This weekend, the Carolina Theatre of Durham is hosting the fifth running of its enormously popular Nevermore film festival, a ritual celebration of horror, sci-fi and fantasy. However, I have to confess that in past years, I've held the festival at arm's length. I've never been much of a fan of schlock--not since I was a teenager, that is--and Nevermore always struck me as a celebration of films that I don't ordinarily spend much time watching. But, Nevermore is a hugely successful event and its fans are the biggest movie lovers around.
Surveying this year's lineup, I was struck also by the sheer love of the medium expressed by the filmmakers. One film, Monster Man, includes a ribald discussion of the true origin of "Rosebud," from Citizen Kane; another has a fairly blatant homage to Vertigo; and still another contains a wealth of information about Hollywood's formative years and its first great Western star, Tom Mix.
Furthermore, the Nevermore films make clear that it takes an incredible amount of love and dedication to shoot a no-budget horror flick, a proposition that is, at best, a straight-to-video enterprise. But the shoestring horror-makers have an exuberant spirit that is often sorely lacking in the more solemn, self-important projects that get rewarded with Sundance slots. Although I don't love everything on the schedule this year, I think many will be entertaining experiences for the crowds who queue up at the Carolina this weekend.
The festival will run Jan. 23-25 at the Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham. Single tickets are $7.50 and Five Packs are available for $32. For more information, visit www.carolinatheatre.org.
Here's a look at this weekend's lineup.
2009 Lost Memories (dir. Si-myung Lee, 135 min, Korea, 2003) A blockbuster hit in Korea, this big-budget action film takes the prize for best production values in the Nevermore fest. The film opens with the 1909 attempted assassination of a Japanese politician in occupied China, but when the subtitles subsequently inform us that Japan and the U.S. fought as allies in World War II and the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Berlin rather than Hiroshima, we realize we're watching a piece of alternate history. In this version, Korea remains the property of Japan and so we flash forward to 2009, when Japanese lawmen are battling Korean liberation guerrillas. For lack of time rather than interest, I didn't make it all the way through this one, but I saw enough to know it's a bloodbath (the press materials boast of 20,000 rounds of ammo being fired).
The American Astronaut (dir. Cory McAbee, 92 min, U.S., 2001) For my money, this riotous and bizarre black and white art film is the festival must-see. Set in the future on planets far away, a space trader named Samuel Curtis (played by the director) has some odd adventures as he conducts his business of ferrying goods and persons around the galaxy. But outer space, in McAbee's vision, looks a lot like a truck stop or a roadhouse. The "plot" involves a murder conspiracy, but there are frequent breaks for raucous and surreal production numbers. And then there's a memorable piece of human cargo named The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast, who's taken to Venus to be the love slave to its all-female population of antebellum lasses. Fans of Guy Maddin, Aki Kaurismaki and Eraserhead need to reserve their tickets pronto.
At Night With No Curtains (dir. Ian Hayes Brett, 85 min, U.S., 2003) No preview was available for this Tarheel production, but it sounds intriguing. The story concerns five teenagers who uncover the truth behind the ancient and terrible secret of an old Civil War-era plantation house. It seems that a young widow ordered her five children to be stabbed in the stomach and locked in a closet. The young murderess proceeds to sit outside the closet, listening to the agonizing cries of her children. This one might be colder than Cold Mountain.
Bubba HoTep (dir. Don Coscarelli, 92 min, U.S. 2002) Last year's most talked about midnight movie will get one screening only, Saturday night in Fletcher Hall. Yes, this is the film where Elvis and JFK meet in a nursing home and become geriatric buttkickers. Bruce Campbell is the King and Ossie Davis--indeed, Ossie Davis--is Jack Kennedy. No preview was available for this one, but we don't plan on missing it.
Ghost of the Needle (dir. Brian Avenet Bradley, 86 min, U.S., 2003) This tale of a photographer/serial killer gets off to an adroit start as we meet an artist who kills his models, a la Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The principal set--the artist's studio--is nicely done, as we see his pleasant landscapes hanging on the warehouse columns. The thing is, the reverse sides of the photos contain pictures of dead girls. Unfortunately, Ghost of the Needle hits the skids whenever other characters wander in and reveal the film's tone-deaf script: An art dealer talks and acts more like a drug dealer, and an art collector behaves more like a gangster. Still, the repeated images of the artist vacuum-packing his dead models and wheeling them into storage are chilling, to say the least.
The Ghosts of Edendale (dir. Stefan Avalos, 90 min, U.S., 2003) A not-so-young couple--he, a burned-out newspaper reporter, and she, a retired model, are recovering from a nervous breakdown. They relocate to Los Angeles to write the great American screenplay. The problem is, she keeps seeing apparitions, and he becomes strangely possessed as he cranks out the script. This digital video excursion is a little slow, but it's a not-bad take on Hollywood's morbid underbelly and the legions of would-be Hollywood players who dream of winning the lottery in the form of a screenplay.
The Human BEEing (dir. Tony Shea, 35 min, U.S., 2002) The plot of this black-and-white short involves a mad scientist who concocts a human-bee hybrid for the purpose of replacing the all-human work force of a typing company. A comic tribute to the laughable sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, The Human BEEing sets an appropriately cheesy tone when the "producer" tells us that the film we're about to see is so shocking, so terrifying, that it should be avoided by anyone with heart problems, psychiatric maladies and so on. Needless to say, the film isn't scary at all. Unfortunately, it isn't that funny either, despite the ecstatic reception this film purportedly received at other horror fests. Still, fans of Mystery Science Theater and Ed Wood should enjoy this homage to bad filmmaking.
I'll Bury You Tomorrow (dir. Alan Rowe Kelly, 119 min, U.S., 2002) Despite the very, very catchy title, I didn't get very far with this digital video feature. The story concerns an attractive but shy young necrophile and her new job at a funeral parlor. Although this one is supposed to be the goriest film of Nevermore, I was so distracted by the hammy acting, clumsy staging and glacial pacing that iIgave up on it after 30 minutes. Later, I watched more of it and confirmed the film's carnage quotient, which some viewers may find worth the wait.
Lethal Dose (dir. Simon De Selva, 97 min. UK, 2003) The press preview of Lethal Dose happened after my deadline, but the story concerns a team of animal rights activists who stage a raid on a medical testing facility to rescue a colleague who's being held captive. The thing is, said colleague was used as a testing subject for the wicked scientists, and he's apparently not the man he used to be ...
Monster Man (dir. Michael Davis, 95 min, US, 2003) Although there are precious few new ideas in this Duel meets Y tu mama tambien meets grossout flick du jour, Monster Man is a well-acted, frequently funny and smartly edited horror-comedy. Adam is a 25 year-old virgin who's on the road to a wedding where he will proclaim his love to the bride-to-be, and Harley is his obnoxious buddy (played in massive Jack Black-attack by Justin Urich, Robert's nephew). But there's this monster truck that keeps appearing at the worst times. ... This film actually has a mainstream distributor (Lion's Gate), but it's been dumped to video. Too bad, because Monster Man, despite its no-name cast, could have found an audience with the youngsters at the multiplex.
My Little Eye (dir. Marc Evans, 95 min, UK, 2002) Five hip, good-looking kids share a house for six months, for the sake of a prize offered by a reality webcast. The only rule is they have to stay on the premises at all times, and inside the house at night--if they leave, they lose. But something seems to want to kill them ... Although My Little Eye is slickly made, the reality TV premise is so 2001 and the five kids are so annoyingly and vapidly "edgy" that we can't wait for them to be killed.
Octane (dir. Marcus Adams, 91 min, U.S., 2003) This slick but ludicrous and stupefying film is a sad demonstration of what happens to over-the-hill actors (in this case, Madeleine Stowe): They make low-budget thrillers in Luxembourg that go straight to video. Stowe plays a pill-popping, smartly turned-out Mom who's driving through the night with her petulant teenage daughter (Mischa Barton). At a truck stop, the girl is kidnapped by a gang of clubland vampires and over the course of the night, Stowe turns into a shitkicking action hero, a cross between Charles Bronson and Michelle Yeoh. The only way to salvage this non-starter is with campy humor, but there's not an intentional laugh to be found anywhere in Octane. (Jonathan Rhys-Myers fans should note, however, that this film is an opportunity to see him slice his own tongue with a razor blade.)
Suspended Animation (dir. John Hancock, 114 min, U.S., 2001) Thirty years ago, director Hancock made a much-loved film called Bang the Drum Slowly, a tale about baseball and friendship that starred Robert De Niro. Suspended Animation, on the other hand, tells the story of a professional animator who takes a wrong turn on his snowmobile while on vacation in Canada. He seeks help from two very weird sisters who announce their intention to carve him up for lunch. Escaping this fate, the animator returns home, only to develop a fixation on a local struggling actress, an obsession that is more than a little reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart's in Vertigo. By the way, if you're looking for a pimple-popping grossout, this is your film.
Ultrachrist! (dir. Kerry Douglas Dye, 92 min, U.S., 2003) No preview, but the title seems to say it all.
Last Wednesday, about 50 friends and fans of Durham's Jim Haverkamp and Winston-Salem's Brett Ingram gathered at Carrboro's Go! Studio to celebrate the completion of Monster Road, the duo's feature-length documentary about underground animator Bruce Bickford. The occasion was timed with Haverkamp and Ingram's departure for Park City, Utah, where Monster Road will screen at the Slamdance Film Festival.
Haverkamp and Ingram have spent the last four years working on Monster Road, a marvelous film about a brilliant outsider artist who churns out utterly extraordinary claymation epics that, thanks to his chroniclers, should soon reach the audience they deserve. The filmmakers treated the crowd to a highlight reel of the film. When it ended, the applause was long and loud. Afterward, local art rockers Shark Quest--who composed and recorded the Monster Road soundtrack--held forth for the duration of the party.
Haverkamp and Ingram are in Park City this week. We'll have a report from them in an upcoming issue.