Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Boston Underground Film Festival 2009: Hausu and Deadgirl

Combine a trip south by southwest, the finals of the World Baseball Classic, and not being that hyped for what was playing when during the "encore session", and I only wound up getting to one night of BUFF this year. That's a shame, because that one night was pretty terrific, the crew runs a fun show, and it offers a chance to see things you really might not have any other chance to see.

Next year, I'll attend more (my goal will be to flood EFC with more reviews from BUFF than whoever puts boots on the ground in Austin manages).


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

There are four-star films, and there are four-star film experiences. The former tend to generate the latter so long as something like bad projection, talkers, or digestive trouble don't screw it up. Lesser films need a little something to work their way up to being a total blast at the theater. Now, I don't know just how much Hausu, a screamingly insane Japanese horror film from 1977, requires above and beyond what's there. I suspect it's just a non-stodgy crowd, and when you've got that, look out.

If your knowledge of Japanese horror begins with The Ring or The Grudge, be prepared for a visual smack upside the head. Writer, director, producer, and director of visual effects Nobuhiko Obayashi has given his characters a colorful world in which to play, one which is brightly lit so that there are no shadows for things to jump out of. The world is gloriously artificial, with beautiful matte paintings and over-decorated sets as well as obvious-looking painted landscapes that the camera pulls away from to reveal that those backdrops are free-standing in the midst of fine location scenery. There are animated bits and musical numbers, occasionally in English.

The character names are just as artificial, perfect indicators of who they are. We first meet Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba), two schoolgirls who are best friends but about to spend the summer vacation apart - Gorgeous with her father, Fantasy with their other friends and Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki), the teacher she has a crush on, at a boarding house where they'll be practicing... well, something. But wait! Gorgeous's father wants to bring a new stepmother along, and Togo's sister won't let them use the house. What shall they do? Why, take a trip to the country home of Gorgeous's invalid Grandmother (Yoko Minamida), and Fantasy, Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo - she's athletic!), Sweet (Masayo Miyako - she's shy!), Melody (Eriko Tanaka - she plays music!), Prof (Ai Matsubara - she wears glasses!), and [Big] Mac (Mieko Satoh - she's always eating!) are invited. Oddly, Grandmother seems a lot more energetic once one of the schoolgirls disappears.

There's no blueprint for making a cult film, or a "good-bad" movie. What works for this one is that one moment will be shoddy filmmaking, but the next will actually be fairly well-done but completely deranged. And then, every once in a while, there are fleeting moments where you get the sense that maybe Obayashi is up to something clever and you just don't get it. This is a movie where one instant you'll be laughing at how a cat was obviously thrown into a character's lap from off-screen, and then not much later, there's a scene at the piano where you're not quite sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of the scene or get grossed out by it.

It's fun stuff. Obayashi's world is crazy, but it's also pretty well-structured enough to be a straight horror movie if that's the way he'd wanted to go with it. Instead, he opts for the crazy. He's got the right kind of cast to make it work - they're young and pretty, not really great actors, but charming; I particularly dug Miki Jinbo's Kung Fu. Yoko Minamida is a hoot as the grandmother as well. And he actually designs some pretty darn good visual effects; they look pretty darn good for a low-budget movie made in 1977.

But, really, this is the sort of movie you can't break down to its component pieces. It is absolutely batshit crazy from start to finish, but there's also enough raw talent involved that, believe it or not, the cast and crew actually continued working afterward, many until the present day.

The craziest part? There was a "Janus Films" logo in at the start of the screening, and that's the library that the Criterion Collection often draws from. They need to get on this pronto, just to see if they can make some sort of sense out of it.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

The zombie film, when you get right down to it, is really not that malleable a form. The plots are more or less the same, just differing in setting, detail, and tone. So it's not exactly surprising that when someone comes up with a new take on the genre, two variations on it appear at once. Fortunately, Deadgirl and Make-Out With Violence couldn't be much more different in tone. Where Make-Out is sad and wistful, Deadgirl is sexual and nasty.

Things hidden at shuttered mental hospitals should probably stay that way. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) are hanging around one while cutting class when a dog chases them through the service corridors into a basement storeroom. There, they find a girl strapped to a table, naked. She's got a nice body but isn't communicating. J.T. gets a look in his eyes that Rickie doesn't like; Rickie runs. The next day, J.T. brings him back to show him something amazing: The girl is living dead; it's safe with her strapped down. And it's not like Rickie is ever going to get anywhere mooning over JoAnn (Candice Accola), what with her meathead boyfriend Johnny (Andrew DiPalma) and all.

It probably doesn't take a whole lot of rationalization to convince oneself that it's okay to have one's way with a zombie; it's not like they're capable about caring about anything other than feeding. Even if you can make the case that the act itself isn't so bad, it can easily be the first step along a bad path. That's where Deadgirl gets its tension: There is not potentially a zombie around every corner, but a couple teenage boys - or three, once their friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) is clued in - in this situation are going to make some questionable decisions even if they do see eye to eye. The dead girl is a moral test and catalyst to potentially pit the friends against each other and the outside world.

There is gore and violence, too, but the filmmakers make us wait for it; they'll set up an uncomfortable situation and then build the tension a little. Finally, they'll let loose and generally leave the characters worse off than they began. Interestingly, the dead girl is often the least of the characters' worries: Bound to the table, she's relatively safe, and while there's an element of lulling the audience into a false sense of security there, not breaking out the full-on zombie action also means that nothing is done to diminish the prosaic dangers, like feral dogs. Or bullies. Or what people will do once they've had a taste of consequence-free sex.

The two leads sell the conflict pretty well. Noah Segan gets the fun, flashy part, shucking J.T.'s morals with relish. The bad boy gets all the fun sarcastic lines, but Segan gives some nuance to his amorality: We believe he needs a little validation from his friends, and though we don't see much of the characters' home life, we get the sense that J.T.'s decisions are influence by having a little less than Rickie. Shiloh Fernandez doesn't get to be quite so gaudy in his performance; a guy wrestling with his conscience isn't as demonstrative as a guy not doing so. I think many people can connect with the guy, though; he's trying to do the right thing and can't help but see that those with no regard for other people (or zombies) are walking all over him. The moments where he's at least tempted to give in to temptation are great, because you can see all he's holding back bubbling to the surface.

The supporting characters are more types: Eric Podnar's playing a pothead; Andrew DiPalma's Johnny and Nolan Gerard Funk's Dwyer are nasty jocks. I wish Candice Accola had a little more to do; the filmmakers do a nice job of presenting her as the pristine visual counterpart to the dead girl, and she does her best in selling JoAnn as full enough of contradictions and personality to make her the alternative to the unquestioning vagina locked up in the hospital but she doesn't have much to work with. Neither does Jenny Spain as the title character, but that's the point; she's bestial, and even when the dead girl is being raped, she's responding, but not capable of either truly enjoying it or feeling violated.

I'm impressed with the job writer Trent Haaga and directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel do. My one issue is that the characters are aware of zombie-movie rules, and the movie follows them, which shouldn't necessarily go together. Otherwise, they do a nice job of working suspense against uncomfortable thoughts. There's some nail-bitingly tense scenes in there, and things that will linger in the mind afterward.

That's the best kind of horror movie. Jumps and gore can be laughed off later, but uncomfortable thoughts tend to stick with you, and Deadgirl has some nasty ideas.

Also at EFC.

No comments: