Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL'S HORROR SHORTS ARE SHORT AND NOT SO SWEET

A scene from the horror/comedy short FUCKING BUNNIES.
The Chicago International Film Festival always does an outstanding job of introducing films to the Midwest that most people would likely never get to see. Foreign films, arthouse fare, shorts – these are films that usually screen only on the coasts, but for decades the CIFF has been ensuring that we see them too. A particular treat are the horror films that the CIFF gets its hands on each autumn as part of their "After Dark" series. Granted, there are plenty of horror movies that open at the local Cineplex any given month, but the frighteners only available at the CIFF are one-of-a-kind must-sees for any true horror fan. 

“Living After Midnight: After Dark” is the name of this year’s collection that will show just one time, so mark your calendars. Friday night, October 20th at 10:15 PM at the AMC River East 21 in downtown Chicago is when you can catch five films from various corners of the world intended to make audiences shake, shudder, and move to the edge of their seats. And, as is always the case with a collection of works, not all the children will be loved equally. Still, all of this year's slate are thought-provoking at least,  if not outright thrilling and chilling.

Here is this horror buff’s take on the six that you can see in short order with the CIFF’s 75-minute program Friday eve:

FUCKING BUNNIES (FINLAND)

Yes, that is the name of one of the shorts and it’s the best one too. (Its original Finish title was “Saatanan Kanit.”) In this 18-minute dark comedy, a Finnish man named Raimo (Jouko Puolanto) and his wife Kirsi (Minna Suuronen) must contend with quirky new neighbors who’ve moved in down the hall. Just who are these interlopers upsetting their world? Why, they're a cult of sex-obsessed Satanists. This is not a horrifying revelation as it was in ROSEMARY’S BABY, but rather the impetus for a sitcom-like take on tolerance and diversity.

The cult members, headed up by the genial leader Maki (Janne Reinikainen), make no bones about what they’re doing. They all wear satanic makeup day and night, complete with upside down crosses drawn on their foreheads. The group openly burn effigies in the garbage dumpster outside, and parlor games in Maki’s living room consist of the orgy and ritual torturing kind. Maki would love to make a connection with Raimo, who is quite the middle-aged stick in the mud, but he's continually turned down even after inviting them over for dinner and an “Eternal Night of Blasphemy and Sodomy.” Some people are just party poopers, no?

Now, if you’re laughing at that line then you will adore the rest of Antti Toivonen’s inspired comic script. Not only are their loads of similar exchanges, but there are sight gags a plenty too. One of the best is when Maki’s crew carries a ginormous cross from the freight elevator to the apartment as if they’re moving in an unwieldy davenport. At least there are no pet sacrifices. (Toivonen must have read Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" screenwriting book!)

Director Teemu Niukkanen keeps it all bubbling along, earning raucous laughs from not just the game cast, but from droll camera shots, quicksilver editing, and  comically timed hits of metal rock to underscore all the silly sacrilege. FUCKING BUNNIES even manages to wring outrageous laughs out of carrot juice, racket sports, and the overly cold and precise design aesthetics of the Finnish. Some of those sterile apartments look positively horrifying here. Indeed, in this short, even the interior designs are funny/scary. 


INNARDS (USA)

At the beginning of INNARDS, an 11-minute short written and directed by Todd Rubenfeld, a suburban man is organizing clothing at night to be sold at a garage sale. He’s interrupted by a persistent customer who doesn’t care that the sale hasn’t begun yet. This sellee not only chats up the blasé seller for five minutes, but fails to realize the old man virtually ignores his every word the entire time. The buyer finds an old VHS tape in one of the boxes of junk on the table and is soon regaling the salesman with tales of how he actually starred in the title when he was a child actor.

The one listing on the man's resume is the schlocky 1980’s horror movie called “Innards” that the old man is unloading. And we are shown a couple of its awful and amateurish scenes as the young man takes it home for a dollar to watch and reminisce. As he does, he ponders over who's who in the scene. He and his twin brother shared the role as child labor laws required limited hours on set. That's why so many twin sets are cast for such youthful roles. (And yes, that is how the Olsen Twins happened, folks, with their double duty through all the seasons of FULL HOUSE back in the 80's.) 

As he watches the decrepit VHS copy in his shitbag apartment, the actor calls his twin who still has a career. It doesn't seem to be much of one as evidenced by the terrible makeup being applied backstage, but at least the one twin is still acting. Sadly, for our confused twin, his working brother seems no more interested in what he has to say that the garage sale proprietor. Sometimes loneliness is the most terrifying thing there is.

It’s hardly what you’d expect from a horror short program, but the more you watch this one, the more it unsettles you. In fact, its most unsettling image in the short may be the one of the kid actor frozen by the remote control. The watcher too is frozen in time with nothing to show in his adult life worth listening too. Horrific, indeed.

WE TOGETHER (USA)

More zombies yet again? Horror's most famous villains this decade show up in this 7-minute, but they are mostly delightful. As the short starts, a group of human survivors are holed up in some sort of warehouse on the outskirts of town. A zombie horde is ravaging through the garbage of what's outside and finding precious little of interest. By accident, one of the walking dead clicks on an old boom box and it starts playing a dance tune. This triggers the memory of a zombified pizzeria worker and his instincts to groove to the tune takes over.

Soon, his fellow pizzeria victim is watching in awe as his friend busts some moves that would make the hordes in Michael Jackson's THRILLER music video jealous. Director Henry Kaplan keeps the horror present throughout though as the humans try unsuccessfully to escape during the jam. While the one man shakes, rattles and rolls, new victims become remains by the overwhelming number of flesh eaters that won't let them depart. At least a dog who was hiding in the garbage runs to safety. (Looks like the filmmakers here are familiar with Blake Snyder's screenplay rules too.)

500,000 YEARS (Thailand)

This short may be confounding to many as little actually happens in it. Shot as a documentary-style short, it juxtaposes the findings of an archeological dig with the cheeseball aesthetics of a 1980’s Asian horror film being screened at the site. The film has a certain irony to it as we watch a group of explorers set up a makeshift outdoor screen where the homoerectus fossil was discovered in Lampang, but that is what this short is all about. Even amidst such astounding history, man will choose to obsess over silly entertaining fluff. 

Is this film suggesting that nothing is meaningful to our dumbed down society of gawkers and tweeters? Perhaps it’s commenting on how society tends to devaluate anything that takes some time to fully digest and understand in favor of instant gratification. Suffice it to say, there is a strange sense of dread throughout watching such commentary take hold. You wait for something to come out of the jungle, something to break up this silly exercise in schlock watching, but the truly frightening thing here is that man's voyeuristic instincts set our humanity back all too easily.

PLUS ULTRA (SPAIN)

This is arguably the most oblique of the shorts, a slow build that probably takes too long to get where it's going, even though it clocks in at a mere 13 minutes. Still, it's an interesting examination of man treading into a land where he may not belong or know how to cultivate. 

The term “Plus Ultra” is the motto of the Spanish state, and indeed this short comes to the CIFF from Spanish filmmakers Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Giron. The slogan was used to encourage navigators to conquer new territories in the past, even though such types were often told “Non Terrae Plus Ultra” (There is no land beyond here.) The Canary Islands is the setting here, during the late 1400’s, shortly after the colonization of the Americas. It’s an experimental film, shot on 16-millimeter, and frankly, it has a bit too much of a student film vibe to it, albeit an expensive, on location one.

Nonetheless, Delgado and Giron take their time and painstakingly show the strained efforts of the Spanish settlers in their attempts to conquer strange lands. Lugging supplies, finding refuge, beating the heat, and even sampling local fruits to see if they’re edible, it all plays out here like an exercise in futility. I’m not sure that it’s horror exactly, but one could argue that western man’s attempts to invade various foreign countries and cultures and make them bend willingly was not only terrifying to those in the past, but still is today. Hubris is almost always horrifying.

The beginning of the fake Red Lobster commercial in GREAT CHOICE
GREAT CHOICE (USA)

Finally, we have GREAT CHOICE, the hysterical and macabre 7-minute short from writer/director Robin Comisar. The premise here is that a woman gets stuck in a Red Lobster commercial, and if you’re chuckling already that simple pitch, wait till you see what Comisar has in store for you. 

It starts with a meticulously recreated commercial for Red Lobster from the 1980's. The copy is a dilapidated and yellowed copy of a VHS - which is a funny way to show how outdated the marketing of the restaurant seems - and even more hilarious is the fact that the chain still runs commercials that are awfully similar to that today. In the spot, a typical Midwestern mother and her family sit down to dinner at Red Lobster and are enticed into ordering the special shrimp menu items being hawked by the effusive staff. Only this is not a real commercial, of course, and pretty soon things will take a “Twilight Zone” turn for the worse.

As the commercial plays over and over again, its setting, characters, and shots become more and more self-aware, as well as darkly vicious. The mom starts to get pissed off by the excessive hucksterism of the wait staff, and those ginormous shrimp platters become utter torture to her. Even the endless slow-motion shots of spurting lemon wedges start to become ominous. Egads, they start cascading blots of blood! Eventually, the grim, grinning host starts acting like a charismatic cult leader and the waitresses become Stepford Wives on automatic pilot. Can this long-suffering mom escape the haunted house that is this casual dining spot or is she doomed to be part of an endless media buying barrage? 

Making knowing glances to Rod Serling, as well as Mel Brooks and his famous ending of BLAZING SADDLES, this short film is a stinging editorial on the crass commercialization of food and family. Those gluttonous platters and the shrill phoniness of TV commercial actors is lampooned brilliantly here, and it's all the more funny because so many products still make spots this ridiculous. 

It’s a funny, chilling, and politically incorrect highlight of the CIFF shorts. Plus, it’s got Carrie Coons, the star of GONE GIRL, FARGO season three, and THE LEFTOVERS, in the lead role. The  sublime short becomes even better knowing they scored such a casting coup.

Carrie Coons as the mom in the Red Lobster spot in GREAT CHOICE
This year’s Chicago International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and it's debuted a ton of terrific features from all over the globe. Shorts and documentaries too. And if you’re a horror fan, you really need to get out and take in this strange and unsettling group of mini-movies. Just be aware as you walk in the door at the River East 21, that you'll like some more than others. But you'll be delightfully disturbed by all of them.

1 comment:

  1. Another comprehensive write up, great work Jeff. Hopefully next year I can get involved with the festival with one of my own videos

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