Last week was the fifth edition of Beyond Fest, Los Angeles’s most popular genre film celebration. Over the course of 11 days, the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in the heart of Hollywood played host to a diverse mix of new, classic, and forgotten movies of the horror, action, sci-fi, and exploitation variety, from all around the world. The atmosphere was more like that of a convention than a single-locale festival, thanks to the mix of devoted and obsessive fans, iconic guests, and industry sponsors.
It was Beyond Fest’s biggest year yet, with over 13,000 attendees. Action legends Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, and Jean-Claude Van Damme all showed up for double and triple features of some of their most beloved films; cult icons such as Paul Williams, Dario Argento, Udo Kier, Tommy Wiseau, and Walter Hill were paid tribute by the likes of Edgar Wright, Larry Karaszewski, and Mick Garris; and highly anticipated new films, both big and small, were given their West Coast premieres.
Beyond the specific films and people that received a raucous reception (every screening is preceded by Beyond Fest and Death Waltz Record’s co-founder Spencer Hickman’s liberal use of a T-shirt cannon), the festival also provided a sense of much needed respite from the troubles that have plagued both the larger world (around which this year’s theme, “The People’s Republic of Beyond Fest,” was satirically built) and the film community (with the similar controversies regarding Fantastic Fest and L.A.’s own Cinefamily). Beyond Fest offered a fun, chill, and safe space to come and have one’s brain melted by outrageous cinema.
That, in the end, is the only goal of the festival, the proceeds of which go to preserving the nonprofit film exhibitor American Cinematheque, which reopened the Egyptian in 1998. Says co-founder Christian Parks, “We all grew up on movies, and movies are what we love. The opportunity to share movies and movie experiences with other people is everything.”
In between watching attendees bravely (and voluntarily) take T-shirts to the body at 10 MPH, I got to watch some cool movies. Here are some short thoughts on some of the ones that will be coming to theaters, DVD, and streaming services in the near future.
Brawl In Cell Block 99
There could hardly be a more fitting film to open Beyond Fest than S. Craig Zahler’s brutal, slow-burn prison-fight thriller. Zahler came through the festival two years back with the cannibal western Bone Tomahawk, so it felt like a prodigal son returning as he showed up with his newest film, alongside star Vince Vaughn. Much has already been written about Vaughn’s incredible physical transformation into a towering brute and reformed criminal who, in order provide for his family, returns to his former ways only to get caught up in a drug deal gone waaayyy bad and find himself incarcerated. Once in prison, his real journey begins, as he must descend into the deepest depths of a man-made hell to save his family on the outside from the underworld figures he’s wronged.
The film’s admirably deliberate pacing builds not so much tension as a sense of order, so that when the blood starts flowing and the bones start breaking it all feels appropriately apocalyptic. Vaughn is nearly unrecognizable in the role (he holds onto his natural sense of sarcasm, but he rids himself of his innate smarminess) and he delivers a legitimately powerful performance, both physical and emotional, even if his character can come across, at times, as something of a Mary Sue. He’s helped greatly by the supporting cast, including a weathered, sympathetic Jennifer Carpenter as his long-suffering wife; an always welcome Udo Kier as a creepy criminal fixer; and a satanically stoic Don Johnson as the fascistic overlord of the worst prison in America.
Aside from Zahler’s connection to past Beyond Fests, this film feels perfectly calibrated to opening the ceremonies because it feels like a legitimate exploitation film of old, rather than a simple homage or ironic take on the genre. This is due not only to its specific pacing and go-for-broke depictions of violence, but also its retrograde politics. Watching a white man (who boasts a Germanic-looking cross tattooed on his shaved head) take on a collection of enemies that include Mexican gangsters, Korean abortionists, fey administrators, and shadowy Europeans, all while suffering indignities usually reserved for Christian passion plays, can’t help but feel awkward considering what’s going on in American society right now, but at the same time it also feels appropriate considering the number of genres Brawl fits neatly into (prison film, bare-knuckle fight film, revenge thriller, and gorefest), none of which are known for having historically progressive or sensitive viewpoints. The movie’s audience isn’t interested in thoughtful dissertations on power anyhow — they want brutal displays of it. To that end, Brawl in Cell Block 99 cements itself an instant classic. (Now on VOD.)
Les Raisins de la Mort (The Grapes of Death)
Beyond Fest doesn’t show only new movies and established classics; they also make room for films that deserve rediscovery. Such is the case with this 1978 environmental disaster/zombie picture from French cult favorite Jean Rollin. Rollin has seen a resurgence of interest over the last few years, thanks to DVD releases of many of his films, as well as a number of recently published critical reappraisals. One such critic is Kier-La Janisse, who introduced the movie while promoting a new book of essays about his films from women writers (herself included) — Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin.
Rollin brought his hypnotic style and artful compositions to what would otherwise be Z-grade horror schlock. His most well-known films generally revolved around vampires and witchcraft (both of which, as subject matter, lend themselves well to his main obsession: ethereally beautiful women), which is why this recently discovered zombie picture is especially interesting. Its glacial pacing can make the 85 minute runtime feel twice as long, but viewers who are familiar with Rollin know to expect such. Fans of his who haven’t yet seen this effort won’t be disappointed by it. (Available on Blu-ray and streaming.)
Suspiria 40th Anniversary 4K Restoration
There is not much to say about Dario Argento’s 1977 film that hasn’t been said over the last 40 years. Firmly established as one of the greatest horror films of all time, and perhaps the most visually stunning, there’s a reason why all three showings of the new restoration sold out. Of course, a large part of that was the presence of Argento himself, who talked about the legacy of the film, as well as sharing very moving memories on his “best friend and brother,” the late George Romero.
It should be said, however, that the new restoration of the film is jaw dropping, and anyone who either hasn’t seen it yet, or who was on the fence about purchasing the new Blu-Ray or catching one of its showings in rerelease, absolutely needs to pull the trigger. Try to find a theater with a great sound system as well — a large part of the movie’s effect comes from the score, provided by Italian prog masters Goblin. The film’s central presence this year was especially fitting, considering that Beyond Fest originated around the booking of three live Goblin shows in 2013.
Actor and screenwriter Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Almost Human) makes the transition to director with this surreal horror/sci-fi/romance hybrid set around a possessed arcade game. Actually, that’s not fully correct — it’s not the game that’s possessed, but rather, it does the possessing, as those who play undergo various mental and physical transformations and transportations into dark new dimensions.
Indebted in equal parts to Videodrome in its thematic exploration of human-machine melding (goo and viscera abound); Phantasm in its small-scale yet cosmically expansive dimension-hopping; and Suspiria in its use of stark color palette and sonic overload, the films is an entertaining, original entry in the recent wave of digital horror and sci-fi, if not a particularly transcendent one.
The film’s biggest charms come from the central romance between its main protagonists, awkward electronics handyman and would-be game designer Oz and struggling writer Tess (Chase Williamson and Fabienne Therese, even as it comes most alive when going full-on head-trip. While the romance aspect is perhaps too quickly and simply sketched, and the trippiness comes up a little short, both are prevalent enough to make this an enjoyable watch for fans of the genre(s).
In terms of originality and scope, there were few, if any, films at the festival that could hold a candle to Mohawk. Directed by Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here), the movie is set late in the War of 1812 and focuses on two disparate groups hunting each other deep within the woods of upstate New York. The first group, and the film’s ostensible heroes, are Native American couple Oak and Calvin (Kaniehtiio Horn and Justin Rain) and their mutual lover, Joshua (Eamon Farren, recently seen in Twin Peaks: The Return), a British spy tasked with recruiting the neutral Mohawk tribe to fight for his king against the Americans. After failing in their diplomatic mission, Calvin takes matters into his own hands, slaughtering dozens of soldiers at a cavalry outpost and setting off a manhunt for the trio.
The American party tasked with running them down is itself a hotbed of rivalry and mistrust, led by an increasingly crazed die-hard (Ezra Buzzington) with a personal vendetta against the fleeing couple. Though the movie never tries to present the Americans in a sympathetic light, the back half of the film does focus on them, giving the film a two-sided depth usually absent from the backwoods chase films that inspired it (Deliverance, Southern Comfort).
The film itself never quite settles into a cohesive groove, as it switches between a Walter Hill-style chase movie, a sociopolitical exploitation thriller (think the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Corbucci), and, in its final stretch, a grisly slasher movie. While the tonal shifts that accompany the various changes in narrative direction can give the film an uneven feeling, the scope of its interests is thrilling to watch, as the viewer is never quite sure what is going to happen next.
Likewise, while the budgetary constraints can be felt at times, the unique perspective and fierce, unapologetic political viewpoint help it to transcend those constraints. The same can be said for the committed cast, which also includes Rian Johnson mainstay Noah Segan as an equal parts comedic and pathetic translator, Robert Longstreet as a viciously pragmatic tracker, and Jon Huber (aka WWE’s Luke Harper) as a haunted, conflicted foot soldier.
Before the screening, producer Travis Stevens described the film as the Sex Pistols to Last of the Mohicans’ Led Zeppelin. That’s an apt comparison, yet, while the small stage allows Geoghegan carte blanche in terms of exploring a range of complex themes, one can’t help but wonder what he’ll be capable of if and when he takes the main stage.
After blowing away audiences during last year’s festival circuit, this instant classic of DIY filmmaking chutzpah made its West Coast premiere to a crowd of only a few dozen people on the last day of Beyond Fest. That hardly mattered — the constant applause and laughter that accompanied all 68 minutes was enough to fill the entire theater. This film was handpicked specifically by Beyond Fest’s programmers because they themselves wanted to watch it.
It would be a fool’s errand to try and summarize the plot or even the feel of Bad Black (its 1,000 or so seemingly disparate plots do surprisingly come together in the end, only for the film to hilariously fast-forward through the resolution). From the burgeoning Ugandan film production company Wakaliwood (who first came to attention after posting clips on YouTube and Vine), it is an unabashedly violent and darkly funny live-action cartoon set amidst the slums of Uganda. What makes the film so amazing, beyond the gusto of its filmmakers — its budget was in the low thousands, and its director, Nabwana Igg had never set foot in a movie theater — is that it has no irony. The film is 100% sincere in its gonzo reimagining of American action movie tropes.
Go look up clips of the studio’s other films online and you begin to get the picture, but there’s nothing that can compare to watching this demented masterpiece on the big screen. Wakaliwood is set to come to America next year, and when they do, lovers of cult cinema and outsider art would be remiss not to be there to give them a hero’s welcome.
Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, which also has a burgeoning film industry.