You hesitate for a second as you stare at the door. On the other side is a big question mark. The promise of dark delights, but at what cost? The air is still, as your mind weighs the pros and cons of stepping out on Halloween weekend. You try to convince yourself the necessary precautions will be sufficient, as you fight the impulse to touch your face mask with your gloved hand. And then reality sinks in, and you feel a sudden breeze, followed by a slight drop in temperature.
There is no silver bullet that can stop the airborne threat waiting outside your door, no crucifix that can ward off this invisible menace currently traveling from host to host with no end in sight. “There is no escape,” you say out loud, as you feel the walls closing in around you, and a malevolent force drains every ounce of joy out of you. Think of the most heart-stopping sights in all the horror movies or literature you've consumed, and they will likely pale in the face of an ongoing health emergency.
No way around it: going out this weekend is a gamble, one that public officials would rather you didn't bet on. But what's the alternative? What will Halloween during the COVID-19 pandemic look like if you decide to stay home?
If you're a film festival programmer, you might say there is another way. More specifically, if you're Popcorn Frights co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman, you offer Wicked Weekend and ask that you trust them.
The four-day showcase, happening now through Sunday, promises to wrap its tendrils around adventurous viewers for one more dose of genre thrills. The length might seem short, but the event is jam-packed: Shteyrenberg and Ferman have programmed, in their words, “21 film premieres, conversations, panels and other special surprises.” In gaming terms, it comes across as a bonus round for those who took part in the movie-watching marathon that was Nightstream, of which Popcorn Frights was a part.
I have seen two of the selections available to stream during specific times this weekend, and they are so different from one another that they conveniently convey the breadth of horror as a film genre. One thing they have in common: neither is for the squeamish or faint of heart. Do you dare take the plunge, or would you rather dive back into the current news cycle? At this juncture in 2020, that would be more terrifying, and would feel like garlic for a vampire.
“The Vigil”: This modest, expertly crafted chiller mostly stays within one setting and unfolds in the course of one very frightening night, allowing writer-director Keith Thomas, here making his feature debut, the chance to turn his constraints into virtues. It tells the story of a young man plagued by demons and the ritual that unearths the trauma that had been buried under bucketfuls of shame and self-loathing.
It's pretty clear from the get-go that there is something off about Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis). He's handsome enough to be the boy next door, but as the movie begins, he is having dinner with a group of other young Jewish people. They're not exactly close friends, but these New Yorkers share a strong bond: they were raised Orthodox, and they have since walked away. Yakov is jittery, beset by financial worries. At least he's on his meds.
Tonight, of all nights, just after he's been asked on a coffee date by fellow apostate Sarah (Malky Goldman), a face from the past comes to him asking for a favor. Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) is in a bind. The man he'd hired to be Shomer for a recently deceased man flaked out on him. (A Shomer is someone who stays by a body's side, reciting Psalms to keep dark spirits at bay.) After some haggling, Yakov reluctantly agrees to go to the Borough Park home of Rubin Litvak and essentially babysit a corpse until dawn.
Litvak's widow (Lynn Cohen), who, Reb tells Yakov, has Alzheimer's disease, takes one look at our unstable protagonist and asks him to leave. But Yakov stays downstairs, next to Rubin's veiled cadaver. That's when Thomas starts turning the screws on you.
Yakov eventually learns that Rubin, a Holocaust survivor, brought more than harrowing memories back with him from the Old World. What ensues is a more serious variation on the taunting demon subgenre. Think Sam Raimi's “Drag Me to Hell” with post-traumatic stress disorder. The jolts are effective, the slow-burn scares spine-tingling. And yet, Thomas doesn't bring anything particularly novel to the table. Despite some immaculate widescreen compositions and eerie use of color, he indulges in overly familiar imagery and story beats. The movie also telegraphs its secrets, thus deflating some of its mystery.
What keeps “The Vigil” afloat is the filmmaker's refusal to exploit the characters' turmoil for easy scares. This is very much a genre piece, but it's also a portrait of a man's struggle to reconcile the faith he left behind with his identity. Davis makes that struggle compelling to watch, and his scenes with Cohen could just as easily belong in a chamber drama with almost no changes in dialogue. That speaks volumes to Thomas' storytelling skills. He means to strike a balance between quickening your pulse and giving Yakov a cathartic redemption arc. Mission accomplished.
“Thirst”: If “The Vigil” is all moving shadows and creepy noises, this outrageous splatterfest from Iceland puts a gruesomely cheeky spin on the Occult. It takes the template of a police thriller, then adds some bone-dry religious satire and tosses in a dollop of flying body parts. All kinds of body parts. The brainchild of filmmaking duo Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson and Gaukur Úlfarsson, “Thirst's” frigid landscapes and anarchic lack of narrative discipline make for one cold mess of a movie, albeit one that's too wildly funny and entertaining to dismiss.
The film tells the tale of Hulda (Hulda Lind Kristinsdóttir), a ne'er-do-well woman with a recreational drug habit who finds herself at the police station after her brother winds up dead of an overdose. Enter Hjörtur (Hjörtur Sævar Steinason), an undead drifter with an affinity for good looking men and a propensity to bite off their genitalia. What does he look like? Like a sleazier version of the too-cool-for-school vampire Kiefer Sutherland plays in “The Lost Boys,” only older, gayer and more depraved.
The phallic motifs fly fast and furious after Hulda rises to Hjörtur's defense while he's being beat up by a couple of bullies. (The poor things. They messed with the wrong ghoul.) Unbeknownst to the blood-sucking hobo and his new friend, a battle for the fate of mankind is brewing right under their noses, and it involves a heavy-set televangelist (Ester Sveinbjarnardóttir) whose even more heavy-set hubby (Jens Jensson) is the police detective who's certain Hulda is nothing but trouble.
Under Steinþórsson and Úlfarsson's slapdash supervision, the narrative strands intersect in sloppy and ramshackle fashion, but there's a manic energy to the way all the pieces fall into place, a devil-may-care impertinence that makes this hodpodge of vampirism, satanism and gross-out mayhem considerably more enjoyable than it has any right to be. It's an uneven and cluttered (but totally metal) foray into unholy territory, enlivened by gushing arteries and the sight of pee-pees ripped off from their owners, untrimmed pubes and all. Nice touch, that. It's a bold flourish that makes 2020's guiltiest guilty pleasure all the more memorable.
Wicked Weekend is ongoing and out to eat your brain, rot your mind and trap your soul, at least for the next couple of days. MawHAHAHAH! All kidding aside, stay home this weekend and watch some new and nifty horror flicks. For more information, go to www.popcornfrights.com.