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.

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