Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Telluride Horror Show 2017 will run from October 13th-October 15th. Stay tuned for coverage from The PCE!
On that note, however, this writer is only one man, and in an effort to ease the burden on our editorial staff and ensure our readers get the most bang for their buck, our coverage of the festival will be streamlined a bit. Instead of attempting to keep pace with each film, this writer will be assembling a daily breakdown, highlighting the films and events attended.
The most immediate challenge of any festival is choosing a lineup, and making sense of a schedule. On day one of the Telluride Horror Show, there were eleven different films playing across three venues, in addition to sponsored events. This writer was able to attend four films throughout the day, as well as several of the events. How fortunate that each of these films were wildly enjoyable, for a variety of different reasons. Incidentally, a theme began to emerge with the works this writer chose: tight, intimate stories that largely focused on one location.
Trench 11 (2017) [Canada|Director: Leo Scherman] Nugget Theater
The film picks up three months after these events, with British Intelligence officers debriefing their superior regarding the discovery of a tunnel some 11 miles behind the German lines, with ties to SS officer Reiner (Robert Stadlober) a man known for his bizarre experiments and attempt to weaponize chemicals like anthrax. The officers are seeking permission perform a recon mission in hopes of getting the upper hand on the Germans. Naturally, the underground mission requires a tunneler.
Berton (who we learn through exposition survived the blast by digging his way out) is pulled from the arms of his French lover with orders to accompany the mission, along with a trio of brutish American soldiers. It is a simple set-up, but if film history has proven anything, it is that the team assembly film can work like gangbusters when employed correctly, particularly in the horror realm. Meanwhile, however, the Germans send their own team toward the compound to destroy any remaining evidence of what they were doing there, lest the Allies get there first.
The Americans, led by Captain Budman (Luke Humphrey) are alternately funny, courageous, and very, well American, particularly when interacting with the stuffy British officers. As the main protagonist, Sutherland does stand-out work as the disheveled, reluctant hero. There are certainly horror elements to the film, which are revealed once the team discovers the viral outbreak the Germans have created, and can no longer contain. The film gets a lot right, as it keeps its focus small and intimate. Once the team is assembled, the remainder of the film takes place at the German compound, and while there are monsters to deal with, the film seems to contend that in the midst of war, ordinary humans forced to commit atrocities in the name of pride and country are the real destroyers of worlds. It is not a new idea, but it is executed with enough aplomb to be exciting and suspenseful. As a chamber piece thriller which dips its toe into horrors both supernatural and otherwise, it is an effectively bleak reminder that war is hell.
78/52 (2017) [ USA|Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe] Nugget Theater
Armed with a murderers row of talking heads (including director Guillermo del Toro, filmmaker/critic Peter Bogdanavich, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis) the film takes an incredibly in depth look at the way the scene was constructed, from the story-boarding to the unbelievable symmetry in shot selection to Bernard Hermann’s infamous score.
Phillipe’s film is utterly fascinating, essentially a love letter to Hitchcock, making the (correct) argument that the scene in question radically changed violence in cinema. Nothing shot before it had been quite as transgressive, direct, or intimate in its ferocity. While it may seem quaint by today’s standards, it was truly shocking in 1960, and frankly remains an all-time benchmark in horror cinema.
For anyone with even a cursory interest in the technical aspect of filmmaking, 78/52 is a masterclass on how to construct a scene for maximum poetry, suspense, and terror. Considering how prescient this moment remains in our entire culture (not only in film) almost 50 years later, seeing how it was done feels like nothing short of a master magician revealing their greatest achievement.
Campfire Tales with Jeremy Robert Johnson Elks Park
Jeremy Robert Johnson is the author of several books of weird fiction, including his acclaimed debut novel Skullcrack City. Mr. Johnson joined a crowd at Elks Park, sitting beside a crackling bonfire in a chair shaped like the face of The Punisher to share a few scary tales by the campfire. It is a terrifically savvy move by the programmers, as Telluride in October is a crisp Autumn wonderland, and plays to the most elemental ideas about horror.
This writer stuck around for two (of a planned three) stories, which included a live reading of Johnson’s 2003 story “The Sharp Dressed Man At The End of The Line” about a man who seeks to build a cockroach suit to save him from an impending nuclear apocalypse. The author was biting in sharing his inspiration for the story, recalling a time when a former U.S. President was baiting nuclear-armed countries. Johnson got a hearty laugh when he said he had not expected this particular story to age so well. The story itself was a delight. Strange and funny and landing a killer punch line at the end, like a great short should.
It was an anecdote about a medical journal story, though, that really stuck to this writer. Johnson recalled a morbid fascination with the weird and gross as a kid, and explained how he used to rifle through his father’s old medical journals. Some of these contained letters from anonymous physicians remarking upon strange cases. The particular case he shared had to do with a factory worker who used an electric sander to assist his nightly masturbation habit, until the sander tore the man open…and he elected to staple his scrotum back together himself. The story was everything it promised to be; strange, gross, hilarious, but what really stood out was Johnson’s primary takeaway: “Loneliness is a hell of a drug.” It was a touching note for a film festival concerned chiefly with horror, a genre that has been ghettoized and cast aside more often than not. It was a beautiful reminder of the power that great art has to bring us together.
Downrange (2017) [USA|Director: Ryuhei Kitamura] Palm Theater
Within seconds of the first frame coming into view, the film is kicking itself into (familiar) gear; an SUV carrying six teenagers blows a tire on a remote highway. Forced to pull over, the kids joke about how none of the three boys really know how to change a tire and try to plan for how much this will set back the trip. During the opening fifteen minutes, the dynamics between them start to reveal themselves in small ways. Todd (Rod Hernandez) and Sara (Alexa Yeames) are a couple who have offered to carpool a group of people they do not know toward a common destination. There is an easy rapport between the remaining players: Jodi (Kelly Connaire), Keren (Stephanie Pearson), Eric (Anthony Kirlew), and Jeff (Jason Tobias) which reveal small character ticks, and the film has a confidence in the loose way it plays its hand letting us know who these people are. Each of them are playing a familiar type of sorts, but the film successfully subverted this viewer’s expectations fairly cannily.
When the boys finally remove the tire, the bullet which caused the blow out falls to the pavement, and before you know it, all hell breaks loose. Two of the teens are almost immediately killed, while another is separated nearby from the group. It becomes quickly apparent that there is a sniper (Aion Boyd) somewhere nearby, intent on picking them off one by one. To be clear, this writer’s mileage varies wildly with these sort of outback-survival tales populated by faceless killers with murky (at best) motives. When it became clear that the majority of the action was going to take place at this location, it began to feel like this would be an experience that did not pay off. How thrilling it was, then, when the film proved this viewer dead wrong.
The (surviving) actors are largely terrific, taking incredibly worn character types and imbuing them with consistently surprising attributes and decisions. Rod Hernandez and Stephanie Pearson, in particular, are stand-outs in the way they transform over the course of the run-time. It came as a huge surprise to this writer to find that as the film went on, the motives of the killer mattered less and less; a trope that typically wears thin became a strength, as the film embraces the randomness of the violence and hones instead on its well-drawn characters.
The minimalist approach largely works to the film’s advantage, only ramping up its scope a bit toward the final third, where things escalate in a way that feels intentionally unhinged. There is a real jet-black sense of humor that pops its head out throughout the film, particularly with one hell of a gut punch right at the end, resulting in a finale that is alternately satisfying or maddening depending on your perspective. For this writer, the film’s commitment to its nihilism made it feel gleeful in a way that felt true to what came before, but there were plenty of viewers pissed off and shaking their heads as the audience trailed out. It is one mean-spirited film, but for those who can stomach it, Downrange proved to be this writer’s favorite film of the day.
Mayhem (2017) [USA|Director: Joe Lynch] Palm Theater
More than any film that this writer screened on Friday, Mayhem felt most like the sort of thing that is best experienced with a crowd. Whether it is packed into a theater, or surrounded by rowdy friends and a fridge full of beers, this is a film born to be a crowd pleaser. The world of Mayhem has recently been subjected to a new virus strain that has been dubbed ID-7. The virus is responsible for “emotionally hijacking” people’s brains and causing inhibitions to fall, resulting in people surrendering complete control to their id (the part of the brain that rules over judgement and decisions). It is only a matter of time before this leads to murder.
Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) is a young lawyer climbing the ranks of a huge corporate firm, and losing his idealism (and probably his soul) one rung of the ladder at a time. Cho’s claim to fame within the company was finding a legal loophole which acquitted the first man prosecuted for murder after killing someone under the influence of ID-7. Cho has the status and the corner office, but he is barely a husk of a man, with no time for loved ones, or much of a life at all. When he is set up to take the fall for a seven figure error from a superior he calls The Siren (Caroline Chikezie) he is fired by the executive board, led by the CEO John Towers (Steven Brand). Cho wants to fight the frame job, but he is outmaneuvered, and subsequently terminated. Prior to his exit, however, a SWAT team shows up along with the CDC and places the building under quarantine. There has been an outbreak of ID-7 and it will take 8 hours for the antidote to take full effect, filtered through the building’s ventilation system.
What might have been a legal snafu between HR and a disgruntled employee becomes not just a battle for his job, but his life. Thanks to ID-7, things get wildly out of control awfully fast, and Cho decides to join forces with Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving, running, not walking away with every scene she is in) a homeowner who was detained after a failed attempt to save her home from foreclosure. Together, Cho and Melanie must fight tooth and nail to reach the penthouse before the ID-7 virus is lifted, and they are held legally responsible for the carnage in their wake.
Ultimately, this is Yeun’s show and he makes the most of the wide range he gets to play, but hot damn Samara Weaving is a revelation. Totally unknown to this writer before this film, she called to mind Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad (2016) only if they had really let her off the leash to run wild. Both are equally ready and able for the wild tonal beats, as the film steers from brutally violent to cartoonishly silly in the span of a breath without missing a beat, and the laughs come almost as fast as the violence. As a commentary on corporate culture and the American workforce, it is about as subtle as a punch to the face, but boy is it a blast, and ultimately, that is more than enough.