For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about.
Day one wasn’t that great. Day two was a lot better. But day three? Best day of the festival, with solid film after solid film, and my personal pick for Best of Fest.
One thing I’ve always loved about CFF is the fact that Saturday morning always holds a family-friendly free screening that’s both in keeping with the film fest sensibilities and yet wholly appropriate for young audiences. That’s led to some great watches in years past, including Song of the Sea, Ernest and Celestine, and My Life as a Zucchini, all of which married lush/imaginative animation with rich storytelling and surprising amounts of depth and heart.
This year’s selection, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales, wasn’t quite as heavy on the heart and emotion. What it more than made up for that with, though, was its anarchic, absurdist streak of humor, lending a much needed comedic break to the film festival’s otherwise very dark offerings. A trio of tales put on as “plays” by the inhabitants of a barnyard, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is about nothing so much as it’s about rampant silliness and ridiculousness – and that’s far from a bad thing. One tale involves some animals attempting to deliver a stork’s neglected charge to its family; the second, a fox that ends up raising some baby chickens in the hopes of turning them into dinner one day; the third, meanwhile, finds our cast from the first story attempting to play Santa Claus for the year. In all three cases, there’s a little bit of sweetness at the core, but largely, all three mainly function as joke delivery systems. Luckily, they more than succeed, leaving me cracking up and thinking about how much my two kids will love this one when they get a chance to see it. Rating: ****
One of the great joys of horror and exploitation film over the decades is the way that it’s allowed films to take the side of the marginalized and the victimized in the guise of “revenge” or horror films. Sometimes that comes in the form of films made by the oppressed; sometimes, it’s filmmakers smuggling in the subtext; but whatever the case, it allows for a richness to the films that gives them an added punch. Such in the case with Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk, which takes place during the War of 1812 and follows a small group of Mohawk tribespeople caught between the British and the Americans. The British are attempting to arm the Mohawks and encourage them to fight the Americans; meanwhile, Manifest Destiny seems to be in full swing just under the surface of the colonial soldiers.
Mohawk feels like a film made in our modern era – there’s a lot of anger under its surface at how we treated the indigenous people of the land, of how white men treat everyone who’s not a white man, and how the fight for our own survival can tear apart our lives. It’s more of a thriller than an all-out horror film – though it comes close, especially in the great final act – but more than that, it’s a generally tense and intense affair. Geoghegan generally uses his low budget well, losing the viewer in the sprawling and unfelled forests and mining that lack of civilization for all the uncertainty he can. And when Mohawk gets violent – and it does – there’s no escaping the way that Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix are mining America’s fraught racial history – and present – for material. It’s an angry, nasty film, and there’s no denying that it lays it on a little thick at times (I honestly did think a character might say that we could “make this land great again,” but it never does happen). But sometimes, a bit of cathartic anger – and some historical revisionism – can make for a satisfying time at the movies. Rating: ****
The only real problem I have about The Endless, the latest film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (the duo behind Resolution and Spring, both of which I want to see but haven’t), is that it’s incredibly hard to describe, because you should really go into it as cold as possible. So all I’ll say is that The Endless is the story of two brothers (Benson and Moorhead) who, when they were much younger, escaped from what they describe as “a UFO death cult”. But now it’s years later, and they’re both in dead-end jobs, and the youngest brother, Aaron, asks if they can go back, just for a day. After all, he says, they never did kill themselves or anything. And maybe it would help him get out of this slump, and feel better about the choice they made to leave.
And so, they go back. And then things get…well…
Look: plain and simple, The Endless was my favorite film of Chattanooga Film Fest 2018, and it’s not even a contest. Part sibling relationship drama, part indie-feeling comedy, part suspense tale, part Lovecraft-inspired horror story, The Endless is completely wild in every imaginable way – it’s the kind of film that you could never be prepared for where it’s going to take you if I gave you hours to take your guesses. But what’s all the more remarkable is how well it handles all of the various genres above and more, shifting between them effortlessly – and sometimes, even within the same season. Low-key banter gives way to unease; horror gives way to heartfelt moments; quiet drama gives way to the utterly alien. And somehow, a) it all works incredibly well, b) it’s filmed beautifully, and c) it’s incredibly acted, grounding the story in the characters and their relationships, even as it gets wilder and wilder.
The Endless is the kind of movie that keeps me coming back to the movies year after year, because I always hope to find something like this waiting for me. Never playing it safe, never following any easy rules, never falling into the slightest chance of being predictable, The Endless glides in and out of every genre effortlessly, but somehow does it all while telling an honest, heartfelt, and strong story about siblings and how they so often work to help – and harm – each other’s lives. I loved every second of it, and can’t wait to start hearing from the many, many people I’m going to make watch it. Rating: *****
Filmed in black and white that feels like it’s being used to cover up the low budget, often coming across like it’s little more than a talky play turned into a claustrophobic film, sometimes relying on cheap CGI that turns the movie into a bad FMV game from the 90’s – to put it simply, there are all kinds of reasons that The Laplace’s Demon shouldn’t work. A low budget Italian thriller that feels a bit like a Twilight Zone episode or Philip K. Dick novel turned into a movie, The Laplace’s Demon is about a team of researchers who’ve been working on predictive software – that is, software that can help to predict even the most chaotic of variables in any situation. But when they’re called to a small, isolated island to meet with a mysterious professor, the team begins to realize that they’re being used as pawns in an experiment themselves – one with much farther reaching implications than they would have guessed.
The movie I found myself thinking of often as I watched The Laplace’s Demon was The Man from Earth, another film that’s more successful because of its ideas and conversations than it is for its filmic qualities. Mind you, Laplace has some great visual moments that I loved, and its black and white noir style is pretty great, but there’s no way that what you remember about this film is the way it’s made. No, what makes Laplace so gripping is the conversations it follows – about free will, about mathematics, about the nature of the universe and our choices, about whether we have any true agency in the world. Laplace is one of those films that truly finds itself in conversations like this, and enjoys letting its characters be intelligent and speak intelligently, expecting that that’s enough for the audience. And while there are some thriller elements in there, this is definitely a film of ideas, for better or for worse; what’s gripping about it is not necessarily how it’s being told, but what it’s telling. Is it a great movie? Definitely not. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting or fascinating to watch play out, even if you wish it was more of a movie in the process. Rating: *** ½
I’ll admit that, by the time I saw Let the Corpses Tan, it was very late at night on the third day straight of watching movies, and I was more than a little tired. And I definitely spent a little bit of the film’s running time fading in and out of sleep. That all being said, in some ways, I can’t help but think that that’s the best way to see Corpses – a little tired, a little bit out of it, and just able to soak in the film’s glorious visuals and atmosphere and not worry about that pesky plot – because, trust me, I’m not sure filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani worried about it at all. In theory, Let the Corpses Tan is the story of a criminal gang hanging out at a abandoned Mediterranean hamlet as they prep for a gold heist. But not long after the heist, the gang finds themselves in a violent shootout back at the house when the cops show up. And then…well, no. That’s really it, in terms of plot, because Corpses isn’t that concerned with what’s happening; it’s concerned with how stylish it can make it all look.
And my god, does it ever look stylish and then some. The closest I can come to conveying what Corpses looks like is that if you imagined someone threw Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and pretty much every iconic Italian genre director into a blender, you might get something like this. There’s not a shot that’s not calibrated for maximum “cool” – from slow motion to color correction, from Morricone-style music to saturated palettes, Cattet and Forzani are incapable of just giving you a standard medium shot – not when they can go showy.
And, look, there’s no denying: it looks incredible. But it’s all style and basically no substance, and at a certain point, it definitely begins to drag and leave you feeling the empty calories. It looks amazing, but I can’t help but feel that Corpses is one of those movies that would be best served playing without sound on the screens in a trendy club, whether the visuals could be their own attraction. Yes, I may have been drifting off a bit, but honestly, I don’t think I was missing anything along the way – apart from more astonishing visuals. Rating: ***
Also on Day Three: I have yet to read Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, in which the horror author gives an overview of the horror boom of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, as well as the lurid pulp covers of the period. What I have done, though, is gotten to see Hendrix’s presentation form of the book, which is an absolute treat – it’s funny, engaging, wildly silly, and also done with a lot of love for the era. Hendrix’s presentation follows the horror boom from the big three books that kicked it off – The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other – and follows it through the folding of some of the big horror publishers. But rather than giving a dry recapping of publishers and business, he covers Nazi leprechauns, the horrors of self-pleasing women, vermin storms in England, and so much more. I had a blast with it – I laughed throughout the entire thing, but also came away impressed with Hendrix’s affection and knowledge. Highly recommended if you get a chance; in the meantime, Hendrix’s fiction and Paperbacks have moved quickly up my “to read” list.