Highlights from the 3rd annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival in Miami, including shorts to view now

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Last week, this writer made selective visits to the week-long third edition of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival at O Cinema Wynwood and came away far more satisfied than with what he saw last year. Horror films have long been weighted down by genre constraints and relegated to a niche interest by an industry that often gives short shrift to its thematic content. The result overshadows attempts to make movies that show wry intelligence or offer real drama, and there was both in the sampling of films encountered at this year’s festival, including some of it delivered by local talent in the festival’s first ever Florida filmmaker sidebar “Homegrown: 100% Pure Fresh Squeezed Florida Horror.”

To start the festival, programmers Marc Ferman and Igor Shteyrenberg decided not to single out one opening night film but presented a triple feature of movies, Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls, Damien Leone’s Terrifier, and the North American Premiere of Kevin Greutert’s Jackals. There were several horror fans game to take all three in that night, but this writer chose Tragedy Girls, a slasher film that satirizes young people’s obsession with social media approval. It follows the misadventures of Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp), two high school BFFs who go on a secret killing spree while reporting on the deaths as hearsay with feigned innocence and hysteria on various online social media platforms. The two self-described “tragedy girls” show greater emotional attachment to social media engagement than the lives they take, including some lovers. The film takes the fleeting emotional satisfaction of watching the accumulation of “likes” as motivation to act callously with real life relationships. As metaphor, this stands a witty wake up call regarding the line between cyber-life and real life. It’s sociopathic behavior taken to an extreme height, but one that anyone who engages in social media might recognize.

Tragedy Girls

The film plays mostly like a horror-comedy, as the girls at first bumble through their murders, as too often they come across as accidents rather than actual killings. Their deadpan performances as they dismember the bodies reveal both their disconnection from reality while heightening the film’s humor. It proves a tough line to walk for MacIntyre, who co-wrote the script with Chris Lee Hill, based off an original screenplay by Justin Olson. With all the humor and satire, there’s hardly any sense of genuine peril for these characters. They remain cyphers in their actions, and when a rift forms between the two of them, it’s hard to choose a character to root for. The performances are serviceable, but when you have a pro like Craig Robinson appear (he is also one of the many producers on the movie), you get a taste of how to one-up the sardonic humor a notch. Supporting actor Keith Hudson was present for the screening. He played the father of Sadie, and spoke highly of acting with her. When he was asked about Robinson by an audience, though, all he could say it was an honor being in the same movie with him, as he didn’t act opposite him.

The following day, the festival presented an even stronger horror satire. From editing to storytelling to performances to its own audacity, Game of Death raised the bar above the previous film’s quality. It was another movie featuring millennial actors who disconnect from reality and the repercussions of those actions, but this time the reasons feel more profoundly rationalized. We meet this group as apathetic layabouts killing time as best they can with access to a nice house, liquor, pot and a swimming pool. When one stumbles upon a dusty electronic game that appears to be an artifact from the ‘80s called “The Game of Death,” they decide to figure it out. Following the game manual’s instructions, the seven friends place their fingers on the edge of the board on raised plastic little skulls to start the game. All are suddenly pricked by a needle inside the device, connecting them to one of the most ominous games you could imagine. After the prick the center of the console lights up and a monochromatic pixellated number appears: “24,” and an internal clock starts to tick. Though the manual explains they must now kill or be killed, there is no urgency to take this colorful toy seriously. Slightly upset by the prick, the disgruntled players go back to their drinking, drugging and joking around. Then the heads of one of the young men explodes. In the living room the “24” at the center of the game board transforms into a skull that lets out a cackle and declares “one down.”

Game of Death

Eventually, the kids figure out they have to kill 23 people or be randomly picked off in the same gruesome way as their pal. All the while the unseen timer ticks inside the plastic demonic toy. What follows are questions of insane moral character, narcissism and psychotic impulse. The actors play their roles to the hilt. If they are morally conflicted, they panic with extreme dread, but then there are others who are totally game to flip on their internal psycho switch to save their skins. Beyond a will to survive, there’s rationalization that attempts to excuse their efforts to play this game that calls into question moral right. Added sympathy for these devils comes in the form of flashbacks via social media accounts to happier, more banal times. French Canadian directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace provide a kinetic style of filmmaking that also includes animation, archaic digital effects and gruesome practical effects that hardly pauses for breath. With its bright color palette, Game of Death ratchets up its hyper extreme situation clearly influenced by the likes of Tarantino and Cronenberg. It makes for a gripping film all the way until its finale at a hospice center.

Earlier, on this second day of screenings, Florida filmmakers were spotlighted in a shorts program that revealed strong talent in our very own state, from Key West to Tallahassee. “Buzzcut,” which this writer first became familiar with at last year’s Key West Film Festival was easy to sit through a second time for all its quick cuts and sardonic humor. It’s about a young lesbian woman in search of a haircut as The Rapture unfolds around her. With kinetic panache, she fights off zombies and demons in her quest to find a living barber who can do the job. The pay off, after all, is sex from her lover. The film, shot by Jon Rhoads and Mike Marrero, never loses its charms, and certainly got the program off to a strong start.

For the most part, the shorts in this program were strong. “It Began Without Warning,” is eerie in its mystery as much as its horror. Directed by Miami filmmakers Jessica Curtright and Santiago C. Tapia it captures the end of a slaughterfest executed by children in possession of what appears to be a disembodied anus that seems to have control over them. A Borscht Corp. produced short called “The Midnight Service” followed it. Directed by Brett Potter and Dean Colin Marcial, the faux documentary, which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, is inspired by the real disappearance of a man last spotted in the Everglades. It attempts to insinuate the gaps in the story featuring “first hand accounts” of perplexed “witnesses.” Patching together their stories deepens mystery, capturing the primal dread of the wilds of the Everglades in which the film takes place. You can watch it below:

The only weak work in the program was a short produced by Florida State University student filmmaker Luis Mendez. “Pandemonium” is one of those shorts that aspires to be a Hollywood film with little room for story development. A by-now rote zombie drama plot features a father and daughter on a quest for a serum that might cure the little girl who is about to turn. The special effects were OK but the acting felt self-conscious and forced, it all builds toward a self-serving conclusion weighted by sentimentality.

Then came the program’s crowning moment, a 30-minute hybrid documentary called “Primal Screen” by Rodney Ascher, the director who gave us Room 237 and The Nightmare. The filmmaker takes recorded accounts and dramatizes them. With this film, he took the stories of men who were left traumatized by a television movie trailer from 1978 for a film called Magic featuring nothing but the face of a talking ventriloquist’s dummy. It sounds silly nowadays, but I’ll never forget hiding behind my living room couch whenever this trailer came on TV, so I totally vibed with these stories. The short describes all aspects of the layers of terror involved in the power of implied mystery. One man talks about watching the dummy’s eyes turn to look off-screen at some unseen presence. There’s also talk about the uncanny valley and how a childhood joy for something like a toy can suddenly be re-framed into something terrible by adults who have long-lost their own innocence. The insight into the youthful naiveté that fuels horror is both funny and profound. You can watch it now on Shudder.com.

The next day, there were two decent features that were also among the festival’s most distinctive movies. If there were an award for the quirkiest of horror movies, the directorial debut by actor Bill Watterson would probably win it. His Dave Made a Maze not only indulges in practical effects, but all the effects are either cardboard, paper or ribbon. It’s a cute film about a busybody named Dave (Nick Thune) who builds a cardboard labyrinth in his living room and finds himself trapped within the expansive physics-defying layers inside of it. His girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) must then lead a crew of their friends — and a few acquaintances — including an opportunistic documentary filmmaker (James Urbaniak), to rescue him.

Dave Made a Maze

Lost in all of the smart cardboard contraptions — and a few death scenes where blood is replaced by red ribbon — is a genuine tone. It’s nice to see Watterson (not the Calvin and Hobbes artist, by the way) and his co-screenwriter Steven Sears compose a girlfriend character like Annie, who is believable as the hero Dave needs to save him from himself while still accepting his flaws. However, there’s a bit of an off-putting disconnect these people have about the deaths of their friends as sort of trivial losses, which makes you wonder where the heart goes in the cuteness and implied violence.

The Endless was the second film that night. The third feature by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead maybe the duo’s most ambitious. That they don’t pull it off totally while still making an intriguing film shows they are still growing talents in the indie sci-fi/horror realm. The directors play a pair of brothers who return to a cult they had escaped after being disillusioned by “normal” life. This time they find themselves trapped there by a time loop that may have alien origins.

The Endless

The film is a quantum-defying romp that enjoys showing off the quirks and problems of its own situation via several contrived scenes including a man who commits suicide over and over and a tent that hides a key mystery to breaking out of this loop. It’s a head-scratcher of a movie, though not nearly as good as the much lower budget time-travel indie Primer. The Endless goes for bombast over subtlety, deflating the drama at its heart, which is fueled by the tense feelings between the two brothers.

The last film I saw at Popcorn Frights stands above all I had the chance to catch at the festival. Super Dark Times follows a group of disaffected teenagers in the winter of some no-name northeastern town of the U.S. It’s 1995, and the Internet has yet to provide enough entertainment to keep the kids indoors, so why not go out to the park, stoned on pot and play with a samurai sword? Well, one of them doesn’t make it home that night, and what follows is a close examination of the breakdown of friendships, tense high school dynamics and the genuine tug of remorse hardly ever explored with such depth by genre movies.

Super Dark Times

The film is the directorial feature debut of Kevin Phillips, who has plenty of experience as a cinematographer. His eye for camera work certainly shows in this expertly shot feature, capturing not only the sprawl of the suburbs and the wilderness surrounding it but also intimately connecting the film’s tortured subjects. The writing by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski offers a strong sense of the doldrums of awkward teenage flux, be they in connecting with girls or parents, not to mention old childhood friends and coping with school bullies. The film’s two leads, Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan amaze with grounded performances. They capture an honest difficulty in their circumstance and relationship, especially when they struggle with the aftermath of a fatal mistake. The film’s soundtrack, featuring the likes of Wire, Black Flag, Primitive Radio Gods and (gasp) The Comsat Angels, among others, never feels heavy-handedly ‘90s referential. And extra kudos goes to Phillips’ restrained focus on period details. There are no sly winks to a pre-internet era, just a mise-en-scene honest to the time period, testament to the filmmakers’ low-key approach and focus on its themes that youth can be disaffected without the distraction of the Internet.

All the movies at the fest featured a short to warm up the audience for the main feature. All of the shorts I saw ended in some kind of tragedy for the protagonists (even the devil worshippers who screw up their ceremony in “Born Again”). But if there was one short that stood out from the bunch as far as pure tension, it was “Curve,” which played before The Endless. The film has no dialogue save for some distant screams. It’s about a woman trapped with what appears to be a broken leg on a curving bit of concrete trying to shuffle back from the edge, which descends into an unknown blackness. In his introduction, Shteyrenberg said it was guaranteed to put you on the edge of your seat. He was right. You can watch it here:

In total, the festival screened 22 features and 25 shorts, so, keep in mind this was a very selective experience for this viewer, who often approaches horror movies with skepticism. Still, it seems the crew at Popcorn Frights put on another exceptional festival. That they proudly declared ticket sales broke a record by opening night, speaks to their growing relevance. Numerous sold out screenings also spoke to the festival’s popularity. It can only grow bigger from here. As long as they keep searching for smart films that are more than blood and guts, I’ll keep showing up.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2017 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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