Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Horrorfest: Old-Fashioned Fun and Frolic

Horrorfest--Eight Films to Die For hit multiplexes last weekend, and if you're among the throngs who regularly peruse this Blog (I have officially decided that six or more people qualifies as a throng), my attendance of said Fest should surprise you naught.

Limits in funds and time prohibited a Full Monty of all eight movies offered, but I did manage to do a Horrorfest Triple Bill last Saturday night. Two enthusiastic co-conspirators joined me, and damned if a good time wasn't had by all.

It's hard not to root for the success of Horrorfest's distribution company, After Dark Films, on principle alone. This independent company's roadshow-style marketing strategy hearkens back to a time before corporate megaliths and big studios exacted their death-grips on multiplexes, when true indies could still sneak entertaining B flicks of all stripes into theaters all over the country.

Seeing movies in a theater or (gasp) drive-in in the seventies and early eighties was often the movie equivalent of Russian Roulette: It made walking into a theater a gamble and an adventure. After Dark brought back that feeling for a weekend, and I hope that youngsters take to this type of moviegoing experience as much as this old geezer did. But enough blathering reminiscince. Were the movies worth the effort? Hell, yeah. For different reasons.

I wouldn't call any of the movies we saw a classic, but The Abandoned (the first feature of our Triple Terror Bill) came surprisingly close. Directed by Nacho Cerda (helmsman of a couple of acclaimed/notorious short films), it follows forty-something American Marie (Anastasia Hille) as she journeys back to her birth land of Russia to tend to some inherited property--and learn more about her childhood in the process. Soon she's marooned at an old house on her land, meets her long-lost Russian brother Nicolai (Karel Roden), and gets hurled into a nightmare universe that's equal parts Carnival of Souls, The Blair Witch Project, and The Evil Dead.

After a tense, rapid-fire pre-credits scene, The Abandoned builds its suspense with deliberate purpose, exploring the large dilapidated house of Marie's birth at the same, almost-languid pace that she does. The tempo almost feels a bit too leisurely at first, but it's a good strategy in the long run, allowing Marie's disorientation and gradually mounting fear to seep into the viewer pretty effectively. By the time she and Nicolai start seeing creepily-familiar walking corpses treading the hallways of this old house, the hooks are in.

This is also one movie that greatly benefits from viewing on a big screen. Cerda shot on location in Bulgaria, and in addition to being (I'm sure) an economic locale, the country's austere yet alien beauty--and the deserted building in which most of the movie takes place--surround and envelop the viewer as The Abandoned progresses. It's incredibly refreshing to see a normal looking middle-aged woman at the center of this vortex, too (Hille, vulnerable but never annoyingly so, displays some of the rough-around-the-edges charm of Christine Lahti).

Cerda twists The Abandoned's final few moments like pretzel dough, with different realities folding, one on top of the other, in an attempt to keep the ending surprising. The approach (mostly) works. I liked this little chiller a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Penny Dreadful, on the other hand, eschews subtlety for the kind of entertainingly dumb thrills worthy of a vintage drive-in schlocker. Penny (Rachel Miner), a college freshman, goes on a drive up the mountains with her psychotherapist (Mimi Rogers)to face up to her fear of automobiles (her parents, it seems, died next to her in the family car after a nasty auto crash). Mimi ends up hitting a hitchhiker, who turns out to be one bad homicidal cannibal hombre.

The writing, put bluntly, stinks, with characters doing Dumb Movie Character Things with mind-numbing frequency. Bob Suh, one of my Partners in Triple Feature Crime, noted that not one, not two, but three different characters trip over a rock at various times during the movie's run time (it's always while Cannibal Killer Guy's pursuing them, too). And you know you're not dealing with Paddy Chayefsky when you find yourself chanting, "It's not funny anymore," only to have a character utter those exact same cliche words exactly twenty seconds later. Rogers' shrink character, meanwhile, could be an incisive commentary on the stereotypical ineffectual touchy-feely new age healer, but I somehow doubt it.

Despite (or maybe because of) all of this, Penny Dreadful makes for a very entertaining timekiller. Even at its dopiest, it never bores, and the setup director Richard Brandes employs to notch up the suspense (Penny basically ends up imprisoned in a car for most of the movie's running time) is as effective as it is far-fetched. Miner does a solid job in the lead, somehow managing to not be annoying despite doing many Dumb Movie Character Things. And it's genetically impossible for me to harbor too much ill will towards any movie which features veteran Hills Have Eyes scary guy Michael Berryman as a gas station attendant.

Somehow the fates placed the weirdest movie as the last on our little triple feature. And that movie, The Gravedancers, earns the hoary old email euphemism "WTF?" more richly than anything I've seen in a long time.

Three twenty-something former college chums (one of whom is played by Dominic Purcell of Prison Break fame) dance on some graves after the funeral of their fourth fallen buddy. The three desecrated burial sites, it seems, house the corpses of three different psychotic killers, who will haunt each of the survivors until the next full moon. The curse can only be broken when each of the luckless post-grads dies, and each spectre is determined to bring down their respective hauntee in some imaginatively gruesome way.

The Gravedancers starts out as an underwhelming, exposition-laden little wet fart of a ghost story, then radically shifts gears about a third of the way through, when paranormal investigator Vincent Cochet (Tcheky Karyo) steps in and the ghosts start to get extra-cranky. The dialogue goes from clunkily expositional to over-the-top snarky, and then director Mike Mendez suddenly has the closest thing to a cinematic panic attack that I've seen in a modern horror movie, spastically pulling anything--EVERYTHING--he can out of his ass to keep the audience jumping.

All of the principals end up entrenched in Cochet's research center, the outside fence wraps itself around the building (sealing everybody in), and then the ghosts begin burning, ax-hacking, levitating, and otherwise pummelling their victims. Things get as out-of-control as a sugar-stoked kid riding his Schwinn down Mount Everest, with the survivors eventually piling into a Hummer and tearing through six layers of a building with a giant cackling ghost head in hot pursuit. So, yes, somehow the movie morphs into (as my third Triple Feature Co-hort Bob Bohan eloquently stated) Poltergeist as produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Bob, Bob and I are still trying to figure out what Mendez and company were up to here. Was all of this anarchy intentional? Did everyone just get bored with the flaccid script midway through? Or was the whole French Ghost Connection in a Humvee climax just spastic desperation? I left The Gravedancers slack-jawed, scratching my head, utterly dazed, yet somehow entertained. Any movie that elicits that kind of reaction outta me has done something special--even if it's own makers don't appear to know what the hell that was any more than I do.

No comments: