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The Overlook Film Festival Highlights, Part 2: The Hands of Orlac, Kill Your Lover, Dead Mail, Red Rooms

“The Hands of Orlac,” a twisty and lurid 1924 Austrian psychodrama, was the last movie I saw in New Orleans at the Overlook Film Festival. The four day-long festival’s revival of the century-old silent movie, about a celebrated pianist who believes he’s haunted by the spirit of a killer, felt like an event thanks in no small part to a live, movie-length musical performance by local faves Listen More, Hear Less. I’d never seen this version of “The Hands of Orlac,” just its 1935 remake, “Mad Love,” which swaps out a memorably stricken Conrad Veidt for the usually ferocious Peter Lorre. The festival’s screening of “Hands of Orlac” was one of a few dedicated to the memory of recently deceased Overlook programmer Doug Jones, who originally suggested that the Veidt vehicle be screened.

The festival’s closing night screening of “The Hands of Orlac” was a welcome occasion for everyone in the room to slow down and sit with an interactive, slow-building atmosphere of dreadful anticipation. The band wasn’t always in sync with the on-screen actors or their characters’ emotions, but that subtle dissonance also spoke to the unique nature of the event. Some gestures and performances will always be moving, like when Veidt’s co-star, Alexandra Sorina, takes his hand and pledges to his character that she’ll continue sharing his ordeal. But only that particular auditorium will have experienced the fleeting, magical interplay between that movie and those musicians at that specific moment. As with any live performance, you really had to be in the room to catch its particular vibe.

Among other things, this year’s Overlook Film Festival was a welcome reminder of how good it can feel to be in a lovingly cultivated social space with like-minded enthusiasts. This was Overlook’s eighth year and it showed: not only a well-run festival—the volunteers did a heroic job of booking tickets and keeping both the lines moving and the screenings on time—but a relaxed and eager audience, too. You could tell, based on overheard compliments and excited recommendations, that festival attendees really felt comfortable in each other’s company. That’s not often the case at events organized by and for black-tee-shirt wearing nerds who treat their favorite things like turf that needs to be defended first before it can be shared.

Ironically, loneliness and dysfunctional relationships were often the focus of the best movies at this year’s festival. In “Kill Your Lover,” a couple on the verge of breaking up must reconsider their priorities when he (Shane Quigley-Murphy) develops a mysterious ailment. His touch is literally toxic and leaves her (Paige Gilmour) with chemical burns; he also refuses medical treatment and becomes violent enough to commit the grisliest murder that I saw at the Overlook. Thankfully, the couple’s incompatibility soon becomes the movie’s focus, since most of “Kill Your Lover” concerns flashbacks to their earlier days.

By focusing on its central relationship drama, “Kill Your Lover” never fully devolves into the sweaty social critique that it sometimes threatens to become. In dialogue with each other—as well as sex and bite-sized memories that come back to them as they quarrel—we see Gilmour and Quigley-Murphy’s characters as quarrelsome, fully-realized people who, at the end of their time as a couple, obviously should not be together. They dig deeper at each other than the usual trite, stock reasons for movie couples’ dysfunction, making “Kill Your Lover” an intimate breakup drama that happens to follow one of the grossest kills of the year with this line: “I just want you to hear my side. So let’s talk it out.”

Tensions also flair between two kindred spirits in “Dead Mail,” a weirdly moving thriller about Trent (John Fleck), a desperate loner, and Josh (Sterling Macer Jr.), the man that Trent has kidnapped. Trent and Josh’s relationship is understandably rather fraught, but it unfolds with an unusual sensitivity and attention paid to its neurotic characters’ feelings, even side characters like Jasper (Tomas Boykin), the reclusive, but not unhappy postal worker who happens to receive a blood-smeared letter from Trent. I was totally charmed by “Dead Mail,” whose tone is always shy of cringe humor-style awkwardness. It’s not really a horror movie, but rather an unsettling and unselfconsciously pulpy tragedy about how thrilling and scary it can be to fall for and then out of step with a loved one.

“Red Rooms,” a Canadian courtroom drama and character study, also extends a rare consideration to lonely protagonists who are never entirely defined by their compulsive behavior. Kelly-Anne (Juliette Gariépy), a fashion model, bonds with Clementine (Laurie Babin), an unhoused teenager, after they both attend a controversial murder trial. Everybody has opinions about Ludovic Chevalier (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), a sullen and mostly silent accused killer of three teenage girls, whom he supposedly eviscerated live on camera for an untraceable “dark web” audience. We thankfully never learn what motivates Kelly-Anne’s obsession with Chevalier, though you can tell some things based on her blank stares, as well as her chilly detachment whenever she logs onto her home’s desktop computer. We also don’t spend too much time pondering what kind of relationship Kelly-Anne and Clementine have developed, since Clementine is only part of Kelly-Anne’s story.

Instead, viewers are challenged to stick with Kelly-Anne and experience the world as it’s felt and understood by her. Often chilly and sometimes unbearably blunt, “Red Rooms” still builds an impressive amount of tension simply by refusing to vilify Kelly-Anne for her disturbing behavior. She is and she isn’t as obvious as she seems, mostly because writer/director Pascal Plante takes his time in making Kelly-Anne more of an emotional lightning rod than a psychologically sensible heroine. It’s a calculated tradeoff that mostly works thanks to Gariépy’s hard-edged performance and Plante’s genuinely unnerving focus on atmosphere over plot development.

“Red Rooms” isn’t an especially broad window on the world beyond the movie theater, but it still got under my skin given its keen focus on Kelly-Anne as she deliberately spirals out of control. If you’re lucky and can see “Red Rooms” in a theater, watching and reacting with a room full of other black tee-shirts might also feel like an event.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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