Day two of the Atlanta Horror Film Festival switched gears with an eclectic mix of psychological terror, repressed memories, and guilt. Without further adieu, let’s get to the films.
This block of shorts showcased protagonists who were battling internal demons (real or imagined). Usually, you’d be a terrible person to laugh at someone else’s mental issues, but here it’s encouraged. “Earworm,” by Tara Price and starring Ernest Lee Thomas (Rog from What’s Happening fame) has our main character being terrorized by an annoying pop song that constantly blares in his skull throughout the night. After some brutal self-surgery via a pair of tweezers, we discover it was a literal music worm/caterpillar in his head. Nonetheless, Thomas’ character now has an affinity for the song and is seen humming it by the end of the film.
Emily Dell’s “Helen” puts a unique spin on a fear most of us have — speaking in public or giving a high-level work presentation. But for Helen it’s much deeper as she is haunted by a dark side version of herself. However, instead of fighting her evil side, Helen ends up subduing the monster and making a “truce.” Hey, you need a bit of “evil within” if you really want to succeed in corporate America.
The most visually stunning offering in this block was Farnoosh Abedi’s “The Servant.” The animated black and white feature follows a depressed writer who befriends an oversized cockroach in his apartment building. At first, the cockroach takes on the role of an attentive butler. Then the writer begins to abuse the creature. Soon, the cockroach begins to learn human ways and turns the tables. Or does he? There are moments where you begin questioning whether this is all a figment of the writer’s mind. Considering the first scene is him contemplating suicide, he’s not exactly a reliable main character from a mental standpoint. Doesn’t get more creative than having a viewer empathize and start rooting for a roach.
My other favorites were “The Frozen Eye” (Belguim’s Karim Ouelhaj) and “The Taste” (Adrian Selkowitz). The horror elements in both took a backseat to this underlining theme — heed the danger of seeking the validation of people who don’t give a damn about you. In “Frozen Eye,” a man moves into a new apartment only to find there is a hole that allows him a voyeuristic view of the young woman downstairs. He grows to dispise her and is driven into insanity, self-multilation and eventually death, all the while she’s not even aware of his existence (even down to him falling out of the window to his death). With The Taste, we find a former witch trying to fit into high society by impressing her studio exec neighbors with a fancy dinner. The coversation is as shallow as the people, but the former Wiccan is determined to leave her past behind, even when a former coven sister shows up.
This block of shorts could have easily been called “Dark Humor.” From amputee obsession to zombie apocalypse, the gallows humor highlighted the absurdity of these scenarios while keeping you engaged.
My absolute favorite was Jaanelle Yee’s “Sell Your Body.” It follows a struggling med student who sold her kidney for money, and now has to resort to setting up unsuspecting swinger couples for more cash. The social commentary about student debt and the hazards of online dating go down easily due to the hilarity of our protagonist (played by Nadira Foster Williams). Her facial expressions and glib humor make you forget we’re following a psychopath that’s butchering people for extra cash.
The film is serving as Yee’s film school thesis. If her department chair is reading this, she’d better get A+.
How far will you go to get laid? “Buzzcut” (Jonathon Rhoads and Mike Marrero) follows a woman who gets her morning sex session stopped because her partner can’t stand her bad haircut. What would normally be a simple fix via the barbershop turns into life and death as a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Well, it isn’t exactly a straight zombie outbreak because the Rapture is also going on! Our badass, anti-hero protagonist is determined to get some ass but as you can expect with horror, her payoff for slaying demons and zombies isn’t exactly what she’d hope for. This would not only have been a cool full-length grindhouse film, but also a hilarious video game in the right hands.
It wasn’t all fun and games. “Hide/Seek” (Matt Newton) asks the question of what happens when your loved ones refuse to forgive you for a fatal mistake, and “The Sick” (Wesley Caldwell) follows two lovers battling a lethal illness. With the former, we see how tragedy can strip the humanity from an entire family. In the latter, we witness how the innate human desire for companionship and love can be twisted by dire circumstances. Both of these were a real gut-punch where we have no characters with clean hands.
Other standouts include “Couples Night” (Russell and Robert Summers), which asks the question of what happens when Satanists and serial killers hang out after work, the hilarious “Justin Has a Date” (Justin Ray), where your best friend brings home a witch whose speech sounds like 80s rock power ballads, and “Three Legged Dog” (Bonnie Kathleen Ryan), which covers a woman suffering from Body Identity Integrity Disorder that wants to cut off her left arm to emulate her surfing idol.
The final block of Friday short films dealt with internal evil. Some of the production value on these films was off the charts. Take “Daemon Runner” from Australia’s Tristan Roache-Turner, which was a combination of Blade Runner, Ghostbusters and The Matrix. The fighting was intense and the special effects with the weaponry made it feel like the extended trailer of a bigger project. Don’t be surprised to see this become a full-length feature.
“I Am Not the Devil” (Samuel Smith) is in this vein as well. We find a thief attempting an armed robbery and coming face to face with Satan himself. This one has some cool hand to hand combat in the style of The Raid film series.
Who says an exorcism can’t be pleasurable for both parties? “Holy F__k” (Christian Chalken) might just have the most unique approach to the exorcism genre by having the demon and priest work out some “exorcism dyfunction” together. “Here + After” (Jake Akuna) tackles what capitalism would do if we discovered an afterlife truly existed (complete with insurance claims and legal disputes), and “Meow” (Chris Jopp) has an ummistakable 80s flair (courtesy of Fangg’s soundtrack) that accompanies the story of a seemingly bloodthirsty cat and the woman that tries to protect it from an animal-averse landlord.
Happy Hunting: Passing through or staying? You’ll wish you decided to do the former in this story of a town that has an annual hunting festival that goes after the “lesser” people in society (addicts, alcoholics). That puts Warren, an alcoholic drifter on the run for a drug deal gone bad, straight in their crosshairs. Complicating matters is Warren’s desire to survive long enough to cross the border to finally meet his estranged daughter.
If you’ve ever seen Surviving the Game, the movie is in that vein except the hunters are “regular” townfolks who treat it like a sporting event. Warren has to slowly overcome his illness to keep a clear head and remain one step ahead of his enemies. As his injuries mount, it starts to feel less like a survival movie and more about making peace with fate. His antagonist is his mirror opposite in Steve, a survior of a previous hunt that succumbed to evil by eventually joining the town hunters.
A good film to watch if you have no issues with dark, existentialism endings.
Devil’s Whisper: Alejandro Duran is a 15-year old teen who’s studying to become a priest. After going through his grandmother’s belongings and finding a cross, he’s suddenly haunted by a relentless demon that mocks his faith and brings back to the surface trauma from Alejandro’s childhood.
The themes of generational trauma and repressed memories play heavily here as Alejandro has to slowly peel back layers of his past that even his parents hid from him. As he does that, the body count around him rises and his behavior becomes more callous and distant.
Because of the necessary setup and ghost scares, the film unfortunately doesn’t get enough time to flesh out Alejandro’s molestation at the hands of his grandfather. Was the grandfather jailed? Did the rest of the family leave him? Did the demon cause the grandfather to commit this evil or was it already in him? Several flashbacks might have helped in this area.
Overally, Devil’s Whisper is worth a watch and discussion afterward about whether one can every truly move on from pyschological trauma.
We still have two days left of the Atlanta Horror Film Festival. Saturday’s events run from 3:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday’s finale is 5:15 p.m. through 9 p.m. Get your tickets and more info at http://www.atlantahorrorfilmfest.com/home-1.html.