Slow burn reigns at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival

ScreenerBlog

Tomorrow sees the kick-off of the second annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, running Thursday, October 12 to Sunday, October 15 at various venues around Brooklyn, New York. Read between the lines and you’ll see there’s a Friday the 13th in there—which, naturally, the fest programmers jumped on, scheduling a marathon of Friday the 13th parts one through four at Videology Bar and Cinema in Williamsburg.

But, the Friday the 13th retrospective aside, Brooklyn Horror is about newer films—international and indie discoveries, many of them having their North American, US or East Coast premieres. Two of those films are Victor Dryere’s 1974 and Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez Beltran’s Veronica, both part of a Fear in Focus: Mexico sidebar. (The third film in that series is the anthology offering Mexico Barbaro II, which I was not able to catch in advance of the fest.)

With 1974, Dryere infuses the found footage sub-genre with a retro flair. Filmmaker Manuel (Ronaldo Breme) likes to document his day-to-day life with new wife Altair (Diana Bovio) using his trusty super 8mm camera. There’s the odd crank phone call or strangely behaving flock of birds, but everything’s pretty much normal for the pair…until Altair begins having dreams about “angels” who instruct her to build a black brick wall in their bedroom and another in their basement. One part haunted house movie and one part possession tale, with a little Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for good measure, 1974’s pitch-perfect 8mm aesthetic keeps the scares novel even when the found footage element wears a little thin. (1974 is missing the nausea-inducing shakycam problem that plagues a lot of found footage offerings, but seriously, Manuel, why are you filming all this? It’s no spoiler that Manuel and Altair disappear—that’s presented in the opening scene, with the rest of the film taking place in flashback—and one’s thankful that Manuel didn’t stick around long enough to reach the ubiquitous recording capabilities of smartphones.) Snark aside, 1974 is genuinely thrilling, visually quite distinct, and goes to places you probably don’t expect.

More on the psychological horror side of things is Veronica, about a psychologist (Arcelia Ramírez) who accepts a new live-in patient in the form of the caustic, provocative Veronica (Olga Segura). Veronica was referred to the psychologist by an old mentor…but the mentor's not picking up his phone, and Veronica’s case file is nowhere to be found, so who really knows who she is and what her issues are? Cue the psychosexual power play, as Veronica constantly attempts to get under the skin of a woman who’s increasingly more ill-at-ease than her ostensibly “damaged” patient. Things fall apart a bit in the third act, but up until that point Veronica is suspenseful and provocative, an erotic cat-and-mouse thriller with an unsettling air.

On the more high-energy side of things are the wickedly fun teen horror comedy Tragedy Girls, which I wrote about in more detail as part of my Fantastia Film Festival coverage, and Joe Lynch’s Mayhem. “The Walking Dead”’s Steven Yeun stars as Derek, a lawyer whose dreams of making partner are shattered when a Machiavellian coworker (Caroline Chikezie) gets him fired for a mistake he didn’t make. But before Derek can gather his belongings and vamoose, the building is hit by the so-called “red eye” virus, which causes the infected to lose all inhibitions and act on their true (often violent) desires. In the world of Mayhem, the virus has become a familiar phenomenon, and there’s only one way to deal with it—quarantine the building until it runs its course. That gives Derek and ally of circumstance Melanie (Samara Weaving), who needs a signature from a higher-up to keep her home from being seized, one working day to fight their way up to the top floor and compel the firm’s partners to correct an injustice or two. Or maybe they’ll just bash their heads in. Either/or. “Mayhem” is a good word for the film, which is gleefully chaotic and a hell of a lot of fun. Yeun brings just the right blend of sympathetic and unhinged to the role of office patsy turned harbinger of death.

Female filmmakers are well represented at this year’s BHFF, notably films by directors Jimena Monteoliva (Clementina), Denise Castro (Salvación) and Elizabeth E. Schuch (closing night film The Book of Birdie). In Birdie, an orphaned teenage girl (Ilirida Memedovski) moves into a quiet convent after the death of her mother. Initially withdrawn and uninterested in the trappings of convent life, Birdie soon begins to experience a religious awakening of her own…one, admittedly, that takes the form of an obsession with menstrual blood, seeing visions and building a shrine that seems altogether pagan. Is Birdie really being visited…and, if so, is the visitor divine or demonic? The Book of Birdie is an audacious feature debut from director/co-writer Schuch, who’s previously contributed storyboard and concept art for such films as Wonder Woman and Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Director/co-writer Jimena Monteoliva provides a character-based take on the haunted house genre with Clementina. Cecilia Cartasegna stars as Juana, whose savage beating by her husband Mateo (Emiliano Carrazzone) causes her to miscarry their child. Fearing incarceration, Mateo is lying low in a neighboring town…but strange things keep happening in their apartment that make Juana fear his unwanted return. Is it Mateo, or is Juana’s unwanted visitor more supernatural in origin? Clementina is the sort of discovery you like to make at a festival like BHFF. It was made on a low budget, and it shows—the cinematography’s muddy, and the whole thing takes place more or less in one location. But its tight plotting, expertly maintained tension and explosive finale heralds fine things to come from Monteoliva.

Just as Clementina plays around with the haunted house formula, Castro’s Salvación does the same thing with vampires. Cris (Marina Boti) is only thirteen years old, but already she’s on the verge of death—a lifelong heart defect has finally reached the point where she has to have potentially fatal surgery. Sneaking out of her hospital room in the middle of the night, she meets fellow patient Victor (Ricard Balada), who claims to be a vampire. The elemental fear of death is suffused throughout Castro’s film, with Cris having to make the decision between undergoing the surgery—and potentially dying—and forgoing life’s joys to become a creature of the night. Character-based and focused more on big questions about life, the universe and everything than blood and thrills, Salvación has more in common with Let the Right One In than your Draculas or your Blades.

Fans of Robert Eggers’ The Witch would do well to check out Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa, in which a young mother (Aleksandra Cwen) living in 15th century Austria is haunted by an evil presence. As with much of the rest of BHFF’s lineup, Hagazussa is a film that prizes spine-tingling atmospherics and eye-catching visuals over more straightforward scares—though horror is certainly present in Hagazussa courtesy of a handful of disgusting, gut-churning scenes. You might want to go light on the movie theatre snacks with this one.

The past comes back to haunt father-to-be Ryan (Chase Joliet) in Inheritance, the debut feature from writer/director Tyler Savage. Adopted at a young age, Ryan always assumed his biological father was dead…until he acutally does die, leaving Ryan with a $2.5 million California home with a gorgeous view of the ocean. But there are always strings attached…and the “strings,” in this case, are the truths Ryan discovers about his ancestors after he and his pregnant fiancée (Sara Montez) move in. Savage has served as an associate producer on some of Terrence Malick’s films, and you can see Malick’s influence in the leisurely, assured way Savage unpacks the increasing psychological torment of his lead character.

In a festival marked by some of the most gorgeous photography I’ve seen onscreen this year—and that includes mainstream film releases—the two standouts are The Forest of Lost Souls and The Crescent, both absolutely breathtaking pieces of art. In the former film, a depressed man (Jorge Mota) goes to a forest famous for being a sort of pilgrimage for suicides—think the famous Aokigahara Forest, only never named and in Portugal instead of Japan. While preparing for his own untimely exit from this world, Ricardo meets Carolina (Daniela Love), who when she’s not at musical festivals hangs out at the suicide forest giving people unofficial tours and gearing herself up to do herself in. The way The Forest of Lost Souls develops from there is consistently surprising—and if its 71-minute running time is still a little long for what proves to be a scant story (there are only so many times you can see someone creeping around a corner before it stops being scary), the beauty of Francisco Lobo’s sumptuous black-and-white photography more than makes up for it.

Saturday and Sunday see screenings of Seth A. Smith’s The Crescent, one of this year’s fest standouts. The premise starts in a familiar sort of way: widow Beth (Danika Vandersteen), grieving the recent loss of her husband, goes to stay in her mother’s empty beachside house with her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves, the director’s real-life son) in tow. But it wouldn’t be Brooklyn Horror if weird shenanigans weren’t underfoot: creepy local legends, weird neighbors and a house that seems to have a mind of its own. But The Crescent has more on its mind than simple scares; ultimately, it’s a meditation about grief, with a story—twisty-turny as it is—that always keeps you on your toes. Some of the visuals, too, border on full-on psychedelia, thanks to Beth’s marbling hobby. No, you don’t have to know exactly what marbling is. Just know that it results in a hell of a lot of amazing visuals.