[21 October 2009]
The breakdown of the family, economic woes, destruction of the environment, homelessness: issues that could have been topics at a contentious town hall meeting informed the 36 films screened at the Dark Carnival Film Festival, held in Bloomington, Indiana (September 28 through October 3, 2009). That, plus miles of entrails and an impressive array of power tools.
In its third year, Dark Carnival attracts filmmakers and audiences with a real love for the horror film genre. Unlike typical horror conventions that showcase celebrities and merchandise and screen films almost as an afterthought, says festival director David Pruett, “we’re all about the films, and the merchandising and the autographs are kind of a secondary thing”. Dark Carnival also has the advantage of projecting films in Bloomington’s historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a draw for filmmakers who prefer to present their work in a real film venue, not a convention center conference room.
Festival organizers work hard soliciting entries, and it shows. According to Pruett, Dark Carnival could easily have included another two days of screenings. “We look for films that we think will appeal to a wide audience. But we also look for things that might be . . . unpolished gems.”
This year’s entries covered a wide range, and included a music video, shorts, comic and dramatic features, a period film, parodies, genre mash-ups, supernatural and science fiction plots, films that left horror to the imagination and films with lots of gore, a few vampires, and plenty of zombies. Missing were films that focus on sexualized mutilation and the suffering of victims. “I’m not really a big fan of torture porn”, Pruett says, “and we don’t tend to show a lot of those movies at this festival”.
Fesitival standout Mantra
Among festival standouts was the feature drama Mantra, a provocative, genre-bending meditation on meditation that plays with, then transcends, horror conventions. A group of strangers heads to a camp in the woods for a Buddhist retreat led by a riddle-speaking guru. At first it appears that the film will be a highbrow Friday the 13th with adults whose fears and doubts manifest as their very own Mrs. Voorhees. Then, it seems that there really might be a killer among them. Finally, one of their number may just have stumbled onto true transcendence. Well-acted and well-edited, and including a great collection of indie music on its soundtrack, Mantra deserves to be seen by a wider audience than the festival circuit.
Edward Albee meets Rod Serling in the short Caution Sign, one of Pruett’s favorite festival films. A couple driving home from a party argue about each other’s behavior: was the husband rude to a male friend, or was the wife overly flirtatious? Their bickering focuses on a road sign they pass. What exactly did it say? They finally return to find out. A dark car interior, a bend in the road at night, a single road sign. You can’t get much more minimalist than this brilliantly edited short. The ending is both creepy and disorienting.
Séance, a short, atmospheric period piece from the Czech Republic, rivaled Caution Sign for best festival short. Like a 1960s Hammer film, this well-paced and well-acted drama has a castle, spooky sets, and an evil, aged baroness (are aged baronesses ever not evil?) who tries to trick a young medium into helping her cheat death. My only quibble is that the film suffers from very bad subtitling.
Audience favorite George\‘s Intervention
The rehabilitation of the zombie into a creature with feelings that began with Land of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead continues with George’s Intervention, a feature billed as a “zomedy,” in which friends and family, with the help of a professional interventionist on her first case, try to curb new zombie George’s hunger for human flesh. An elementary-school instructional film send-up complete with cartoon turtle narrator establishes the ironic tone of the film, and is just one of many interpolated films evident at the festival, this year’s favorite means of commenting on genre and formal expectations. The bond between siblings is imperiled as George’s sister takes a very active role in her brother’s new life. George and Francine are just one of a surprising number of brother-sister pairs in this year’s festival films. The early scenes get the awkwardness of an intervention just right, and the laughs accumulate along with the plentiful entrails and other body parts. The audience loved this one.
In the comic short Thirsty, a young man traveling at night will stop at nothing in his quest for a cool slushie. In a great fantasy sequence the slushy goddess (Tiffany Shepis) offers him one of the frosty beverages. Will Joe satisfy his thirst before the Thrill Killer who frequents the same stretch of road finds him and satisfies his own need?
Originally slated to close the festival, Drive-in Horror Show, an anthology in the style of Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow, appeared earlier in the Sunday evening line-up to accommodate scheduling contingencies. Five vignettes are introduced by the Projectionist, one of a crew of supernaturals who staff a rundown and poorly attended drive-in theater post-post-apocalypse. Though well-made, episodes lack the morbidity and the surprise endings of Tales or Creepshow. In one, a coed seeking revenge on a date-raping frat boy glues him to the bathtub, then slowly fills it with water, an MO that recalls an episode from the first Creepshow, in which a wife and her lover are buried up to their necks on a beach within reach of the incoming tide.
The drive-in crew and the theater itself steal the show. A zombie ticket-taker, a murdered teen cheerleader concession stand staffer, and the corpselike projectionist, as well as the dingy projector room and the deserted parking lot make palpable the loss of the era of classic horror and drive-ins.
Audience segmentation and a shift toward viewing alternatives to the movie theater have made the communal experience of the drive-in as well as the stock plots and characters of that time obsolete. 2009 might as well be separated from the 1960s and 1970s by the two apocalyptic events alluded to in the film. Perhaps the closest we can come to recreating that experience is a festival like Dark Carnival, or the screening of individual films that the festival puts on throughout the year. “One of the nice things about horror films is that there’s a really dedicated audience”, Pruett observes; “Horror movies are a communal kind of thing.” His instincts were right when he scheduled Drive-in Horror Show as a coda to the festival.
Humor abounded at Dark Carnival, on and off the screen, and not just in comic films. Canadian short shocker Blood Shed cleverly included its own warning label: “This film contains scenes of nudity, profanity, graphic violence, drug use, mutilation, and fishing.” One of the campers in Mantra delivered the festival’s best single line of dialogue: “This shit was NOT in the brochure.” Not to be outdone by characters, the audience provided some bons mots of its own. “I did not pay four bucks to see man gooch!” said the drunken young man in the seat behind me, before storming out of the theater during Sculpture.
For those who like to tally such things, tools used for killing and maiming included: hacksaw, wood saw, reciprocating saw, circular saw, chainsaw, screwdriver, power drill, and hedge trimmers (double-bladed). Other implements: butcher knife (small, medium, large), scissors, machete, scalpel, baseball bat, samurai sword, marshmallow roasting fork, hatchet (store-bought), tomahawk (handmade by feral mutant), and paintbrush.
A presentation by special effects artist Bill Wieger (Species and Blade), a workshop on independent filmmaking by horror festival circuit regular George Bonilla (ZP International Film Productions), and a hybrid show at a local club combining film, live performance, and lots of gore (audiences were advised to dress accordingly) augmented screenings. Celebrity guests included actors Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), John Dugan (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Dark Carnival regular Tiffany Shepis (Nightmare Man, 8 Films to Die for) Raine Brown (Psycho Holocaust), and Bloomington resident Marv Blauvelt. Shepis also appeared in festival entry Thirsty, Browne in Sculpture, and Blauvelt in Sculpture and Come. Also in attendance were local horror hosts Dr. Calamari and Baron Mardi.
Mini-reviews of all the films follow.
Dan Falzone and Dan McGowan (2008) 90 min
Hell is an abandoned rust-belt high-rise. In one of many family dramas in the festival schedule, a sister tries to rescue her brother from the Detroit tower he’s become obsessed with exploring. As she makes her way through the ruined structure, periodic flashbacks reveal the trauma her family suffered when the siblings were children. The “Abandon all hope” graffiti lets us know this is an urban Inferno filled with souls in torment, but the zombie-like denizens who vomit, consume their own flesh, or labor over repetitive tasks owe their fate to a 1920s power broker who sold his soul for success. After ruining so many, the villain now may have a chance to escape punishment and prevent brother and sister from being reunited. This moody film, with an effective industrial soundscape for a score works as a parable for our time of unregulated financial excess and its consequences. Bonus takeaway: evidently there’s a circle of hell reserved for puppeteers.
JT Seaton (2009) 91 min.
See festival review above.
Jason Shipley (2008) 15 min.
“Never turn your back on family”, says Louis after he’s shot his brother Reggie in the body part in question, in this dark (red) comedy from New Brunswick. Imagine a rural Psycho with two crazy sons, where mother is a puppet and Norman’s butcher knife has been replaced by power tools, and guns. Linguistic trivia bonus: The French-Canadian word for chainsaw is “chainsaw”.
Attackazoids! / Attackazoids Deploy!
Brian Lonano (2008, 2009) 7 min., 15 min.
Signs with slogans like “Power through Perseverance” and “Fear the Enemies”, vague songs of unity, a rebellion on a planet colony, and attack robots who vaporize people while announcing their intentions to help them make up a surreal, comic, totalitarian world in which it’s impossible to tell the heroes from the villains. Exaggerated old-school effects dominate, as a miniature streetscape serves as a backdrop to action and the attackazoids are crude, cheesy models. The empty propaganda recalls our own jingoistic political landscape.
Wade Carney (2009) 12 min.
See festival review above.
The Loving Dead
Adam Pike (2007) 12 min.
Another sentient zombie comedy. The newly undead struggle with the loss of their human memories. An enterprising zombie attempts to teach them to defend themselves, but their efforts at combat are as pathetic as their games of darts in which no one hits the bull’s-eye. Amid the clumsiness and decay, a newly zombified couple rediscover the love they shared as humans. Their amour plays as forbidden, as disgusting to the undead as intestine munching is to humans. Though it’s played for laughs, the film nevertheless possesses a poignant edge.
Susan Ee (2008) 5 min.
A boy gets his comeuppance for capturing a tooth fairy and holding it hostage for quarters. Well-made and well-acted, this is one of several festival films told from the perspective of children; the horror works as a rendering of a child’s view of the world as a place full of magical possibility that also has a dark side.
Emil Hyde (2009) 95 min.
“Stop making fun of hell!” Another troubled brother-sister pair, this time suffering for the sins of their devil-worshiping parents. They must supply fresh human victims for the hungry demon couple who haunt their apartment building, and who don’t appreciate that the two won’t take them (or hell) seriously enough. Like the Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novels, The Landlord posits an array of supernatural creatures that coexist with humans and have integrated themselves into the economy. The sister, a cop, has a number of lucrative scams going with a gang of sharp-toothed ghouls. In one of the film’s best scenes, the he-demon steals a credit card and orders a dragon figurine and a jerky dehydrator from cable shopping channels. When the brother develops feelings for the pretty young woman who’s just taken one of the apartments, the uneasy arrangement begins to unravel.
Death in Charge
Devi Snively (2008) 15 min.
This film shows that well-made shorts are like a good short story: economical exposition, no wasted scenes, and an ending with a twist. Debbie the babysitter (the Grim Reaper in disguise) convinces her young charge that she really doesn’t want her distracted, party-loving mother dead. But Dea . . . um Debbie still has a job to do . . . .
Shane Free (2009) 2 min.
Guess what becomes a jack-o’-lantern?
Scott Perry (2008), 27 min.
Just escapes pretentiousness. A vampire wannabe serial killer who films, then edits, his adventures in sadism may have run into the real thing when he finally hooks up with the mysterious woman who has been following him. Meanwhile, his wife is getting suspicious. Advice to budding killer-auteurs: hide your DVD stash really well.
Robin Kasparik (2009) 19 min.
See festival review above.
Liz Adams (2008) 13 min.
One of a handful of festival films directed by women, Side Effect was produced with the assistance of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. See the consequences of pushing an overachieving “supergirl” too far. A study-pill-popping teen babysitter has to balance cramming for an exam with caring for an infant and preparing a turkey. In this cross between a Lifetime drama and a Tales from the Crypt episode, can the girl keep the baby and the butterball straight? And why is she cooking a turkey late at night anyway?
Eric Scherbarth (2009) 13 min.
Taut, suspenseful short with a shocker ending. A sleazy corporate rep tries to buy an idle Pennsylvania coal mine. The owner tries to scare him off, first with a rifle, then with a post-industrial lament over abusing the land. And when that doesn’t work . . . . Nicely complements the economic message of the The Tower with the addition of poor environmental stewardship to the Midwest’s 21st-century woes.
The Ugly File
Mark Steensland (2009) 10 min.
We get the deliveries we deserve. A photographer specializes in portraits of children who all share a mysterious affliction that has affected numerous families. An old-school darkroom and expressions of callous disregard for the children from several characters put the film in the register of parable. Are people callous because of the epidemic, or is the epidemic a consequence of a lack of humanity? This short might have been more effective if the nature of the affliction had been left to audiences’ imaginations.
Bart Mastronardi (2008) 96 min.
This one lost me at the Nietzsche quotation that opens the film. I’d rather stare at the abyss than watch this pretentious, incoherent tale of a tortured college student consumed by guilt, specifically the death of his mother and rejection by his father. Nicolas learns that he must accept his guilt to move past it, but the film plays like a manifesto for mass murderers, as if it’s OK for you to kill as many people as possible to find yourself. And what exactly is the ninja Nicolas fighting over and over again? Guilt? Death? The personification of writer’s block? Vindication had me rooting for Nicolas’s abusive father, who tells his son to stop whining and get a job.
Christopher Garetano (2009) 7 min.
In a short that comes as close as the festival gets to a problem play, the manufacturer of tampons that have led to the deaths of women from toxic shock (and whose company name sounds a lot like Procter and Gamble) is tormented by the vindictive spirits of his victims. Maggots are involved. Is it real, or a dream? Does it matter? The film certainly generates sympathy and outrage, but for an issue decided in favor of the victims two decades ago.
The Lucky Break
Troy H. King (2008) 24 min.
This short undercuts its feel-good message—literally. Yet another sibling pair struggle to keep their family together. A middle-aged brother and sister who have just lost their father take in a homeless Korean War vet, and convince him to impersonate Pa so they can keep receiving his railroad pension. (Do films in which a pension plays a central role ever end happily?) The kindly old street dweller discovers too late that in order to fool the railroad, he must share the father’s disabilities exactly . . .
The Sex Doll She-Bitch
Jaison H. Costley (2008) 34 min.
A send-up of gender and genre stereotypes that the film nevertheless reinforces. The long-suffering wife of an abusive, foul-mouthed, womanizing loser is portrayed by an inflatable sex doll. That doesn’t stop her from getting even with her sleazy mate, or from using a power drill. At key points in the plot, though, she’s represented by real hands and real breasts, covered with a thin layer of plastic, as if a three-dimensional female character is trying to enter the film.
Dan Donley (2009) 87 min.
The extra “l” is for too LONG; this feature should have been a short. Documents the dehumanizing effect a sadistic doctor’s psychological and physical abuse has on a young woman who’s brought to his shelter after an epidemic has turned most humans into monsters. Flashbacks slowly let the woman, and the audience, understand what’s happened to land her in the shelter, but the film gives the final twist away by revealing too much.
Andrew Kasch (2009) 17 min.
See festival review above.
Zombie A Go Go
Don Swaynos (2009) 2 min.
So-so music video for a so-so song by Captain Clegg & the Night Creatures.
Pete Jacelone (2009) 109 min.
A brother and sister reunited by the death of their abusive father attempt to move beyond their traumatic childhoods (the theme of the festival). When hunks from the brother’s gym start disappearing, we begin to wonder about the artwork in progress that the sister won’t let anyone see. In the time-honored horror tradition of the crazed murderer/artist who makes the human body into the raw materials of art. Great gross-out ending when the masterpiece is finally revealed at a gallery gala.
Isle of the Damned
Mark Colegrove (2008) 85 min.
Presented as the lost work of a legendary director, this comic hunt for treasure on a cannibal-infested island off Argentina is presented as a low-budget 1970s film, complete with bad dubbing and actors with wigs, fake moustaches, and hideous clothes. Despite multiple scenes of sodomy, and a sequence depicting natives feeding on a pregnant woman’s entrails as well as her fetus, this film is oddly compelling. It feels like an experiment in how far toward absurdity a director can push and still hold an audience.
aQua ad lavandum—in brevi
Florian Metzner and Helge Balzer (2008) 15 min.
Parable of a young man vying with a chained monster, a well, and an iron door behind which a party is in full swing. Opaquely metaphoric, at times this seems like a video game, at others like a soda commercial.
Brian Wilmer (2009) 99 min.
See festival review above.
The Sleuth Incident
Jason Kupfer (2008) 12 min.
A teddy bear with serious anger management issues leaves a home in an idealized suburb to join up with a posse of other plush bears in this stylish, provocative short. Saturated colors, inventive camera work that brings the stuffed animals to life, and an evocative score make this one of the most arresting of the festival films.
Aurelio Voltaire (2008) 2 min.
A super-short critique of Christmas gift waste and the obsolescence of toys. Ostensibly an environmentalist statement, it’s also a commentary on the superficiality of the gift economy. And the narration is in rhyme.
Drive-in Horror Show
Michael Neel (2009) 105 min.
See festival review above.
Arthur Cullipher (2009) 25 min.
Stars festival director David Pruett and Bloomington actor and producer Marv Blauvelt. A doctor is removing women’s vaginas and reattaching them to their faces. Despite several opaque monologues, the why and the wherefore remain hidden, but the modified women produce some kind of pleasure-giving creature with a toothed orifice. One of the creatures, grown to giant size, comes for the doctor one night.
Sergio Pinheiro (2008) 15 min.
One of the best-scripted and best-acted festival entries. A buttoned-down operative from a mysterious firm with lots of secrets and a generous payroll shows the ropes of ghost hunting to a newbie. A vacuum-tube-driven contraption from the early 20th century gives this short an eerie edge. It has the feel of a pilot for a series I would definitely watch.
Marc Roussel (2008) 20 min.
A young man discovers he can travel through time, virtually, to communicate with the law student who lived in his apartment 30 years before, via their television sets. Much better than The Lake House, whose time-shift premise was also better suited to a short, Remote spins out the logic of its plot very cleverly. The set decoration of the 1970s apartment and the clothes and hairstyle of its occupant are pitch-perfect.
Soham Mehta (2009) 13 min.
Well-paced, tense short about two lonely survivors of a zombie plague who briefly connect. More great art direction in the bar where a man grieving for the loss of his wife has holed up. In one of the best sequences in the festival, an infected woman hides in a safe, where a failing flashlight blinks on and off to reveal with each successive illumination another stage of her transformation.
Patrick Rea (2007) 15 min.
Nice revenge story that parodies the excesses of the horror subgenre that gives this short its title. A sadist meets his match: a victim with remarkable recuperative powers, who may not be from around here. A plunger and a Barry Manilow LP lend some levity to the torturer’s collection of implements.
Charlie Anderson (2008) 8 min.
Three young roommates trying to find a balance between individuality and conformity as they grudgingly approach adulthood also negotiate the rules of lycanthropy, argue over how to dispose of victims, and bicker over whose turn it is to do the laundry.