craigjclark (craigjclark) wrote,
craigjclark
craigjclark

Dispatches from Dark Carnival Film Festival, 2010

Spent the weekend attending the 2010 Dark Carnival Film Festival, which has been held in Bloomington for the past four years running and shows no signs of stopping. The emphasis is on shorts, with the majority of the 35 films shown running well under an hour, but there was room on the schedule for at least one full-length feature in each programming block and I made a point of catching four of them over the course of the festival.

Friday night's lone feature was the snappily titled Satan Hates You from Glass Eye Pix, the company that gave us I Sell the Dead and The House of the Devil, among many others. Released in 2009, the film was written and directed by James Felix McKenney, who based it on the Fundamentalist Christian scare films of the '70s which often used extreme (and extremely low-rent) imagery in the service of turning people on to Jesus. The film is chock full of sinners (and very few saints), but it's mostly focused on Marc (Don Wood) and Wendy (Christine Spencer), two individuals who lead extremely sinful lives and are desperately in need of saving. Marc is a homeless man who drinks himself into a stupor every day -- probably because he's a closeted homosexual who's in extreme denial -- and lashes out violently at the least provocation. Wendy, on the other hand, is a slut who does hard drugs, has sex indiscriminately which gets her pregnant, and hangs out with a bad crowd that exposes her to lesbianism, Wicca, tarot and Ouija. Oh, yes. And she also has an illegal, back-alley abortion because of course she would.

Throughout the film McKenney confronts Marc and Wendy with a cross-section of characters offering conflicting advice. Marc is actively courted by a couple of born-again types, but he always winds up at the bar next door, and about the only light in Wendy's life is a kindly televangelist (Angus Scrimm) who gives her good advice and strangely never asks for money. Then there are the cackling demons (a gleefully over-the-top Larry Fessenden and Bradford Scobie) who are always around to be a bad influence on the two of them. And Michael Berryman is also on hand as a surly, judgmental hotel manager who thinks he knows what's going on under his roof but clearly doesn't know the half of it. If Satan Hates You had been the only feature I saw all weekend I would have been more than satisfied (it's one of the funniest films I've seen all year), but it was only the beginning.

The first feature on Saturday was another entry from 2009 called Maxwell Stein, about an aged, once-legendary film director (Juels Watzich) barely scraping by in the '40s whose last-ditch comeback project, a cheap mummy flick entitled The Tomb of Doom, is constantly on the verge of collapsing around him. His inexperienced producer (Joseph D. Durbin) is eager to help him out at every turn, but Stein has to contend with a temperamental mummy, a pompous leading actor (Chris McMinn) and a fading starlet who's a bit of a lush. (I wish I could tell you who played her, but the IMDb is rather short on info on the film.) Toss a broken movie camera into the mix and The Tomb of Doom seems doomed to oblivion until Stein goes to an antiques dealer and buys a replacement that turns out to be haunted. The catch is only Stein (who insists on operating it himself like he did in the old days) can see the frightening visions he captures on film when he turns it on -- and when he leaves it on long enough the ghostly apparition that appears has time to brutally murder whoever happens to be in frame. You'd think that would spell curtains for Stein's big comeback, but when the studio is thrilled by the rushes he resorts to drastic measures to get the film in the can. I trust co-directors Dale Jackson and Jeffrey Jones didn't have to be quite so ruthless with their cast and crew.

Next up was 2010's The Prometheus Project, which has since been re-titled The Frankenstein Syndrome, but writer/director Sean Tretta (who was in attendance) prefers the original title so that's what I'm going to call it. The film, which is loosely based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but has much more in common with Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, is about a driven molecular biologist (Tiffany Shepis, who deservedly won Best Actress at the festival) who goes to work for a respected doctor (Ed Lauter) who's funding illegal stem cell research. Almost immediately upon arriving at the clandestine facility Shepis butts heads with the head of the project (Patti Tindall), who to put it politely is a bit of an ice queen, but it isn't long before she has a breakthrough and, presented with a golden opportunity in the form of a fresh cadaver (I won't say how they came by it for fear of spoiling some of the film's surprises), the team is able to bring it back to some semblance of life. The re-animation isn't completely successful, though, which means they have to be more careful with their next experimental subject (Scott Anthony Leet, winner for Best Actor), who just so happens to be one of the armed guards keeping watch over the scientists. Physically he might not look so hot (the unfortunate result of a few invasive surgical procedures), but once they take him off the Thorazine he turns out to have some astounding mental powers, including mind-reading, telekinesis and even the ability to heal wounds. Suffice it to say, it's not long before the scientists learn the folly of playing God.

My final film of the night (and the last feature I got to see in its entirely this weekend) was El Monstro del Mar!, a 2010 import from Australia which took home the award for Best Feature Film (or rather it will when the festival organizers pop it in the mail). Written and directed by Stuart Simpson, the opens with a scene right out of the Russ Meyer playbook (think Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) wherein a trio of deadly females (Karli Madden, Nelli Scarlet, Kate Watts) waylay a couple of hot-blooded young guys and steal their car. The difference is when the women slit their throats the black-and-white picture erupts into garish color and never looks back. Eventually the three bad girls wind up at a shack by the sea where they live it up and corrupt the innocent girl (Kyrie Capri) who lives next door with her wheelchair-bound grandfather (Norman Yemm). He also warns them against going into the water, but they ignore him at their own peril as their gyrations awaken the Kraken, which lays waste to the beach-side community. How the Kraken came to reside in the coastal waters off Australia I couldn't say, but with a film like this it's probably best not to ask too many questions. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. That's a piece of advice I'll keep in mind when I return for the fifth annual Dark Carnival Film Festival next year.
Tags: film fest reports, g-g-g-ghosts!
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