2017 heralds the arrival of the fourth Chattanooga Film Festival and the first year I have been able to attend. In its relatively short existence, the festival has acquired a stellar reputation with its programming of indie genre offerings and promises to be a treasure trove of films for DAILY GRINDHOUSE readers looking for something new.
SUNDAY, APRIL 9
The secret screening this year was THE HITCHER, a film I have not seen in close to 25 years. What struck me while watching it after such a long time is how well it has aged. The car chases and stunt work are aces, Rutger Hauer’s villain is still very disturbing, the desert locations are creepy in their emptiness and the banal feel of the truck stops and diners, and the existential terror of the film hits even harder now than when it was released in 1986. It was nice to see this mean, grimy film still retained its power to shock and horrify.
Believe it or not, I had not seen this collaboration between one of the great action stars of the ’70s and one of the best action directors of the ’80s. How is it possible that I’ve missed out on a full on tough guy boxing drama starring Charles Bronson and directed by Walter Hill? Because I am an abject failure as a human being, that’s how.
There are no real surprises to the film’s plot. Bronson is the tough bare-knuckle boxer who doesn’t say much. James Coburn is his manager who talks too much for his own good. Coburn gets them into trouble with a local crime boss (a creepily dead-eyed Michael McGuire) and Bronson has to fight them out of that trouble. Simple.
But the story is not the reason to watch HARD TIMES. It is an exercise in directness that still takes the time to stop and let the audience take in such pleasures as Strother Martin’s performance as a colorful, friendly, dope-addicted fight doctor and the atmosphere provided by location shooting in New Orleans. Watching Bronson beat the hell out of a series of opponents is just the icing on the cake.
Worth noting is that the film was shown from a brand new 4K restoration that looks and sounds amazing. Be on the lookout for what I’m sure will be a Blu-ray worth owning.
This indie was on my most anticipated films of 2017 list. It lives up to its place on that list, working as a low-key character study of a damaged kid and how he holds out hope for his future in twisted way.
Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a thirteen-year-old living in a sparse, low-income building in New York City. He is introduced sucking blood from a large wound in a man’s neck in a public bathroom. When he is done, he takes what money he can find from the man’s wallet and stashes it in a plastic bag in his bedroom that he hides behind VHS copies of vampire movies like NADJA, THE LOST BOYS, and THIRST. He spends his free time watching vampire movies on his laptop, making detailed notes about differences in vampire mythologies found in various books and movies, and avoiding the gang members who hang out outside his building and call him “freak.”
When Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), a girl who looks to be a couple of years older than him, he finds his insular life gradually being opened up. Sophie is new to the building, but like Milo, she is an orphan. While Milo lives with his older brother, Sophie lives with her angry, abusive grandfather and cuts her arms when she thinks she is alone. Lonely and still mourning her parents, she bonds with Milo even though he shows her online videos of animals being killed in slaughterhouses and has a distant way about him. Gradually, Milo opens up to Sophie, explaining his theories about how and why vampires exist, listing his favorite “realistic” vampire films (he may be a killer, but in Milo’s defense, he has great taste in vampire films, citing NEAR DARK and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN among his favorites), and eventually letting her stay in his room when she runs away from her grandfather’s apartment.
But as he grows closer to Sophie and sees how his planned future living as an immortal vampire does not include a place for her, Milo finds himself at a conflicted crossroads: continue killing and lose her forever or stop killing and try to maintain a “normal” life with her of watching silly YouTube clips and reading Twilight.
It is tempting to say that THE TRASFIGURATION is nothing more than a serial killer story where the killer believes himself to be a vampire. But that would be missing the point. More than anything, this is a film that details what happens when a child suffers a severe psychological trauma (in Milo’s case, discovering his mother’s body after she committed suicide) and is not given the proper help in dealing with that trauma. Sure, Milo sees a psychiatrist, but it is implied that he is forced to see her by the authorities because he was caught killing animals. His brother is mostly useless as a support system, simply sitting on the couch watching TV all day. He has no friends until Sophie enters the picture, but she is just as damaged as he is and needs his support as much as he needs hers. Simply put, Milo is what can happen when a child’s imagination twists trauma and destructive tendencies into something that can be excused as behavior that is needed to survive. That makes it horror of a particularly pure strain.
Writer/director Michael O’Shea captures Milo’s world in all its depressing detail. He wanders through dilapidated apartment buildings, nautical junkyards, cramped convenience stores and check cashing businesses crammed with angry customers and crying babies, and lonely rooftops. When Milo heads into nice parts of Manhattan to hunt for victims, it is like he has landed on a completely different planet, but he is no more welcome there than he is in his own neighborhood. It is no wonder that he wishes he were a vampire so he could leave his old life behind.
There are a couple of rough performances around the edges, but Ruffin and Levine carry the film with impressive turns. Their large, sad eyes reflect the pain each character feels, but Ruffin gives Milo a pragmatic nature when it comes to the inevitability to his fate while Levine maintains a spark of hope. It is hard to cast two performers who complement each other well in any film, but even harder when dealing with characters so young, making the achievement of what these two pull off that much more impressive.
The film is currently in very limited release. It is well worth catching if you find it playing near you.
With the end of THE TRANSFIGURATION came the end of the festival for me. Much appreciation and thanks to Chris Dortch, Rebecca Feldbin, and all the staff and volunteers of the Chattanooga Film Festival for their hard work and programming a hell of a festival. For anyone looking for a new film festival to attend, this is a great place to look.
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Tags: Chattanooga Film Festival, Chloe Levine, Eric Rufin, Hard Times. Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Michael McGuire, Michael O'Shea, Nadja, Rutger Hauer, Strother Martin, The Hitcher, The Lost Boys, The Transfiguration, Thirst, walter hill