I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and lived there until I left for college. And while I loved – and still really like Chattanooga a lot – one of the things I found about Nashville was that it had a much richer, deeper film scene, thanks in no small part to places like the Belcourt (as well as the more indie screenings at Green Hills). But in the past three years, my hometown has started holding its own, thanks in no small part to the amazing, wonderful Chattanooga Film Festival.
Started in 2014, the Film Festival has always stood out from many of its ilk by being less snobby and more devoted to wonderfully weird, offbeat genre fare. Over the past two years, I’ve seen everything from the premiere of The Raid 2 to the low-budget claustrophobic mind games of Coherence; from the bizarre Borgman (half home-invasion film, half supernatural thriller) to the gleefully optimistic documentary I Am Thor (about the 80’s metal rocker); from the gleefully blood-splattered love letter to film Why Don’t You Play in Film? to the charming animated family film Ernest and Celestine. In other words, the selections are diverse, engaging, exciting, and wonderfully accessible.
This year, I’m getting to attend all four days of the festival again (I couldn’t attend much last year due to timing issues). Over the course of those days, I plan on seeing a huge number of films – somewhere between 15 and 17, all told – and as a result of seeing so many, I plan on mainly doing short capsule reviews (like I used to do on the old website) instead of longer pieces.
So, let’s jump right into day one, which kicked off with The Wraith, a cult favorite from 1986. It’s an unusual film to play at a film festival, but it gives you a sense of the taste behind the Chattanooga Film Fest – more driven by what the organizers love than any particular demand. Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that The Wraith screening came accompanied by a guest appearance and Q&A by Clint Howard, who introduced the film and gave a brief talk afterward. Trying to describe the film is a bit of a fool’s errand; as Howard explained afterward, the crew all hoped they were making a contemporary youth film. How that translated to “a film about a gang of cartoonishly evil gearheads who are pursued by a sort-of malevolent figure in a series of badly-filmed car chases” is anyone’s guess, but the end result is one of the most gloriously 80’s films I’ve ever seen. There’s not a scene without some great synthesizer lines and pop/rock ballads of the era, the fashions are every bit what you’d hope for, and so on. The film itself is a lot of fun; it’s certainly not a good movie in any sense of the word (the writing is hilariously bad, the performances by the villains could charitably be called “over the top”, the car chases badly filmed), but it’s wonderfully odd and offbeat, and is filled with so many strange elements that it’s hard not to enjoy the whole thing. And Howard’s Q&A was worth the price of admission anyway, with a thoughtful take on what it’s like to come back to something like this and have people laughing at it. (Short version: “It’s odd, yeah…but in the end, people are being entertained. And who am I to judge why people like a movie? I mean, it’s a job, through and through.”) Rating: *** for quality, ***** for entertainment value
Next up brought Bad Blood, a world premiere of an indie creature feature that I had a blast with. Bad Blood is a low-budget film, to put it mildly; the director introduced the film by saying that he had originally planned to do a werewolf film, but when they realized they didn’t have money to do that, they did a were-frog film instead. The end result is a really fun B-movie, one that has a good sense of humor about itself without ever being annoyingly self-aware or too tongue-in-cheek. More than that, it looks pretty great; director Tim Reis has a nice sense of style, and he uses his budget well here, delivering a great monster, some solid jumps, and a clever plot that I enjoyed quite a bit. There’s not much depth here, despite some nods at connecting werewolf mythology to drug addiction, but really, that’s okay. The performances are allowed to be fun, with a delusionally violent private detective who’s tracking a missing teenage girl, a hilariously mean stepfather, and a wonderful brief role by our heroine’s young brother, who became a crowd favorite really quickly. It’s a creature feature, make no mistake about it, but it’s a really fun one that I had a blast with, and the crowd seemed to really enjoy. Rating: ****
As for our last film of the day, Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter (which was originally titled February), it’s worth noting that it started almost an hour late. That’s not a knock on the festival or the theater – they handled the delay beautifully, keeping us posted, bringing in water, answering questions, and just being great about the whole thing. (Digital projection passwords were the problem, of course.) No, I only mention it because the delay meant that we ended up seeing this pretty late at night, and I can’t help but feel the late hour affected how much we ended up enjoying the film. February is an odd film; it’s ultimately an incredibly schlocky story (all but a slasher), but one that’s gussied up in the trappings of something more arthouse and elegant. The result is a weirdly divided film; it’s full of long takes, quiet dialogue, fractured chronology, and a beautiful style that results in a subdued, uneasy mood that kept me tense. On the other hand, the story is fairly ludicrous and ultimately more than a bit unsatisfying; by the time you piece it all together, you realize that there’s just not much substance to what you’re seeing beyond “a girl at a boarding school goes crazy”. That’s not inherently a bad thing, mind you, but it feels a bit like the film is a bit ashamed of its pulpy content and wants to make it something more. (Of course, the director is Anthony Perkins’ son, so if there was ever a link to “pulp made arty,” well, there you go.) There are some solid scares and some genuinely unnerving images throughout, but it all ultimately feels like a bit of style that’s severely overcompensating and lacking substance. But man, that style is pretty great. Rating: ***
All in all, not a bad start to the festival – two movies I thoroughly enjoyed, and one that had its moments. Tomorrow brings an Iranian protest film, a secret screening, an extreme Turkish horror experience, and more.