Some gruesome hillbilly horror, a nunsploitation final girl film, and a goofy genre self-referential body count movie made up my Friday experience.
Friday marked the first full day of the Overlook Film Festival, and there were so many movies to watch! My experience featured lots of “Oh shit, where did I leave my phone!” moments, scrambling from venue to venue in the French Quarter, and then scrambling back to find my phone. In a fun little moment, I got a ride from an Uber Driver who was to be a bride in her wedding immediately after she dropped me off, and was to be paraded into her wedding, with a brass band and “Indian” Dancers leading her down the aisle. Hope she made it! Ah, New Orleans! However, my biggest takeaway so far from the Overlook experience is the revelation that wow… the people involved in making indie-horror films are some of the nicest, most generous people you would ever run into. In-between screenings, I was able to catch some fun VR experiences and movie Q&A sessions with the directors. Friday just so happened to be the day that New Orleans was celebrating its 300th birthday, so the big navy ships came in, and the typically boisterous French Quarter was an absolute carnival of energy, filled with sailors and public officials. And, the frequent sound of people vomiting on the sidewalk. Ah! New Orleans! Also, for the record, my new favorite sandwich is the fried baloney sandwich at Turkey and the Wolf! (God I love NOLA food!)
OK, enough for the asides. First off, I went to catch the Short Film program and it was a real treat to see back-to-back-to-back films of the aspiring emerging talents in the genre. I urge all horror fans to seek out small films, and if you attend film festivals to remember to check these little goodies out. Short films are condensed ideas, which is ideal in a genre that sometimes stretches a thin idea too long. There was some really good stuff on show, and when these become available I will be posting them.
Now for the full meal program… and the first one may make you consider having lunch before watching it, on many levels.
EDITORIAL NOTE: I have created individual review pages for each of these films, so you will see them both in this article and individually. (Better for IMDB linking)
★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Hans Stjernsward
Here’s a movie that belongs in the hillbilly horror/road trip horror canon. And that might be both a good and a bad thing. Like many films of this sub-genre, this is a tough watch for most audiences and is even a little rough for hardened horror fans. If you’ve read our Bridge Too Far post, with our fear level analysis, I would put this movie as a 20. It is a tried and true trope, the young couple taking a road trip who need to find a place to rest, and they get directed to a series of cabins that’s about 20 minutes off the beaten path. The acting of our two leads Nora Yesslund (Nora) and Alec Gaylord (Alec) are solid, as our sympathetic will-be victims. Their pre-horror banter comes off naturally, but they stumble into the most time-honored trap tropes… the crazy in-bred housekeeper. Double down on the fact that the cabins they check into are old scout camp cabins, in a seriously dilapidated state, including a blood-stained mattress that the couple fails to notice. The couple had gas, all they needed to do was switch drivers rather than stay in a skeevy off-the-beaten-path cabin-in-the-woods.
Needless to say, they get abducted by a big goon hiding under their bed. (Genuinely creepy reveal) and they wake up caged in the middle of a farming commune, trapped with a number of fellow gullible travelers. The men are cattle stock, and the women are the dairy stock. Ewwww. OK, up to this point, the premise holds strong. The disappointing thing is that the film struggles to figure out its voice in the second act. The cultists all (mostly all) wear plastic animal masks at all times… which makes little sense, particularly knowing how hard it is to see or breathe behind those things. Why wear a These cultists are supernaturally perceptive to spot sneaking escapees while behind cattle masks… you’ve worn a plastic Halloween mask… you can’t see squat from behind those masks! On an aside, a hockey mask is designed to allow for good vision as goalies have to see a puck coming their way, so Jason’s mask totally makes sense. The animal referential flip is also too on-the-nose for my taste. The animals turning on the humans. Unnecessary for the most part. Also, the cultists say nothing, with the exception of the in-bred innkeeper and one of his dim-witted henchmen. So, I have issues with the villains in this movie.
The movie has some really gruesome shock scenes, some are critical to the story, but it had others which seem largely unnecessary, not advancing the plot or add in any depth to the characters than to indicate how nasty the villains are. Without a context for why the farm is what it is, or how they fell sway to the odd innkeeper, it fails to connect other than to gross you out. Multiple attempts are made to escape, and many attempts are foiled. I think the film would also have benefitted by truncating the second and third acts to a more streamlined escape plan. The ending is a classic nihilistic brutal ending, but with an attempt to try an overtly artistic homage, but I think it felt tacked on after what we had just witnessed.
The live audience reception was tepid, and I felt bad for Stjernsward, who was in attendance, as most of the audience fled immediately after credits rolled. If this would have been a focus group screening, they would have sent the director back in for edits. If your test screening audience is a horror fan base, and they all flee your movie afterward, that’s a bad sign. This movie had strong influences from Motel Hell, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Hostel. And it is the sadistic edge that gets muddled by the goofy villains that undoes this. Rather than stick to a straight torture porn film, like Hostel, or a horror satire, like Motel Hell, it splits the difference and ends up less weighty as a consequence. It’s not a film without merits, as there is some authentically scary stuff, and the gore effects are BRUTAL. It does succeed in my rule #1 which is that you have to care for the protagonists, but in the end, it was undone a bit by the oddly constructed escape sequence, and you don’t get to see how the escape plans really unfold. I would have just headed for the hills. Also, how many “the car won’t start” tropes are you allowed in one film? For those with the stomach for intense gore, you might do well with this film, as a mixed bag response from me might be completely different for you.
If you see this film, though, you probably won’t forget it anytime soon! (For better or worse)
★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
My second viewing on the Friday fare was much more successful. St. Agatha is, as described by Bousman as a “nunsploitation film” (love that term!) about a young woman, Mary (Sabrina Kern) who is newly pregnant, and out of housing options after getting turned out by her father, and unwilling to follow her grifter boyfriend who is fleeing town from those he cheated. She takes shelter in a soup kitchen and is invited to get support and a fresh start on life in a rural convent. Bad choice? Yeah, bad choice. The convent is strictly run by the Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy) who chews up the screen with just under the surface malice. (And later, some real over the top malice!) It’s a Nurse Ratchet-y role that really cuts through the screen. St Agatha builds its horror slowly, but directly. Right from the jump, it is clear that the nuns run a tight, and a cruel ship and misbehavior is punished very harshly. Forced to renounce her past, Mary is forced to change her name to Agatha under duress by being sealed in a coffin. Though she exhibits incredible will, is eventually broken. Bousman is wise to avoid jump scares, as this movie is not built for the BOO gotcha moments. Fear not though, horror fans, as this film easily earns its horror badges, and when the horror comes, it comes strong. On the Scariest Things Meter, I put St. Agatha at about a 17. Shocking, but not repulsive. It’s a fine line.
For those of you curious… here’s a preview of the big shockers delivered, in shorthand:
Three… two… one… no peeking! You’ve been warned! OK here goes:
- Eat Like a Bird
- Bear Traps!
- barf consumption
- Self-silencing, with scissors
- Umbilical cord
Each of those moments earned gasps and groans from the appreciative audience. And, they are placed strategically throughout the film to allow some rest and recovery before hitting you with the next big doozy. Bousman’s horror experience from the Saw II, III, and IV certainly shows up in these inventive scenes, particularly the bear traps, which were a constant lurking danger from the beginning of the film.
OK, now that that’s over… you can safely come back to the review!
I really appreciated screenwriter Sara Sometti Michael’s tight script. Every element placed reinforces a story point. Actions have consequences, and often brutal ones. Mary’s past shady backstory is shown in flashback form rather than exposition, and it’s effectively rolled out through the film. There is no Deus ex-machina moment, and from front to back the movie makes sense. The large (and largely female) cast do themselves proud, In a curious way, this is a Final Girl movie, but rather than a masked killer, it is from the Mother Superior and her nun enforcers that provide the threat. The Mother Superior is always a step ahead, very clever… until in the end, she submits the scrap of information that Mary/Agatha seizes upon to try and free herself.
The only criticism that I would have is that the movie runs a little long. There may have been one escape attempt too many, but because the script is so watertight, I can forgive it these sins. In talking with Michaels, the editing process was agonizing as they had so much they wanted to say, and I think they were able to achieve quite a bit. You always felt a through-line for the story, and every revealed bit of information has relevance. St. Agatha is a smart and beautiful looking film, and if you want to know more about it, listen in to my interview with Bousman.
And, a shout out to Marsha Berger (Sister Susan), Trin Miller (Paula), and Candy Rachor (Sister Helen) who proved that for scary nuns, they actually were the furthest thing from being evil in person. IRL these women are sweethearts and not the dour and strict un-fun nuns. Here’s hoping St. Agatha opens some professional doors for you, ladies!
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Owen Egerton
FUN! This movie is pure dumb fun. And, I mean dumb in a loving way. And the director, Owen Egerton is also a bundle of fun energy. When he hit the stage to a somewhat thinned out midnight screening, he took it in stride and was a real showman. I had the privilege to meet Egerton after the show, while we were waiting for Uber rides, and he is SO CHARMING. He is keenly aware of the kind of movie he made, and it really is a love letter to horror fans… and specifically horror movie conventioneers, which was us in the audience. We lapped it up. If a gory body count movie can be endearing, this one is that.
Blood Fest is the story of Dax (Robbie Kay, most recognizable for his role as Peter Pan in Once Upon a Time), who learned a love of horror movies, handed down by his mother. And, as things would have it, his mother is killed by a copycat movie-serial killer on Halloween, while they were settling in for a night of classic black and white horror films. Dax is consumed by a love of horror despite the manner of his mother’s passing. He is completely amped up for a horror movie festival that is essentially an impromptu amusement park of fun-house type horrors. (It resembles nothing like the Overlook Festival… which was essentially a lot of movie watching) His psychologist father forbids him from going, cutting up his festival pass, but he manages to get access through his hot ex-girlfriend Ashley (Barbara Dunkelman), and is joined by his best pal Krill (Jacob Batalon, hot off his role in Spider-man Homecoming) and his girl-crush Sam (Seychelle Gabriel… what a name!)
At the opening ceremonies, the master of ceremonies Anthony Walsh (Played by the director Egerton, in a fabulous suit) kicks off the proceedings by unleashing real killers with chainsaws and daggers. The panicking hordes of fans flee in all directions, getting mowed down by all sorts of horror incarnations. Zombies, vampires, serial killers, Marionettes with traps, they all get in on the action, creating a gauntlet that our protagonists have to run through. A particularly entertaining running gag is the appearance of Chris Doubek, who plays an AC-tor, who has been typecast as “The Arborist” who uses hedge clippers and scythes in his films but is really disenchanted with his typecasting lot in life.
The whole massacre is a ruse by Walsh, who is intending on making a true snuff horror film and is banking on huge success. Apparently, nobody told him that would be illegal… but he isn’t exactly seeing things in the right perspective. He fully believes in his mission and is apparently very well funded to pull this elaborate stunt off. As our troupe of survivors looks for a way out, there are dozens of Easter eggs tossed in, as favorite tropes and references get liberally sprinkled into the story.
It gives you the continually dwindling band of survivors. Check! The two leads falling in love under the duress of survival? Check! The cynical actor turning a horrifying event into the role of a lifetime? Check! The dorky guy getting the sexy dingbat? Check! A Zachary Levi quick cameo? Check! Needless to say, this film checks a lot of favorite boxes. It is, in a way, a grindhouse grade Ready Player One. Missing one of your favorite horror tropes? Wait for it, it’s probably coming.
The film has a surprising level of craft to it. The sets alone were massive, and they had hordes of extras. For a little budget movie, they got a lot of bang for their buck. As far as a Scariest Things Meter… I plug this solidly as a 15. It’s got its gory bits, but nothing that most horror fans couldn’t handle, and the lightness of the movie tamps down the severity of the violence. This is hardly an original film, as by nature, it has clearly dedicated itself not to be. It’s a greatest hits cover album, done in a loving way. The comedy doesn’t always hit, but it does so often enough to keep you smiling through the whole picture. There are a couple of preposterous twists, but given the overall concept of this movie, you just let that slide. If you buy into the winking concept, you’ll enjoy this movie. If you like serious dramatic horror… ah… yeah not this one for you.
The review of the big Day 3 movies! Hereditary, and Upgrade. Hint: They’re both awesome!