Festivals

Film4 Frightfest – Day 5: ‘We Are What We Are’ and ‘Big Bad Wolves’ lay the competition to rest

Banshee-Chapter

Banshee Chapter
Written by Blair Erickson
Directed by Blair Erickson, Daniel J. Healy (story)
Germany/USA, 2013

“We didn’t want things jumping out at you. We wanted you to feel immersed, as if you were inside the scene.” Director Blair Erickson can only be referring to 3D; unlike many lazily post-converted blockbusters, his Banshee Chapter was filmed entirely in stereoscopic 3D, a conscious choice from the outset of the film’s production and a risky experiment for something so low-budget.

The risk hasn’t completely paid off. In Banshee Chapter, journalist Anna Roland’s (Katia Winter) search through the CIA’s MK-Ultra history calls too much attention to itself precisely because of the unnecessary visual enhancement. A mixture of documentary, found footage, and archive reels, Banshee Chapter sources a variety of different methods but consistently undersells itself due to its third dimension. The appeal to immersion has achieved precisely the opposite effect; on an ordinary, plain canvas, the artifice of the scene is foregrounded. Actors look as if they’re standing against a green screen, when, in fact, they are on location – and why wouldn’t they be?

Perhaps the gimmick was intended to mask over an unarguably bland escapade. Anna’s quest to discover the secret behind the CIA’s experiments is swiftly met with an answer, thereby eliminating any lasting ambiguity and firmly placing the search for missing friend James at the top of the list. Anna’s feelings for James (Michael McMilian) underline the film’s supernatural concerns, but even so, her quest is still not captivating enough on its own. Ted Levine appears at the midpoint, chewing the scenery as Thomas Blackburn, a tripped-out loon of an author evidently based on Hunter S. Thompson. His small mannerisms and offhand remarks are a joy and a benefit to an otherwise bland film and its equally bland protagonist, though one fine supporting role is rarely enough to save an entire 90-minute plod.

We-Are-What-We-Are

We Are What We Are
Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
USA, 2013

There had been much (onscreen) blood spilled in the lead-up to the festival’s two closing films, though strangely enough, there hadn’t been anything truly terrifying. Enough to make one wince, raise an eyebrow, even applaud, yet nothing that would provoke a viewer to reach for their bottle of water or search for the nearest exit. Thankfully, the programmers of Frightfest saved the best ‘til last.

The first of the festival’s two superior films was Jim Mickle’s remake We Are What We Are, arriving not long after the release of the original and equally concerned with the unconventional eating habits of an introverted family. The gender of the family’s figurehead has been switched to a grim patriarch in bearded Bill Sage (overlooking stellar performances from Ambry Childers and Odeya Rush), and the location moved north to upstate New York to reconfigure events in line with the United States’ Biblical bloodline. Mickle has turned in here a work of intense lyricism, an American Gothic nightmare that quietly builds its bricks and topples them to the ground in a final, discomforting outburst of violence.

The director understands all too well the importance of cinematic catharsis. Whereas other filmmakers at Frightfest have eagerly blown their bloody wad in the opening minutes, Mickle instead plants the idea of his physical horrors in our minds well before we’re granted any supreme visual confirmation of their perpetration. In the meantime, the environment that gives birth to these acts of atrocity is glimpsed from within and without, from the eyes of outsiders and inside the hearts and minds of those conditioned to regard their sins as normalcy.

Cinematographer Ryan Samul uses a Red Epic to lens crisp, exquisite frames in and around the Parkers’ household, its interior lit with a deceptively beautiful splash of golden light emanating from various candles. Strong compositions are complemented by a tender edit; patience is a virtue, and Mickle is never eager to cut away from an evocative image. When the final, shocking scene eventually arrives, its effect is a vindication of the film’s ground rules: to establish and entrench the milieu and its unsettling aura, so eventual horrors have more than earned their palpability.

Big-Bad-Wolves

Big Bad Wolves
Written by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
Directed by Aharon Keshale and Navot Papushado
Israel, 2013

Similarly assured is Big Bad Wolves, the closing film of the festival and the last ever feature to grace the historic (and now-demolished) Screen 1 of Empire Leicester Square. It felt a privilege, then, to be sat in the best, most central seat in the house for not only the screen’s final film but also the strongest film of the festival. Much like We Are What We Are before it, Big Bad Wolves exceeds its scheduled peers through sheer technical mastery over fundamental filmmaking aspects crucial to the evocative terror of horror, yet so often criminally misjudged. Mise-en-scene, careful editing, non-diegetic sound – any of these and more can throw a film off track if even slightly out of tune. It takes a keen eye to have them all running like clockwork.

Luckily, Israeli directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado are more than competent. The former taught the latter in his previous capacity as an academic and critic, and the latter returned the favour by coaxing him into a fulltime filmmaking career. Their last feature, Rabies, brought the house down at Frightfest 2011 and prompted the organisers to dare the duo to top their efforts with an even superior film. On this evidence, they may have succeeded.

The majority of the film takes place in the basement of elderly Gidi (Tzahi Grad), who has kidnapped a schoolteacher (Rotem Keinan) suspected of murdering his daughter, among countless other victims. From the film’s very few detractors (it received a thunderous round of applause), there were uneasy misgivings over its concentrated depiction of torture. These criticisms overlook an ingrained political subtext to the film, being an Israeli production with more than a few nods to contemporary travails surrounding Arab-Jewish tension, along with a send-up of the problematic Israeli police force. Furthermore, the tone is never so consistently dark; it’s a testament to the skill of Keshales and Papushado that they’re able to shift between opposing tones of dark and light repeatedly – one minute, the torturer is readying a blowtorch to his captor’s chest; the next, he’s back in the kitchen, taste-testing a birthday cake to the sounds of Buddy Holly’s ‘Everyday’.

These comic tangents are a much-needed relief between torture segments, and their inclusion brings the viewer into stark realisation of their own desperation for a breather from such grim proceedings. In fact, it may come as a surprise to know that in a film containing nail-plucking, blowtorches and hammer blasts, the most uncomfortable sequence actually occurs upon the recitation of a fairy tale. The filmmakers envelope us into the implications of everything, crafting an authentic situation that commands an audience response, be it excitement or trepidation. Indeed, the presence of a policeman (Lior Ashkenazi) bearing witness to the torture – and later shackled by force to endure the sight of its remainder – stands as a metaphor for voyeurs inside the cinema. We paid to see this grotesque spectacle and now we’re locked in alongside it, for better or worse. Notwithstanding the political undercurrent of the film, its nods to viewer complicity make it a suitable companion piece for EL Katz’ quality Frightfest offering Cheap Thrills.

Given that Keshales was initially a teacher and critic, his and Papushado’s understanding of horror’s dependency on pristine film grammar are self-evident in Big Bad Wolves. The film recalls the Coens’ tensest features, not soley through its incredibly precise compositions, but also the inherent Jewish humour that surrounds these characters. The two filmmakers have plenty more years to come to cement themselves as a dominant cultural force, however. Their next film is a Western named Once Upon a Time in Palestine – surely one to look out for in the coming years.

Read my original entry at PopOptiq/Sound on Sight

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