The opening scene of the new Netflix series What/If tells you everything that you need to know to determine if you will enjoy the series.
The opening scene of the new Netflix series What/If tells you everything that you need to know to determine if you will enjoy the series.
Director David Yarovesky’s gory horror film finds an infertile Kansas couple raising a burgeoning villain with super powers in a horrific treatment that draws influence from Superman’s origin story. [Read more…]
The Mastercard Off-Camera Film Festival is one of the largest festivals in Eastern Europe, running annually for approximately 10 days in late April. This year I had the pleasure of attending the fest when it ran from April 26 – May 5. Taking place in Krakow, the beautiful cultural capital of Poland, the 12th iteration of the festival was divided into several different sections, including:
Polish Feature Film Competition
I split my time between two sections: the Main Competition and the Polish Feature Film Competition. I made a deliberate attempt to seek out the Polish films in particular because I was uncertain how many of them would be able to secure international distribution.
One fascinating film was Ciemno, Prawie Noc / Dark, Almost Night (Lankosz, 2019), a moody thriller that’s a cross between The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and HBO’s Sharp Objects. The film, an adaptation of Joanna Bator’s well-known Polish novel of the same name, follows reporter Alicja (Magdalena Cielecka) as she returns home for the first time in years in the wake of her abusive childhood (revealed slowly in nightmares). Alicja has chosen to return at this particular moment in order to investigate a series of child abductions, but there’s a great deal more to the crimes, her own story and the town than meets the eye.
Dark, Almost Night is not a perfect film, in that it frequently struggles to balance Alicja’s backstory with the strange events occurring around town. The film is overstuffed with characters and subplots, including a group of mysterious cat-women, Nazis, and Alicja’s mysterious neighbour and his shady nephew, the latter of which Alicja begins sleeping with. I was amazed to learn after the screening that the film actually excises a great deal of the book’s content because it already feels like it’s bursting at the seams!
Still, there’s something incredibly evocative about the sumptuous visual aesthetic of the film, which walks a razor’s edge between adult fairytale and dark crime thriller. The film is certainly not for the faint of heart: there is a great deal of child abuse, rape and murder, but the grim and fatalistic tale is never boring and it is frequently gorgeous to look at. The subject matter alone makes me doubt whether the film will find North American distribution, but if mystery and thriller fans can ever lay eyes on it, Dark, Almost Night is worth checking out.
No less ambitious, but even more confronting, is Jagoda Szelc’s second film, Monument (2018). The film, which doubles as a thesis project for real life actors graduating from the National Film School in Łódź, is an intersection between a workplace drama and Lynchian nightmare.
Monument follows a group of hospitality students completing an internship in a rundown hotel who are put through their paces by a severe authoritarian manager, but the film eschews a straightforward narrative in favour of monotonous, repetitive and surreal sequences that hint at there is something more nefarious and otherworldly.
Playing out like a waking dream, Monument boasts outstanding visual sequences and incredible sound design, but the experimental (occasionally non-sensical) plot and philosophical diatribes will undoubtedly turn off a mainstream audiences. Personally I loved the film’s audacity, particularly Szelc’s pre-screening video introduction, where she encouraged audiences to avoid resisting or unpacking the film in favour of simply letting go, accepting the confusion and acknowledging different interpretations. Not every director has the gumption, but Monument wears its ambition on its sleeve, and for that it and Szelc deserve recognition. Of all of the films that I saw at Off Camera, this is one of two films that I really hope gets distributed in North America.
Making Way Main Competition Films
While Sons of Denmark took home the biggest prize of the festival, it was by far my least favourite of the four Making Way films that I watched (in brief: the first half is great and then it falls into hysterical melodrama and the resolution is laughable and desperate to solicit an emotional reaction). It’s disappointing considering the other three films were far superior, including the one Polish film in contention, Adrian Panek’s Wilkolak / Werewolf (2018).
Comparing the film to Lord of the Flies diminishes the achievement of this post-WWII film about a group of orphans who are liberated from the concentration camps and left to their own devices at a mansion in the woods. There’s a great deal more going on that than a simple redux of Golding’s “children forming their own society” narrative.
Werewolf quietly tackles a little known piece of history while crafting a smart, frequently nail-biting narrative of children imprisoned in a decaying manor by a pack of blood-thirsty, Nazi-trained dogs living in the wild. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Sonia Mietielica as Hanka, the defacto “adult” of the group who is required to parent the others against her will because she is the oldest.
Bonus points for making the dogs legitimately terrifying without resorting to CGI. I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone with a prevailing fear, however; you may never pet another stray again.
Another unnerving thriller is Swiss film Der Laufer / Midnight Runner (Baumgartner, 2018). Terrifyingly based on real events, the film follows Jonas Widmer (Max Hubacher), an Olympic running hopeful whose late night runs are secretly escalating from low level attacks on random women into something much, much darker.
Baumgartner structures the first part of the film in a deliberately confusing fashion so that it is unclear when events are happening, including the death of Jonas’ beloved brother and a crushing second place finish in a significant race. Unable to process his emotions, or confide in his well-meaning girlfriend, Jonas begins running late at night. One night he tries to help a woman who has tripped on the sidewalk, but when she berates him, he impulsively steals her purse. From there the aggression and violence of his late-night attacks escalate, affecting his relationship and his training, even as Jonas struggles to understand or control his own actions.
It’s an amazing lead performance by Hubacher, who manages to engender both sympathy for Jonas as well as condemnation for his increasingly despicable acts. Midnight Runner is a great, albeit difficult film that perfectly encapsulates the systemic dangers of toxic masculinity, entitlement and the justifiable fear that women have of men.
The single best film that I saw at Off Camera was Dronningen / Queen of Hearts (el-Toukhy, 2018). The Danish/Swiss co-production is about Anne (Trine Dryholm), a high profile lawyer with a seemingly perfect family who torpedos her entire life when she begins sleeping with her troubled stepson, Gustav.
Queen of Hearts is a character study of an impulsive, extremely intelligent woman. Anne knows what she is doing is wrong because she not only hides her infidelity, but she literally works exclusively on cases of child endangerment at her legal practice. Dryholm is absolutely phenomenal in the lead role: her Anne is complicated, messy and horrible and the drama she wreaks as a result of her selfish actions is compulsively watchable. The fact that el-Toukhy and co-screenwriter Maren Louise Käehne lean into the moral murkiness and allow the story to play out without condemnation or judgment speaks to the confidence of the filmmaking on display. Queen of Hearts definitely isn’t a feel good story, but I loved every second of its terribleness and I can’t wait for the film to break out as it continues to play the festival circuit.
This year the Off Camera festival office took up a new residence just off of the historical town square in downtown Krakow. While the newer, more modern interior hall doesn’t have the same patio and old world charm as its predecessor, the larger size is roomier and more accommodating for guests, which is a welcome change when you’re rubbing elbows with the cream of the Polish film industry crop during the industry parties each night.
In addition to film screenings and industry social opportunities, the festival also offers workshops, panel discussions and networking events designed to bring together individuals working in the film industry. At one of the networking event, I learned that the Off Camera Foundation is running a project, funded by the EU, called “Film In Malopolska” through June 2019. The project centers on the promotion of small and medium-sized productions in the region in both domestic and foreign markets, marketing Malopolska as an ideal region for film productions. Attendees at the event hinted that entrepreneurs in the film industry plan to take advantage of the program, which should bring even more productions to the Malopolska region in the near future.
Finally, as a first time attendee of the festival, one of the most impressive features that I want to highlight is Festival TV, a news feature that is updated daily and run in front of film screenings. The ~5-7 minute promo features notable items from the previous day, including interviews with directors and industry panels and footage from the live musical acts that perform nightly, as well as previews of what audiences can expect the following day. It’s a professionally produced piece of news entertainment that keeps the festival feeling fresh each day. It also demonstrates the level of time and investment that staff are putting in to make the experience of festival goers memorable and engaging. Other festivals could learn a thing or two about such ambitious efforts.
The Off Camera Film Festival runs each April in Krakow, Poland. For more information, visit the festival website here.
“Cinepocalypse, Chicago’s premiere festival for electrifying and provocative genre cinema, returns to the Music Box Theatre June 13th for eight days of features, shorts, events and surprises, including eight fantastic break-out world premieres!”
Cinepocalypse is one of the hottest genre festivals in North America, so it’s always a delight when the screening schedule comes out. This year’s fest is already off to a great start with the announcement of a wide diversity of films, including a very welcome number of high profile projects from female directors including Gigi Saul Guerrer, Chelsea Stardust, Caryn Waecther, Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala and Pollyanna McIntosh. The buzz surrounding both Stardust’s Satanic Panic (a product of Fangoria Magazine’s film production wing) and The Lodge (a high profile Sundance acquisition from the directors behind cult classic Goodnight, Mommy) has been steadily building for several months.
The opening night feature is Verotika, the directorial debut from Misfits founder and punk/metal legend Glenn Danzig. Featuring a plot shrouded in secrecy, a soundtrack of new Danzig music, and based on the output of his comic book publishing company Verotik—a compound of “violence” and “erotic”—the feature film anthology is a realization of his lifelong love of comics and the dark arts that promises to “melt your face off” <gulp>.
Finally, in addition to new films from Lucky McKee and Joe Begos, one final film to keep an eye out for is Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s buzzy SXSW film Villains (which my partner-in-crime Trace Thurman raved about in his festival review). The film, which stars Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe, finds the tables turned on two wannabe criminals when thievery runs a foul and the prowlers soon become the prey.
Festival badges are available now, and individual tickets go on sale Friday at noon CT at cinepocalypsegenrefest.com
Here’s the full festival program:
Achoura, dir. Talal Selhami
Attack of the Demons, dir. Eric Power
Belzebuth, dir. Emilio Portes
Bliss, dir. Joe Begos
Hulu’s Into The Dark: Culture Shock, dir. Gigi Saul Guerrero
Darlin’, dir. Pollyanna McIntosh
Deadcon, dir. Caryn Waechter
Falling Down, dir. Joel Schumacher
Flatliners, dir. Joel Schumacher
Ghost Killers Vs. Bloody Mary, dir. Fabrício Bittar
Hot Dog… The Movie, dir. Peter Markle
Kindred Spirits, dir. Lucky McKee
The Lodge, dirs. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
The Lurker, dir. Eric Liberacki
Mope, dir. Lucas Heyne
The Mute, dir. Bartosz Konopka
Punta Muerto (Dead End), dir. Daniel de la Vega
Rock N’ Roll Nightmare, dir. John Fasano
Satanic Panic, dir. Chelsea Stardust
The Swerve, dir. Dean Kapsalis
Tammy & the T-Rex, dir. Stewart Raffill
Total Recall, dir. Paul Verhoeven
Verotika, dir. Glenn Danzig
Villains, dirs. Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
Why Don’t You Just Die, dir. Kirill Sokolov
What do you think of the line-up? What films are you most excited for?
Office politics are about to take a deadly turn.
Making its debut at film festivals this summer is The Office is Mine, a biting and darkly comedic tale of workplace horror that reveals something about the competitive nature within us all.
The result of a creative collaboration between filmmaker & queer horror advocate Michael Varrati (Tales of Poe, He Drinks) and celebrated actor & filmmaker Ben Baur (Hunting Season, #Adulting), The Office is Mine is a searing, satirical, and blood-soaked portrait of what happens when we allow our perceptions of our social standing dictate our self-worth.
Written and directed by Varrati and based on a story concept by Baur, The Office is Mine stars Ben Baur, Chris Salvatore (the Eating Out franchise, The Quiet Room), and Navaris Darson (The Other Two, American Horror Story), with supporting cast that features Sarah Nicklin (Nun of That, The Haunting of Alice D), Phylicia Wissa (It Hits You When You Know It, Santa Clarita Diet), and Chris Baker (Baker Daily).
Synopsis: Despite the corporate monotony of his job, Zac (Baur) feels like he’s got it all figured out. As the “only gay in the office,” his penchant for hot gossip and “in the know” recommendations have assured his place as the most fabulous employee in another wise dull landscape. Or so he thinks. With the arrival of a new hire, the ultra-chic Tristan (Salvatore), Zac suddenly feels like the very thing that makes him stand out is in jeopardy. What’s more, Zac finds himself increasingly convinced that Tristan is intentionally trying to replace him. Despite the assurance of his boyfriend, Owen (Darson), that all is fine…Zac can’t help but slipping further into a world of paranoia and self-doubt. As Zac’s world begins to unravel, it sets him on a collision course with Tristan…who may or may not be all that he seems. As the two men propel toward a violent and unpredictable confrontation, only one thing is certain: The office isn’t big enough for the both of them.
The Office is Mine is set to debut on the film festival circuit this summer, with a premiere date to be announced. Check out the promotional stills below, including several exclusive pictures unavailable else!
I’m behind the 8 Ball with other responsibilities, but I still wanted to give a shout out to Piercing, which is currently out on VOD and available on DVD/Blu March 12.
Logline: A man, Reed (Christopher Abbott) kisses his wife and baby goodbye and seemingly heads away on business, with a plan to check into a hotel, call an escort service, and kill an unsuspecting sex worker, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska).
Here are four quick reasons why the film should be on your radar:
1) Star Mia Wasikowska
Pretty much any film starring Wasikowska is worth checking out, but her genre fare is particularly worthy (Stoker is a personal favourite and Rogue is a great little creature feature/aquatic horror film). Here she’s playing Jackie, a call girl who is far more dangerous and damaged than she looks. Plus: while it’s notoriously difficult to rock a bob cut, Wasikowska is surprisingly adept at pulling it off!
Co-star Abbott is fine, though his character Reed is deliberately understated and more reserved, especially in comparison to Jackie, who is allowed to embody a full range of emotions. Still, the pair make for a believable match and neither are hard on the eyes.
2) The Writer & Director
Piercing is based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, the novelist who wrote Audition – which should get you hyped for Piercing in a BIG way. The film is adapted by Nicolas Pesce, the man behind the gruesome festival fave The Eyes of My Mother which shocked audiences with its provocative B/W exploration of taboo subjects.
3) The Visual Aesthetic
Pesce, along with production designer Alan Lampert, creates a gorgeous tactile world of rich, evocative colours and anonymous spaces (generic hotel rooms, abandoned hallways, uniform city skylines and a large, mostly empty apartment). Whitney Anne Adams’ costumes tie into the mise-en-scene, particularly Jackie’s fluffy fur coat which makes an immediate impression when she arrives at Reed’s cramped hotel room, as does the strategic use of split screens during key sequences to tie the film’s anti-heroes together in different locales.
4) The Violence
Several reviewers have described Piercing as an American film informed by Giallo aesthetics, with makes sense given its propensity to favour art over plot and its tendency to focus on Wasikowska and Abbott’s eyes. When violence does occasionally erupt, however, it is brutal and efficient; Pesce knows how to shoot violence in a visceral fashion which helps make those rare moments even more impactful.
Piercing is ultimately more of a psychological battle of wills between two disturbed partners who may just be perfect foes/accomplices for each other. Patient viewers will find the film an intriguing slow burn, though audiences seeking insight into character pathology or gore hounds looking for ultraviolence will undoubtedly find Piercing too slow paced and scattershot for their liking. Still, strong performances and a keen visual aesthetic make Piercing a solid recommend.
XOXO Horror is a podcast dedicated to exploring and expanding the range of voices contributing to the contemporary horror genre.
Series 1 (February 2019)
February is not only Valentine’s Day, but also Women in Horror Month (WiHM):
Women in Horror Month is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.
To complement the 10th anniversary of this great initiative, throughout February 2019 XOXO Horror shone a light on female horror film writers. The immensely talented women who agreed to participate in this project reflect a range of backgrounds and specialties, but individually and collectively they are producing some of the most exciting, innovative, reflective, and critical and boundary-pushing writing about horror films in the field.
My podcasting partner, Brenna Clarke Gray, and I record a weekly podcast called Hazel & Katniss & Harry & Starr, which dissects young adult literature, their filmic adaptations and everything in between. The podcast also has a mandate to highlight Canadian literature and Canadian writers. Podcasts are broken into three categories:
1. Chapters: These full-length episodes focus on a young adult book and its corresponding film or television show adaptation. Titles include:
2. Appendixes: These mini bonus episodes range in content. Typically they offer a forecast of notable seasonal or upcoming titles, or a select one-off topic for discussion that falls outside of the guidelines of a Chapter, such as:
3. Excerpts: These mini bonus episodes are interviews conducted with Canadian YA authors discussing one of their most popular or celebrated texts. Typically one episode is released each month:
There’s plenty of horror to be wrung out of the idea that something is “too good to be true.” In director Daniel Robbins’ latest film, Pledge, the phrase is put to the test when a trio of College freshmen discover a social club whose seemingly perfect facade proves to be a front for something far more malicious and sadistic. [Read more…]
In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back and forth email exchange. Previously, we adopted a crazy ersatz child in Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2009 Orphan. This time, we’re just trying to survive a less hilarious modern take on The Happening with Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (2018) [Read more…]