Article By: Johnny Donaldson
In 1998, film professor Dave Kleiler had the idea to extend an all night film marathon into a full-fledged film festival. A year later, he created his dream: the Boston Underground Film Festival was born. Initially an informal art show that took place in the Revolving Museum in South Boston, one in which attendees were allowed to wander from room to room to catch whatever film caught their fancy, the festival has grown into an important stop for films of a certain — outre, bizarre, esoteric, weird and destined to rule the world (if this writer had any say in the matter).
Okay, so none of films will probably rule the world. They probably won’t rule Netflix. Which is a shame. But for fans of so-called psychotronic cinema, these films are pure bliss, and an oasis of creativity, daring and imagination in a cineplex desert full of lumbering would-be spectacles (I’m looking at you Divergent Series) and crass, unfunny, bro-coms (*cough* The Brothers Grimsby *cough*).
Held over the course of five days, last Mar 23-27, in Cambridge’s Brattle Theater, a cozy, one-screen theater dedicated to screenings of interesting, artful oddities old and new, the 17th annual BUFF unleashed a new slew of oddball art onto the masses, amongst them, the Polish punk rock romance-cum-musical-cum-horror mermaid fantasia The Lure and Richard Bates Jr’s latest family dysfunction horror-com Trash Fire, both of which caught buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — and both of which this writer missed due to the real-life horror that is Boston traffic. And while these were the most high-profile films that BUFF had to offer (they were respectively given the opening and closing slots at the fest), they were hardly the only highlight that the event had to offer.
The best film I managed to see at BUFF was also the oldest: the re-release of 1973’s Belladonna of Sadness, Eiichi Yamamoto’s long-lost anime masterpiece. A grimly told but beautifully rendered folk tale of vengeance, subjugation and demonic interference. Unlike any anime I have ever seen, it forgoes the wide-eyed look one associates with Japanese animation for a lush, psychedelic water-color palette, a swirling sea of soft pastels (yellow is a dominant color) and semi-static images that don’t so much move as shift and undulate as the story unfolds. And it’s a truly upsetting story: based on Jules Michelet’s 19th century tome La Sorciere, it tells the story of the degradation and corruption of Jeanne, a French peasant-woman who is gang-raped by a Lord and his court on her wedding night, before being seduced by the devil into selling her soul for money, power and vengeance, eventually coming out the other side liberated and leading her town into erotic release. Though the story is actually pretty thin, and likely to offend more than a few, this act of artful transgression remains a hypnotic, disturbing, eye-popping work of trippy adult animation.
On the flipside, the worst film of the fest was Owen Harris’s insufferable American Psycho-goes-Britpop clone Kill Your Friends, which goes into wider release April 1st. This film’s ambitious sociopath is not an ‘80s Wall Street wanker but a callous, venomous A&R rep for fictional record label Unigram: Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult), a superficially charming, coke-hoovering ladder-climber who thinks nothing of manipulating, framing or murdering any artist or colleague who threatens his ascent into the upper echelons of his company.
Hoult is terrific, as is the rest of the cast (which includes such familiar faces as Deadpool baddie Ed Skrein and late night cost James Corden), but the material is a slog. A highly derivative slog, complete with a scene in which Stelfox murders a colleague while espousing the glories of a pop star (Paul Weller instead of Huey Lewis in this case.) Kill Your Friends So wants to be an American Psycho for the Oasis era, but Harris lacks Mary Harron’s sense of satire, mistaking making every character an obnoxious striver for wit, and he even fails to make this convincingly mid-90s, Prodigy/Blur/et al stuffed soundtrack be damned.
Sympathy for the Devil is an intriguing enough documentary, but it should’ve been a short subject rather than a feature length exploration. The story of The Process, the real-life dark-side-of-hippiedom late ‘60s cult/commune that preceded the Manson family and caused no small amount of controversy due to its conflagration of apocalypse fears and Satanic and Christian beliefs. The story is interesting, but not necessarily meaty, and the second act drags as it reiterates information — we get that members of The Process loved to confuse and scare squares and counter culture-types alike, it doesn’t have to repeated ad nauseum to pad the running time to over 100 minutes. That said, director Neil Edwards keeps it entertaining, with a Mark Hartley-esque penchant for mixing talking heads (with celebs like John Waters, George Clinton and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge sprinkled amongst ex-members of the group) with archival footage and sprightly papercut animated transitions.
There are no problems of length with Jaron Henrie-McCrea’s Curtain, a 74 minute blast of cheerful B-horror nonsense reminiscent of a less grimy Frank Henenlotter doing a transdimensional riff on Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy.” Danni (Danni Smith) is a troubled ex-nurse rebuilding her life after moving into a new apartment, only to discover that a portal in her shower has a tendency to eat her shower curtains as soon as she puts them up. Tim (Tim Lueke), her overeager colleague for a street-corner save-the-whales petition collection company, convinces her to get to the bottom of the mystery to increasingly horrific results.
Curtain isn’t so much scary as a breezy and playful mix of sweet indie comedy and increasingly strange horror movie tactics; it’s a bargain-budget goof reminiscent of John Dies at the End with the cosmic horror of that film downplayed in favor of Henenlotter’s street-level love of misfit characters. It’s an obviously micro-budget DIY effort, with gore effects limited to a few streaks of red Karo syrup and flat lighting, but wide-eyed Lueke and reticent Smith make an endearing pair and Henrie-McCrea doesn’t let budgetary limitations get in the way of making a fun, imaginative horror romp — the kind of thing independent horror means.
Speaking of Henenlotter, the legend behind classic 42nd Street-flavored B movies like Basket Case, Brain Damage and Frankenhooker, returned to BUFF with his first film since 2009’s less-than-impressive mutant-sex-appendage body-horror Bad Biology. Alas, for those looking for more of Henenlotter’s brand of weirdo grotesquerie will be disappointed by the fact that the filmmaker’s latest is a change of pace: Chasing Banksy is a farcical New York art-world set heist comedy about a street artist’s (Anthony Sneed of Bad Biology) attempts to steal a genuine Bansky creation from the side of a building in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. It may not be horror, but the first outright comedy in Henenlotter’s 30-plus year career still has everything that makes the director great: a half-loving, half-satirical look at NYC living, a finances-be-damned independent spirit, lots of energetic filmmaking and a biting social conscience hidden in genre-movie drag. It may not be chockfull of mutants, but anyone open to following their horror heroes outside the genre owe it to themselves to check out Henenlotter’s best film since his heyday.
While Henenlotter may not be currently tooling around in his well-known horror sandbox, other filmmakers are carrying on the mantle of imaginative, personal, socially conscious indie horror. Take the Boston-based filmmaking team of Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein. The duo appeared at BUFF a couple of years ago with their George Kuchar-meets- Agatha Christie slasher-satire-whodunit Ten (currently on Amazon) and are back, this time with an homage to the likes of Jean Rollin with their nudity-stocked vampire battle-of-the-sexes tale Blood of the Tribades. Ambitiously attempting a period piece on a non-existent budget, Epstein and Cacciola don’t quite succeed in capturing the dreamy poetry of Rollin on their lack-of-dime, instead hitting something more akin to the earthiness of Jess Franco minus his penchant for sudden zooms. With Blood and Ten, the directing duo have begun to coalesce a certain idiosyncratic voice: find a singular place to film that can compensate for the lack of production value elsewhere, build a quirky retelling of familiar genre material around it and pepper it with a healthy dose of pro-woman gender politics and actors and actresses who may not always be able to act, but are more than ready to rid themselves of their clothes at the drop of the hat. Any fan of lurid, exploitative and cheerfully disreputable trash can dig it. Tribades has two different sects of a vampire religion — one an all-male society full of stiff, puritanical zealots, the other, all-female, freer and less-inclined to whipping the flesh of their brethren with thorny roses — go to war, with a lesbian vamp couple caught in the middle. That’s it for story, but the story is really just an excuse for the pair to indulge in limitless cost-free eroticism and plenty of bird-flips to the patriarchy. Don’t come for good performances or great camerawork; come for the sleazy, kinky no-budget perversion. Which, come to think of it, is BUFF in a nutshell, a celebration of the perverse, the kinky, the weird and the wild, the kinds of films that give life to our beloved genre and simmer below the surface while Jason Blum churns out another boo-jump-filled PG-13 spookfest. All hail anything as crazy as the Boston Underground Film Festival.