Anya Stanley’s Nightstream Festival 2021 Diary

The lineup of this year’s Nightstream Film Festival is pertinent to a crowd that’s spent considerable recent time by themselves at home, growing wary of their neighbors. There’s a thread of disaffection running through the fictional midnight movie fare, though with horror, the genre that hinges upon isolation in all of its iterations, that’s probably more of a feature and not a COVID-related bug. Borne of a lack of physical exhibition options during the global Coronavirus pandemic, Nightstream is the cobbled creation not of Frankenstein, but of an alliance of genre film festivals: Boston Underground, Brooklyn Horror, North Bend, and the Overlook Film Festival came together to give audiences access to some truly phenomenal films. Some of them I’ve already covered at Fantastic Fest but nonetheless recommend, such as Junta Yamaguchi’s time and space-bending sci-fi exercise Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes (also an Audience Award runner-up). 

The one thing that sweetens every inch of the programming lineup is its accessibility; a movie like Landlocked would otherwise struggle to reach new radars, lost to Vimeo obscurity. So even if North America miraculously crawls towards something like a pandemic finish line, one hopes that the festival powers-that-be realize that they can keep showing films virtually to viewers all over, and should, long after the cloth masks come off.

“It started like so many things start. A quiet thought while enjoying a banana.” The silent hero of Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest is a simple man with a simple need: to crush world records by playing the game Gyruss for one hundred hours straight– on a single coin. In Mads Hedegaard’s energetic documentary that’s centered on games but focused on friendship, Arcade Quest profiles Kim Cannon Arm, an arcade hero at Copenhagen’s Bip Bip Bar. His friends are featured as well, each one wielding a different expertise; one friend had a project running wherein he’d analyze patterns in the works of Bach, while another, Dyst, is a slam poetry regular and a national champion in Puzzle Bobble. It truly takes a village as each of Cannon’s men come forward in their own way to help him achieve his dream of gaming glory. 

In tandem with his ambitions, Hedegaard is comfortable with confronting mortality as a counterweight to the button-smashing and martian blasting. He presents death as a matter of fact, whether mentioning a late friend of Kim’s within the introductions or smash-cutting a lively arcade bar with a demolished one. Arcade legends have died staying up for days on end to achieve these high scores and shatter records, Kim’s friends stress. The doctor’s visits and warnings about sleep deprivation leaven the feature’s celebratory nature to round out Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest as a lesson in the malleability of legacies. In many cases, it takes a village to lift someone up to the heavens; with Arcade Quest, Kim Cannon Arm gains his everlasting life on celluloid and on the scoreboard, and we have a new gold standard for the company we keep.

One of the prevailing arguments in certain film circles concerns itself with the boundaries of a giallo film; are there regions and themes that could never be associated with the pulpy Italian subgenre? Or are the aesthetics – the leather gloves, split diopter shots, and pulsating synth score – enough to put it in the same sandbox as the works of Emilio Miraglia? Name Above Title is sure to relaunch the giallo discourse, due to its vigor. Carlos Conceição’s sophomore feature (after 2019’s Serpentarius) opens with a mocking Ted Bundy quote, so that’s what we’re working with, here. The crisp hourlong story is a portrait of a nameless serial killer (Matthieu Charneau) and his public trajectory after he kisses a dying woman (who had just thrown herself from a party one floor above) before the lenses of a dozen phone cameras. The narrative is purposely sparse with dialogue, and in its space Conceição slides in meditations on connection, sharing a kinship with other 2021 festival darlings like Julia Ducournau’s body horror Titane and Jane Schoenbrun’s unsettling gem We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (see below). Conceição glides from tableau to tableau, staging the actors and the mayhem such that every frame is a click-worthy thumbnail as his nameless serial killer muddles possession with intimacy, intimacy with violence. Failing to keep its strong beginnings afloat, the end pivots to a bombastic, unjustified climax that nonetheless commands the eye. Enjoyment of that, and Name Above Title entire, will depend on your definition of a good giallo.

Casey (Anna Cobb) is a troubled teen sitting before her computer. After a preamble to her viewers, she recites “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, pricks her finger, smears the blood across her monitor, and plays a strobed video unseen to us, but nonetheless emanating a doomed Ringu energy. She vows to record her progress on “The internet’s scariest online horror game” in the coming days. What ensues makes up Jane Schoenbrun’s feature film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. There’s a carnival soulfulness to World’s Fair, marrying its grotesqueries (both mental and social) to the mundane in a way that recalls Patrick Brice’s portrait of a Creep. The challenge is purported to bring out the worst fears and desires of those who take the challenge, exploiting their mind and body to the point of monstrosity. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Casey is not in a place to engage with the game, and the cheese promptly slides off her cracker. 

Some videos that ensue on a big-screen autoplay are like late-late-night TikTok filler, giving us a glimpse into how other players are engaging with the challenge. They provide an offbeat but jarring contrast with Casey’s increasingly disturbing videos that fire like a depth charge. Snippets of the eerie and the banal writhe together onscreen, such as a two minute clip of Casey walking down the streets into a New Year’s Eve countdown crowd as she calmly lays aloud her plans to carry out a graphic crime. Cobb shines especially in a tarot reading scene, flopping down cards on her plush bed and aggressively, unblinkingly reading them to the camera. Her performance ranges from disaffected to hysterical to nihilistic, as if each component of Casey’s psyche came forward with something to announce. The movie would be nothing without her performance. Her videos are anchored by the arc of JLB, a grown man who gets increasingly worried about the grim nature of Casey’s videos, though the extent of his motives for contacting her may be less noble, it’s intentionally hard to tell in a story of the isolated interacting with the isolated. In all, Schoenbrun’s look at the interconnections of online life, mental illness, and human rapport is a singular gem, at once manic and precise in presentation.

A UFO sighting, then a drug-induced Jacob’s Ladder riff with an alien dance partner at a nightclub, and finally a hospital escape and visions of a missing parent. Thus begins Cosmic Dawn, Jefferson Moneo’s second feature after Big Muddy. The story goes that now-grown Aurora (Camille Rowe), whose mother disappeared in 1997 following the previously mentioned close encounter, might get the chance to see her again through a former Heaven’s Gate-like cult she was associated with. They show symbolic marks on their bodies, do juice cleanses at their guarded compound, that sort of thing. Each has their personal alien encounter dates committed to memory and they trade those dates in a call-and-response connection, dancing around to shoegaze music in joyous moments easy to get lost in. 

Jumping around three different timelines (pre-cult, cult, and post-cult), the transitions get muddled, so for a while Aurora’s blue jumpsuit is the strongest indicator of where and when we are in her journey– a nonlinear structure never justified. The disaffected, albeit intentionally so, performance of Rowe keeps the audience at length to her detriment. The compound chef Tom, played by the reliably engaging Joshua Burge, does more to echo audience distrust of these people. Watching Aurora more or less going along with the strict diet, the matching jumpsuits, and repeating “May you reach the Dawn” with little more than a sideways look occludes her. It’s hard to tell who she really is, apart from what happened to her mother. Then again, it’s not clear whether Aurora knows the answer to that, either. It’s fine to make your protagonist empty enough to join a cult, but at some point Moneo has to give her a life to risk. Otherwise, why engage?

The final film worth mention is at the end, because this is what the midnight movie experience at a festival is all about. Landlocked is an invigoratingly lo-fi, bare bones story of a young man returning to his childhood home and peeling away the layers of his family’s history through home movies that become disturbingly immersive. When I say that this movie is operating on a shoestring budget, trust and believe that not all of the film grain is added in post-production, and it’s clear that there wasn’t much set dressing money within that purse. And yet, Paul Owens’ lean 75 minute feature achieves a heady menace through simple but effective camerawork and a stellar lead performance by Owens’ son. In fact, the whole feature is a family affair, with Owens Sr. writing, editing, and producing as well as sitting in the director’s chair. It’s the kind of movie that heralds a special new voice, one that will make your new favorite horror movie in due time, with the budget he deserves.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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