Fantastic Fest 2009 may be over, but the wrap ups are still coming. Day 5 was one of my favorite days specifically because it consisted entirely of the lower-profile films that Fantastic Fest champions. Coincidentally, my schedule for the day ended up comprised half of horror movies, though in their own ways each felt like they each were from different eras despite all being recently made. “Trick ‘R Treat” is a horror anthology that feels like a cross between the best of late 80s and early 90s horror. “House of the Devil” is made to resemble the fondly remembered low-budget horror of the late 70s and early 80s, and “Rec 2″ is very much a modern shaky-cam fright fest, but with a supernatural twist most reminiscent of early 70s horror.
“Merantau” - solid rock fist up
The first movie of the day was the martial arts film “Merantau.” The Indonesian film industry has had a resurgence lately, and this is the first straight-up martial arts film to be produced by that country. A feet all the more remarkable considering just how good the finished product is.
Easily the best traditional martial arts film at Fantastic Fest this year, “Merantau” tells the story of a young man trying to build a life in the big city of Jakarta, when a chance encounter leads him to rescue a beautiful young woman from a sex trafficking ring.
Of course, the criminals won’t let her stay rescued. As they pursue the pair and her her younger brother, eventually they are forced to make a stand. It should be noted that while the plot may sounds a little trite or inconsequential, the unique atmosphere and culture help keep things feeling impressively fresh. Also, the movie is so sincere and the characters so earnest that you can’t help but be affected by both what happens and how it happens.
The fighting style on display here is also something slightly different than anything I’ve seen before. While not as dancey as capoeira, the way the fighters move here is new to me. It’s not quite the blast that “Ong Bak” was, but “Merantau” is a great example of what this genre and the future of Indonesian cinema has to offer.
“Trick ‘R Treat” – solid rock fist up
The long delayed “Trick ‘R Treat” successfully melds so many sub-genres of horror in a comparatively brief runtime that it’s understandable why it sat on the shelf for two years. It’s not that this movie isn’t good, it’s that it’s so varied it becomes difficult to sell.
Ostensibly a horror anthology, this movie diverts from the standard by actually having all its stories take place on Halloween night in the same town. Not only do some characters show up in multiple stories, the stories are interwoven in such a way that makes for a more involving narrative.
The brisk pacing also keeps the tension up throughout. Unlike most anthologies, there’s really no place where this drags and no weak stories. It may only be 82 minutes long, but so much happens that it almost feels overly generous. The body count is high, the gore and the kills crowd-pleasing, and the performances from actors such as Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, and Anna Paquin all transcend expectations for the horror genre.
It’s really a shame that this is being doomed to a direct to video fate because it’s better than the vast majority of the mainstream horror movies that do play theatrically. “Trick ‘R Treat” is available on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow just in time to become a Halloween institution in your house.
“Mandrill” – solid rock fist up
“Mandrill” is the new spy/hitman movie from the Chilean creative team behind “Kiltro” (a mostly traditional martial arts film) and “Mirageman” (a vigilante/superhero movie grounded in reality). If you haven’t checked those out, you should definitely give them a chance. There’s an inventiveness and a wicked sense of humor that drives both of those two movies, and it thankfully also guides “Mandrill.” The star, Marko Zaror, also happens to be a talented martial artist and was most notably a stunt and fight double for the Rock in “The Rundown.”
When “Mandrill” opens, our hero is on a mission. He infiltrates, beats, or kills a string of people all the while demanding “Where’s Waldo?” From there it just gets more outrageous, including a send-up of B-movie spy films shot in a similar style to the Brock Landers segments of “Boogie Nights.”
There’s a lot more here to like. The love story mostly works, and the fighting, while less plentiful compared to the previous films, is well-staged and appropriately brutal.
The interesting thing about all three of the movies from this team is that they catch you off guard. The low-budget look and subtitled dialogue is like a Trojan horse sneaking in a generous amount of humor and satisfying fights. They all scratch the same itch that the best cult 70s and 80s action movies do. While “Mandrill” may not quite exhibit an evolution in filmmaking for writer/director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, it is the best looking and funniest of the three and accomplishes all it sets out to do.
“House of the Devil” – rock fist way up
Ti West’s “House of the Devil” looks and feels so much like a horror film of the late 70s or early 80s that it would be easy to mistake it for one if not for the presence of industry vets Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, and Tom Noonan. Think “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Black Christmas,” or “Halloween,” and you’ll have an idea of the look and feel of this. In fact, the costumes, performances, and dialogue are so perfectly analogous to that bygone era of a film making that you’d swear this was a lost classic and not just an exercise in style.
Thankfully it also completely succeeds as an unnerving and suspenseful horror film. Its slow burn may be too much for the ADD set who think it isn’t horror without rapid-fire cuts, heavy metal music, and a death every five minutes, but those with patience will be rewarded with a movie with a rare power to unnerve.
The text that opens the film briefly touches on the Satanic panic that swept across the United States in the early 80s. It then suggests there may have been some truth to it after all. Enter Samantha, an angel-faced young woman looking to extricate herself from the untenable conditions of her dorm and the burnout roommate from hell. She thinks she’s found the perfect place, but she’s short on cash and only has the weekend to raise it. An on-campus flier looking for a babysitter draws her attention, and despite just about every warning bell going off, she agrees to take the job.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie without a really bad decision at its center, and we spend nearly two-thirds of the movie with her in the titular house as she slowly discovers just how bad one decision can really be. Like the films that clearly influenced it, this movie has creepy atmosphere to spare. It also rewards patience with a bloody, satisfying climax that makes one thing clear: we all owe Geraldo Rivera an apology.
“House of the Devil” is now available as a “pre-theatrical rental” at Amazon.com.
“Stingray Sam” – rock fist way up
“Stingray Sam is not a hero, but he does do the things that folks don’t do that need to be done. He’s got a bravery inside of him that won’t let him run away, will not let him run.”
When I sat down to watch “Stingray Sam,” writer/director/composer Cory McAbee’s followup to the lesser known cult favorite “The American Astronaut,” I had no idea what I was in for. I also didn’t realize I had memorized the lyrics to its catchy theme song, but there they are.
Originally conceived as a series of downloads for portable media players and phones, McAbee embraces the once-popular serial format to present this science fiction/western/musical/comedy. While that may sound like a lot of slashes, the focus here is on the music and the comedy, with the science fiction and western elements providing a template for pointed satire that miraculously feels both timely and timeless.
Each of the six episodes runs about ten minutes in length, includes the above theme song with its opening and closing credits, and sticks to a formula that has the welcome side effect of grounding McAbee’s myriad ideas in palatable segments that never wear out their welcome. They all feature witty and biting David Hyde Pierce narration that recalls Douglas Adams, charming lead performances from both McAbee and his bandmate Crugie, a seriously wonderful and undeniably catchy soundtrack, and the best comedic performance of a director’s daughter since “Godfather Part III.”
While there is nothing out there quite like it, fans of the recent “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog” should feel right at home here. Even McAbee’s beautiful “The American Astronaut” seems more cerebral and restrained by comparison. Thankfully you don’t have to wait long to find out just how great this is. You can watch the first episode directly at StingraySam.com and if you like it, the entire film is available now with exclusive bonus content directly from its creator’s website.
In a sea of quirky titles, “Stingray Sam” stands out as the most fun I had at Fantastic Fest this year.
“[REC] 2″ – solid rock fist up
Two years ago, the Spanish film “[REC]” burst onto the scene. A shaky-cam horror tale about a late-night television personality covering a day in the life of firefighters that could have otherwise turned into “The Blair Zombie Project,” was hailed as an instant classic. This was thanks in part to several factors, including its location, lead actress, atmosphere, and the way it unraveled the central mystery behind an illness that turns people into rabid, seemingly mindless killers.
Thankfully, the majority of these elements are leveraged effectively here as well, while the events of the first film are put into a new context and that central mystery is explored even more deeply. The events of “[REC] 2″ span a few hours, some of which take place before the events of the first film even end. In that film some emergency workers and the film TV crew following them were trapped inside an apartment building in an attempt to contain a potential outbreak of a dangerous disease.
This film begins by following a paramilitary group and a man claiming to be a scientist as they enter the quarantined tenement building after all contact with those inside is lost. Told they must document everything, the team uses cameras mounted to helmets as they search the building for survivors and continue the mission of locating the source of the outbreak in order to synthesize a cure.
More action packed than its predecessor, “[REC] 2″ does not sacrifice scares or gore. In an interesting twist, the film also shifts perspectives to a separate group later in the film. While a little jarring at first, the shift in perspective actually keeps things fresh and adds yet another layer to the film. While some people may groan at the inclusion of nosy teenagers, their story provides a more identifiable human element that the first one handled so well.
Essentially a “middle chapter” film, “[REC] 2″ is the rare sequel that effectively expands the overall story in a way that enriches both films and makes the changes made in the rote American remake “Quarantine” seem extremely shortsighted. While being a great standalone horror film, “[REC] 2″ ends in such a way that so perfectly sets up a third part that the wait for “[REC] 3″ will be a very, very difficult one.
That was it for day five. Day six brought James McTiegue’s followup to “V for Vendetta” with “Ninja Assassin,” as well the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” Uwe Boll’s non-videogame based film “Rampage,” and more.