So far, so good. We're over the halfway hump and zeroing in on closing weekend of the 2023 Popcorn Frights. The annual film festival, put together by co-founders and co-directors Marc Ferman and Igor Shteyrenberg, has not only broken sales records but continues to deliver an eclectic lineup of genre fare with a particular but not absolute emphasis on horror. The lineup is so massive, it was announced in four waves. Can you believe it's been eight years since the very first edition? Its growth is simply staggering.
This year's event, which is holding in-theater premieres through Sunday and offering a smorgasbord of additional titles through its Digital Screening Room, has also featured several retrospective screenings, including a handful of 3-D showings of films like “Friday the 13th Part 3” and “Jaws 3-D.” Earlier this week, the festival held a special screening of the 1977 thriller “Sorcerer” at the Gateway Cinema as a tribute to its director, William Friedkin, who passed away earlier this month at age 87. On Friday, the festival is hosting a special screening of the director's cut of Clive Barker's “Nightbreed” with star Anne Bobby in attendance. An industry panel, called “Blood, Sweat and Fears: Indie Filmmakers Putting It All on the Line ... and on The Screen,” is scheduled to be held Saturday morning at The Betsy Hotel on Ocean Drive. It will be moderated by Fangoria's Editor-in-Chief, Phil Nobile Jr.
This critic has a soft spot for “Nightbreed,” not only because it was released during my senior year of high school, when I was devouring Barker's novels, short stories and comic book adaptations, but because the film, even at the time of its commercial release, was accurately viewed as metaphor for the LGBTQ+ community. Popcorn Frights' commitment to championing queer voices (looking back at past editions, there's usually at least one such selection) is on ample display this year. I take a look at two queer/queer-inclusive entries, plus two other films that exemplify the aesthetic breadth that Popcorn Frights encompasses. Let's get to it. The children of the night are calling.
“Big Easy Queens”: A made-in-South-Florida gangland musical set in New Orleans? Filmmaker and theater director Erynn Dalton's sophomore feature sounds like a winning proposition on the page even before we get to its central conceit: the two most prominent roles are played by female impersonators. That the uneven results don't quite live up to the potential of its camptastic premise doesn't completely take away from the film's crowd-pleasing appeal. Call it a most pleasant disappointment.
The film, which has its world premiere and an encore matinee showing at Popcorn Frights this past weekend, pits French Quarter mobster Minnie Bouvèé (the drag persona of Eric Swanson) against her arch-nemesis Poodles Makenzie (Jennifer McClain) and Minnie's estranged sister, Mimi Bouvèé-Truve (Benjamin Shaevitz). The overheated plot kicks into gear with a garish montage of some playfully grisly, gallo-inspired executions. It's not until after the blood's been spilled that we realize Minnie has wiped out Poodles' best henchmen.
Meanwhile, a romantic triangle that plays like a telenovela on acid threatens to spiral out of control. Minnie's ex, Jackson Truve (Matthew Darren), comes to her asking for cash for a business venture, drawing the ire of Mimi, who stole Minnie's man and married him back in the day. The Machiavellian wheels are set in motion when Mimi seeks help from Poodles, who can't wait to exact revenge for Minnie's bloodletting. As for Minnie, she starts receiving threats and taunts that play with her head. Her loyal assistant Giuseppe (Alexander Zenoz) watches his boss' paranoid behavior with increasing concern.
Screenwriter Robert Leleux's purple prose amps up the camp and features some delectable zingers. His Southern-flavored turns of phrase veer much closer to Del Shores (“Sordid Lives”) than Tennessee Williams. Cinematographer Laszlo Thomas Nador opts for a suitably loud and splashy color scheme that includes the hue I like to call “Beetlejuice green.” Editor Marc Langlois keeps the pace fast and tight, though it must be pointed out that fades to black are inherently not funny, and there are way too many of those here. And even though one never fully believes we're actually seeing the Big Easy, art director Alexandra Fazio and production designer Nicole Alcaro's sets enhance the movie's puckish zeal.
What keeps the movie from firing on all cylinders is Dalton's flat staging. Too often, she lets Leleux's dialogue do the heavy lifting; there is way too much monologuing here. Many scenes remain staid and static, not quite matching the flair of the film's production values and the performances' tongue-in-cheek abandon. A delightful eleventh-hour reveal almost saves “Big Easy Queens,” but Dalton doesn't stick the landing. Sharp tongues and saturated colors can only take you so far, and while Dalton's latest effort is a decisive step up from “The Gravedigger,” her “Frankenstein”-themed debut feature, she's still finding her way as a visual storyteller. With “Queens,” she comes close, but no cigar.
“Perpetrator”: Dysfunctional families are a Jennifer Reeder specialty, and in the writer-director's latest genre-splicing effort, she imbues the generational disconnect with disquieting paranoia. Girls are vanishing without a trace from a community, and in the opening sequence, awash in “Cat People” vibes, a prospective victim feels like she's being followed. After coming face to face with her abductor, Reeder abruptly cuts away to show her protagonist, rebellious teen Jonquil “Jonny” Baptiste (Kiah McKirnan), showing off her skills as a burglar, unaware that her life is about to change.
The film starts in deceptively perfunctory fashion, but things become mighty strange pretty quickly. At home, it's clear Jonny is estranged from her neglectful dad, Seymour (Josh Bywater). Her mother appears to be out of the picture. “I don't know what to do with her,” Seymour tells the girl's Aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone, here resembling Cybill Shepherd) over the phone. He suggests sending Jonny to her enigmatic aunt's house to stay a while.
“We are not friends,” Hildie states, and when she starts doing strange and disturbing things to her niece, often involving drawing or consuming blood, we know she's not kidding. Jonny soon learns about an ability that the women in her family begin to manifest when they turn 18, a birthday that is coming up soon for her. Hildie calls it Forevering. You could call it a discomfiting form of shapeshifting, but that only tells half the story, and the appeal of Reeder's narrative is discovering what Jonny is capable of without spelling it out.
The results add a dash of body horror to the shopworn coming-of-age genre. Jonny enrolls in a new school where she encounters about as much hostility as she does with her family, as demonstrated by a vaguely creepy school nurse (Audrey Francis) with a penchant for plastic surgery and the strangely egomaniacal principal (Christopher Lowell). Against the odds, Jonny befriends several disaffected classmates, and as the protagonist realizes that her burgeoning ability might help her solve the mystery of the vanishing girls, this is when “Perpetrator” begins to feel like a cross between “Heathers” and a B-movie serial killer thriller.
That the movie works as well as it does is a testament to Reeder's skills, how deftly she toes the line between pathos and camp. Like her previous film, the teen noir “Knives and Skin,” she explores the complicated feelings teenagers feel toward their elders, the ways in which mutual mistrust breeds contempt that becomes justified when young'uns discover the depths of an older generation's sinister machinations at play. The filmmaker is also adept at providing a satisfying payoff, and “Perpetrator” shows a literal beating heart driving this dark coming-of-age tale with just the right dose of gallows humor.
“Psychosis”: Australian filmmaker Pirie Martin makes an auspicious feature debut with this altogether different kind of genre-bending odyssey that blends film noir and an unhinged zombie free-for-all. At the center is Cliff Van Aarle (Derryn Amoroso) a criminal fixer with an addiction to java and a loud chorus of voices inside his head that torment him with his own thoughts. Think of Philip Marlowe mixed with The Wolf, the character that Harvey Keitel plays in “Pulp Fiction,” and you get the hard-boiled picture.
Cliff's handler Hess (Kate Holly Hall) dangles a gig that puts his special mental ability to good use. Cliff is reluctant to use that part of his psyche, but the payday will help bring his comatose sister Louisa (Louise Byrne) home with him, so he agrees to help a couple of bumbling drug dealers and their boss. Grisly mayhem ensues, sending Cliff on a quest to find the mysterious kingpin Joubini (James McCluskey Garcia). Also searching for this evil force with a fearsome mastery of mind control is LoneWolf (Pj van Gyen), a vigilante that would make a perfect sidekick to Cliff, but like the name suggests, he doesn't do collaborations.
The treacherous and trippy journey that follows is dorky and, like much of “Psychosis,” way overwritten and a tad amateurish in spots. Martin explains so much that eventually there's not much mystery left to solve. And yet, there's a disarming charm and consummate affection for both genres that Martin pays tribute to, a certain rough-hewn panache in its surreal flourishes that's pretty hard to resist. It's reminiscent in parts to what Rian Johnson tried to accomplish in his detective tale/high school drama hybrid “Brick.”
Another asset is cinematographer Isaac Szepessy's stark black-and-white lensing, framed in a constricting aspect ration that's squarer than the boxy 4:3 Academy compositions. It's impossible not to think of “Night of the Living Dead” when seeing the zombie sequences. They're representative of Martin's chutzpah, which carries “Psychosis” past its rough spots and put a big, fat stupid grin on my face.
“Hundreds of Beavers”: But the true discovery of this year's Popcorn Frights is another black and white selection, a blissfully silly slice of Wisconsin cheese that plays like a feature-length live-action Looney Tunes cartoon (with some actual animation thrown in), conceived as a (mostly) silent film. The time appears to be sometime in the 19th century. The setting: an applejack brewery out in the remote wilderness, where our hero of sorts, Jack Keslik (the insanely talented Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), spends his days in drunken revelry. At least until several of the titular critters, here depicted as toothy variation on the kind of costumed character you'd meet at a theme park, chew away at the wood holding his liquor barrels together, and everything goes kablooey.
A barren winter ensues, and thoughts of retribution, as Jack, smitten with the daughter (Olivia Graves) of a territorial merchant (Doug Mancheski), aims to become America's greatest fur trapper, for the glory and for this lovely lass' hand in marriage. (On this wild frontier, everything has a price.) The bulk of the film shows the protagonist finding ways to dispatch his furry prey, with trial-and-error fastidiousness. The question may arise: how does director Mike Cheslik, who co-wrote the film with Tews, expect to sustain this relentless slapstick over 108 epic minutes? Answer: he doesn't quite pull it off. “Hundreds of Beavers” inevitably becomes repetitive, and not all the gags work. Some wear out their welcome a lot sooner than intended.
And it ultimately doesn't matter. Because “Hundreds of Beavers” is also endlessly inventive, cleverly sampling from all kinds of sources. Its silent cinema influences go even further back than Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd to pay tribute to the shorts of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It's also unafraid to show carnage as the body count grows higher and higher, but since the animals' innards are as fluffy as their exteriors, the effect is rather cuddly. Is there a thing as adorable gore? Cheslik and Tews may be onto something here.
As Jack's hunting skills improve, he maps out his territory, allowing the filmmakers to introduce a video game aesthetic that dovetails nicely into the character's quest. And just when you think the movie's about to run out of steam, “Hundreds of Beavers” sends its fearless warrior into the most elaborate and labyrinthine beaver dam ever depicted in a movie. Just how elaborate is something best left for viewers for discover, but suffice it to say this kind of lowbrow genius comes along all too rarely, and “Hundreds of Beavers” is a zany magnum opus that needs to be seen to be believed. If there's any justice, it will find a devoted cult following. Because it's, um, really something.
“Hundreds of Beavers” is set to screen Saturday, Aug. 19, at O Cinema South Beach at 10 p.m. “Big Easy Queens” screened this past Friday and Saturday at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale. “Perpetrator” screened this past Saturday at Savor Cinema, but you won't have to wait long for another chance to see it. The film is scheduled to open in select theaters and start streaming on Shudder next month. “Psychosis” is now available to view via the festival's Digital Screening Room. For more information about tickets and the Popcorn Frights lineup, go to www.popcornfrights.com.