Conceived as an outlet for the macabre, the Nevermore Horror & Gothic Film Festival has not only gained a fine reputation among genre enthusiasts, but is one of the quintessential showcases for low-budget auteurism among the several film series sponsored each year by Durham's Carolina Theatre. Still, that does not stop the festival's selection committee from hunting big game. For the sixth annual installment, which begins Friday, Jan. 21 and runs through Sunday, Jan. 23, one might be excused for renaming the event the House of Flying Daggers Revue. Of the 24 scheduled screenings (excluding the lone short film on the program), eight of them are dedicated to Zhang Yimou's gorgeous, majestic wuxia, revolving around a fable of eternal love, set against a backdrop of political and sexual upheaval. Then again, why not? The movie is one of only two ranked among the top 10 of 2004 by all three of the Indy's regular film critics (The Incredibles being the other)--indeed, it joins with Zhang's Hero atop my list.
Although not premiering locally at Nevermore (unlike all the rest of this year's films, which are North Carolina premieres), House of Flying Daggers serves as its apposite anchor not just in terms of quality, but also for a distinct geographic shift. As expected, American cinema dominates the schedule--six of the 10 featured films are made in the United States. But, in contrast to the array of European, Asian and extra-North American stock that typically rounds out the schedule, all four remaining entries come from the Orient. In addition to China's Flying Daggers, there are two Korean-produced films and one from Thailand. All of them fit nicely within Nevermore's rubric and more than justify the price of admission.
"The point of Nevermore isn't necessarily to schedule films that everybody will like, but to see something that you might not see everyday," says Jim Carl, senior director of the Carolina Theatre.
According to Carl, the most unusual aspect of this year's festival was the high number of "arranged" submissions. "At least four films on this year's program came to our attention from patrons who unilaterally contacted the distributor on our behalf or literally showed up at our office with a screener in their hand suggesting it for our program."
In between Flying Daggers screenings, the film to see at this year's festival is A Tale of Two Sisters (director Kim Jee-Woon, 115 minutes, Korea, 2004). The highest grossing Korean horror movie ever and the first tapped for a full American theatrical release, this psychological drama is a disquieting take on familial loss, emotional trauma, mental illness and coming-of-age adolescence, wrapped around a context of vaginal angst. At times indecipherable, the payoff comes thanks to an intricate storyline layered by a sumptuous palette.
Also hailing from South Korea is Sky Blue (director Moon-saeng Kim and Park Summin, 90 minutes, South Korea, 2004), the most expensive animated film in the country's history and a selection for the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The film's quality rivals that of the lauded, venerable Japanese anime. Indeed, this futuristic environmental disaster flick bears stylistic similarities to Ghost in the Shell 2, which, says Carl, was the most popular film at last year's Escapism film festival after Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut. Sky Blue's plot largely fails to match the quality of its visuals, but hey, anime sells!
The literal translation of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (director Prachya Pinkaew, 105 minutes, Thailand, 2003) is "daredevil." It's an apt label for up-and-coming star Tony Jaa, whose intricate stunts, brutal martial artistry and high-flying acrobatics suggest a young Jackie Chan, times two. Jaa's non-CGI enhanced wizardry is a must-see--and that's a good thing, since the "plot" is a slipshod, lost treasure/revenge tale that also reminds me of typical early Chan. Ong-Bak was featured at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival.
Genre purists looking for their pound of flesh needn't worry. This year's two Centerpiece Selections provide the blood and guts expected from Nevermore. Darkness: The Vampire Version (89 minutes, US, 2004) was directed by Wilmington resident Leif Jonker. This remastered version of his 1992 cult project, originally filmed over a 10-year span on Super 8mm film for a budget of less than $10,000, evokes the early works of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson (and a synth score that's early-John Carpenter pastiche). Indeed, the gratuitous, masturbatory gore is effective in its queasiness. If only as much effort had been put into the plotting and editing, which is especially shocking considering that this is a "director's cut." Visually low tech in a sub-Texas Chainsaw Massacre mode, Darkness camouflages its glaring flaws with buckets and buckets of blood and an industrious, budget-defying spirit by Jonker, who will appear at screenings to discuss and illuminate his work.
Dead and Breakfast (director Matthew Leutwyler, 88 minutes, US, 2005) has been hailed as the American equivalent of Shaun of the Dead. That's true only in so far as both are zombie comedies. In truth, the film owes more to the crazed bombast of Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk 'Til Dawn and last year's low-budget indie hit Cabin Fever. This kitschy gore-fest, a hit on the horror film festival circuit, features dancing zombies, a country/western-singing troubadour, and a cameo by David Carradine (appearing as a favor for his niece, co-star Ever Carradine). The film is campy, but finds its bearings once the bullets, axes and chainsaws start to fly and when Jeremy Sisto's severed head becomes a hand puppet.
The Off Season (director James Felix McKenney, 89 minutes, US, 2005) is a riff on The Shining--the plight of a married couple plagued by the isolation of an off-season resort setting (here, it's southern Maine) and demonic spirits haunting their low-rent motel. While surprisingly well made considering obvious budget constraints, the film loses focus and seems to run out of ideas midway through.
Gory Gory Hallelujah (director Sue Corcoran and Angie Lousie, 90 minutes, US, 2003) fancies itself as an irreverent, satirical take on society's ongoing clash between cultures, religions and sexuality. Four actors rejected for a stage role as Jesus--a black revolutionary, a bisexual hippie, a Jew and a woman--take off on a road-trip for New York City. On the way, they battle with Elvis impersonators and become stranded in a podunk borough called Jackville. The film is in the same vein as prior, popular Nevermore selections Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter and UltraChrist! However, Gory Gory's admittedly promising premise never fulfills its potential, stymied by labored acting, aimless pacing and broad stereotypes. Frankly, the film's recurring homoeroticism makes it better suited for the annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher (US, 2003) is an 11-minute short film that will be teamed as an opener before screenings of Gory Gory Hallelujah.
Corner of Your Eye (director Jesse Spencer, 96 minutes, US, 2004) proves the point that there's a fine line between existential and just plain bizarre. Three people on the edge of insanity are linked by the recurring image of a tentacled eyeball spying on their every move. The film shoots for the thematic moon and ends up defying description (either a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view).
Nevermore runs from Jan. 21-23 at the Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham. Single tickets are $7.50 and a five-pack admission pass is available for $32. For more info, including the screening schedule, visit www.carolinatheatre.org/nevermore.