The pandemic has resulted in a year of film festivals here at the Gutter, including the Toronto International Film Festival, Hong Kong Filmart and now Nightstream and the Brooklyn Horror Festival. The Gutter’s own Angela and I attended Nightstream with press cards in the bands of our fedoras and passes clipped to our lanyards. You can read Angela’s reviews of what she saw this year here. Nightstream is an online film festival created by the Boston Underground Film Festival, the Brooklyn Horror Festival, the North Bend Film Festival and the Overlook Film Festival in response to the pandemic. I saw six films at Nightstream and two additional films as part of the The Brooklyn Horror Festival and was fortunate enough to get press credentials to both. I have been watching way too many movies and now I am here to share six of the films I saw at these festivals with you. Most of these films haven’t had wide release yet, so I’ll be careful about plot elements and might return to them for more in-depth pieces in the future.
Alien On Stage (UK, 2020) directed by Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey
Alien on Stage is delightful af. A play adapted from Alien? Put on by a group of bus drivers, transit supervisors and engineers? Largely produced by one family? And that family is not involved in weird local power dynamics, but is trying hard to make the best play they can? That is so my thing. I love people working together to make wonders with what they have.
Every Christmas, a group of transit workers in Wimbourne, Dorset, UK put on a play at the Allendale Community Theatre. It’s usually a pantomime, a British theatrical tradition with broad humor, silly songs, and cross-dressing. Democratic and often subversive, pantomime should totally be my thing and yet it is not. It’s not Luc Hayward’s thing either. So when he was asked to write this year’s Christmas play, he decided to adapt a movie he loved, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), despite how popular the previous year’s Robin Hood panto play had been. Understandably, an audience looking for their annual pantomime where they can shout, laugh, sing along and enjoy many fart jokes was not drawn to a production of Alien. The Paranoid Dramatics, as the cast and crew called themselves, decided that the play was a flop and moved on. However, some people from London saw the show and decided more people needed to see it. And then the iconic Leicester Square Theatre in London’s West End invited the Paranoid Dramatics to produce the play there. And the people who decided this play needed to find its audience, directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, decided to make a documentary about all of this.
In a film about a story many of us know as well as Robin Hood, the documentary finds suspense in how that story will be told. How will the cast and crew pull off Alien with their budget and level of experience? It also finds suspense in how a West End audience will react as that audience wonders how they will handle a xenomorph or a chestburster. The Paranoid Dramatics’ ingenuity is not just charming, but inspiring to me. I was protective of the cast and crew from the start, but even a grumpier and less forgiving an audience than me will probably be swayed by a film perspective that is firmly on the side of scrappy amateurs.
And, so you know, Alien on Stage would make a fantastic double feature with Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead (2017).
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (Japan, 2020) directed by Junta Yamaguchi.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is an entertaining “time suspense comedy” shot in one take (on a phone) that uses the conventions of time travel stories while ultimately rejecting them and moving beyond them. I know there are people out there who will be timing and diagramming stuff, and I have to say: Trust the filmmakers. They absolutely know what they are doing. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has rightfully been compared to One Cut Of The Dead. Like Ueda’s film, it’s fun, it’s extremely low budget and it’s as much about filmmaking as anything else.
Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes opens at closing time in a cafe on the bottom floor of an apartment block. Kato (Kasunari Tosa), the owner, lives upstairs and he keeps a feed from the cafe streaming to a monitor in his room after hours. Kato’s practicing for a concert he’s playing at the cafe and has lost his guitar pick. Another him appears on the monitor and tells him that he is Kato two minutes in the future and where to find the pick. Kato is astonished. Future Kato tells past Kato to hurry down to the cafe to take his place explaining the situation to himself. Kato does. Aya (Riko Fujitani), a barista at the cafe, and several of Kato’s friends become involved and determine that there is a two minute delay between the monitor in Kato’s apartment and the one in the cafe, a delay allowing them to see two minutes into the future or two minutes into the past depending on the monitor. At first, they play with their access to time, using it to do tricks and pranks. Tanabe (Masushi Suwa) asks future Tanabe which spot he should scratch on a lottery card. Kato asks future Kato what Megumi (Aki Asakura), the neighbor’s daughter, would say if he asked her to come to his concert.
The small scale future looks good! So everyone but Kato begin to focus on better uses, i.e., making money and seeing further into the future. Ozawa (Yoshifumi Sakai) comes up with a technique he calls the Droste Effect, based on the Droste effect, in which a picture recursively appears within itself, and Ozawa uses an actual tin of Droste cocoa to illustrate the effect and his plan.
Ozawa proposes they use both monitors to see further into the future—still in increments of two minutes. And it pays off, for Ozawa at least, as future Ozawa informs him that he will get a rare “zebra pill bug” that past Ozawa covets from a capsule machine at the train station.
Kato, however, has cooled on the future. “I was tricked and I did the tricking,” he says. “The future might be controlling us,” the friends start saying. All of them feel obligated to perform their parts in keeping the future the way it should be for their past selves. And they don’t necessarily get in too deep, but they get in pretty deep when they find some money in an old VCR in the garbage outside the train station—thanks to a tip from their future selves. And are those two men in the camel-colored coats in a cult or are they something else? Could they be time police come to handle the developing situation? Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes has some concerns typical of a movie dealing with time. But I love that the stakes are low and the characters’ interests are mundane, even though it is a movie about meddling with time.
Hellbender (USA, 2021) directed by the Adams Family
Teenager Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) live together in a house on a mountain. They are isolated because Izzy is sick. And that seems okay with Izzy. She has her art and the women have their band. It reminds me of L7. The soundtrack also reminds me of Riot Grrrl-ish and Lesbian / bi-girl centric coming of age films from the late 1990s or the early Aughts like All Over Me (1992), but then Izzy goes a much different direction than a girl crush. The women go hiking. Their lives are good until a lost man (John Adams) shows up by a waterfall and asks Izzy how to get back to the 209. And regardless of how friendly he really is, the man radiates red flags like he was made of red-flag-ium. He, however, has poor situational awareness. Sure, he couldn’t know that Izzy’s mother knows magic, but he might not share that he is unmarried and has no children. My dudes, if you are lost in the woods, never, ever tell someone you are alone and no one is waiting for you—even if you think they are asking if you are single because they are interested in sex. Instead, say you have a whole family unit up at the 209 and they must be so worried that they will call park rangers or state troopers to find you. Say you have several families and upwards of 25 children looking for you. This man does not say either of these things. And Izzy’s mom does what she believes she needs to in order to protect her daughter. After encountering the man, Izzy is more curious about the outside world. She goes looking for people and finds Amber (Lulu Adams) sitting on the deck of a pool house one mountain over. They hit it off and Amber invites Izzy to come back. Izzy starts to think she might not be sick, that they are isolated for some other reason. Neither woman is what they appear to be. At first it seems like they are witches. Izzy’s mother can do magic and she has a whispering book. But do witches eat pinecones and raspberry thorns?
Ultimately, Izzy decides who she is going to be, though, and what she is going to do with the power she finds in herself. They just have a difference of moral opinion on how they should live their lives as far as Izzy is concerned. Hellbender is not a coming of age story about puberty or menstruation and I appreciate that. Instead, Hellbender is about Izzy coming into the world and deciding who she is beyond who her mother wants her to be. And it’s about her mother coming to terms with her daughter becoming her own person. But, you know, with magic, blood, demons and horror.
Lake of the Dead / De Dödes Tjern (Norway, 1958) directed by Kåre Bergstrøm*
Lake of the Dead alternates in tone between a genial murder mystery and an unsettling and often eerie story of ghosts, possession in several senses, dreams, and death. On the surface, all is easily, if convolutedly, explained and made as right as can be, but there are disturbing depths to the story. A group of old friends travel to a cabin near Blue Lake. Novelist Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad), his wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), Liljan Werner (Henny Moan), Liljan’s partner Harald Gran (Georg Richter), former poet and current literary critic Gabriel Mørk (André Bjerke), and psychoanalyst Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl) planned to meet Sonja’s twin brother Björn (Per Lillo-Sternberg) there. They are guided to the cabin by the local constable, Bråten (Øyvind Øyen) and discover that Werner and his dog are gone. At first they think Werner is out hunting and plan to search for him if he hasn’t returned by morning. They have a convivial dinner and afterwards ask Bråten to tell them the story of Tore Gravik, a previous inhabitant of the cabin. Tore murdered his sister because she planned to marry another man and then drowned himself. Anyone who stays in the cabin, Bråten tells them, is overcome with an urge to drown themselves. In the morning, they search for Björn and it seems he has shot his dog and drowned himself. Bråten tells them will likely never find Björn’s body. The lake is bottomless. Later, Liljan, dressed in a white nightgown, sleepwalks to the lake and attempts to drown herself, but is saved at the last moment. It turns out that Liljan and Björn have a telepathic connection and she shares her brother’s dreams. Meanwhile, there are signs around the cabin that Tore Gravik is back.
Much of the film’s more genial side is provided by Bernhard, who is decent, kind and appropriately scared of danger. He also provides the film’s narrative frame as Lake of the Dead opens with Bernhard finishing his manuscript for a novel based on his experience at Blue Lake and beginning to read it. This also means that we only know what Bernhard knew at the time because Bernhard’s friends consider him a coward and do not always confide in him. Instead, we watch as mystified as Bernhard as his friends decide a murder has been committed and that Tore Gravik will reveal himself.
Is it all easily explained like a cozy mystery or is this all a rationalization they tell themselves to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths about the limits of human understanding in an infinite and sometimes malignant universe? Lake of the Dead integrates mystery, horror and even noir elements well, though it was made at a time before these categories were as hardened as they are now. But once we leave the cozy parlor, we turn to the brooding shots of the lake, its currents and potentially bottomless depths.
Brooklyn Horror Festival Films
Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent (Sweden, 2020) directed by Amanda Adolfsson
Adapted from Martin Widmark and Christina Alvner’s Nelly Rapp’s Handbook for Monster Agents, Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent has all the delights of a children’s horror fantasy: a mysterious house in the country; eccentric hairstyles; libraries and specimens; monsters in the basement and mysteries to solve. After a disappointing response to a remarkable school play wherein Nelly hunts a werewolf, Nelly goes to stay with her Uncle Hannibal (Johan Reborg) during fall break. Hannibal lives with his friend and fellow retired teacher, Lena-Sleva (Marianne Mörck), in a large old house in the country. After her father leaves, Nelly discovers mystery in the basement. Turns out that behind their clever disguises as retirees, Hannibal and Lena-Sleva are really Monster Agents–and so was her mother Alice. Nelly is inspired to become a Monster Agent like her mother, but starts to wonder after she befriends Roberta (Lily Wahlsteen), an orphaned Frankensteiner living alone in the house she shared with her late mad scientist mother. Roberta’s loving mother offers an excellent opportunity to once again trash talk terrible father Victor Frankenstein. And I am always here for that. (Love is important, Victor!) While Wahlsteen’s Roberta owes more to Edward Scissorhands than to Frankenstein, Roberta’s mother had clearly read Frankenstein and was determined not to make the same mistakes.
Roberta introduces Nelly to monsters who, like Nelly, don’t fit in with their world. Lukas the Vampire (David Wiberg) doesn’t do the cape and castle thing. Vanja the Werewolf (Emma Broomé) owns a hot dog stand. And there’s pair of excellently Victorian ghosts (Josefin Johansson and Amy Deasimont) who don’t do the things Victorian ghosts do. No weeping. No forbidding warnings. But they do have fantastic long curly locks and nightgowns. Meanwhile, leather-trousered cool guy, Monster Agent and life coach Vincent (Björn Gustafsson) advocates for a new way. He presents a plan to create “a world free of grotesque monsters” through Total Care Centers. And Vincent’s plan threatens not only Nelly’s friends, but Roberta’s dream of opening a café!
Nelly Rapp: Monster Agent is delightfully monster-positive. The film’s embrace of the weird and concern about the dangers of normativity reminds me a bit of the recent animated series, The Owl House, though Nelly doesn’t travel to another world. But it’s definitely a film where make-overs are sinister. The film is autumnally cozy. The art design is excellent—from Nelly’s cardboard sets for her play to the monster design. I wish English dubbing in the screener I watched were better, but it didn’t interfere with me enjoying the humor of the film. And while I might have wanted more resolution of Vincent and his schemes, I assume all has been made right. After all, seeing a Total Care Center shut down is much less delightful than a monster cafe’s opening.
What Josiah Saw (USA, 2021) directed by Vince Grashaw.
Josiah Graham (Robert Patrick) is a devil of a man living with his son Tommy (Scott Haze) on their dilapidated farm in Oklahoma**. His other children—twins Eli and Mary—live far away. Josiah subsists on whiskey, music and being manipulatively cruel to his son. He’s dances, drinks and caterwauls along to his favorite record on the record player. His hair is positively diabolical. He is a good storyteller and an admitted liar. He balefully gazes through the window at the outside world and at the tree where his wife hanged herself. It could be almost any time, but it is present day or close enough. Tommy is religious, even saying grace over Josiah’s morning whiskey. Tommy wants to believe his mother is still there. He tells Josiah that everyone believes their farm is haunted. Josiah doesn’t, but the Graham farm is definitely haunted, one way or another. One night, Josiah looms in Tommy’s bedroom doorway and tells him, “We’ve been given a way to wash away our sins and make our peace with God.” Josiah has gotten religion and he believes he has seen his dead wife Mim. And then Josiah uses this all for even more cruelty–including sexual abuse and shame–as he prepares his son to right their ways and save themselves and Mim from Hell.
What Josiah Saw is divided into three chapters. The first, featuring Josiah and Tommy is definitely Southern Gothic, but if Cormac McCarthy were writing a Flannery O’Connor story. The second focuses on Josiah’s other son, Eli (Nick Stahl), and goes neo-noir. Eli owes money to bar owner and local crime boss, Boone (Jake Weber), who gives him the choice of getting murdered for stiffing Boone or participating in a heist to steal gold bars—Nazi gold—from a seasonal carnival run by Romani. Eli chooses the heist and, well, it goes as well as it ever does in noir. At the carnival, Eli has his own encounter with the supernatural through a medium, Mama Luna (Louanne Stephens). Eli’s noir feels a bit like Ride The Pink Horse (1947) not just in the carnival elements, but in a broken, mess of a man briefly entering a world he doesn’t understand and feels alienated from–and maybe in Eli finding a chance to become a better person by helping a kidnapped girl. I do wish some of the stereotypes about Romani weren’t in the film, particularly the kidnapping. Romani get a hard enough time and I think there are other ways to get some of the same plot elements and moments into the story.
The third chapter focuses on Josiah’s daughter, Mary. It’s the shortest and has the slightest genre shift. Mary and her husband Ross (Tony Hale) want to adopt a child, but Mary struggles with her mental health and the adoption agency wants her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. It’s subtle, but this section feels like 1970s Gothic with women and Madness by way of Karyn Kusama. There is suburban alienation and even an unpleasant dinner party. The three children and stories converge as they all meet in the old farmhouse and all the family demons are exorcised.
What Josiah Saw is ambitious, which I always respect, and largely successful. I never felt like I wanted Eli’s section to be excised into its own film, though it is the most tonally different and could feel like a detour. It’s interesting to see Tommy and Eli characterized in ways that are more typical of female characters–Tommy’s sexual abuse by his father and his loyalty to Josiah and Eli’s turn to sex work and his dismissal as only good for entertaining pretty ladies. While there are some twists at the end, What Josiah Saw doesn’t depend on them, which I also always respect. The twists add a destabilizing experience to the film, but don’t destabilize the story itself. In the end, I like What Josiah Saw’s mix of crime and the supernatural. And I like a devilish man capering and caterwauling with his bottle of whisky.
*Nightstream presented Lake of the Dead as part of a series accompanying Kier-La Janisse’s new documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (USA, 2021). You can read Angela Englert’s review of both films here.
**I am absolutely not getting into Oklahoma is “South.” That debate is for Oklahomans and I will sit respectfully by.
Carol Borden’s bones groan under the weight of her lanyards. The creaking terrifies all those she encounters. If you want to see thoughts on all the films she saw at Nightstream and for the Brooklyn Horror Festival, there are longer pieces in a slightly different form here and here.