Dark Sky Films
Day 3 of 2015’s Stanley Film Fest was the last full day of events – what can I say, it’s a short festival – and they made sure to pack the schedule with fantastic films, world premieres and special events. Two very fun genre films played here that I’d already seen, and happily both should be due for theatrical release later this year. We Are Still Here (my review) is a scary, gory and atmospheric little throwback to ‘70s-style horror while The Final Girls (my review) takes a more comedic route as it presents a funny homage to the slashers of decades past. Seek both of these movies out as soon as you can.
Elsewhere on Saturday’s schedule were two world premieres – Some Kind of Hate and Sun Choke. Every young film festival wants to reach the point where they can open up to submissions as opposed to only chasing films that have already played other fests, and Stanley has reached that goal for their third year. A third premiere, Director’s Commentary: The Terror of Frankenstein (my review), played on Friday. My reviews of the two premieres are below along with a third review for the best film I saw this day – Body, a smart take on a conventional plot.
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Lincoln (Ronen Rubinstein) is not enjoying his teen years. His home life is one of excess noise and and an abusive father, and his time spent at school is no better thanks to a group of bullies who make his days hell. He finally snaps and fights back, but the result is a mandatory stay at a youth camp in the desert for troubled teens. What should be a respite from the torment instead just puts a new face on it as he once again finds himself targeted for abuse. In an attempt to avoid fighting back Lincoln hides out in a dark basement, vocalizing his wish that Willy (Maestro Harrell) and his fellow bullies would suffer – and the darkness answers back. A dead girl named Moira (Sierra McCormick) is more than happy to help, and soon the desert sand is running red with blood.
Some Kind of Hate pairs a familiar ghostly revenge tale with real-world terrors like bullying, cutting and teen suicide, but the end result is the wrong kind of bloody mess. Script and performance issues mute the film’s intentions leaving viewers without a character to engage with or care about and visceral thrills that can’t quite make up the difference.
Lincoln is portrayed as a tortured artist-type, but it’s not enough to make it believable that he would be both a prime bully target and of any sexual interest to an ex-cheerleader turned bad girl (Grace Phipps). Rubinstein looks like a young, moody Michael Pare, and he ultimately feels miscast – basically, he’s no Clint Howard in the similarly themed Evilspeak. This is a superficial complaint in some ways, but it hurts the credibility of the character when we just don’t believe them or their situation.
That issue of credibility spreads throughout the film, from the geography of the camp itself to the other characters including the man in charge (Michael Polish), his assistant (Noah Segan) and a yoga instructor (Lexi Atkins) – these three are apparently the entirety of the staff charged with supervising a dozen or so minors. None of them behave even remotely realistically, and while their lighter, more comedic approach may be intentional it butts right up against the inferred seriousness of the themes as play here.
Moira’s method of dispatching those who upset her is directly tied into the idea of cutting and suicide – and it works incredibly well on a purely visual level – but the drama of it all is absent thanks to a less than impactful back story and McCormick’s occasionally shrill delivery and frequent tantrums. She would be far more effective if allowed to be silent while her cuts and scars did the talking. An angry ghost seeking to inflict pain on those who did her wrong should be a character we either fear or empathize with, but Moira – and by extension, the film itself – is neither scary nor affecting.
Some Kind of Hate is bloody though with various arterial sprays and fleshy mutilations that keep the movie from ever feeling dull, but it never comes close to tapping into the potential for real character depth and emotional drama alongside the horror.
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The sun shines down on a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, oblivious to the terror within. Janie (Sarah Hagan) is a young woman in need of psychological and, at times, physical supervision. A past action of some unexplained sort sent her over the edge, and since that point a woman named Irma (Barbara Crampton) has been tasked with providing care – of both the affectionate and tough love varieties. Exercise, sound waves, and cavity searches are just some of her methods, but they intensify when Janie begins to act out again.
When good behavior earns Janie limited free time outside of the house she immediately shows new cracks – she sees herself in a car that passes by. The actual driver, Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), becomes an object of affection for her, and no one thinks that’s going to end well.
Sun Choke touches on ideas of nature vs nurture, but completing that train of thought requires viewers to fill in a film’s worth of blanks as writer/director Ben Cresciman seems to go out of his way to deliver a thoroughly obtuse feature. Flashbacks and wholly imagined sequences are intercut with the ongoing storyline, and while they work to paint a picture of Janie’s increasingly fragmented madness they offer little to nothing to the narrative.
What there is of a story seems to be leading towards a specific destination, and then it gets there – the end. But even that supposition on our behalf is one built on the backs of other films and tropes. We expect this particular conclusion based on the barest of frameworks, and the film simply complies. The fragments we get beyond that are just that, fragments, and the picture they form requires viewers to basically write their own story.
While the narrative is lacking, the film still manages to be compelling based almost solely on the performances of its three lead females. Hagan possesses her character with the ability to walk a razor-thin line between innocence and madness – we’re worried both about what’s being done to her and what she’s going to do – and she mesmerizes in her apparent free-fall. Crampton meanwhile shifts things up a bit from her usual character types and brings the intense and domineering Irma to frightening life. Lane has the least to do of the three, but she does fine work all the same.
Sun Choke survives on the strength of it performers and visuals – cinematographer Matthew Rudenberg’s photography finds frames of beauty amid the hellish pain – but it’s difficult to recommend based solely on those traits for anyone but fans of ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity.
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Three friends head out for a wild night during Christmas break, but their fun turns deadly when a stranger enter the mix. A series of questionable choices leads to an accidental death, but fearing possible reprisals on them and their families trio embarks on a course of action from which there is no return.
Holly (Helen Rogers), Cali (Alexandra Turshen) and Mel (Lauren Molina) have been tight since childhood, and this holiday break sees them reverting to old habits – a girls’ night sleepover, stealing a smoke in the backyard, taking humorous jabs at each other – but when the idea of heading to bed at 9p rears its head they decide to shake things up. Cali suggests they go crash her rich uncle’s house since he’s out of town, and soon the three twenty-somethings are partying the night away in the man’s home.
But then Arthur (Larry Fessenden) arrives and the good times grind to a deadly halt.
The setup to Body is familiar enough from films as diverse as Stag and Very Bad Things, but what immediately sets this one apart is that the friends are women. It wouldn’t be as big a deal if they simply swapped genders, but writers/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen actually invest time in creating these characters beyond simple character types. The first thirty minutes or more are spent getting to know the women – something the genre isn’t necessarily known for – and the actors exhibit real chemistry making for a believably friendly threesome.
Once the incident occurs and the poor decision-making begins, the film deftly avoids the plot’s usual downfall – viewer frustration with the characters’ behaviors and choices. We still stare at the screen confident that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes, but we’re not getting irritated with their stupidity either. They react true to their characters, and the back and forth discussions they have, the attempts to convince each other of various positions, are well-crafted arguments weighing convenience, logic and morality.
The cast is strong throughout, and even Fessenden turns in a solid performance under severe limitations. The highlights though are Rogers and Molina. Rogers has been dancing around the indie scene for a few years now but has been deserving of an even bigger audience since she injected heart into V/H/S’ best segment. Her character is the moral center here, but both the script and Rogers do some smart things with that designation. Molina meanwhile moves from the casual to the emotionally confused with a messy kind of grace. Her character becomes the observer we identify with, and she makes us care more than a genre thriller typically asks of us.
Body is a simple tale told well, a smart script brought to life with strong performances and a sharp eye, and a fun piece of entertainment.