The 2016 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

The second annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival – held at the O Cinema Wynwood in Miami, FL – has come a long way from last year’s incarnation as the launching point of South Florida’s resident genre film festival. Whereas last year’s launching of the festival started off with only four features (though one of which was the outstanding cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk – the debut feature of Miami native S. Craig Zahler), this year has 16 features from all over the world (including the breezy Francesca, as I reviewed) to be played over the festival’s run – once again taking place at the O Cinema Wynwood between 12-18 August 2016. Tickets and badges are still selling here, hurry and get ’em and join us! You’ll definitely catch me there.

In the meantime, a hell of a lot of features means a hell of a lot of shorts to accompany those features and your resident horror glut is here to gauge most of them before the festival’s release – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – and so behold my capsule reviews:

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Portal to Hell!!! (dir. Vivieno Caldinelli, Canada)
to be played in front of Fear, Inc. on 12 August 7pm

And right at the very start, Popcorn Frights sucks by reminding me how much I miss Roddy Piper, I’m gonna go drink myself to sleep. kicks things off with an outrageous 80’s Lovecraftian homage starring the late and great Roddy Piper sitting in our “Ashley Williams”-esque role, a disgruntled and abused superintendant who discovers two of his tenants opening a gate to the city R’lyeh (from Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu” where the cosmic monster himself is imprisoned). And in terms of being that sort of Stuart Gordon-esque barrage of gore and violence (beginning shockingly with the death of the last character you’d think such a comedy would have the balls to gruesomely murder), it accomplishes that without much more than that sort “fuck the consequences, save the world” physical comedy with some really gooey cartoony blood-letting and mania ejected from all the supporting actors, all of them working on the same level of loud nuisance to Piper’s grizzled performance so none of them really come across as grating in a manner that makes the film exhausting. If there’s one point I have against it, it’s no different than what I have against Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, where the central book (because of course a Lovecraftian Gate of Hell story will have a book) and the basement where the majority of the short takes place are both transparently too clean and overlit to not come across as obvious props and sets. But that’s the filmmaker in me talking, the viewer in me is literally shirking the rest of my duties in reviewing the rest of the shorts to rewatch this again.

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The Pond (dir. Jeroen Dumoulein, Belgium)
to be played in front of The Blackcoat’s Daughter on 12 August 9 pm

A sophisticated domestic tale whose funereal atmosphere delicately handled by director Dumoulein already gets us ready for a ghost story, before the ghost even becomes a thing until halfway through the film. That atmosphere being the product of some lovely cold blue day photography (intercut with the interior nights of an expected but still tense black and orange) and makeup and costume on Kirsten Pieres, playing an apparently comatose mother of our protagonist Kris (Xenia Borremans) and given a gaunt and bleached-out fatigued look thanks to those elements. It’s enough, alongside Sara De Bosschere’s ominous and menacing presence as Kris’ aunt Jeanne, taking care of her mother, to promise something’s very wrong before the film gets to its full throttle climax where we discover just what lives inside the lake and how it got there. A satisfying, if not revelatory, ghost tale on all fronts.

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Hada (dir. Tony Morales, Spain)
to be played in front of Under the Shadow on 13 August 7 pm

A dark Spanish tooth fairy tale – at least, I’d assume by the presence that the titular monster (Eva Isanta) is essentially the tooth fairy as young Daniel (Fernando Boza) begins the tale by proclaiming his toothache to his kindly grandmother (Silvia Casanova) and the movie almost immediately jumps into his fear of Hada appearing in the dark, making great use of the darkness and having Daniel’s flashlight give abrupt cuts that make Hada’s blinking appearances having more shocking punctuation to them until the end. At 8 minutes (6 1/2 if we don’t count credits), Hada doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to develop itself as a tale so much as just promise something is gonna pop out and spook us in this one-bedroom short, but as it functions well enough as a brief tease before a feature film and a showcase of Morales knowledge on how to build up suspense before the jump-scares to fit snugly before Under the Shadow on the schedule.

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The Birch (dir. Ben Franklin & Anthony Melton, UK)
to be played in front of I Am Not a Serial Killer on 13 August 9 pm

At 5 minutes, The Birch is yet another short film that gets as much set-up as it needs to at the forefront simply to introduce the presence of the ghastly wooden creature itself (created and designed by Cliff Wallace; played by Dee Sherwood Wallace) and bow out after taking a deserving victim. That said, it does get a lot of that done in that compact time – in the form of flashbacks and montage cuts (arranged by Franklin and Melton) so that we actually have more of an idea what’s coming than we did in Hadaeven if the fact that the monster is there to avenge our bullied protagonist Shaun (Aaron Word) domesticates it way too much to let it be terrifying on its own terms. It doesn’t stop it from being a neat little skit (too damn neat at some points, once again we have an unholy book centered and once again it looks like it wasn’t even once opened in its life until Shaun receives it) that I could easily see as being the pitch to a future live-action film with this very same monster.

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Pigskin (dir. Jake Hammond, USA)
to be played in front of Antibirth on 13 August 11 pm

I know this is almost entirely unfair of me and probably the result of being in the middle of watching Stranger Things, but after so many 80s throwback films and tv shows all of which portraying a time period I’m not at all nostalgic about, it’s too easy for me to say I am now in the throws of 80s throwback fatigue. And given that Pigskin is a product of Florida State University’s Film Program, the very same program that produced David Robert Mitchell so recently – director of It Follows – I especially can’t help unfairly seeing so many similarities between the two beyond the 80s throwback aesthetic, in the timid shy performance of our high school girl lead (Isadora Leiva), the John Carpenter homage synth score by Charles Harvey Spears, and even the very premise establishing itself based on our lead seeing a deformed monster following her that no one else can see. The fortunate fact is that even an anti-80s cynic like me can find a lot of merit in this short, like the fact that the score is absolutely catchy, the film is shot with a light fading of color to mete out whites and blues so that it actually looks like a nostalgic old photograph against its high school setting surrounded by football players and cheerleaders, and not least of all how co-writers Hammond and Nicola Newton use this to provide a commentary on female body image and the unhealthy expectations placed upon it, while using that as a platform for some close-up finger-scratching skin-tearing madness that made yours truly look away from the screen. I may be tired of the way it does these things, but it nevertheless does these things well and I can’t imagine any modern audience not getting to eat this up in the wave of 80s throwback popularity.

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FUCKKKYOUUU (dir. Eddie Alcazar, USA)
to be played in front of Evolution on 14 August 7 pm
(it is also available for free on Vimeo and given the strong nature of its content – NSFW doesn’t even fucking cut it – I would recommend taking a peek at it if you’re having doubts but are still curious, but if you can take it, I implore you to watch it on the big screen during Popcorn Frights)

Absolutely the most popular of the short film batch we have here, FUCKKKYOUUU came riding on a murderer’s row of laurels, not least of all being its status as an Official Selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. And even if it didn’t have these things behind it, the fact that hip hop producer and DJ Flying Lotus himself supplied the score and sound design for the film would be enough to make it stand out (full disclosure: I am a very rabid fan of Flying Lotus). That still didn’t prepare for a movie that tosses around time travel, body horror, and… monster coitus (?) for a wordless display of a being (Jesse Sullivan)’s struggle with identifying her gender, sexuality, and all the other things that make her a person. The film that carries all this density in its images and sound based presenation is impeccable as well, shot by cinematographer Danny Hiele in beautifully grisly black and white with enough contrast to the Panavision film used to catch the grain without obscuring the images and cut by director/writer Alcazar himself with a frenzy meant to disorientate us as much as the being itself (though Alcazar does also have a sense for serene rhythm in an embracing moment of white light smack dab in the middle of the short). That I’m meant to find more of this nauseating than transfixing is only brought back to me by the film’s aggressive closing title itself, but I can’t say it’s for everyone either. It’s certainly a provocative film, but one with something behind its provocation that I find unlimited merit in, so a cautious recommendation it is, but one for a film I’m deeply affected by.

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The Puppet Man (dir. Jacqueline Castel, USA)
to be played in front of The Mind’s Eye on 14 August 9 pm

This is more a glorified music video to John Carpenter’s first non-soundtrack music album Lost Themes (with even Carpenter himself making a big damn “hey kids it’s John Carpenter” cameo) than a homage to his style. Largely because Castel’s editing – which does something confusing with either its chronology or its sense of location – really misses how to have a real physical sense of the bar where the titular supernatural killer (Johnny Scuotto) takes its prey (it’s also extremely confusing as to the identity of the killer or its status… I feel this is a short that could have afforded to be just a few minutes longer to figure itself out). But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s FUCKING. GORGEOUS. with all of the visual designers – Art Director Eva Tusquets, Costume Jenni Hensler, Production Designer Zev Deans, and cinematographer Castel herself – in synchronized compliment to each other based on solid splashes of the primary colors (especially reds and blues) to give the whole thingy a dreamy quality that lets it get away with trivialities as little of it making much sense. Hell, look at that shot right there, perfectly backlit and foggy to give the Puppet Man such an out-of-this-world stature. When you look this good, who needs chronology?

blight

Blight (dir. Brian Deane, Ireland)
to be played in front of Devil’s Doll on 14 August 11 pm

I’m way too atheist to be remotely frightened by demon possession stories (I mean, never say never – those Conjuring films standout amongst recent entries in the genre as instant classics… but yeah…) and I’ve seen way too many demon horror films involving pregnant women to be remotely surprised by the final moments of this film. I’m not gonna lie and say I was very well impressed with Blight, especially when it devotes itself in the middle with shock content that doesn’t move me. What I can say is that it at least carries itself with an extremely enviable sophistication, at lot of which we are to thank George Blagden’s patient performance for. It’s irritating in its confidence without telegraphing anything really less than earnest in his character of Father Carey until the film tries to pull the rug out from under us. He is absolutely the best thing going on here and while it isn’t much, the movie around him isn’t exactly breaking down. It’s just there’s not much to remark upon except him.

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Disco Inferno (dir. Alice Waddington, Spain)
to be played in front of Francesca on 15 August 7 pm

I have a really good feeling that I would love Disco Inferno much more – and before I state this: I fucking loved Disco Inferno. I replayed it three times and it may be my favorite of all the shorts here – if it made two changes: one would be that all the spoken dialogue were overdubbed Spanish or Italian and the other being that its last scene simply didn’t exist as it dips its hand into a more obnoxious form of comedy than the more subtle humor the short was already indulging in. In the meantime, what we still have is absolute fun with classic silent horror films tropes – especially in our heroine (Ana Rujas) evoking the hell out of Irma Vep in her get-up and confident presence – and occult imagery in service to a film that feels like 1/2 caper and 1/2 Guy Maddin-esque ritual. And that’s without talking about how cliched yet nevertheless believable its setting and costumes are as we are introduced to the Satanic sacrifice to our character is to crash. And THAT’s without talking about when the movie turns everything it introduced to us on its head. It’s just a really fun piece of work and I’d love to see what Waddington does with a feature film sometime real soon.

maiden

The Maiden (dir. Michael Chaves, USA)
to be played in front of Abattoir on 15 August 9 pm

This short film’s greatest strength is also its greatest Achilles Heel. The Beckett Mansion, which even plays itself in this film if we are to go by an annoyingly on-the-nose monologue by Lucy (Alia Raelynn) that goes on for no more than ten seconds but feels longer (though the movie seems aware of this by having the character she’s saying it to regard incredulously that I’m not sure it’s not a parody moment), is too damn famous as a landmark of Los Angeles to pass as a house to buy and sell on the market that happens to also be a huge fixer-upper. This is unfortunate because this short REALLY knows how to use its angles and cuts to bring out a hell of a lot of character in the place and make it obvious it’s the real star of the short. If you are willing to shake that off like I was for much of the film (it helps that most of it takes place INSIDE the mansion rather than outside), we still have a hell of an effective horror short that fights with Disco Inferno for the title of my favorite of the slate. One that completely uses ghost story cliches intelligently nevertheless as well as even giving into to indulging itself in a climax that totally homages Sam Raimi (right down to dynamic camera movements) and having Raelynn give a great everywoman performance bouncing between fatigue towards the supernatural around her and transparently fake but still desperate eager beaver Real Estate Agent attitude. Oh and Penny Orloff as The Maiden is frightening even when all she does it really stand there in scary old lady makeup (semi-relevant: I found out that she is 5’3″. The movie – especially in its penultimate shot – used its perspective to trick into thinking she was towering. Well done.)

gwilliam

Gwilliam (dir. Brian Lonano, USA)
to be played in front of The Barn on 16 August 7 pm

Man, it’s not that Gwilliam doesn’t do what it wants to. I’m sure it’s usage of a cheap doll to portray its central creature is deliberate, right down to an extremely game William Tokarsky (of Too Many Cooks fame and I’m almost certain the same cult audience for that short is who this movie is aiming for – though I happen to be a fan of that short and look at me) having to move the doll around to make it look like it’s forcing itself on him (and that’s not close to the worst this short puts him through). I’m sure the completely gross-out humor down to sickening close-up shots as well as a really dangerous use of anatomy as warning is completely what the movie is absolutely proud to sink down to. I’m sure the completely rapey vibes of the whole thing is as deliberate as the eroticism of its central act (which to its credit… editor Kevin Lonano, the younger brother to Brian, does really well to set the tone of each moment in this short which is undoubtedly what makes its humor work insofar as for its target audience). I’m even sure it’s meant to provoke as much the annoyed attitude I have towards it as it is to get belly laughs from the people who enjoy this type of thing (I mean, using Gaspar Noe-esque credits like this short does pretty much is a dizzying “Fuck you” to anybody who isn’t on its wavelength.

But it ain’t my jam and I’m good, man. I’m fucking good, dawg.

mayday

Mayday (dir. Sébastien Vaniček, France)
to be played in front of Daylight’s End on 17 August 7 pm

And yet I jump into yet another extremely unpleasant film to sit through, possibly moreso than Gwilliam as Mayday edges through from its bitter and smug cynicism to its complete lack of characters we can’t help but find repulsive (save for one woman whose only purpose in the film is to be fondled and die, not necessarily in that order. This is a very male-oriented picture, but then again its aware of that). One of those characters, whom we are meant to identify as the protagonist (though early on the movie makes the mistake of focusing briefly on another character) is Michel (Remi Paquot). Michel’s first act in the film is to masturbate in the lavatory of a plane and we are later to discover that he’s on that plane chaperoned by a US Federal Agent (Akil Wingate) on extradition from an unknown country (though given that Arabic and French are amongst the languages spoken on the plane, I’m assuming its a North African Maghrib country – Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco… oh fuck, they dragged my Algeria into this) for charges of rape. Very soon it is established that Michel and the rest of the inhabitants of this plane keep encountering a fatal dose of turbulence, though they keep reverting back a few minutes before the plane comes apart. Michel seems to be the only character aware of this happening and the film is gamely ambiguous about whether or not these repeated scenarios are his hallucination, an ability to foresee the future, him traveling back in time, or whatever. Either way, he is absolutely suffering in the middle of his punishment for being a rapist and I have the feeling the movie with its tone of paranoia and claustrophobia (both of which it does really well and it should really be no surprise coming from a French production that seems to takes it leaf off the old New French Extremity movement) that we’re meant to feel sorry for him being surrounded by such hard asses and assholes (the Agent himself is really eager to tear him one), but it’s just hard to enjoy a film like this that smiles at you while it feels superior for having a character give into his most vile inhibitions by the end of it (something spelled out by the very end credits song performed by Sexy).

Same as Gwilliam, I am fucking good, man.

manoman

Manoman (dir. Simon Cartwright, UK)
to be played in front of Pet on 17 August 9 pm

A short that may actually give FUCKKKYOUUU a run for its money as most popular on the slate, Manoman has its own stack of laurels to display, the most impressive being its status as a 2015 BAFTA nominee for Best British Short Animation. It also gives The Maiden and Disco Inferno their own run for my favorite of the bunch and a lot of that is from how it’s able to do what Mayday wanted to do without being so… crude. Crude not to mean vulgar here because Manoman has plenty of vulgarity to spare, but in its ability to go about a sophisticated (if still on-the-nose) manner in communicating our protagonist Glen’s dilemma. See, he’s really not much of a man as far as he sees and the design of his puppetry adds to that by making him look like the most fucking pathetic thing in his shape of his head and the shrinking of his facial features, his eyes far away from each other, his nose sloping down… and then makes him far from special by giving every other person around him the same features. One of my favorite elements of this short – besides the detail of the dreary set design in its artifice – is its decision to let us see the rods controlling the puppets as thought their lives are literally out of their hands (and at one point Glen’s rods are completely in another characters’). He’s completely limp as a person until suddenly all his inhibitions come in the form of a small gremlin that looks like him if he gave his DNA to Danny De Vito and a version of him that… literally has balls. Ah yes, what big balls it has, especially in the dreamy final backlit shot involving a golden shower to a religious hum. Anyway, this gremlin lets Glen do all the things he’s ever wanted to do and together they set the world ablaze with their mania. It’s a flipping hilarious short of physical comedy that deals with the inner commentary and esteem issues a person puts himself through though it gives a heavy reminder of the consequences of such a toxic sense of masculinity. If I have a problem with it, it’s that I really wish we didn’t see the Gremlins’ rods as he’s obviously supposed to be the one out of control and I do think its ending (not the Golden Shower element, but the moment before) seems too moralistic as to feel safe in a manner Mayday dared to eschew. But so much of Manoman is working on a register I love, that it’s all over before I give my protests after laughing too hard.

iris

Iris (dir. Richard Karpala, USA)
to be played in front of Man Vs. on 18 August 7 pm

A BIG NOTE: The cut I witnessed had a still unfinished sound mix, it would only be fair to acknowledge that I had not seen the Final Cut by any means and to keep that in mind in my opinion towards the film (especially since it promised interesting ADR work with its title A.I. voiced with complete detachment by Michelle Strickland).

That said, the whole short itself didn’t strike me in its premise as much more than a low-grade Twilight Zone episode, taking the most technophobic possible target it can: a transparent Siri copy, especially in its amalgram name, to the point that it really didn’t need an opening Steve Jobs conference-esque moment announcing it to an audience that’s absolutely familiar with these sort of things in their smart phones now. Beyond that, it at least has some lovely naturally lit landscape photography of the Colorado Mountains going for it, as long as it’s not a close-up of Luke Sorge – the only physically present actor as a hitman who’s using his Iris phone to help him bury a body and arrange his payment – as Karpala and cinematographer Nikolai Galitzine prove unable to even adequately light Sorge’s face so that we can see some of his expressions and facial emotions. The poor guy is obstructed as all hell. That as well as how Iris quickly runs out of footage to use, using the same shot of the Iris phone sitting on a log as an insert. Iris can’t interest me with such a lacking ability to portray its human element or its craft against its cold Artificial Intelligence element, especially when it’s a story trying to tell us how much more sinister a computer can be than a murderer when it applies itself.

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Night Stalker (dir. Mike Anderson and Ryan Dickie, USA)
to be played in front of Beyond the Gates on 18 August 9 pm

Hey, The Puppet ManNight Stalker will see your gorgeous use of color and raise it not only by invoking shadow as an element (though it doesn’t have the same solid block of hues as The Puppet Man does) but also by indulging in stop-motion animation with gruesome elements that call back the work of the Quays and still match that heavy blue and red lighting while establishing gloomy modes rather than slasher dangers. All in service to an even more inscrutable narrative, though the gist I get is some sort of twisted romance between characters played by Maya Kazan (yeah, she’s from THAT Kazan clan) and Keenan Mitchell partly fueled by some sinisterly tainted Chinese food. Anyway, given the hallucinatory nature of this film, it only fits that so much of it seems wild and unable to fit together, but if I can’t connect with this film on a narrative or thematic level, I can still indulge in how impressive it is as eye candy and its quick and breezy energy towards itself. It’s an easily likable short, whether or not you can read much into it.

And there we have it, the majority of the short films to be played at the 2016 Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Thanks again to Igor and Marc and all the filmmakers who made these shorts and features and, once again, if any of you readers happen to be in Miami and any of these films sound like they tickle your fancy, you still have time to grab tickets for the festival’s run here and I hope to catch you all there soon at O Cinema Wynwood.

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