Written By: Daniel Kinsley
After a full day of festival experience, the madness of mapping out which films to see certainly became easier to navigate. What a wonderful problem it is: to choose between a number of great-sounding films, and though it is impossible to see everything, this writer had the chance to catch up with several features which had screened earlier, plus this writer’s most anticipated film of the whole line-up.
Simply from a logistical standpoint, four seemed to be the magic number for films this viewer was able to attend in a single day, which in and of itself is a hell of a lot. While the films of Day Two were slightly more of a mixed bag, the upside is that the highs were incredibly high and the films that were not quite as exciting were still damn fun to watch.
Tragedy Girls (2017) [USA | Tyler MacIntyre] Palm Theater
In hindsight, it almost seems unfair that the day should kick off with a film this good, because it is not likely to be topped, and frankly, it was not. It is amazing the way filmmakers still find ways to throw an interesting spin on the slasher film, and Tragedy Girls is proof not only that the sub-genre is safe and sound, but that there is somehow still room for something new.
The film kicks off with a familiar set up: two teens making out in the backseat of a steamy car in a dark, secluded location. Inevitably, there is a strange noise and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) talks her date Craig (Austin Abrams) into checking it out. Craig is promptly killed by a machete to the face, and Sadie immediately takes off toward the forest. Think you have heard this one before? The film pulls the rug out from under the viewer almost immediately, as the killer falls over a trip-wire and Sadie is joined by BFF Mckayla (Alexandra Shipp) both of whom are thrilled to see their plan worked. It is a Scream (1996) level reversal, and it sets the tone early that this is not your average slasher film.
Sadie and Mckayla are two death-obsessed teens with a plan. By kidnapping the town serial killer, Lowell (Kevin Durand) dubbed The Rosedale Killer, they hope to enlist him to train them so that they can become the killers they have always dreamed of being. Using their internet show, The Tragedy Girls, the best friends embark on an increasingly violent and hilarious killing spree while exposing the dark sides of social media to whip the town into a frenzy.
There is not enough hyperbole in the world to express how unreal great the two leads are. Hildebrand and Shipp are dazzling to watch, the performances filled with charm, pathos, and menacing indifference. It is amazing that in a film where they are nearly constantly plotting the deaths of characters that would be the good guys in most other films, the girls are so good that it never occurred to this viewer not to root for them.
The film consistently managed to surprise and delight, as it never loses its sense of fun, no matter how dark things get. MacIntyre manages to wring a ton of interesting commentary about female friendships, social media, and especially high school dynamics. And like all of the best high school films, the bloody finale takes place at senior prom, with a few twists and turns that handily dodge any potential pitfalls. MacIntyre sticks the landing, and the film remains fresh and invigorating all the way till the end.
Tragedy Girls feels like a natural evolution in horror cinema; it is Natural Born Killers in the Twitter age, filtered through Edgar Wright style pop film making (with bursting color and snappy cuts). The true crime would be to miss it (as this writer nearly did) as it is far and away the best horror film this writer has seen not only at the festival, but in 2017, period.
The Endless (2017) [USA | Director: Aaron Moorehead & Justin Benson] Palm Theater
Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson are two of the most exciting voices (and this writer’s current favorites) in horror cinema right now. It would have been worth the trip for this writer just to see their new film, as they have engendered that sort of faith. After a one-two combination of great films with Resolution (2012) and Spring (2014) the boys have returned with their third film, cementing their status as must-see filmmakers.
Aaron and Justin (Moorehead & Benson) are two brothers who escaped a mysterious UFO death cult nearly ten years ago. These days, the boys are just scraping by with minimum wage jobs and a car that barely runs. Aaron, young enough to have mostly good memories, is miserable in this life of ramen and hard labor. As his older brother, Justin brushes aside most of Aaron’s concerns, confident that he is doing what is right for them both. The relationship between them has moments of contentiousness, but it is never lacking in affection. While the two filmmakers are not related in real life, there is an easy chemistry to their scenes together, and it is easy to see the ways in which their partnership mirrors their roles here.
After receiving a mysterious video from Anna (Callie Hernandez) one of the cult members the boys left behind, Justin agrees to accompany Aaron back to Camp Acadia, where the cult still lives, in an effort to give his younger brother some closure. Upon arriving, the boys discover the cult members may not be as insane as they thought. If you have ever seen a horror film, you may think you know where this is going, but this writer would be willing to bet against it. Moorehead and Benson are in many ways defying traditional horror, plucking tropes and ideas from the genre that are interesting to them, and then reshaping it into a story driven as much by an emotional journey as any kind of scares.
The word “Lovecraftian” (used to describe cosmic horror, or perhaps more pertinently, the fear of the unknown) gets thrown around a lot. Even more so than their previous feature Spring, this is a film that rightfully earns that comparison. The film takes its time layering strange beats (the two Moons hanging in the sky are described as a trick of the light; an enormous shadow under the lake which may or may not be something sentient) before revealing where this is all headed, taking the time to ratchet up the sense of uneasy dread.
When it becomes clear what is really going on, it almost plays like anti-climax, as the reveals are just vague enough to remain menacing without spelling it all out. There is a version of this film which goes big, filled with CGI effects and huge sweeping emotional beats, but the boys opt for something smaller, more intimate, and the film is far better for it. The finale is no less thrilling or without consequence, but it remains true to what came before. Like Lovecraft before them, Moorehead and Benson are far more interested in posing questions than answering them, but it is to their enormous credit that the relationship between the brothers (anchored by confident performances and easy, hilarious chemistry) and the hope that they can forgive each other and find themselves once again matters far more than what may be out there lurking in the dark.
Eat Locals (2016) [U.K. | Director: Jason Flemyng] Nugget Theater
Of the eight films this writer screened to this point, Locals was arguably the most conventional. Lest that sound like it is a knock, this writer is a big believer in execution; that is to say there are few truly original ideas left, so it is all about how you deliver. For its part, the film does pretty well in that regard.
On a remote farmhouse in England, a group of vampire leaders are meeting, as they do once every fifty years. The vamps are led by The Duke (Vincent Regan), Henry (Charlie Cox), Peter Boniface (Tony Curran), Angel (Freema Agyeman), Alice (Annette Crosbie), and Chen (Lukaz Leong). After dispatching Thomas (Jordan Long) one of their own found to be overfeeding and drawing negative attention, there is a vacancy at the table. According to ancient tradition, there have always been eight, and there must be eight again. Meanwhile, Vanessa (Eve Myles) the final member of the vampire clan is hoping to recruit the young, dim-witted Sebastian (Billy Cook) who shrugs off the red flags from his date, as he is hoping that after several dates, he is going to get lucky.
Soon after arriving at the house, Sebastian figures out the true nature of his hosts. Things get complicated when a team of mercenaries led by a priest from the Vatican show up outside the farmhouse to neutralize the undead, leaving Sebastian trapped between a rock and a hard place.
The film’s biggest strength is that it remains humorous throughout, particularly whenever the hapless Sebastian is involved. It is a promising premise that ends up feeling a bit static; the seams start to show as things plod along, never fully committing to being either a horror or an action film. Not every film is going to be a home run, and while Locals does not reinvent the wheel, there remains enough fun to be had with its solid thrills.
Dead Ant (2017) [USA | Director: Ron Carlson] Sheridan Opera House
Dead Ant revolves around a fading hair-metal band called Sonic Grave, populated by lead singer Merrick (Jake Busey), axe-man Pager (Rhys Coiro), bassist Art (Sean Astin), drummer Stevie (Leisha Hailey) and manager Danny (Tom Arnold). On their way to music festival Noachella (they could not get in to Coachella) the band takes a side trip to buy a rare type of peyote called “The Moon” from a vegetarian Native named Bigfoot (Michael Horse) and his partner Firecracker (Danny Woodburn). The band is given specific instructions on how to consume the drug, and warned not to harm any living creature on the sacred native land, lest they will be cursed until the next sundown.
Inevitably, they to fail to follow these specific instructions. Art jumps the gun and gets too high, too soon, and ends up wandering off into the desert. After being bitten by a fire ant, he drowns the insect in a stream of piss, and unleashes holy hell. The remaining members of the band fail to find the spark of inspiration they hoped “The Moon” would provide, and wake the next morning in a daze. When the ants begin to attack, it does not take long before they piece together Art’s mistake. As the ants increase in numbers, they also grow larger and larger each time one of them is killed again, until they are blown up to 50s style atomic fear size.
The cast is up to the challenge of finding the right high-camp tone of fighting off unreasonably large insects, with the highlights being Coiro and Tom Arnold in particular. It had been so long since Arnold has really been in anything, much less able to just riff like a madman, this viewer forgot what a welcome presence he can be. Danny is in many ways the heart of this group, but he is also completely and totally unhinged. Arnold is so much fun that he easily walks away with the whole film.
For a short film, it drags a bit in the middle as it meanders its way toward killing off some of the ancillary characters. Ordinarily, poor CGI effects would not be something this writer would pick on too badly (after all, an indie budget will make the most of what it has) but due to the emphasis on the creatures, the basic-cable look of the ants gets more and more distracting as the film goes on. The finale, though, is a lot of fun as all of the characters (including a stampede of literally giant ants) descend upon Noachella and the band must rock their way into saving the day.
There is no nice way to say that Ant was this writer’s least favorite film of the festival. This is not to say it was a bad film, by any stretch. As a high-energy, campy creature-feature, it is just fine. But much like the band at its heart, it feels like a bit of a relic.
For the final day of the festival, it was likely that the four-film a day was going to take a necessary reduction, partially thanks to a less packed schedule, but also because even a viewer as film-obsessed as this one needs to sleep in a bit.
Fortunately, there were several catch-up viewings scheduled (which of course, this writer had planned accordingly for) and while a nice chunk of the day was spent on other activities (like hiking or working on this very coverage) the final day of the films closed strong.
Creep 2 (2017) [USA | Director: Patrick Brice] Palm Theater
The original Creep (2014) was a small, and particularly strange little movie, hardly the sort of thing that might spawn a sequel, even in the franchise-happy horror genre. In the events of the first film, a man who calls himself Josef (Mark Duplass) is looking to hire a videographer to help him make a film for his unborn son. Aaron (Patrick Brice) answers the call and agrees to work with Josef, despite his odd affinity for wolf masks and jump scares. As their time together goes on, however, things get increasingly weirder until (SPOILER) Josef takes an axe to Aaron’s head, catching his murder on tape.
Creep 2 more or less picks up where the original ended. Though any foreknowledge of the original is sure to make the experience a deeper cut, it is not necessary. Duplass returns as the titular creep, only now he is calling himself Aaron. Aaron is a serial killer (though he prefers the term murderer, the number of people he has killed categorizes him as a serial murderer) who is experiencing something of a mid-life crisis. He is turning 40 soon, and he does not quite take the same pleasure from killing people that he once did. On paper, it almost sounds like a comedic version of Dexter. But Brice and Duplass have something far more nuanced on their mind.
After being reintroduced to Aaron, the film introduces its new protagonist, Sara (Desiree Akhavan). Sara is a videographer with a YouTube show called Encounters, in which she tracks down oddities through Craigslist ads and films the, well, encounters. When Sara comes across an ad from Aaron, she is immediately drawn to the weirdness of it. Early in their meeting, Aaron explains that he is a serial killer and he wants to make a documentary and that is why he has hired her. Within ten minutes of this admission, boundaries have certainly been crossed, and red flags are waving aplenty, but Aaron is also the perfect subject to give her art just the shot in the arm it needs.
It is a bold move narratively, not least because it treads much of the same ground as the original, though the dynamic here is far more interesting thanks to a truly great performance from Akhavan. Sara is stoic when the film needs her to be, making the difficulty Aaron is having reading her a more immersive experience for an audience trying to figure out what she is thinking. The singular weirdness that Duplass brings to the role was a point of contention for critics of the film, but to this viewer, it plays to the actors offbeat strengths perfectly well. Aaron is a seemingly normal, average looking guy, but there is something off about him. In short, he is a bit of a, well, creep.
Despite a bit of plate spinning toward the third act (though it is necessary to reach a pretty chilling finale), it is an equally, if not better film than the original. While Aaron is wildly unpredictable (and made more so by his existential crisis) Sara is the X factor who invigorates everything. Despite the fact that it is a sequel, it almost feels like an origin story, less so for our killer than for Sara, Final Girl. The relationship reminded this writer of films like Unbreakable (2001) or Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) where the villain is not whole without a heroic counterpart. In the relationship to Sara, Aaron finds his lust for life (or lack thereof) reawakened; he claims to love her too much to kill her, but his plans are no less nefarious once revealed. By the end, things are left open-ended enough that it manages to feel both satisfying to the story that was told, and like there is room for more, provided Brice and Duplass are able (and willing) to pivot once more.
HORROR, HA-HA! SHORT BLOCK
Great Choice (2017), Lemon Drink (2017), Holiday Fear (2017), Stay (2017), Fucking Bunnies (2017), Mouse (2017), Third Wheel (2017), Nocturnally Yours (2017), Don’t Ever Change (2017), Spooked (2017), We Summoned A Demon (2017)
For one reason or another, the short film blocks mostly eluded this writer. Typically, they were up against a feature film that just simply looked too interesting to pass up. Shorts, whether in written or visual form, are often a mixed bag of goodies. When you find a great collection though, it is an entirely different experience than long-form storytelling. So, in the interest of pursuing something a little different (along with the positive word of mouth from fellow attendees) this writer made the a short block a priority prior to the close of the festival.
As was expected, the results were mixed. Horror, Ha-Ha! was bound in some ways to be, as mixing comedy and horror is oft attempted, but rarely perfected.While this viewer’s mileage varied, there were a few easy standouts, including the opener, Great Choice.
Directed by Robin Cosimar, the 7 minute film is a sort of horrible twist on Groundhog Day (1993) in which Carrie Coon (notable for being the MVP in literally everything she is in) plays an unnamed woman who grows increasingly hysterical at being forced to live inside a Red Lobster commercial in a seemingly endless time loop. It is one of the truly funniest films to play during the block, and Cosimar seems to know just when to pull back enough to keep things fresh.
Lemon Drink was another film that made this viewer laugh like a madman. Vicki (Christina Parrish) is at a BBQ with her boyfriend Trent (Byron Brown) when Trent’s sister reveals a particularly odd personality trait: Trent speaks only in movie and television quotes. The film milks this for maximum laughs as Vicki flashes back (with a particularly effective use of the ending lines from Se7en  during coitus) and is horrified that she somehow never noticed. Things escalate from there, and the film ends with a delightfully wicked twist that left this writer giddy.
Third Wheel and Don’t Ever Change were the other obvious standouts for this writer, with an honorable mention to Nocturnally Yours. Wheel takes place on a first date in which a man tells his date that he could not trust a woman “without a few skeletons in her closet” but maybe could live without what is actually in her closet; while Change is about an elderly woman notorious for a murder conviction as a teen as she attempts to connect with an estranged daughter, and it is about as blackly funny as these things come, without ever feeling too mean-spirited. Nocturnally Yours follows a man who dies on the night of his engagement, and his attempts to win back his girl after returning as a ghost. It is mostly an outright comedic affair, and while it does not quite stick the landing, it is damn funny.
Thanks to a mishap where this writer lost his eyeglasses, the short film block was the final viewing of the festival. The Porkchop Express would like to take this opportunity to say thank you once again to the folks at Telluride Horror Show for allowing us to come join in on the fun, and drop our readers headlong into the festival experience!
Missed our coverage of Day One? Get caught up here.