'Starfish,' 'Cannibal Club' and 'Luz' stand out at this year's Brooklyn Horror Film Festival

ScreenerBlog

Local festivals might not have the cachet or big names of a NYFF or a TIFF or an [insert acronym here]. But they’re a great choice for moviegoers looking for the opportunity to discover new titles they probably wouldn’t have heard about—and almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to see on the big screen—otherwise. There are no glitzy red carpets (or, for that matter, hours-long lines) at the third annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, but there is the chance for horror hounds—or cinephiles of a more general yen looking to get into the spooky spirit—to experience international and independent horror outside of what’s on offer at the local multiplex.

Running from Thursday, October 11th to October 18th, the fest offers an array of features, shorts and retrospectives, the latter group including slashers The Burning, Blood Harvest, My Bloody Valentine, The Funhouse and Sleepaway Camp. If you wanted, you could spend all just about all weekend in Brooklyn mainlining back-to-back ghosts, monsters, creepy cult leaders and murderous maniacs—but if you’re looking for just a handful of films to check out, the fest’s international offerings are the way to go.

On Friday evening, BHFF boasts the US premiere of Takeshi Sone’s Ghost Mask: Scar, about a Japanese woman whose search for her missing sister lands her in plastic surgery-obsessed Korea, where disappearing into a brand new life with a brand new face is as easy as going under the knife. That’s true in this film, anyway, which takes societal pressure faced by women to achieve physical perfection and pushes it to its bloody extreme. Ghost Mask: Scar is a hokey title for a hokey movie, but damned if it isn’t hokey in a fun way, like a soapy, melodramatic k-drama was genetically spliced with a body horror-infused revenge thriller. A bloody massacre being followed up by a schmaltzy scene of sisterly bonding set to a twinkly pop ballad just might be my favorite moment of the entire fest.

Social issues also come to the forefront in Guto Parente’s Cannibal Club, in which the elite of Brazil take advantage of the lower class by literally murdering and eating them. Subtle? Nah. Gnarly and bloody and wicked as fuck? Yeah, that’s more Cannibal Club’s speed.

Things take a swing towards the more serious on Saturday night with a screening of Timan Singer’s slow burn thriller Luz, which had its North American premiere earlier this year at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Stylish, original and eerie, Luz is a can’t-miss addition to BHFF’s 2018 lineup. (Another Fantasia film, Cam, also screens at BHFF; regrettably, it was a letdown.)

If you’re already around and awash in the feel of cerebral horror post-Luz, you might as well to stick around for the screening taking place immediately afterwards: A.T. White’s Starfish, another fest standout. Virginia Gardner turns in one of BHFF’s best performances as Aubrey, a young woman coping with guilt and grief after the death of her best friend, Grace. Following the funeral, she breaks into Grace’s empty apartment to do a bit of hardcore wallowing. And then the apocalypse happens. White does much with a limited budget, giving the audience fleeting glimpses of the monsters that have come to take over the world, and which—Aubrey discovers—she, with the help of messages left by Grace, is uniquely positioned to stop. More a meditation on memory and grief than an out-and-out apocalyptic romp (indeed, there’s little-to-no romping going on here), Starfish marks a bold debut from a first-time feature director.

BHFF, as with any festival, has some mixed-bag offerings as well. There’s the Monday screening of doc Wolfman’s Got Nards, about the cult that’s sprung up around the 1987 horror comedy The Monster Squad. It’s intriguing when it goes into the behind-the-scenes details on the film (particularly the monster design) and director Fred Dekker’s mixed feelings on the film, which only gained some measure of popularity years after he came to terms with it being a box-office flop. Unfortunately, approximately 70% of Wolfman’s Got Nards consists of fans talking about how much they like Monster Squad…again…and again…and again. If I wanted a dude to talk at me about '80s nostalgia, I could go to just about any bar wearing a Goonies or Gremlins t-shirt and just wait to be interrupted. Wolfman’s Got Nards reads more like an extended DVD special feature than a documentary in its own right; if your enthusiasm for Monster Squad is anything short of fanatical, there isn’t much here for you to enjoy.

Another head-scratcher is Swedish director Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday, screening on the night of Monday the 15th. The movie itself—about Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), a young woman who joins her drug dealer boyfriend and his circle of friends/employees on a vacation in Turkey’s Turquoise Coast—is good, it’s just…not horror. Adjust your expectations going in, however, and you’ll find that Holiday is a disturbing, complex drama about an abusive relationship. (Warning: There are explicit scenes of sexual abuse.)

A different sort of disturbing dynamic is explored in Veronica Kedar’s Israeli film Family, which starts with Lily (Kedar) sitting down for a nice photo with the corpses of her family members. Through a series of flashbacks, Kedar (who also wrote the film) unspools Lily’s dysfunctional family life and the ways in which her parents, sister and brother came to die. Unflinching and deftly acted, Family avoids a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains take on Lily’s family in favor of a more nuanced, and ultimately more effective, approach.

The family sins of the past also come back to haunt in The Clovehitch Killer and Welcome to Mercy, both already acquired by IFC Midnight and receiving theatrical distribution next month. The Clovehitch Killer is an unusual addition to the BHFF lineup based on how not unusual it is. Much of the rest of the lineup is of a more cerebral, slow-burn bent, while Clovehitch is fairly straightforward thriller about a teenage boy (Charlie Plummer) who discovers that his conservative, Boy Scout troop leader father (Dylan McDermott) might be a serial killer. It’s a fairly basic film in terms of style, acting, plot—the list goes on. Not bad, just not particularly memorable.

A bolder bit of festival programming, and one better suited to the big screen is, Welcome to Mercy, in which a single mother (Kristen Ruhlin) visits her estranged parents in the Latvian countryside, only to develop symptoms of stigmata that causes her to attack her daughter (Eva Ariel Binder). Luckily, there’s a monastery nearby where they know just how to deal with this sot of thing. Monasteries in horror movies are always just what they appear, especially if they're on an island surrounded by ice-cold water! Welcome to Mercy loses steam near the end as it wraps all its intriguing ambiguities up in a nice little bow; it’s a matter of the script not quite delivering on its eerie setup. Still, the performances are solid, and the atmosphere is pleasingly Gothic.

A late addition to the fest lineup, Level 16 similarly has trouble sticking its landing. The concept is intriguing enough: a group of girls is imprisoned (not that most of them realize it) in a creepy warehouse/school, where a dictatorial headmistress right out of a retro S&M pinup instructs them on “feminine virtues” like cleanliness and obedience. The girls think they’re being prepared for adoption, though clearly something more sinister is going on: None of the girls has been taught how to read, and they’ve all been named after famous screen beauties (Vivien, Sophia, Hedy, Ava, Rita, etc.). A dystopian thriller about the commodification of female beauty, Level 16 tends to be bash-you-on-the-head obvious with its critiques of the patriarchy; I’m not sure the word “satire” should even apply when you’re looking at something this blunt and clunky. Still, it’s  a well-meaning film with some appealing retro-brutalist dystopian design.  Another highwater mark for the fest in terms of visuals is in Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing, screening Friday night. Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska star in what is basically a two-hander about a man who decides to fight his urge to murder his newborn baby by torturing and killing a sex worker instead. Piercing is style over substance and too self-conscious in a “Look at me, Ma. I’m edgy!” sense. But the retro set and costume design are good, and Abbott and Wasikowska are both great actors who manage to elevate the script with measured performances.

As was the case last year, it’s where BHFF gets weird that it gets really good. Fans of blood 'n' schlock have their needs met by the retrospective screenings (and Ghost Mask: Scar, God love it), but it’s with films like Starfish, Luz, Cannibal Club and Family that the fest really makes its mark.