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It’s arguably never been a better time to be a fan of horror movies. Forget the much-maligned term “elevated horror.” Thanks to the success of films like Hereditary and Get Out, along with the proliferation of streaming services, filmmakers have the means to experiment with the form and limits of the genre. Spooky Movie, our area’s annual horror festival, has one of the strongest slates in years, thanks in no small part to a new film that might just be a minor masterpiece. Here are a few snippets of what they have in store. All these films screen at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, andtickets are available here.
Depraved, Oct. 3 at 7:15 p.m.We probably take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for granted, but if you step back and think about it, its ideas are revolutionary. What does it mean to create new life? What responsibility do creators have? If new life does not have a human soul, what obligation do they have toward conventional morality? Depraved attempts to answer theses questions in new ways by putting the Frankenstein myth in a modern context. David Call plays Henry the mad scientist, and Alex Breaux plays his creation whom he dubs Adam—a little on the nose.
Conventional structure and scares do not interest writer and director Larry Fessenden. Instead, he follows the nature of his characters, curious about how they might react to new situations. Remember the scene in Frankenstein where the monster meets a blind man? In Depraved, Adam wanders into a Brooklyn dive bar and chats up one of the regulars. Another key character is Polidori (Joshua Leonard), Henry’s benefactor who is more like a detached hipster than a scientist. He takes Adam to art museums, waxing poetic about world history, but to what end?
As the film continues, it becomes clear these men see Adam as an extension of their ego, and not something for which they feel accountable. That leads to Adam feeling a deep sense of betrayal, and it is to Fessenden’s credit that Adam’s revenge injects new life into a story that is essential to horror’s DNA.
Wrinkles the Clown, Oct. 3 at 9:45 p.m.You gotta give credit where it’s due: The marketing campaign for Wrinkles the Clown is kind of genius.The trailer for the film is full of footage that’s meant to go viral, and it’s unclear whether you’re watching a mockumentary or the real thing. On top of that, Wrinkles is a truly unsettling clown. He has dead eyes and a knack for appearing in unlikely places.
The trouble with this film is that once you get past the marketing, there is little substance. Director Michael Beach Nichols designed his film to tease the line between fact and fiction, padding out his “investigation” with talking heads discussing our cultural obsession with clowns. It turns out that Wrinkles is real, a 2015 article in The Washington Post confirms this, and folks can hire him to scare their children. Nichols includes some footage of these scary pranks, and they ultimately pale in comparison to our imaginations.
Throughout the documentary, you learn more about Wrinkles’ true nature. It is a bit of a letdown, almost like Nichols saw the article and thought he had an idea for a feature-length film, only to realize the premise is not enough to sustain a feature. Wrinkles the Clown would make a great segment on Vice.
After Midnight, Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m.After Midnight is a tough sell. It might be too dialogue-driven for horror fans, and it might be too scary for fans of indie drama. Writer, co-director, and star Jeremy Gardner must be aware of this uphill battle, but word-of-mouth should help one of the most unusual horror films in years.
Gardner plays Hank, a sad sack in his 30s who is reeling from the loss of his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant). She abandoned him, so long stretches of the film are spent alone with Hank in the depilated, Southern gothic mansion where he lives. His only obsession is a strange one: He is convinced an actual monster stalks him at night. Indeed, we hear plenty of creepy noises, although Gardner and co-director Christian Stella keep it ambiguous about whether this is all in Hank’s head.
The film eventually answers that question, except it takes the long way to get there. There are languid, heartfelt scenes where Hank attempts to hold it together, and his friends almost give up on him. All the themes and storylines come together in a sustained sequence of attempted reconciliation. There is a long take where Hank and Abby talk about their future, and while the static camera may test patience, it’s in service of an ending that is so pitch-perfect and satisfying that saying any more would be a crime against cinema. If you accept After Midnight’s slow pace, afterward you’ll be dying for your friends to see it, just so you can talk about it more. It’s that good.
Memory: The Origins of Alien, Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m.Ridley Scott’s Alien has lodged a permanent spot in the imagination of every horror fan. The film has so many wonderful details, whether it’s the blue-collar dialogue or the changing nature of the alien itself. With Memory, director Alexandre O. Philippe makes it clear the film’s colossal success is due to the strange alchemy of Scott, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and artist HR Giger.
After a creepy opening sequence, Philippe relies on a mix of archival footage, rare photographs, and talking heads. Some of the film is a mini O’Bannon biography—he had a tumultuous career before writing Alien—although the behind the scenes story is only a small fraction of what the film follows. Philippe talks to critics, anthropologists, art scholars, and literary scholars to get the full spectrum of Alien’s influences. This is the most fascinating part of Memory: It turns out the film owes a great deal to Greek myth, Francis Bacon, and a host of other disparate sources.
It is unclear how much insight Memory has for diehard fans. The film is so rich with symbolism and cultural resonance that countless books and academic journals have been written about it already. Maybe Philippe’s effort is meant as a primer for those who have not considered the psychosexual possibilities of the chest-burster scene, or how the robot ultimately represents the patriarchy.
One Cut of the Dead, Oct. 6 at 12:30 p.m.One Cut of the Dead is a clever, surprisingly fun rejoinder to the idea that there are no new zombie movies left. Already a cult hit in Japan, the film reinvents itself several times. The first scene is conventional enough. We watch a filmmaker struggle with the zombie movie he’s filming—his actors are not convincing—and things only get worse from there. It turns out an actual zombie apocalypse is afoot, and the actors and crew are unsure whether the zombies are real or part of the movie they’re making. All this is done in one take, with a handheld camera scurrying all over an abandoned warehouse.
That “one cut” only lasts for 30 minutes, and since this film is three times as long, director Shinichiro Ueda has a lot more up his sleeve. What follows is an ingenious bit of screenwriting: We are forced to rethink what we thought of all the characters, and what they mean to each other. The tone shifts from horror to something that’s, well, more of a typical crowd-pleaser. It’s a delicate balancing act, and the film has heartfelt subplots without being too cheesy about them. The cumulative effect is well-taken: Zombie stories do not endure because they’re original, but their very nature leads to a sense of camaraderie.