The Chattanooga Film Festival is one of the best festivals in the United States for new genre films and retro screenings of classic exploitation and genre fare. In its sixth year, the festival is being held April 11-14, 2019.
Day four was a straight dive into movies right from the beginning, so without further ado…
THE GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR
There is an inherent risk in making a haunted house film since it is so easy to fall into the trap of spooky noises, jump scares, and too goddamn much exposition about the history of the house. To an extent, THE GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR falls into each of these traps, but not as deeply as many films. What saves the film from being simply another generic “spooky things happen in an old house” flick is a clear sense (occasionally too clear—a little more mystery would have been welcome) of what the ghosts in the house want, why they want it, and why they are punishing those who enter the house along with a clever flipping of the narrative at the transition from the second to the third act.
Veteran indie genre producer Travis Stevens makes his directorial debut here and he benefits from a great location with a legitimately weird and creepy old house and some gooey, grotesque effects work. The film is also the first feature role for former wrestler C.M. Punk (credited here as Phillip Brooks) who–despite feeling miscast as an asshole corporate banker who defrauded his clients–does a decent job given the difficult task of largely acting opposite just a German Shepherd. Despite these two debuts, what makes THE GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR notable are the risks that Stevens’ script takes by upending much of what happens in the first two acts to take the film in an unexpected, oddly uplifting direction. Some audience members may feel cheated, but I appreciated the willingness to go against the grain in an attempt to say something more about the consequences that come along with making poor decisions (even if, once again, the point is made a little too bluntly) than to just have the house randomly knock off all those who walk through its doors.
While it is far from perfect, the last twenty minutes of THE GIRL ON THIRD FLOOR make it worth checking out. No matter how much it may stumble along the way, it has more on its mind than just racking up jump scares through sudden noises and people lurching into frame. I’ll always appreciate that ambition in a low-budget genre film.
Overall, I tend to despise Troma films. I make this admission right up front so you understand where I’m coming from when I say that MUTANT BLAST is a hell of a lot of fun. Maybe that thought is just the low expectations talking, but I cannot deny that I spent a good sixty percent of this flick with a goofy grin on my face.
MUTANT BLAST is that old story about a doofus man-child, a steely rebel soldier, a genetically modified super-human, nuclear bombs, and mutated people who look and act an awful lot like zombies (but they’re not zombies—a fact that the characters remind each of at every turn in a stellar recurring gag). The movie is wholly made up of derivative parts, but that does not matter much when writer/director Fernando Alle uses his familiar post-apocalyptic tale as a vessel for splattery mayhem, inspired visual gags and fantasy tangents, and absurd characters like a giant, gentlemanly French lobster (who never misses a chance to point out that dolphins are “motherfuckers”). Amidst all this silliness, heads get crushed and knocked off, intestines ripped out, and random body parts grow where they are not supposed to be. Despite all of this gruesome craziness, the movie actually remains very sweet-natured with likable characters. Who knew Troma had it in them?
I TRAPPED THE DEVIL
I’ll have a full review of this slow-burn horror when it is released later this month by IFC Midnight, but my initial reaction is mostly positive with a few concerns (sorry to tease you all).
Richard (Christopher Gray) is young, rich, and fun. He also has a violent temper, so when he snoops through the text messages of his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra) and misinterprets an exchange with his best friend Jonah (Munro Chambers) as the two of them sleeping together, he drives over to Jonah’s house and beats the shit out of him. Of course, it turns out he was simply being paranoid because the exchange was about whether or not he knew about their birthday gift of a harpoon to him. Embarrassed, Richard takes the two on a day cruise on his yacht, but things go very wrong when secrets between the trio bubble up, turning them on each other in ways both major and petty. As if the cruise was not going badly enough, the engine goes out on the boat, stranding them in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no food, water, or any real humanity between the three of them.
We have seen this sort of dark comedy about horrible people doing horrible things to each other many times before. Within that subgenre, HARPOON is above average with some good early laughs and cringe-worthy moments of physical violence that punctuate the emotional violence these three characters inflict upon each other. And for the most part, each of them deserves their karmic comeuppances, but after a while, it starts to simply feel like watching a group of rats fighting each other while the building around them is burning down. Even with a chipper omniscient narrator adding quirky context to their actions, the whole thing finally becomes a little too grim and the entertainment value eventually snuffs out.
Those compliments and complaints registered, HARPOON features very good performances by all three actors and the cinematography by Charles Hamilton is nicely crisp and glamorous in the early part of the film as the set up escalates on the yacht before giving way to a darker, grittier look as events become more and more grim. The screenplay by director Rob Grant is clever, funny, and piles on the nihilism as it should. I just wish the film had more to say than awful people attract other awful people and they deserve everything they do to each other in the end.
With that, my time at the 2019 Chattanooga Film Festival comes to a close. My thanks to Bex Feldbin, Chris Dortch, and all the hard-working volunteers who put on such a great festival and made me feel so welcome.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
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Tags: C.M. Punk, Charles Hamilton, Chattanooga Film Festival, Christopher Gray, Emily Tyra, Fernando Alle, Harpoon, I Trapped the Devil, Munro Chambers, Mutant Blast, Phillip Brooks, Rob Grant, The Girl on the Third Floor, Travis Stevens, Troma