Knoxville Horror Film Festival 2018 (KHFFX)
Festival Coverage by Andrew Swafford and Jordan Collier
For four days in October, the 10th annual Knoxville Horror Film Fest screened 14 feature films (and dozens of shorts) spanning indie horror, documentaries, and cult classics from around the world. Coming on the heels of the programmers opening their own independent theater in Knoxville (Central Cinema), this was the biggest year ever for the Knoxville Horror Film Fest. Andrew and Jordan were able to catch 12 of the features during their time at the fest, including KHFF’s first-ever world premiere.
ANDREW: I’m glad we were able to cover this one together, Jordan — we’ve been partners in horror-cinefilia for years now, but interestingly, we tend to disagree more often than not on what works and what doesn’t in the genre. Maybe that’s just symptomatic of horror fans in general tending to have pretty passionately combative opinions — it’s an inflammatory genre, no matter which way you slice it. With this in mind, I was surprised to see how often we ended up on the same wavelength throughout this festival.
JORDAN: It was a pleasure to attend Knoxville Horror Film Fest in an official capacity this year and see just about everything the festival had to offer. I’m just as surprised you are that our wavelengths synced up as closely as they did. Usually one of us has to go to bat for horror movies we consume together, but I think that’s because of how much we love the genre in our own ways. KHFFX had a lot to offer this year, and even though all of it didn’t land with us, I’m glad we got to see almost everything in this crazy lineup.
All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018) by Rebekah and David Ian McKendry
ANDREW: I think both of us were surprised to see the festival open with an anthology film — and a Christmas horror anthology, no less. The feature debut of a husband-and-wife duo, the short films that comprise All the Creatures Were Stirring are unified by a pretty simple conceit: each takes a familiar, relatively mundane holiday experience and adds a generic twist. What if your office gift-exchange turned into a Saw-esque game of sadistic ethics? What if you got locked out of your car on Christmas eve only to be captured by a demon? What if your awkward family dinner was a orchestrated by aliens? And the whole thing is framed by the story of two loners keeping each other company at an experimental theater, where the above scenarios (and more) are acted out on-stage.
I was pretty neutral on this — it was intermittently amusing, funny, and even fairly frightening at certain points (a well-done jumpscare got me…), but it never felt of much consequence. Perhaps this is the fate all anthologies are doomed for, but I found the characterizations and ideas to be fairly thin here, and the visual look was much flimsier. This was true even in the best segments, like the aforementioned alien-abducted-Christmas-dinner, which had a weird sense of moral purity to it as well as a naturally charismatic performance by Constance Wu. Sad to say, but I often felt like I was watching television — a Netflix show, maybe?
It was a light, breezy introduction to the fest, if perhaps a bit too light and breezy. I can’t help but make the comparison to last year’s fest, which opened with a double-bill of the inimitable Suspiria and the surprisingly solid Better Watch Out. Maybe the comparison is unfair, but this definitely felt slight by comparison. What did you think, Jordan?
JORDAN: Anthology films are difficult to assess and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that I wouldn’t rather just have disassembled into several shorts independent of each other. I always like one or two segments, but I’m usually left cold by the others. This was true for All the Creatures Were Stirring as well. The standout was the alien Christmas segment, but what I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the framing story that tied all of the shorts together. Presented as an awkward Christmas Eve date to a strange community theater, an eccentric staff and a trio of stone-faced actors lead us in and out of each segment. I couldn’t wait to get back to the frame narrative and see the actors mime out the essence of the previous short. I did like it at the end of the day, but I agree that the choice to kick off the festival with a film like Creatures was a strange one.
ANDREW: You were also able to stick around for a movie that I wasn’t able to — I am dying to hear about Blood Lake, which sounds bonkers.
Blood Lake (1987) by Tim Boggs
JORDAN: Blood Lake is an enigma. Filmed on videotape in 1987, it’s is now making its way around the 2018 festival circuit thanks to the American Genre Film Archive. The setup is simple enough: A group of teens go to a lake house for a weekend of drinking, fun, and waterskiing only to be picked off by a stranger with a teeny tiny knife. The whole thing looks, sounds and plays out like it was made as a silly summer project between friends, never to be seen on the silver screen. Despite me questioning why exactly this is being distributed in the first place, I gotta say that the combination of seeing it with a room full of horror fans and my tired brain fighting simultaneously to stay awake and to find meaning in the six uninterrupted minutes of waterskiing footage with looping 80s butt rock we were all being subjected to was quite the experience.
Blood Lake is barely a horror movie. Despite opening with a hilariously ineffective kill, the “horror” doesn’t start until almost 60 minutes into it’s 90 minute runtime. What do we have to fill that time? Hanging out with your bros! An obnoxiously horny 12-year-old! Waterskiing! So. Much. Waterskiing! An uninterrupted shot of an entire game of quarters! But the best part is how little anyone does care when people start dying. A boy lying dead on the dock and another strung up in a tree just seems like an annoyance keeping the group from shredding the wake out on the lake.
I’m sure Blood Lake is remembered fondly by the group of friends that made it and adored by lovers of all things schlock, but I’m pretty certain I would have been miserable watching this by myself and not surrounded by a bunch of horror fans laughing at the strange situation we found ourselves in.
ANDREW: Despite this being profoundly not-your-thing, I’m sad I had to miss out on the experience of seeing it with the horror fest crowd — it sounds like it would have been a good time regardless. Sadly, this wasn’t the only feature I had to skip out on for work-related reasons — curse you, teaching schedule — I also had to miss the film that ended up taking the grand prize (the Palme D’Gore), The Clovehitch Killer. This was one of your favorites too, right?
The Clovehitch Killer (2018) by Duncan Skiles
JORDAN: I am extremely happy this won the grand prize just because of how different it was compared to everything else at the festival. What we have in The Clovehitch Killer is an entirely bloodless family drama that follows Tyler (Charlie Plummer), a soft-spoken, Christian boy scout, as he attempts to make sense of the pictures of bound and gagged women he finds in a box under the floorboards of his father’s garden shed. The pictures match the method of the notorious Clovehitch Killer who has terrorized the town for years, and Tyler becomes ever more suspicious of his father.
This is a movie entirely supported by the tension of this cat-and-mouse game between Tyler and his dad, who is played by an incredibly charismatic Dylan McDermott. With almost no violence to speak of, dramatic tension is the name of the game. You struggle alongside Tyler as evidence begins piling up that his father is a monster, and like Tyler, you don’t want it to be true.
I didn’t expect for there to be a movie that asked, “what if Dennis Rader was your dad?” and I certainly didn’t expect to be so charmed by it. Check this one out when you can. You won’t be disappointed.
ANDREW: I definitely will! I’m hoping it comes to VOD soon. Thankfully, we were able to reconvene for the rest of the films of the fest starting with this next one, which we were both highly anticipating: let’s talk about Scary Stories.
Scary Stories (2018) by Cody Meirick
ANDREW: This is a talking-head documentary about the now-classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written by Alvin Schwartz with traumatizing illustrations from Stephen Gammell. Both men are inaccessible to the documentary crew: Schwartz died in 1992, and Gammell is a notorious recluse who has given previous few interviews over the decades. So the film takes a few different approaches for tackling its subject: first by interviewing die-hard fans and creative-types who were shaped by the books as children, then by interviewing Schwartz’s son, then by interviewing a Seattle woman who famously tried to get the books banned from Seattle school libraries in the ‘90s.
The film is a bit of a mess in any estimation. On a structural level, it can’t really pick a thread to follow, jumping back and forth between fanart, biographical detail, academic analysis, and the censorship scandal with no real logic. By the end, it becomes a stunt doc, bringing together Schwartz’s son and the woman who wanted to (and still wants to!) ban the books for an awkward coffee date where they talk about the controversy. I feel like I could have watched a whole documentary made up exclusively of that conversation (My Scary Stories With André, say) or perhaps a whole documentary about library censorship (which was the most riveting part for me, but that might just be teacher bias), but it doesn’t quite work as five documentaries smashed together.
But moreso than its structural problems, the visual problems of this doc really irked me. Almost every visual choice seems wrong, which is kind of a travesty in a movie about a book series revered for their visual style. Often, the film will overlay audio-only interviews with cheap flash animation that is meant to be in the style of Gammell’s illustrations, but it falls into cheap-o uncanny valley territory (with glitchy unsmoothed pixels galore!). Some of the interviews feel visually awkward too, with talking heads standing in the middle of staircases with the camera peering up from the bottom; you also have random dissolves in the middle of the shot-reverse-shot coffee table conversation near the film’s conclusion that seemed to break all established visual language of documentary filmmaking. The list goes on, but Jordan, I’m curious to hear your take on this element of Scary Stories, as you work as an editor on nonfiction film for a living.
JORDAN: The movie is definitely rough. I don’t mean that it was necessarily hard to watch, but more that it literally felt like a rough cut that was rushed out to get into festivals. It’s littered with little mistakes that are very, very easy to fix from abrupt sound problems (that kick in during the opening quotation no less!), having way, way, way too much empty space in shots during talking head interviews, and reuse of footage without it recontextualizing said footage. All this may seem nitpicky, but recognizing problems like this is part of my job so I can’t ignore it, especially when the mistakes are so easily fixable.
Like you said, when it comes to actual content it spreads itself too thin and I wished it focused on perhaps one or two things. The banned books aspect is without a doubt the strongest part (this may just be bias on my part too — I also work in a library), but I can’t help but appreciate a lot of this movie. It’s flawed, sure, but it’s obviously made by people who love these stories about people who love them and their passion really shows. I just wish they trimmed their ambitious scope into something more manageable and edited it with a little more care.
ZOMBI 2 (1979) by Lucio Fulci
JORDAN: Thanks to super sketchy Italian copyright law, Lucio Fulci brought us Zombi 2 aka Zombie aka Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Woodoo, a supposed sequel to George A Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead. I watched Dawn that morning in preparation for Zombie 2, but honestly its status as a sequel is negligible. What Zombie does provide is plenty of gut-wrenchingly disgusting — and impressive — practical effects. Of course, this is often a good thing when it comes to zombie films, and Fulci does not disappoint. Eyes get skewered, flesh gets raked off of bone, and worms (real worms!) writhe in the eye sockets of the undead. The real crowd pleaser, though, is a sequence in which an underwater zombie and a shark attempt to tear each other apart. It kind of sounds like a pitch for the next SyFy original, but make no mistake — it rules.
Unfortunately, that’s just about all I got out of this one. There’s not as much undead mayhem as you’d expect, and all the time in between encounters with the undead were supremely uninteresting. I didn’t really care about any of the characters and was never given any reason to. The plot, besides its Dr. Moreau-style set up, loses steam quick and even when the undead are out in force by the end, I was already tired of them. Granted, zombie movies aren’t really my thing and they’re a hard sell for me in any case. What did you think?
ANDREW: I’m in complete agreement — I was pretty bored by this. It was given an effusive intro by Elric Kane of the Shock Waves Podcast, who pitched it as a movie light on logic but chock full of overwhelming sequences, which is consistent with my understanding of Fulci (I’ve been scared off of his film The Beyond based on the descriptions I’ve heard). I was completely sold! And therefore all the more disappointed to discover that the movie is such a slog. The narrative arc mostly consists of a bunch of randos sailing to and then driving to and then walking to the location of the big zombie breakout, with a few offhand sequences shoehorned in here and there that might as well be standalone shorts — I know I’m much more likely to rewatch that zombie vs. shark scene on YouTube than I will be to rewatch the film as a whole.
I also wasn’t expecting the film to be...racist? I guess the zombie sub-genre kind of lends itself to problematic readings considering it requires depicting mindless hordes of subhumans encroaching upon our (usually white) protagonists, but I expected more at this early point in the zombie movie’s history: Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead is one of the wokest horror movies of all time, and I Walked With a Zombie, one of the most notable zombie films to come out before it, is surprisingly considerate and subversive in its handling of African “voodoo” (i.e. vodun) spirituality. In Zombi 2, made by an Italian genre guy who may be more or less clueless about the original film’s racial dynamic, the zombies are directly caused by the “voodoo” rituals performed by Caribbean people. There’s a way to read the movie where it’s really about white scientists who doubt the validity of black magic being forced to eat their words (this is how Carol Clover interprets possession films, generally), but I find that reading overly generous: this is a pretty mindless movie featuring a lot of gratuitous nudity and dead brown people terrorizing whitebread protagonists--but more importantly, I was bored. Definitely not what I expected from a filmmaker with Fulci’s reputation.
Maniac (1980) by William Lustig
ANDREW: This is one of the many slashers I watched over the summer as research for my video essay on guns in horror movies, and although it gave me a very rare example of a killer offing an innocent victim with a gun rather than a sharp object, it’s one that I wasn’t particularly excited to revisit at KHFFX because of its lurid atmosphere.
The film’s title might as well be the first thesaurus entry listed alongside “psycho.” This is telling, as Maniac strikes me as a retelling of the Psycho story from the slasher’s perspective: he’s a single guy with an Oedipus complex, dissociative identity disorder, and a house full of inanimate objects that he talks to as if they’re alive, only to go out into the world as if he is totally normal until the urge strikes to slash some ladies up. Because we spend more or less the entire runtime with the titular maniac, it’s much grosser than Psycho, as we’re forced to reckon with his perversion much more directly than in that film, which leaves a lot to the imagination. The violence is also pretty rough: we watch him scalp women with excruciating slowness, for example. I’ll give it points for being patient with its visuals--for a slasher, an unprecedented amount of time is dedicated here to watching people go about their business wordlessly--but unfortunately that deliberate pace isn’t really in service of anything. Mostly, we’re watching women cower in fear for extended periods of time, with the same tedious kills cycled through over and over. There’s not much narrative here, and what we do get is psychologically thin and unpleasantly nasty.
I also was turned off anew this time around, as the person intro-ing the film set it up as being about a tragic, sympathetic figure. To me, the best slashers interrogate and expose the pervasiveness of men violating women’s spaces/bodies (they’re proto-incel indictments, so to speak), but the idea that this film asks us to sympathize with that violator smacks of the grossest himpathy, which felt all the more unnecessary in the political moment we’re currently living through, in which we’re seemingly incapable of condemning even the most egregious offenders.
But you shocked me, Jordan, by liking this movie — not because you’re wrong (which, to be sure, you are), but because you generally haaaaaate slashers. What about Maniac worked for you?
JORDAN: Just to be clear, I liked Maniac, but I definitely didn’t love it. I agree with your take on everything that is wrong with it from the titular character being quite unsympathetic to the runtime not being utilized to the fullest. The amount of time we spend with the killer is both its biggest pro but also its biggest con for me. The guy is creepy! Slashers are probably my most maligned horror subgenre just because I’m never surprised by them and they’re usually the most formulaic among a genre that has a tendency to get trapped by its own schemata (movies such as Scream and Behind the Mask are entirely based around this). However, having no real hero character strands us with this creepy, sweaty, wheezing psychopath for the runtime which totally kept me off guard. It doesn’t help that I have a deeply ingrained fear of mannequins and his bedroom, which we spend a fair amount of time in, is populated by mannequins wearing human scalps. So a slasher actually had me spooked for once and that’s worth something to me.
However, having no real hero character also drags the movie down. We’re stuck with the killer and slashers gotta slash. The entire movie is just a long sequence of kills, one queing up after the other until his psychosis finally collapses in on itself represented by an incredibly cool surrealist sequence that closes out the film. There’s almost no glue holding these scenes together though and in the interim we get to see tiny glimpses and hints of the oedipal root of his psychosis but it’s too thin and vague to ever really add up to anything. I stand by that if they removed just one kill from the film and used that time to develop the killer a little more, it would have felt like a much more complete package.
The Ranger (2018) by Jennifer Wexler
ANDREW: The film that capped off our Friday night marathon was The Ranger, which I had zero expectations for going in--but I was tired, and definitely tired of dour stuff, especially after Maniac. Readers, imagine the flutter that went through my heart when I heard that The Ranger was a punk teen slasher inspired in part by the aesthetic of Lisa Frank! Nothing could have been a more exciting antidote. Sadly, the film quickly fell short of that description. (Man, when am I going to be nice?) It has a killer opening stretch, as a bunch of young people do pink cocaine in a punk club and enjoy a heightened sense of reality mirrored by the film’s cinematography, which adds a sprightly shade of pink ghosting to all moving objects. Sadly, the party gets busted in more ways that one: when cops raid the place, our teens have to retreat to a family cabin located in a national park, later to be stalked by the titular slasher.
It’s an interesting idea--punks in the woods--but it just isn’t shot with any verve once we leave the city. There are plenty of movies that make the woods look cinematic, but this isn’t one of them--it’s all too bright and too flat looking. What’s more, the film doesn’t do much with its characters, choosing to withhold information about their past rather than develop any sense of relatability for their present. It’s a classic case of the “dead teenager movie,” which isn’t completely without merit: I like how The Ranger manages to really evoke the particular way in which teens can be obnoxious as groups towards outsiders, and I also like the rarity of how it gives its killer a gun. But overall, this felt a little underwhelming to me, and I was longing for more of the Lisa Frank aesthetic that it set up at the beginning only to discard. Maybe we were just tired?
JORDAN: The idea of a Lisa Frank slasher gave me so much hope! The first 15 minutes are overflowing with so much erratic neon pink energy that I was reinvigorated after almost 10 hours of movie viewing. Sadly it seems like The Ranger gave us everything it had in that opening act because for the rest of the runtime we’re just in the woods. Sure it winks at the style it abandoned a couple times (tagging trees with hot pink spray paint comes to mind), but it just wasn’t enough to hold my attention. It doesn’t help that I found most of the cast to be annoying and abrasive. I mean they’re punks so I guess they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, but they made it impossible to care for them. The standout to me is the Smokey the Bear-esque quote spouting eponymous Ranger, but even he began to bore me towards the end. I don’t know if that’s just my disdain for slashers showing, I was too tired to care, or a combination of both, but the Ranger left me wanting.
House of Sweat and Tears (2018) by Sonia Escolano
ANDREW: If there’s one thing we bicker about more than horror movies, Jordan, it’s slow cinema--something I wasn’t expecting to encounter at the Knox Horror Film Fest. This has become one of my favorite modes that film can operate in, as it often uses the forced duration that’s implicit in the medium to great and varying effect. We experience so much of life as slowness, so I think it only makes sense that movies will need to explore more protracted temporal spaces to capture the breadth of the human experience. I wish the form wasn’t so often maligned (by people on Letterboxd reviewing this movie, for example) as merely boredom to be avoided. House of Sweat and Tears is certainly slow, but it isn’t slow for no reason: the film is primarily about religious ritual, which is inherently repetitive in nature and reverent in tone/pace. Ingmar Bergman opens Winter Light with a Catholic mass playing out in real time (i.e. a real long time), for example, and I feel like Sonia Escolano is reaching for a similar effect here. Although it wasn’t my absolute favorite, this was, by far, the most stylistically confident film I saw at the fest.
The religion centered on here isn’t quite Catholicism, however: it’s set in a predominantly Catholic part of the world, and features quite a bit of Catholic imagery, but the inhabitants of the House practice a bizarro version of Catholicism that requires much more extreme asceticism: perhaps summed up best by the opening shot, which is of a woman placing broken glass in a canvas shoe only to slip her foot inside and start walk slowly. The faithful seem to live (almost) their entire lives in the house of worship, and have little conception of a world that doesn’t necessitate such harsh self-discipline. What’s more, a harsh matriarch doles out corporal punishment with merciless rancor, until her authority is challenged by a much more meek and forgiving leader in the film’s final act. Once this character showed up, the film clicked into place for me: it’s a full-on Biblical allegory, a la mother!, with Old Testament justice eventually going head to head with New Testament grace. Although it does require a high patience-level and pain-tolerance, I thought this film did a great job at defamiliarizing Christianity, examining it as a system of punishment and reward that requires a great deal of indoctrination and suffering on the part of the faithful. I also loved the period detail: most of the movie seems to exist outside of time, in a nebulous era of archaic cultishness--but just like in The Love Witch, certain details from the present day creep in (notably, a locked drawer full of smartphones) that emphasize that the film, much like the dogma it depicts, very much exists in the present.
I know you had a lot less patience for this one than I did Jordan. Is that mostly due to your general lack of preference for slow cinema as a form, or did the narrative bother you as well?
JORDAN: This was probably our most divisive film that we watched at the festival and this doesn’t surprise me in the least. Slow cinema is something I can admire, but, more often than not, I loathe watching. Not helping the situation was that an extremely punishing, languidly paced meditation on religion was not the refreshing hype piece I needed after a 12 hour movie marathon from from the previous day. I agree about House’s stylistic confidence though, with my favorite aspect being that about 70 percent of the movie is lit entirely by candle light. However there’s not even really an arc to be found until a good deal past the halfway point and like mother!, once I realized what was going on everything clicked into place but my intrigue also drained away. I think what House has to say about religion is much more powerful than mother!’s literal reenactment of the Bible, but I will take the energy and pacing of the latter any day.
ANDREW: I don’t disagree on those negatives--the film definitely waits too long to show its hand, and I think that the zany lunacy of mother! is more enjoyable to me as well. Still, this was definitely a change of direction for the festival that I appreciated, if not without reservations.
Luz (2018) by Tilman Singer
JORDAN: You and I both went into Luz almost entirely blind save the fact that it was a possession movie with an admirable runtime of 70 minutes. It sounded like just what I needed after the slow cinema slog I had just gone through. Luz starts off very promising and it’s style really pops off the screen. The film grain effect that is present throughout the movie, it’s incredible soundtrack and stellar sound design really helped differentiate it from anything else at the festival. The opening scene of Luz stumbling into the police station before shouting some cryptic stuff followed by a cut to an impressive title card really set itself up to be right up my alley. However, from that point Luz only gets more and more ambiguous, and not in the enticing “oh-so-mysterious” way, but more in the way that makes itself entirely aloof and impossible to connect with.
I was also bothered by Tilman Singer’s direction. The two films it reminds me of most in this aspect are Hereditary and Beyond the Black Rainbow: Hereditary because it’s another case of a directorial debut in which the director feels it is necessary to flex every single filmmaking technique he’s learned throughout film school (Luz is a thesis film, which makes sense) without any regard to how these techniques serve the story, and Beyond the Black Rainbow in that it’s held up by its style alone as the directionless narrative spins tires for 70 minutes.
It seems like we’re alone in this boat though, as I heard quite a bit of praise for Luz in person despite it being my least favorite offering at the film festival. Are we broken?
ANDREW: Nah, I think Luz is broken. This is a movie that just feels nonfunctional to me. I can tell that it very much wants to be a puzzlebox film along the lines of Mulholland Dr. or Holy Motors, but it is missing some integral pieces. On a minute-by-minute basis throughout Luz, I almost never had the slightest clue as to what was happening. So when the film spun out into more surreal territory in its final act, my chances of catching up were long gone. It’s always possible that I’m just not smart enough for this movie, but it’s also possible that this thing is too obtuse for its own good and ultimately lacks internal logic. You described it best when you said (if you don’t mind me quoting you from our post-movie conversation), it’s “a stupid rubik’s cube.”
This was my least favorite film of the festival by quite a margin, but I won’t discount the craft entirely: it has some incredible sound work, as you alluded to. The loud, dominating score ranges from synth-driven ambient music to jazz fusion, and it really carried me from scene to scene on an emotional level even when I couldn’t track the narrative beats. The foley work is really transportive as well, particularly in one scene in which a character is hypnotized to think they’re driving a taxi, and the sound of the film changes to reflect every minor detail of that imagined setting. Luz can be frequently immersive, even if it’s always impenetrable.
Sadistic Intentions (2018) by Eric Pennycoff
JORDAN: We were very lucky to be present for a world premiere during our time at KHFF! I know that you were a little doubtful if you would enjoy this one at all due to what the title and the synopsis implied: Sadistic Intentions is the story of a grindcore duo that lures a woman named Taylor to a house to serve as a grim inspiration for their next project in order to Make Metal Dangerous Again. The titular intentions vary between the two: Jeremy thinks they’re just gonna scare her, but the much more unhinged Hawaiian-shirt wearing Michael wants to add her to a growing pile of very real corpses.
Something that neither of us expected was for the second act of this movie to play out like a strange Before Sunrise between a hipster stoner and a metalhead drinker. In fact, it was so charming that I was sad to see the horror kick in during the third act. The third act is solid, especially towards the end where we get to see just how exhausted Taylor is with her would-be suitor Jeremy (her eyeroll is legendary), but I couldn’t help but miss the unexpected rom-com core to this movie with such an imposing title. It was without a doubt the biggest surprise of the festival to me.
ANDREW: I agree with you here 100%. The film works unbelievably well when it’s just coasting on chemistry. In the first two acts of the film, the hipster and metalhead both find themselves in a relatable awkward situation--they’re forced to spend time together without their mutual acquaintance present, because he’s nowhere to be found--and nothing would have made me happier than if he just didn’t show up. The opening scenes of the film do a lot of overt referencing to Black Christmas, with the Michael character whispering sinister lines over the telephone from bushes and closets. But what if he just never arrived? That would be much more subversive than the film genre-hopping for a stretch (however long) only to return to a familiar formula.
I won’t say that the film’s more-or-less generic final act is a total loss, though--it ends up doing some pretty effective messaging about gender (as so many of the best horror films do), by really insisting in its more violent moments that the male lead is in no way entitled to the affection of the female one. (Its intentions, you might say, are surprisingly pure. *rimshot*) Most of this subtext is communicated nonverbally, with the lead actress Taylor Zaudtke giving some killer sustained eye-roll at key moments when she’s incapacitated. She won best actress in the festival awards, which feels like a no-brainer to me. There’s no way the film would work at all without her, as her chemistry with the male lead is integral, and the male antagonist was really lacked any compelling presence. Bless Taylor Zadutke! I hope she gets more roles.
But returning to the weird botched rom-com structure of this movie, I wonder: would it be possible for this movie to entirely abandon its horror movie trappings while also retaining its subversive horror movie messaging? I think that with enough inventiveness on the part of the screenwriter, it could have been possible.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) by John McPhail
ANDREW: You mentioned earlier that we were waiting for a hype piece, and Anna and the Apocalypse was it, man. This isn’t gonna sound particularly sophisticated or incisive or film-critic-y, but I had so much damn fun at this movie and I know you did too. I worry that people around us were angry by how loud our laughter was. Sorry not sorry?
Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that keeps getting described in one of two pat ways, because they’re really the most accurate descriptors available: (1) it’s a zombie Christmas musical; or (2) it’s Shaun of the Dead meets High School Musical. The ads are swapping out the latter comparison for La La Land because maybe that makes it sound classier, but no. The register this is working on is not that of an arty, brooding jazz bro; the register it is working in is that of a theater kid doing carpool karaoke, much like the one I turned into while driving home blasting Carly Rae Jepsen. It is unapologetically dorky, making no qualms about its illogical shifts from talky reality to song-and-dance mode or its unrestrained teenage melodramatics. And unlike La La Land, there are a lot of songs here (close to a dozen?), and pretty much every single one is a blast--I’m especially partial to the one depicted above, in which the titular Anna hasn’t noticed the outbreak of zombie-ism because she’s jamming to her headphones. Like the film as a whole, it’s energetic, it’s catchy, and it’s funny in a laugh-out-loud way.
As Lindsay Ellis has outlined expertly, the Hollywood musical is currently pretty dead (no zombie pun intended?) outside of one-offs like Mamma Mia! and the aforementioned La La Land, only one of which features original music written for the film. This thing is a shot of adrenaline. I am in no way expecting Anna and the Apocalypse to kick off a industrial-wide trend, but I think there’s a hunger for a film like this that could potentially make it into an absolute phenomenon. (It’s also super British, with like, Harry Potter jokes and stuff. Nerds like British stuff, right? They have to see this, the lot of ‘em.) There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be playing at every multiplex in America this December.
Jordan, I was overjoyed that you liked this as much as I did, as your cut-and-dry rule about musicals tends to be the same one you have for slow cinema, slashers, and zombie movies: hard pass. What was it about Anna that worked for you, even as it so leaned hard into the movie musical’s cutseyist tendencies?
JORDAN: I would love to give a detailed list on why Anna and the Apocalypse dodged my anti-musical tendencies, but I honestly don’t know. Maybe it was just the correct time and the correct place? Maybe because it had me genuinely laughing my ass off for most of the runtime? I just know that I had the time of my life seeing it that night. It was absolutely the hype piece I needed and I felt reborn leaving that theater, humming one of the tunes on my way out of the parking lot.
The cast is also insanely likable in all aspects. Even the villain is this larger-than-life headmaster who has this whole Count Olaf thing going on that just works. The arcs of some characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be (Sarah Swire’s loner character comes to mind), but I honestly didn’t give a shit because I was having too much fun. I’m super glad my Scroogieness dipped out here.
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018) by Robert D. Krzykowski
JORDAN: Frankly, I’m heartbroken that I didn’t adore this one. How could you hate a wonderfully self-aware genre piece that stars everyone’s favorite papaw, Sam Elliott? Well, that’s because despite what its incredible title would have you believe The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is actually a super-serious drama about a soldier looking back on his life. This movie is targeting lovers of Forrest Gump and Big Fish rather than the Planet Terror crowd the poster and title would have you think. The fact that both Hitler and Bigfoot are in this movie comes across as entirely unnecessary, which is a sentiment likely shared by the director seeing as how the screentime of the two combined is less than 5 minutes.
So I guess my big question is this: why? Why go with Hitler and Bigfoot when they have nothing to do with the story that you want to tell? At one point Sam Elliott even says, “This is nothing like the comic book you want it to be.” Maybe it’s my fault for going in with preconceived notions about what I was going to watch, but can you really blame me?
ANDREW: Forrest Gump and Big Fish are interesting comparisons that I hadn’t considered; I walked out of the theater thinking that it belonged alongside the growing number of “iconic old white dudes look back” movies that we’ve been getting: Harry Dean Stanton’s Lucky, Burt Reynolds’s The Last Movie Star, Robert Redford’s The Old Man and the Gun, and even Elliot’s own The Hero. Looking at it in this framework, I could see why “the man who killed Hitler” might be an interesting jumping off point--there’s one really good scene where Elliot talks about how killing Hitler changed nothing, which adds to the character’s regretful sense of worthlessness.
...but why Bigfoot? You’re right when you say the director himself seems disinterested, as the film gives us its “we need you to kill Bigfoot” scene only to smash cut to Sam Elliot actually shooting Bigfoot! It’s an incredibly useless third act tangent, aside for the potential of some forced metaphor that I don’t mind ignoring. The only reason the Bigfoot part of the equation seems to be here is to make an eye-catching title that will pull in the midnight movie crowd. But the movie isn’t ultimately for them; it has a droll, plaintive pace much more calibrated for the grey cinema crowd--but the grey cinema crowd isn’t gonna see it, because it’s called The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot! They’ve really put themselves in a pickle with this one.
I’ll also add that marketing and branding aside, this isn’t a particularly compelling or powerful movie by any estimation. I think that programming it on Sunday morning was genius on KHFF’s part, because it’s the epitome of a lazy Sunday movie. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll watch if it’s on, but you’re not really missing out if you change the channel.
Shorts to Look Out For
Cut Off - A woman wakes up in a clean, beautiful bedroom only to discover that her forearm has been amputated in her sleep. Understandably, she freaks out, only to be interrupted by an unexpected phone notification. Clocking in at exactly 60 seconds, this film is essentially a very well told joke--with an excellent punchline.
What Metal Girls are Into - Three women stay at an Airbnb during the weekend of a metal festival only to find a frozen human hand in the freezer. The short basically functions as a takedown of male entitlement, and the ending elicited a cheer from the audience.
Riley Was Here - In a world where a cure exists for a 28 Days Later-esque form of zombification, a woman offers a service: she injects people only to cure them before they completely turn, which elicits a high like no other for the infected. Her reasons for doing so turn out to be quite personal as the germs she uses to infect her clients come from her deceased son and those infected become the closest thing she has to being able to see her son again. Riley is harrowing and worth tracking down when it becomes available.
Lucy’s Tale - One of the most impeccably lit, shot, and acted films of the festival, Lucy’s Tale is a Carrie-inspired story of a bullied high schooler who discovers strange powers--alongside a growing physical deformity that she struggles to hide. The film, clocking in at over 15 minutes, is beautifully understated as-is, but this is one of those shorts that begs to be expanded into a feature; the closing moments seem to imply dozens of scenes yet to be written.
The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds - At Camp Nawgonamakit, a child is bullied for his appearance which leads to him donning a Burt Reynolds mask and getting shredded out of his mind (and growing 5 feet taller!) in order to exact his dumbbell-clanging revenge. A real crowd-pleaser, the story and execution is a self-aware riff on slashers carried by an extremely charismatic acoustic guitar playing storyteller.
Latched - A young mother who works as a choreographer takes her newborn baby to a cabin retreat to practice dancing in peace, but is often interrupted by the following: a vaguely lecherous old man next door, her child’s increasing appetite for breastmilk, and a strange monster. The character work here is really solid for a short film, and the monster is well-realized with practical effects.
BEST OF THE FEST
JORDAN: Coming out ahead by a country mile is Anna and the Apocalypse. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a long time and the sheer fact that John McPhail was able to take the insane concept of a zombie Christmas musical and make it work and be compelling is no small feat. Shout out to my runner up and Palm d’Gore winner Clovehitch Killer though, as it shouldn’t be ignored.
ANDREW: I’m in complete agreement with your top pick. Although I liked a few other titles to various degrees (especially House of Sweat and Tears), Anna and the Apocalypse is the only film that I left KHFFX itching to watch again. I would have gone back the next day if I could. Fortunately, it seems like I’ll get the opportunity soon, as the film will supposedly be going nationwide this holiday season.