First of all, Screamfest is fun. It’s just a wonderful place to go and see a bunch of horror movies in October, with some great people, and this year’s location at the Laemmle NoHo theater feels more like a boutique festival than perhaps the bigger venues of past Screamfests. Screamfest presents new horror discoveries, so as any horror fan knows, the genre can be a blank canvas for raw new talent, either embracing or sometimes succumbing to limitations of budget and experience. Fortunately, most of what I’ve seen at Screamfest this week has been worth discovering, and it continues through the weekend and next week. There’s still time to discover more cool horror films like these. See the schedule at the official Screamfest website.
Beneath is the Gravity of coal miner movies. I guess that would make John Sayles’ Matewan the genre’s 2001 and My Bloody Valentine would be the Alien of coal miner movies by default, or at least the Leprechaun in Space of them. A group of coal miners, led by George Marsh (Jeff Fahey) on his last day on the job, accompanied by his civilian daughter Sam (Kelly Noonan), get trapped in a cave-in and fight for survival as more and more disasters plague their survival.
Beneath is at its best when it’s exploring the cramped quarters of the cave. Squeezing through cracks in the rock create really suspenseful sequences, and you can see the entirety of the space in the dark frame. The film uses darkness and sound to great effect, shining flashlights directly into the camera at choice moments.
Less effective is the shaky camera. I mean, you’re already stuck down there. Wouldn’t that lend itself more to a still camera than a shaky one? The in fighting amongst the crew is believable and escalates at the right times, though sometimes it is just a bunch of screaming miners. A monstrous element in the caves could go either way, but I’ll give it to ‘em because it was good fun.
The Dead 2: India
The Dead 2: India is the Gravity of Indian zombie movies. Wait, is that going to get old? So I never saw The Dead but despite its flaws, The Dead 2: India is so ballsy I definitely want to see the Ford brothers previous film. That’s one of the joys of film festivals, seeing a movie you love and doing some homework to see the filmmakers’ previous films. And this one is a sequel so Franchise Fred has to do his homework!
A completely separate story, The Dead 2: India stars Joseph Millson as Nicholas, a turbine engineer working in the country, whose pregnant girlfriend is at home in Mumbai with a disapproving father who wants to marry her off. When the zombie outbreak hits India, Nicholas has to get to Mumbai before he gets them all to safety.
Nicholas’ trek through zombified India has as many natural or human perils as zombie perils. Okay, it’s mostly zombie perils but there are some natural and human perils too so I liked that. Like a disaster movie, Nicholas’s journey is one crisis after another, and he makes some ballsy decisions in a crisis.
Some ambitious action includes a paraglider soaring above a zombie horde, so that alone is worth seeing. Cinematographer Jonathan Ford gets some sweeping shots of zombies spread out across the land, but you can still tell it’s a lot of zombies. The zombie makeup looks pretty fake on Indian actors, but they are relentless and messy. I’m sure shooting in the less urban areas of India was difficult, and it shows, but the ambitious effort is also appreciated to present a zombie movie that stands out from the usual.
The Gauntlet is not the Gravity of the strangers waking up in a demonic maze genre. I have to say that genre is prolific enough that there’s some stiff competition. As a benefactor of the Saw and Cube series, The Gauntlet is fast paced and fun. It knows what it wants to do, even if it doesn’t always know how to do it.
Four strangers wake up in piles of rubble and learn they have to progress through four levels of tests involving occult riddles and tests. We know a lot of this because David (Warren Kole) is a cop who happens to have studied Satanic rituals. Jin (Dustin Nguyen), Emma (Jaime Ray Newman) and Tyler (Nick Lane) join him, and they meet Kim (Bai Ling) in the first room.
The rooms each look different enough and you can tell they put a lot of heart into the set design, with what must have been limited means. There are some basic first time filmmaker issues, as technical as eyelines and screen direction, although Matt Eskandari has done shorts so he’s not a total novice in the visual arts. That’s forgivable though because you really just want to see five people make it through this horror show.
The script by Adam Lawson knows what it wants out of its characters, but can only have them say exactly what they represent. Tyler’s backstory is poignant, if a bit oversimplified. Kim’s is problematic logistically and thematically. Basically, she fails the Bechdel test, but that could be a red herring.
I had fun with The Gauntlet, but I have to do my job. I hope I was constructive. I could make a Clint Eastwood joke, but now I just feel old that an entire generation of filmmakers probably didn’t even realize there was ever another movie called The Gauntlet.
The found footage genre has been ruled by douchebags because only a douchebag would keep filming when something intense is happening. The Hunted is the first found footage movie with no douchebags! Jake (writer/director Josh Stewart) is making a pilot for a hunting show with Stevie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and I’m no hunter but Jake’s passion for it is endearing.
As professional hosts and producers, the characters and therefore the filmmakers set up the shots well, including some innovative twists involving camera playback and a still photo scroll. They have some fun with horror movie tropes like the creepy old guy warning them and some good fakeout scares.
Since it’s found footage, and a hunting show at that, The Hunted can be slow at first. There’s a lot of waiting in the forest for a big buck, but the slow build is so effective, by the time it got intense I was thinking, “Wait, when did this get good?” I can’t even pinpoint a switch, because it was so steadily involving it really built up to the final act.
So the only Screamfest movie that plays again this weekend is the one I would not recommend at all. Sorry about that. This Indonesian horror movie suffers from a number of problems that all seem to stem from its inordinate length. At over two hours long, it’s either got the wrong beginning or the wrong climax, and it really doesn’t know how to end. An epilogue continues infuriatingly, as if the filmmakers were just having such a good time they couldn’t bear to wrap it up. We are more than ready to be done though.
That’s indicative of the structural problem. 308 is about a hotel where Naya (Shandy Aulia) is going to work during a fumigation, so she and the skeleton crew staff can’t leave. I think they’ve got that backwards, but we’ll go with it. As creepy things begin to happen, Naya discovers something centering around room 308. Fine, good basic premise.
Either do the moody atmosphere with a shocking climax, or do the shocking thrill ride and cut out all the lingering setup. If you’ve spent an hour building up the scary hotel, another hour of horror violence becomes redundant. If you want the relentless violence to have any impact, you’ve got to be consistent from the get go. I’m not saying jump right into it, but an hour of setup has already established you as a different movie. Narrative shifts can work at that point (like From Dusk Til Dawn) but tone is more precarious. Perhaps the filmmakers took a lot of inspiration from disparate films and didn’t really understand the differences.
There are some moody sets and shots, and some potentially interesting cultural mythology (if it weren’t so over-explained about 2/3 into the running time) but a lot more technical goofs. Their zolly shot is totally jerky. Maybe do a second take of that. The music is Bollywood level melodrama, and there are some basic fight scenes where you can tell they’re not connecting just because the angle is wrong. Aulia is a good final girl and her costars fit their roles well too. Some of them came all the way to Screamfest from Indonesia so I don’t want them to think I don’t appreciate their work. It’s pacing and practical issues.