Another year, another summer’s end, another return to O Cinema Wynwood with the upcoming Third Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival, right here in Miami, FL. And that means more features moving up from last year’s 16 to a whopping 21, including a section dedicated to Florida-based production entitled Homegrown. And full sell-outs by this point with every opening night feature, though that’s no reason not to take a chance on the rush line.
And that means more shorts, so same as last year – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – I’m gonna be giving a quick look at almost every one of them to tell you what to expect between 11 – 17 of August.
And looking back at it all, there’s even more variety than last year, enough to promise there may be something for every single type of horror-goer and nothing less than decent overall. It’s exciting to think about who will respond to what over the coming week, so allow me to introduce each one.
Great Choice (dir. Robin Comisar)
Playing Friday 11 August 7 pm before Tragedy Girls
Great Choice has a Catch-22: on the one hand, Carrie Coon is so well-known in 2017 as a face that the structural exercise can’t surprise us the way I would love it to (this would have found its home on Adult Swim at midnight). On the other hand, Coon’s performance (against a very foreboding Morgan Spector) really sells the cosmic horror of the thing and I wouldn’t trade her out of this for the world, salvaging even the out-of-step ending. Even if Coon wasn’t in the short, Comisar has provided us with the outstanding kind of physical video experimentation – mixing in and out of aged television textures with colors like a bad photograph and sharp arresting high definition in 1.78:1 (breaking out of TV’s 3:4) like if an Everything Is Terrible! video collapsed and threatened to crawl out of the screen and suck you in. Wart of an ending and all, this is probably my favorite short of the lineup (Buzzcut and Hell Follows gives it a fight).
The Thin Place (dir. Alexander Mattingly)
Playing Friday 11 August 9 pm preceding Jackals
Mattingly has a very good sense of timing and spacing to create terror but my one major gripe is the ending and I don’t think it would have bothered me as much if what preceded it didn’t impress me. For one, it seems too abrupt after nearly 15 minutes was spent with Arlene (Lindsey Shope) trying to find out what’s happening to her daughter Maddy (Kelsey Blackwell) and it’s more interesting drama than it deserves to be, with Blackwell’s delivery of Maddy describing her headspace when the creature (Faye Davis) stalking their home abducts her are unsettling. Maybe if the plot was a bit more thin, that ending wouldn’t have bothered me but I hardly think Mattingly and Hemphill should remove anything from a tight 15 minutes. And then there’s the real killer: Mattingly and S.T. Davis do outstanding things with the shadows and spaces for a low-budget production. Our first look at the creature is a great bit of “what was that?” unfocused movement in the far end of a frame that feels like the scare you get seeing something from your peripherals. And all the other teases of the creature between that moment and the ending are just as crawling and alarming as you could hope for. And then that ending shot is so underlit as to be anticlimatic. And that’s heartbreaking for what a great thing Mattingly and Davis had going. But ending on a bad note hardly ruins the whole song.
Die! Sitter! Die! Rupert (dir. Lee & Sam Boxleitner)
Playing Friday 11 August 11:30 pm preceding Terrifier
Well, I’m not gonna pretend the movie is at all bad. It’s a perfectly fine work of horror craft, especially in its gruesome though clearly budgeted treatment of the trashy gore people would want out of such a premise. But it’s also exhaustingly sadistic. And I don’t know if removing the early subplot of the mom’s chemotherapy and the lead’s hard financial times would have made it feel less mean-spirited but it would have gotten rid of a lot of wasted runtime for a motivation we kind of don’t need for something like this (You don’t need to be broke to find $12,000 for one night’s work enticing and by the middle mark it’s very clear that she’s motivated by fear for her life). Either way, I’m still a sucker for hard reds and blues in horror and Rupert’s a very imposing presence by Boxleitner himself – less grotesque than one would expect a grown man pretending to be a baby, but still frightening from how in control he is – so there’s no room to call this a failure in anyway. I’m just not the audience for it.
Buzzcut (dir. Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program
It’s nothing Sam Raimi hasn’t already perfected, but not even Raimi has been reaching that apex since 2009 and Marrero and Rhoads get closer than any episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead. It’s a fantastically dense short for its length, frenetically establishing the rapture, the cannibal demon monsters and making it all seem so elliptical to Jane’s quest to get a haircut. The semi-episodic nature, the punk rock needle drops (although there’s one song choice that isn’t broad enough to work for me), and Kelly Jane’s frustrated no-nonsense performance as a foil to all the madness makes this 9 minute feature have all the efficient excitement of a feature without feeling like the joke went on for too long. It also gets points by me for making a very sex positive portrayal of an lesbian relationship without getting male-gazey about it despite two men directing, so right on.
The Midnight Service No. 2 – Home Invasion (dir. Brett Potter & Dean Collin Marcial)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program
The first of two internet document episodes, this one a pseudo-documentary produced by our local Borscht Corporation (who also produced Great Choice) and based on the testimony of NY-based comedian Kat Toledo on her possible break-in encounter with the missing delinquent Quincy Lemon and the alleged brushfire that occurred right outside the Everglades home she was house-sitting but had no clue about. And despite the extremely neat and structured manner Potter and Marcial (there is no credited editor so I assume they’re responsible for it) present this multi-tiered and mysterious tale, I can’t say I have a clear picture on everything that happened. Maybe that’s intentional to give us a bunch of pieces and see if we can make them fit together, but I would assume that the creepy atmosphere wants us to find at least some supernatural answer within it. In any case, it’s also fantastically gorgeous both in its representation of nighttime interiors and its landscape photography of the watery greens of the Everglades (again, no cinematographer credited) so I can’t say I wasn’t highly enjoying it.
This Wooden Boy (dir. Rodney Ascher)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program
Yet another documentary internet episode for the Homegrown program. I think short format fits Rodney Ascher much better as a documentarian. An episode of the new Shudder original series Primal Screen, the 30-minute runtime forces the director/editor to include more narrative and thematic focus than the tangle of his popular features Room 237 and The Nightmare. Not entirely focused, since its still floating between several different stories of fears of dolls and dummies in a freeform manner that doesn’t clarify between three similar adult narrations (plus Ascher’s habit of adding in unnecessary tv/film clips appears here in the form of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) but it clearly draws a throughline between pop culture in television (capturing the Screen part of the show title) to the public consciousness to the psyche of its subjects fearing all of these dolls. It’s a very sharp and interesting watch, aided by Ascher’s direction of recreations using black negative space to sell the subconscious memory aspect of these recreations.
Fierce (dir. Izu Troin)
Playing Saturday 12 August at 9 pm preceding Mayhem
So I’m not 100 percent on the story being a parable for workplace aggression and the dog-eat-dog world of corporate work (it seems to only function in the bookends of the short rather than the actual meat of the protagonist’s hunt), but I am always 100 percent on watching some new animation and this French production is pretty detailed in both the shocking gruesomeness of the violence – splatching red against the otherwise muted browns and greys – and the sort of smeared, outside-of-the-lines style of the thing has enough shape to establish who is where and already gives a feeling of visual momentum before the chase even truly begins. And that’s without even acknowledging the interesting artistic choice of having the frame constantly moving in a fluid manner as though in a handheld camera. A short that wants you exhausted and catching your breath by the end of it.
Curve (dir. Tim Egan)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding The Endless
Oh boy, was that anxiety-inducing. A simple premise – a girl (Laura Jane Turner) is trapped on an impossible incline with an abyss below and one leg already broken – and enough time to make it feel unbearable and hopeless, no less thanks to undetailed design of her apparent prison and the depressing gray palette of the whole thing. It’s nothing but an exercise in patient fear-building and nihilism and it’s an extremely effective one at that for all of its limited resources.
A Knock at the Door (dir. Katrina Rennells & Wendie Welldon)
Playing Sunday 13 August 9:30 pm preceding Better Watch Out
A subtle and short throwback to scary tales of domesticity being violated (particularly a famous classic sci fi feature), helped out by a sense of physical place for the house in which nearly all of the 8 minutes of the story takes place, only breaking out to establish the behavior that should be setting off a red flag for our man Nick (Drew Jenkins) and then for a final beat showing what’s to come. It’s pretty straightforward and gets the tension going enough for its final beat (no real climactic payoff but there’s a gotcha moment), which is good work for a horror short to accomplish.
Fucking Bunnies (dir. Teemu Niukkanen)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding 68 Kill
Wow, “Fucking” seriously translates in Finnish to “Saatanan”? That’s gnarly, I love the design of the title. I also can’t help loving the short, which is not remotely “horror” – at no point does the genial demon-war-painted face of Maki (Janne Reinikainen) come across as threatening, even when he’s holding a kitchen knife joking about his killing his new neighbors (and I think superintendent) Rami (Jouko Puolanto) and Kirsi (Minna Suuronen). Nor do I think Niukkanen wants it to be, Puolanto’s off-put anxieties about Maki’s Satanic lifestyle is clearly meant to be in the wrong and the result is a pretty funny short that’s a lot more layered about cultural differences than meets the eye (the patronizing way Rami greets the Senegalese janitor with “Jambo”, a shot where Rami practices ejecting Maki that is framed to look like him lecturing an immigrant family). It’s actually so pleasant that I only really don’t care for the sudden needle drops of black metal, probably meant to push the viewer into feeling as apprehensive as Rami which I don’t think we need. But then I’ve never been a fan of Finnish black metal (Norway represent!), so that might just be my own bias showing much as Rami’s.
Couples Night (dir. Robert & Russell Summers)
Playing Monday 14 August 7 pm preceding Lake Bodom
There is nothing to comment on negatively in the least – the performances are all broadly fitting for their characters attitude, one couple being as sinister as you can be without it being scary and the other being manically pleasant in an alarming one – there’s just also not much for me to praise with a short. I don’t want to call artless, but it isn’t visually interesting. Not that it needs to be to work out in the end as a fine little brief comic gag to whet some horror movie appetites. We’re not looking for something weighty here.
2AM (dir. Huseyin Hassan)
Playing Monday 14 August 11 pm preceding Happy Hunting
So, let’s just toss aside the fact that we have an idea where this story is going from square one when its established that our protagonist Alex (voiced by Mark Kenfield) is looking through an asylum and absolutely know how it’s gonna end the moment Dr. Hattaro (Akira Bradley carrying the human element as the only amicable face we see the whole movie) align our understanding of the plot a third into the 15 minute short. Despite that, it’s still a really excellent execution of such a recognizable plot type, provided by a whole 15-minute uncut first person point of view that sinks us into Alex’s clear descent into madness (something Hassan really wants to sell as Alice in Wonderland esque, but I didn’t find that necessary). What really impresses me is how seamlessly the ghostly presence of Nichola Jayne’s character can pass in and out of frame, alongside the sound mix helping us feel surrounded by the things that haunt Alex’s walk into the truth. It’s basically “you are here” experiential horror, done no differently than the infamous playable teaser to the cancelled Silent Hills and that includes being as well-done and very entertaining.
Hell Follows (dir. Brian Harrison)
Playing Tuesday 15 August 9:30 pm preceding Psychopaths
Now here’s some really daring stuff: something that gives Great Choice a run for its money. Harrison, in the span of 10 minutes, provides a very genuine anti-genre short: those genres being yakuza and revenge. Much of it is the anticipation towards a certain revenge being taken, carried by the paced duel performance of Iba Takuya. But it’s so stylized – in a coldly metallic black-and-white for the majority of the runtime and a frenetic jarring editing manner including overblown (and sometimes recognizable) needle drops to keep us disoriented and on-edge – that it’s still exciting to be in anticipation for the very thing our narrator Ishimatsu is dreading. It essentially feels like what you’d get if Tsukamoto Shinya was told he could have one long monologue scene for his short film (which is dishonest of me, there’s much more going on here narratively than that including a wonderful climax in bold color) and decided to make it the most electrifying thing ever out of spite.
Tickle Monster (dir. Remi Weeks)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 7 pm preceding It Stains the Sands Red
Another great little teaser. Some great cutting to make a novel idea both amusing and tense at the same time, but some of the underlighting within the final minute where the scares are being heightened becomes more frustrating than frightening and the opening shots within the room are too well-lit to make that feel deliberate. Still a fantastic pay-off in the end.
iMedium (dir. Alfonso Garcia)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 9:30 pm preceding Still/Born
So, iMedium is my least favorite kind of First-Person Camera Movie… the kind that knows there are things within the style that it cannot possibly communicate within the aesthetic so it has to break away and cheat it frequently. In spite of that, iMedium is actually really damn good. In fact, I say it’s the best first-person camera movie I’ve seen since [Rec], meaning that Spanish people are way better at this thing than Americans. It’s heartbreaking because I think it could get rid of both the app element of the plot and still keep its derangement, especially with director/editor Alfonso Garcia’s finger on the emotional beats, Jesus Velez’s ability to sell the amateur quality of the story without making audience’s have to squint to see what’s on-screen, and Jose Bermudez’s on-edge performance, none of which really demands that the movie be FPC. It could have stood proudly on its own without that camera phone crutch.
The Cleansing Hour (dir. Daniel Leveck)
Playing Thursday 17 August 11:30 pm preceding Dead Shack
This is pretty funny. Not really bellylaughs funny, but from the moment at the end of its stone-faced opening montage that it actually establishes this supposed exorcism to be an internet hoax phenomenon by “Father” Lance (Sam Jaeger) and Drew (Neil Grayston) with the assistance of aspiring actress Heather (Heather Morris). All three central performances do an adequate job – Jaeger at selling Lance’s insincerity, Grayston at being his exasperated foil – to bringing enough levity to the material that the overly polished and labored production feels self-reflexive as a comment to the falseness of sensationalist videos, but it’s all on Morris at switching to grisly demon mode once it’s clear that something inside her is going off-script that re-establishes the stakes while The Cleansing Hour is clearly trying to parody this sort of exploitation. It’s not particularly intelligent parody nor laugh out loud, but it’s entertaining enough to breeze past its runtime on to a sharp final beat.
And there you are. The short film line-up of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Hope to see you there starting this Friday!