by Byron Bixler
Part of our coverage of the 2016 Ithaca Fantastik Film FestivalThe 5th Annual Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival came to a close last night, bookending Wednesday night’s erotic Korean thriller, The Handmaiden, with another Korean thriller, this one being a high-octane zombie flick called Train to Busan. I saw two additional films at the Fest on Sunday (each of them offbeat sorta-comedies), but before diving into the mini-reviews, here are the award winners announced prior to the closing night screening:
Jury Award: Safe Neighborhood (Australia/USA, dir. Chris Peckover)
Audience Award: Safe Neighborhood (Australia/USA, dir. Chris Peckover)
Best Director: André Øvredal, The Autopsy of Jane Doe (UK)
Best Screenplay: Carson D. Mell, Another Evil (USA)
Cinema Pur: She’s Allergic to Cats (dir. Michael Reich, USA)
Best Short: The Tunnel (dir. André Øvredal)
48-Hour Film Challenge Winner: Midnight Snack (Kevin Fermini, Rachel Huley, Christian Kozlowski, James Manton and Rosario McGowan, Jack Warner)
Another Evil (dir. Carson D. Mell)
Within the first 10 minutes of Another Evil, something very startling happens. Rather than kicking off the story of a haunted vacation home with a crude jump scare, director Carson D. Mell sets the tone with a mundane, slightly humorous series of events that culminates in a single image which flips our perception of what the film will be. Unsurprisingly, the tone vacillates between high quirk and sudden terror for the remainder of the runtime.
The story here concerns a professional painter who discovers that his home is inhabited by ghosts. Or are they demons? Inter-dimensional beings? It depends on who you talk to. In the case of the film’s protagonist, Dan (Steve Zissis), the person he talks to is an oddball “ghost assassin” named Os (Mark Proksch). The leather jacket and cowboy hat-wearing expert befriends Dan and spends almost a week with him, sharing strange stories and staking out ghosts.
The performances and the offbeat nature of the largely improvised banter keep the film fresh and interesting. Zissis and Proksch each have a charm to them and their interactions are unpredictable, sometimes straddling the line between self-awareness and serious tension. Additionally, Mell’s approach to the “house exorcism” storyline is refreshing, taking pains to avoid the common tropes. However, the looseness and improvisation that makes the dialogue so enjoyable doesn’t work as well when applied to the plot, which meanders to the point of incomprehension. The story feels like it’s becoming less focused and purposeful with each passing minute and winds up at a place that is weird in a bad way. A wholly new plot element arrives in the third act and derails what the film had going for it previously. Still, Another Evil is worth seeing for fans of eccentric indie cinema.
[Rating: 3 out of 5 stars]
The Master Cleanse (dir. Bobby Miller)
Johnny Galecki of Big Bang Theory fame stars in this surprisingly heartfelt drama as Paul, a lovable loser who is trying to recover from his fiancé recently walking out on him. Stuck in a rat-infested apartment directly below a loudly amorous couple, Paul decides to get away and applies to join a spiritual retreat run by a shady organization. To his glee, he’s approved for the trip and upon arriving at the woodland compound, the woman in charge (played by the always wonderful Anjelica Huston) initiates a juice cleanse. Paul and his fellow retreaters force themselves to drink the disgusting substance, later vomiting a small organism. The creatures, which sort of look like a cross between bulbous lizards and non-bug-eyed toads, prove to be rather cute, but as they grow larger, problems begin to surface.
The Master Cleanse makes the idea of confronting inner demons literal and the metaphor doesn’t run terribly deep. At a thin 81 minutes, the film sets up its unique premise and follows it to a fairly predictable conclusion. Notes of Cronenberg are noticeable, as is a slightly surreal tone which is sort of in the same vein as what can be found in Being John Malkovich, The One I Love or The Lobster. Unfortunately, the film fails to make much of an impact. The cast is good, especially Oliver Platt, who enters the story late as a non-stereotypical cult leader that genuinely cares about people. Like most of the films screened at Ithaca Fantastik this year, The Master Cleanse does not submit to many conventions, but it’s oddly timid about exploring its central concept and thus lacks thematic and emotional potency.
[Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars]
Train to Busan (dir. Yeon Sang-ho)
In the last decade or so, the zombie genre has become so saturated with content (both good and bad), that one might think it a small miracle to encounter a new film that gives it new life. Train to Busan may not subvert the hallmarks of the zombie outbreak narrative, but it is easily the most intense, visually spectacular and emotionally satisfying example of the genre in recent memory.
Set in South Korea, the story kicks off with an infected deer getting run over on a country road, only to rise from the concrete, limbs twitching, eyes clouding — the catalyst for a national disaster. Elsewhere, we meet our main characters, a workaholic fund manager (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Soo-an). The pair gets on a train to Busan, but an infected stowaway hops aboard just before the doors close. The zombie horde grows from one to hundreds, wiping out most of the passengers and forcing the survivors to retreat into a few isolated cars. Through it all, the train thunders along, the conductor anxiously looking for a place of refuge in a country teeming with the undead.
With this film, the festival goes out on a memorably thrilling note. Train to Busan is incredibly propulsive, visceral cinema, expertly handling the pace of the action and setting up a number of creatively staged scenarios that force the characters to rely on their wits to escape death. As far as the zombies are concerned, we incrementally learn about how they behave, with new bits of information presented at key points. From the moment a person is killed, he or she becomes hostile almost immediately and the snarling, animalistic impulses they display make the zombies a real threat as antagonists. The theater was packed for this screening and I could feel the tension in the room during every one of the energetic chase sequences. Comedy is dispensed at the appropriate times and although the characters are mostly familiar archetypes, the performances are genuine and it’s hard not to get emotionally invested, especially toward the end when tragedy inevitably rears its head.
Admittedly, the film submits to a few cliches and is somewhat heavy-handed at times. One also gets the feeling that it could have been shortened a little. As a commercial crowd-pleaser, it doesn’t aim for a whole lot more than an adrenaline rush, but a consistent theme regarding the dilemma between selfishness and feeling obligated to help your fellow man is nicely played. There are many reasons to love Train to Busan and Ithaca Fantastik’s closing night screening yielded what might be the best theater experience I’ve had all year. If you miss it in theaters, consider a double feature of this and Snowpiercer — a very different Korean train movie.
[Rating: 4 out of 5 stars]
For a more extensive take on the films mentioned here and the festival experience as a whole, check out this fourth installment of a 4-part series of solo podcast specials!