I have been attending Chicago’s Cinepocalypse genre film festival in all of its iterations since it began in 2014, first as The Awesome Fest, which ran for maybe two days, then as the Bruce Campbell Horror Film festival, which ran for four days and lasted two years, and then finally Cinepocalypse, which kicked off in 2017 and now runs an entire week at the Music Box Theatre, the greatest cinema in the city.
In its second year, Cinepocalypse got even bigger and better, settling into its new role as Chicago’s premiere genre film festival: more movies, more guests, more exclusives and several world premieres. I’m selfishly thrilled to finally have a festival of our own after years of being jealous of horror fans on three sides of the country, and I got to see some very cool stuff during the week.
Here are some of the highlights:
The Ranger (dir. Jenn Wexler)
The first movie I saw as part of Cinepocalypse remains one of my favorite discoveries. Writer/director Jenn Wexler’s slasher movie pitting a psychotic park ranger against a group of punks captures the vibe of ‘80s horror without slavishly trying to imitate ‘80s horror, and the dynamic between The Ranger (Jeremy Holm) and main punk Chelsea (Chloe Levine) is fascinating and a lot more upfront about what’s really going on between the Killer and the Final Girl in many of these slashers. The movie has a lot of rough edges and takes a while to pick up steam, but once Wexler lets loose and begins fulfilling the promise of the premise, it’s incredibly fun. It was just announced that The Ranger will open this year’s Fright Fest in the UK, making Wexler the first female filmmaker to ever have that honor. Good for her, and good for The Ranger.
Await Further Instructions (dir. Johnny Kevorkian)
A sci-fi horror film for the holiday season! A family gets together for Christmas only to become trapped in their house by an unexplained presence, with only the simple message “Await further instructions” appearing on the television. Kevorkian and writer Gavin Willams use this simple premise to explore some big ideas about technology, familial dysfunction, and even religion. The movie is almost relentlessly dark, but I give the filmmakers a great deal of credit for having the courage to follow through on what they set up without backing down. This won the Audience Award at this year’s festival.
Summer of ’84 (dir. François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissel)
I was a gigantic fan of Turbo Kid, a movie I’m still convinced was made specifically for me, when it hit back in 2015. I have been anxious to see that filmmaking team’s follow-up since it first started playing the festival circuit, so I appreciate that Cinepocalypse programmed a single screening during its week-long run in Chicago. I don’t think Summer is as joyously entertaining as Turbo Kid, but it also represents a leap forward for the filmmakers. Nostalgia is still key, but rather than making another movie that pays homage to movies of the ‘80s, this one feels like it comes from the ‘80s. It’s a kids-on-bikes movie, the dark side of Amblin, in which a group of four friends suspect a neighbor of being a serial killer and set out to prove it. There are a number of things about Summer of 84 I’m still trying to reconcile, but I can’t deny the confidence of the filmmaking, the charm of the performances, or the movie’s ability to surprise.
Heavy Trip (dir. Juuso Laatio, Jukka Vidgren)
Maybe the most winning metal movie ever made. The story is fairly simple: after writing their first original song, a band tries to play a show at the biggest metal festival in Finland. The getting there is the fun. This is such a sweet, joyful movie about super dark music, and while it’s not horror or sci-fi like most of the other films programmed at Cinepocalypse, it’s such a spirited celebration of metal – and of friendship – that I’m glad it was part of the this year’s lineup. Full disclosure: This film was acquired and will be released by Bloody Disgusting and Music Box.
Satan’s Slaves (dir. Joko Anwar)
Another movie set in the early ‘80s, this Indonesian import is a remake of a film of the same name (unseen by me). In it, a family begins experiencing hauntings of some sort after their mother (Ayu Laksmi) becomes ill and passes away. This was probably the scariest film I saw during the festival, combining a healthy dose of dread with a handful of effective jump scares, and the relationships among the family members keep it grounded and make us care.
Movies I wanted to see but didn’t: What Keeps You Alive, The Russian Bride, Relaxer.
While it doesn’t count as something new that I saw, I want to mention that the double bill of Demon Knight and Judgment Night was the highlight of the fest for me. Seeing the two on the big screen again after all these years brought me back to a time when movies like these could regularly get a wide release, and both directors (Ernest Dickerson and Stephen Hopkins) gave great interviews after the screenings. Cinepocalypse is all about celebrating kick ass movies, and movies don’t kick ass much more than this.