Los Angeles’s biggest genre festival, Beyond Fest, just wrapped its sixth and most ambitious program. Fifty films played at Hollywood’s historic Egyptian Theater, with ancillary showings in Downtown L.A. and Santa Monica, with a range of cinematic madness on display — from the West Coast premieres of forthcoming major releases (Halloween, Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale, Suspiria) to smaller films from across the globe (The Boat, The Nightshifter, Lords of Chaos, Border), to repertory screenings of beloved and rediscovered cult classics (The Wicker Man, Bubba Ho Tep, Doberman Cop, Absurd).
Special appearances were made by mainstream stars and genre icons alike, from Sofia Boutella to Sonny Chiba, Aubrey Plaza to Michael Ironside, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn to Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sistero; while the guest of honor was none other than David Cronenberg, who made a rare three-day stop in Los Angeles for the screening of five of his films (out of 13 total that played as part of the festival’s centerpiece, “Cronenberg with Cronenberg: A Retrospective of the New Flesh”).
Heads were exploded, minds were melted, and a bloody good time was had by all. Here is a small sampling of what I watched over the last two weeks.
Climax (U.S. release TBA), French director Gaspar Noe’s latest descent into man-made hell is a full body convulsion of film, which made it was the perfect choice to kick off opening night of the festival.
Climax signals to viewers what they’re in for early on, in a lingering one-shot of a television set surrounded by VHS tapes. Among them are Andrzej Zulawski’s apocalyptic relationship drama/Lovecraftian fever dream, Possession (1981); Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unrelentingly graphic Boschian satire Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1977); and, fittingly, Dario Argento’s dance macabre epic, Suspiria (1977).
Climax makes a fitting entry into that canon of cinematic overload, while simultaneously proving to be Noe’s most accessible film (in comparison to his other work, that is). Old-school provocateur that he is, Noe makes films that are meant to be divisive, but even his staunchest partisans have to agree that he has a tendency to disappear up his own ass, especially when he tries to get high-minded (emphasis on high) about philosophical matters.
Climax works as well as it does because, for as audacious as it is on a technical level, it’s also surprisingly straightforward: Within an abandoned, isolated hotel, a group of professional dancers (and one small child) descend into violent insanity after being dosed with a batch of bad acid.
The depiction of psychedelic breakdown feels authentic (even to someone who’s never taken LSD) thanks to Noe’s assaultive mise-en-scene. He’s helped greatly in his efforts by his game cast (many of them non or first-time actors), all of whom believably, and quickly, distinguish their characters, especially on the dance floor. Special recognition must be given to Sofia Boutella, who discards any trace of chic glamour in her intentional channeling of Isabelle Adjani’s detonative performance in Possession.
Another single-location thriller in which an isolated group of people descend into paranoia and violence — no narcotics necessary in this case — is The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (to be released in early 2019), a tonal and stylistic 180 from Climax — a quiet, brooding interrogation that takes place entirely with the shadows.
For the majority of its 88-minute runtime, the action is confined to the warehouse base-of-operations/armory for a seven-man militia. This collection of anti-government misfits — comprising an ex-cop, a stoic survivalist, a nebbishy school teacher, a mute teen, an elderly woodsman, a former member of the Aryan Nation, and a recalcitrant gun enthusiast — assemble after a mass shooting at a police funeral. Their concerns over being blamed for the attack become a reality when they discover certain weaponry and tactical gear — the same used by the shooter, still at large — are missing from their stockpile, leading them to the inescapable conclusion that one of their own must be responsible.
Although the basic premise calls to mind the work of Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter, the film’s moody, deliberate pacing and shadowy cinematography more closely resemble the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, foremost among them Alan J. Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men).
The stoic, nonjudgmental manner in which first time writer/director Henry Dunham presents this motley ensemble allows the audience to invest fully in the mystery at the heart of the film, rather than get dragged down in the specific ideology of the militia. The same is true of the performances, which are great across the board. James Badge Dale excels as the film’s troubled conscience, his anchoring work supplemented by veteran character actors Chris Mulkey, Patrick Fischler, and Gene Jones.
While the film’s conclusion is guaranteed to divide audiences (personally, I feel it gives up too much in the way of logic while grasping for thematic resonance), The Standoff at Sparrow Creek stands as one of the more original, and consistently engaging, locked-room thrillers in recent memory.
Another paranoid thriller confined — with the exception of flashbacks — to a single location (albeit a large location with a number of discernible guest rooms, a large lobby and dining area, a maze-like parking lot, and an underground tunnel), writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) attempts to do for Hitchcockian thrillers what he previously did for horror movies. That’s a problem, because whereas he had something to say about the horror genre, he offers no such deconstructionist insight here (there is some thoughtful discussion about male fragility and power, but it comes and goes too quickly to truly resonate).
This is not to say Bad Times at the El Royale makes for a bad time, per se. For the most part, the film — which traces the violent trajectory of a handful of mysterious strangers whose paths cross at a sinister hotel on the California/Nevada border at the tail end of the 1960s — is an absorbing throwback to those aforementioned Hitchcock films. Unfortunately, for as entertaining as it starts out, it can’t keep up the pace, with the last act in particular getting bogged down by repeat information and exposition.
The film also suffers from a sense of randomness, especially once Chris Hemsworth’s Manson-like cult leader character shows up to unleash a chaos totally unrelated to the central mystery of the hotel itself.
Ultimately, Bad Times doesn’t fit into to lineage of Hitchcock’s films, so much as it the spate of Tarantino rip-offs that came out during the mid-‘90s, although Goddard’s personalized strain of stylized dialogue distinguishes it from that largely forgotten output, as do the film’s top-shelf production value and uniqueness within the current cinematic landscape.
Whereas Bad Times at the El Royale culminates with a visit from the metaphorical devil, Luz (U.S. release TBA), a short blast (70 minutes, praise be to Satan!) of arthouse horror from Germany centers around the arrival of the actual devil (or at least some version of the antichrist).
Set between a handful of interiors — a mostly empty police precinct, an even emptier bar, and an incorporeal taxi cab (it makes sense in context … sort of) — Luz is a confrontationally surreal tale of demonic possession and sexual catharsis that never attempts to make itself comprehensible. Rather than being a detriment, this makes the film all the more powerful.
Though it has garnered comparisons to the work of Lucio Fulci and Andrzej Zualwski, I found it most reminiscent of the wild blasphemy of Juan López Moctezuma’s Mexican witchcraft tale Alucarda (1978), as well as the gothic sensuality central to French director Jean Rollin’s work. These comparisons aren’t meant to fix Luz purely within the category of homage, though such a designation is almost unavoidable.
Like the European and Latin horror films of the 1970s, story and character take a backseat to atmosphere and aesthetics. Luz was even shot on 16mm Scope (the first of its kind in Germany), giving it a particular softness that, combined with its Simon Waskow’s lush and foreboding synth score, makes it feel like a movie unmoored from time.
As for the central plot, that’s better left for viewers to chew on while watching it for themselves. Those who like their horror films confounding and open to interpretation will have more than enough to digest … and possibly regurgitate.