Cult Movies At SIFF


My cult cinema itch usually gets a healthy scratching from the Seattle International Film Festival, and SIFF 2014 proved to be no exception.

Between SIFF ’14′s Midnight Adrenaline series and the other genre-informed movies that peppered the festival schedule this year, anyone craving something scary, action-filled, or just plain batshit-crazy found something to love.

"If it's in a word or in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook..."

I couldn’t catch every genre effort that screened at the Fest this year, which meant missing intriguing offerings like Bobcat Goldthwait’s Bigfoot horror flick Willow Creek and the Casanova-meets-Dracula arthouse feature, The Story of My Death, among many others. But nearly everything I saw that fell under the cult movie umbrella offered something worthwhile. Enclosed, please find one B-movie evangelist’s rundown on SIFF ’14′s genre cinema presentations. [WARNING: Some of the trailers linked below include solidly NSFW content. Please proceed accordingly.]

Cult Movie Comfort Food:

If SIFF ’14′s programming is any indication, genre filmmakers are realizing that there’s no shame in doing something that’s formula-informed, as long as it’s done well.  Director Ben Ketai’s Beneath finds several coal miners (and one miner’s lawyer daughter) struggling to keep alive and sane after a cave-in seals them hundreds of feet below. It’s a lean, effective thriller that turns horrific (and bloody) but keeps its focus tight and direct. Best of all, it features the Lawnmower Man himself, character actor Jeff Fahey, in a (pardon the pun) meaty supporting role.

No one holds more respect for the time-honored schlock tradition of the Nazi Zombie Movie than me, so my disappointment with the competent but generic sheen of Tommy Wirkola’s shocker Dead Snow was overpowering when the movie first first hit midnight screens in 2009. Thank God for directors who learn from their mistakes. The Norwegian director’s brand-new follow-up, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, bests the original in every way: The action/horror setpieces fly fast and furious, Wirkola’s shambling SS undead possess way more personality, and the jokes connect with giddy precision. Best Nazi Zombie film since 1977′s Shock Waves, gnarled skeletal hands down.

Late Phases, the final movie to screen for SIFF’s 2014 Midnight Adrenaline series, follows a blind Vietnam vet (We Are What We Are‘s Nick Damici, excellent here) dealing with a werewolf infestation in his retirement community. There’s no reinvention of the wheel going on here, and the workmanlike script keeps it from broaching classic status. But Late Phases serves up a character-actor cast engineered to give genre geeks the vapors, director Adrian Garcia Bogliano plays things surprisingly straight, and it’s impossible not to root for a horror movie that eschews CGI lycanthropes for good old-fashioned prosthetics and guys in werewolf suits. Old-fashioned practical special effects also enliven Zombeavers, a retro-shocker that offers quintessential truth in titling and a rip-roaring good time several cuts above your average SyFi channel Nature Gone Amuck B-flick.

A Masque of Madness, meantime, compiled footage from the 50-year-plus career of the mighty Boris Karloff, and if it wasn’t anything earthshaking, it at least put the screen’s most silkily-menacing character actor at front and center for 80 minutes. If that ain’t cult movie comfort food, I don’t know what is.

The Hong Kong Contingent:

I was a little disappointed in SIFF 2014′s Hong Kong movies for the most part, and that’s more likely a reflection on the dearth of cohesion in that country’s recent output than on the efforts of SIFF programmers. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, the fest’s requisite Hong Kong martial arts period piece, was handsome but uninvolving, and its insistence on kneecapping some excellent Yuen Woo-Ping fight choreography with Bourne Identity-style camera fuckery proved a major distraction. The Midnight After (discussed in one of our previous roundtables) at least showed some inventiveness and had its moments, but likewise disappointed.

Blessedly, there was one strange and satisfying jewel amidst the Hong Kong genre cinema on display. Rigor Mortis, a horror movie about a weary actor residing in a haunted monolith of an apartment building, sharply updates the hopping-vampire movies that proliferated in Hong Kong throughout the ’80′s, with atmosphere to spare, breathtakingly creepy visuals, and a wonderful sense of mundane normalcy living uneasily alongside dark mythic forces (it’s been on a regular run at Pacific Place this week).

Now, THAT’s Italian (-influenced): The wild primary colors, non-sequitur surrealism, balletic violence, and psycho-sexual inferences that fueled Italian horror cinema in the 1970s have wielded a sizable influence on modern filmmakers, and two SIFF presentations laid that influence bare to varying effect.

American director Jason Bognacki’s debut feature Another saw its world premiere at SIFF 2014, and it definitely owes a heavy debt to Italian horror maestros like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Bognacki’s definitely got the goods as a visual stylist (he’s cut his teeth on several horror shorts over the last few years), which helps offset an admittedly shaky and sometimes ridiculous script (my interview with Bognacki should be posting soon).

French directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani richly re-thought the giallo sub-genre with their debut effort Amer, one of my SIFF 2010 faves (see my archival interview with the directors for some more background on the genre, on account of there’s always room for giallo). The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, the duo’s follow-up, doesn’t quite attain Amer’s dark beauty and resonance, but (in my mind, at least) it cements them as adept and imaginative keepers of the giallo flame. Like the best gialli, the movie explores the pas de deux between sexuality and death almost entirely through exquisitely-crafted visual and aural overload, and if you’re willing to go with it, it’s one visually succulent fever dream. The fine folks at the Grand Illusion evidently agree: They’re bringing Strange Colour back for a run later this year.

The Best Genre Flicks I saw at SIFF 2014:

The above-mentioned Rigor Mortis and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears definitely clicked with me, instilling some hope that there’s still life in even the most entrenched horror sub-genres. I’ve already covered Alex de la Iglesia’s Witching and Bitching in a previous roundtable, and it still stands out as one of the most exhilarating things I saw all SIFF–pure excess engineered with impeccable virtuosity and reckless creativity. With the considerable distribution muscle of Universal Pictures behind it, cult idolatry and appreciation are (I hope) a given.

I’m not really an anime connoisseur, but Patema Inverted kinda enchanted in its own right. Ever lay in the grass on a summer day as a kid, tilting your head so it almost feels like the sky’s actually an ocean and gravity’s a tenuous safety belt that’s barely keeping you from falling up? This movie captures that sensation. It’s not quite at Miyazaki-level brilliance, but it comes really, really close.

Two of the best genre efforts to grace SIFF 2014, interestingly, both starred Mark Duplass, were feature-film debuts for their respective directors, sported two-person casts, and contain integral twists best left unspilled via spoilers. My colleague Josh and I already lauded Charlie McDowell’s perceptive and haunting The One I Love, which throws a Twilight Zone-style wrench into a relationship dramedy framework, and Creep, Patrick Brice’s extremely enjoyable found-footage horror comedy. I won’t go any further describing either, except to say that the former was one of the best-acted movies to play the festival, and the latter is a playful tweaking of the found-footage template that boasts the five of the most chilling/hilarious closing minutes of any movie I saw all SIFF long. Mad props to Duplass, who gets to explore a lot of different aspects of his persona between the two movies.

Great as all of the above were, though, The Babadook remains, in my mind, the crown jewel of SIFF ’14′s genre presentations. Director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut starts out as a resonant and very affecting drama about a widowed single mom (Essie Davis) dealing with her troubled young son (Noah Wiseman). Then it neatly segues into horror turf as a storybook in the boy’s possession starts bleeding into reality. Solidly acted by both leads, full of surprises, and crap-your-pants scary without leaning on the red stuff, it cobbles together familiar elements with wicked imagination and enough artistry to make it one of those true rarities: A classic horror film likely to captivate civilians and hardcores alike. More please, Ms. Kent. Please.