Friday, October 12, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Trapped Ashes

I love the BFFF (not to be confused with the BFF). Sure, it causes a pronounced lack of sleep when it conflicts with a Red Sox playoff series - my plan tonight is to record ALCS Game 1 on the ReplayTV, start watching it when I get home at around 9:15 after watching The Devil Dared Me To (since I can push The District! to a Sox-free Sunday showing rather than sticking around for the 9:30 show) - but Ned likes a lot of the same sorts of movies as I do, and this year especially has a knack for booking stuff that I wanted to see at Fantasia but couldn't make. Trapped Ashes, The Devil Dared Me To, Murder Party, Zebraman, and Exiled all fit into that category this year (I did see The Signal there, but I certainly don't mind giving other folks the chance to see it).

I have to admit, I was kind of hoping we'd get some guests for Trapped Ashes; Joe Dante has been listed as part of the festival's steering committee in previous years and I figured that might translate to him coming to Boston to introduce this film. Didn't happen, and I suspect the turnout might have been better if the festival's opening film hadn't run Thursday at 10pm. I wonder if it was bumped to accommodate the screening of The Darjeeling Limited with Anderson & Schwartzmann at 7pm (sadly, 5pm was not early enough to leave Waltham to see this one).

So, first night a bit disappointing, but I'm looking forward to The Devil Dared Me To tonight. And Go Sox!

Trapped Ashes

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

It's got to be somewhat disappointing to be in writer Dennis Bartok's position: You write an screenplay for an anthology film that's got four pretty decent ideas for horror stories in it. You land the likes of Ken Russell and Monte Hellman to direct segments, and Joe Dante to do the framing sequences. The unknown actors you cast really aren't bad. And yet, when it gets put together, it's not that good. And if Bartok isn't disappointed, the audience certainly is.

The set-up has an elderly tour guide (Henry Gibson) giving six people the VIP tour of "Ultra Studios", reluctantly showing them the house where the (fictional) classic horror film Hysteria was shot. They wind up trapped in the room where that movie's characters told each other horror stories, and suggests that maybe, if they tell their own scary stories, they'll be let out. It's as silly as it sounds and Dante takes a while setting it up, but the house is a fun set, albeit overdone (Dante is a bit prone to over-indulging in pastiche).

The first of the stories is "The Girl With the Golden Breasts", directed by Ken Russell. It's about Phoebe (Rachel Veltri), a would-be actress whose fortunes change after she gets the latest in breast implants - human tissue taken from organ donors. Except... those wouldn't have nipples that bite and suck blood, would they? As with most of Bartok's stories, it's not really a bad idea, and I kind of like Veltri in it. I think Russell errs in being a little too casual with the material; even if he didn't want to take the straight-out horror route of David Cronenberg's Rabid, this is material for dark, pitch-black comedy, but Russell and Bartok go for weak, name-dropping parody and "isn't this weird?" rather than actual scares or really clever satire.

Next up is Sean S. Cunningham (the original Friday the Thirteenth) with "Jibaku". Julia (Lara Harris), the wife of American architect Henry (Scott Lowell) at a convention in Japan, meets a handsome man (Yoshinori Hiruma) in front of a strange painting, only to later find him hanging outside a temple. He's still in her dreams, though, and when she disappears a few nights later, the head monk (Ryo Ishibashi) tells Henry that he must enter a scary cave and place a piece of paper with a spell written on it into her mouth to save her. Cunningham gets some nifty atmospherics with the changing painting, and the switch to animation for some shots inside the cave is actually pretty creepy, but there's something oddly inauthentic about his jaunt into J-horror, despite actually shooting some in Japan rather than British Columbia and the presence of genre favorite Ishibashi - everything feels too much like a soundstage, everybody who speaks English does so without an accent. There also doesn't seem to be much about Henry and Julia that's special, and they just go through the motions here; there's never a sense of urgency or importance to what they're doing.

"Stanley's Girlfriend" is the first thing Monte Hellman (best known for Two Lane Blacktop) has directed in over fifteen years. His protagonist Leo (John Saxon) has also not made a film in a long time, and tells us how, as a younger man (Tahmoh Penikett), he met a fellow filmmaker by the name of Stanley (Tygh Rynyan) with whom he became fast friends until he also met Nina (Amelia Cooke), who transfers her affections to him when Stanley leaves for New York and Europe to shoot a movie, never to return. Leo can't seem to get any work done, though, and he doesn't have much idea why until Stanley bequeaths him a package forty years later. The film is well shot, and the revelation of one of the character's identity is a bit of a kick, but honestly? Nothing happens. Film fans may find the details clever in the end, but Hellman and Bartok don't do much to make lethargy particularly frightening.

Oddly, it's rookie director John Gaeta (most of his credits are doing special effects) who delivers the best segment. "My Twin, The Worm" has Michele-Barbara Pelletier playing a dual role, as present-day narrator Nathalie and her mother Martine, who contracted a tapeworm at about the same time she became pregnant, and since the treatment for tapeworms would also cause a miscarriage, must put up with both growing within her, even as this odd prenatal situation is having a peculiar effect on Nathalie, which comes to light when we see her as a child who goes to live with her father and stepmother after her mother's nervous breakdown. Gaeta's got a head start, in that the premise of his story is kind of discomfiting even before anything overtly supernatural happens, and the setting (French immigrants with a California vineyard) is just off-kilter enough to seem out of time. Then he's got Matrya Fedor as young Nathalie, and in just a couple parts, she's demonstrated a knack for playing scary kids without making them seem unearthly or like little adults (all the scarier because it implies that that kind of amorality is part of every child's nature).

The movie's ready to send us out on a high note with that, but unfortunately it brings us back to Joe Dante's framing device, which not only wastes Henry Gibson and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Dick Miller cameo (Robert Picardo, apparently, was unavailable), but doesn't deliver the inevitable twist on horror tales that leave their narrators alive as well as one might like. Like much of the movie, it's kind of limp, which is frustrating, because Dante should be able to do better.

That's what the whole movie is - segments that aren't quite as good as they could or should be individually, and while none of those segments would be crippling with better neighbors, together they add up to a big disappointment.

Also at eFilmCritic.

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