Terror in the Aisles 13

Terror in the Aisles 13 took place at Chicago’s Portage Theater on November 30 with an impressive lineup and indie genre film veteran Brian Yuzna as the special guest. That Yuzna’s appearance was coordinated with a showing of Society, his directorial debut, was the main draw of the evening. While seeing that film for the first time in nearly twenty years was the highlight for me, the rest of the evening offered the chance to check out some old favorites, take in an impressive short horror film from a local filmmaker, giggle along with a spot-on fake trailer, and enjoy a terrific short that reveled in its bad taste.

Random Thoughts:

–       I am really learning to appreciate the speakers that Movieside is bringing to Terror in the Aisles and The Massacre. In the years that I have been regularly attending these events, I have been treated to interviews with Clive Barker, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen, Brian Yuzna, Jack Hill, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Kevin Van Hentenryck, Michael Dougherty, and the Chiodo Brothers. That’s a hell of a lineup and only a few of the filmmakers who have taken time out to talk and visit with their fans.

–       I was spoiled by how good the prints were for the movies during The Massacre in October. The print for Society was pretty sharp, but the prints for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Phantasm were awfully faded, giving every scene the same pink tint that comes with print deterioration. Still, I appreciate the effort to show as much as possible on 35 mm and avoid projection from DVD unless absolutely necessary.

–       My friend Brian pointed out that attending The Massacre and the Terror in the Aisles events feels very much like going to church. While I’m not religious and haven’t regularly attended a church since I was a child, I can see his reasoning. We come to the Portage Theater, which feels like a place of worship for movie lovers, we see many of the same faces in attendance, there is a communal feeling to the audience, we have guest speakers preach to the congregation and re-affirm our faith in the power of genre films, and we “pass the plate” for charity.

–       When Angus Scrimm scowls, he reminds me of my dad when angry.

Note: Two music videos were part of the evening’s festivities but I have chosen not to review them since I am not a musician and do not feel qualified to comment on what I perceive to be their merits or shortcomings. I complain quite a bit about people blogging on topics which they are not qualified to cover. I don’t wish to be one of those people.

Air Conditions (2012)

A short film that starts out as a survival horror piece about a man stuck in one place with no apparent hope for escape, it turns into something else entirely. I really don’t want to say any more than that in way of a plot setup or synopsis because much of the effectiveness of this mean little film by writer/director Ryan Oliver comes from the ability to make you think the film is going to be one thing before eventually revealing what is really happening.

Beyond the story misdirection, there is quite a bit more to admire about the film.

Oliver offers up some images that are hard to forget. From the stylish shot of a figure standing in a doorway of a darkened room with bright sunlight at his back to the disconcerting shots of severed pig’s heads sitting on a Chicago rooftop, the film is always visually interesting. Unfortunately, this is an aspect of low-budget shorts that is often lacking. So many short films I see (especially since digital video came along) are visually boring, making it a slog to sit through many of them, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a short that looks like it belongs in the cinema.

The performance by John Fenner Mays as the man trapped in place is quite good. While some might view his portrayal as a little over-the-top, I felt he was a strong, sympathetic presence. No one knows how they would react to the situation in which his character finds himself trapped. I think the quick panic on the part of his character was a believable choice and his mounting frustration, anger, and desperation was palpable. Just as it’s rare to get good visuals out of short films these days, it’s just as unusual to see good acting, so Mays deserves a lot of credit for how well the film came together.

The film is a little too long. I feel it could greatly benefit by having five minutes trimmed from some of the setup and an extended slow-motion sequence felt a little too self-indulgent on the part of Oliver. Despite these complaints, I was very impressed by Air Conditions. It taps into the potent paranoia and fear that on any given day, one wrong step could spin our lives straight out of our control.

You can check out a trailer for it here.

Society (1989)

Before the start of Society, director Brian Yuzna did a brief introduction in which he referred to it as “such an ‘80s film.” While the hairstyles, fashions, and home décor are all frozen in late ‘80s amber, the script has dated very well, with its theme of the “haves” taking advantage of the “have nots” standing as just as relevant today as it was when the film was made nearly 25 years ago.

Bill (Billy Warlock) seems to have it all. He’s a popular basketball player at his Beverly Hills high school, is poised to become class president, his girlfriend is a cheerleader, and his parents are rich. But Bill has serious issues about his family. He feels like an outsider in his home as his parents (Charles Lucia and Connie Danese) seem to have a special bond with his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings) while they treat him like a barely tolerated houseguest. He sees a therapist (Ben Slack) who dismisses Bill’s concerns as a feeling of alienation through which all teenagers go.

Bill tries to believe his therapist, but he can’t shake the feeling that something wrong is going on with the people in his life. This view is furthered by his friend Blanchard (Tim Bartell) who used to date Jenny until she unceremoniously dumped him. Obsessed with Jenny, Blanchard bugged her jewelry and car and heard conversations between her and Bill’s parents that sound like they are involved with some kind of incestuous cult at their country club. When Blanchard is killed in a suspicious car accident, Bill’s determination to find out the truth deepens, but is anything wrong or is he just paranoid? Adding to Bill’s confusion is the fact that he is ostracized by many of his fellow classmates on the order of Ferguson (Ben Meyerson), a thuggish classmate who controls a large clique of the richest kids at school while Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez)—a member of said clique—seduces him.

For a movie that barely runs ninety minutes, it’s stuffed to the brim with characters and odd tangents. Perhaps that’s why Yuzna and his screenwriters, Rick Fry and Woody Keith, barely play with the “is it all in his mind?” angle. If you have seen any of the marketing for the film or ever heard someone you know talk about it, you know that there is something rotten in Beverly Hills. What you may not realize, is just how twisted that something rotten is. But that’s okay because that means you’re in for a pleasant surprise as the amazing makeup effects by Screaming Mad George take center stage in a jaw-dropping twenty minute sequence that is more stunning than anything that can be currently created with CGI.

Coming from the producer of one of the greatest horror-comedies of all time, it’s not surprising that Society tries to walk a tonal tightrope between its satirical points and the slimy, queasy, effects-driven tale it eventually becomes. Yuzna straddles the line reasonably well, but the points about class inequality and teenage alienation are often times served up in blunt exchanges that sound more like talking points than natural dialogue. For me, the most interesting angle of the inequality theme is the most subtly handled: most of the members of the clique, Bill’s family, and other authority figures who may or may not be involved in the conspiracy could play Nazis in a World War II movie because of their largely Aryan appearance. This becomes an even more powerful choice on the part of Yuzna when Blanchard’s funeral is held in a Synagogue. The connection is never mentioned or forced on the audience, but it made a huge impression on me.

Where Yuzna seems to feel more comfortable is when the film just revels in weirdness. Clarissa’s mother looks and acts like a character straight out of an early John Waters film with her obsession with other people’s hair. She even hacks up a hairball in a memorable scene. A subplot about who is placing shrunken heads and voodoo dolls (at one point, even a life-sized sex doll) in Bill’s Jeep and locker is explained away with the flimsiest of excuses and becomes comedic in the process. In the biggest laugh of the night, Clarissa’s options for what Bill takes in his tea will go down as one of the greatest and strangest non sequiturs in the history of film. These moments all feel more organic and fleshed out then some of the more obvious satire that makes up much of the film.

But while the class inequality satire may be blunt, along with the amazing makeup work in the third act, it’s what gives the film staying power and keeps it something you can watch today for reasons other than looking at it as an ‘80s camp fest. If you can find a DVD of it or are lucky enough to get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, take full advantage.

After the film, Yuzna did a Q&A that covered a little bit about the making of Society and Re-Animator, but focused more on the producing side of his career and his pragmatic approach to being a working producer. Refreshing in his candor, he talked about how he felt Paul Naschy was not given enough credit for the career he put together, why he felt the special effects crews in Spain (where he produced several films for the Fantastic Factory, an indie genre production company) weren’t up to snuff, and the importance of learning the art of raising funds and getting distribution while still making money. It was nice to hear a guest speak so frankly about the business aspect of making films.

Trailer for Una Chiave di Ghiaccio in un Campo di Lillà (A Key of Ice in a Field of Lilacs)

Given a perfect spot before Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this fake trailer from Jason Coffman nailed the tone of those great ‘70s giallo trailers that give you a ton of visual information, but next to no plot details. Coffman understands what makes those trailers so effective: a focus on the score, moments of unintentional humor, occasional bursts of violence, a convoluted title, and lots and lots of people looking sinister in extreme close up. Of course, there is no dialogue in the trailer to copy the fact that the trailers were often cut for the U.S. market and the distributers didn’t want the audience to know it was a foreign film. This was a very funny and well-timed treat. Check it out below.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

There really is no need to write a full review of this film, Argento’s directorial debut. If you have seen any of the Italian master’s giallos, you know exactly what to expect. I will only say that as a narrative, it is more coherent and straight-forward than many of Argento’s later films and sports some of the best performances he ever brought out of a cast.

Treevenge (2008)

Why did I not seek out this film before? Co-written and directed by Jason Eisener, the director of the delightfully tasteless Hobo with a Shotgun, Treevenge is a short film based around a very clever conceit. Of course, numerous films have clever ideas at their core; they just usually fail in the execution of that idea. Treevenge delivers on its inspired concept, earning some giant laughs in the process.

In the run up to Christmas, evergreen trees are carelessly cut down by angry, hateful lumberjacks. The best trees are trucked off to be sold while the less impressive specimens are tossed on to a fire and saplings get crushed in the harvest.

The opening sequence is bizarre enough in its heightened intensity before taking into account the fact that the trees talk. The people cutting them down cannot hear them, but the audience is let in on their terrified cries and panicked confusion via subtitles.

The film follows several trees as they are purchased by families and subjected to further torture through decoration and having screws tightened into their trunks to hold them in place before Christmas morning rolls around. The title of the film probably tells you what happens next.

The film shares the same gleeful lack of taste as Eisener’s more well-known Hobo with a Shotgun. The action in the final sequence takes on the tone of a Troma film with indiscriminate killings, gallons of spraying blood, and great dollops of chunky gore. Quite simply, it is a wonderful sight to behold. Don’t believe me? Watch it for yourself.

Phantasm (1979)

Much like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, there is no real need to write a review of Phantasm. Not only is it a horror classic—yes, I said classic—well known even to non-horror fans, it is a film that defies logic in the best ways possible. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have an interior logic, it just runs like a series of nightmares strung together. Each scene is its own nightmare and the only connections are the characters and paranoid theme.

As Don Coscarelli’s vision of suburban hell finished with The Tall Man’s menacing bellow of “Boy!,” I gathered together my wits, shook my legs that had fallen asleep, and staggered out into the cold Chicago night. I cannot wait until the next opportunity to spend several hours in one of the city’s grand old movie palaces, immersed in nightmares splashed in light across the screen along with several hundred like-minded folks, holding service in our own form of church.

Read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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