Scary Movies X: The return of the Film Society of Lincoln Center horror film festival

ScreenerBlog

Lincoln Center and horror movies? The combination sounds incongruous, yet this week marks the 10th annual Film Society of Lincoln Center “Scary Movies” Festival, so the hallowed NYC arts institution must be doing something right. The intense, seven-day event begins Friday, July 14 and runs through Thursday, July 20. Dinner jackets are not required--unless you happen to be wearing clown makeup.

Whether “Scary Movies X” was intentionally programmed this way or not, the mere presence of such a “disreputable” genre as horror at the esteemed Walter Reade Theater confers legitimacy to the types of films that have been trashed by establishment critics over the years while staying popular with the masses—even though a surprising number of fans find horror a “guilty pleasure,” not Oscar-worthy or artistically significant.

What so many have forgotten is that horror films have remained among the most everlasting works of the silent era—from the seminal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) to the best vampire movie ever, Nosferatu (1922), to the original and very elaborate The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The lower-budget formulas of the last few decades may have malformed the aesthetic bar, but fortunately there seems to be a growing appreciation of the genre, thanks to perceptive critics (notably my Film Journal colleague Maitland McDonagh) and a handful of new filmmakers on the scene, including those in this very festival.

What “Scary Movies X” offers is a wide range of horror subgenres, primarily from two eras—the 1980s and the present-day—thus implicitly attempting to define or redefine what constitutes “horror.” The other lingering, longstanding questions raised are: Why would people want to pay to be scared or disgusted? Isn’t real life horrific enough? And are these films simply projections of male paranoia about female sexuality? Perhaps the more revisionist entries will provide answers. Not all were available for pre-screening, but here are notes (as much as possible without spoilers) about some you will discover during the week ahead:

Opening night’s Terrifier (Friday at 7:30 p.m.), in its New York premiere, lives up to its title and is one of the true highlights of the festival. Director Damien Leone’s follow-up to his feature debut, All Hallows’ Eve (2013), again stars Art the Clown (played by David Howard Thornton with sadistic relish), an extra-frightening version of the villain from the Saw series or anything ever dreamed up by Wes Craven—a killer clown without a backstory or sense of reason behind his creatively savage actions. Yes, the other characters are ones you have seen before, and the narrative is not especially original. Yet there is an exceptional quality to Leone’s pastiche of horror traditions and tropes, from those German Expressionist silents mentioned above to Italian Giallo to the contemporary trend of torture porn. Stick around afterwards for a Q&A with Leone and several cast members, then a “Cake, Clowns & Corpses” costume party!

Saturday’s lineup (7/15) starts at 1 p.m. with two back-to-back 1980s cult favorites: J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday (1981), the first a killer-on-the-loose-at-a-private-academy story (with Melissa Sue Anderson as our obligatory student heroine) and the second a “slasher” update of Children of the Damned (1964), The Omen (1976) and all other prior evil-tot movies.

At 5 p.m., the new films begin with the U.S. premiere of The Limehouse Golem, Juan Carlos Medina’s lavish take on Gothic murder mysteries, set in Victorian London and featuring an unseen Jack the Ripper character. At 7:15 p.m., a more disturbing Australian import follows: Killing Ground, Damien Power’s debut feature about a camping couple who run into two sadistic killers (Power stays for a Q&A after the screening). Finally, at 9:30 p.m., the Indian film Phobia, in its North American premiere, tells a story of a young woman’s slow descent into madness after a vicious attack. With what sounds like at least a nod to Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960) or Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965),director Pawan Kripalani also reworks the “agoraphobic woman alone” suspense drama.

Sunday (7/16) begins at 1:00 p.m. with two campy cult classics. First is George McCowan’s Frogs (1972), one of the most satisfying animal takeover films of the '70s, featuring Ray Milland as a wealthy curmudgeon bent on ridding his decaying Florida estate of its slimy creatures—and getting his just deserts in the process. Sam Elliott, in an early screen role, plays a heroic houseguest. Then, at 3 p.m., William Fruet’s Killer Party (1986) will keep you in your seats, combining a sorority-house slasher thriller with a demonic possession subplot.

Starting at 5 p.m., the two new films mix things up following the day program. With no relation to the 2016 Kevin Bacon feature of the same name, The Darkness, in its New York premiere, is a slow-moving, ambiguous film set in a post-apocalyptic forest where a menacing darkness prevails, forcing a close-knit but troubled family into hiding. Mexican-born director Daniel Castro Zimbrón creates an atmospheric piece that is less suspenseful but more pensive than a lot of the films in the series—with superb cinematography (by Diego García) and standout performances by the two child actors, Aliocha Sotnikoff and Camila Robertson Glennie, in highly demanding roles.

At 7 p.m., Jamie Patterson’s Caught makes its North American premiere. This much-anticipated British thriller about the meeting of two very different couples at a country home mashes up Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and Polanski’s Carnage (2011). Despite some good performances and Patterson’s intelligent, economical use of space, Caught becomes increasingly unpleasant without the compensating philosophical payoff of Michael Haneke’s similar, superior Funny Games (1997). A Q&A with Patterson and two cast members, Mickey Sumner and Christina O'Shea-Daly, follows the screening.

Finally, at 9 p.m., the New York premiere of Jon Ford’s Offensive caps the night with a Straw Dogs-type narrative that strains too much for relevance by drawing parallels between Europe’s Fascist past and its neo-Fascist present. Offensive is pure revenge melodrama, as opposed to more traditional horror, yet the sheer bloodiness of its climactic vengeance makes it more viscerally satisfying than Caught. At least it looks like it belongs in the festival. By the way, both films could have been retitled Get Out.

On Monday, July 17, two comedy-horror films directed by actor Bob Balaban fill the bill. First, at 7 p.m., the celebrated cult picture Parents (1989), a 1950s-era suburban nightmare told from a little boy’s point of view; and second, at 9:30 p.m., the lesser-known My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), a kind of Carrie parody about a teenager’s quest to take the girl of his dreams to the prom, even if it means dying in the process. Appearing in person, Balaban takes questions after Parents and will introduce My Boyfriend’s Back.

Tuesday, July 18 starts at 7 p.m. with Chris Pecker’s Better Watch Out, another Australian entry and New York premiere, blending babysitter and home intruder scares with holiday chills and revising at least two of the most common types of horror films since the 1980s. (Speaking of Australian horror, and since IFC Midnight is sponsoring “Scary Movies X,” New York’s IFC Center has already started its own festival, “To Hell and Outback,” lasting until September 30 and showcasing classics and little-known efforts from Down Under, including Ted Kotcheff’s recently rediscovered must-see Wake In Fright from 1971, Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock from 1975 and Richard Franklin’s original 1981 version of Road Games, as well as a few recent hits, including Jennifer Kent’s 2014 The Babadook. For more information, contact Harris Dew at Harris.Dew@ifccenter.com.)

We turn back to Walter Reade for another New York premiere, taking place on Tuesday, 7/18: Roberto San Sebastián’s The Night of the Virgin, screening at 9 p.m., has its moments of dark humor, but not quite enough of them. After a slow-moving yet intriguing start, the stylishly creepy first half involves the poor virgin victim of the title (a Jerry Lewis-like Javier Bódalo in a brave performance) and a mysterious older woman named Medea (Miriam Martin), who gives new meaning to ”vagina dentata.” But the second half of this Fatal Attraction-meets-After Hours-from-Spain devolves into a seemingly endless series of grotesquely surreal set-pieces. The off-the-rails “body horror” show may not be everyone’s cup of tea—or blood—and recalls Andrzej Żuławski’s delightfully demented Possession (1981) or something from David Cronenberg. Unfortunately, it just isn’t as good.

Closing night (on July 20) presents one miss and one hit, again New York premieres. Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born, at 7 p.m., could have been titled Paranormal Activity: The Baby Monitor Edition, a sort of high-tech Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as reimagined by Stephen King. Unlike most of the movies in the festival, though, Still/Born takes itself very seriously, from its Biblical allusions to its Lifetime Network stylings. Like The Night of the Virgin, an infant plays a significant role, but at least the haunted house formula keeps you watching without enduring the gross-out factor.

On the other hand, the 9:30 p.m. second feature, It Stains the Sand Red, is filled with dark humor as it parodies every zombie movie and TV show, from George Romero’s groundbreakers to “The Walking Dead.” Imagine Russ Meyer remaking Dawn of the Dead with Faith Ford or Elaine Joyce as a kick-ass heroine, and you have an idea of the nutty, sometimes wistful, but surprisingly enjoyable festival closer. Director Colin Minihan and star Brittany Allen field questions following the screening and deserve a standing O for their originality.

Not every film in “Scary Movies X” could be called great horror, and some might not even qualify as horror per se, but there is a cathartic process, however challenging and uncomfortable, in attending a week of productions designed to face one’s fears—especially if it is with an audience simultaneously engaged in the same endeavor.

For more information, write to Hannah Thomas at hthomas@filmlinc.org or call the Walter Reade box office at (212) 875-5601.