Reviews From 17th Another Hole In The Head Film Festival

by on December 3, 2019

Besides genre films, Another Hole In The Head Film Festival often finds films that skillfully break social and cultural prejudices.  One such prejudice involves sexual desire in senior citizens. It’s presumed such desire doesn’t matter much when a person gets old. Alternately, such desire gets subtly ridiculed, most notoriously in the “older man chasing younger woman” trope.  An affiliated prejudice is the attitude that senior citizens’ bodies cannot be objects of sexual desire.

“Senior Love Triangle” from director Kelly Blatz excellently laughs at that attitude and prejudice without undercutting the realities of its central trio’s lives.  It’s one of Another Hole’s unexpected gems.

William (Tom Bower) is an 84-year-old World War II veteran who lives with would-be-poet Adina (Anne Gee Byrd) in an upscale Los Angeles senior housing facility.  They love each other despite William’s frequent requests for money to help close a deal in Bermuda. However, Adina’s son forces William to find a cheaper senior facility elsewhere.  The senior facility he settles on is one where he catches the eye of resident Jean (Marlyn Mason). Yet William still loves Adina in his way and wants to maintain his ties to the rich older woman without losing Jean.  Equally importantly, he’s counting on his windfall from the Bermuda deal to liberate both Adina and Jean from a dull future in their senior facilities.

Blatz’s film works because it strikes the right balance between validating the sexual desires of its central trio and acknowledging that all three characters are in their 80s.  The director recognizes that such sexual longings aren’t about boning. They’re about showing the weight of decades hasn’t dimmed their emotional spirit. Whether it’s William’s aggressiveness or Adina’s attempts at becoming a poet (despite a noticeable lack of talent), they’re expressing a desire for life greater than the limited circumstances provided by where they live now.

The scene that makes the titular love triangle emotionally real comes when the three have a tense lunch together.  Adina and Jean regard each other with concealed suspicion and try to cut each other down. Adina in particular uses her barbs about the food served to put down Jean’s lower class nature.  The familiarity of the tone of this strained conversation resonates with viewers who’ve seen far younger people talk in the same way.

Yet “Senior Love Triangle” doesn’t shy away from addressing the more earthy aspects of senior sexuality.  A facility resident “praises” Jean as someone whom he’d be happy to have sex with while the lights are on.  Later, when Jean unbuttons her blouse for a threesome with William and Adina, that moment is shot in such a way that any “ick” reaction at seeing the old woman’s intimate wrinkled flesh is minimized.

But even artful lighting can’t hide the mental problems that each member of the central trio display.  Adina’s not skeptical enough of the soundness of William’s big deal. Jean has moments where she thinks she’s back in New York City and married to her long-dead husband Richard.  And William’s enthusiasm for this big deal with John Collins seems more delusion than sound business practice.

Of the three central actors, Mason has the emotionally meatiest role.  She smoothly goes from a woman with still strong sensibilities to someone lost in her memories.  Bower manages to capture both the charm of his character’s confident air and the hair-trigger anger that lurks not far away.

The film’s ultimate tragedy comes from the huge gap between William’s pipe dream and reality.  William may say he wants to take care of the two women in his life. But such a dream depends on his overlooking that his current perks come from access to Adina’s wealth.  Jean ultimately realizes that William lacks the resources to take care of anyone, even himself. The tragedy of the final phone call doesn’t come from confirming what sharp-eyed viewers had already noticed.  It comes from realizing why William was so eager to delude himself.

***

How can a hypnotherapy record become a source of horror?  The answer to that question lies in the events recounted in Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s Swedish tale “Black Circle.”

Sisters Isa and Celeste could not be more different from each other.  Isa is a successful businesswoman with a corner office. College student Celeste has become a walking disaster area with her uncompleted graduate thesis, a messily ended relationship, and a recently lost job.  Yet the successful sister was like Celeste only a year ago. What turned Isa’s life around was the hypnotherapy record “Splits By Magnetic Hypnosis.” Celeste’s use of the record also starts unleashing her better self.  But bizarre visions start tormenting her. Then the formerly focused Isa becomes erratic and fears someone’s stalking her. Magnetic hypnosis expert Master Lena Carlsson might have a cure. But are the sisters too late?

“Black Circle”’s power comes from its unsettling spin on a familiar wish, bringing forth the supposedly truer and better self buried beneath one’s messed up surface personality.  The record helps unleash that “better” self. But Bogliano’s film asks what happens when this supposedly improved personality winds up not being much better than the old personality.

This low-fidelity horror mystery works by anchoring itself in plausibility.  The Stockholm Institute For Magnetic Research, which made the record, has a credibly pseudo-scientific yet authoritative name.  Excerpts from an Institute video recreates the look of self-improvement videos from the proverbial Me Decade. The viewer sees Celeste’s post-record change from being easily distracted and scattered into being tightly focused and organized.

So why does Carlsson later regret the manufacture of the record?  Making the record and having a correspondence course associated with it probably made the Institute’s work popularly accessible and provided a good source of income.  However, what happens to Isa and Celeste reveals that undergoing the record’s hypnotherapy treatment had unintended consequences. Dreams of mysterious menacing figures and displays of drug withdrawal-like symptoms undercut the benevolent nature of this splitting process.

Introducing some new and apparently unrelated characters more than halfway into “Black Circle” does throw the story’s pacing off a little.  What do a pair of young backpackers possessing a telepathic link and the old woman whose home they invade have to do with Isa’s and Celeste’s problems?  But things start making sense once the viewer learns the old woman is Master Lena Carlsson. Blocking the young couple’s mind link suggests Carlsson’s mental powers are far greater than suggested by the Institute’s video.

Also, introducing Carlsson and the telepathic backpackers makes the problem facing the two sisters feel a lot more serious.  The hypnotic and methodical rituals Carlsson performs to repair the damage done by the record creates suspense thanks to viewer uncertainty about the rituals’ effectiveness.

The film smartly ends on multiple ambiguous notes.  What does normality now mean for both sisters? Was what the viewer saw in the film an actual accounting of events or simply a “what if” scenario?  Are there other Institute hypnotherapy records which haven’t been accounted for?

Bogliano’s film may go for a more subtle horror than the expected standards of gore or jump scares.  That creative choice doesn’t diminish the film’s disturbing effect.

***

A person usually sees the “Stay Out Stay Alive” warning near the entrances of abandoned mines or caves.  This message hopefully discourages the curious and foolhardy from entering such subterranean spaces and risking their lives.  Dean Yurke’s feature debut “Stay Out Stay Alive” shows what disastrously happens after one small group of campers ignores this advice.  Yet to Yurke’s credit, the film’s moral message proves a bit different from viewer expectations.

Five friends have come to Yosemite for a camping weekend.  There’s Amy, whose thesis-writing has become creatively stuck; Donna, a nurse; Bridget, a hairdresser; Reese, Bridget’s unemployed boyfriend who dreams of being a park ranger; and Kyle, Amy’s boyfriend.  Donna accidentally falls down a hole during a night-time walk. When the other camping party members find their missing friend, they make two discoveries. First, one of Donna’s legs is pinned under a rock.  Second, the hole she fell into is part of a forgotten mine shaft…and the mine has a large unworked vein of gold available. But the group’s dreams of profiting from this sudden financial windfall fail to account for Chief Tenaya’s curse, one placed on this land over 150 years ago as retaliation for his son’s murder.

Impatient viewers may claim Chief Tenaya’s curse doesn’t seem to amount to much given the lack of overtly hostile acts directed towards the unwary campers.  There’s a quiet snuffing of candles near the trapped Donna. Two bags of mined gold mysteriously go missing. On the other hand, the appearance of shadowy figures indicate that persisting in taking the gold out of the mine would have been met with more aggressive retaliation.  And is an approaching rainstorm really a simple freak meteorological event?

Viewers familiar with the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” will see in Yurke’s film that the real curse holding sway over the campers is that of human greed.  Reese turns out to be the most obviously affected, but even the studious Amy pays a price for initially refusing to leave the gold underground. What happens to the campers feels more disturbing given the sense that viewers in the characters’ situation would probably have made equally bad choices.  Economic desperation, systemic humiliation, and jealousy in various proportions are very relatable weaknesses.

Seeing the worst of human behavior on display provides better horrific impact than depicting full-on gore.  When the bodies start falling, such skillful allusions as blood-soaked clothing and abrupt soundtrack silence before striking a killing blow make the deaths more horrifying than the visual cliche of plentiful fake blood.

How disturbing a viewer will find the film’s final twist will depend on individual taste.  It could underscore the emotional teeth behind Chief Tenaya’s curse. Or else it could be considered a weak fallback on a familiar moralistic punishment.

***

Does Victor Dryere’s “1974: La Posesion De Altair” do anything interesting or novel with the found footage horror genre?  It follows such genre tropes as the film subjects disappearing under mysterious circumstances and the resulting film being the record of the terrible fate that befell them.  Provenance is especially hand-wavey here. The viewer knows the film’s rough look comes from being shot on Super 8 film principally by subjects Miguel and Callahan. Yet the presumption that the entire sequence of events was pieced together from many bits of Super 8 film dodges the question of who went to the trouble of assembling the story.  The semi-arrogant Dr. Canseco character clearly prefers to keep the unfortunate tale under wraps.

It also doesn’t help that the viewer never becomes attached to any of the principal characters.  Miguel, in particular, comes off early as a macho jerk as the camera unflatteringly captures his refusal to lift a finger to help his new wife Altair.  Keeping the camera gratuitously running on a good shot of Altair’s cleavage only earns him sexist pig points.

Fortunately, vague hints regarding the fates of Miguel and Altair help.  They mysteriously disappeared, but was the cause of their disappearance an explosion?  Also, the spooky stuff happens soon enough to engross the viewer. Minor occurrences such as an unexpected delivery of bricks soon assume a more sinister air.  By the time the mass die-off of birds occurs, questions about the angels Altair dreams of start gaining urgency.

To Dryere’s credit, there’s a good reason why the film is set in 1974 (which won’t be spoiled here).  However, even that knowledge won’t prepare viewers for the film’s disturbing finale, which feels terrifyingly logical.  On the other hand, that feeling of disturbance will not last long after the viewer leaves the theater.

***

John Adams’ “The Deeper You Dig” is at its core the tale of a mother doing whatever it takes to reconnect with her dead daughter’s spirit…and vice versa.  But the viewer will not expect this path to reconnection to involve a radio seemingly stuck on Jazz Age standards, severed body parts, and symbolic snake swallowing.

In a rural community, Kurt and the Allen family are neighbors who are initially strangers to each other.  Kurt is ripping out the interior of an old house hoping to rebuild and flip it. Mother Ivy Allen has let her intuitive psychic abilities fade in favor of running a faked Tarot card reading scam.  Echo Allen is a 14-year-old Goth teen with a fondness for Jazz Age standards and hunting. The two households’ paths cross in a manner that ends fatally for Echo. As Ivy struggles to contact her daughter’s spirit, Kurt finds out just how far Echo’s spirit will go to let Ivy know what happened to her.

Kurt’s stripping of the old house and Ivy’s decision to try reconnecting to the old spirits are obviously symbolic attempts at digging.  But Kurt’s attempting to bury his crime. Ivy’s digging, on the other hand, will let her reclaim the true power she had suppressed within herself.

Echo, meanwhile, shows that death hasn’t quelled her capacity for snark.  In a wonderfully grotesque moment, the teen’s partially decayed corpse chides her murderous neighbor for being too lazy to dig deeper to conceal her body.  Kurt’s frequently violent responses to the prods of Echo’s spirit only makes her up her snarking game.

One such stunt sees Kurt coughing up a mixture of blood and still wriggling maggots, a moment which will arouse some viewers’ audible disgust.  The grotesqueness of the vomiting shouldn’t distract viewers from seeing it as a moment where the teen’s spirit has started to internally struggle with Kurt in earnest.

Condemning Echo’s actions towards Kurt ignore the reality of his crime.  As it happened at night on a rural road, there are no witnesses. Nor does anybody but Kurt know how he disposed of Echo’s body.  In earthly terms, unless Kurt confesses that Echo’s death was more than an unfortunate accident, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be prosecuted.  So what Echo’s spirit does to Kurt feels like a grotesque form of poetic justice.

Ivy’s difficulties in understanding what the spirits are trying to tell her about Echo’s fate doesn’t show her lack of intelligence.  The symbolic images and sensations the spirits convey to her are often disconnected from context. It’s almost as if the spirits want to torment her for her earlier apostasy.

Those enigmatic images sent by the spirits point to one of the strong suits of Adams’ film.  The director employs a good sense of visual storytelling to fine effect. In an early sequence, the three main characters are in the same convenience store.  Even though they don’t exchange words, there’s a sense of their intertwined fates. A later shot of Echo’s snowboard presages Ivy’s discovery of Kurt’s connection to her daughter’s fate.

Adams even manages to make the film’s gory and/or grotesque moments be visually arresting without stopping the story’s momentum.  The inevitable violent final clash between Ivy and Kurt turns out to involve more than just pent-up revenge at stake. Unless it was accidental, one particular moment during the final clash offers a gross visual pun on a particular revenge motif.  But it can definitely be said the film’s final shot offers a darkly humorous coda.

(“Senior Love Triangle” screens at 7:00 PM on December 9, 2019.  “Black Circle” screens at 7:00 PM on December 12, 2019. “Stay Out Stay Alive” screens at 7:00 PM on December 11, 2019.  “1974: La Posesion De Altair” screens at 7:00 PM on December 13, 2019. “The Deeper You Dig” screens at 7:00 PM on December 6, 2019.  All screenings take place at the New People Cinema (1746 Post, SF). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.ahith.com .)

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