Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Dispatch One

    (above: still from “Mickey Dogface,” a short film directed by Zach Fleming, from the “Local Invasion” showcase.)

    It’s October which means pumpkin in everything: pies, lattes, soup, perfumes, cleaning products–you name it! It also means Halloween, campy costumes and candy and this week in Brooklyn it means the 7th annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, an event recently rated as one of the best horror film festivals in the world. The event began Thursday, Oct. 13 and runs until Oct. 20. Go here for more information and tickets.

    I didn’t score a ticket for the opening film, “Nocebo,” starring the great Isabelle Huppert, so I spent Thursday watching Dario Argento’s new film, “Dark Glasses,” which premiered on the streaming horror channel Shudder that day.

    The great Italian giallo director’s first film since 2012 opens with a sequence you’d expect from an Antonioni film. Glamorous Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli) is driving and notices everyone outside staring up at the sky. She pulls over and joins them to discover they are watching an eclipse of the sun in progress. It’s a metaphor, of course, for what happens in the film and also a red herring since this is not how she loses her eyesight.

    Diana, who is in an upscale escort, becomes the latest victim of a man who has killed a series of prostitutes in Rome. She survives the grisly auto accident he causes her to have but loses her vision as a consequence. A Chinese couple are also killed in the accident and their young son, Chin (Andrea Zhang), has been sent to an orphanage.

    Rita, a social worker (played by Dario’s daughter Asia Argento), helps Diana learn to be self-sufficient as a blind person and gets her a seeing-eye dog. After she visits Chin in the orphanage the boy runs away and begs Diana to let him live with her.

    Pastorelli is very good in these scenes as she whines like a diva but eventually accepts her fate and begins to enjoy the company of her dog and Chin. She even returns to escorting, explaining that at least now she doesn’t have to look at her ugly clients!

    This is not one of Argento’s best and he makes use of some tired movie cliches: the police are ineffectual, some becoming victims themselves after Diana and Chin go on the run; the killer drives a white van, which is the vehicle of choice for movie serial killers. (And every time we see a white van–there must be thousands of them in Rome–it is the van the killer is driving.) Still, the last half hour of the film has some good grisly scares including an encounter with some aquatic snakes that may give you nightmares. 


    Director Kurtis David Harder’s “Influencer” (world premiere, to be released early next year) is set in the world of one of those Instagram influencers who are popular amongst many teens and dreaded by almost everyone else.

    Influencer Madison (Emily Tennant) is on a sponsored vacation in a luxurious resort in Thailand. (It seemed unusually underpopulated but I learned later this was because it was filmed during Covid.) She’s mad that her boyfriend (Roy J. Saper) didn’t join her as expected and soon tires of taking photos of herself by the pool and Thai tourist attractions. A chance encounter with CW (Cassandra Naud) provides her with a new friend to vacation with but we soon learn that CW has a fiendish agenda. She abandons Madison on a small deserted island and then replaces Madison’s social media stream with new photos of herself with her (likely) dead friend’s face stitched over her own. When she befriends a new social media target, Jessica (Sara Canning), things start to fall apart for her.

    The three female leads are all good but Naud’s performance is the standout. Curiously, the film never explores her motives for her crimes and deception, though jealousy is mentioned at one point. She has a large facial birthmark–not makeup here, Cassandra has one in real life–and CW doesn’t like to be photographed and it is only mentioned once in the film, though it visually gives her crimes away in one key cellphone sequence. But it doesn’t appear that the birthmark has held her back in any way so why doesn’t she just become an influencer on her own?

    At a campfire on the island the night before she deserts her, CW describes to an unbelieving Madison why the influencer couldn’t survive more than a few days on the island and claims she wouldn’t even be missed by her followers. That CW may be doing all this just to prove her theory makes her an even more diabolical villain than if she was driven by mere revenge.

    The opening credits of “Influencer” don’t begin until about 26 minutes into the film, something (aside from Bond films) I’ve only seen in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2002 film “Blissfully Yours.” (The opening credits begin 45 minutes into that film!) I can’t give away the ending but the final credits sequence uses typography wickedly to enhance a conclusion that seems happy at first until you realize what is really going to happen. (I would compare it a bit with the last scene of Arthur Penn’s 1975 movie “Night Moves” but that’s perhaps giving away too much!)

    Director Kurtis David Harder and Sara Canning at the BKHFF press mixer. (Sorry about the glare!)
    The film’s intriguing poster reminds me a bit of the one for David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silverlake.”

    The 80-minute anthology film “Sinphony” (plus seven minutes of closing credits with visual reprises of each short) presents segments by eight directors. It was “curated entirely on the popular social media platform Clubhouse” but I don’t know what that means–the directors pitched the shorts to each other via the platform? At any rate, it’s a good gory, scary and often very funny group of supernatural tales.

    Standouts for me were “Earworm” (Directed by Steven Keller) about a mold-removal job that goes horrible wrong; “Forever Young” (Directed by Haley Bishop, who also acts here) a cautionary tale about wishing you could be a teenager again on your 30th birthday; and Jason Wilkinson’s “Tabitha,” with a powerful performance by Alysse Fozmark in the titular role of a wounded thief having horrific visions before she dies.

    Home Invasion” was a two part showcase of horror shorts by New York filmmakers and I was amazed by how much great local talent is working in this genre. I liked every film so big kudos are deserved for the curators of this. Some quick notes on specific films:

    “Skin & Bone”

    Skin & Bone” stars Amanda Seyfried as a ranch owner living alone who hires a drifter, played by Thomas Sadoski, to help with the work. “It’s mostly shoveling shit,” she points out. The hired man, who has one bad eye, begins hallucinating that previous workers are all trapped inside the horses and sheep on the farm. Seyfried and Sadoski are both very good here in this evocative and chilling short written and directed by Eli Powers.

    “Let Me Go (The Right Way)”

    The wonderful actor Brian D’Arcy James (star of last year’s brilliant indie feature “The Cathedral”) plays an untrustworthy psychiatrist in “Let Me Go (The Right Way),” directed by Destry Allyn Spielberg (Steven Spielberg’s daughter). “Weird is my specialty,” the doctor tells his patient. “Says so right on the degree.” Aiden (Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, and very effective here as a sleep-deprived and rattled bank guard) complains that someone is “altering” his stuff. For example, the label of his 45 rpm single of the 1962 Supremes song “Let Me Go The Right Way” now reads “Let Me Go (The Right Way)!” Filmed at Staten Island’s Bayley Seton PREP, this beautifully directed 17-minute horror short may remind you of a classic episode of “Night Gallery,” a series her father cut his teeth on in the late 1960s. All that is missing is a painting that captures “a frozen moment of a nightmare!” And keep your eyes on the blue fish.

    “The Businessman”

    Nathan Ginter’s “The Businessman” is filmed with that creepy vintage 1970s look that Anna Biller replicated in her 2016 film “The Love Witch.” An oily businessman, dressed in a suit with a briefcase, confronts a little girl walking home through the woods and recruits her to sell 1950s girlie mags. This and a dinner of green beans and mac and cheese make for a very unsettling suggestion of an updated fairy tale.

    “The Living”

    Veteran actor Brad Dourif is memorable as always in the remarkably assured short “The Living” as a patient (named Vlad!) of addiction therapist Nicole (Cleo Handler). Handler (who also wrote and directed) has an office in a rustic bungalow in the country, a bit of a spooky place to situate your practice! We quickly learn that Dourif’s character is now addicted to sugar (tootsie pops) but he has quelled his craving for blood–he’s a vampire. There’s a lot of creepy humor here in the respectful back and forth between Vlad–how he became a vampire, his pride over his vampire spouse only seeking blood “respectfully,” his shame about accidentally turning his daughter into a bloodsucker–and Nicole’s professional challenge to not judge her patient while being obviously worried about her own safety.

    A reproduction of Symbolist painter George Frederic Watts’ 1886 painting “Hope” is seen in Nicole’s office, a work that has a fascinating history you can read about here. (It actually informed Obama’s first presidential campaign.) Hope and horror may seem like odd bedfellows but I do hope we see more work by Ms. Lander.

    Katie Kupferberg, Costume Designer, Brad Dourif and writer/director Cleo Handler after the screening of “The Living” at the Williamsburg Cinemas.
    “The Weird Kidz”

    The Weird Kidz” was written and directed by El Paso,Texas filmmaker Zach Passero who spent eight years animating it. The hand animation is hugely refreshing in this era of digital features as is also its irreverent, unashamedly adolescent humor.

    Dug and two of his teenage friends accompany Dug’s older brother Wyatt and his girlfriend Mary on a weekend camping trip that turns what is initially a goofy coming-of-age story into an alien monster adventure. Warned in advance about a “night child” who inhabits the land near the small town they visit, they pitch their tents anyway only to be attacked by a gigantic ant. (As in “Starship Trooper” gigantic!) As often happens in these kind of stories, the locals are no help and they routinely sacrifice visitors to keep the beastly ant happy. Despite a predictable story line, “The Weird Kidz” is hugely entertaining with inspired lo-fi visuals and great voice artists. I can easily imagine it becoming a hit TV series.

    I’ll be writing more about the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival in a few days.

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