Cinepocalypse is a new genre film festival being held in Chicago from November 2nd to 9th at the Music Box Theater. Here are some capsule reviews of movies I was lucky enough to see there:
PSYCHOPATHS (dir. Mickey Keating)
Every once in awhile, a film comes along that you admire, and see what everyone else sees in it, more than you actually enjoy watching it. Mickey Keating’s PSYCHOPATHS filled that niche for me: stylish, with a great soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and great acting. Yet, a lack of a compelling storyline and substance kept nagging at me.
Actually, you can pretty much dispense with all hopes of a story for this one and take it at its title; the film is little more than psychopaths at work, stirred up by the execution of a serial killer. Viewers who are looking for excessively gruesome torture scenes will be rewarded with some of the more grisly sequences committed to recent film, but those who appreciate psychopaths giving manic, intense speeches to the camera and other twisted interludes will also be pleased.
There are enough bizarre twists on the standard format of such a film that those only seeking gory murders will be disappointed. There are moments of odd beauty and hints that order will be restored, all while the maniacs continue hidden with sadistic glee in their acts. Looking for depth or an explanation of the perpetrators is a lost cause as one is more likely to find the crimes interrupted by a bright dance number.
To speak of the style hinted at before, Keating has it in spades. The cinematography, stunning visuals that make deft use of garish colors, and split screens that work beautifully all lend themselves to an absolute delight to the eye. One could almost accuse him of style over substance, although there is enough sheer weirdness on display that some substance is hinted at. This is definitely a film I found a lot to admire in, even though I didn’t like the experience of actually watching it.
THE TERROR OF ALL HALLOWS EVE (dir. Todd Tucker)
We were warned by director Todd Tucker beforehand that this film would contain perhaps half an hour of character development. In fact, the first half hour or so is ripped directly from his memories of childhood bullying, making them very emotionally resonant scenes. Without that intense beginning, the supernatural turn it eventually takes would be robbed of its meaning.
With the popularity of STRANGER THINGS and other period pieces set in the eighties, it’s easy for this film to get lost in that shuffle but that is yet another aspect that rang true for the director’s adolescence. It was also replicated in the special effects, using old-school creatures and a live-action Doug Jones enhanced with green-screen technology to create a chilling trickster character.
Once we are invested in the main character and the supernatural turn does occur, Tucker keeps the stakes high and the tension going. A natural extension of the main character, Tim, loving monsters and their lore turns into an asset in this tale of terror gone awry. As the antics begins to get out of hand, the body count ups and an exasperated Tim must find a way to put an end to an out-of-control nightmare.
Overall,THE TERROR OF ALL HALLOWS EVE is an engaging revenge narrative with some twists you don’t see coming and suffers only from an unnecessary epilogue explaining what happens years later. The fact that so much is taken from the personal experience of the director and writer—who painted himself as a nerdy kid into building monster models and who turned into a special effects supervisor—makes the film feel authentic and relatable. The film is engaging and entertaining the whole way through.
TRAGEDY GIRLS (dir. Tyler MacIntyre)
TRAGEDY GIRLS is a vicious satire the likes of not seen since HEATHERS, which the film will inevitably be compared to. Despite its excessive use of gore effects, director Tyler MacIntyre and who co-wrote the film with Chris Lee Hill, and Justin Olson manage to strike the perfect tone, leaning into dark comedy more than straight ahead than a horror. Featuring two teenagers who are best friends obsessed with a string of deaths haunting their quiet town, Sadie and McKayla (played with fresh-faced sadism by Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp) create a popular blog surroundings the tragedies, hence their name. What their idyllic location of Rosedale doesn’t realize is that the girls are far more obsessed with and involved in the deaths than anyone would suspect.
Opening with a traditional slasher scene in a makeout in a car, TRAGEDY GIRLS dispenses with cliches and decides to delve into a sly social commentary on America’s obsession with serial killers and social media. The more the body counts rise around them, the more popular the girls’ website gets. The friends begin to target different nuisances surrounding them for kills that are always creative in nature and bring them higher popularity and status, all while doing a convincing job pretending to mourn the losses. With their heavy involvement in school activities such as cheerleading and prom planning and feigned innocence, nobody suspects them.
The town of Rosedale really comes to life with Sheriff Blane Welch and his son Jack Quaid as Jordan Welch, Savannah Jade as Syl, and other supporting characters who Sadie and McKayla continue to deceive. Sadie and McKayla’s friendship seems genuine throughout the film and they come across as sunny and all too relatable, looking to take revenge on those who irritate them. Their idolatry of killers brings them together and when their friendship is tested, their bloodlust unites them. Their facade of grief is so convincing most suspicions against them get a pass.
The climax of the film manages to introduce some appropriate tension into the formula, but pulls through with the fun and wild ride the director wanted to leave audiences with. In the Q & A after the film, MacIntyre said he hoped audiences would just have fun. I can’t remember a film where I was laughing at so many ridiculously gruesome deaths before, so I think his goal was achieved.
PRIMAL RAGE (dir. Patrick Magee)
The North American premiere of this film found a willing audience for a unique Bigfoot movie. As an ex-con, Max (Andrew Joseph Montgomery) just wants to put his life together, but he soon finds himself trapped in the Pacific Northwest with his wife Ashley (Casey Gagliardi). After their car breaks down, they find themselves stranded with no hope but to follow a band of shady local strangers, and in due time realize something sinister is following them. We learn from a sheriff and deputy that the creature may be an Oh-Mah, as known to the local Native Americans as a version of Bigfoot.
While the film entails a chase through the woods with many victims falling under the monster’s spell with impressive gore effects, multiple storylines thread through the action, creating welcome diversions to a standard monster movie. One is with a local sheriff and deputy who must become convinced of the monster’s reality, and one involves another mythical creature known as the Whispering Woman. Both the Bigfoot character and the Whispering Woman are created with unique special effects, unlike other characters like these seen in other films. They are also steeped in Native American lore, lending them a creepy sort of authenticity.
Magee manages to keep the tension running throughout the film as potential victims try to fight the monstrous creature and run from it. He also satisfies fans of the ultraviolent kill several times throughout the film, making the Bigfoot slaughter his victims in the most unimaginably gruesome ways. The Bigfoot, with its red eyes and terrifying fur, makes a formidable opponent to those who try to shoot or beat it. It is truly a creation to be feared.
As this survival story nears its end, the tension is ratcheted up and there is an appropriate note of a wider dimension to the legend than one had originally suspected. Magee deserves props for creating a monster movie that pays homage to the films of the past while bringing in modern elements like bloody effects, multiple storylines, and a convincing nod to local mythology.
LOWLIFE (dir. Ryan Prows)
Imagine what a masked luchador who calls himself El Monstruo, an ex-con with a swastika tattooed across his face, an accountant, a pregnant heroin user, the owner of a large organ harvesting and prostitution crime ring, and a hotel owner searching for a kidney for her ailing husband all have in common. All of their storylines converge and overlap in this creative offering from Ryan Prows, who manages to find empathy in the most unconventional of characters.
Divided into three stories called “Monsters,” “Fiends,” and “Thugs,” the film plays like an accomplished anthology reminiscent of PULP FICTION where scenes begin to repeat and overlap themselves as the jigsaw pieces of the story puzzle fall into place. Characters begin to become linked in unexpected ways and find bonds with each other that didn’t previously exist. As the plot meanders its way toward some kind of justice, it spans a range of emotions at characters interacting, from black comedy to heartfelt tenderness to violent anger.
Each of the characters in LOWLIFE is memorable enough to star in their own film. El Monstruo, who only wants to carry on the legacy of his father’s greatness but feels he has failed. Crystal, the hotel owner who longs to find a kidney for her ailing husband at any price. Kaylee, the drug-addicted woman pregnant with El Monstruo’s child. Teddy, the vicious thug who captures illegal immigrants to harvest them for their organs or run them through his prostitution ring. Keith, the mild-mannered accountant who avoided prison to become a family man, and Randy, the friend who went to prison and came back influenced by the Latin Kings and with the aforementioned swastika tattooed on his face. It’s a colorful cast that’s always a delight to watch in their own segments and the audience becomes invested in every one of them.
Prows manages to offer some sly social commentary on modern life in the film as well. Those who have no health care are stuck into corners where they are forced to buy organs from shady characters, while illegal immigrants who are hiding to make a better life for themselves are rounded up and forced into prostitution or harvested for their organs. Those with swastikas tattooed on their face think they can walk around crime-ridden neighborhoods in L.A. with no problem and not be outed as Nazis. This is the world we live in now.
Overall, LOWLIFE is a film that takes the audience on a ride through several emotions, an unforgettable cast of characters, a thoughtful intermingling of storyline threads, and an all-too-realistic look at the gritty underside of modern life.