Four Days of (Mostly) Feminist Fright: Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2017

From October 12th-15th, horror film fanatics descended upon Brooklyn to partake in the second annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival (BHFF), four days filled with the best modern horror has to offer. Films from all over the world were screened in venues across Brooklyn, showcasing some truly spectacular international and experimental feature films and shorts. This year’s docket heavily featured films with female protagonists, resulting in a wave of top-notch feminist horror.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to attend in person, but the folks at BHFF set up remote screenings for a large number of their films, so I was able to get the pants scared off of me in the comfort of my own home. I focused on feature-length films, since shorts rarely get a library audience. For a full list of films and shorts BHFF screened, please visit their website.

So, just in time for Halloween, here is a portion of BHFF’s incredible lineup.

1974: La posesión de Altair (Mexico)
Directed by Victor Dryere
Starring Diana Bovio, Rolando Breme, Guillermo Callahan

It’s 1974 and Altair (Bovio) and Manuel (Breme) are your stereotypical newlyweds—happy, bubbly, almost sickeningly in love. In order to document their marital bliss, Manuel begins recording their everyday life using his new Super-8 camera. All is fun and games (and sex) until Altair begins acting weird after complaining of a strange dream involving angels. Altair starts sleepwalking, staring out the window, and weirdest of all, she builds a set of black “doors” by painting cinderblocks black and stacking them, one set in their bedroom, and one in the basement. Obviously Manuel is freaking out at his new wife’s behavior, so he recruits his aptly named best friend Callahan (played by Callahan) and his sister-in-law Tere (Blanca Alarcón) to stay in the house with them to prove that Altair is acting crazy. That’s when all hell breaks loose, and their story is found in the wreckage of their home.

The beauty of 1974 is its vintage Super-8 feel. Dryere shot the film in 8mm, and his masterful direction, coupled with the beautiful cinematography, creates a real found-footage feel. This is just a really cool film to look at.

Bovio and Breme are so comfortable in their roles, they seem like an actual couple, but it’s Bovio’s Altair that is the stronger performance. Brooding, sullen, and maniacal all at once, Bovio is genuinely terrifying as the possessed Altair. VERDICT 1974 adds clout to the found-footage subgenre.  If Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch keep flying off your shelves, consider this for your collection.

Clementina (Argentina)
Directed by Jimena Monteoliva
Starring  Cecilia Cartasegna, Emiliano Carrazzone, Susana Varela

After a brutal beating at the hands of her new husband, Mateo (Carrazzone), causes her to lose her unborn baby, Juana (Cartasegna, in a haunting performance) returns to their half-renovated apartment alone and frightened. Mateo ran after he beat her up and the police never found him, so every sound she hears makes her flinch, thinking Mateo has returned to finish her off. After a series of “bumps in the night” frighten her to her wit’s end, but Mateo is still nowhere to be found, Juana begins to think her apartment is haunted. When Mateo sneaks back into the apartment one night, Juana must face the ghosts of her recent past.

This is Jimena Monteoliva’s directorial debut, and it is fierce. She perfectly captures the plight of a woman on the brink of insanity, after everything that she goes through. The muted palette of the film expresses the bleakness of Juana’s situation flawlessly. Her directorial vision is certainly helped by the performance of Cartasegna. The hurried glances into the dark corners of the apartment, the strained and heartbroken visits to her unborn daughter’s unfinished room are nailed perfectly by Cartasegna, creating a taut and smothering experience. VERDICT A harrowing portrait of a woman pushed too far. Perfect for fans of Inside, The Babadook, or any other horror film where women fight back against their demons.

Fashionista (USA)
Directed by Simon Rumley
Starring Amanda Fuller, Ethan Embry, Eric Balfour

Married couple April (Grey’s Anatomy’s Fuller) and Eric (Embry, of Netflix’s Grace and Frannie fame) own a clothing thrift store. This is perfect for April, because she uses clothes as a security blanket if you will; whenever she feels scared or nervous, all she has to do is rub her clothes or smell them, and all is right with the world. So when April discovers Eric is cheating on her with her best friend, Theresa (Jemma Evans), there is no amount of clothing in the world that will stop April careening down a road of increasingly destructive tendencies. It certainly doesn’t help that she’s spurred on by her mysterious, mega-rich new boyfriend, Randall (Balfour, 24), who coaxes her to do things she never dreamed she would.

This is an awesome example of psychological terror. We watch April devolve from casual and loving wife into a frenzied, yowling mess standing naked in a department store; by the end of the film, we are thoroughly unnerved.  Rumley manages to do what Jimena Monteoliva did in Clementina—aptly portray the deconstruction of sanity—without the aid of the supernatural. It is when April begins to spiral downwards that Fuller really shines in her role, and she is definitely the standout performer. Embry comes off as overly pathetic as Eric, and it’s distracting. Balfour merely looks like he doesn’t want to be in the film, and even though he’s appropriately suave as Randall, he delivers a flat performance. However, the less-than-stellar performances of the supporting characters do little to detract from the visceral terror Fashionista unleashes on its unsuspecting audience (I wasn’t expecting much from a horror film about clothes; maybe that’s why it caught me so off guard). VERDICT A surprisingly nuanced and genuinely unnerving psychological horror film. Stick it on the shelf next to Possession, Black Swan, and Shudder Island.

Game of Death (Canada)
Directed by Sebastien Landy & Laurence Morais-Lagace
Starring Sam Earle, Victoria Diamond, Emelia Hellman

When a group of teens discover an old board game called The Game of Death, they open the game, read the instructions (“kill or be killed,” basically, they have to kill the number of people on the timer before the number of players is dead) and a timer begins counting down on the board, starting from 24. So according to the instructions, they have to kill 24 people before the game kills the eight of them. They scoff at the game and start partying around again, dismissing the game as stupid. Until one of the teens’ heads explodes. And then another one. The remaining teens realize the Game of Death is not really a game.

What an interesting concept, right? Basically like Jumanji with exploding heads! Unfortunately, two of the teens, Tom and Beth (Earle and Diamond), just sort of immediately go along with the game, erasing any sort of humanity from the plot. Not two minutes after his second friend’s head explodes, Tom is like, “welp, this is the game I guess, I’m going to go kill some folks” and shoots an old man in the face, and Beth is like “guys, this is our life now.” It would’ve been much more interesting if Tom and Beth resisted their fate a little more, like showing some remorse at shooting people and running over them with cars, but from the moment their first friend explodes in a bloody mist, they turn into soulless automatrons, which, now that I think about, was maybe the point all along. Maybe the real fear comes from the fact that some people, in that situation, would shut off and complete the task at hand. Come to think of it, that is pretty chilling. My favorite character was Tyler, the stoner pizza delivery guy. He increasingly becomes the most relatable and human character, despite being initially annoying.

The film also suffers from some indulgent filmmaking, e.g., voyeuristic scenes of oral sex that have nothing to do with anything, unnecessary slow-motion shots and a weird running gag of a manatee documentary playing in the background. VERDICT A fun gorefest that, despite some flaws, will still entertain those who love films like Dead Alive and Blood Feast.

Get My Gun (USA)
Directed by Brian Darwas
Starring Kate Hoffman, Rosanne Rubino, Christy Casey

Amanda (Hoffman) hates her job as a housekeeper at a seedy motel, but it pays the bills. When Rebecca (Casey), the new girl, gets paired with Amanda in training, the two of them become fast friends, and it makes work a little more bearable. One day, Amanda walks in to clean what she thinks is an unoccupied room, but there is a man waiting for her. He brutally rapes her, and a few weeks later, Amanda discovers that she’s pregnant. Unwilling to become a mother to a rapist’s child, she decides to put the baby up for adoption—on Craigslist. Which, of course, attracts the attention of Catherine (Rubino), a psycho masquerading as a doctor who believes that she is owed Amanda’s baby. Things escalate.

First and foremost, this film suffers from losing its plot, and the acting suffers along with it. When the film is cohesive (the first act, ending with Amanda’s rape), the acting is moving, real, and intense. When Dr. Catherine is introduced, and she starts ranting and raving about how that baby rightfully belongs to her, it’s very confusing, and the performances suffer. Where did this woman come from? Why is she obsessed with Amanda’s baby? The film descends into a mess, losing any credibility it could have had as a feminist piece about reclaiming one’s body after such a traumatic event. If Amanda had spent the movie exacting revenge on her rapist, like the beginning shows us (the opening scene is her tying a man—viewers eventually learn he’s her rapist—to a lamppost and shooting him), instead of involving a psychotic mystery woman, it would have been a much more successful film, and a much more triumphant and cathartic one. Instead we have a very concise and gritty first act, a convoluted and pointless second act, and a finale that no longer makes sense to the movie as a whole.

Also, SPOILER ALERT, no one can die in this film. Amanda removes the baby in her stomach via rusty kitchen knife and is fine. Crazy Catherine gets shot in the face, and lives to pursue Amanda for a half hour longer than she should have. Rebecca gets stabbed in the back and run over by a car and is present at the end of the film. VERDICT You can skip this one. Inside is a far superior film about a pregnant lady being stalked by a crazy lady who wants her baby.

Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (Germany)
Directed by Lukas Feigelfeld
Starring Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky

In 15th-century Austria, fear of witchcraft runs riot in a small community in the mountains. Albrun and her mother (Martini) live in fear of witches just like everyone else, especially when they are accused of being witches themselves. This fear permeates Albrun’s life—her mother passes away under terrifying circumstances—and follows her into adulthood. Now a mother herself (played to perfection by Cwen), she lives alone with her baby daughter in the same house she grew up in, due to the stigma still attached to her. When Albrun suffers the indignity of another accusation of witchcraft, her sanity crumbles—is there an malevolent force tormenting her or are the shadows she sees a result of her own paranoia?—and the fear that has pervaded her entire life consumes her.

This is one of those movies where you just have to see it. It’s so hauntingly beautiful and macabre that it’s hard to believe that Hagazussa is director Lukas Feigelfeld’s film school thesis project. Hagazussa gently but firmly pushes you into this world of psychosis and terror, and you’re powerless to look away.

Aleksandra Cwen’s performance as the adult Albrun is nothing short of powerful. Even the timidity that Albrun displays when she interacts with the villagers is a complete portrayal of someone who has been beaten down one too many times, thus making the moment she snaps that much more frightening and real. The terror of Hagazussa operates on the same level as 2016’s The VVitch, in that viewers spend the whole film tentatively guessing whether or not the witches are real, or if the horror is a result of the character’s minds slipping away. Feigelfeld’s vision is perhaps a little more artsier than that of The VVitch’s Robert Eggers, but the result is no less terrifying. VERDICT Deserves a place on any horror shelf, next to The VVitch and The Blair Witch Project.

Inheritance (USA)
Directed by Tyler Savage
Starring Chase Joliet, Sara Montez, Drew Powell

In the midst of celebrating his engagement and his fiancée Isi’s (Montez) pregnancy, Ryan (Joliet) learns that his biological father—someone whom he assumed was long dead—has passed away, and left him a beach house in northern California. Ryan and Isi go to visit the house to check it out, with the hopes of selling it for a nice little nest egg. However, as Ryan explores the house and delves deeper into his family’s history, he discovers some unsavory morsels about the history of the house, and his estranged father’s past. Ryan begins to fear he’s inherited more than a house.

This isn’t a scary film in the vein of jump-scares and monsters and such. The horror comes from the oppressive atmosphere Savage creates with his directing, coupled with Ryan’s realization of what his father had done before he passed away and his horror at discovering that the same blood, whether he likes it or not, runs in his veins. It’s a very personal fear that Savage taps into—the fear that we are trapped by our history, that we can be consumed by the same things that destroyed others in our family, whether it be cancer, mental illness, histories of violence, etc.

For a first-time director, Savage directs the crap out of this film. Every shot is purposeful and meticulous. However, he is let down by his lead, Joliet (Montez doesn’t steal the show, but she gives a much more nuanced performance than Joliet does). There are few scenes in the film in which Joliet adequately portrays the horror and gravitas that the character requires, but that turns out to be a testament to Savage’s direction that he is able to squeeze out a truly unsettling final product. He is able to make us uncomfortable, despite less-than-stellar performances from his lead, which is quite an unusual feat. VERDICT A taut, well-made psychological thriller. Deserves a place on your horror shelf.

The Book of Birdie (UK)
Directed by Elizabeth E. Schuch
Starring Ilirida Memedovski, Suzan Crowley, Kitty Hall

Birdie (newcomer Memedovski) gets sent to a Lake Michigan-situated convent by her grandmother, in the hopes that Birdie will change her lifestyle—namely, quit her captivation with blood. Birdie is enthralled by blood, as evidenced by her fascination with nosebleeds and her period. As she settles into the daily life of the convent, Birdie becomes familiar with some of the convent’s permanent inhabitants, like the ghost of the nun who fell down the main staircase and the nun who hung herself from the oak out front. Birdie also develops a romantic relationship with the groundskeeper’s daughter Julie (Hall), but when Julie decides to leave for college, and the nuns begin to truly understand Birdie’s problems, Birdie’s fascination with blood escalates.

I am going to own up and tell you that I did not begin to understand this film, so rather than give it a bad review, I’m just going to say that up front. Other critics have lauded the film as a great feminist horror piece; while the film is disturbing, especially if one is religious (the final scene is all kinds of sacrilegious), it was too artsy and surreal for me.

With that said, I think it is commendable that first-time director Schuch cast only women in this film, considering the huge gender gap in the movie industry. Plus, the movie is beautifully shot. There are multiple scenes that draw you in with their artistry, but, and this is just me, the film as a whole was incomprehensible. I’m sure, though, that this movie will find its niche; it just wasn’t my cup of tea. VERDICT A beautiful, if not entirely cohesive, film. If you have patrons that are into arthouse horror, then they’ll probably like this film.

The Forest of Lost Souls (Portugal)
Directed by José Pedro Lopes
Starring Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart

The Forest of Lost Souls is where people go to kill themselves. After his daughter goes into the forest and doesn’t come out, Ricardo (Mota) decides that he has failed his family, and descends into the forest himself, intent on ending his life. As he wanders through the woods, looking for the place where his daughter killed herself, he meets Carolina (Love), a brash young women also contemplating suicide. They talk about the best ways to off themselves, but as they stroll deeper and deeper into the woods, one of them discovers that the other has other reasons for being in the forest.

This film went in a completely different direction about halfway through, and I absolutely loved it. I thought it was going to be a philosophical, nervy exploration of death and suicide (which I was already totally on board with) and it was for the first half hour, then it turned into something much more disturbing. Shooting this film in black and white was a good call, especially in a setting as isolating and oppressive as a forest; it perfectly conveys the bleakness of the characters and the overall story.

Solid casting and performances help elevate this film above some of the other movies in the lineup. In dealing with a heavy topic such as suicide as the main driving point of the plot (and to sell the twist in the middle), you need equally real performances, and the cast delivers. VERDICT Strong, somber performances, coupled with a roller coaster plot, make Forest of Lost Souls one of the best films at BHFF. Add to any foreign language DVD shelf.

Tragedy Girls (USA)
Directed by Tyler McIntyre
Starring Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Kevin Durand

Sadie (Hildebrand, Deadpool) and McKayla (Shipp, X-Men, Straight Outta Compton) are like, totes BFFs. Together, they host a social media presence called Tragedy Girls, after a string of local murders rock their small town. The girls claim to call for justice against the murderer, but in reality, they’ve captured the killer (Durand), and have started to carry out the murders themselves in order to boost their online cred and keep the likes and retweets a-coming. As the bodies begin to pile up, will the two girls be able to get away with it?

Hildebrand and Shipp have perfect chemistry as the two leads; they aren’t over the top in their portrayal of Sadie and McKayla when they easily could have in this super-fun twist on the slasher film. Add in totally out-of-character cameos by Josh Hutcherson and Craig Robinson (who was also one of the film’s producers), and you’ve got one of the most fun horror/comedies of the past decade. The end is a little predictable, but it’s got some of the best kills I’ve seen in a slasher flick. The film is even more likable because it doesn’t try to be more than it is. It doesn’t try to impart some social commentary; it exists to be fun, and it is. It’s totes fun, you guys. Tragedy Girls received a wide release on October 20th, so be sure to either see it in theaters, or snag it for your shelves when it’s released on DVD. VERDICT This film is at Tucker & Dale vs. Evil levels of funny, and it belongs on your shelves.

Veronica (Mexico)
Directed by Carlos Algara & Alejandro Martinez-Beltran
Starring  Olga Segura, Sofía Garza, Arcelia Ramírez

A retired psychologist (Ramirez) agrees to take on one more patient, Veronica de la Serna (Segura), after Veronica’s previous psychologist disappears. Veronica moves in with the doctor at her isolated cabin in the mountains, and it soon becomes clear that Veronica is no ordinary patient. The two women begin to battle for psychological dominance over the other, until Veronica forces the psychologist to look deep within herself. Safe to say, she doesn’t like what she finds.

I really like movies that are only about one or two people; they delve into the human psyche much more efficiently then ensemble films. Veronica pits two strong women against each other, and the exploration of their relationship (and how they have much much more in common than they think) leads to another really tight psychological thriller. Ramirez and Segura play off each other naturally, and the scenes where they face off, so to speak, are intriguing and tense.

Unlike Forest of Lost Souls, I didn’t appreciate the black-and-white of Veronica. I think the filmmakers could have made a much more beautiful film in color, even though I do understand the decision (and so will you, once you see it). The twist ending, again, is predictable, but the film as a whole is still enjoyable, largely in thanks to the compelling performances of the two leads. VERDICT While there are better thrillers out there, Veronica is still a worthwhile addition to your foreign language shelves.

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