The second annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival ended last night. I wasn’t able to check out nearly as many films as I’d hoped to. For instance, I unfortunately missed the opening night film, Housewife by director Can Evrenol. By all accounts, it was a crazy mix of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Clive Barker. Evrenol’s previous movie, Baskin, was eventually released stateside by IFC Midnight, so I hope it’ll eventually secure US distribution.
The films I was able to catch were generally solid, and often defied the idea of what a horror movie is or can be. The programming last year and this year seems to be an interesting mix of horror and horror-adjacent storytelling. It’s not “post-horror” (I hate that term), but it does demonstrate the fluidity of genre and how that can make for more interesting and sometimes quite effective filmmaking.
Below are some quick thoughts on five of the films that screened over the weekend at venues throughout Brooklyn. I look forward to next year as the festival continues to expand and attract a wide array of talent from around the world.
Mexican Barbaro II
Directors: Lex Ortega, Sergio Tello, Diego Cohen, Fernando Urdapilleta, Michel Garza, Carlos Melendez, Ricardo Farías, Christian Cueva, Abraham Sanchez
By their nature, anthology horror movies are hit-and-miss. Some shorts are bound to be more striking than others. That said, seeing Mexican Barbaro II makes me want to go back to watch the first Mexican Barbaro just to get a good sampling of what contemporary horror in Mexico has to offer. This film as well as the perverse yet hypnotic We Are the Flesh (which played at the inaugural BHFF) makes me wonder about the kinds of stories coming out of Mexico and how they reflect the anxieties throughout the country. As an outsider, seeing the fears of a culture might offer an entry point into the political and social problems it faces.
In Mexican Barbaro II, there’s a little bit for everyone, and some of it gets really extreme. On one side, there are retellings of local legends, like a folk tale from a grandmother about proper hydration before bed time that leads to a child’s fears of getting up to use the bathroom (“No Te Duermas”). On the other, extreme side, there are stories of mutilation, revenge, and sex gone horribly wrong; there’s one brutal short called “Potzonalli” about a family taking a disgusting revenge against a brutal patriarch. The shorts are so varied in approach, and many get to their point quickly, effectively, and satisfactorily. It’s a solid mix tape of Mexican horror, which means it’s time for me to go listen to some of those artists. – 6.5 Alright
Director: Erlingur Thoroddsen
Erlingur Thoroddsen’s feature film debut was Child Eater, the closing night movie at last year’s BHFF. While that film was an obvious nod to 80s slashers and bogeymen like Jason and Freddy, Rift is a much different, brooding, artsy, and mature type of horror film. Toroddsen draws a lot of influence from David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman, though most notably references Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The film is predominantly set in a cabin in a remote part of Iceland. Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) leaves the city to look after his younger ex-boyfriend Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson). There’s an attraction between them still, but also an unhappiness despite their mutual affection. Something seems off just being there, and the unease of being around each other results in paranoia and fear.
Rift is such a slow burn that I can see a lot of people being turned off by it if their patience wanes. But stick with it. The cinematography by John Wakayama Carey is absolutely gorgeous, imbuing the quiet, still moments with dread and a sense of existential desolation. The extra-wide compositions help emphasize the space between people and the negative spaces around individuals, making them seem even more isolated than they already are given the circumstances of the story. There’s a sense of being stalked or watched in the film that mounts as the movie draws toward its conclusion, and I was rapt wondering how this story would unfold. If anything, it’s fascinating to see how a young director like Thoroddsen is finding his bearings as a filmmaker from movie to movie, and developing his own artistic identity. – 7.0 Good
Director: Simon Rumley
Simon Rumley notes in a title card before the end credits that Fashionista was inspired by the movies of Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth), but I got more of a Kenneth Anger vibe to the movie. The oversaturated colors are something out of Scorpio Rising or Lucifer Rising, as if the tint knob on an TV were messed with for blush and rouge. The film chronicles the dissolution of a marriage between April (an excellent Amanda Fuller) and Eric (Ethan Embry). The couple runs a chic thrift store together, but their bond is torn apart by jealousy and infidelity. April’s sanity slips steadily throughout the film as she goes for a post-marriage fling with a skeevy rich guy, whose demands on April send the movie into preposterous directions.
There’s a better film in here, but Rumley’s disjointed, non-chronological exploration of April’s decline undermines the story. A secondary narrative thread is introduced at the very beginning of the film; the color is drained from these images, a contrast to the vibrant hues of the main story. This grayed-out narrative appears sporadically throughout the film, without dialogue or any sense of its own narrative momentum. When it’s finally revealed how these two narratives connect, it felt sloppy and extremely dissatisfying. I scowled through many of the final minutes of Fashionista feeling disappointed. Maybe that’s because I recalled the fondness I had for the movie much earlier when Fuller was sniffing clothes festishistically and living in squalor–the beginning of the film shows the apartment covered in mountains of clothes, part trash heap and part hamper.
Fashionista was executive produced by Drafthouse co-founder Tim League. While it came out in 2016 and screened at last year’s Fantastic Fest, I found myself viewing the movie in terms of the reignited controversy over toxic nerd bro Devin Faraci, who had been fired in 2016 over sexual assault but secretly rehired by League soon after to work for Drafthouse behind the scenes. Apart from the gaslighting and negging April’s subjected to throughout the film, the film seems to end with some implicit body-shaming. It might have been unintentional on Rumley’s part, but the combination of odd storytelling choices and the recent events in the film world have made me particularly sensitive to the way men tell stories about women. – 4.0 Below Average
1974 (1974: La posesión de Altair)
Director: Victor Dryere
Shot on Super 8mm in just two weeks on a tight budget, there’s a fair amount of the found footage film 1974 that works as a sort of retro Paranormal Activity with a little bit of The Blair Witch Project (what else can you think of when there are shaky cameras bobbing through the woods). A married couple has moved into a remote house in the mountains. The wife, Altair (Diana Bovio), begins to have strange visitations at night from beings she thinks are angels. The horror and mayhem ratchets up throughout the film as her husband Manuel (Rolando Breme) tries to figure out what’s behind her odd behavior.
My main issue with 1974 has to do with the use of non-diegetic sound. The loud, squealing score punctuates the scares, but it took me out of the illusion that we were watching raw, real footage of a couple terrorized by strange visitors for unknown reasons. It’s unfortunate since there are many elements of 1974 that work, like an alarming scene in which birds plummet from the sky, or the effective, subtle scare of a figure in the background slowly emerging from the darkness but never coming into focus, completely unbeknownst to the terrified character in the foreground of the shot. There’s enough moxie and eeriness in 1974 that keeps everything watchable, at least. – 6.0 Alright
The Book of Birdie
Director: Elizabeth E. Schuch
Not really a horror movie, The Book of Birdie might best be described as a Catholic tale about the religious ecstasy of menstruation. Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) is a lonely, mysterious, and guarded teenage girl who looks a little bit Wednesday Addams and a little bit Emily the Strange. She’s forced to join a convent in the Midwest in the 1960s for unknown reasons. Birdie loves comic books still, and has started to experience these alarming heavy flows each month. While this is a natural rite of passage into womanhood, could all this blood also signify some kind of religious passion, even a stigmatic hint of her sainthood? (The superhero Birdie loves so much is aptly named The Scarlet Beacon.)
Hints of fantasy pervade this otherwise grounded period drama about isolation and spirituality. Elizabeth E. Schuch worked as a storyboard artist on Wonder Woman and a concept artist on Pacific Rim Uprising, and injects a little bit of animation into the film, which reminded me of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by way of vintage art line art. Birdie speaks to the ghosts of nuns at the convent, and dreams of red, sparkling religious ecstasy. I really wanted to know more about Birdie and also the other nuns in the convent, and even Julia (Kitty Hall), a groundskeeper who becomes fond of the film’s wide-eyed protagonist. While I’m left wanting more, there’s quite a bit to admire from how personal the film feels. The all-woman cast adds this wonderfully hermetic vibe to the world of the film and its sensibilities. – 6.5 Alright