WTF in NYC: What the Fest!? carves a brilliant, bloody niche in the New York City film festival landscape

ScreenerBlog

NYFF. NDNF. Tribeca. NYICFF. NYAFF. NewFest. DOC NYC. New York City has no shortage of film festivals. Why, exactly, do we need another? Well, that’s simple: because none of those fests are quite WTF enough.

“What the Fest!?,” that is.

Kicking off on Thursday, March 29 and running through April 1, the first inaugural What the Fest!? offers a small selection of some of the most innovative, exciting genre films on the festival circuit. Creative Director Maria Reinup, a film festival veteran and filmmaker in her own right, is clear on what she doesn’t want in a What the Fest!? film: “I have, after years and years of watching films as my primary job, become somewhat allergic to films where I can see the formula they are made by. Even if the direction of the film is beyond excellent.”

True to form, every film that screens in What the Fest!? has a “WTF?!” moment (or moments), whether small or large. These are films where “filmmakers have dared to stay true to their vision, and where there is something wild and uncanny in their way of storytelling, [whether it’s] the subject matter, the story itself or the filmmaking style,” explains Reinup.

You don’t want to know what those WTF moments are in advance, of course; more than most other festivals, What the Fest!? benefits from knowing as little as possible about the films before going in. Luckily, the fest team has provided a lineup of such consistent quality that adventurous moviegoers can offer up their trust and not get burned.

Things kick off on the night of Thursday, March 29th with the NYC premiere of Revenge, a wickedly gruesome revenge thriller from first-time writer/director Coralie Fargeat. Rings’ Matilda Lutz stars as Jennifer, mistress to a rich, married man (Kevin Janssens) who invites her to a weekend getaway at his remote Mexican hunting lodge. A sexual assault (mercifully unseen) from one of her lover’s boorish friends sends Jennifer over the edge into full murder mode. Blood will be spilt. Organs will be punctured. Through all the mayhem of Revenge’s 108 minutes, Jennifer keeps going, the injuries she inflicts—and receives—ranking her among the most resilient and hardcore of rape-revenge movie vigilantes. Violent while still retaining a sense of fun (things teeter on the edge of torture porn but never go over), Revenge is the perfect opening volley for the very first edition of What the Fest!?.

Friday brings moviegoers a pair of quite different genre offerings. First up is Norwegian fantasy Valley of Shadows, by far the most sedate of What the Fest!?’s offerings. Adam Ekeli stars as Aslak, a young boy who—like many young children—interprets the strangeness of the world around him through a supernatural lens. Mysteriously murdered sheep. A drug-addicted brother gone missing. And a fairy tale staple: the deep, dark wood on the edge of Aslak’s small town, into which Aslak must (of course) venture when his dog goes missing. A lush combination of score and cinematography bring director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen’s modern-day Gothic fairytale to life.

Things get a bit more high-energy with Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s The Endless, which had its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. As I wrote at the time, the film is a mesmerizing, Lovecraft-tinged jigsaw puzzle. Though The Endless is a follow-up to Benson and Moorhead’s first film, 2012’s Resolution, it’s really more of a companion than an outright sequel; you don’t need to have seen Resolution to see The Endless, and for reasons too spoilery to go into it actually makes for an intriguing experience to watch them the wrong way ‘round. Moorhead and Benson, who also co-direct, star as a pair of brothers who visit the UFO suicide cult they escaped years prior. Justin, the older of the two, predicts that their return will finally convince Aaron that their former comrades were all a bunch of deluded, dangerous loonies. The reality is…. less cut-and-dry.

Another What the Fest!? entry I’ve written about in earlier fest coverage is Lowlife, which screened at last year’s Fantasia Film Festival and has its US debut at What the Fest!? on Sunday. Director Ryan Prows uses four interconnected vignettes about the types of people typically ignored by “polite” society to tell a story that edges up to—and then giddily pole vaults right over—the line between “huh, this movie’s kinda weird” to all-out gonzo insanity. You want to know as little about this one going in as you can, but I’ll give you a few hints as to what you’re in for: Luchador. Organ harvesting. The world’s most unfortunate face tattoo. Lowlife “is a bloody, entertaining pic,” Reinup says, “but it made me laugh and cry thinking about the current state of America—how it communicates that even in the most outrageous situations there is still room for an act of kindness.”

On Saturday, you can make a day of it at the IFC Center with screenings of Blue My Mind, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana, Ghost Stories and Satan’s Slaves. The first of those films, from first-time writer director Lisa Brühlmann, joins the ranks of last year’s Raw and Thelma—and, for that matter, classic films like Cat People and Carrie—to tell the story of a young woman whose sexual awakening parallels a self-discovery of a more supernatural bent. Despite its title edging dangerously close to goofy pun territory, Blue My Mind is a hip, visceral, innovative take on the isolation, uncertainty, self-doubt and re-invention that accompanies female adolescence.

With Blue My Mind and Revenge, in particular, you see one of What the Fest!?’s core tenants: a rejection of the bro-centric vibe that infects the largely male film festival scene. “Genre doesn’t [necessarily] mean some crazy movie you could not discover otherwise or ‘assault a woman for 90 minutes,’” argues Reinup. What the Fest!? films take a hammer to filmic formula in a way that’s twisted, fun and thoughtful… not “let’s see how much gratuitous shock value we can fit into our movie. Also, lots of boobs.” “The [genre] audience has significantly expanded to include all kinds of people, especially women,” Reinup notes. What the Fest!? being a small, new festival makes it nimble, she argues, able to cater its lineup and image to reflect a more inclusive reality. Almost 80% of the fest’s core team is female, including Reinup and Festival Director Raphaela Neihausen; both its opening and closing night films are by female directors.

What the Fest!? offers its sole documentary in Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana, about the only American artist ever convicted for obscenity for his own art. In addressing issues of free speech, Boiled Angels “puts all our other films into a much wider context,” says Reinup. Though rough around the edges in terms of production value, Boiled Angels does prove an informative snapshot of a particularly interesting era of comic book history.

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nynam’s Ghost Stories makes a stop in New York following its US premiere at South by Southwest, which saw it garner overwhelmingly positive reviews. Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther star in a quasi-anthology--a professional supernatural skeptic (Nyman) investigates three instances of hauntings--with a bit more going on than first appears. Slick and effective, if only intermittently scary, Ghost Stories throws itself into high gear in the third act, earning its WTF label and its place in the festival.

The discovery of the fest is a little number called Satan’s Slaves, an Indonesian thriller about a group of siblings who must band together after the death of their long-ill mother leaves the family home with a bit of a haunting problem. Satan’s Slaves, directed by Joko Anwar, manages to feel classic without being predictable. (OK, some of it’s predictable. You don’t need to be a psychic to realize GIANT OPEN WELL IN THE BASEMENT OF AN OLD HOUSE isn’t going to end well.) Pants-shittingly terrifying from the first frame to the last, Satan’s Slaves did great business in its native Indonesia when it opened last year. While the absence of recognizable names and a glut of U.S.-produced, low-budget horror may keep Satan’s Slaves from gaining a foothold in the States, it’s one that horror hounds should definitely seek out.

What the Fest!? closes out on Sunday with a sneak peek of AMC’s new show The Terror and a screening of little-seen cult classic Curse of Snakes Valley, a 1988 action/fantasy film sometimes called “The Soviet Indiana Jones.” The closing night film is Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger, which pits group of punks spending a weekend in the woods against an unhinged park ranger. Several screenings are also accompanied by informative talks on genre-related subjects; you can check out their website for more information.