Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Popcorn Frights, Night 4: Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018), St. Agatha (2018), Cold Skin (2018)

Night 4 of Popcorn Frights was probably the most consistent of the bunch so far, producing two very solid mainstream horror movies and one that, while lacking the others' wide appeal, was an out-and-out great one.

First, we start the night with the great one. Coming from Mexican filmmaker Issa López...

Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven) (2018)

Not rated

Score: 5 out of 5

When the credits rolled on Tigers Are Not Afraid (originally titled Vuelven, Spanish for "They Return", in its native Mexico), I don't think there was a dry eye in the house. A wonderful mix of magic realism, supernatural horror, and a gritty crime thriller set amidst the backdrop of cartel violence in Mexico, so far this easily ranks next to Anna and the Apocalypse as one of my favorite films of the festival, at various points righteous, heartwarming, heartbreaking, empowering, and downright terrifying. I almost want to call this an outright masterpiece, a beautiful journey that weaves through, subverts, and plays with genres almost effortlessly while wearing its heart on its sleeve, imbuing its characters with such humanity that, even though I kind of knew how the film was going to end, I couldn't wait to actually see it happen. It's not every day when a scary movie about the ghosts of cartel victims inspires those sorts of emotions in me, but this isn't a normal movie.

Our heroine Estrella is an adolescent girl growing up in a Mexican border town plagued by violence, one where the leading candidate for mayor is also "El Chino", the head of the the ruthless cartel that terrorizes the city. One day, after a gang shooting right outside her school, one of her classmates gives her three pieces of chalk that she says will grant her three wishes. With her mother having recently been kidnapped by the cartel, Estrella's first wish is for her mother to come back... which winds up causing the ghosts of her mother and all of the cartel's other victims to start haunting her. Fleeing her home, she crosses paths with a group of four boys living on the street who have crossed paths with El Chino's men, namely by stealing a cell phone that contains video of El Chino personally murdering a woman, and as Estrella gets caught up in their activities, she now finds that she has two separate problems to deal with, one supernatural and the other all too human. However, the solution to both may be more connected than it seems at first glance.

I fell in love with these characters almost immediately. While Estrella is the clear protagonist, the street urchins she partners with are given just as important a focus as she is. All four of these boys, the leader Shine (pronounced "shiny") and his friends Tusci, Pop, and Morro, are played by gifted young actors who play them as kids who have been forced to grow up too fast; all of them have lost their parents and are involved in a life of crime. Estrella is the outsider to their world, but one who is forced to adapt as, without her mother, she can no longer live in her home, having been pushed out into the street by the same forces that put Shine and his friends in their position. They fight to find the best in the world in which they live, playing soccer, hosting mock talent shows riffing on The X-Factor, and being awed by a pond full of fish that they discovered in an abandoned, run-down mansion. Yet at every turn, El Chino and his goons are one step behind them. It is a life of wonder, but also of danger and poverty, one where the fantasies of childhood are the only escape from the necessities of day-to-day survival and the ever-present threat of violence. Until the ending makes it unambiguous, most of the supernatural elements can be interpreted as metaphor, of Estrella and the street kids being haunted by the violence that surrounds her on a daily basis. These characters had me in their corner from start to finish. I've seen other critics compare this to a Guillermo del Toro film, and not just because del Toro and this film's writer/director Issa López are both Mexican. While López's fairy tale favors urban grit over del Toro's stylized allusions to classic fantasy, its blend of ghost-story horror tropes with the very real social problems of modern Mexico immediately brought to mind Pan's Labyrinth.

The comparisons to Pan's Labyrinth continue with the incredibly solid core of horror that runs through the film. The ghosts take the form of men and women wrapped in trash bags by their executioners, often torn in places to reveal the rotting flesh underneath, a macabre gangster take on the countless ghosts we've seen in funeral shrouds and similar garments. Their appearance alone is chilling, and López knows how to make the best use of them as they haunt Estrella and push her to what turns out to be a shared goal. This is an icky little flick, one that is as grotesque as it is beautiful; even when the ghosts aren't onscreen, there are always signs of their presence, most notably in a trail of blood that seems to follow Estrella at every step. Their murky goals, slowly hinted at before being revealed in full at the end, also lend them a degree of sympathy, one that turns them from antagonists into the deliverers of what is quite possibly the most crowd-pleasing moment in the entire film.

The Bottom Line

Simultaneously a dive into the violence of Mexico's cartel wars, a chilling supernatural horror flick, and an exploration of growing up in a dangerous world, Tigers Are Not Afraid is one of the best films I've seen all year. When this gets distributed in the US, see it. You will not be disappointed.


Next up, Darren Lynn Bousman of Saw franchise fame brings his latest...

St. Agatha (2018)

Not yet rated

Score: 4 out of 5

St. Agatha is yet another retro throwback on the Popcorn Frights slate, this one homaging '70s "nunsploitation" movies revolving around Catholic convents, the nuns who live in them, and the debauched, un-Christian behavior they engage in. Often reveling in the ways in which the nuns abused "wayward girls", these movies were part of the '70s exploitation film boom, a key distinction from St. Agatha, which combines that subject matter with somewhat classier aspirations -- a balancing act that it pulls off remarkably well. It is a vicious and confined film whose plot, while at first glance reading like a retread of countless other movies in its genre, is elevated by an outstanding villain and some highly memorable set pieces, with director Darren Lynn Bousman stepping well outside his gorefest wheelhouse to deliver an effective little chiller.

Mary is a young woman living in 1957 who, after her father blamed her for the death of her little brother William, ran off with her boyfriend, a hustler named James who makes money cheating at poker. Unfortunately, one of the many people who James ripped off decides to rob them back, leaving them destitute and Mary, pregnant with James' baby, lining up at a soup kitchen. The nuns who run the place offer to take her in and help her put her child up for adoption, but from the moment she arrives at the convent, Mary notices that this place isn't right. The other young women there live in fear of the nuns and their Mother Superior, who mentions offhand that the Vatican cut off its funding for the convent over her practices -- and this being 1957, that's saying something. The rest of the film is spent finding out what those practices are, as Mary is brutalized and dehumanized by what turn out to be the captors of the women in the house.

While Mary is our heroine, the real showstopper here is the villainous Mother Superior. Played by Carolyn Hennesy of General Hospital and True Blood fame, the Mother Superior makes no bones about who or what she is, running the convent like Margaret White in Carrie as an over-the-top matriarch, except minus even the fundamentalist conviction that she's doing what's right that at least gave some sort of justification for Margaret's actions; no, her goals are coldly cynical. She starts the film as somebody who will happily admit that she is a cold-hearted bitch, and she, together with her cohort of penguins, demonstrates just why that is as she subjects Mary and the other girls under her "care" to numerous abuses, all of them detailed in brutal ways, from forcing one girl to "finish her supper" after she vomits due to her pregnancy (i.e. eat what she just vomited up) to locking Mary in a coffin until she abandons her old identity and takes the name Agatha. The Mother Superior was somebody who I spent the entire movie waiting to see her receive her comeuppance, a grotesque, terrifying, and wickedly smart villain who knew just how much power she wielded and reveled in it.

Bousman also makes very good use of the claustrophobic confines of the convent that so much of the film takes place in, doing a great job setting up the geography of the building and showcasing the horrors within it. An oppressive atmosphere quickly settles over the film from the moment Mary arrives at the convent, helped undoubtedly by the Mother Superior and the nuns but working primarily because of Bousman's direction creating the impression of a building filled with secrets that it is keen to first hint at and then ruthlessly exploit. Chekhov's guns are set up all over the mantlepiece, from the nuns' battle with a rat infestation to implications regarding the fate of the babies left in the sisters' care, and are then fired off at the end to maximum effect. A scene where Mary, with a wounded leg, sneaks around the convent at night to discover the truth about the sisters makes for an excellent exercise in slowly mounting tension as we wait with bated breath for one of the sisters to catch her. Bousman's direction may not be particularly revolutionary, but much like James Wan, he takes a grab-bag of horror tricks both old and new and puts them to use.

The Bottom Line

A twisted thriller whose ordeal of violence pays off in spectacular fashion, St. Agatha proves that the director of the second through fourth Saw movies and Repo! The Genetic Opera can still make a very scary movie even without his trademark gory spectacle. When it comes out, seek it out.


Finally, we have this creature feature from Xavier Gens...

Cold Skin (2018)

Not yet rated

Score: 4 out of 5

While an admittedly derivative film, Cold Skin, an adaptation of the novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol, is still an entertaining mashup of genre tropes, combining a period setting, monsters ripped from H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth", the desolate isolation of The Thing, and a romantic subplot reminiscent of the sci-fi horror film Splice. Most importantly, it remembers to take its many constituent parts and tell a compelling story with them, fusing excellent cinematography with an almost action-horror treatment of its monster hordes and great interplay between its three main characters.

In 1914, on the eve of the outbreak of World War I, an unnamed man, credited only as "Friend", is dispatched by the Royal Navy to man a weather station in the South Atlantic at the bottom of the world for twelve months. Told that the meteorologist before him died of typhus, he soon learns that that's not true in the slightest as a horde of fish-men swarms the island on a nightly basis, driving him to take shelter with Gruner, the caretaker of the lighthouse who has fought these monsters for a long time -- as well as a fish-woman that the protagonist calls Aneris who Gruner keeps as his pet and servant (and implied sex-slave). As the two men fight off the sea creatures besieging the island, Friend slowly learns that there's more to what's going on, especially with Gruner, than meets the eye.

While the film is told through the eyes of the meteorologist, including through his narration, it's Ray Stevenson who steals the show as Gruner, the lighthouse keeper who forces our protagonist to live by his rules and help him maintain the lighthouse if he is to survive another day. Stevenson plays Gruner as a man who is filled with secrets and has seen a lot in his life, one whose desperation for companionship eventually led him to kidnap one of the females of the species. Despite several attempts at such, there is no bonding between Friend and Gruner; these two men do not like each other, especially with Friend's growing disgust at the way Gruner treats Aneris, and especially after it becomes clear that Gruner is a bigger part of the problem than it may have seemed at first glance. While on the surface a movie about two men fighting to survive monster attacks, it slowly reveals itself as a movie about those two men fighting to survive each other, especially given the woman that stands in between them. Said fish-woman, played by Spanish actress Aura Garrido, is the most prominent symbol of the film's outstanding creature designs and special effects makeup. Based heavily off of Lovecraft's "Deep Ones", the monsters here are icky, gross, and shown to be well-adapted to their environment, and we see this most of all with Aneris, a creature who, while adapted for the sea with her hairless, wet body, has her own way of moving on dry land that, while clearly inhuman, is more than just an animal -- foreshadowing how the film ultimately winds up.

Until then, we get a film that makes great use of its remote island setting, devoid of humanity or life in general beyond mosses, lichens, and shrubs; Hawaii this island ain't. Punctuating the quiet desolation of the island are multiple harrowing sequences where the monsters lay siege to the lighthouse, and the quieter moments in between where Stevenson and David Oakes develop the tense relationship between Gruner and Friend while waiting nervously for the next monster attack even as they go weeks without seeing any fish creatures other than Aneris. Director Xavier Gens splits the difference between long, wide shots designed to show both the passage of time and the island's emptiness and isolation, and hyperkinetic action during the attack sequences as Gruner and Friend find their lighthouse besieged from all sides. While a poor fit for an action movie, I've always been more forgiving of this style, heavy on jitter cam and quick cuts, when used for horror, as it does a great job of conveying when characters are panicking or otherwise under pressure. And there is plenty of man-on-monster action to be had here, as Stevenson and Oakes unload with rifles, shotguns, pistols, and eventually knives and axes on the beasts crawling all over the island.

The Bottom Line

An entertaining film with a great twist that I don't want to spoil, Cold Skin is up there with St. Agatha as probably the most "mainstream" movie I've seen at the festival so far, one that I can see playing in movie theaters in wide release and becoming quite a cult classic from fans of monster movies.

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