Founded in 2013 by the Stanley Hotel to celebrate the property’s iconic Hollywood heritage, the Stanley Film Festival is billed on their official website (http://www.stanleyfilmfest.com) as a "unique opportunity to showcase exhilarating voices in classic and contemporary horror within a haunted space chosen to amplify the experience beyond the terrors shown on screen." Armed with the goal of procuring the most imaginative tales of fright from around the globe, the SFF's short and feature films certainly delivered on their promise to "offer a vast spectrum of tantalizing thrills and ghastly delights throughout the weekend."
Your trusty genre Examiner had the nasty pleasure of attending the SFF last Saturday, devouring four of the festival's impressively impactful feature-length premieres (as reviewed herein). If the quality of these four handpicked gems is any indication of the festival's overall quality, the SFF must proudly stand as one of our nation's greatest genre events. Three of these four films delivered memorably warped cinematic experiences that are destined to haunt even hardened genre vets (along with our foolishly brave and trusting friends) for many years to come.
Featuring new entrees from the most masterful and contemporary foreign genre directors (see schedule at http://www.denverfilm.org/festival/film/index.aspx?FID=82), the following list include brief reviews of Takashi Miike's (Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins) The Lesson of Evil, newcomer Juno Mak and Takashi Shimizu's (Ju-On/The Grudge) Rigor Mortis, Tommy Wirkola's (Dead Snow) Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead, and Hitoshi Matsumoto's (Big Man Japan) R100. Explore the following list synopses and decide for yourself if you possess the testicular fortitude to expose your senses to the unspooled madness of these twistedly gifted auteurs…
Dead Snow 2
Following up on the gory exploits of Dead Snow's pissed off, gold-seeking Nazi zombies, rising German director Tommy Wirkola raises the ante big time with the crowd-pleasing sequel, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead. Although Red vs Dead delivers all the anticipated increases in budget, action and gore that film lovers have come to expect from sequels, Wirkola takes his solitary franchise's efforts much qualitatively further, delivering one of the most hilarious, imaginative and original zombie flicks since Peter Jackson's early cult classic, Dead/Alive. The packed crowd at the Reel Theater in Estes Park, CO - which also included two of the film's dismembered victims, umm, co-stars in attendance - laughed and gasped in fully entertained approval throughout the entire length of the film, which received a well-deserved and rowdy ovation when the end credits began rolling.
Amusingly inventive plot twists abound to enhance an efficiently rollicking narrative that includes an entertaining human/zombie dismembered limb surgery mishap that continually raises unexpected safety issues for both parties, resurrected Russian soldier zombies (hence the subtitle) whom climax with the Nazis in an insane zombie battle royal, a sympathy-inducing guinea-pig-zombie whom, based on his increasingly blood-drenched "I Love Norway" t-shirt, had no idea the type of painful day he would have to endure, and other zany ideas that exude Wirkola's unhinged passion for both pushing and paying homage to this otherwise weary and over-trodden genre. Zombie fans and those with an overall appreciation for rambunctious, gore-soaked hilarity in the vein of the aforementioned Dead/Alive, Evil Dead 2, etc. - run, don't walk to see this film!
Next up was Hitoshi Matsumoto's (Big Man Japan) R100, a film that pleasantly exceeded this Examiner's hesitant expectations, in being weary of the seemingly understated subtlety and potentially stuffy art house inclinations of the limited trailer. Especially arriving on the heels of the exhilarating ride known as Dead Snow 2, R100 offered a surprisingly smooth and rewarding (if vastly different) come down ride for those whom appreciate a healthy dose of irreverent surrealism in their genre coffee. Revolving around a downtrodden Japanese man who finds himself increasingly drawn to and unwillingly controlled by a sadomasochistic dominatrix company, after his wife falls prey to a coma, R100 draws as much of it's gleeful absurdism from this built-to-please storyline, as from the unusually random stylistic flourishes that Matsumoto nonetheless bravely and deliberately incorporates at the welcome expense of formulaic plot machinations.
As the film evolves, one gets the sense of a maturing auteur passionately embracing the spirit of the original surrealist movement (i.e. Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, Federico Fellini, etc.), in order to manifest a truly original vision more intimately personal than any formulaic plot could ever hope to deliver. Although this film is certainly not for everyone in it's firm disapproval of convention, reason and logic in favor of paradoxical meta-analyses and impressionistic impact, those enlightened enough to appreciate R100's rare and original accomplishments will discover a surprisingly fluid and sophisticated treatise on domination, submission, loss, control, fulfillment and other such all-pervasive, sadomasochistic elements, as filtered through the warped sociocultural lens of one of Japan's most passionately unique and increasingly-accomplished filmmakers.
Having been disappointed in Takashi Shimizu's more recent output since Ju-On (aka The Grudge) first gave audiences the willies (back when such "j-horror" was actually new and exciting), Rigor Mortis unfortunately provided the one weak link in a chain of otherwise stellar genre fare. Upon hearing that this feature represented untested newcomer's Juno Mak's first full-length foray (under the primary producing tutelage of Shimizu), this Examiner accurately adjusted his expectations for the type of visually baroque yet under-baked screenplays that characterize all of Shimizu's body of work.
Carrying a convoluted storyline too dense and twisty to even attempt detailing, Rigor Mortis revolves around a public tenement housing project, and the dark secrets its various denizens harbor - a sort of macabre and supernatural Magnolia or Traffic-type of architecture, but without the solid writing and characterization of those well-received films. Much like Shimizu, Juno Mak's primary failings stubbornly revolve around the lack of effort and ability put into developing resonant characters or story lines, instead relying on healthy heapings of garishly nightmarish visuals, most of which are nonetheless marred in impact by an over-reliance on mostly serviceable and sometimes admittedly inspired CGI. The somewhat rich and kinetic computer graphic hijinks ultimately only distract and alienate viewers from any type of emotional attachment to the increasingly confusing and similarly artificial plot twists.
It's disheartening that in waiting for Shimizu to finally smarten up to the fact that he should just look for a writing partner to properly compliment his cinematographic skills (in accepting that his strength as a filmmaker lies in creepy atmospherics and visuals versus writing efficient screenplays), he has instead chosen to pass on his bad habits to a similarly-flawed protege. Someone please talk sense to these otherwise technically talented filmmakers and give them good scripts!
Lesson of the Evil
Ending the evening was perhaps the most anticipated film of the festival - Lesson of the Evil, from this Examiner's favorite Asian director - mastermind auteur, Takashi Miike (prolific filmmaker of over a hundred uniquely warped films, including Audition, Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins, etc.). One of the many reasons this Examiner loves Miike's work is for his storytelling inclination (which shall now affectionately be dubbed as "the Miike effect") to lull the audience into a false sense of security through deliberately misdirecting and formulaic narrative comforts that pervade and define the first half or so of the film, only to destroy such sanity and peace of mind through the second half's ruthless dismantling and transcendence of such predictable comfort zones.
In the case of Audition, for example, we get an uneventful and forlorn drama depicting one man's attempts to ease his loneliness through a home-brewed dating game, which suddenly and viciously mutates into a psychotic thriller that makes Fatal Attraction look like Bambi. With 13 Assassins, a fairly typical feudal Japan period piece and meditation on life for masterless samurai (or "ronin"), viciously explodes into a blood-drenched battle for survival that boasts roughly fifty minutes of unrelenting death and carnage.
Enter Lesson of the Evil, the first ninety minutes or so of which introduces a high school's attempts to confront its students' rampant cheating, in the midst of a series of mysterious suicides that seem to be plaguing various students. Along the way, we are invited to follow various drama surrounding the students and teachers, none of which prepares the viewer for the real cause of the suicides and the disturbing mayhem that results when we get too close to the truth. To say anything more would be to effectively diminish the painfully sadistic pleasure that comes with experiencing the aforementioned "Miike effect," which in this case shows Miike at his top form, delivering the type of anti-Columbine catharsis (indeed, more of an intense bowel-purging) that no one in that particular theater will ever be able to forget in this lifetime. All hail to the king.