The Atlanta Horror Film Festival commenced last weekend with one feature and a macabre assortment of four programming blocks. The festival’s biggest strength has always been how well the films are curated in showcasing the eclectic approaches to horror from around the world. Day 1 was no exception as viewers were treated to everything from killer clown Tinder dating to Misery-minded ex-girlfriends and police brutality revenge.
The first short film block opened with the bang and delivered two of my favorite flicks from the entire festival in Eyelash (Stephen Tramontana, USA) and Chickens (Sam Vinal, USA).
Eyelash tells the story of an extremely introverted young woman named Ellie who’s struggling financially and with dating. Her only friend compounds Amanda the problems when she announces she’s leaving their shared home to move in with her boyfriend. One evening, Amanda introduces Ellie to a seemingly innocent child’s game where if you happen to catch and blow on your fallen eyelash, any wish you make will come true.
Ellie takes this as gospel after her wish for a full-time job immediately comes true. From there, we watch her mental state degrade as she continually pulls out her lashes in hopes of keeping her job, her best friend, and the attention of an emotionally distant man who only wanted her for sex.
Despite the moments of terror, Eyelash at the core is the tale of a tragic figure who’s low self-esteem and depression led her to put her trust in a powerless superstition.
Chickens is a direct gut punch that put us in the minds of two racist white cops trying to cover up the killing of an unarmed black man. Problem is, the committed their crime in a diner with three witnesses, a black couple and a deaf female cashier. While holding the three hostages under the barrel of their guns, one of the cops berates them with dehumanizing rhetoric before shooting all three. But before she dies, the cashier manages to stream the entire crime on Facebook Live, leading to the diner being surrounded by a bloodthirsty mob.
Any horror film that can end with a variation on Malcolm X’s famous “chickens coming home to roost” quote gets a lot of style points from me.
The final standout film for me was Strange Clowns (Anne Paul, USA). The premise is a blind date gone bad due to an abusive ex showing up. Thing is, the daters aren’t hapless victims – the man is a merciless ax-murderer while the female clown, played expertly by Paul herself, only speaks through her wildly expressive eyes (and might just be an otherworldly demon).
With this type of plot, you’re bound to get some laughs. There’s an extended gag with the date setup showing our protagonist swiping through the killer clown equivalent of Tinder. Later, he triggers the final, gory showdown with the ex-boyfriend by inadvertently giving away the date location while they argue on the phone.
It ends with our anti-hero slaying the ex, but realizing when his date’s eyes start glowing and razor-sharp teeth flash, that he might have a bigger problem on his hands.
Although classifying some of these as horror might be a stretch for purists, I was blown away by the special effects quality these upstart filmmakers were able to pull off.
Outpost (Justin Giddings, USA) is first on that list. It’s mainly a love story between a man seeking a hospitable outpost on a foreign planet and his chief second, a beautiful female robot. As they face down the danger of an alien presence, the need for one to make the ultimate sacrifice brings them closer together. This is one that could easily be fleshed out into a series with more characters.
Caronte (Luis Tinoco Pineda, Spain) is another flick with remarkable special effects. It’s in the vein of the space battles you see in Star Wars (hyperspace included). We discover intense space battle is playing out in the mind of a young girl who is suffering from the immense guilt of being the sole survivor of a car accident that claimed her entire family. The handheld game, the one relic she has left of her life before the accident, now becomes a tool to “resurrect” the memories of her family.
Clocking in at 14 minutes, Control (Carroll Brown, USA) takes us back into space where an astronaut begins to lose her mind following the death of her only colleague. She’s trapped at the space station for months in isolation. The only companionship is the deadpan AI of the ship’s computer and transmission she can receive every few hours from fellow humans from Earth. Is the ominous noise outside the ship the result of the character going stir crazy, or is there really an otherworldly threat out there?
Single actor films are always tricky. But this performance, especially in the final minutes, really pulls you into the desperation and fear the character feels.
Timebox (Daelan Wood, Canada) was the offering that left me wanting more. At only 8 minutes, the plot moves quickly and you’ve left to fill in much of background info. What we know is the the “timebox” is a wooden shed that creates living clones of whoever enters. Now, most sane people might use a clone to run errands or replace them at work. These guys decide to create a hunting game where they track down and kill the clones. But do they? After a few minutes, it’s hard to tell who’s the original from the copies. And how long has this sadistic game been going on?
This could fit right in as an episode Black Mirror.
My absolute favorite in this block was BIG DATA “L1ZY” (Brandon LaGanke, John Carlucci, USA), a satire on our reliance on gadgets and AI. “L1ZY” is a home monitoring system that goes from a slightly overbearing and talkative machine to a totalitarian monster overseeing every aspect of the victim family’s lives. The mood is mostly light-hearted but the sinister moments, like when L1ZY literally possesses their minds, are highly effective in driving home the point.
The recurring theme of obsession was highly evident in this film block. The film with the highest impact was A Doll Distorted (Niall Shukla, United Kingdom). It masterfully straddles the line between the supernatural and insanity from the perspective of a woman who orders a life-sized doll to relieve the pain of losing of realizing an old boyfriend has moved on.
The dark lighting and shooting angles give the main character’s home a menacing, claustrophobic appearance. The truth goes even beyond the horrors we saw in Misery when it’s revealed the suspected supernatural doll is, in fact, the still-alive but mutilated past boyfriend. He’s being kept prisoner and pumped full of Viagra so she can repeatedly rape him. And with his hands cut off, all he can do flail his numbs and whimper.
The Baby Whisperer (Sean Gilligan, Australia) takes the unique approach of a young girl that’s become insanely jealous of her infant brother and standoffish with father’s new bride, feeling he’s trying to replace her dead mother. This resentment is taken advantage of by a cheerful witch who plans the eat the girl’s infant brother. Now the girl must choose between her family and what she thought she wanted in getting rid of them.
The young actress here impressed me with her emotion range and the “cheerful granny” routine from the witch was chilling once you realized her plan.
This was the “fun block” of the day as the social commentary was prominent but easily digestible within the horror framework.
We see a sexual predator who masturbates in front of women without consent get his comeuppance from two shape-shifters in Catcalls (Kate Dolan, Ireland). The women turn into cat-like predators and invade the man’s home, completing the power reversal by taking away his control. He makes it out the house only to get butchered just inches from the safety of his car.
Clickbait (Carlos Melendez, Mexico) had fun contrasting how far men and women will go on social media when seeking approval from the opposite sex. It starts here when Pablo clicks the wrong link while surfing and ends up having to pass a series of tests to save the life of the father of an unknown girl. As you can probably guess, Pablo should have left well enough alone and ends up replacing the girl’s father in the proverbial hot seat.
The film that received the biggest reaction was Vinyl Destination (Dan Cummings, USA). I can’t say I’m surprised after speaking with director Nate Bakke on his approach. The film is centered on a guy who finds an Eagles record that plays demonic messages which you’re forced to act out. The chemistry between the actors flows perfectly in the improvised final “kill” sequence that elicited laughs from all in attendance.
Feature Review: ALL LIGHT WILL END
A good writer is one who’s learned how to master his or her inner conflicts. Best-selling horror novelist Savannah Martin (Ashely Pereira) thought she’d done just that by channeling her childhood night terrors into her work. But as her estranged police chief father investigates a handful of gruesome murders in Savannah’s hometown, the bad memories and fears come flooding back.
Making his directorial debut, Chris Blake is juggling several storylines that could’ve been the film’s sole focus. The nightmare sequences are well done in reflecting the palpable fear we’ve all felt when experiencing chase dreams. The flashback sequences pack the same punch in conveying the helplessness of a child feels when pitted against a malevolent entity. In both settings, Blake displays a knack for crafting ominous landscapes that make Savannah appear completely trapped and vulnerable.
The film struggles from inserting unnecessary comedy and the second-half slasher elements. The former is mostly courtesy of two bumbling cops under Savannah’s father. Their playful bickering doesn’t fit the mood of this film and diminishes the fear elements. And when Savannah and her friends decide for a relaxing getaway, the “twist” of the petite Savannah morphing into melee-weapon wielding killer isn’t convincing from an optics standpoint (the sequence of her gingerly chasing her boyfriend with an ax comes to the mind).
The ending sequence, which I assume was supposed to be chilling ala The Witch, instead comes off like a music video trying to be edgy courtesy of the bombastic soundtrack.
Missteps aside, All Light Will End is still a decent watch and one that shows Blake is just scratching the surface of his potential as a horror director.
Check back here tomorrow for the Day 2 recap where I cover the feature film Alive and four more film blocks (Kid Fears, Horror Comedy, Deranged Dames, and Local Shorts).