Another day, another film festival worth checking out for genre movie lovers… and this time the fun and films are rolling in New York City as What the Fest!? Film Festival 2019 hits the IFC Center from March 20th-24th. It’s a small fest, but their enthusiasm is out-sized and pure as evident by the fun they have scheduled this year. There are fourteen films playing, and here’s part one of our look at the titles we’ve seen.
This year’s fest kicked off with the world premiere of Larry Fessenden’s Depraved. The legendary filmmaker (and eternally entertaining actor) hadn’t directed a feature since 2013’s Beneath, and while he’s touched on the Frankenstein story previously (1991’s No Telling) it’s exciting to see what him tackle it with a more closely aligned narrative. [Jacob Trussell’s review of Depraved.]
Emma Tammi’s moody and atmospheric The Wind played as well, and it’s another gem worth seeking out. The film blends horror and the western to strong effect as it drops viewers into a growing nightmare on a vast and oppressive prairie landscape. In addition to being written/directed by a woman the focus is also aimed at the female experience as isolation, loss, and possible madness swirl into a dark and deadly face-off. [Matthew Monagle’s review of The Wind.]
The fest also featured a Japanese zom-com that I’ve been loving since last year. One Cut of the Dead is an absolute joy blending zombie carnage, big and frequent laughs, and a brilliant structure into a truly memorable love letter to independent filmmaking. The film opens with a generic initial premise — a small film crew making a zombie movie is attacked by real zombies — but stick with it as it grows and shifts into something truly memorable and ridiculously fun. [My review of One Cut of the Dead.]
Keep reading for reviews of The Unthinkable, Darlin’, and Body at Brighton Rock.
Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot) left his small Swedish town behind when he was still a teenager as troubles between his parents were simply too much to bear. He instead head out to the city, and a decade later he’s built a career as a pianist. The pull of unfinished business is strong, though, so he heads back to his home village to possibly mend fences and hopefully rekindle a relationship with the girl he left behind. But good timing isn’t exactly his strong suit as his return coincides with an invasion by external military forces using both brawn and a particularly insidious form of chemical warfare. Forced into a rave against time, Alex finds journey home has become a fight for survival.
On its surface the Swedish action/drama The Unthinkable might look like a new take on themes previously brought to the screen in films like Red Dawn, but while there are more than a few fights and scenes military-related destruction the focus here is far tighter. Alex came home for a reunion, and he’ll be goddamned if he’s going to let some pesky Russians get in the way of that. Unfortunately for viewers, though, the biggest problem with an Alex-centric film is the realization that Alex is a wholly obnoxious character.
Nordenrot’s performance isn’t the issue — he also co-wrote the script — as he convinces in the role and never feels less than human in the process. But therein rests the issue. Alex is wholly believable as a selfish twat whose motivations and actions are understandable even when they frustrate and annoy (which is all of the time), but the time spent with him being an asshole is far greater than any devoted to a possible growth or redemption meaning viewers are stuck rooting loudly for supporting characters while whispering their hope that Alex bites a bullet. It’s not ideal. Thankfully those supporting characters are more engaging, and even ones who are more stock than flesh and blood manage to hold our attention and interest.
Even better, the action and drama surrounding the characters is rarely less than interesting and frequently captured with intensity and creative visuals. Action beats come in personal interactions and larger, vehicle-involved clashes, and they’re all presented with a thrilling immediacy. The chemical attack carries its own weight as rather than kill those who cuccumb to it the weapon instead wipes their memories leaving loved ones flailing about in the deep throes of what amounts to Alzheimer’s. It’s horrifying, and in a film ostensibly about the desire to reconnect and forgive old wounds the threat of forgetting those you love altogether is devastating.
The Unthinkable runs a little long for a film focused on such an obnoxious lead character, but the time is well-intentioned as it never skimps on character work. You’ll just wish that time was spent with a better character. Still, the highs ultimately outweigh the lows — well, the low that is Alex — making this an engaging entry in the modern day disaster subgenre.
A feral woman (Polly McIntosh) steps out from the overgrown woods near a hospital, but she’s not alone. An equally dirty and uncommunicative teenage girl is by her side, but as the younger enters the building the elder returns to the tree-covered darkness. Darlin (Lauryn Canny), as she’s called due to a bracelet bearing the name, is sedated, cared for, and eventually transferred into the custody of a Catholic girls school, but as she struggles to reconnect with a normal human life she once knew her previous caregiver returns to take her back. Blood spurts, Catholics misbehave, and while wrongs will be righted… rights will also be wronged.
McIntosh also writes and directs this tonally uneven but entertaining slice of horror, and it’s her third go around with the character and this world. She appeared first in 2009’s Offspring as part of a feral ensemble, and while the film is messy and mean it’s also more than a little generic in its horror aspirations. It’s based on a Jack Ketchum book, itself a sequel to his own novel Off Season, and it was followed by 2011’s Lucky McKee-directed The Woman. McIntosh’s character there is abducted by a god-fearing family man who proceeds to use and abuse her until she finally strikes out, and while the themes on abuse, victimhood, and misogyny are valid the film is an oppressive watch. Darlin’ meets the two in the middle by pairing horror tropes with some dark truths, but McIntosh’s far more comedic and obvious tone missteps as often as it lands.
The core story succeeds as Darlin — abducted as a child from the messed up family at the end of The Woman — returns to civilization and begins connecting again with what she’s left behind, and Canny’s performance offers the right blend of sincerity and longing alongside more animalistic tendencies. her arrival at the Catholic school offers opportunities for friendship, but it also comes with the expected and easy criticisms of strict religious taskmasters and, of course, a pervy priest. There’s entertainment to be had, but it too often feels lazy and expected, and Bryan Batt’s performance as the deviant head of the school is entirely too broad for the trauma it’s suggesting.
The woman’s journey back to her is equally shaky as she chews her way through human obstacles and befriends a group of prostitutes and homeless people to silly extremes. She wins them over through her treatment of an abusive john — but then she leads them, outrageous posse style, to the school to reclaim her ward? It’s not something to take seriously no matter how well-intentioned the message of female solidarity may be. Still, the carnage en route is never dull.
Darlin’ is a far easier watch than both Offspring and The Woman, and it affords the characters an unexpected new chapter that succeeds in part by not simply rehashing the same focus on abuse, callousness, and misery. It’s a trade-off, though, as its lighter tone goes a bit too far in the other direction. The carnage and commentary is deserving of a bit more weight as even the positives are left floating in silliness at times. That said, few horror franchises shift as frequently in tone between films, and I’m fully on board for wherever the woman goes next.
Wendy (Karina Fontes) is a park ranger trainee of sorts, but if you asked her she probably couldn’t explain why. She’s always running late, she’s rarely prepared, and even her best friends refer to her lovingly as an indoor kid. Still, she persists, and when an opportunity to service a trail reserved for more experienced hikers comes about she volunteers. It’s an easy enough gig posting signs for visitors — although I’m not sure park policy would have her stapling fliers directly to trees — but it’s not long before she’s lost, misplaced her map, broken her radio, and realized she’s in way over her head. The dead body she finds doesn’t help either, and being forced to stay with it overnight while awaiting help might just be the end of her.
Writer/director Roxanne Benjamin has shown promise in her shorts for anthology films like Southbound (2015) and XX (2017), and her directing chops make the transition well to her feature debut as she captures the isolation, vastness, and immediate fears of being alone in the forest as night descends. Where Body at Brighton Rock stumbles, though, is with a script that can’t justify its already slight running time.
There’s unprepared and then there’s inept, and Wendy too often veers towards the latter which unavoidably pushes viewers out of her corner. We can all relate to things not going as planned or realizing too late that we’re out of our depth, but the actions and inactions here frustrate rather than thrill. She succumbs so quickly to her situation, and rather than become a tale of survival it becomes one that leaves viewers forced to simply wait it out alongside Wendy for morning. It’s less about her taking action than it is her reacting and being inactive. There are more than a few moments that work, though, as Benjamin take great advantage of the landscape and encroaching darkness making every stray sound a possible threat.
To compensate for the lack of a denser plot the film devotes a good amount of time to Wendy’s imagination, and the result doesn’t quite succeed in crafting or building thrills or suspense. Our imagination is, of course, the thing guaranteed to send most of us into panic under stressful stretches of isolation in nature, but in addition to an abundance of hallucinations and visions while awake we also get a dream sequence here that goes on far longer than it needs to. There’s too much that’s not happening and too little that is. We get that Wendy’s mind is working against her, but it’s too often a one-sided battle leading to an ending that packs an unnecessary twist onto a trip where it wasn’t needed.
Body at Brighton Rock is hobbled by Benjamin’s script but lifted through her direction, and while it may not be an auspicious debut it shows continued promise for a talent we’re still excited to follow. She’s already proven herself as a producer (the V/H/S trilogy, 2012-2014) and is building a career as a filmmaker in her own right, and her focus on female protagonists is always welcome. Here’s hoping the next one has just a bit more to do with her time.