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Nightmare Cinema
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by Jay Seaver

"Barely restless-night cinema."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The very conceit of "Nightmare Cinema" is maybe a little too close to the hearts of all involved to truly bring forth the thrills it promises Five directors with obvious affection for horror movies making horror stories that play out inside a cursed theater is too on the nose, too much inside their comfort zone to actually lead to something truly scary and unsettling. In fact the one that seems most like a nightmare is the one that seems to fit the anthology least.

The first part, "The Thing in the Woods" by Alejandro Brugués, fits it best - after an introduction where Samantha Smith (Sarah Elizabeth Withers) stumbling upon a theater with her name on the marquee and entering to watch it, it picks up in the final act of a slasher movie, where she's running from an insane welder (Eric Nelsen), covered in blood as final girls are wont to be, eventually running into boyfriend Jason (Kevin Fonteyne) and learning just what caused this lunatic to pick up a blowtorch.

Brugués is as aware of how this genre of movies works as you might expect, and while his fondness for it isn't quite a hinderance, it keeps the movie from ever actually being scary, as even the jump scares are familiar and played with a sort of ironic exaggeration, playing to bros who think knowing the formula and laughing because they're ahead of it is the best way to experience a horror movie. He does do some interesting things in the telling - watch how Jason changes as a different character flashes back - and Withers fits the role like a glove, but the twist is ridiculous enough to overwhelm how it's fun, leaving the segment an energetic but predictable parody.

Joe Dante directs the next segment, in which a couple making out in the balcony sees themselves talking, with David (Mark Grossman) mentioning that his mother has offered to pay for Anna (Zarah Mahler) to have the scar on her cheek removed in "Mirari". Doctor Mirari (Richard Chamberlain) upsells a little, and when a bandaged Anna wakes up afterward, something seems amiss even beyond Mirari saying that they will need to operate again to clear some nasal obstructions.

"Mirari" is a punchline short, as they say, and the punchline itself is okay, although there's not a whole lot to this story aside from some impressive make-up work by KNB. Excessive cosmetic surgery is kind of dark-comedy fish in a barrel by now, and there's really not a whole lot in this short that suggests a new angle or satire sharp enough to be familiar. It's kind of fun to see the still-spry Chamberlain ham in up in the most charming way possible, even if the rest of the cast can't quite keep up.

There's a lot that's kind of old hat in "Mashit", which opens with nun (Mariela Garriga) trying to prevent a boy from jumping off the roof of a church on the grounds of a Catholic school, and soon noticing that there is something strange about Dani (Stephanie Cood), the girl closest when it happens. Dani's mother Cindy (Jamie Lynn Concepcion) works at the school, but will she be open when Sister Patricia and Father Benedict (Maurice Benard) suggest she may be possessed by the demon Mashit, who leads his victims to suicide?

Director Ryuhei Kitamura and writer Sandra Becerril mostly dodge the central problem with possession stories (a girl possessed by a demon is seldom as scary as the people who think a girl is possessed by a demon), but still get mired in a bunch of well-worn Catholic Church and boarding-school tropes without finding a new angle to them, cribbing even more directly from The Exorcist than is usual with this sub-genre. When he cuts loose in gory, bloody fashion, it's at least kind of fun and swashbuckling, even if it does mostly represent passing on trying to actually unnerve the audience.

That makes "This Way to Egress" by David Slade an outlier; nothing seems especially recycled in its tale of a mother (Elizabeth Reaser) nervously waiting with her two kids for Dr. Salvador (Adam Godley), who has already kept them waiting for an hour, with everything becoming more ugly and unsettling, and the psychiatrist's queries see to feed her paranoia rather than ease it.

From the start, it's obvious that Slade is working in a different mode, as he shoots in black and white and makes his threats dark and amorphous rather than flashing a lot of red. There's overpowering corruption and filth in nearly every frame, and the mythology Slade adapts from Lawrence C. Connolly's story is spelled out just enough to make the viewer wonder and worry. Reaser handles her end of it well, Slade's team fits some Cronenberg-quality weird imagery into this, and as a result it reaches beyond the repeated plot devices of the other segments to the point where it makes one think about being overwhelmed and frightened by a world that suddenly seems worse.

It's a bit of a come-down, then, to go to Mick Garris's "Death", in which musical prodigy Riley (Faly Rakotohavana) finds himself haunted after a near-death experience, only to find that the ghosts trying to persuade him to join them in the hereafter aren't his only problem, as the man who nearly murdered him has come to the hospital to finish the job. As is the case throughout, there is some impressive effects work and bloody violence, but Garris is almost too casual about his supernatural premise - another character reference it like it's not unusual at all - and though I didn't have a stopwatch during the film, this segment feels like the film's longest, despite having what is probably the simplest story.

Garris also handles the wraparound material in the theater, eventually introducing Mickey Rourke as The Projectionist, but the pair never manage to elevate that concept past him being a passive, blandly disreputable figure. He looks kind of unpleasant, but that's kind of this film all over - it's filled with things tht should be scary, but anybody who is going to see this movie probably feels too much affection for them for most to actually work as intended.

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originally posted: 07/14/18 04:49:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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