This year, Florida’s premier horror film festival, Popcorn Frights, moves its series of chilling works to Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale. The festival gave New Times film critics Juan Antonio Barquin and Hans Morgenstern a preview of several of the movies premiering at the festival. Here's their guide to the films you must see and ones to miss, ranging from science fiction to zombie horror and ghost stories.
Don’t Leave Home. In Don’t Leave Home, American artist Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman) receives a mysterious commission in Ireland by Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy), a former priest who has his own artistic talents that might be supernatural. He has placed himself in exile in a manor on a vast property following the disappearance of a child whose portrait he painted in 1986. During Melanie’s stay, things don’t seem quite right, as evidenced by heavy stares from house manager Shelly (Helena Bereen) and several weird dreams. Things soon become stranger with the discovery of sacrilegious icons and the arrival of a group of art collectors dressed like extras from the party scene in Barry Lyndon.
Though Don’t Leave Home has moments of flair in its cinematography and original story, it’s unfortunately not enough to overcome some blasé moments of acting and writing. For all the instances of style and creativity, including a nearly silent opening prelude shot in 4:3, the new film by actor/writer/director Michael Tully can’t rise above mediocrity like composer Michael Montes' cheesy score. (A Celtic pipe fanfare for the arrival in Ireland, really?) The performances are bland, and resolutions to conflict seem convenient. As a critic says in a review of Melanie’s art that received one Facebook share at the top of the film yet somehow shifted all of its action: “This is not art; it’s arts and crafts.” — Hans Morgenstern
Florida premiere, 5 p.m. Sunday, August 12.
Piercing. Describing Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is like setting up the world’s least amusing joke. Two people walk into a room: One is a sex worker and the other is a murderer. What happens next? Just your usual amount of stabbing, eating, talking, walking, drugging, cuddling, binding, and, of course, piercing.
Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska star as these two individuals, locked in a sick game of circumstance with each other, neither knowing how damaged the other really is. In adapting Ryo Murakami’s novel of the same name, Pesce leaves behind the black-and-white dreariness of Bela Tarr and Ingmar Bergman (from which his feature debut, The Eyes of My Mother, heavily drew) for the colorful thrills of giallo.
From the tilted angles, split screen, and intoxicating lights to the shameless bloodlust and teasing of violence, Pesce goes for broke indulging in what a modernization of a giallo should look like. Pesce approaches the aesthetics of Piercing in the same way Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani of Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears create a mélange of tributes to their favorite classics (though without quite as much silence, color, and surrealism as the duo).
Pieces of music from La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte and Camille 2000 complement the discomfort and sensuality in Abbott's and Wasikowska’s performances, as well as the humor lingering in the dark script. A sense of longing in their eyes captures the viewer's heart, but it’s impossible not to laugh when they’re miming murder, rolling around on drugs, or gagged and threatened with an ice pick to the abdomen.
What’s best about Piercing is the way Nicolas Pesce sidesteps Murakami’s novel. Where the author inflated the traumatic backstories of these individuals via first-person narration, Pesce rarely discloses the past, instead extending climactic moments through a slow-burn effect that makes each bloody revelation more exciting. It’s a messy, absurd world in which these characters live, and it’s thrilling to say the film mirrors that quality beautifully. — Juan Antonio Barquin
East Coast premiere, 7 p.m. Thursday, August 16.
Prospect. In a future where young people listen to obscure mid-20th-century Eastern European and Chinese pop music, precious gems are harvested from fleshy tumors found in the ground of a toxic, lush, tropical moon. The debut feature of co-writers/-directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl, Prospect portrays a deeply realized world of weirdness supported by creative production values.
Playing with sound design, constructing ingeniously lit miniatures, and using practical effects, the filmmakers make the most of old-school movie magic. They hardly bother with digital effects both in their moviemaking and in the world of Prospect. Instead, they highlight analog technology on spaceship control panels or creatively designed weapons that require cartridges, which are placed in a hand crank to be charged. It all makes for a film that harks back to the sci-fi world of the original Star Wars trilogy.
The actors, the most famous of whom is Jay Duplass of mumblecore fame, mostly have to perform in spacesuits, which appear to have been cobbled together from spare parts, to survive on the toxic surface of the “The Green.” Sometimes the story drags, but the film’s lead, Sophie Thatcher, is easy to sympathize with as she encounters one shady character after another when she finds herself stranded alone on this moon. Prospect is a testament to the creativity of skilled filmmakers on a limited budget who understand the importance of basics such as lighting, story, and camera angles to support the creation of transporting cinematic entertainment. — Hans Morgenstern
Southeast U.S. premiere, 7 p.m. Sunday, August 12
Tigers Are Not Afraid. Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is one part gang movie, one part kids' movie, and one part ghost movie. If that sounds messy, it’s because these pieces don’t gel especially well together, playing out like a heavy-handed metaphor about Mexico’s drug war that wants to be as realistic as it is fantastic.
Handheld camerawork follows a group of children — displaced after the deaths of their parents at the hands of a cartel — as they try to survive. López ensures the streets and alleys these orphans inhabit are as dusty and dirty as they should be, and the day-to-day lives of these children, forced to grow up and emulate what they’ve known in the past and know now, are undoubtedly the best part of the film. The youngsters, notably Paola Lara as the sole girl in the gang, are the kind of child actors you dream of when forced to watch movies about kids.
But the film's indulgence in fantasy doesn’t work. A visual metaphor here or there would be just fine, and the film's especially effective final shots would benefit from a narrative endeavor that only sparsely teased at magical realism prior to them. But López features everything from a The Monkey’s Paw narrative conceit and ghosts wrapped in plastic to talking plush animals and a stream of blood that runs through everything.
If the film was aiming for a Guillermo del Toro effect — blending horror, fantasy, and reality like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone — it falls short. Tigers Are Not Afraid wants to be as much social commentary about violence in Mexico as it is fantastical horror. The problem is these two things never feel as though they belong together. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Florida premiere, 7 p.m. Monday, August 13.
One Cut of the Dead. Despite horror films' reputation as B-grade movies, there really is no other genre more daring at pushing boundaries and subverting tropes. To describe how One Cut of the Dead, a zombie horror comedy out of Japan, pushes against what one expects of horror movies would be a disservice to the pleasures that unfold as one watches the movie.
The hook for One Cut of the Dead, the sophomore feature from Shin'ichirô Ueda, is a zombie flick shot in one take. As evidenced by Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and others that followed, the one-take movie has already been executed with marvelous skill. So when this movie begins, it seems like a second-rate, sloppy, amateur mess. But stick with it and you will be rewarded with meta elements that reveal sly, self-aware filmmaking.
The Japanese title literally translates to “Do Not Stop the Camera,” hinting at the importance of action behind the scenes. At first, awkward pauses that drag seem to point to problematic setups behind the scenes, but something will soon reveal what’s actually happening. One Cut of the Dead is an incredibly smart and funny movie so bold it will make you wonder about the grander scheme of the movie business and how much of what's passed off as honest by the industry is actually contrived and artificial. — Hans Morgenstern
East Coast premiere, 11 p.m. Thursday, August 16.
What Keeps You Alive. What Keeps You Alive is a film at odds with itself. Unsure whether to be taut or meandering, aggressive or meditative, it bounces between a shamelessly bloody game of cat-and-mouse and a chill blend of relationship drama and thriller. Colin Minihan’s film takes place primarily in a house standing by a forested mountain and separated from other homes by a wide lake. This is where Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) have gone to celebrate their first wedding anniversary and where Jules discovers a number of things about her wife — most important, that she’s a bit of a psychopath with a penchant for killing her partners.
When the film isn't being hyperdramatic, the performances by these two women are muted and calculated; some of their best moments include stalking each other through various locales. Their conflict is a solid driving force for the film and the actresses, even when it involves a barely necessary supporting duo for a short period of time.
But moments when the film attempts to engage with their relationship — from black-and-white flashbacks of cuddling to questioning whether their love ever existed — are lackluster, detracting from exploring the very violent, present dynamic of Jackie and Jules. It’s when Minihan explores the tension this home and its surroundings add to the fight for survival that the film hits its highest points.
Cinematographer David Schuurman works wonders with Minihan, creating some gorgeous set pieces, whether it’s cleaning up a bloodbath in the dark with the aid of a black light or a fight traced entirely through sound as the camera trails through a home. Unique scenes such as these prevent What Keeps You Alive from drowning in its duller moments. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Florida premiere, 9 p.m. Saturday, August 11.
Satan's Slaves. This one is as close as you can get to a great haunted-house film nowadays, feeling truly classical in every regard. From the '80s aesthetic to the practical effects and scare stagings, Joko Anwar’s prequel/loose remake of the 1980 film of the same name (directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra) is an utter delight from beginning to end.
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The home in which this haunting takes place is populated by Rini (Tara Basro) and her family, which includes her three brothers, parents, and grandmother. As the family struggles with a lack of money and an ill mother (who soon passes), they find themselves slowly but surely faced with a presence in their home. What unfolds throughout is somewhere between a ghost story and an exploration of how one family’s involvement with demonic forces becomes its ultimate destruction.
Anwar takes his time dishing out the scares, allowing the tension to build in the way the camera cuts and flows between individuals. The fear is amplified by stellar lighting, unsettling makeup work, use of reflection and distance to emphasize abject objects, and even the humor peppered throughout to relieve that fear, if only for a moment.
Satan’s Slaves exists in the same vein as works such as Rosemary’s Baby, without quite the slow burn but with an equal dose of satanic forces. The film’s power lies not only in its believable actors, fully onboard with a premise that puts them through hell, but also in the way Anwar stages it all. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Florida premiere, 7 p.m. Saturday, August 11.
Popcorn Frights Film Festival 2018. Friday, August 10, through Thursday, August 16, at Savor Cinema, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Individual screening tickets cost $12 and festival passes cost $99 to $169 via popcornfrights.com.