - Land of the Little People
Best World Cinema Documentary - The Islands and the Whales
World Cinema Audience Award - Fairy Tales for Emma

Sydney J. Shapiro Humanitarian Award - Happy (the feature)

Best Arizona Feature - IMperfect
Best Ensemble - Brave New Jersey
Best Screenplay - Julian Fort for The Midnighters
Best Director - Jody Lambert for Brave New Jersey
Best Documentary - The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd Z-Man Zalkins
Best Picture - Brave New Jersey
Audience Award - Fallen

Note: the two wins for films called Happy are for different films: the first a short, the second a feature. And this in a year that also featured The Happys and Happy Hunting. Don't worry, PFF goers, be happy.

By sheer coincidence, I got a picture before the awards with Randy Robinson, who would go on to win a highly deserved Volunteer of the Year award, with me wearing Robinson tartan for the occasion. Congratulations, Randy!

So how did I do with my guesses at IHSFFF winners from last night? Well, not too well on the horror side, as it turned out, but I did fine with the sci-fi.

I cheated with Best Horror Feature by suggesting that any of the three were viable winners. However, Brandon chose The Night Watchmen, which was my third choice of the three because it was the least consistent.

I was way off the mark on Best Horror Short. I had two shorts far above the rest and even guessed at a third being Danny's pick, but he went for another one entirely: Wandering Soul, which I'm not going to argue about as it's an unusual and atmospheric piece.

I knew that Best Sci-Fi Feature had to be one of two, because the third was embarrasingly awful, but which one? I ended up with myself but guessed that Mike would pick the other and I was right: The Open it was.

I nailed Best Sci-Fi Short, but Real Artists really was a gimme. I'd be hard pressed to think of something that could beat it from the whole of the last decade of this festival.

So, good picks, folks! Thank you, as always!

Sunday 9 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Three

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Saturday 8th, which is Day 3.

I got to see five features and two sets of short films today. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival or look out for them after they're released.

Surprisingly, none of the preview material is annoying the crap out of me yet, which is unusual for something I get to see twenty or thirty times in one week. I do want to tell the AARP lady that Phoenix isn't gorgeous or warm; the state of Arizona is gorgeous but Phoenix is the boring bit down and over a little and we escalate past warm when we hit February. I also want to tell the AARP gentleman that it's rude to tell a lady who's dining out alone that she can take her friends anywhere; she clearly doesn't have any or there would be another glass on that table.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 8: Inherit the Stars: The Director's Cut (2016)
The films programmed for IHSFFF, especially the features, tend to be of consistently high quality. Every now and then, though, there's an exception, like Monster Brawl, Betamax and now Inherit the Stars.

This was the worst film to schedule at 9.00am on a Saturday, with many of the attendees recovering from seven sets of films on their full Friday and very little sleep. Those of us who made it through to the end, and many didn't, should get a badge of honour for the achievement. I like many slow films, including the controversial Beyond the Black Rainbow, which played IHSFFF in 2012, but this is so slow that it almost ran backwards.

It's a Japanese feature, that sounded intriguing and action-packed: Russian and American soldiers tracking down 'witches', which here mean those with extra-sensory powers, like being able to start fires with their minds. It turned out to be the opposite of action-packed. This founds an entirely new genre, that of the inaction movie, where nothing happens and the actors do their best to mimic human statues by freezing their muscles into place.

You know the explanatory monologues that Bond villains are contractually obligated to deliver? This movie is a series of such monologues that seem neverending. About six hours from the end, I thought the next monologue would be the last... and the next... and the next... but they just kept on coming.

The only thing I liked here was the beautiful Japanese countryside and the fact that the torture did, eventually, end. The acting was so minimal that I felt like I was watching a collection of still photographs, even when they emoted their hearts out. The score was epic and overblown emotional music that didn't fit at all. The story had more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese.

What scared me the most is that this is the Director's Cut. I can only assume that the original is a four minute short and they just stretched it out to two and a quarter hours.

Block 9: Horror Shorts A

With Horror Shorts B full of comedians, I was on tenterhooks as to whether Horror Shorts A would follow suit. It does.

The comedy starts immediately, with Unfinished Business (2016), in which a new employee at a big but surprisingly empty corporate behemoth is surprised to find that he can see the dead. When he helps one pass on safely to the next world by having all new employees watch the hitherto ignored sexual harassment training video, he finds that the rest are all tormented too and he must help them find peace. It's a solid short that delivers the laughs but it's nothing special and I doubt anyone didn't see the twists coming.

Next up is something truly original, which is a real plus in these comedy shorts sets. It's Wandering Soul (2016), an Australian film that's predominantly in Vietnamese. It has to do with a couple of Viet Cong hiding in underground tunnels during the Vietnam War. One wants to leave because the Americans are coming, but the other stays to appropriately honour the dead who are buried in the walls, reciting the right prayers and performing the right rituals. It's appropriate atmospheric and claustrophobic and the twist is all the more brutal because it's true, something that I plan to do some serious reading up on.

Spell Claire (unknown year) returns us to comedy with a predictable but superbly constructed short. Claire is gaga for nostalgia and her kick is the eighties, so when she finds a Speak & Spell like the one that dominated her childhood, she snaps it up and takes it home. Wendy Jung, who plays Claire, is gloriously expressive and her reactions are priceless when her fun starts to twist away from what she expects. The crew did a fantastic job of making the toy look and sound right, which underpins the progression of the story.

Creatures of Whitechapel (2016) mixes things up completely. It's a steampunk horror that combines Dr. Frankenstein's experiments with the Jack the Ripper murders. It's long, but vibrant, filled with garish colour, wild characters and mad antics, just like a film should when it's inspired by the penny dreadfuls. Rick Macy channels Christopher Lee as Dr. Pretorius and Carlee Baker is a revelation as Frankenstein's assistant, Igor, surely the lead role, but everything backs them up. It's not remotely subtle, but it isn't meant to be.

Shah Mat is a short twist film from Kirill Kripak, who tends to be represented at IHSFFF by sci-fi shorts. A man inexplicably finds himself on an old boat where he's expected to play chess with Death. We expect a twist but the one that arrives may not be the one we think is coming. It's simple but effective.

While the previous two films aren't comedies, there's much comedy in them. Mister Sewer's Murder Room returns us to outright comedies and it's really effective. Six idiots wake up chained to toilets in an underground room. There are things around them and a man with a sinister voice hurling out challenges, but their reaction isn't quite what we might expect. I'm giving the edge to Born Again but that and this could battle it out for the best comedy of this year and either could win. That there's depth behind the laughs is a real bonus.

The set finished up with A Horror Story, the generic name having a good reason to be there. It's apparently the third in a series of shorts following a character who is really good at making really bad decisions. This time, he's trying to get back together with his wife at a Halloween party but a single decision has a catastrophic outcome. It's well put together with good acting and some great comedic timing and I'm eager to see the other two in the series, but it isn't as consistently on the money as the prior short.

Block 10: The Night Watchmen (2017)
Brandon Kinchen did a fantastic job selecting the horror features this year, with three very different films that could each conceivably win out as Best Horror Feature. This is the funny one of the three and it's a relatively consistent laugh, with only a few scenes getting too stupid or too clichéd. Think Shaun of the Dead if London was Baltimore and zombies were vampire clowns. Yes, I said vampire clowns and, really, do you need another reason to watch this?

A young man joins the security crew at The Gazette but his training is interrupted by the erroneous delivery of Blimpo the Baltimore clown's coffin, which had been flown back home from Romania after he and his troupe had died of an unknown illness. When Blimpo arises in the warehouse as a clownpire, the building is quickly overrun and it falls to the night watchmen and one hot journalist to save the day.

It's not surprising to find that two of the four night watchmen are also two of the three folk who wrote this script, because they know to play it as if it was utterly real to the characters. The movie knows that it's funny but the characters don't and that's crucial to making this work (and the reason why so many modern comedies don't). Ken Arnold is like an American Simon Pegg (with bigger muscles), Kevin Jiggetts is hilarious as the 'worst black man ever' and Dan DeLuca is a suitably sinister Italian. Max Gray Wilbur is the new fish and he gets some fantastic scenes too.

Local favourite Tiffany Shepis shows up in a cameo that isn't substantial but surely gave her a fun day's shoot. The other recognisable name is that of James Remar, who I've never seen play a character so gloriously wild and perverted as this one.

I, along with most of the audience, laughed my ass off during this movie but it occasionally falls prey to temptation and gets stupid for the sake of being stupid; the fart thing was funny once but gets old immediately after that. The ending, while capable, is also underwhelming and leaves some odd loose ends.

Block 11: Sci-Fi Shorts A

Sci-Fi Shorts B yesterday was comprised of five long shorts but A is more traditional, full of the variety that is science fiction and evidence once again that Mike Stackpole knows exactly how to program a set that flows.

Like almost always, he kicks off with a short animation, this time a Chinese film called in the west Dogstein: Super Science Adventure (unknown year) that was clearly inspired by German expressionism and Japanese tokusatsu. A dog catches frisbees thrown by a robot, but there's a reason for this that puts it firmly into sci-fi territory. It's a good settle down short to start a set.

Dark Machine (2016) appears to be a film noir for quite some time, with a Dutch photographer getting involved with a scientist's wife after a mysterious phone call gives him her name and a party assignment puts him in the same place at the same time. It's well acted and I wasn't surprised to find Fockeline Ouwerkerk singing because her speaking voice is a langurous treat all on its own. I'd have liked a little more to the ending but this is a solid short that mixes genres well.

The New Politics (2016) is a peach of a playful short that builds us capably in one direction, with future politics replaced by global games with designated representatives battling it out. However, The Hunger Games this isn't; writer/director Joshua Wong pulls the carpet right out from under us and we applaud him for it.

The Night Shift (2016) is a dark little creature that applies the model used by many shopping mall pet stores that put expiry dates on their animals (the opposite of a no kill shelter) to unwanted children during an overpopulation boom. It's well written and well constructed and it raises in brutal fashion some interesting points of discussion, but could have done with a little bit more polish.

While Girl #2 (unknown year) played in a sci-fi set, it really had no business being there. It felt like there were so many horror-themed comedies in the horror sets that they overflowed into this one. Featuring a sorority house whose residents are being killed by a giant wacko with a sledgehammer, it relies on solid acting to sell the neat twist and the unknown actress in the lead does a fantastic job.

Real Artists (2017) isn't just the best sci-fi short screening at IHSFFF this year, it may well be the best sci-fi short I've seen in a decade (and Mike Stackpole has brought us a few other solid contenders in that time). It's a story about a young lady who has been invited to apply to work at an major animation studio (we're clearly supposed to think Pixar from the modified posters on the wall). She's given a tour by the ever-lovely and talented Tamlyn Tomita and the real artists watching will be horrified to see how their films are actually made. Everything about this short is spot on including the lead performance by Tiffany Hines (from Bones) who matches Tomita step for step. Discussion will always return to the script, though, which is based on a story by Ken Liu. It's topical and applicable to current trends, it raises ethical concerns about culture and art, and it simultaneously impresses us by what may well soon be technologically viable and horrifies us that it might actually happen. It's a great example of how much can be done with only twelve minutes.

Everybody in sci-fi fandom will laugh aloud to Where No Jedi Has Gone Before (2016), which is a neat extrapolation of the Star Trek vs. Star Wars cultural war into a metaphor about race. A young white man shows up in jedi robes to dinner with his girlfriend's family, all Japanese and wearing Starfleet uniforms. It's sharp, it's funny and it's even touching, but it's not quite as great as I thought it was on first viewing. It turns out to be merely damn good and the final twist is glorious.

And that leaves another genre-merging short called The Massacre at Black Divide (2016), which plays out like a western but is really a sci-fi yarn that plays in a time loop. One man hunts a notorious mass murderer in the California Sierras of 1881 for reasons that turn out to be self-fulfilling. It's well shot, well acted and well written, but there could have been a little more grounding to ensure that we got what was going on.

There were filmmakers present from a couple of these short films, but I was only ale to get a picture with Ryan Gold of The Night Shift. Maybe I'll find The Massacre at Black Divide folk tomorrow!

Block 12: The Open (2015)
The last of the sci-fi competition features, The Open is thoroughly original and oddly engaging. It's a post-apocalyptic movie in roughly the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a space telephone movie, in that it's true but that's hardly important in the grand scheme of things. We see a nuclear explosion in western Europe and the world is plunged into war, but we don't see much of that. We spend our time playing tennis.

Mark Lahore, who wrote and directed, takes some experimental approaches to filmmaking that mostly succeed. The film is almost entirely shot with only three people and perhaps even fewer buildings because almost everything is outside on the austere but beautiful Hebridean islands of Scotland. Some of the scenes are shot as sequences of effectively edited still photographs and the beginning is handheld footage. It even bounces back and forth between French and English, often within sentences. Yet it all plays well together, as do our characters once they get settled in.

With Paris destroyed and Europe engulfed in war, tennis player Stéphanie Tavernier, who's ranked number four in the world, moves to the UK with her trainer, André. They wander around the wilderness training for the French Open, which they know full well isn't going to happen. For better effect, they kidnap a newly enlisted British soldier called Ralph, who had cracked the Top 1000 rankings, to train with her.

What's weirdest is that they don't have anything except their imaginations and the things around them. They mark out courts on beaches or in fields, they use rackets with no strings and they don't even have a ball. The sight of capable players volleying an imaginary object is only matched by the imaginary games which Stéphanie and her coach play constantly.

There's a lot here to explore and I know I need to watch again to clarify a few minor details, which are thin on the ground. We know there's war, but we don't know who started it or who's even fighting. It's irrelevant to the characters, who do what they do for their own reasons, whether it's for emotional stability, out of guilt, to help others or even because it's all they know. We join this madhouse with Ralph, so we discover along with him and our reactions don't always mirror his but we understand how his views grow and change.

This isn't going to be for everyone but those with a more imaginative bent might get a real kick out of this one.

Block 13: Dave Made a Maze (2017)
Of all the showcase features at IHSFFF this year, Dave Made a Maze looked the most imaginative by far, but that sort of film often falls apart horribly when ambition outstrips ability. Fortunately, this one, with a few minor caveats, does precisely what it aims to do and it does it very well indeed.

It's a surreal idea but an enticing one. Dave's girlfriend arrives home from a trip to discover their apartment filled with a cardboard labyrinth, which Dave has built, entered and become lost in. Yes, he's lost in a maze in his apartment and that's because it's literally taken on a life of its own and is much bigger on the inside.

As it's a comedy, we know all sorts of uninvited guests show up and, against Dave's express wishes, join him inside. Their quest for escape is thoroughly engaging, in part because of the fantastic designs in cardboard and origami and in part because of the sheer imagination hurled at the screen by writer/creator Steven Sears and writer/director Bill Watterson. I shouldn't spoil them but I enjoyed this as much for its variety as for its dialogue, design and sheer surreality.

The letdowns are few and far between and the biggest one for me was that picture wraps up with an appropriate but safe and underwhelming ending that I would rather have seen as substantial and imaginative as everything that went before it.

The star is Nick Thune, who has a Leonardo DiCaprio vibe to him, but the most recognisable faces is Kirsten Vangsness, who I adore on Criminal Minds but who is rather annoying here, and Adam Busch, who was Warren on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who is drily hilarious here.

This may not be the best film of the festival but it's the must see picture and the theatre was sold out. This will surely go into quick distribution so check it out whenever you get a chance.

Block 14: Killing Ground (2016)
Saturday wrapped up with an Australian horror thriller called Killing Ground, which is decent and capable without ever really wowing us. One problem is that the film alternates frequently between two different dates but with the same characters often doing the same things, so it's going to be confusing until we realise that.

The present features a couple called Ian and Sam who go camping at Gungilee Falls. They find a toddler wandering around the campsite who presumably belongs to the family in the other tent who have completely vanished. They investigate, of course, but this is a horror movie so that's never going to end well.

The past revolves around the toddler's family who came to the same camping site some time earlier. It's a family of two young grandparents, their grown daughter and her very young son.

Hopefully it isn't a spoiler to mention that I appreciated, especially in an Australian feature, that a woman can kick arse while a man can flounder and panic. How we get to that point is shot superbly, with some incredible views of the New South Wales bush.

There's also some fantastic choreography, with on scene that rocked my world, that being the one when a woman walks toward us and the baby shows up out of nowhere wandering through the background with the focal point blissfully unaware. It's the sort of thing we expect from a serial killer set to shock us but this is subtle and so perhaps even more shocking.

Like a few films today, the ending was underwhelming, but unlike the others, this one may be appropriate because the information we need is there for us and we can write the next few scenes in our heads. It's just odd for a few of them not to be attempted anyway.

Award Suggestions

There are four awards given out at each year's IHSFFF: Best Feature and Best Short Film in each of the two categories, Horror and Sci-Fi. I don't have a great track record of picking the winners, but I'll give it a shot publicly and see how things turn out at tomorrow night's Award Ceremony.

Best Horror Feature

Any one of the three horror features is worthy of a win, but I'd go with Happy Hunting as the most consistent and deepest of the three. As programmer Brandon Kinchen gives this a lot of thought, I think he might agree with me.

Best Horror Short

I'd say that there are only a couple of contenders for Best Horror Short but it's picked by programmer Danny Marianino, who has a habit of giving this award to films that I wouldn't and, in some instances, wouldn't even have selected. I'd go with Black Ring over Born Again, but Danny is morely likely to go with the latter or even Mister Sewer's Murder Room.

Best Sci-Fi Feature

This is a tough one because the two real competitors are so different. I think I'd go with Anti Matter over The Open but programmer Mike Stackpole could well go the other way and I couldn't argue with him.

Best Sci-Fi Short

This is the only gimme this year, in my opinion. While there are a number of really good films, especially in the Sci-Fi Shorts A set, Real Artists is head and shoulders over all of them. Just in case Mike isn't as fond of that one as I am, I'd suggest Enora as the most likely film from the rest.

Saturday 8 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Two

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year and I'm kicking off with Friday 7th, which is Day 2.

Why not Day 1? Well, Day 1 for me is just picking up my press pass and tickets for the films on my schedule. For VIPs, it's the opening night film, which this year was The Hero, and the opening night party, neither of which I can get into. So here's Day 2!

Because scheduling makes it easy to see everything that's screening at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival genre track nowadays, that's all I'll be seeing over Friday and Saturday.

I got to see five features and two sets of short films today. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to prioritise attending these films later in the festival or look out for them after they're released.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 1: Anti Matter (2016)
A sci-fi competition feature, Anti Matter was a great way to kick off the event, even if the blurb pushed connections to Alice in Wonderland that I couldn't find anywhere, except in the use of Oxford as a setting and the use of a rabbit mask at one point.

It's about Ana, a Hispanic American chemistry student in the UK, after she discovers a way to move objects without travelling the space in between and her team of three scale quickly upwards. It's the standard wormhole thing and for a while reminds very much of LiFi, a fantastic short which played the IHSFFF in 2014, and as they pointed out too, such a discovery means that, 'Everything will change!'

It shifts into new territory when Ana becomes the test subject and travels a few feet within the lab herself. From then on, she finds that she can't eat, she can't sleep, she can't form new memories and everyone around her starts to act highly suspiciously. Unable to trust anyone, including her boyfriend, she digs deeper and deeper to try to figure out what's really going on.

I thoroughly enjoyed Anti Matter, even though I knew quickly where we would roughly end up. The original title of Worm should have been expanded to Wormhole rather than changed, because it becomes a little bit of a spoiler. The acting is superb, especially from Yaiza Figueroa as Ana, and her paranoia is palpable. I didn't recognise much of Oxford but it felt authentic and it adds some depth to the film.

Block 2: Horror Shorts B

The second set of Horror Shorts (I'll see the first set tomorrow) was less a horror set and more a comedy set that played with horror themes. Nothing is scary here, but there are a lot of laughs and a lot of twists, just the sort of short films that programmer Danny Marianino likes.

I've seen Time to Eat (2015) a few times since it played in Prescott last year and it's still enjoyable. A young boy is playing with his ball while his mother cooks dinner. A large tentacle taps it into the basement so he follows and we know what to expect. The twist is a good but obvious one that enables the film to get by perfectly well without a single word of dialogue. The twist on the twist is the really nice bit.

From Dusk Till Dad (2016) is an overt comedy piece that has Will struggle with the fact that his mother is dating a vampire. The story is stupid, with nobody able to see that Roy is quite obviously a vampire with the stereotypical fangs and bad Transylvanian accent. That includes Will's therapist who persists in seeing his concerns as metaphorical even when he points out that he means it literally. It's fun but inconsequential, all the joy being in the comedy, which mostly holds up.

Laura, Lost (unknown year) disappointed me because it could have been much more. A young man travels to the woods to investigate a man he believes may have kidnapped a missing girl; he takes a friend along and things don't go quite how he planned them. This was cast and shot well, but it exists for the only twist that was ever going to happen and it needed more than that.

There's usually at least one horror short at IHSFFF that I have trouble understanding why it was selected and The Catalyst (2016) showed up quickly to fit that category this year. It initially seems like a really good idea, asking what would happen if everyday household accidents trigger paranormal events, but there's only one answer, which is that everyone gets really paranoid about everything. That makes for a dull film that descends into pointlessness.

Things started to improve with The Call of Charlie (2016), which is another comedy that only fits in a horror set because Charlie, the special guest at dinner, is an elder god. The film is too slow and there are too many pauses, but what we see and hear is excellent. The jokes are good ones and there's much capital made off a surprise visitor called Jay who can't believe that lovely Maureen actually seems to like this squid monster.

Black Ring (2016), however, is so gorgeous, that I almost forgot that other shorts played in this set before it. I've seen this Turkish horror short before and absolutely adored it. It looks even better on the big screen, with an amazing location, some incredibly well cast characters who never speak, a glorious avant garde score, a fantastic premise that prompts some interesting thought and some genius camera movements. There's one shot that dollies up from ground level to the roof of this cool abandoned mansion, follows the gentleman organising the event we watch inside and down the stairs, exiting through the front door and then up into the air again; if that path trailed string, it could floss the house. I can't recommend this film enough, even if it takes its time to make its point.

As I wondered what could possibly follow Black Ring, Jason Tostevin stepped in to keep things on a high note with Born Again. I believe this is the fourth film of his that I've seen at IHSFFF and it's as much fun as any of the others. A quartet of satanists plan to summon Lucifer himself from the bloated belly of the pregnant lady in front of them, but things don't go quite to plan. I adore Tostevin's sense of humour and Tiffany Arnold's incredibly expressive face and Randall Greenland's contrasting inanity underpin it wonderfully. This is easily the best comedy in this comedy set.

Kookie is a weaker than its two predecessors but it's stronger than the earlier films in the set, bolstered by a neatly freaky clown cookie jar and an impressive performance by whichever child actor plays the nine year old leading lady (IMDb doesn't have any credits up yet) who steals cookies, lies about it and has scary clowns introduced into her life as a deterrent. There's plenty of comedy here too, but this and the one film that follows it are the closest to actual horror shorts in this set.

That last short is Beneath the Surface, which follows a couple whose mini breaks down in the mountains as they make bad choices and end up in a worse situation. The cast are all comedians and they're naturals on screen, the dialogue, improvisation and sheer comedic timing all nailed perfectly. Best are the passing couple who pick up our subjects on their way to a bake sale at their local church and I believe they're also the filmmakers behind the project. The downside is that there's a lot more story than what we see on the screen and it would be great to see this as one of a set of linked short films or as a feature.

Block 3: The 6th Friend (2017)
This horror competition feature is an unusual slasher, in that the only man we see on screen is the victim in the prologue. We begin at a graduation party for six best friends, all female, but one orders acid to be delivered and that brings a male dealer into the mix. After he leads one of the ladies into a bedroom, the others break in and murder the apparent rapist.

Five years later, they're all still suffering from the trauma of that night and they meet up once again at a cabin, ostensibly to draw Joey out of her shell, given that she's hidden herself away. Of course, the dead man shows up in masked slasher mode and the girls start to die.

I got a real kick out of this film for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's thoroughly refreshing to see a horror film cast almost entirely from women; the inspiration for that was apparently The Descent. Secondly, it's thoroughly refreshing to see a horror film where the women are able to use their brains (if not always well) and fight back, even traumatised.

What's more, the acting is also top notch from all six of the leading ladies, especially Chantelle Albers as the one who organises the event, and the twist is both believable and telegraphed but it will be a neat surprise for most viewers.

Albers (also a producer) and Jamie Bernadette, who's the lead, the writer and a producer, are at the festival to support their film. I got a picture with them and Festival Director Monte Yazzie:

Block 4: Sci-Fi Shorts B

The second Sci-Fi Shorts set (I'll see the first tomorrow) is comprised of five longer short films. It's a slow set but that doesn't mean the quality isn't there.

It kicked off with a Czech film called I am the Doorway (2017), a dollar baby based on the short story of the same name which appeared in Stephen King's Night Shift collection. It's an experimental piece that is shot so entirely from the point of view of a prisoner in a padded cell on a space station that we only ever see his hands. Think of it like a first person shooter, except the weapons are his hands, which grow sores that become eyeballs. Yes, it's as freaky as that sounds and that's a good thing. Without human beings to watch, there's little acting here, replaced by a variety of visual effects which look utterly fantastic, courtesy of Gene Warren III. Without dialogue, there's little story, at least that we can fathom without knowledge of King's original. The key, folks, is that this character has been exposed to a extra-terrestrial mutagen, presumably the fractal imagery we see out of the cool space age window, which prompts the growth of these eyes on his hands, which in turn act as a doorway for an alien species who can see through them and control his actions.

Gadget (2016) makes more sense but is probably the weakest film in the set. It's a near future story that extrapolates the concept of Google Glass to an advanced level, where it allows people like Neem to use an invisible user interface for design work and has a built-in AI to run his life. However, he burns for something more real and, while I won't spoil whether he finds that or not, I will say that the result isn't too surprising. It works well but I've seen enough similar films that this one doesn't seem too special.

Gadget (2016) is a British film and so is Zero Sum (2016), which would have seemed much more original had I not started the day with Anti Matter. This echoes that script but in a short format with a lady on a spaceship attached by a tube to a wall. When she removes it, she finds out what's behind that wall and that opens an intriguing dialogue. While this plays well generally, it relies on the performance of Aimee-Ffion Edwards and she's thankfully up to the task.

Might (2016) looks glorious but I'm not entirely sure what it's trying to tell us. It's a Finnish film but it's populated by spacefaring Aztecs on floating cities, so reminding me of the books of Tobias S. Buckell. Quite what's going on in the story is open to interpretation (IMDb helps) but it captures our attention and our imagination and a further viewing may help.

And that leaves Enora (2016), the best film in the set, which was made in Switzerland. We're at Monte Cassino in 1944, a major battle in the Second World War. As a Scottish soldier in the Royal Army Medical Corps caters to his wounded and dying colleagues, he's faced with a couple of distractions. One is the expected Italian army but the other is the arrival of Enora, who can pass for human but is really an alien whose spaceship has just crashed nearby. I'm looking forward to writing this one up because it does a lot with its 26m running time, including some particularly original illusions that impressed me no end.

A few crew members from I am the Doorway are at the festival. Below are Gene Warren III, visual effects wizard; actress Eva Gorcicová and Robin Kasparík, the writer, producer and director:

Block 5: Happy Hunting (2017)
The second of three horror features in competition, Happy Hunting was a real pleasure and it played very well to a considerable audience. It's a take on the old hunting humans idea but brought considerably up to date with an intriguing twist that the town which practices this concept feels that it serves a beneficial purpose, to both the town and those burdens on society who are hunted. It's The Most Dangerous Game for a Purge era.

We follow Warren Novak, a former military man whose life isn't much to write home about. He's a major alcoholic and minor drug addict who deals for the little money he has, but he's given a purpose when he's told that he's the father of a child whose mother has just died. He never knew, but he'll head down to Mexico to find out. The majority of the film takes place around Bedford Flats, a small town just north of the border.

The lead character of a film like this would normally be seen as our hero, which makes his identification as an alcoholic an interesting one. This is deceptively deep, even if that depth can be ignored and the film watched as a straight action flick just as successfully. The script is excellent, with some cool twists, imaginative deaths and a particularly dark sense of irony. The ending, especially, is guaranteed to generate audience reaction.

Block 6: Lake Bodom (2016)
On to the showcase features and this Finnish picture sounded absolutely fascinating but couldn't live up to its billing. There's perhaps 25 minutes of story here that's stretched into 85 and that's just not enough. It would make a much better short film than a feature.

Lake Bodom is a real place in Finland and it's where a real set of murders happened in 1960. Four teenagers camping on the shore were attacked and three killed. The fourth, who was wounded, was charged with the murders almost half a century later but was acquitted of all charges.

This fictional film is inspired by that event, as freaky Atte is obsessed by them. He conspires to visit the site of the murders and mount a reenactment to test a theory he has about the killer. He invites a friend and two girls of the same height and weight, even providing clothing to match the original victims. Of course, this isn't a great idea and people start to die.

While this sounds like a slasher, it really isn't and the directions taken are all interesting ones. The problem is that we needed less talk about the background and more development of the who and the what and the why. As it is, we're left with a lot of scenes where nothing happens, a lot of scenes that unfold far too slowly and a lot of scenes that scream out for better explanation. If only it had been a short.

Block 7: The Transfiguration (2016)
This showcase feature, the debut of Michael O'Shea, must be the most boring film I've ever been fascinated by. It's certainly not for everyone, but I didn't see people walking out, even as it dragged on for what seemed like much longer than its hour and half running time. How many scenes do we see of young Milo walking, young Milo sitting down or young Milo not talking to someone.

However, I'm pretty sure that, even had this been the first film I watched today, rather than the last, I'd still have been thinking about it on the way home. I was rivetted by what was happening and where it was going, even as the individual scenes were generally pedestrian, boring and forgettable. I have to praise the guts of O'Shea to take so many unusual directions with the film and thoroughly look forward to writing a detailed review.

The lead is an African American teenager called Milo, who is a psychopath obsessed with vampires. He's in mandatory therapy because of a history of doing things he shouldn't to animals but his therapist doesn't know that he's past that now; he's killing grown men and drinking their blood. He's hardly your usual lead and Sophie is hardly your usual love interest.

What makes Milo most fascinating is that he's the only character in the entire movie to ask real questions about who he is and what he can be. He may not have emotions or social skills but he has a fascinating and that makes him fascinating. Everyone else lives in a self-confined space and refuses to stretch their boundaries, so their importance lies entirely in how they interact with him.

This is a truly deep film and I may still be thinking about it when we get to next Thursday and the festival ends.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Interview with Monte Yazzie

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that I got bitten by the film festival bug long ago. I attend a bunch, I screen for some and I judge for some. I even run my own film festival now. And it all started in 2007 when I took my better half to the Harkins Centerpoint in Tempe for the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival or IHSFFF.

Even though we were simple attendees who had no idea how the event worked, we were made immediately welcome by Brian Pulido, the festival's co-founder with Chris Lamont. We see Brian a lot at events nowadays, usually at his Lady Death booth, but conversation always tends to come back to IHSFFF, because it's still as close to his heart as it is to ours. We have grown with IHSFFF and it's still our favourite film festival to attend.

Another former simple attendee is Monte Yazzie, who has attended the full festival a year longer than me. I asked him what he remembered about 2006 and he replied: 'The happiness I felt being around people who loved what I loved. It's exhilarating to have that feeling.' Since then, Monte has worked his way up the ladder to his current position as IHSFFF Festival Director.

With the 2017 event beginning on Friday, I threw some questions over to Monte to determine what we can look forward to this year and some of what goes on behind the scenes. I thought I'd start out with some basic ones, to get anyone without a background in this festival up to speed.

HCFA: Who are the people making decisions at IHSFFF nowadays?

MY: We have an exceptional group of experts, and that is the best way to describe them, programming within IHSFF. Danny Marianino is the Horror Shorts Programmer and he has coordinated another exceptional group of films that will play in two programs during the festival this year. Brandon Kinchen is the Horror Features Programmer; Brandon always finds something that completely catches me off guard. Michael Stackpole is the Sci-Fi Programmer; he does both the feature and short programs. Michael is a talented guy who has a keen eye for good science fiction stories. These three guys have been programing for a long time with the festival; we are lucky to have their expertise guiding and influencing the festival every year.

HCFA: Are there any guests expected?

MY: We like to tell people that PFF and IHSFFF strives to be a “director friendly” festival. We want these filmmakers here, showcasing their unique and creative visions with us. With that said, we typically have someone present from all our competition films. This is a great opportunity to get a “behind the scenes” perspective from the people making these movies.

HCFA: Is there one film that we shouldn't miss?

MY: I always advise people to take a look at our competition program; you can always find something in the shorts program or competition features program that will surprise you. On the showcase side, we try to program a little something for every genre taste. You are bond to find something within our 11-program showcase.
Then I thought I'd dig a little deeper for some Monte Yazzie insight.

HCFA: With two years programming showcase features and one as the festival director, what's the biggest lesson that you've learned thus far?

MY: The way people consume cinema has changed drastically in the past few years. You can access anything off your smart phone now. Trying to find ways to compete with streaming services, video-on-demand and new methods of distribution from film companies is difficult. However, this has also been a blessing because advancements in technology mean there are more films being made. The structure of our festival accommodates these changes; with the assistance of PFF we are able to offer a world-class festival where local and independent filmmakers can have a stage to showcase their films.

HCFA:What's your proudest moment as the man in charge?

MY: The community. It’s all about the community for me. When someone comes up and tells me how much fun they have talking to other people at the festival or how they made new friends by coming to the festival, that's what really makes me happy. The added plus is that they find a new favorite film or they see something that they won’t soon forget.
HCFA: While your showcase features have always been agreeably varied, the average quality really leapt up in 2016 when you went solo on that. Is finding these films your superpower?

MY: I am a small piece of a very big puzzle. I am lucky to have such a supportive group of people within IHSFFF and PFF who offer suggestions or point me in directions of new and interesting films. I assume it helps that I am constantly watching films as well. It’s like that old saying, you got to know where you’ve been before you can know where you are going.

HCFA: Are there countries you've always wanted to have a stronger presence at IHSFFF?

MY: I love Asian and Spanish cinema; while we have had strong representation from those areas in the past, I always want more. This year we are lucky to have some quality films from Australia and the UK. The aspect of fear and the nature of science fiction is defined so uniquely in other cultures; that’s why international films are so interesting to me.
HCFA: Is there a way out in left field movie this year, to follow on from The Greasy Strangler in 2016? And are people asking for one?

MY: Haha. I have had no requests for another “Greasy Strangler”. However, that screening would probably be one of my favorite moments of recent years; seeing how that movie affected people in so many different ways was really interesting to me. The fact that a year has passed since we’ve showed that film and people still come up to me and ask about it is awesome. Good films should make you feel something; that’s one that will definitely make you feel something, whether you like it or not.

HCFA: I should add here that those affected by The Greasy Strangler may or may not be happy to know that its two stars, Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar, will be guests at Mad Monster Party in early May.

HCFA: Talking of scheduling, last year marked the very first time that an attendee could see every IHSFFF film (feature and short) during the festival. This year's event follows suit and even gives us options. That's much appreciated! How much work does that take?

MY: We are scheduling so many films and trying to accommodate as many options as possible so that everyone can see everything that we program. It’s difficult finding the spaces but we do our best to accommodate. Jason Carney is integral in this process; he has been programming this festival film puzzle for so long, it’s probably second nature to him now.
HCFA: As you know, I see the the IHSFFF's history in three year blocks: the Early Years when it was glad to be alive; the Indie Years when it went on the road; the Transition Years when it was eaten by the PFF; and the Pre-Teen Years, when it thought about growing up. This year is the beginning of a new three year block. So, beyond the Monte Years, what do you hope that IHSFFF will be known for from 2017-2019?

MY: This festival means so much to me. I started as a fan, sitting in the audience next to like-minded film festival fans. Being in the position that I am in comes with a huge responsibility to continue to grow this festival into an event that brings a community of genre film fans together to experience the power of films together. But also to nurture an environment that provides filmmakers a place to showcase their visions to a group of eager, enthusiastic cinephiles.

Thanks, Monte! The International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival is part of the Phoenix Film Festival nowadays.

The latter opens on Thursday this week (6th April) and the horror/sci-fi side kicks in on Friday. It runs through the weekend with three full days, then continues on with a couple of showcase features each evening until Thursday 14th until the Phoenix Film Festival wraps things up with a closing night film.

Monte will be there. I'll be there. I hope you will too!