Take shelter from holiday schlock with irreverent film fest's 17th edition—in streamable form. Plus: Czech gem Ikarie XB-1
DECEMBER 9, 2020
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We may be halfway between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but if many film fans had their way it would be Halloween year-round, programming-wise. To them, treacly, Hallmark-style holiday romcoms are a more horrifying prospect than actual horror movies. Riding to the rescue amidst the sugary tsunami of Yuletide entertainment is Another Hole in the Head, whose 17th annual edition is, natch, online-only this year. (More info here.)
This genre film fest runs Fri/11-Sun/27, running amuck right through Baby Jesus’ b-day. Though most of that program is available for streaming throughout HoleHead’s span, some individual titles are limited in terms of time or geographic access. Amon
g the few such is one of the schedule’s best chillers, Terence Kray’s An Unquiet Grave, which will be made accessible only on December 24. It’s an admirably spare, eerie tale in which the widowed husband (Jacob A. Ware) and twin sister (Christine Nyland) of a woman killed in a car crash attempt to bring her back from the dead a year later. If horror movies have taught us anything, it is that this sort of thing is never, ever a good idea. Shot in upstate NY, Grave is very small (those two actors comprise the entire cast) and simple, but it has creepy conviction to spare.
Other variably ghoulish and supernatural features among HoleHead’s 40-plus features (not counting the over 250 shorts) run an international gamut, representing the UK (Daytime Nightmare), Croatia (F20), Bolivia (Invention of Nature), Canada (Parallel Minds, The Return), France (The Explorer), New Zealand (a fresh spin on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), and Malaysia (Brave). One recommendable import is Kim Young-hoon’s accomplished debut feature Beasts Clawing at Straws, a Pulp Fiction-y jigsaw of South Korean criminal intrigue, with mordant humor if less garrulous snark than the Tarantino model.
Crime also doesn’t pay for some other non-fantastical titles included, among them US shoot-em-up The Big Ugly, which has veteran heavyweights Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, and Ron Perlman on warring sides of a cross-Atlantic underworld dispute; Australian vintage noir spoof The Big Kitty; and another noirish B&W throwback, the more unclassifiably quirky Some Southern Waters. Offering an unexpected flipside perspective, the Brazilian A Lei a.k.a. The Statement provides a series of monologues by military police personnel whose inner thoughts reveal considerable corruption and indifference to human life on the supposedly right side of the law.
Several of the most interesting and/or just plain oddball HoleHead selections this time around have a determinedly druggy ambiance. Dan Moss’ arresting UK/Uganda coproduction Imperial Blue follows Hugo (Nicolas Fagerberg), a globe-trotting ne’er-do-well deep in hock to a London dealer after his smuggling plans go south in Mumbai. So he traipses off to Africa, hoping to score some of a mysterious blue herbal substance that “makes you see the future,” gaining a wary ally in cash-needy villager Kisakye (Esther Tebandeke). This unusual culture-clash story may be low on genre content, but it’s handsomely atmospheric and politically charged. It memorably takes the measure of a particular kind of traveler you sometimes see messing about in developing countries, always getting wasted and blundering onto the wrong side of the local law.
Another hapless head tourist is Victim of Love’s Charly (Rudi Kahnke), the half-American protagonist who’s returned to a Copenhagen hotel in search of the girlfriend who disappeared there some time before. But he seems to do less “investigating” than crawling in the city’s underbelly, drinking and drugging, forever waking after yet another blackout. It’s not surprising when we realize that Charly has a very violent streak, and that indeed the terrible thing that happened to his girlfriend just might be him. Its hallucinatory progress recalling fellow Dane Nicolas Winding-Refn’s trilogy of neo-noir nightmares (Drive, Only God Forgives, Neon Demon), Jesper Isaksen’s debut feature is likewise more style than substance, but that style is pretty damn sharp.
Other variably dosed dreamscapes include Juan Maria Martino’s US Country of Hotels, a David Lynchian paranoid mystery in which a series of guests are driven mad by sinister Room 508; Wes Terray’s Precarious, whose handsome but perpetually imperiled hero (Andrey Pfening) tries to flee a town of many cryptic secrets; and the campier, more overtly fantastical quirkfest of Joe Badon’s Sister Tempest, in which a bewildered woman (Kali Russell) is placed on trial for unknown offenses by an intergalactic tribunal.
As ever, HoleHead has generous helpings of comedy horror, starting with official opening nighter #ShakespearesShitstorm, a doubtless gore-and-gag-filled spin on The Tempest that continues the festival’s association with schlockmonger Troma, as well as Troma’s longtime messing with The Bard. An above-average mix of humor, horror, and (surprise!) rom-com is Max Werkmeister’s Danni and the Vampire, in which a jaded thrill junkie (Alexandra Landau) rescues a cute, grateful bloodsucker (Henry Kiely) from certain doom, and they shack up. It’s an appealingly goofy tale whose leads have good chemistry, even if there aren’t quite enough ideas here to sustain an over-padded runtime. Offering similar snark on somewhat lower planes of humor are Hawk & Rev: Vampire Slayers and Willie, Jamaley & The Cacacoon.
Those who want a plain old slasher body count may have to settle for the tongue-in-cheek (but still gory) likes of The Last Thanksgiving, an enthusiastic shoestring holiday horror in which diner employees stuck working on Turkey Day find themselves on the menu for a local cannibal clan. Fear Town USA finds the requisite party-hearty teenagers in the woods meeting with dire ends in another bloody satire of 80s horror conventions. “Who makes all these movies?,” you might ask. In which case you’ll probably want to watch The Horror Crowd, a documentary about exactly that, interviewing an array of familiar genre-friendly actors and directors.
There’s still more on AHITH’s December slate, including those 250+ shorts and some live (albeit online) events.
For fantasy cinema fans who prefer to imbibe vintage celluloid—preferably not the obvious classics—there’s a rare treat in store this week outside the realm of HoleHead. Czechoslovakian sci-fi epic Ikarie XB-1 was made in 1963 (and set in 2163). It arrived in the US two years later as Voyage to the End of the Universe—drastically cut, dubbed, and with its basic narrative much-altered. The recently restored original that BAMPFA begins streaming as of this Friday has its dated aspects. But it’s a much more serious, adult space opera than Hollywood was making at the time, with some visually impressive elements that bolster the claim that it influenced Kubrick’s later 2001.
The crew of the titular “small space town” is in for a long haul en route to the planets of Alpha Centauri, where “the existence of life is anticipated.” During the eight years it will take to get there, they experience various travails, including finding a ghostly doomed Earth rocket from nearly two centuries earlier, an epidemic of radiation-induced illness, and one man’s violent mental meltdown. Equally alarming (for the viewer at least) are a comedy robot and the horrible social dance styles of the future. Still, based on a story by Soviet sci-fi master Stanislaw Lem, Jindrich Polak’s widescreen B&W production makes contemporary Western efforts in the genre look juvenile by comparison, with nary a raygun or tentacled monster in sight.