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Popcorn Frights 2019 Unleashes Ghoulish Fare

Popular Horror Fest Highlights Local Filmmakers, Women Directors


Ruben Rosario

Your pulse starts quickening. Your hands begin to shake. But you can't stop now. You have to see. You steel yourself for unspeakable sights.

 

Then you click on the remote to watch the nightly news. And you brace yourself for the hard-news onslaught.

2019 isn't nearly done, and yet it feels like we've experienced a lifetime's worth of calamities in the past seven months. So now that the world is feeling like a cross between “Black Mirror” and “Twilight Zone” episodes, where does that put film festivals that specialize in genre fare? How do you program a week's worth of horror movies when so many of us feel like we're living in one?

Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman, the naughty-and-nice duo behind South Florida's own horror-fueled film festival, have an answer, and that is to assemble the most eclectic and inclusive lineup in their power. Niche festivals can be clicquish, exclusionary events where the converted come together to watch films in like-minded harmony, and in some cases, rail against those who would look down on the quality of the content they cherish.

But that's not exactly what happens when you cross the threshold that divides the Savor Cinema from the rest of downtown Fort Lauderdale. You step into a welcoming environment that nurtures one of the warmest and most dedicated moviegoing audiences in South Florida. Genre enthusiasts rub shoulders with discerning cinephiles, and we all bask in the glow of sharing a communal experience that bridges the gap between various backgrounds and demographics. In reaching across the aisle, Shteyrenberg and Ferman have created a safe space that is the opposite of impersonal.

Their ongoing success has garnered widespread attention, not just from publications that cater to genre viewers, but mainstream media that includes the Los Angeles Times at a national level and a considerable array of local outlets. Yes, they're doing something right, because for Popcorn Frights, it's all about the movies, dammit.

Katie Stevens in

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Katie Stevens in "Haunt" (Courtesy Momentum Pictures)

And this year's roster is no exception. Gorehounds will find plenty to savor, beginning with last night's opening selection, the world premiere of “Haunt.” Produced by Eli Roth, this funhouse yarn from the screenwriters of “A Quiet Place” pays tribute to John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper in showing what happens when a group of friends find themselves trapped inside an “extreme” haunted house” that brings their deepest fears to deadly life.

But if this (quite solid) splatterfest gives Popcorn Frights' core audience their blood-and-guts fix, the programmers are not just content with churning out similar genre entries to fill up their slots. Psychological terror, character-driven thrills and even romance all form part of this year's rich tapestry. This year's selections even include a musical, the '80s-flavored “Knives and Skin,” as well as “In Fabric,” the latest oddity by arthouse darling Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy”).

Paul Homza, Arlette Del Toro in

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Paul Homza, Arlette Del Toro in "The Gravedigger" (Courtesy Infinite Abyss Productions)

The 2019 lineup also shines a spotlight on women filmmakers, who called the shots on some of this year's features and shorts, including the lush Sundance selection “Paradise Hills.” The festival is also highlighting local talent, such as actor and theater director Erynn Dalton. The founder of the Broward-based company Infinite Abyss Productions takes the plunge into filmmaking with an adaptation of the stage play “The Gravedigger.” Making its world premiere at Popcorn Frights, it promises to put a unique spin into the Frankenstein's monster tale.

Julio Trinidad in

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Julio Trinidad in "Call For a Good Time."

But that's not all, folks. The festival's ongoing “Homegrown” shorts program further showcases locally produced work, and this year's batch features the local premiere of “Call for a Good Time,” the newest pint-sized chiller from the devastatingly handsome, Key West-bred Jon Rhoads and Michael Marrero. I've yet to see their latest creation, but if it's anything like their past work, Popcorn Frights audiences are in for a treat. (Full disclosure: We're friends.)

As of this writing, I have seen five of this year's selections, four of which I'm reviewing below. Their breadth of content underscores the diversity in content of an event that should be a required stop in every South Florida movie buff's calendar. Did I like all four of them? Well, no, but this is definitely a case where the whole of a lineup transcends the sum of its parts. Read on, if you dare.

Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger in

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Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger in "Daniel Isn't Real." (Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Daniel Isn't Real”: What if your mental illness had a consciousness of its own and went on a murderous rampage? That's the intriguing question at the core of this high-concept underachiever that squanders a game cast for the sake of facile genre trappings. Director/co-screenwriter Adam Egypt Mortimer kicks things off with a visceral burst of unsettling bloodshed, as a gunman enters a Brooklyn Heights diner and opens fire. Witnessing the grisly aftermath of the massacre is Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner), a young boy who wanders away from his home and walks by the crime scene. All of a sudden, another boy stands next to him, and just like that, Luke has found a new best friend. So what if no one else can see Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid)? Luke's new playmate fires up the tyke's creativity, a godsend for him, considering his dad just walked out on his mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson). And then Daniel starts suggesting really dangerous things, forcing the shy lad to part ways with his “imaginary” friend.

Fast forward to the present day, and Luke (Miles Robbins) is now in college, still painfully shy and dealing with Claire's deteriorating mental health. His therapist, Dr. Cornelius Braun (Chukwudi Iwuji) suggests that for a change, he should stop turning his back on the figments of his imagination. And so Daniel, now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger (yes, that Schwarzenegger) comes back into Luke's life. It doesn't take long for us to see he wants to escalate his efforts at controlling Luke. Cue the cruel shenanigans with hints of “Candyman” and “Drag Me to Hell.”

The potential is certainly there for “Daniel Isn't Real” to deliver a tale worthy of its influences, and Schwarzenegger hits just the right notes playing the title character as a cross between Patrick Bateman and the Vampire Lestat. But as Luke plunges down a rabbit hole of malfeasance, the movie develops its own bipolar disorder. Mortimer, who adapted Brian DeLeeuw's novel “In This Way I Was Saved” for the screen with its author, wants to have it both ways, attempting to make us care for Luke while infusing some of the situations he encounters with pitch-black humor. Instead of fusing these disparate sensibilities, however, the film careens from domestic drama to gruesome laughs with sloppy zeal. This unfiltered dose of millennial angst needed a more adept conduit than this cartoonish misfire can muster.

(“Daniel Isn't Real” screens Saturday, Aug. 10 at 7:15 p.m., Savor Cinema)

Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgard, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan in

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Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgard, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan in "Villains" (Courtesy Gunpowder + Sky)

“Villains”: They swear it's their last robbery. Then they can be together forever basking in the sand in (where else?) Florida. But things don't quite turn out that way for Mickey (saucer-eyed Bill Skarsgård, aka the new Pennywise) and Jules (Maika Monroe), the love birds at the center of this violent dark comedy with an acute case of Coen Brothers envy. They run out of gas on their way to the Sunshine State, but what initially appears to be a way out of their predicament opens up a Pandora's box of freakish behavior and evil most foul under the guise of hospitality. Jules spots a house seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and so the couple break in. It's safe to say they come to regret that decision after the homeowners catch them red-handed.

George (“Burn Notice's” Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) initially come across as a friendly yet slightly eccentric couple when they try to negotiate with the younger intruders, but writer-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen allow the older pair to go into full psycho mode too early. Donovan, sporting a giggle-inducing gigolo mustache, is clearly having a ball chewing the scenery by tearing into a broad caricature of a Southern gent. Sedgwick, unfortunately, becomes the target of the filmmakers' ill-conceived depiction of Gloria as a prim and proper homemaker prone to turning into a kinky sex fiend for some easy laughs.

“Villains” is a competently crafted throwback to the plethora of Tarantino knock-offs that clogged video store shelves in the 1990s. Attention is paid to character nuance, but there's not a single original element in sight. The cornpone preciousness corrodes the narrative until all that's left is a trail of bodies and a self-satisfied smirk.

(“Villains” screens Saturday, Aug. 10 at 9:30 p.m., Savor Cinema)

Milla Jovovich, Emma Roberts in

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Milla Jovovich, Emma Roberts in "Paradise Hills" (Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Paradise Hills”: Imagine a world where a lush resort where wealthy young women are passive-aggressively coaxed into becoming upstanding citizens is actually a front for something more sinister. Now add a saturated color palette and inventive production design. Then fill the eye-popping tableaux with a committed cast. The result is this auspicious feature debut by Spanish filmmaker Alice Waddington. Think of a cross between Lewis Carroll and young adult fiction in the vein of “The Hunger Games,” with a dash of “The Stepford Wives” for good measure, and you get the picture.

This cautionary tale, punctuated by bold fantasy flourishes, plops viewers in the middle of this realm of flying Rolls-Royces and fashion-forward privilege in order to follow strong-willed Uma (Emma Roberts), the latest arrival at this “center for emotional healing.” Upon meeting its headmistress, who calls herself The Duchess (Milla Jovovich, a hoot), our spunky heroine can tell something is eerily off about this alternate-universe charm school with curiously fascistic reprogramming techniques. She's not alone. Roommates Chloe (“Dumplin's” Danielle Macdonald) and Yu (Awkwafina) also sense something is amiss.

Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, Eiza Gonzalez, Emma Roberts in

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Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, Eiza Gonzalez, Emma Roberts in "Paradise Hills" (Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The intricately rendered look of “Paradise Hills” is so intoxicating you can almost feel the pheromones working their magic on you. (Hats off to cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui and production designer Laia Colet.) It's not until the movie begins to bare its fangs that one begins to notice the narrative isn't quite as sturdy as the ravishing images that keep washing over you. The fragility of young women's self-image is a fascinating subject to view through this particular genre lens, and while the way Waddington avoids conventional forms of exposition is admirable, some of the murky storytelling left this reviewer longing to know a more about this universe. But the bottom line is that I also became invested in these women's fate. Also, there are certainly worse things than letting Jovovich run amok, which the “Resident Evil” star does with gusto. Waddington shows a lot of promise, even as her reach exceeds her grasp. Let's see what else she's got in her celulloid bag of tricks.

(“Paradise Hills” screens Wednesday, Aug. 14 at 7:30 p.m., Savor Cinema)

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in

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Marianne Jean-Baptiste in "In Fabric."

“In Fabric”: If you can only see one film at this year's Popcorn Frights, make it this formally rigorous treat from English auteur Peter Strickland. It's ostensibly the story of a killer dress and its victims, but it goes beyond its unifying inanimate object, in this case a sizzling red number, to become a satire about the cult of consumerism. Think of “Suspiria,” add a subversive glee reminiscent of George Romero circa “Dawn of the Dead,” then give it a veddy proper British eccentricity and a kinky streak that would make the royals blush. The results, as is the case with the rest of Strickland's work, are an acquired taste, but they make familiar subject matter feel fresh and vital.

The film's first half centers around divorcée Sheila Woodchapel (“Secrets & Lies'” Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who goes to Dentley & Soper, a popular department store with strangely transfixing TV ads, to purchase a new frock to go out on a date. She's persuaded to buy the aforementioned dress by Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), a creepy salesperson who sounds like a semiotics seminar every time she opens her mouth. Sheila lives with her adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), an art school student whose territorial new girlfriend, Gwen (“Game of Thrones'” Gwendoline Christie, nearly unrecognizable), makes for some awkward and tense moments of domestic malaise. Things become progressively worse once the dress makes itself at home and Sheila begins to discover its terrible history,

Fatma Mohamed in

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Fatma Mohamed in "In Fabric."

“In Fabric's” slightly less captivating but still engrossing second half revolves around washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), the next person to cross paths with the crimson garment, and his nag of a fiancée, Babs (“I, Daniel Blake's” Hayley Squires). In an idiosyncratic flourish, Reg has the ability to make people go into orgiastic trances every time he recites machine washer malfunctions.

Strickland doesn't specify a time period, but the inclusion of personal ads, land lines and tube TVs gives the film the early-1980s flavor of the Thatcher era. But despite its UK pedigree and trappings, the film's aesthetics are an homage to Italian giallo films of the 1970s. It all makes for a unique mishmash held together by a surreal dreamlike quality that's uncannily Lynchian in its ability to seduce and unsettle. It's cinematic haute couture with a velvety sheen and a tendency to invade your subconscious. “Fabric,” in other words, is a stitch above its peers.

(“In Fabric” screens Thursday, Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m., Savor Cinema)

The 2019 Popcorn Frights Film Festivals runs through Aug. 16. For more information about tickets and showtimes, go to popcornfrights.com.

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