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2017 in Review: Pixie’s Horror Picks

Published January 8, 2018 by rmpixie

 

 

It seems like a blur, but another year has passed. Quite a few horror films made their mark in 2017; some were out of the gate hits while others were divisive. All of them created a buzz and garnered a bit more respect for our beloved horror genre. Here are my top picks from the past year.

Being a programmer for Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival, I have a soft spot for indie film. There were a few that I saw at Toronto After Dark and BITS that I must mention for their unique subject matter and execution despite low budgets.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival

Lowlife drew me into the multiple narratives leading up to an insane climax. The charm of this film is its heart and filmmaker Ryan Prows made sure there was plenty to go around. The well written left-field characters amidst the constantly botched criminal antics will make you root for them ten times over. It’s definitely a sleeper hit in my eyes. Read my review on Cinema Axis here.

A total left-fielder at TADFF for me was Beyond Skyline.  This sequel came out of the shadow of its lukewarm and not well received predecessor Skyline to blast it out of the water.  Where the first film followed people in a condo as the world falls under an alien attack, Beyond Skyline picks up from Skyline’s cliffhanger ending. The unlikely redemption lies with Frank Grillo’s action star swagger, a genuinely funny script, great aliens combined with practical and CGI effects, and some kick ass action from The Raid’s Iko Uwais.

Two more After Dark films that still resonate for me are Rabbit and The Endless. Following a twin’s quest to find her missing and thought dead sister leads her into a world of madness, science and an undeniable connection to her sibling. With breathtaking cinematography and scoring that will chill you to the bone, director Luke Shanahan’s Rabbit is visceral and confounding. I reviewed it here.

The Endless also takes you on a journey, one that brings two brothers back to a cult they escaped years ago. Each one recalls a different experience of the commune they once called home, and things become more intoxicating and confusing as realities and perceptions blur. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson come back after their indie hits Resolution and Spring with a strong effort that left fans wanting more from this mind-bending film.

Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival

My programming rights give me access to incredible indie gems, the filmmakers and cast, and I’m privileged help put on a film festival that gives genre film fans a chance to see some great Canadian talent. This year was one of Blood in the Snow’s best, taking place at the gorgeous Royal Cinema, and all the titles left audiences talking well after the festival was over. You can find the 2017 lineup at bloodinthesnow.ca and check out the feature film award winners for BITS 6th year:

Darken, a dystopian fantasy with strong female leads was our closing night film and won for Best Poster, Best Cinematography, Best Music Score and the lovely Audrey Cummings took home the Best Director prize.

The winner for Best Feature film and Best Screenplay was Buckout Road directed by Matthew Currie Holmes. Based on a notoriously haunted road in New York state, this film was a fun blend of urban legends with great star power including Canadian acting vets Colm Feore, Henry Czerny and Hollywood mainstay Danny Glover.

Fake Blood, a documentary style feature follows two filmmakers who want to explore the effects of violence in film on audiences, eventually coming face to face with some real danger when they flirt with the criminal element. Rob Grant and Mike Kovacs took home the award for Best Editing. It’s a truly disturbing film that kept the audience wondering what was real long after the screening.

Best Actor went to Jeff Sinasac, a long-time actor in the GTA who revealed more of his talents by not only starring in but also directing his film Red Spring, a tense post-apocalyptic vampire survivalist film; while the acclaimed Suzanne Clément took home the Best Actress for The Child Remains, a chilling tale directed by Michael Melski based on the horrific true story of the Butterbox Babies.

Best Special FX went to Kill Order (Meza) and followed a young man who must deal with his superhuman powers, a sinister plot and plenty of danger. A martial arts spectacle filmed right here in Toronto, director James Mark created a real crowd pleaser with tons of stunts and action.

Best Acting Ensemble went to Ryan M. Andrews’ The Art of Obsession. This film, starring our Vanguard winner Ry Barrett, went deep into the mind of a writer and his process; haunted by his muse and his work. It’s a departure from the usual psychological horror and one that will resonate with those who are passionate about what they create.

Pleasant Surprises, The Grotesque, and a Timely Game Changer

There were two films that surprised me by how much I liked them. The first was Rue Morgue’s presentation of The Evil Within. Directed by the late Andrew Getty, a member of one of the richest families in America, the film took a long time to finish due to his untimely death. Frederick Koehler stars as Dennis, a mentally challenged young man who is gifted a mirror he’s seen in his nightmares. It holds a powerful evil and manifests itself as sinister and smarter reflection of himself, taunting Dennis and putting those around him in danger. Koehler outdoes himself playing the two roles, and the mixture of nightmare scenes and long-time horror actor Michael Berryman as the mirror’s evil demon makes this film a one of a kind gem. Thanks to the determination of those involved with the production despite the loss of the director, the film finally got it’s release last year. Rue Morgue issue #177 delves into the trials and tribulations of the film’s journey and is well worth the read.

The second film that surprised me was Darren Aronofsky’s’ mother! It screened at TIFF 2017 and I was prepared to find something to dislike about it since it was so polarizing and a lot of my film critic cronies hated it. While I respect their opinions, I ended up loving it and sat through it another time at home, only to love it even more (and not because Mr. Stephen McHattie is in it…well ok, there’s that, but it’s now one of my favorite films to date). Once again, my full review can be found here.

My only other TIFF 2017 selection that made the list was The Crescent. Hailing from the east coast, this hypnotic psychological thriller about a young mother coming to terms with her grief and the safety of her son in a strange town, in my eyes, didn’t get enough love. The use of art and the scoring by the film’s director Seth A. Smith created a brilliantly eerie atmosphere highlighting isolation and tension. Read my review here.

Shudder Canada has continually impressed me with the unique content they offer horror fans who want to escape the mainstream. One of their films that had a limited screening in Toronto was Kuso. After an earthquake befuddles L.A., several characters and their stories intersect as they try to navigate through their afflicted city. There are a ton of vile moments, along with scathing social commentary and bleak humor. It’s a trying yet exhilarating film filled with music, art and the grotesque by first time director Flying Lotus aka Steven Ellison, better know for his musical and D.J. talents. Be forewarned that it’s not the usual gore and not for the squeamish, and it is most likely not for everyone, but a must-see anyway. Read my full review here.

My favourite film of 2017 is Get Out for so many reasons. I’m going off on a tangent for a moment. In my research for pieces that will be included in an upcoming book on racism in American film, I learned African-Americans were underestimated for their love of westerns. When producers and movie house owners learned that African-Americans did indeed enjoy stories of life on the open range (in fact there is a long history of African-Americans working as cowboys), saving a damsel in distress and immortalizing cowboy action in song, they capitalized on that desire and made Black westerns. While short-lived (spanning from the 1920s-40s), it showed that demand ruled and the creators of media listened. Fast forward to modern-day, where actor and comedian Jordan Peele wrote and directed his first horror film starring a Black actor about the Black experience. It was clever, scathing, and always on point. And the masses, both Black and white (for the most part) loved it. Once again, African-Americans proved that they loved and wanted content in genre films. Instead of leaving it up to the powers that be, Peele took it into his own hands and created that content, opening doors for more people of colour to join in the wave of genre filmmakers. We owe so much to Peele and Get Out, and while there is still so much room for improvement and inclusivity within the film industry, I honestly hope the momentum continues. Read my thoughts on this game changing film here.

For 2018, I hope horror continues to create conversations and include fans of all genders and colours. All the best to you in this shiny new year!

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Shudder Exclusive: Kuso-The Anti La-La Land

Published July 25, 2017 by rmpixie

Kuso (2017, 1 hr, 45 mins.)

 

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening recently in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

 

See Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl Exclusively on Shudder

Published May 4, 2017 by rmpixie

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016, 1 hr, 16 mins)

With all the generic horrors out there, I’m always thrilled to see what terrors Shudder Canada has to offer. This time, they’ve brought us director and writer A.D. Calvo who takes us back in time to combine a lonely teenage girl, unrequited love, creepy gothic horror and a retro vibe for his latest film Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl.

Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is sent by her unfeeling mother to look after her agoraphobic aunt Dora (Susan Kellerman) in the hopes that they will inherit her fortune. In a large, rambling house, Adele must follow neatly written instructions left by her aunt who never emerges from her bedroom. Her duties include:  preparing very specific meals of sardines, crackers and tea, keeping quiet in the house, and she is banned from having any visitors to the house whatsoever. A tall order for a young woman almost out of her teenage years, but Adele seems to be a bit of a misfit and introvert with no friends. When she meets the beautiful and mysterious Beth (Quinn Shephard) in town, they strike up a friendship and become very close. As Adele loses herself in the glow of Beth’s friendship, her attention shifts from her aunt’s well-being to romantic feelings towards her newfound friend and she makes choices that will lead her down a dangerous path.

Not being familiar with the several horror/fantasy movies Calvo has under his belt, I was pleasantly surprised with Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl as my introduction to his work. This Sitges and Fantastic Fest 2016 selection brings a gothic, romantic feel that made me think of classic horror writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. I enjoyed the quiet suspense of this film and felt for Adele and her predicament, but also raised an eyebrow at her childish self-centeredness. Her adoration of Beth and attempts to mimic her cool sophistication and careless attitude shows her desperation to find a connection since she’s mistreated by her aunt and mother. It’s a gothic horror romance and coming of age story all in one.

He also throws in some good old-fashioned morals that no gothic horror would be complete without.  We see this when Adele finds an underlined passage in Aunt Dora’s bible, namely Matthew 6:19-20:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”

I’m no biblical expert, but it’s clear that greed and what motivates us to be self-serving is central and justifies Aunt Dora’s paranoia. In Adele’s case, it’s not only her poor upbringing, neglect and the prospect of having some money and nice things, but also falling in love and wanting to impress Beth. Both blind her from the realities of her surroundings.  It’s a nice touch without having to spell out the storyline.

I thought the same-sex love story was refreshing and even though it came from a male director, it didn’t feel exploitative and the young but seasoned actors made the most of the tentative affair.  Shephard certainly smouldered like a teenage beauty queen as Beth and Wilhelmi played Adele with an awkward, wide-eyed innocence that drew a certain amount of sympathy. Even when Adele’s actions become morally questionable, there is a sense that she isn’t really bad, just inexperienced.

The set design and wardrobe captured the early 80’s vibe for a believable period horror, and I really enjoyed the old school hits Adele listens to, the eerie scoring, and sound design. And if you’re looking for a weird retro horror finale, you’ll definitely find it here, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable. This climax stayed true to old school horrors and had a myriad of influences from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Black Sabbath (The Drop of Water segment) that Calvo has mentioned, to the more modern I Am the Pretty Thing in the House and House of the Devil. None of these films are perfect, but like Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, they tell a compelling and interesting story.

I recommend checking out Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, but you’ll need to stick with this slow burn story. It has a lot of meat on its bones for a low budget, and there is plenty to speculate well after the film is over. Watch this bit of nostalgic horror fun with a really creepy ending on Shudder now!

Prepare Yourself for the Brutal We Are The Flesh: A Shudder Exclusive

Published April 21, 2017 by rmpixie

 

We Are The Flesh (2016, 1 hr, 19 mins)

 

Extreme cinema has its purpose, usually to tell a story in the most shocking manner in order to get a visceral response as we watch. While some directors use it for pure shock value, others use it as a rejection of the formulaic films cranked out of the incessant Hollywood machine, and some feel that extreme representation of brutality, sexuality and gore is the only way they can express themselves and their subject matter artistically.  In We Are The Flesh (Tenemos la carne), a film that played many festivals including Cannes in 2016 and is now a Shudder Exclusive, Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter gives us all of the above and more in order to tell a meandering story about death, rebirth and god complexes.

Lucio (Diego Gamaliel) and Fauna (Maria Evoli) stumble upon an abandoned building and its sole inhabitant, an elf-like man named Marciano (Noé Hernández). He is strange and extremely volatile, spouting cryptic words about his way of life. Fauna bargains for her and her brother to stay with him in exchange for any sort of arrangement since they seek refuge from a harsh environment on the outside. That arrangement turns out to be labour in order to create a womb-like labyrinth of a cave with bits of wood, cardboard, broken furniture and endless rolls of tape. As he gets to know his two young captives locked in the building with him, he is taken with Fauna and takes to bullying her brother. In a series of extremely strange and increasingly cruel events, he forces them do his darkly incestuous bidding, and once they cross the line, they enter an infernal world of raw emotion and mysticism.

We Are The Flesh wins hands down for the title of extreme cinema. Viewers beware as this film is chockfull of writhing nudity, incest, rape, cannibalism, orgies, and even a dash of menstrual blood; letting it all hang out to tell a strange story with creationist undertones in an absurdist and grotesque manner. Adam and Eve, the devil, a God/Jesus/resurrection theme, and Mexico’s nationalistic unrest are explored but goes off the rails just as you think you can make sense of the startling action. Hernández gave a truly arresting performance as the demonic Marciano and Evoli reached deep for her portrayal of Fauna.  From his interviews, Minter sounded very supportive of his cast, but I’m not sure how he got these performances out of his actors.  If the process was anything like Isabelle Adjani’s motivation in Possession, I hope they had a therapist on set.

Only in his mid-twenties, Minter, lauded and backed by Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, has been compared to French director Gaspar Noé. While films like Noé’s Love also used extreme sexuality to tell a story, once you get past the sex, it reveals itself to be a sensitive film about a vulnerable young man searching for lost love. I actually found We Are The Flesh had more in common with Michael Rowe’s 2010 film Leap Year (Año bisiesto). This too was filled with stark and graphic sex, but like Minter Rowe uses sex, sadism and isolation as a way to convey a connection, in this instance humanity and heartache as a lonely young woman finds solace in a sadistic relationship. Leap Year is also similar to We Are The Flesh in that there is a brother and sister relationship and an overbearing older male that dictates to, or has the potential to lord over, a young woman, but that’s where the similarities end.

Where Rowe creates a quiet intensity, Minter juxtaposes poetic dialogue with brutally animalistic actions that come at you full force. The characters are unfettered and wild; giving into impulse after impulse in a womb-like setting, punctuated with a barrage of sound. Actions like breathing, stirring, and sporadic and aggressive drumming pulls the viewer’s focus, making each scene that much more uncomfortable as you wince from both the visual and aural assault. There were also nods to Samuel Beckett along with colourful psychedelic and supernatural elements. Those connections still didn’t make it more accessible to me, perhaps only helping in categorizing familiar scenes.

I appreciate some extreme cinema for what it attempts to overcome in this age of banal cookie cutter genre films (as long as living creatures-human and animal- remain unharmed in real life) but ultimately I can’t say I liked We Are The Flesh. Perhaps I’m not intellectual enough to grasp the abundance of allegorical notions presented here, but there are some things that become too much of a stretch for me to consider them above their shock value.

One viewer’s interpretation of art is another viewer’s headache. Are Lucio and Fauna a new hope in a barren land? Is Marciano their god or a demon? Does an abducted soldier represent a violently dying motherland or an attempt to rid the country of political overseers? Is this an ultimately extreme art film instead of a horror?  Who’s to say, but those questions and more will come to mind as you watch Emiliano Rocha Minter’s chaotic, poetic and ultimately confusing first feature film We Are The Flesh. After this experience, he’s certainly on my radar, and I’m curious to see what he does next. Make up your own mind and see it exclusively on Shudder Canada.

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