Friday 9 October 2020

Films from Grimmfest 2020 Part 1: Reviews of Anonymous Animals (France 2020), Stray (Russia 2019) , Alone (USA 2020), The Special (USA 2020), Unearth (USA 2020), They Reach (USA 2020), Ropes (Spain 2019) and H P Lovecraft's The Deep Ones (USA 2020)

Over the course of two epic posts, I'll be bringing you 15 films from this year's Grimmfest film festival, all the way from sunny Manchester. Except of course like most fests Grimmfest have gone online this year, giving us landlocked southern types a taste of how they do things up north. So here's the first eight: 

Anonymous Animals (France 2020: Dir Baptiste Rouvere) At its heart Rouvere's extraordinary debut feature uses the 'Planet of the Apes' movies as its jumping off point, reverse evolving humans and animals so that people are the hunted and farmed, and animals are in control.

In a forest in rural France a man, shirtless and with his back covered in welts, is chained to a tree, before a passing van collects him, to be taken back to a holding area in the middle of an otherwise abandoned farm. Elsewhere a group of people are rounded up while in the wild, and taken back to another part of the same farm where they are held in cattle pens. In each case the 'farmers' are human in form but with the heads of stags, dogs and bulls.

The lone man is fed like an animal, clearly being trained up for some forthcoming event (the reveal of that event is the awful climax of the film). The others wait in their pens, docile and frightened; one attempts escape which does not end well. 

There is of course no happy end to this movie, mercifully short at just over an hour. Scenes are short and abruptly cut, and the contrast between the cruelty meted out to the humans and the film's beautiful and mournful French countryside setting, as well as its dialogue free approach (the 'manimals' grunt but the humans remain silent throughout) further unseats the viewer; Damien Maurel's soundtrack, a mixture of drones and sympathetic strings, is also superbly eerie. Anonymous Animals's point is made pretty bluntly and relentlessly (like if PETA were to make a feature film) and although modestly budgeted it's one of the most uncomfortable movies I've seen this year.

Stray aka Tvar (Russia 2019: Dir Olga Gorodetskaya) Gorodetskaya's debut feature nods in the direction of 'moppet from hell' movies like 'The Omen' (1976) and the previous year's 'Demon Witch Child' but this tale of grief and loss has a bigger emotional heft than both. 

Polina (Elena Lyadova) and her husband Igor (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) are a broken couple; their eight year old son Vanya went missing, presumed dead, and Igor blames himself. Traumatised by the loss in their lives, made worse by the apparent lack of a body, the pair make the rather hasty decision of attempting to adopt a child at the local orphanage. Once there Polina finds the selection process too upsetting; but wandering in the grounds she spies an almost feral kid, whose keeper has just shot himself. Polina has taught traumatised children in the past and Igor is a doctor, so between them they have the coping skills. Their initial request to adopt is refused, but later they see the child walking alone along a road and take him home; they’re aware that they are breaking the law, but the need to care is too strong for them to resist.

But despite his feral ways - eating meat raw from the fridge, growling at his protectors - Polina develops affection for him, and through her grief comes to believe that this is in fact her returned child; she even names him Vanya, after her little boy, and they seem to be about the same ages. Igor is less impressed and feels that the replacement Vanya is actually trying to copy their son to fit in (which is odd as the two boys have never met).

But when Polina discovers she's pregnant (something she was sure would never happen again), her interest in Vanya wanes; in return Vanya becomes jealous; and that jealousy turns his mind to murder and revenge.

I really liked this rather convoluted and atmospheric film: it offered up way more than the standard evil child setup I was expecting, although its glacial pace won't be for everyone. I won't give the game away but the explanation behind the child's behaviour is both tragic and intriguing. As 'Vanya' Sevastian Bugaev turns in a performance of incredible ferocity for one so young, his nightmarish outrages only marred by a couple of scenes of ropey CGI. Lyadova and Vdovichenkov are also superb as parents consumed by grief who have lost the art of consoling each other, and the Russian winter, which provides the backdrop to the events, is impressively chilly, reflecting the strange twists and turns of the narrative.

Alone (USA 2020: Dir John Hyams)
Whoa, nelly! Hyams's precise, unwavering exercise in haute tension thrills is the story of Jessica (Jules Willcox), a woman recovering from the shock of her husband's suicide, still deeply in grief, and who decides to get the jump on her parents' offer of assistance with moving, packing all her stuff into a rented trailer. She's heading north, final destination unknown, although her long trip takes her from the city to the beautiful Oregon forests. Clearly raw and vulnerable, she's in no state to deal with a bit of white line fever action, one of those intentionally slowpoke drivers who only speed up when you try and overtake them. What she isn't expecting, the following morning, is that the driver of that car would track her down to the motel she stayed in overnight and try and apologise for his behaviour. Later on she runs into him again when he asks for roadside assistance for his supposedly broken down car. She wisely swerves the option to offer help, which results in him catching up with her again that night in a trucking lot; she drives away, runs her vehicle into a ditch, after which he finds her again, breaks into her car, assaults and sedates her.

What follows, when she wakes up alone in a room, realises his (initial) sexual intentions and finally effects an escape, is a sustained chase movie utilising the anonymity and isolation of the dense Oregon forest to enhance the seemingly impossible task of outrunning her pursuer.

A remake of the 2011 Swedish film Försvunnen aka Gone, with a script provided by Mattias Olsson, one of the directors of the original movie, Alone breaks its narrative into five 'acts': The Road, The River, The Rain, The Night and The Clearing, but the division of scenes is for our benefit only: Jessica's ordeal is relentless.

Jessica's unnamed attacker (Marc Menchaca) defies the normal backwoods killer stereotype; he looks pretty harmless, but his ability to get under her skin shows the level of his accomplishment, clearly realised through practice: "Do you think this is the first time someone has asked that?" he questions when Jessica pleads for release. He's a family man too: a fact that will eventually lead to his undoing.

For the most part this is a formulaic thriller which ticks all the genre boxes: mobile phones that offer faint hope; Jessica sustaining 'first blood' (a branch embedded in her foot) thus giving her an immediate disadvantage; a passing hunter, who we know will either be an accomplice or an early victim, appears too early in the movie to be her salvation. But Jessica's backstory makes her interesting, and as the film progresses we see not so much a 'final girl' figure but a woman reconciling her emotional grief laden ennui with the need to stay alive.

Alone is tightly shot and edited, and the tension is at times agonising, assisted by a very organic sounding score by Nima Fakhara. I'm not sure whether in 2020 I wanted to see a vulnerable woman being stalked for 90 plus minutes but there's no denying the quality of the film, and Hyams's ability to make the Oregon countryside look both beautiful and hostile is to be applauded.

The Special (USA 2020: Dir B. Harrison Smith)
Smith's rather clever movie takes a fairly preosterous central conceit and makes a very watchable movie around it.

Jerry (Davy Raphaely) is persuaded by his friend and work colleague Mike (Dave Sheridan) into going to a brothel as revenge for Jerry's wife Lisa (Sarah French) cheating on him. Mike has clearly used the place before and makes Jerry put a bag over his head to keep the location secret. A sign outside the joint reads 'psychic': the place is run by Madame Zhora (Susan Moses). Mike suggests that Jerry should ask for 'the special' and Jerry is surprised that when he's alone in the room 'the special' turns out to be a large box with a glory hole and a written instruction 'stick it in here' (we've already seen the box lovingly constructed by unknown hands in the credits sequence). Jerry obliges and the experience causes such ecstasy that he immediately wants more, despite Mike telling him that "once is enough." 

Jerry's guilt in finding out a) that Lisa was not unfaithful, she was organising a surprise present with a local salesman and b) that she's pregnant does not stop him wanting more of 'the special.' His desire for experience leads to murder and increasing deception as he gives himself over to pleasure at any cost.

The Special feels like early Henenlotter (specifically 1988's Brain Damage and to some extent his 2008 sleaze fest Bad Biology) and it's good to see a return to 1980s style body horror and practical effects. Raphaely gives a great and very physical performance as the increasingly unhinged Jerry. You can probably work out the ending, but it's fun (and more than a little wince inducing) getting there; Smith should be congratulated for pulling off (ahem) a film as potentially silly as this but doing it totally straight faced. Excellent work!

Unearth (USA 2020: Dir John C. Lyons, Dorota Swies)
 Films depicting blue collar communities in the USA cannot help but be refracted through the joint prisms of US politics and its attendant economic policies. The two families at the centre of Unearth both own farms which have seen better days (the movie was filmed in north-western Pennsylvania, giving it a great sense of place). George Lomack (Marc Blucas) has parcelled some of his for sale and also diversified into the auto repair business, his economic situation worsened by a recent divorce; one of his daughters, Kim (Brooke Sorenson) has had a baby while still a student, and the extra mouth to feed is an additional burden, while Kim's elder sister Heather (Rachel McKeon) dreams of leaving, and her self harming shows her levels of anguish. George has a tendency to drink and also to ramp up the costs of his auto services, which unsurprisingly loses him customers.

Across the way the Dolan family don't have it any easier, having recently sold off their dairy business. Presided over by Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau getting a rare opportunity to sink her teeth into a dramatic role) whose husband recently passed, and who lives with son Tom (P.J.Marshall), wife Aubrey (Monica Wyche) and Tom's sister Christina (Allison McAttee) who has designs on arts school, and is also having a fling with George.

It's a white working class community with options closed off, so when a company called Patriot Exploration turn up on their doorsteps with an offer of money in return for fracking rights, the Lomacks seem to have found the answer to their problems.

One year later, and the fracking process has destroyed what little dignity the families had, rendering their homesteads filthy and with incessant drilling shredding their nerves. George has apparently sobered up and has a job in a cafe, but there's no apparent increase in wealth. To add insult to injury the company have been less than honest about how much money will be seen by the family and the fracking has triggered an unspecified environmental disturbance. It seems a breaking point has been reached.

The eco horror of the piece, which waits patiently until almost the last reel, therefore feels less like an attack and more like the delivery of some kind of divine judgment. Be warned, there are some shocking moments here, made more so by the fact that the characters have been so well - if subtly - rendered: their fate feels doubly tragic. Unearth is by no means a perfect film; it feels like two movies grafted onto one at times. But it's an angry piece; and if it fails to offer any easy answers, it's politically powerful as well.
They Reach (USA 2020: Dir Sylas Dall)
The inspiration of Stranger Things, which fetishised a period of time - the 1980s - before most of its target audience were born, is all over Dall's debut feature. But the director, born in 1986, has decided to set his film even further back. 

It's 1979 (although a brief prologue covers events ten years earlier) and the Daniels family are recovering from the shock of the death of their teenage son. While mum and dad are separately traumatised, daughter Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe) is left to cope on her own, her only friends being social outcasts overweight Sam (Morgan Chandler) who - of course - has a crush on Jess, and food obsessed Cheddar (Eden Campbell). When Jess visits a local junk shop, she comes away with a load of rubbish which she hopes will aid her school science project. Among the stuff is an old reel to reel tape recorder, which we've already seen in the 1969 prologue where it was involved in the exorcism of a young boy. Fiddling around with the machine, Jess cuts her hand, and her blood drips on to the recorder. This sets off a train of events including a resurrected demon, a series of deaths and the need for a sacrificial victim.

Dall's film is almost entirely centred on the trio of young people; any adults present are mainly two dimensional authority figures, with the exception of stern librarian by day and white witch by night Marybeth Moonstar (a superb turn from Steffanie Foster Gustafson) who aids the trio in understanding what they're dealing with. The problem is that I'm not really the target audience for this kind of thing, where the thrill is less about the story - it's pretty paper thin - than identifying with the geeky friends. Although as a teen movie the F-bombs are let off with surprising frequency and the gore is occasionally a little on the heavy side.

But where the movie scores is its look: Dall chucks everything into the mix to get that 70s vibe. Chopper-style bikes, gas guzzling autos, Polaroid cameras; they're all present and correct, and the time stands still town of Enumclaw, Washington is used as a location. Even the soundtrack is pastiche; instead of using original sounds from the period (for which rights would probably have been cost prohibitive) the director has used faux retro 70s bands like 'Smokey Brights', 'Hobosexual' and 'Prom Queen.' Don't get me wrong, it works, but I could have done with more horror and less attention to detail. 

Ropes aka Prey (Spain 2019: Dir José Luis Montesinos) It's been a festival of debut features this year; and here's another one. Elena (Paula del Rio) is a young woman, disabled following a car accident in which her sister Vera, a promising gymnast, died, with Elena at the wheel. As a result she is in a world of emotional pain, even going so far as to try to end her own life. Her suicide attempt was prevented by her father Miguel (Miguel Angel Jenner) whom Elena despises, citing his drunkenness and failure to prevent the death of her mother.

Miguel, not a well man himself, has brought quadriplegic Elena home to live with him, and is in the process of modifying the house for her needs. He's also acquired a dog, Athos, to assist her. But when Miguel collapses and dies of a heart attack in the grounds, with Athos outside too, Elena is left trapped within. But it gets worse: before you can say 'Cujo' the dog turns rabid as the result of a bite from an infected bat, and tries to break into the house. Without the use of hands or feet, wheelchair bound Elena must summon what resources she can to ward off the frothy hound, while all the time battling with the guilt over her sister's death.

There is no doubt that Ropes (the title refers both to the aids that her father has attached to the house's drawer handles, and the emotional ties that hold Elena down) is a well mounted feature. Obviously low budget, and with a small cast dominated by an impressive turn from del Rio as Elena and, in some scenes, her sister Vera, it manages to do quite a lot within its fairly basic setup. Sadly its soap opera elements gradually drown out the tension established by the initial beast vs human setup, to the point where the second half of the movie largely concentrates on Elena dealing with her own demons. Ropes is just a little too neatly obvious in its placing of elements within the story that will be returned to later on, and the mechanical feel of the narrative robs the movie of the atmosphere it initially establishes. What a shame.

H P Lovecraft's The Deep Ones (USA 2020: Dir Chad Ferrin) Ferrin's movie - and note the inclusion of the author in the title, just so you know - finds a middle aged couple, Alex (Gina La Piana) and Finnish Petri (Johann Urb) travelling to the California coast for a week in a beachside Airbnb; the couple are getting over Alex's recent miscarriage, and are here to get re-connected again. Apartment owners Russel (Robert Miano) and pregnant Ingrid (Silvia Spross) welcome the pair and explain about the Solar Beach community that grow their own food and make their own wine. When they're left on their own Alex and Petri do a little re-connecting, but their lovemaking is spied on courtesy of a hidden camera. 

The following day, with Alex feeling unwell, Russel and Ingrid invite Petri onto their boat, and after plying him with marijuana and hypnotising him, Alex participates in a weird ritual that involves sucking on a tentacle that appears from Ingrid's lady parts. After this a more docile Petri becomes 'one of them': a rift gradually opens up between Alex and her husband, and the arrival of Alex's sarcastic friend Deb (Jackie Debatin) only serves to highlight the weirdness of the community, who they encounter at a party. But the Solar Beach residents answer to a higher fishy power, and Alex begins to fear for her life.

In Lovecraft lore, the 'Deep Ones' are an ocean-dwelling race, with an affinity for mating with humans. Sounds familiar? Well readers may have seen the 1980 movie Humanoids from the Deep, which covered pretty much the same ground, although without the Lovecraft context. And honestly, despite the credit of Hengi Hawk as the 'R'Lyehian Dialogue Coach' - which does at least show commitment to the cause - throwing in random references to Dagon and Cthulhu don't really make this one a major contribution to the writer's cinematic canon.

The Deep Ones scores higher in its quirky cast of characters. Russel has an oily, slightly creepy quality (like a more over the top Terence Stamp) and visiting doctor, the trans Dr Gene Rayburn (Timothy Muskatell) has an overbearing bedside manner which is the opposite of comforting. I liked Alex's friend Deb too, although her withering assessment of the community ensures that she's bound to be an early showers character. "I've been to Burning Man twice, but these people go way beyond.." she concludes.

Ultimately, The Deep Ones sets itself up well but then doesn't really know where to go with it. The threat from the community is pretty much announced in the first twenty minutes, and with a small budget there was never going to be a final reel set piece. It's a watchable enough film, but not much more. 

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