Our brave contributor John Dickson tackled the Music Box Theatre’s Cinepocalypse film festival, which took place June 21-28. Here is his daily dossier of the experience.—Ed.
Thursday, June 21st: After much mental prep, fighting off the deterrence of sitting through a walloping 30+ movies, in one week, I arrived at the majestic Music Box Theater. Tonight would be just a dip into what I could expect over the next week: hard-edged genre cinema, laced occasionally with elements of lightweight comedy, sometimes brutal violence, but always with a winking dose of pure unadulterated kitsch and a fistful of beer.
The line was long as I awaited the night’s premiere of THE DOMESTICS, an American horror/survival film by Mike P. Nelson. As I got to my seat and prepped for the lights to dim, I realized that Cinepocalypse was underway and there was no turning back (I mean there was, but you get it).
THE DOMESTICS finds itself somewhere in the gaps between George Miller’s MAD MAX and Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES. The plot concerns a future where the government releases a chemical agent that destroys half the world’s population; many of those that are left split up into nomadic gangs of cannibals, and the others just wish to be left alone to survive without harming anyone else. One couple (Kate Bosworth and Tyler Hoechlin) do what they can to make it home through the swathes of cannibal gangs, often resorting to similar violence as perpetrated by the nomads. So yes, the HILLS HAVE EYES vibe is strong, but the movie is surprisingly lean, with subtle punctures of black humor to keep it from falling into pure bleakness, and some pretty basic political commentary that just barely elected groans from the audience. The director, a relative first-timer, does what he can with pretty-straight forward material, and certainly shows signs of being able to deliver something even better in his coming years. If anything, it was a pleasure to see the original Orion logo flash on screen before the credits.
This was followed by a screening of BILL & TED’S AWESOME ADVENTURE, which came with complimentary beverages to help fuel a drinking game the Music Box employees put on for everyone. I missed this but from what I heard, it was a necessary follow-up to the brutality brought on by THE DOMESTICS.
Friday, June 22nd:
I arrive in the afternoon, ready to imbibe the horrific delights of what was to come.
First was THE RANGER, an ode to the classic 80’s slasher flick (you’re going to see that phrase a lot, forewarning). This one involves a group of goofy “punk rock” kids who, after killing a cop, run off to a secluded cabin in the woods to indulge in a psychedelic drug called Echo, play their dang rock music, and even spray paint some trees. As luck would have it, there’s a killer park ranger looming about, who dispatches the little punks with bear traps and axes. The film’s director, Jenn Wexler, certainly understands the tropes of the slasher movies she so clearly loves, but struggles to pass that love off as anything worthy of a good movie. The film has a very brisk pace but is extremely unsure of what it wants to be, with its mortal terror and comedic edges coming into confrontation with each other. At only 77 minutes, its brevity was certainly something to cherish.
Next up was THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY, a movie I was more than curious to catch, given that this is the first film completed by a woman, Aislinn Clarke, in the entirety of Northern Ireland’s cinematic history. Make no mistake, this is definitely a grab bag of modern horror tropes (creepy nuns, demonic children’s laughter, found-footage stylings, etc.) but what is refreshing about it all, is that it works. It concerns an Irish convent for wayward women that suddenly has a bunch of supernatural goings-on, and some Vatican-certified priests show up to investigate. Next to M. Night Shyamalan’s THE VISIT, this is one of the better found-footage horror flicks I’ve seen in a minute. It is nothing new, but what it works with, in terms of atmosphere mostly, turns out to be surprisingly effective.
After a little break, in which I peeped the pop-up shop Vintage Grindhouse, displaying its merchandise in the back courtyard of the theater, I was prepared to turn back for the last movie of my night, HOVER. The latest from SyFy Films, is certainly nothing more than just that—a silly VOD entry from, yeah, SyFy Films. It’s about a host of killer drones that fly around dispatching the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world who are struggling to get by (shocking). However, as silly and groan-worthy it may be, the cinematography was surprisingly better than average, and the film’s electronic score hovers (yes) just above boring and derivative, so it actually anchors the movie in an interesting way.
Saturday, June 23rd:
I made my way back to the Music Box, this time armed with a bevy of granola bars, ready to take on a slate of films I was very much looking forward to.
The day started with TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, a movie I was eager to revisit, since as a child watching it late at night on HBO, scared the living shit out of me (plus it was directed by the great Ernest R. Dickerson, more on him coming up). I was very curious if DEMON KNIGHT held up in the terror-department. To my surprise, it didn’t exactly, but what I did discover was that it actually held up as very enjoyable entertainment. It starts off with a wonderful gag involving the infamous Crypt-Keeper and John Larroquette, so I knew this wouldn’t be an awful time; and it isn’t. William Sadler plays a relic-guardian, hunted by the demonic Billy Zane, who is presumably the Devil. Sadler eventually holes up in a barely-functioning hotel, with a cast of characters doing everything they can to ward off the demonic army and the devilish, wisecracking Zane, from coming inside and killing all of them in order to retrieve the ancient relic. Jada Pinkett-Smith eventually shifts into the film’s main hero, and despite being fairly stage-bound, the film does have an enjoyably spooky atmosphere, in the vein of an old dark house horror movie.
Up next, the anticipated new flick from the currently on-fire Blumhouse Productions, BOOGEYMAN POP. Coming off their success with the Oscar-winning GET OUT, along with the incredibly underrated SPLIT, it seems Blumhouse couldn’t be more primed for further achievements (especially with the highly-anticipated HALLOWEEN reboot coming out later this year). BOOGEYMAN POP continues the streak of 1980’s-inspired horror movies, albeit this time in the model of those beloved anthology collections, such as TRILOGY OF TERROR and the original TALES FROM THE CRYPT. BOOGEMAN POP has lots of visual flair, so it’s a shame I felt underwhelmed overall; yet there’s enough here that I was genuinely intrigued by what it had to offer. It goes for the stylings of something more modern, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON, but without the core of intrigue that grounded that highly underrated flick, from a somewhat highly overrated filmmaker.
Ending the long day was a movie that I felt extremely guilty of being curious about. This one needs no introduction: it’s the latest entry in the incredibly long-running PUPPET MASTER series. A quick Google search told me this seems to be either the 11th or 12th in the franchise, but who really cares at this point. I saw them on the then-Sci-Fi Channel, and even tried to rent them from the local video store, despite my parents’ objections. Lightly steeped in the grindhouse theater-trappings of the late 1970s, the new film’s plot certainly bares major semblance to those halcyon days of horror. PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH begins with a nod to the third film in the series, bringing the puppets’ origins back to Nazi-Germany, where they are used to murder anyone deemed enemies of the Reich (with the always captivating Udo Kier in tow). Flash-forward to the modern day, and the puppets are on display at a festival celebrating the anniversary of their creator’s infamous murders (because of course they would celebrate that). What follows has Blade and Tunneler killing off a fresh slew of victims, the horrendous twist being that they’re targeted to kill anyone non-Aryan, along with members of the LGBTQ community. The movie, while not being stellar, has caught a lot of heat for this. I think what makes it so shocking and brave, is that it positions the evil right back into the heart of what we recognize as evil in this day and age. Like the horror films of the 1970’s, it taps into the anxieties and fears that permeate amongst its audience, and does so very effectively (at least in regards to the backlash against it). Not only does it actually deliver “real horror” in terms of actually stoking its audience, it comes with a score by the legendary Fabio Frizzi (ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE PSYCHIC) and with a script by the writer of BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 and BONE TOMAHAWK. Not too bad for a series that has limped along with direct-to-video releases for several decades.
Sunday, June 24th:
I’m pretty weary at this point from yesterday, but I’m back. Thankfully the childhood nostalgia (which I normally detest) can coast me through the morning.
Sunday morning begins with WOLFMAN’S GOT NARDS, a documentary about the beloved VHS-staple, 1987’s THE MONSTER SQUAD, which was basically THE GOONIES, but somehow involving the stable of Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, the Gill-Man). The documentary is directed by Andre Gower, who played Sean in the original film. It’s a lightweight documentary that revels in the fandom behind the cult classic, even as it questions whether the movie was ever really a “cult” film at all. It doesn’t delve too far beyond celebrating the phenomenon it caused, but given that the MONSTER SQUAD’s initially poor box office returns nearly sank it’s director’s career, one wonders whether there may have been a better topic to explore somewhere inside all the hullabaloo. But then, THE MONSTER SQUAD’s influence on a generation of youngsters is very much responsible for many of the newer movies being shown at Cinepocalypse.
Back to Ernest Dickerson, and his 1992 film JUICE. This might be the single most impressive reappraisal I came across at the festival. I was impressed with how highly stylized the film was (especially in relation to DEMON KNIGHT). Of course then, you’re reminded that Dickerson was the cinematographer for Spike Lee’s first six films, and shot many of the early episodes of The Wire for HBO, to which JUICE shares many striking visual similarities. It’s not even the shaky camera (which feels apt here, when it normally never does these days) but rather the constantly lurking camera, peering out from corners and behind walls, which gives the film an ominous quality of surveillance. One would be tempted to compare it to the visual aspects of giallo in its heyday, except here the looming feeling of always being watched is attached to young black men, instead of young white women, placing them constantly under suspecting scrutiny. It’s uneasy, but not in a queasy way; it’s more claustrophobic and probing, even though I would not describe the film that way, which actually has a wonderful way of using every corner of its screen. With its incredibly thrilling rooftop climax, JUICE stands as tall as it did 16 years ago.
So the 80’s slasher movie nostalgia train just keeps on rolling. It’s a wonder that this subgenre still holds fascination at all, but I guess these producers know what people want. Coming hot on the heels of the Netflix show Stranger Things is SUMMER OF ’84. It’s been called the “grisly brother” of the hit show, and it certainly has many similarities, as it involves a group of misfits kids in the 1980s trying to solve what might be the murders of a serial killer. In an era where all we seem to have are films that dip into the movies of the past, this one interestingly dips its little feet into Joe Dante’s classic THE ‘BURBS. It also owes a lot to another 80’s big boy, FRIGHT NIGHT, in that one of the kids believes his neighbor is the serial killer. So…yep, it’s R-rated Stranger Things. I’m ready to go home now.
Monday, June 25th:
I’m weary, but thankfully I can sleep in and exercise, in prep for the evening. Despite being a devout movie-lover, it can be really difficult to subject yourself to the screen so much day after day. I feel a bit like my eyes may burn through the back of my skull, but I remain undeterred in my devotion to this cine-sadism (or is it cine-masochism?).
Thankfully, tonight is a light one, and it concerns what I take to be the first canon film (yes, canon ya nerds) entry in the bloated Marvel Cinematic Universe, HOWARD THE DUCK. Howard appeared with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange in his own Marvel Comics series in the 1970s and 80s (he also briefly appeared in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLS. 1 and 2). In 1986, George Lucas thought it would be in his best interest to step down from directing, and to just produce a movie adaptation of Howard’s adventures. Honestly as a kid, I thought Howard was great. Seeing it now, I feel less warmly about it, but I have to give credit to its silliness. This was a much-needed centering for the festival, to step it back a little bit and delight in it’s cartoonish brevity.
Howard was followed by the overseas box-office smash from Indonesia, SATAN’S SLAVES. A remake of an earlier, 1980’s Indonesian film (that took major cues from PHANTASM), SLAVES became the bright spot of the festival for me. While not perfect, the film is loaded with ideas that make themselves abundantly clear in its very well done pacing and atmosphere. The plot is about a mother who dies from a disease, only to return from the grave to come after her children. This movie broke box-office records in Indonesia and has been distributed all over the world as a result. What makes the film so effective is how well it separates its scares from the gooey melodrama in between. It doesn’t try to go for the jugular at every single damn moment, which makes it a very welcome genre entry in the festival. When this one gets a wider distribution in Chicago, make an effort to see it; it is genuinely creepy as hell.
Tuesday, June 26th:
Since it is not in the sprit of Cine-File to publish overly-negative reviews, I’m going to make this day brief.
I saw two movies: LUCIFERINA and THE RUSSIAN BRIDE. The former involves a girl who I guess was impregnated by Satan and as a result, has turned her little sister into a pot-smoking goth. The latter movie, involves a woman who flees Russia with her young daughter, to marry Corbin Bernsen, who snorts mad amounts of cocaine and just wants to terrorize his new bride and stepdaughter. While in the lobby of the Music Box, trying to regain brain cells, I overheard some people claim THE RUSSIAN BRIDE had elements of Polanski. So in retort, to a claim which made me tense up more than the actual film, if you want modern Polanski-imitation, seek out Gore Verbinski’s A CURE FOR WELLNESS; significantly less ye-snorting, but with a much more expertly-constructed visual scheme.
It’s raining like crazy now, and I need to protect my laptop as I run for the bus, but I am now trapped under the awning of Captain Nemo’s Seafood Restaurant, as I wait for the rain to end.
Wednesday, June 27th:
THE APPEARANCE kicks off this evening at Cinepocalypse and I’m already nervous, because I’ve heard it resembles Game of Thrones, a series in which, every time I’ve turned it on, someone is being sexually-assaulted, so I’ve never really pursued it (yeah I know, there’s more to it than that but I don’t really give a shit about dragons and snow people.) This one concerns a knight who believes in science (hell yeah) and discovers there is some witchcraft going on at this monastery nearby. Can you guess what happens next? I don’t know if it’s just my mind that is fading after all these movies, but I didn’t entirely dislike it.
The Wachowskis were up next, presenting their debut film, BOUND. Re-visiting this one really provided me with the courage to make it through the rest of the fest. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly remain absolutely excellent, and seeing this one again, I was more attuned to how skillfully the movie was put together, overblowing its stereotypes in a manner not entirely unlike the master himself, Brian De Palma. And when one considers what this film meant for the LGBTQ community in 1996, the movie remains incredibly relevant in our current dark age. In all honesty, it really just made me want to rewatch all of the Wachowski movies, even SPEED RACER.
Thursday, June 28th:
Well, I made it, to the very last day. And only one of my eyes is twitching.
I knew I only had it in me for two movies (had to consider my health at this point) but they were both a terrific way to cap it all off.
First up, THE BRINK. This is the debut film by Jonathan Li, and as loony as it was, I had the best time with it. The plot involves a doesn’t-play-by-the-rules Hong Kong police officer who is in hot pursuit of a gang of gold-smugglers/off-shore fishermen. He locates their whereabouts—on a floating casino in international waters, where they are holding his kidnapped partner. As with the best Hong Kong action cinema, the visuals are over the top (I don’t know if I’ve seen one where a typhoon functions as a major set piece, but I dug it). The camerawork is sleek as hell, with moody color swathes smudging over the city scenes, with crisp icy-darkness serving as the main palette when the film goes out to sea (in more ways than one). I will certainly be looking forward to more of what this filmmaker can do.
Here we are: the end. I’m not sure if there was a better way to cap it off than with KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. At this point, I was becoming increasingly numb, and found it best to hide out in the back of the theater in a dark ball cap, and promptly run to my car as soon as it was over. I was hungry and getting grumpy, but I needed to see this one again. Goofy hardly covers KLOWNS, but this one is super enjoyable. Aliens from outer space, who look like grotesque clowns, come to Earth and want to embalm people in cotton-candy webs so that they can suck out their blood later. As a kid, the balance between the film’s humor and violence became a kind of cartoonish-horror that I actually found pretty disturbing; in parts of the film, I still felt that way. The always-great John Vernon, upon encountering one of the ghoulish clowns, has his back and spine penetrated by one of the monsters, who proceeds to use Vernon like a puppet to scare some people. Of course Vernon plays the bad cop character, but I still found that scene to be extremely disturbing and creepy. The film’s creators, the Chiodo Brothers, were in attendance, with one of them dressed up in one of the original Klown costumes.
I wish I could’ve stayed around, in retrospect, but I felt my mind caving in, so I decided to book it immediately and go home to meditate/stare at my bedroom wall.
In conclusion to this dossier of the second annual Cinepocalypse, I am so glad something like this exists. Not everything may be great (I will certainly stress that) but genre cinema needs its home, and when you see something outstanding in this corner of moviedom that too often slips through the cracks or that gets dismissed sight-unseen by the “high-brow” critics, you begin to realize, through all the fatigue, this is what being a cinema-lover is all about.
Our brave contributor John Dickson tackled the Music Box Theatre’s Cinepocalypse film festival, which took place June 21-28. Here is his daily dossier of the experience.—Ed.