For the past few years I have made it a point to go to the Phoenix Film Festival. Over the course of 3 days (of the 6 days it actually runs) I drive up to Scottsdale and watch at least 6 films. I plan things as smoothly as I can hitting up as many as I can with as little downtime in between. Certainly more work goes into planning this than, well, anytime I’m actually at work. And like clockwork my family looks at me like I’m insane. “Isn’t that too many movies?” “Can you sit that long?” “Isn’t that exhausting?” Shortly followed by looking at my fiancé with a look somewhere between “I’m so sorry” and “This is crazy, right?” They seem absolutely bewildered that I do the whole thing. Then come the questions of what I am seeing. This is probably the hardest part for me. I usually get bewildered looks when I say “I’m seeing an Iranian ghost movie” or “This movie directed by Ben Wheatley. You don’t know him but I assure you he’s an awesome director.” At a certain point it becomes a futile effort and I change the subject, praying it doesn’t go into politics. Still I know that as awkward as that gets it’s just a prelude to the fun time I’ll have at the Phoenix Film Festival.
Well it’s that time of year again and I am just as hyped as I’ve ever been. With the time off work set and my schedule cleared (as if it needed to be) I am eagerly awaiting the weekend. I’m not all that religious but to put it in the most pretentious way I can the movie theater is my church. A place where I can just be myself, feel comfortable and take in one of the more important facets of my life, cinema. This past weekend, well it was my Christmas. Yeah, that seemed pretentious enough. Anyway here it is, my review of the 2016 Phoenix Film Festival/International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival.
Under The Shadow
Despite not being the biggest of festivals (it’s not exactly Cannes) the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival side of things gets some surprisingly big movies. On my first night at the festival it was the Sundance hit Under the Shadow. An Iranian film it is a supernatural film taking place during the Iran-Iraq war. It deals with the struggles mother has to protect her daughter from a djinn and the rising tensions surrounding them. While a horror film at heart with some decent CGI it actually makes for a fascinating character study. Actress Narges Rashidi is great in her role. Watching her try to navigate a post-revolution Tehran is just as interesting and intense as the malicious spirit haunting her. Scenes like Shideh (our lead) having to save a dying neighbor while a bomb literally hangs above her head are absolute nail biters.
That said at Under the Shadow is a horror film at the end of the day. Like The Witch from earlier this year most of the scares come from the atmosphere more than anything else. The film’s ability to build dread is second to none. We get so much out of quick glimpses of the djinn in a doorway or a veil just outside the window. I know that Netflix has acquired the rights to air it and you should definitely see it when it comes out. I have to say it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the weekend.
Originally this spot was going to be filled by Indonesian evil clown film Badoet. Unfortunately this was cancelled at the last minute. So needing to make a quick change I decided on Dead Body. A mix of murder mystery and slasher it sounded like a solid, if unoriginal, film. It had a good review from Fangoria so it seemed like a solid pick. Well, Fangoria was wrong. The film is indie in every way. The acting is pretty bad with everyone coming off very wooden. The thing his it doesn’t hit the fun level of bad. It doesn’t help that the writing is pretty standard fare with nobody being much more than tired clichés. The only time it elevates beyond that is when our slasher is revealed and they go into full-on overacting mode. It was the kind of performance bad movie fans dream of. Now for a slasher movie all of this would be fine. I don’t need a low budget masked killer movie to be an acting clinic. What I do need is the ability to see what’s going on. This may be the fault of a bad copy or the theater’s projectors but the whole thing was ridiculously dark. This is particularly bad when the majority of the film takes place at night outside. If it weren’t for the, admittedly good, sound design I would have no clue what was going on. A shame because from what I did see the effects were good for a low budget feature. I can’t say this is the worst slasher movie I’ve seen but being able to see it to begin with would have been nice.
Night of Something Strange
Night of Something Strange is an appropriate title for the movie. I mean what do you say about a horror-comedy that revolves around the virus spreading like an STD? Admittedly I always have a hard time judging horror-comedies. Comedy is very subjective and I prefer more absurdist, off-beat comedy than anything else. Think more Comedy Bang! Bang! than Billy Madison. Which is all lead up to say that the gross out comedy of Night of Something Strange didn’t work for me. Think a more comedic version of the comic Crossed. It just isn’t my jam. With that said it did seem to land with the audience more often than not so clearly something is being done right. What I did like though were the special effects. From the makeup for the infected (reminiscent of Night of the Creeps) to whatever gnarly gag they did it all looked good. As I said this movie isn’t necessarily for me and that’s absolutely fine. I am okay with that because it delivers when it comes to the practical effects and clearly has an audience. It is definitely more for 13-year old me and there is nothing wrong with that.
The Dark Tapes
Since the success of V/H/S anthology films have been the in vogue thing to do. This resurgence of the genre seen multiple imitators to mixed results. Keeping that in mind I tried to keep my expectations in check for The Dark Tapes. To my surprise I actually ended up enjoying the film. Despite its lower budget ($30,000 to be exact) first time director Michael McQuown does a solid job masking this with some creative editing. Aside from some questionable costumes for the most part the effects worked. What really made me like this movie was the originality of some of the segments. Starting off fairly typical early on each of them took some cool, SciFi-ish turns. I’m honestly surprised and impressed that it subverted my expectations so much. The director compared it to The Twilight Zone and it is pretty accurate. Now I don’t think it will become an instant classic or anything like that. There are definitely some rough edges that can’t be ignored. But for a first time director in an already over saturated genre, it’s definitely worth a shot.
The other big get for the festival was High-Rise. Directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List) this science fiction film shows a massive building’s societal and moral corrosion in 70s London. What sticks out the most is how amazing it all looks. Wheatley does a great job going from bright to dark as society starts to crumble. It especially sticks out in scenes that show the brutal, tribal lower levels and how they compare to the debauchery happening on the top floor. Despite this the whole thing felt, for lack of a better term, basic. Society falling due to class warfare is nothing new in science fiction and it feels almost quaint when we have movies like Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road. I realize it is based on a book from the 70’s but it’s lessons feel antiquated in 2016. I also feel like things could have been explained a bit better. Not that it was hard to understand but I’m not quite sure if montage was the best way to go. Despite these flaws I did enjoy High-Rise. With some great directing and magnetic performances it was a uniquely British film that we rarely get in the states. While not for everyone I can easily see this becoming the next big cult classic.
Horror Shorts A
Gotcher More of a comedy than straight horror Gotcher does the one thing I want out of a horror-comedy short, make its joke and ends. With a clever joke and some decent effects it all works out. C+
Ideal On the surface Ideal should be great. With a unique story, solid effects and even some social commentary Ideal should be a hit. But for whatever reason it just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it was the length, maybe I’m not who needs to hear this message but I just wasn’t the biggest fan. C
Blight Religious horror is tough to pull off with me. I’m the douche who goes “The Exorcist is just alright.” Despite this I dug Blight. A typical exorcism story good production values and a fun twist made the whole thing worked. Worth seeing if you can find it. B
The Man Who Loved Flowers Sometimes a single thing can be a major detriment to a short. Based on the Stephen King short this works for the most part. I dig the look and it captures the pleasant suburbia tone it wants. Then comes the kill and, more specifically, the sound effect to the kill. It sounded so puny. Like a light pop with little impact. I know it sounds silly judge solely on that but it took me out of the whole thing. C
A Way Out More of a mob drama A Way Out was alright. It dealt with some typical mob movie tropes. It wasn’t bad for what it was but you have seen it better done elsewhere. That and the whole “not horror” thing. C
The Smiling Man The most straight forward of the lot it is one of the best of Horror Shorts A. A straight up horror short it works mainly due to the performance of “Strange Dave.” He brought the whole thing a creepiness the other shorts didn’t have. Add some good directing and it’s something worth going out of your way to see. B+
Deathly This is well made and acted. A fairly basic ghost revenge and I am cool with that. What got me is that they cast Alan Ruck aka Cameron from Ferris Bueller. It may be my own deal but I just couldn’t get past that. All I heard in my head was “Ferris Bueller you’re my hero.” Then thought of the theory that Ferris us fake and maybe that day led to Cameron being the awful husband portrayed here. It may be on me but this was way to distracting for me to properly watch. C+
Yummy Meat: A Halloween Carol A fun little werewolf short. Nothing too special. It kills one of those douches that gives out toothbrushes for Halloween but I can’t say it stood out from the pack. C
Welcome to the Party A fun idea following a group of hipsters. Of all the shorts I found this the most interesting visually. Told through flashback we switch between the Hollywood hills and a birthday party the night before. It reminded me, of all things, recent Nicholas Winding Refn films like Drive and Only God Forgives. I would say it’s my other favorite of this block of shorts and definitely worth checking out if you get the chance. B+
Horror Shorts B
A Tricky Treat A fun twist on the jack o’lantern tradition A Tricky Treat benefits from endearing practical effects. While not the most realistic has an old horror effects look to it. Definitely a fun short with a neat twist. B
Night of the Slasher I’m a sucker for a good satire of slasher films; have been since Scream. In my opinion Night of the Slasher is a good example of the slasher satire done right. It covers the broad themes like the “horror movie sins” but also got the little things perfectly. Things like the killer being invincible and being able to appear at random are covered. And it may just be me but the killer having a white Spock mask was a gag that really worked for me. It wasn’t really scary or too original but it accomplished everything it wanted to. Something I can’t say all the shorts do. A (and my favorite short)
Miriam An Italian vampire short I thought it was okay. It hinged on its twist and, in all honesty, it was a bit obvious. I was more enchanted by how it looked and its use of Italy’s streets. It added something others shorts didn’t have. Besides that though I can’t say it stuck out. C
The Voodoo Dick A possessed dildo and questionable depictions of mystical Asians. It was funny, I guess, but it was pretty one note. It really had no right to be longer than 5 minutes. C-
Larry Gone Demon Roommates from Hell is hardly new. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw something similar before. And yet this oddly worked for me. Having it feature metal heads was funny but what stuck out to me were the effects. Like A Tricky Treat while they didn’t look the most convincing it was endearingly cheap. It went a bit long but I thought it made for a decent horror-comedy. C+
Flush More a straight up comedy I enjoyed it quite a bit. Imagine Maximum Overdrive but with killer toilets. Instead of going straight up crass with its premise Flush plays it more like a slapstick comedy to it’s benefit. Add some surprisingly slick production and you have a short worth seeking out. B
Bad Blood I am of two minds on this. On the one hand there is quite a lot to dig about this. The whole thing is wonderfully shot with some great practical effects. Director Aleksandra Lagkueva’s visual style is a step above most of the shorts. I also dug the story quite a bit. The killer picking up someone they shouldn’t have is always fun. I just wish it were paced a bit better. It doesn’t need to be a 3 minutes but some shots ran a bit too long for my liking. Still a good effort and showed a lot of potential in the director. B-
Little Old Cat Lady from Rancho Cucamonga Can you tell from the title it is going to be wacky? Joking aside the whole thing has a low budget, Adult Swim aesthetic I dig. The humor uses this to its advantage. But, as I keep going back to, it felt too long. The SNL Laser Cat sketches are only a few minutes for a reason. C+
20 Matches Man I dug this quite a bit. With simply a narrator and a dark room it is quite effective. Bonus points for having a very atmospheric but subdued soundtrack. Unfortunately it didn’t have a payoff. I doesn’t need some wacky twist, heck that would ruin it a bit. But something would be nice. Still as a pseudo-true crime short I really dug it. B
The History of Time Travel
If there is one sub-genre that is terribly underutilized it is the mockumentary. Usually used for comedies and bad horror it is usually the best, and most creative, when given an alternate history premise. So imagine my surprise to see something called The History of Time Travel listed. A fake documentary for “History Television” I knew I had to see it and I’m glad I did. Instead of focusing on a complete history writer-director Ricky Kennedy smartly focuses on Dr. Edward Yarborough invention of time travel and how it effected his family. Playing things fairly straight forward things really start taking shape when the past is altered and the documentary itself changes. It spans little things like shirt colors to major historical events and even the film’s story changing; it’s an interesting and entertaining way of keeping the audience engaged. Even more importantly this version of time travel works. At no point did it not make sense or feel stupid ala Terminatory: Genisys. Overall a fun movie that is worth seeking out if you’re into this sort of thing.
And with that I ended my weekend at the 2016 Phoenix Film Festival. Overall it was a pretty good experience. When it comes to the horror and science fiction selection we got a pretty varied selection with only one bad movie (and even then I didn’t hate it). In all honesty this is probably the best of the four years I have gone and I can’t wait for next year.