Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Dark days in the real world often call for an escape into even darker worlds in cinema. As many people are continuously startled by the world around them, from the terrifying increase in school shootings to the atrocities currently happening on the U.S. border, it makes sense that the horror genre feels more vibrant and alive than ever. Two of the most critically acclaimed films of the year—“Hereditary” and “A Quiet Place”—are undeniably horror films, no matter how many people want to claim they’re not, while other genre indies like “The Endless” have also garnered attention. This is all to say that this feels like the perfect time for a horror film festival like Cinepocalypse.
Starting at the Music Box Theatre this Thursday, June 21st, Cinepocalypse employs something of a shock and awe approach to the genre, offering fans an overwhelming amount of content for a relatively-short festival. There are world premieres, retro events, special guests, and horror hits from other festivals. It’s an ambitious slate of (mostly) indie offerings from around the world, most of which have little in common other than the horror brand. As someone who has seen a great deal of this year’s offerings, it’s the range of the programming that’s impressive. There are slasher pics, brutal dramas, relationship nightmares, sci-fi experiments, and even a movie about Nazi puppets. There’s something for everyone. Here are a few highlights, chronologically.
“The Domestics” (June 21st, 7:30pm)
Mike P. Nelson’s brutal vision of a world gone mad feels just right for the first note conducted by Cinepocalypse in 2018. Owing an undeniable debt to “The Purge” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Domestics” actually reminded me more of post-apocalyptic video games like “Fallout,” imagined futures in which the world is overrun with enemies and formerly safe havens are deadly. Nelson’s vision doesn’t take place in the traditional landscapes of post-apocalyptic horror, which often crib from George Miller or Ridley Scott, working with, well, domesticity as its background. It's more about average American neighborhoods and Midwestern landscapes that have become suddenly, unexpectedly violent. In other words, it's kinda perfect for 2018.
In a future dominated by rival gangs with names like The Gamblers and The Sheets, we meet a couple (Tyler Hoechlin & Kate Bosworth) on the edge of sanity. They had been communicating with loved ones via ham radio but the signal has gone dead and they have decided to now take a road trip through Wisconsin to Milwaukee to see what’s going on. The journey takes them through territories dominated by violent men, many of whom now see people as property. There’s an interesting social commentary simmering beneath “The Domestics” that feels timely (if too underdeveloped), but it’s mostly just a brutal cinematic punch to the face, anchored by genuine performances from Hoechlin, Bosworth, Lance Reddick, Sonoya Mizuno, and more. It’s rough around the edges in certain places, but it undeniably sets the tone for an event like Cinepocalypse. (Get your tickets here.)
“The Ranger” (June 22nd, 2:30pm & June 26th, 9:15pm)
Fresh off its SXSW premiere, comes this throwback from writer/director Jenn Wexler, another film that feels a bit first-draft in places but that struck a nostalgic beat for this viewer. If you’re like me and grew up watching the cheesy slasher pics of the ‘80s, you may feel similarly about this twist on the “cabin in the woods” genre. Instead of teenagers away at camp, “The Ranger” features punk rock kids running from society to a remote locale. And instead of an escaped mental patient, the killer here is an unhinged park ranger, the antithesis of the punk ethos. Some of “The Ranger” feels undercooked, but I have to admit to enjoying seeing a subgenre that doesn’t really exist like it used to and that once dominated the world of horror. Given how much of Cinepocalypse is designed to tap that nostalgic vein, those who fondly remember the slasher subgenre, should probably check this one out. (Get your tickets here.)
“What Keeps You Alive” (June 22nd, 11:59pm)
The talented Colin Minihan (“It Stains the Sand Red”) brings his latest to the Music Box for its Midwest Premiere and it should produce gasps in the Friday night midnight spot for those willing to stay up late. Performances aren’t often the hook to bring in viewers at horror festivals but Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen are great in this SXSW hit as a couple named Jackie and Jules, who go on a trip to one of their childhood haunts on their one-year anniversary to a remote cabin Jackie went to as a child. From the beginning, something feels off as Jackie seems distant and different. It’s that common point in a relationship when one person reveals something new about themselves through the lens of their past. And what Jackie reveals is shocking. I almost wish I could go down to the MB for when Minihan pulls the rug out from viewers on what they think they’re watching just to hear the gasps. You should be there. (Get your tickets here.)
“Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” (June 23rd, 11:59pm)
Most people willing to read an article previewing horror films at something called Cinepocalypse probably have seen a “Puppet Master” movie or two (or ten). Starting in 1989, the “Puppet Master” series became a staple in the straight-to-VHS (then DVD) horror market, releasing so many (maybe intentionally) awful sequels to the movie about killer puppets. Well, the era in which nostalgia is king has finally gotten around to those maniacal puppets with a full reboot written by S. Craig Zahler of “Brawl in Cell Block 99” and “Bone Tomahawk” fame, and starring Thomas Lennon, Michael Pare, Barbara Crampton, and Udo Kier. Yes, it’s a cheesy, gorey, insane, ludicrous movie about killer puppets who were trained by the Nazis to eliminate enemies of the Third Reich first, and so that’s what they do at a remote hotel. (The hate crimes aspect of "The Littlest Reich" feels purposefully provocative in a way that horror rarely is nowadays and used to be so often in the '70s.) Lennon is surprisingly flat, playing it a bit too straight, but there’s more than enough to like here for people wondering if this may resemble the brutal insanity of the final act of “Bone Tomahawk” but with puppets as the bad guys. Spoiler: It does. (Get your tickets here.)
“Empathy, Inc.” (June 24th, 5pm)
There are a few films at Cinepocalypse this year that feel inspired more by “Black Mirror” than traditional horror and the best of those that I’ve seen is Yedidya Gorsetman’s “Empathy, Inc.” Zack Robidas plays a venture capitalist who watches his whole world fall apart when a deal goes bad. Forced to move up with his in-laws, he desperately grabs at a lifeline when an old friend (Eric Berryman) comes to him with a new project in the always-hot world of Virtual Reality. The tech is called XVR (Xtreme Virtual Reality) and is the product of a company called Empathy, Inc., which allows users to literally step into the shoes of someone who has less than them. Privileged, well-off people are always talking about the perspective gained by those are further down the social ladder, but what would they do if they could literally live the lives of the less fortunate? The concept of “Empathy, Inc.” is brilliant, and Gorsetman has a strong sense of storytelling, even if the film does kind of write itself into a corner or two in the increasingly crazy final act. Still, it’s the kind of unexpected World Premiere that genre fans hope to find at a fest like Cinepocalypse. (Get your tickets here.)
Retro Titles w/Special Guests!
Threaded through the week-long run of Cinepocalypse, you’ll find a handful of really fun retro titles, selections that reveal the quirky personality that drives this festival. You’ve seen acknowledged classics at the Music Box before at one of their many festivals, but have you seen “Howard the Duck” in 70MM? Have you seen “Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight” on the big screen? What about “Judgment Night”? And the biggest guests of Cinepocalypse 2018 have to be the great Ernest Dickerson, traveling to Chicago to present "Juice" with a Q&A, and the incredible Lana Wachowski, who will discuss the phenomenal "Bound" with Cinepocalypse fans. (Get your tickets here.)
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