Mundanes may see the Zoom app solely as a device for holding meetings at a distance. Members of the team behind the Another Hole In The Head Film Festival demonstrated over the past six days another use for Zoom. As of this writing, they’re presenting an entire film festival via the Zoom app.
That festival, Mr. HoleHead’s Warped Dimension, recreated online the live film festival experience. Films were shown only once at one scheduled time. Live Q&As with the filmmakers were generally held immediately after the screening. Viewers could both vote on the film just seen as well as share comments and emotions online while the film was running.
A huge chunk of the Mr. HoleHead film programming was dedicated to various short film programs. One such program known as “Assorted Flavors 1” brought together shorts from a variety of genres ranging from horror to suspense.
Nikhail Asnani’s “The Foal” adopts an interesting take on the “turned by a vampire” story. Pregnant Lila has awakened Changed. There are two healed puncture wounds on her neck, the legacy from the previous night’s party with Hollywood types in attendance. Her increasingly odd behavior is initially ignored by husband David, who’s caught up in the excitement over his book launch. But things soon come to a head.
More than a few prior vampire tales act as if once someone gets bitten by a bloodsucker, they instantly adopt the behavior of a vampire. Asnani’s approach, metaphorically referred to in the title, is to see how Lila slowly adapts to and realizes the terms of her new existence. The actress playing Lila could have done a better job using her face and body language to silently convey her roiling feelings.
Asnani also appears to be ignorant of traditional vampire lore or at least is unable to show why such traditional vampire indicia as lack of reflection in mirrors or the explosive combination of vampire skin and direct sunlight don’t apply to Lila’s case. The end result is a good idea that deserved better thought and execution.
More straightforward though not necessarily much better is Justin Giddings and Ryan Welsh’s zombie comedy “Skin Deep.” When the zombie apocalypse hits a cosmetics company research laboratory, schlubby scientist Danny is forced to become a zombie slayer to save humanity. This familiar setup might have worked had the other unchanged humans been funny in interesting ways, but that’s sadly not the case. This one-joke comedy turns out to be as mindless as its central monsters. Go watch “Shaun Of The Dead” instead.
Having more depth despite its very brief running time is Laurie Garner’s “Milicent.” The titular woman is 1950s costume designer Milicent Patrick. Filmgoers familiar with 1950s science fiction will have seen her most famous creation The Creature From The Black Lagoon.
Garner’s glimpse at an evening inside Patrick’s mind takes place in a bar. The designer’s there for a quiet drink and some inspiration. But a trio of male louts see Patrick’s sitting alone as license to make very audible and visible lewd remarks about her. Yet instead of anger, Patrick finds a far different outlet to express her feelings about the obnoxious trio.
Could “Milicent” be considered anti-male because the title character imagines the film’s other male characters as monsters? Not really. The Creature From The Black Lagoon costume put on the bartender gives him a sort-of nobility visibly lacking from the sexist and grotesque louts. Also, such creature designs are a more creative response than fighting an unfortunately common bit of period male behavior. The men who harassed Patrick without a second thought may be forgotten now. But the costume designer and her work is fortunately still remembered.
Sam Fox writes, directs, and stars in the short “Unagi.” After Ellen (Fox) eats a piece of bad sushi, she begins to change in unexpectedly deadly ways. Colored lights and Fox’s nicely mobile face do a good job of conveying Ellen’s physical and mental alterations. However, that strength is outweighed by the film’s coherency problems. Not all eels are electric eels. Nor is it clear whether an early scene shows the corpse of a woman in high heels being dragged into the bathroom, or whether it’s Ellen’s attempt at an eel-like slither. And while warnings against climate change are always worthwhile, “Unagi”’s warning feels gratuitously tacked on.
What happens when your “imaginary friend” gets very murderous in real life? That’s the dilemma at the heart of Rami Cohen’s “FIG.” Jason could count on his imaginary friend Fig to have his back…until his real mother banished Fig from Jason’s life. Now the adult Jason needs psychiatric help, as Fig’s returned to take out the people at work who’ve made his life miserable. Or is Jason actually in denial about his own homicidal tendencies? The revelation of Fig’s identity does provide a moment of viewer surprise. But then what follows is pretty much what you expect from the story setup, albeit competently done.
Robert Husted’s “Lost Treasure Of The Valley” attempts to parody old adventure films about searches for lost treasure. Shopping carts abandoned on the street may appear an eyesore to the average person. To the unemployed Jake, they’re interesting subjects for a truly terrible sounding idea for a monograph. It takes an encounter with an adventurer (and the need to pay back rent to his roommates) to see that those abandoned carriers actually form a secret trail leading to a legendary lost treasure. But what will be the bigger obstacle to obtaining the treasure: a fire-breathing dragon or human greed?
To his credit, Husted manages one or two memorable moments of absurdity, particularly the sight of a man clad in shopping cart armor. The fire-breathing dragon is nicely animated, and is fortunately not overused.
But far too often, the film’s humor falls flat. Having a marriage counseling session performed with hand puppets needed a crazier setup and payoff before it could work as a joke. But it feels as if the overall problem with Husted’s film is its failing to figure out the emotional assumptions of the genre it’s mocking before trying to laugh at them. “Lost Treasure Of The Valley” misses even the “nice try” goal because of its insufficient number of effective jokes.
Nicole Jones-Dion’s “In The Deathroom” turns out to be the program’s strongest entry. It adapts a Stephen King short story of the same title. In 1995 El Salvador, New York Times reporter Fletcher has been forcibly brought in to “assist” in some government inquiries regarding the movements of a rebel leader. Interrogator Escobar believes Fletcher’s supportive of the rebels because the reporter’s articles have been highly critical of the current El Salvadoran government. But the reporter’s motives turn out to be far different than expected….which might be key to his survival.
Jones-Dion grippingly builds suspense in depicting Fletcher’s hopeless situation. He’s injured, he’s outnumbered, and his captors apparently hold all the cards. Heinz’ electroshock machine proves particularly disturbing once it’s seen in operation. It slowly becomes clear that for Fletcher to walk out of the deathroom (aka the interrogation chamber), somebody else has to die. The film’s suspense also gets built by tantalizing viewers with Fletcher’s reason for his interest in a story about the brutal demise of three nuns.
The climax of the film does indeed deliver on the viewer catharsis. But Jones-Dion goes the extra step by leaving the consequences of the film’s resolution ambiguous. Was a victory truly achieved? Or is this the prelude to further chaos coming to El Salvador?
Showing as part of the “Assorted Flavors 2” shorts program was Garry Crystal’s wonderfully eccentric “Bertie.” A very strong central cast of Alison Steadman (a veteran of Mike Leigh films), Arthur Darvill, and Jemima Rooper (both with experience in genre television) made the film’s central premise plausible. The suburban bliss of a newly arrived young family gets undermined from an unexpected source. The early morning barking of the neighbor’s pug dog Bertie keeps waking up Charlie, the baby of Tom and Lisa (Darvill, Rooper). Bertie’s owner Ann (Steadman) appears a little dotty, but is her secret reason for serving the dog beer true?
Could Tom and Lisa’s problems with Bertie stem from their overprotectiveness of their new child? Early in the film, Lisa acts as if Tom’s stepping on a squeaky floorboard should go on a list of grounds for divorce.
Steadman’s performance is a particular standout. But it’s a late plot twist adding a nicely ambiguous understanding of what the viewer is seeing that takes this story beyond the must-see level.
An interesting cinematic experiment is Alexander Roman’s neo-noir “Blackmail (ASMR).” The “ASMR” initials refer to a state of relaxation induced by the use of whispers and small created sounds playing against the onscreen images. Headphones with the volume turned low are a requirement for watching Roman’s film.
Veronika operates an exclusive perfume shop in a 1950s (or so) proto-Paris. Like party planner Vincent’s service, her business turns out to be part of a blackmail ring run by Madeleine. Veronika’s and Vincent’s services allow them to probe their clients for exploitable information for future blackmail ring operations. A new job for a wealthy elderly couple ends up revealing a secret from the past.
This writer can’t comment fairly on “Blackmail”’s ASMR effect Small undertones and lower-toned beats do start standing out when the headphone volume levels are lowered. But does the full ASMR experience depend on having a top-end grade of headphones and/or better than average hearing?
That cavil aside, curious viewers are warned that expecting “Blackmail (ASMR)” to follow crime drama tropes should seek another film. Roman’s more interested in capturing the visual invocations of a moment regardless of its impact on the operations of the film’s plot engine. It could be how a scent can evoke the old magnificence of a now vanished Egyptian empire. Or it might be an informal mansion tour that shows both the mansion’s beauty and its vague feeling of oppressiveness. In an odd way, these poetic detours turn out to be “Blackmail (ASMR)”’s true highlights.
ASMR in a sense uses sonic triggers to create its effects. “Blackmail (ASMR)” depends on the secrets of a person’s past to trigger its story’s development.
Overall, though, the experience of watching Roman’s film could be characterized as seeing a genre film which has excised genre conventions.
Using the framework of the horror genre as a starting point is the approach taken by directors William Darmon and Christopher Ernst in their engrossing feature film “The Hill And The Hole.” Their film adapts and expands on a story written by legendary San Francisco-based dark fantasist Fritz Leiber.
In a remote corner of the Southwestern US, Bureau of Land Management archeologist Tom Digby discovers an enigmatic man-made hill. Its visual appearance doesn’t jibe with his instruments’ readings. Understanding the hill’s history and secrets does lead to clashes with locals who prefer the mound’s puzzles to remain unsolved. But Digby’s real challenge might ultimately involve something far different than he expected as well as the price he may need to pay to obtain his answers.
The film’s mysteries continually tantalize the viewer. What connection is there between the hill and the occasional apparent warping of reality? What are the red lights which sometimes cause men to eat soil as if there was no tomorrow? What do certain townspeople have to gain from hiding the secret of the hill? Who or what is occasionally protecting Digby and why? Darmon and Ernst don’t always directly answer every mystery they raise. But their film offers clues for viewers to form their own theories.
One of the prominent themes of the film is the clash between shoehorning one’s understanding of the unknown into familiar if not always accurate boxes versus an openness to let the unknown unfold as it will. The townspeople have in their way over the years turned the hill and its mysteries into a religious object. Digby’s inquisitiveness is perceived as a threat to their resulting practices.
The film doesn’t go too deeply into discussing its protagonist’s past. But from a key flashback and Digby’s concern regarding his daughters, it appears the archeologist’s vocal obsession and inquisitiveness resulted in the proverbial burning of a lot of social bridges. One of those bridges was probably a marriage which ended in at least separation.
Instead of loudly broadcasting its answers every few minutes, “The Hill And The Hole” takes the “small unobtrusive clue which pays off in a big way later” approach. For example, even if a viewer notices something off about the little girl playing alone and unattended in a yard, the truth about her will still take viewers by surprise.
Darmon and Ernst’s film is very much likely to annoy the type of viewer who belongs to the “dot every i” and “cross every t” school of viewing. Yet if one allows “The Hill And The Hole” to keep some of its mysteries only partially answered, there’s no real reason to downgrade this engrossing film.
(“The Hill And The Hole” screens at 7:00 PM on September 29, 2020. A $10 day pass comes with a Zoom link to this film and others showing that day. For further information about the film and others still playing that day, go to www.ahith.com .)
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