FRITZ LANG (Germany, dir. Gordian Maugg)
Fritz Lang (Heino Ferch) is searching for inspiration for his next film, which will be his first “talkie.” He’s disdainful of this new technological advance, and struggling to find inspiration while his relationship with wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou (Johanna Gastdorf) deteriorates. One morning he happens to see a newspaper headline about The Vampire of Düsseldorf, a serial killer terrorizing the city who had eluded police for some time much to the anger of the citizenry. Lang impulsively heads to Düsseldorf to investigate the murders himself with the assistance of chief inspector Ernst Gennat (Thomas Thieme), who provides Lang access and seems to have some connection to a mystery in Lang’s own past that haunts both men. FRITZ LANG uses some novel approaches to construct its hypothetical history of Lang’s film M, including using footage from the film and inserting actor Heino Ferch into it. It also uses stock footage in lieu of some establishing shots and other such material, but some of this is jarringly different from the footage shot in modern day due to the vast difference in the texture of the footage. No attempt is made to match the sharp digital video footage of today with the grainy, rough film shot during the time in which the film takes place. Despite this distracting disconnect, FRITZ LANG features a compelling lead performance from Heino and a show-stealing supporting role for Samuel Finzi as Peter Kürten (the “vampire”). It’s an interesting work of speculative historical fiction about one of the most influential films of all time, but FRITZ LANG ultimately doesn’t quite work as a thriller on its own terms.
ATTRACTION (Russia, dir. Fedor Bondarchuk)
A huge alien spaceship enters the atmosphere and appears to be on course for Moscow. The Russian government decides to make first contact by shooting it out of the sky, causing it to crash-land right in the middle of the city and causing massive amounts of damage and killing hundreds of people. Yulya (Irina Starshenbaum) is instructed to stay home by her father Colonel Lebedev (Oleg Menshikov), who is now in charge of dealing with the alien “threat.” The aliens seem harmless if not exactly “friendly,” and they just want water to use to repair their ship and leave. But many of the citizens of Moscow are angry at the aliens for the deaths caused by the ship’s crash, and Yulya joins her boyfriend Artyom (Alexander Petrov) and his crew of would-be thugs to sneak into the forbidden zone to see if they can find some aliens to rough up. They sort of get their wish when they encounter an alien in an exoskeletal suit and manage to knock him off a building, allowing them to take the suit when the alien disappears. Yulya returns later and discovers the alien, but he’s not what anyone expected. ATTRACTION looks like a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi film, for better and worse. It portrays the Russian government as hilariously inept, ready to shoot down the first alien craft ever encountered at the expense of hundreds of their own people, while it focuses most of its time on Yulya and her school friends dealing with the situation. This could be an interesting “on the ground” look at a major event, but instead it’s pretty much exactly the same kind of story seen countless times since E.T. and STARMAN in the 80s. Yulya helps the alien—who has superior technology and seemingly superhuman strength but somehow can’t figure out how to effectively fight a bunch of teenagers—and everyone learns an important lesson about what it really means to be human. ATTRACTION would seem embarrassingly earnest if its lesson wasn’t couched in such a transparently cynical attempt to separate as many people (specifically teenage girls) from their money as possible.
TRAGEDY GIRLS (USA, dir. Tyler MacIntyre)
McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) are the #TragedyGirls, publicly campaigning for the right of their townspeople to know what’s really going on behind a string of unsolved murders. But their interest is less in civic duty and more in quick fame and the thrills associated with killing people–they’ve kidnapped serial killer Lowell (Kevin Durand) in hopes of having him train them in the ways of the slasher, but when he refuses to do so they decide to just frame him for their own murders. With the help of Jordan (Jack Quaid), son of the local Sheriff (Timothy V. Murphy), the girls get a ton of attention for their cause. But will their newfound fame and the budding romance between Sadie and Jordan drive a wedge between them? TRAGEDY GIRLS is the arithmetic mean of HEATHERS and SCREAM with a dash of social media commentary to remind the audience it was made in the 2010s. Shipp and Hildebrand are charming leads, but their characters are irredeemable sociopaths. As the body count rises and their obsession with raising their online profile intensifies, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay invested in their fate. They look on amused as the family and friends of their victims grieve, which stands in pointed contrast to the slasher film norm where all the killing happens in a vacuum. But this also undercuts the entertainment value of the film, which is clearly supposed to be a dark comedy. The main problem with the tone of TRAGEDY GIRLS is that it never quite tips over into really disturbing territory such as pitch-black comedy/horror films OFFICE KILLER and PARENTS. It wants to be fun but offer some tacit condemnation of its characters, but it never really commits.
TIGER GIRL (Germany, dir. Jakob Lass)
Maggy (Maria-Victoria Dragus) blows her police school entrance exam with a spectacular fall off a pommel horse. She decides to take a training course to be a security guard instead, and while out with her fellow trainees for a drink she meets Tiger (Ella Rumpf). Tiger is everything Maggy is not, namely fiercely independent and utterly certain of who she is. Tiger dubs Maggy “Vanilla the Killah” and tries to help her realize her own potential with advice such as “Politeness is a form of violence, but against yourself.” Impressionable Vanilla takes Tiger’s wild ways to heart, Tiger hardly has it all figured out. She lives in an abandoned bus and hangs out with a couple of drug dealers who squat in the attic of an apartment building. Vanilla, excited by chaos after a life of repression, starts acting out in ways that put both women in danger. Ella Rumpf made a big impression on international horror fans in Julia Ducornau’s RAW, and she’s unquestionably the star of the show here. Tiger is charismatic and convincing, even when she says things that don’t make much sense if given even a moment’s thought. Some of Tiger and Vanilla’s antics are highly amusing, especially a stunt in which they pose as mall security guards and subject a series of randomly-chosen people to increasingly bizarre tests. But there’s a dark undercurrent in the relationship between the two women, and Maria-Victoria Dragus does a fantastic job of depicting Vanilla’s escalating addiction to antisocial behavior. Even at her worst, her reprehensible behavior is understandable if inexcusable. These two great lead performances make TIGER GIRL well worth a look.
INDIANA (USA, dir. Toni Comas)
Indiana resident and part-time demon hunter Michael (Gabe Fazio) is exhausted. Things at his day job aren’t going well, he comes home to an empty house every day since his wife left, and his long-time “Spirit Doctors” business partner Josh (Bradford West) is getting to be a little too much to deal with. After a disastrous radio interview, Michael is just about ready to pack it in when they get an intriguing call and he decides to go on one last case. Meanwhile, Sam (Stuart Rudin) leaves his boarded-up old house on a grim mission that will eventually cause Michael and Josh to confront something darker than they could imagine. Co-writer and director Toni Comas previously hit Fantasia with a very different film: He wrote BAG BOY LOVER BOY, only recently released on home video and VOD by Severin Films. INDIANA is a completely different beast, not least because it takes place in the wide-open spaces of the titular state instead of the grimy back alleys of New York City. This is a quiet, patient film with well-drawn characters and gorgeous cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano (who also shot BAG BOY LOVER BOY). Comas and Solano expertly use their Indiana locations to convey a sense of simultaneous wonder, isolation, and the ennui familiar to anyone who has lived in the Midwest for most of their lives. The small cast is excellent, and despite its brief running time INDIANA packs a serious emotional punch. The interviews that bookend the film feel a bit unnecessary, but that’s a minor nitpick for something that otherwise is a near-perfect example of how to make a great low-key independent horror film.
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Tags: Alexandra Shipp, Anna Franquesa Solano, Brianna Hildebrand, Ella Rumpf, Fantasia Film Festival, Fritz Lang, Germany, Jack Quaid, Jakob Lass, Kevin Durand, Montreal, Russia, Severin Films, Sophie Auster, Timothy V. Murphy, Toni Comas