Much like the Chicago Critics Film Festival did a few years ago, Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival has relocated from the suburbs of the city to the most notable movie house in it, the Music Box, for a week of horror and chaos under the banner Cinepocalypse. The line-up for this year’s event, starting tomorrow, is the most impressive horror festival this city has seen in a long time, featuring a great number of World and North American premieres. It’s an incredibly diverse array of films from around the world, and indicates that this festival is here to stay. In fact, one could easily see it becoming a seasonal staple much like Fantasia Festival has been in Montreal for decades. What’s most remarkable about Cinepocalypse this year is the diversity of what it offers. There are films that will play in multiplexes next to indie and foreign fare that will likely never play in Chicago again. If you’re a genre fan, it’s the kind of event for which I can recommend buying a full festival pass. You’ll get enough out of it, including these seven highlights:
“Sweet Virginia” (Playing Opening Night, 11/2)
The producers of Cinepocalypse really put a lot of effort behind their bookends of Opening and Closing Night, slotting those with arguably their two most high-profile, star-studded affairs. This quasi-noir features a phenomenal ensemble of actors from whom I often want to see more: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Imogen Poots. Bernthal plays a motel owner who befriends Abbott’s hired killer, not realizing that his most recent hit has impacted people he loves (and he may not be done). “Sweet Virginia” has some notable flaws (mostly a thin script and direction that thinks low lighting equals mood) but the cast keeps it engaging, particularly Bernthal, who I’m convinced would have been a household name in the ‘70s. He’s got that young De Niro or Pacino energy—an everyman with a unique edge and God-given charisma. Let's get him better parts.
“Dead Shack” (Plays 11/3, 11/6, & 11/7)
Peter Ricq’s horror-comedy was described at Fantasia Fest as “The Goonies meets Night of the Living Dead.” How could you possibly pass that up? This Canadian flick is pretty simple—three teenagers go on a trip to a remote cabin and stumble upon a house owned by a woman credited only as “The Neighbour” (played by Lauren Holly), who has some, well, secrets. When they see her kill a couple of guys she brings home from the bar and feed them to whatever she’s keeping in the basement, things go from bad to worse. It’s a pretty slight movie, but it’s also just fun. There’s also an undercurrent of interesting gender commentary here in terms of teenage (and adult) manliness. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but it’s the kind of enjoyable horror-comedy that makes programmers want to play it three times at a genre festival.
“King Cohen” (11/4)
The man that Fred Williamson calls “the greatest thief director” gets a loving ode to his career that captures the unique spirit and energy of the films of Larry Cohen. The auteur behind “It’s Alive” and “The Stuff” may not seem like the best fit for a documentary along the lines of “De Palma” or “Spielberg,” but this movie makes a strong case for his significance in the history of film, including interviews with luminaries like Martin Scorsese, John Landis, and Joe Dante. And it excludes nothing, even offering anecdotes on the making of films like “Wicked Stepmother” and “Original Gangstas.” It conveys how much Larry Cohen loves the unpredictability of genre filmmaking. In other words, he’s a perfect spokesman for something called Cinepocalypse, and he’ll be there (with Eric Roberts!) to do a Q&A after the film.
In the years in the late ‘90s when everyone seemed to be riffing on Quentin Tarantino, this clear nod to the structure of Pulp Fiction might have felt derivative and grating, but we’re far enough away and it’s smartly done enough that it almost feels fresh in 2017. Thrilling audiences at festivals like Fantasia, this is one you should see with a crowd. Ryan Prows’ film works the same eventful day from the perspective of various characters, often rewinding and showing us another angle on something we’ve already seen. It starts with its most memorable character, a proud luchador named El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) who has been sucked into a criminal enterprise he hates. “Lowlife” sometimes feels like a QT film for the Trump era—the first truly awful person we meet is an ICE agent and another character has a Swastika tattooed on his face. It’s the kind of movie that feels just on the edge of breaking out of the festival circuit to a bigger audience. See it before everybody else does.
Ted Geoghegan’s follow-up to his excellent “We Are Still Here” displays the writer/director’s refusal to repeat himself. “Mohawk” is not your typical horror film, and certainly not like anything else playing at Cinepocalypse this year. It’s a searing study of a true horror—the treatment of Native Americans in this country—filtered through brutal, character-driven action. Kaniethtiio Horn, herself of Mohawk heritage, plays Oak, the hero of this story who is overcome by a group of vicious American soldiers, led by a terrifically menacing performance from Ezra Buzzington. This is essentially a chase film, but it’s not like anything the genre has seen recently, and its ambition alone merits must-see status at the festival.
It wouldn’t be a horror festival preview without some trippy shit and this is one of the trippiest movies you’ll see all year. A couple slams into a sheep on their way to a vacation home in the Alps, and Greg Zglinski’s film branches off from there into several films at once. At times, it’s a relatively straightforward study of the dissolution of a marriage. At other times, it’s something closer to David Lynch in the questions it asks about identity and reality. This is a confident, visually daring film that asks more questions than it gives answers, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need from a horror flick.
“Beyond Skyline” (11/9)
One of the most unexpected film experiences I’ve had this year was watching this truly crazy sequel to a movie that nobody really liked in the first place. 2010’s “Skyline” was pretty much a disaster, but you don’t need to like it or even have seen it to enjoy the batshit WTF craziness that is “Beyond Skyline,” a film that starts like a relatively standard alien invasion flick, although starring the always-charismatic Frank Grillo, and becomes something totally insane as it goes along. The aliens that are literally sucking out human brains to put into their giant soldiers; the baby that is impacted by the induction in a way that it grows into a full-blown child at an alarming speed; the political context that equates an alien invasion with U.S. involvement in Cambodia; oh, and then a few dudes from “The Raid” show up, including Iko Uwais, to do a little Muay Thai against 8-foot-tall alien robots. This movie is blissfully loony in a way that reminded me of great Troma flicks—movies that know they’re crazy and will do whatever it takes to give you a good time for your movie dollar. It’s the perfect closing night to a festival like Cinepocalypse that will have people laughing, talking, and planning to return next year.