It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, streets look like rivers in parts of South Florida, as Tropical Storm Fred creeps closer to the Sunshine State. One would think such nasty weather would spell certain doom for any arts event hoping to draw a crowd this weekend.
But not Popcorn Frights. In just six years, the genre movie showcase had metamorphosed like a larva that dreams of flight, from a small four-film showcase at O Cinema Wynwood to its current incarnation, a mighty week-long feast of shivers and viscera.
Some things are constant and are hopefully not going away: the hands-on efficiency co-founders Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman bring to the proceedings, the enthusiastic crowds that will cheer copious bloodletting and grisly dispatches and still hunger for further on-screen bursts of mayhem, the lovely (and plentiful) photo galleries that turn regular attendees into one large, happy, movie-binging family.
Not even COVID could keep Popcorn Frights down. When faced with the closure of theaters during the pandemic, the event joined forces with other genre festivals from across the country, and that union became Nightstream. It made for a nifty mix of sensibilities that featured quite a few highlights, not all of them horror-themed.
What has stayed in flux is a permanent home for the festival. Shteyrenberg and Ferman surprised Miami cinephiles by announcing in 2018 their departure from O Cinema. Their next stop, one with a rich history going back to the 1940s, was Savor Cinema, home of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. Finally, so many of us thought after voicing initial skepticism, an ideal marriage of event and location.
And then, like that post-climax scene where the killer sneaks up to inflict a killer blow, Savor was hacked from the picture. Cherished memories of sold-out screenings and rubbing elbows with visiting filmmakers suddenly feel distant, enveloped in a fog as thick as Udo Kier's accent. How come, and what happens next? It's time to decipher the mystery of Popcorn Frights and the Vanishing Venue.
To untangle this web of shadows, your intrepid reporter asked Shteyrenberg to reveal the series of events behind this most recent move, only to encounter a man who is looking forward, not back, and embracing a positivity that would make Freddy Krueger recoil in terror. It would make Chucky's face contort into a deeper scowl. And Jason Voorhees? Who knows what's even happening behind that hockey mask?
A request for a statement was returned with the following response: “We're excited to announce our new residence for this year at the Silverspot Cinema Coconut Creek, a state-of-the-art theater that for the first time will allow our fans and filmmakers to enjoy amenities such as reclining leather seats and in-theater dining and drinks from its superb food and beverage offerings.”
Anyone who has been to a Silverspot location, like the one in downtown Miami, knows that from a technical standpoint, this is an upgrade. But nagging questions linger. The new venue is located 18.9 miles away from the Savor. (Thank you, Google.) Would the Miami-Dade crowd that followed the beloved festival to Fort Lauderdale go the extra mile? Will the East Broward residents who sat through nearly entire lineups at Savor make the journey northwest? (For those not quite ready to go into an indoor auditorium, a sizable chunk of this year's titles are virtual events for those wishing to stay in to enjoy in the comfort of their homes, preferably with all the lights turned off.)
Will the real motive behind this unexpected exit be boxed up in a warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant? For a different perspective, I requested the input of the man behind FLIFF, President and CEO Gregory von Hausch.
Once again, a shot in the dark was returned with a swift and brief response. According to von Hausch, it all came down to timing. He writes, “We wanted to wait a bit before we committed to them, but they needed to nail something down sooner.”
And thus, the Popcorn Frights family bids farewell to the Savor. Will its sleek, shiny and accommodating new home capture the magic that devotees have come to associate with this annual gaze into the abyss? I've learned not to bet against this reliably resilient tableaux of dark impulses and nightmare fuel.
Of this year's massive body of in-theater and at-home selections, I've been offered access to two films premiering at the Silverspot this weekend. One of them is a more traditional genre outing, mostly confined to a single location. The other blends disturbing Giallo-style violence with ruthless social satire. Let's open that creaky door.
“We Need to Do Something” (Screens Friday, Aug. 13 at 9 p.m. at Silverspot Cinemas): Beware the filmmaker who sees it fit to trap its characters in a room for the bulk of their movie's running time, because that's a challenge that requires a particular kind of finesse, technical prowess and attention to character detail in order to pull off. This repellent little number from director Sean King O'Brady aims to do just that. He doesn't just fail miserably; he takes a competent cast down with him.
The film begins with a foreboding shot of an attractive suburb lined with trees in what, judging by the color of the leaves, is early fall. Only this isn't just another evening: lightning flashes in the distance, and a tornado siren begins to blare. O'Brady zeroes in on the nuclear family under his microscope: ill-humored, short-tempered dad Robert (“Dinner in America's” Pat Healy), strong-willed, levelheaded mom Diane (Vinessa Shaw, whom horror fans might remember from the 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes”) and their young bespectacled son Bobby (John James Cronin).
The family marches into the bathroom to ride out the storm, but somebody's missing. Melissa darts inside just in the nick of time. Played by “The Vast of Night's” Sierra McCormick, she's the prototypical Gen-Z teen: sullen, pouty-faced and surgically attached to her smartphone. But the pink-haired suburbanite is harboring a secret. As night gives way to day, and the family realizes that tree branches are blocking the only door that'll give them access to the outside world, O'Brady attempts to turn the screws on the viewer and explore fissures that lead to tensions within the household.
But those tensions never translate into anything remotely suspenseful, guided as they are by a lame mystery that O'Grady and screenwriter Max Booth III, adapting Booth's novella for the screen, spell out with uninspired gallows imagery that keeps promising unspeakable horrors and through flashbacks that try to flesh out Melissa's romantic relationship with Amy (Lisette Alexis), a brooding goth with a penchant for the Occult and a full arm's worth of self-inflicted scars. Booth uses the teen romance as a way to make narrative connections to the family's increasingly dire predicament, but we're left off knowing little about them as people.
That dearth of curiosity about what makes the characters tick extends to the marital discord driving a wedge between Robert and Diane, with the most clichéd use of an unanswered phone call imaginable. You never get a sense of what drew these two together in the first place, and then it becomes clear these four never ring true as a family in the first place. An anecdote Annette tells about Bobby's abrupt arrival into this world is the only moment where the film approaches something resembling recognizable human behavior.
Come on, genre fiends will argue, we're not here for a portrait of familial strife in the face of uncertainty. But “We Need to Do Something” doesn't fare well in delivering cheap thrills, either. It amounts to a pressure cooker with precious few stakes beyond an unknown, lazily conveyed threat just outside the family's bathroom turned prison. There's about 10 minutes worth of incident, divided by long stretches of waiting. The film often feels like it's stuck on neutral, an extended holding pattern peppered by the occasional moment of peril and the assurance, held above our heads like a carrot, that your patience will be rewarded.
“You can't fix the inevitable,” says Amy at one point. No, but you can steer clear of this stinker that appears to have convinced itself it's a fun ride when it's actually a scam. This emperor has no clothes.
“The Beta Test” (Screens Sunday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at Silverspot Cinemas Coconut Creek): Merriam-Webster defines beta test as “a field test of the beta version of a product (such as software), especially by testers outside the company developing it, that is conducted prior to commercial release.” Sounds kind of complicated, but it's actually pretty basic: a researcher's dress rehearsal, or perhaps a scientific experiment where the guinea pigs are unwitting participants. In this razor-sharp social satire, DIY dynamo Jim Cummings (“Thunder Road”) and fellow co-director and co-star PJ McCabe dive headfirst into the cutthroat world of Hollywood agents, with absorbing, richly entertaining results.
Their hook sounds like something out of an E.L. James novel: Jordan (Cummings), a power-hungry agent weeks away from marrying his fiancée Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) receives a purple envelope proposing a no-strings, no-names hotel sexual encounter with a woman who sounds like the ideal partner in the bedroom. Keeping the hot, all-consuming affair that ensues a secret comes easily to this two-faced Tinseltown hustler, but when he does something that puts the kibosh on further invites, the preppy exec's life begins to unravel in spectacular fashion.
So what's a film like “The Beta Test” doing in the Popcorn Frights lineup? Cummings and McCabe, you see, are trying out some experimenting of their own, stirring in some unsettling bloody flourishes into their tale of greed, lust, deceit and toxic workplaces. The genre splicing works. The results play like a cross between Robert Altman's “The Player” and an enigmatic puzzle box a filmmaker like, say, Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke would conjure up.
Cummings and McCabe hold your interest because they consistently keep you off balance in their depiction of an increasingly unhinged Jordan's attempts to get to the bottom of the cryptic missives. They skillfully convey their protagonist's suspicion that he's being monitored. They also show an insider's knack for nailing talent agents' off-putting lingo and go-to catchphrases. (You'll never hear the phrase “we're very excited” in quite the same way again.) Hmm, let's see: a wary reluctance to show one's cards, wall-to-wall paranoia and an aggressive sex drive. There's no doubt about it. “The Beta Test” is fueled by pure Scorpio energy.
If there's something that holds the movie back, it's that Cummings and McCabe juggle too many thematic strands. The directors' stab at incorporating a #MeToo message, for instance, comes across as forced and ill-suited to the story. It's a well-intentioned move that adds a weight the movie is unable to carry. In addition, it tosses off its revelations in such rapid fashion that some viewers might grow frustrated. But from where I'm sitting, it just means that this film is designed for repeat viewings. In this time of disposable genre whiffs (see the preceding title), here is a movie that demands and rewards your attention. We could use a few more of those.
For more information about the 2021 Popcorn Frights lineup, go to popcornfrights.com/2021-film-festival.“We Need to Do Something” and “The Beta Test” are both making their Southeast U.S. premiere at Popcorn Frights. “We Need to Do Something” is set to be released in theaters and on Premium Video on Demand on Sept. 3. “The Beta Test” screened earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival. Its commercial U.S. release has been scheduled for Nov. 5.