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Screamfest LA (2020 Edition)

By Erik Childress and Jay Seaver
Posted 10/13/20 07:38:16

Los Angeles' Screamfest has been taking place from Oct. 6 to Oct. 15 this year and below is a sampling of some of its offerings. Watch this space for more to come.


(Reviews out of 5 stars)

BOOKS OF BLOOD

My first encounter with the world of Clive Barker came in grade school when I first saw the trailer for Hellraiser where someone was quoted as saying "I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker." That was quite a statement from the horror author I had been reading at the time - Stephen King. To date I still have not read any Clive Barker despite familiarity with his films and adaptations. So to say that I followed up my viewing of the new anthology film, Books of Blood, with some research into its source material (and previous film adaptation) may be saying that I'm not the right person to offer a critique of it. Then again, I'd counter by saying that those involved with this loose adaptation were just as much the wrong people for the job.

The Books of Blood were a collection of short stories over six volumes that Barker published in the mid-80s. It consisted of tales that were the basis for Rawhead Rex, The Midnight Meat Train and Candyman. The remaining tales are ripe for a television adaptation of all the stories, but instead writers Adam Simon and Brannon Braga (who also directed) chose to do a single anthology with two brand new stories and a third that was already adapted by composer-turned-director John Harrison (the director of the Tales from the Darkside movie) for a stand-alone project in 2009. If you're already wondering what the point of that is, I suspect there will be a long line of fans waiting for that answer.

This particular anthology opens as all do with the wraparound story that helps provide an excuse for the others. This one has a Ninth Gate-feel to it as a pair of hitmen get word of an infamous book worth a lot of money. Cut to the story of Jenna (Britt Robertson) who has suffered a traumatic incident at school and has a condition that makes mouth noises louder and more annoying than usual. In her attempt to flee at least one of them, she ends up at a bed and breakfast owned by some folks with unusual methods of finding peace. From there we head over to Anna Friel's Mary, a college administrator who has just lost her young son, who meets a student (Ravi Gavron) who claims he can communicate with the dead. This story (the one based on a Barker tale) at least has a couple interesting twists but it never fully takes advantage of the implications of them other than to provide the eventual ironic comeuppance. The third story then actually turns out to be the first story of the criminals which circles forward to the second story until we're given an actual climax to the anti-climax of what was technically the first story which now may actually be the wraparound.

It's sloppy - even for an anthology film. Especially coming on the heels of The Mortuary Collection The Mortuary Collection premiering on Shudder this month which is about as good as they get. The actors do the best they can, particularly Friel and Robertson, but none of the stories are particularly involving even as a pair try to wield personal trauma as the primary traits of its heroines. Nothing is particularly scary and even as imposed body mutilation goes, well, we've seen Hellraiser and Nightbreed and I'd be stunned even if those who know Barker's work a lot more than I do will be satisfied with this menial effort.


THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE

I wish I could say that the 2020 redo of the 1962 MST3K-skewered cult classic, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, managed to update it in a way that David Cronenberg would have delighted at. Or even that it re-imagined it into a genuine satiric narrative of how we look at "bad" movies of the past and our draw towards them. I wish I could say that. Instead, Derek Carl's rendition of Joseph Green's cautionary sci-fi film of keeping heads alive is the movie equivalent of painting yourself into a corner - quickly - and finding no way out until the original intention is so lost that its forced to just become just another carbon copy.

If you have never seen the original film nor MST3K's version (the debut episode of host Mike Nelson) it dealt with a progressive scientist who gets the opportunity to put his theories into motion when a car accident decapitates his girlfriend and he keeps her head alive. Patrick D. Green plays the scientist in the 2020 version and is doing a bad version of someone who believes what bad acting was back in this era of sci-fi. There's a very specific tone of playing the straight man tiptoeing into madness and Green just doesn't have it. So right from the get-go there's a desperation towards trying to outdo whatever they believed was over-the-top in the original when playing it straight would have been much funnier.

But the perceived cleverness of every wink at the audience while we roll our eyes to the back of our head hits epic cluelessness in parts. For example, most will recognize that the original film is one of the inspirations for Steve Martin and Carl Reiner's The Man With Two Brains. Talk about an uphill battle you are already climbing, but to remind us multiple times by playing "Under the Bamboo Tree" the very song that bonds Martin to the brain-of-his-life in that film. If that isn't eye-rolling enough, just wait until one of the characters watches the 1962 film on television and decries how unrealistic it is. The bright Technocolor look that cinematographer Kevin Forrest brings to the film is the one true positive in this otherwise wasted effort that eventually just runs out of winks, continues to add some modern gore until the film ends and you realize the original film now feels more like the Cronenberg version.


AN IDEAL HOST

Robert Woods' An Ideal Host begins casually. So casually that you wonder what it may actually be doing as part of a horror festival. Is there a psycho at this party bringing with them the fury of revenge for something thought buried in the past? Is the host setting up their guests for the sweet kill later on. Woods' strategy is to lull you into thinking we're watching some dinner gathering full of drama or snarky comedy as if we were seated at Slamdance. The strategy may be just a little too sneaky though as some may grow a little weary hanging with these folks before his real intentions take hold. However, once they do it turns into a pretty good party.

Liz (Nadia Collins) and Jackson (Evan Williams) are setting up their house for a little pre-planned engagement event. They're getting together a handful of their closest friends and have even invited Daisy (Naomi Brockwell) who many are not looking forward to welcoming. But the day goes on between couples and potential trysts until it looks like more secrets are being concealed between unlikely hookups. The conversations are as bland as most of the characters but each are about to get a personality boost either directly or just by being reactive to the turn the evening has in store for them. Without revealing the circumstances, I will simply admit to kicking myself for not catching on sooner with a particular dual meaning.

Perhaps I am being too coy in keeping much of the plot under wraps, but I believe in sharing the experience I had sans any detailed descriptions or previews. For the first half hour I wasn't on board and then what happened next elevated my interest and kept chugging along with increasing and even shockingly bloody results. On a whole, Woods' film is not all that different from the subgenre it fits into, but he does manage to add a couple fresh variations on the behavior of the eventual antagonists that offer some amusing side bits. It does feel like it takes forever to get there and I wish it had played more with the frustrations of the other side, but it is sure as hell a lot better than the recent Save Yourselves which is a comedic dead zone from its first scene and only sinks from there. An Ideal Host at least builds to a resolution that those coming for a horror film will appreciate. I can't say I did entirely, but I would not disregard it if asked.


SANZARU

It's a potentially too-abstract way for a horror movie to conclude, but Magnus handles it well, never losing track of how to communicate with his audience and letting everything work when you just take it at face value rather than look for hidden meaning. Here's hoping he's got more movies like this smart, spooky feature debut in him. Read Full Review by Jay Seaver

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