It’s been awhile since I attended a film festival. I hit 30 and now I can’t commit to not taking a nap at all the wrong times, so promising to watch a dozen films over the course of a weekend is a known limitation. However, my wife and I moved to Kansas City in the last few months, and the Panic Fest hosted at Screenland Theaters promised to bring in a bunch of forthcoming horror and science fiction films. It also fell on our anniversary weekend, so we agreed to try our best at catching the best of what the next few months of groundbreaking cinema had to offer.
We made it to four screenings. I consider this a win.
What we got to see is worth writing up now, because a few of the titles will hit VOD around the time you read this piece. Overwhelmingly, these are titles worth seeing. And then… a different one. Hope these recommendations help steer you towards some delightfully dark experiences.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (dir. Alberto Vazquez, Pedro Rivero)
This animated film from Spain is easiest sold as the thing that it will be impossible to untangle it from: a more violent vision of the exact same characters and themes from Night in the Woods. A group of animal children on an island recovering from a nuclear blast must make peace with the dead-end life we associate with small town bullshit. There’s a mix of abrasive Christian hypocrisy with Studio Ghibli character design that draws you in while also creating an oppressive air of nightmare living that makes each moment equally adorable and horrific. Somewhat separate from the struggle of these teen animals and their desire to escape is the arc of Birdboy, the son of a murdered Birdman, who is being pursued by the fascist police force of the island. Birdboy is dealing with PTSD from his father’s death, but the mute protagonist is also crippled by an internal demon of drug addiction and an actual internal demon that threatens to murder everyone on the island if it gets out.
In one way or another, everyone on this island is touched by the problems of addiction. Birdboy is gobbling up some cocaine-esque replacement but also depends on his former girlfriend to steal “Happy Pills” from her parents to stop his heart from exploding. She is also using the Happy Pills, as is the case for nearly everyone else on the island, as they try to cope with the death of everyone they knew and the rebuilding of a society that is already crumbling under its own weight. Anti-capitalist ideas and anti-religious imagery is everywhere, as this small group of teens try to steal from neighbors until they have the money to buy a ship off this island. The only character with a ship is a pig fisherman who cannot fish due to all the fish being dead, but he’s making ends meet as a drug dealer, and his heroin addicted mother is crushing him under the pressure of saving her life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, the far less privileged creatures are rats that scavenge the mountains of garbage that polite society has dumped upon them; often turning to internal violence just to make it through the day.
The film depends on violence against children to make many of its points, but the metaphorical violence against exaggerated creatures or the darkness inside of each character becomes even more abrasive. One character’s depression becomes bugs that speak to them; convincing them to murder friends in pursuit of self-preservation. The end result is a hallucinogenic Iliad that makes all the worst parts of Lord of the Flies both external and internal. The unfortunate failure is that this means there are mixed wires in the messages Birdboy wants to share. There is a message here about addiction that, I think, is incredibly redemptive and extends a message that feels timely mid-opioid addiction in America, but also the addicted characters that are “good” are immediately cleansed while the mixed or “bad” characters deserve to be destroyed for their infractions. I cried and clapped in wonder of the gorgeous animation style, but also raised my hands in questioning shrugs in equal measure.
Go in expecting an experimental foreign animated film, and you’ll get more than you deserve. Go in expecting this to all tie together nicely and you’ll be terribly let down.
Mom & Dad (dir. Brian Taylor)
The guy behind Crank and Jonah Hex turns in a film that borrows heavily from The Signal where a transmission of unknown origin infects the brains of America and turns them violent. Instead of turning on each other, this only makes parents feel a singular dedication to killing their children. If it sounds like potential schlock, wait until you see what Nic Cage and Selma Blair do with it. It is solely a vehicle for Nic Cage to go as big as possible at all times with no limitations, so your enjoyment will vary wildly depending on how much that concept delights you.
There’s a lot happening in this film, and there’s also a lot that made me attempt to walk out of the film. Hell yeah I want to explore the situation that would make me react like that.
Cage and Blair have a teenage daughter who is stealing from them and sneaking around with a black boyfriend. They also have a younger boy who is just always underfoot. Through an unending series of nearly experimental flashbacks, you see how Cage and Blair are parents who had to slowly and painfully part from their dreams. Cage still imagines himself as a teen doing wheelies in a muscle car with a girl’s tits in his face while Blair left an architecture gig and is now doing sexy yoga with a bunch of other middle-aged housewives. There’s equal parts of the middle aged death of ambition but also the power of parenthood and what we hope to pass on to our offspring. These nonlinear scenes are often better than the main storyline, and are a welcome invitation into a genre film from the guy behind Ghost Rider 2.
The first act does a lot of Dawn of the Dead remake style dark humor that plays with foreshadowing or past… shadowing? And, ugh, there’s also no less than four times where a character says “If you’re messing with me right now… I’ll kill you.” Again, four. C’mon. But there’s also packs of bloodthirsty parents hunting down and viscerally murdering children of all ages. There’s a more-than-zombie idea here, which is that everyone seems capable of defending other peoples’ kids except for the parents themselves, so police are trying their best to keep the ‘rents separate from the prey, but how are you going to come between a parent and their child?
Taylor’s film gets into the child murder right out of the gate, before an act long lull that leads into a bloody second part that jaggedly keeps punching the breaks for asides. Two things are announced right out of the gate for the film: Selma Blair’s sister is giving birth that day and Nic Cage’s parents (the grandparents) are coming over the night for dinner. Somehow, seeing a baby get crushed or dissected or whatever was going to happen didn’t sit right with me, especially at a horror festival where bearded dudes around me were shouting and applauding for every dead teenage girl’s visceral execution. When you’ve made me uninterested in seeing what you’re bringing to the table in an apocalyptic violence-fest, I have to think that some element of your filmmaking has gone disastrously wrong.
Building on that, I wound up nearly leaving again when the film set-up the potential for an incredible sequence and then completely let me down. This interesting arcs about how kids steal life from their parents has a jag into a sequence where Nic Cage builds a pool table in the basement. Selma Blair is mad at him for having a man cave, so Cage destroys the entire thing with a sledgehammer before launching into a long speech about what he’s lost. Blair does her own soliloquy about how hard it is to age as a woman and the two fall into each other on the ground of the basement. There was so much that could have been done by a better team here, and instead it becomes more of Nic Cage shouting and crying and over-acting for the sake of Nic Cage overacting. Again, sure that’s part of the draw here. But Selma Blair’s manifesto on being a middle aged mom comes out like two pages of uninterrupted script, written by a middle aged man and directed by a middle aged man, that never thought to ask an actual woman to give his first draft a pass. In a science fiction movie about parents dismembering their children because of a weaponized space transmission, the least believable part was that Selma Blair knew what it means to be a woman.
With a sigh, I’ll also add that everything involving the film’s only black character is handled equally… well.
The entire third act is Home Alone but with a violent psychopath Nic Cage giving it every last ounce of acting and there’s genuine fun to be had here, with a few sequences that got some applause and laughter from me, but it also makes you wonder what the film could have been if they kept it to a single location and just let Cage and Blair do this from the very start, instead of cutting Cage out of the second act entirely. Was it cheaper to do some global warfare than to cover Cage’s daily rate as an actor? I cannot imagine that to be the case.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (dir. Issa López)
This film is called, in a half dozen headlines, “the best Del Toro film that Del Toro never made.” It is a fine comparison, if lazy. Issa López’s vision of life on Mexican streets focuses on how drug cartels are killing hundreds of thousands of people, while there are no stats in the country for how many children have died, or have been left to fend for themselves on the street.
Estrella is a young girl whose mother does not come home one night. She has a wild imagination, so she begins to picture cartoonish hallucinations on the graffiti of the city and then is gifted three wishes that she can use to improve her life. She uses the first wish to bring her mother home and what comes back is a mix of La Llorona and the scariest of the jagged moving Silent Hill monsters. Unable to return to her home, Estrella attempts to befriend a group of homeless boys that live on the rooftops of her neighborhood. These children are no damned joke, as they’ve had to do Some Shit to survive on the streets, including stealing a cell phone off a drunk criminal.
Turns out some very bad people will stop at nothing to get that phone back. What comes next is a Tarantino take on Stand By Me; if the dead bodies also kept coming back to life at all the wrong times. It’s hard to mix coming of age teen joy with phantasmagoria in a foreign language film and have it haunt the viewer the way this film haunts me. A real must watch.
The Cured (dir. David Freyne)
This Irish zombie indie feels like this year’s Important Horror Film, so luckily it’ll be available on VOD almost immediately. Imagine is the fast moving flesh-eaters from 28 Days Later were able to be cured and turned back into regular human beings. The only setback is that they can remember everything they did in the four years spent as undead murderers.
Yeah. It’s…. It is a lot.
Several waves of the so-called “cured” have been brought back into society after being subjected to treatment and therapy to prepare them to re-enter the world. Unfortunately, society has no interest in letting former cannibal murderers re-integrate, especially without proof that the cure works in the long-term. While citizens are rising up to violently attack the cured, they’re also pushing them out of work and disconnecting them from any possibility of having a life worth coming back to.
On top of this, eight thousand infected still won’t respond to the cure, and the government can’t figure out what to do about this detention camp full of biological hazards.
In a fully realized world with intense political stakes, the film alternates flawlessly between the big picture and the smaller personal story of an American (Ellen Page) and her brother-in-law (Sam Keeley). The husband is dead and the brother-in-law is part of the final wave of cured being released, and there are a lot of questions with some obvious but still deeply upsetting answers. Meanwhile, some of the cured with no families to take them in react to the racism and hatred and fear of a world that won’t accept them by pushing back with similarly violent pursuits. It’s a tug-of-war between two worlds where there are no right answers, and the political issues of nationalism and cleansed bloodlines recall recent worldwide issues that make this supremely timely. It’s also embedded in a brutal zombie horror film with some stupidly effective jump scares where asking if “the real monster were humans all along” has a range of different answers.
Get hyped for this one.