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The inaugural Washington, D.C. Fantastic Film Showcase features 15 scary, funny, weird, and classic films screened at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center from June 2 to 5. Select reviews from the festival are below.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
With its youthful protagonist, wicked sense of humor, and monstrous depiction of authority figures, the spirit of Roald Dahl is alive and well in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This lively comedic fable kicks into gear when Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 13-year-old orphan, runs away from his latest foster family to escape the wrath of a cruel child welfare worker. The boy’s temporary father (a supremely grizzled Sam Neill) follows him into the bush, and after a series of misunderstandings, the unwilling partners are forced to hide from the authorities for months. In the process, they became outlaws and legendary folk heroes. Wilderpeople nibbles around the edges of some serious themes, including the callous ineffectiveness of government agencies and the freedom in living off the grid. But director Taika Waititi always gravitates towards the joke, even if it’s a cheap one. The film’s funniest scene, for example, is set at a funeral. With just a few tweaks, Wilderpeople could have been a bit more substantial; as it stands, it’s good for a laugh, some beautiful New Zealand scenery, and not much else. —Noah Gittell
Screens Thursday, June 2 at 7:15 p.m.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Directed by Osgood Perkins
Most horror films coalesce around a single narrative. Even if the perspective shifts from one character to another, there is always a central story, mystery, or monster that drives the action along. The Blackcoat’s Daughter abandons a central narrative in favor of episodic vignettes, and suffers as a result. The main characters are teenagers at an all-girls boarding school over a winter holiday. Familiar faces make up the cast, including Emma Roberts and Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, except writer/director Osgood Perkins (son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins) keeps them disconnected. His film is more about mood than terror or mystery: The dialogue is solemn, the cinematography has little color, and the music is either eerie or jarring. Without much of a story to connect the girls and their horror-tinged ennui, The Blackcoat’s Daughter unfolds like an aggrandized tone poem about loss. It ends with shocking violence, as these films must, but the disconnected narrative means they’re not informed by emotion or a sense of inevitability. Dour to a fault, this a horror film where the supernatural feels more arbitrary than creepy. And in the end, we’re left wondering whether any of it had a point. —Alan Zilberman
Screens Friday, June 3 at 7 p.m.
Under the Shadow
Directed by Babak Anvari
The novel premise of Under the Shadow will probably be enough to get butts in the seats: It’s a horror movie about an Iranian mother and her child haunted by an evil spirit in war-torn Tehran. Thankfully, the film from debut feature director Babak Anvari manages to live up to its logline. It doesn’t do anything new with its genre elements—for the most part, you’ll sense the big scares coming—but it is deeply specific to its time and place, weaving Iranian culture into the rich fabric of its well-worn story. Narges Rashidi turns strength and fear into a compelling whole as Shideh, who must protect her child from both Iraqi missiles and mysterious spirits after her husband is called away to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. Shideh is a symbol of modernity in an archaic, oppressive culture, and her effort to protect her family—without male assistance—takes on political weight. Amidst the dreadful atmosphere and effective jump-scares, her struggle to survive becomes a powerful liberation allegory, elevating the film from being just another spook story to a valuable and entertaining social document. —Noah Gittell
Screens Saturday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Directed by Danny Perez
Antibirth is like a cross between David Cronenberg and the Gathering of the Juggalos, except with a feminist slant. Making his feature-length debut, experimental video artist Danny Perez takes his flair for the bizarre and fits it into a parable about female self-determination. Lou (Natasha Lyonne) is a party animal, and one evening a man squirrels her away to a private room. She does not remember much, except for disturbing flashes, but soon her body starts to betray her. Her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny) suggests she may be pregnant, but Lou’s going through worse than that, so she fights for the nasty truth before it’s too late. Perez films Antibirth with vivid colors and disturbing absurdist imagery: there are multiple sequences where adults in furry costumes perform creepy rituals for reasons I’m not sure even Perez understands. Lou’s changes, however, are front and center, and they may be too much for most viewers. There’s a scene where Lou notices a gigantic blister on her foot, and Perez steels his camera on its blood and pus when Lou pops it. Dark comedy informs Antibirth, thankfully, so even the gory scenes are not too serious. And when the film reaches its inevitable bloody conclusion, Lou arrives at a defiant sense of peace. Others may have violated her, yet she’s going to decide what happens to her next, government experiments be damned. —Alan Zilberman
Screens Saturday, June 4 at 9:30 p.m.
The Greasy Strangler
Directed by Jim Hosking
It took me at least three attempts to make it through all 93 minutes of writer/director Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler. It is simply one of the grossest, annoying, and infantile films I’ve ever seen. But for Hosking and the team behind the movie, that’s probably a ringing endorsement. It’s clearly a film meant to gross out and provoke, much in the vein of John Waters, Tim Heidecker, and Eric Wareheim. Make no mistake: The Greasy Strangler is not a good film. At its best, it plays like a cheap knockoff of Waters’ schlocky gross-out finesse and Tim and Eric’s wonderfully bizarre brand of anti-humor, but most of the time it operates like a 13-year-old boy’s half-baked fever dream, replete with cheap sexist and homophobic jokes. The film’s unfortunate narrative centers around mentally underdeveloped man-child Brayden (Sky Elobar) and his perverted, narcissistic, grease-obsessed father Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels), who runs a walking disco tour of their hometown. Their household is threatened, however, when a sultry woman named Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) takes a romantic interest in Brayden, and Ronnie becomes jealous. He lashes out by killing anyone who crosses him via his utterly disgusting alter ego, The Greasy Strangler(he literally coats himself in grease until he’s unrecognizable and then goes on a strangling spree). Some other stuff happens, but it doesn’t matter: This is a film whose sole purpose is to make you gag and squirm in your seat. But if that’s your thing, The Greasy Strangler is your Citizen Kane. —Matt Cohen
Screens Friday, June 4 at 11 p.m.
Directed by Drake Doremus
When it comes to dystopian science-fiction, the devil is in the details. What makes these worlds compelling are pitch-perfect exaggerations that serve as warnings as what may come if we aren’t careful enough. With Equals, the new dystopian romance from filmmaker Drake Doremus, the director focuses more on emotion—or the lack thereof—instead of world-building, and it comes off as undercooked. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) lives in a pristine, austere world where emotion is considered a disease. He and his colleagues eke through life as automatons, but then something strange starts to happen once he meets Nia (Kristen Stewart): he falls in love. Unwilling to quash their connection, Nia and Silas conspire to abandon society so they can live together. There’s a Shakespearean element to Equals, including plot points lifted right out of Romeo & Juliet, except their forbidden love is too inert for tragedy. Hoult and Doremus don’t sell the depth of feeling this story requires (Stewart, meanwhile, can suggest a great deal with a small gesture). The secondary characters offer alternative consequences of living without feeling, yet the film never explains why emotion was abandoned in the first place. A short film need not answer this question, but a feature needs an abundance of thought. —Alan Zilberman
Screens Sunday, June 5 at 4:30 p.m.
Directed by Zach Clark
It was only a matter of time before filmmakers started to mine the year 2008 for cinematic material. Arguably one of the most turbulent years in recent American history—the country reeling from economic collapse and war looking toward a hopeful future with Barack Obama’s rising presidential campaign—it serves as the backdrop for Virginia native Zach Clark’s moving, familial drama, Little Sister. Colleen (Addison Timlin) lives an innocent, noble life in New York City, where she’s training to become a nun, but she’s still got baggage she’s keen on keeping to herself. She hasn’t spoken to her family in three years, but high-tails it back home to Asheville, N.C. after a cryptic email from her mother says that her brother is back. At home, Colleen’s past comes back to haunt her, literally. Her room hasn’t changed from her GWAR-worshipping teenage goth days. Colleen’s tumultuous relationship with her emotionally scarred mother (Ally Sheedy) has both of them walking on eggshells and she struggles to reconnect with her brother, a soldier who was horrifically disfigured in Iraq and refuses to let anyone see him. At first, Colleen wants nothing more than to bolt, but over the course of several days she confronts her family’s wounds—both physical and emotional—and they work to heal. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, Clark’s fifth feature is perhaps his most poignant to date. —Matt Cohen
Screens Sunday, June 6 at 7:30 p.m.