SEE THESE FILMS OR DIE! (Buffalo Screams 2011 Edition - UPDATED!)
by, 12-26-2011 at 12:33 PM (2779 Views)
Back when I attended film school at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1982 – 1983, I had an excellent Film Theory instructor named Joan Braderman. Joan was fiery and political in class, and did an outstanding job getting brains obsessed with STAR WARS to think about the meaning of the films we watched. On the first day of class she told us that since we lived in NYC we should see every movie playing in theaters – twice! Over the last 30 years, but especially over the last 10, I’ve watched the devolution of American cinema with dismay, and I sought Joan out to see if she still felt people should see everything out there. Her response reaffirmed my faith that I’m not some film snob:
“DON'T DO IT!! A diet of current contemporary mall films would drive anyone one with 3 digits in his/her IQ--RIGHT AROUND THE BEND.”
The decline of any semblance of intelligence in contemporary mainstream moviemaking – children’s films aside – coincided with a long stretch in which I only saw a few movies a year because I was no longer managing a theater and had a child to raise (I’ve spent a good portion of my life managing theaters which specialize in indie fare). Fortunately, I helped found the Buffalo Screams Horror Film Festival with my partners Emil Novak and Chris Scioli, which has enabled me to watch more movies than ever, and more importantly, more good movies. Here are the standouts from 2012:
ABSENTIA: Written, directed, and edited by Mike Flanagan and starring Katie Parker. In a nutshell, when Callie (Parker) goes to stay with her sister Tricia (Courtney Bell), she grows suspicious the viaduct she runs through every day may some inter-dimensional portal. Monsters follow. ABSENTIA is sophisticated exercise in suspense, with a smart script, pitch perfect performances, and expert direction. If, like me, you have an aversion to CGI monsters, you may change your tune when the big bad bug in this film rears its ugly head (or does it?), because Flanagan’s outstanding editing comes as close as I’ve seen to a cinematic realization of Lovecraft’s unspeakable/indescribable beasties. The comment I heard most often about this film at Buffalo Screams was, “That was amazing, the best horror film I’ve seen in years!”
THE SUPER: Recently, no genre label has been more overused than the term “grindhouse,” but THE SUPER is the real deal, a film permeated with great NYC sleaze. Co-written and co-directed by Evan Makrogiannis and Brian Weaver, and produced and edited by Alex Lugones, the film stars Demetri Kallas as George Rossi, the titular super of an apartment building in Astoria, Queens (once home to Archie Bunker and yours truly). A Vietnam vet, George has more than a few demons lurking in his skull which can apparently only be appeased by depraved acts of murder. George finds a kindred spirit in Olga, a fellow killer who was abused in Russia. When George and Olga set their emotional baggage on the same rack, the violence quotient will make you wince… then slowly open one eye because you can’t stop watching. Kallas’s performance is nothing short of amazing; he makes George sympathetic and likable, like Tony Perkins as Norman Bates in PSYCHO; but Perkins originally enjoyed an advantage, because people didn’t know he was a crazed killer; by contrast, Makrogiannis and Weaver rub our faces in George’s actions, and Kallas still emerges as someone we care about. As Olga, Manoush delivers a performance that is at once terrifying, hilarious, comforting, and unsettling. When we showed this film at Buffalo Screams, our screening copy wouldn’t play, so Lugones treated us to an unedited version with 60 seconds of additional graphic mayhem and sex. My reaction to that cut is the same now as it was then: “Holy shit!’ The film also has great cinematography, which includes just possibly my favorite shots ever lensed in Times Square.
THE BLACK BOX: I usually don’t know what to expect when I pop a screener into my BluRay player, and I sure didn’t know what to expect from this sci-fi/horror hybrid written, directed, and edited by Texas filmmaker Jason Balas. And sometimes the less said about a storyline the better, to preserve the surprises. Briefly, during “the shut-in period,” when society has collapsed but the internet continues, a small group of people live a survivalist lifestyle in a nice house, among them Audrey (a fantastic Katie Lakin, who also co-produced), whose boyfriends have a habit of dying as surely as the drummers in THIS IS SPINAL TAP, and a garbage bag and gasmask clad stalker which might be a human killer, a cyborg, or a manifestation of Audrey’s psyche. The title refers to a black box installed in each individual, just like the flight recorders on aircraft. I made the mistake of watching this film late at night and kept falling asleep (through no fault of the film’s), and every time I woke up some new bizarre development played out before my eyes. I remember exclaiming several times, “What the fuck is this?” When it was over, not only did I immediately watch it again, but I woke my wife to watch it with me so I knew I really was seeing the things I thought I saw. In the 70s and 80s, this bold little flick would have been assured a place in cult film history. Now, it’s up to you to track it down at a film festival near you, and hopefully on DVD.
RAGE: Christopher Witherspoon wrote, directed, and edited this exciting thriller which is best summed up as “DUEL with a motorcycle,” a point which the triple talent acknowledges in his screenplay. Make that quadruple talent, since Witherspoon also pays the murderous and obsessive motorcycle rider who stalks hapless motorist Rick Crawford through the streets of Portland, Oregon for most of the film. If you think that the term “indie” denotes low budget production values, then you need to see this genuinely suspenseful film, which features several outstanding chase sequences. Witherspoon is a ferocious director and editor who needs to be discovered by the majors, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. The film also features some eye pleasing scenery, which I’m not used accustomed to in this genre.
COSAS FEAS (NASTY STUFF): This Mexican short is unlike any film I've seen before, and it's unlike any film you've seen before. Remember when Stephen King wrote that the future of horror was Clive Barker? I feel the same way about 25-year-old filmmaker Isaac Ezban, who created this masterpiece of sex and slime. A pubescent boy named Kriko (played by a daring Mijael Askenazi, who has very trusting parents) is terrified by his developing sexuality, which is complicated by the fact that he lives in a household of bizarre family members who always seem to be engaging in carnal activities. Poor Kriko has many questions to ask, and the answers are terrifying, revolting, and just plain amazing, involving some of the most graphic and "transformative" sex scenes I've ever seen in a genre film. Ezban handles the revelations with the skill of an experienced master, piling one "money shot" on top of another. This film proved so popular at Buffalo Screams that squeezed in an additional screening, and a filmmaker friend said to me, "The rest of us are just playing. Isaac is the real thing." Put this gem at the top of your list of films to seek out and enjoy.
THE TELL TALE HEART: Bart Mastronardi wrote and directed this stunning adaptation of my favorite Poe story, which is just one part of a larger anthology based on Edgar’s work. This version is updated to the 1930s, with the central roles rewritten as female characters. The framing device finds Debbie Rochon in an asylum, where she describes the circumstances that led to her confinement to Canadian murderess Evelyn Dick. We learn that she became the private nurse to an aging movie star played by Alan Rowe Kelly (who also edited to great effect). The remainder of the story plays out in a recognizable manner, with added flourishes of gore, but the film stands out for its location, set design, period make-up, and cinematography; Rochon gives the best performance yet in her career, and Mastronardi proves himself a major talent to watch.
AMBITION OF LOVE: Another short film. We have “More Than Horror” categories at Buffalo Screams which enable us to show cool films that don’t necessarily fit into the horror mold. Sometimes, as programmers, we just want to share good movies even when they’re not in our preferred genre. Christopher Zatta wrote and directed this excellent noir which is broken into five short segments, crams a full story into 20 minutes, and packs a punch. Adam Dunnells plays a former pugilist who’s now bodyguard to The Boss. He knows The Boss’s dame just wants to use him when she flashes her gams and bats her eyelashes at him, but he can’t help himself, with murderous results. The film is an authentic period piece approximation of James M. Cain, and reminded me just a little of Frank Miller’s SIN CITY comics before Miller went crazy and depicted every female character in his warped world as a dominatrix.
This wasn’t exactly intended as my “10 Best Films of 2011” list, but here are three mainstream titles to round out the package:
HUGO: Scorsese’s instant IMAX 3D classic that’s made George Melies cool again.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: I was an ape in Fouth grade, and this reboot warmed my chimpanzee heart.
X MEN: FIRST CLASS: No one is more sick of superhero films than me, but this one was smart and stylish.