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Review: ‘The Blacklist’

A Post Mortem on Horror Film Festival

Above: Christmas trees get revenge in "Treevenge," the Best in Show winner at the recent Blacklist.

Last weekend I attended The Blacklist Art and Film Festival. Since I was unable to review any of the films in advance of the festival, I wanted to offer shall we say this post mortem review.

First of all let me say that as a horror fan I was thrilled to see so many people turn out for a horror film festival. I’m sure event organizer Jeff Speed wanted to see the 700-plus Birch Theater sold out but having 350 people show up was quite impressive for San Diego, a town that does not seem particularly friendly to horror. So for The Blacklist’s first year in San Diego (Speed and company have been running this event for four years previously in Nevada) this was a great turnout.

“Overall, it was a great event,” said Speed, “I wish we sold a few more tickets but the place was pretty packed, the atmosphere was awesome and everyone had a blast. I've been getting nothing but positive feedback and we rinsed some minds in the process.”

“Rinsing minds” was part of their slogan for the festival: “Rinse your mind of mainstream slime.” And the films shown definitely were able to do that. At the top of the list is the film that – appropriately enough – won The "Beast" in Show Award, the Canadian short “Treevenge” (2008). The highly original film offers up a tale of revenge from the point of view of Christmas trees. We see the trees trembling in the forest as redneck lumberjacks chop them down. The trees even speak in their own language with their thoughts translated into subtitles for us. And what these poor trees are thinking is, “What the hell did we do to deserve this treatment, this torment?” The victims are chopped down sent to tree farms and bought by families that further torture them by putting Christmas ornaments on them. We get most of the story told from the actual point of view of the trees (a virtual first-tree camera perspective). And it’s hilarious and one of the freshest takes on horror in a long time!

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Film: 'Treevenge'

Above: Jason Eisener's "Treevenge"

But then on Christmas morning the trees mercilessly strike back. They attack families, kill the kitty, and essentially go on a roaring rampage of revenge. It’s genius. The gore is excessive and is definitely willing to go beyond the comfort zone of mainstream filmmaking. The effects are both impressive and deliciously cheesy. (There's even a man in a tree suit -- move over Godzilla!) I highly recommend you check out the video on YouTube. And check out the trailer for their upcoming feature film, “Hobo with a Shotgun.” I love these guys!

The runner up for "Beast" in Show was another bit of clever nasty this time from Australia, “Spider” (2007). Nash Edgerton’s short was actually attached to his neo-noir feature “The Square” earlier this year. You could call the short a perfectly timed and constructed cinematic practical joke. It opens with a title that states: “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.” The quote is attributed to Mum and perfectly primes the viewer for a tale about the perils of practical jokes. Simply a gem.

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Trailer: Kirksdale

Web movie: Kirksdale

Above: Trailer for the horror short "Kirksdale"

And the second runner up in the "Beast" in Show was a student film from The Film School at Florida State University called “Kirksdale” (2007) This well mounted and slow building short from Ryan Spindell looks to what happens when the inmates start to take over the mental asylum. A nice sick sense of horror with a formal, structured sense of presenting it. Spindell rejects the shakycam, fast cuts for more measured editing and steadier camerawork that let us take in the horror like a Chinese water torture and cringe in pain at it. A very impressive student project that holds its own with any professional studio work. I hope to see more from Spindell.

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Trailer: Danse Macabre

Web movie: Danse Macabre

Above: Trailer for the short "Danse Macabre"

Now the film that I thought should have been up in the top three was “Danse Macabre” (2008), also from Canada. Directed by Pedro Pires (who has worked with Cirque de Soleil) the film is described in this way: “For a period of time, while we believe it to be perfectly still, lifeless flesh responds, stirs and contorts in a final macabre ballet.” The film – elegantly shot and cut to classical music – basically follows a body from death to cremation. But all we ever see is a single body as it dies, is prepared for cremation, is transported, and finally burned. We never see a single living person in the process. It is beautiful, hypnotic, stylish, and dare I say sublime. It would pair nicely with the Canadian feature “Kissed,” about a woman who works in a funeral home and becomes obsessed with the dead corpses.

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Trailer: The Strange Case of Mr. Hollow

Web movie: Trailer

Above: Trailer for "The Strange Case of Mr. Hollow"

Another excellent film showcased was “The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow” (2008) from Rodrigo Gudino and Vincent Marcone. I showed two of Gudino’s short films at my Film School Confidential Showcase, and he is definitely adept at horror and the macabre. This short explores a single 1930s photograph to discover the dark secrets it contains. Technically impressive and cleverly conceived.

On the lighter side there was Trevor Jimenez’ animated short “Key Lime Pie” (2007), a kind of noir encounter between Death and a man obsessed with key lime pie. Stylishly animated and very witty, this short also played at the San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival. Also leaning more toward humor was Ben Stenbeck’s “Zombie Movie" (2002) from New Zealand. The tagline for it is: "1000 zombies, three bogans, half a brain.” Bogans is slang for something of a lower class twit and the three bogans stuck in the car and surrounded by zombies share half a brain… and that’s generous. The film was smartly conceived (to make the best of a low budget and limited location) and offered a funny twist on the zombie apocalypse.

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Short film: Demi-Urge Emesis

DemiUrge Emesis from Aurelio Voltaire on Vimeo.

Web movie: Demi-Urge

Above: Short film Demi-Urge Emesis

An amusing stop motion animation used a mummified cat as a means of making a commentary on the artistic process. The novelty of “Demi-Urge Emesis” (2010) is a narration – not a score – by Danny Elfman. The short is the fourth a series of "Chimerascope" by Aurelio Voltaire.

Another entry from Canada that mixes humor with some dark social commentary about human gluttony is Denis Villeneuve's “Next Floor” (2008). Elegant guests and an opulent banquet engage in “ritualistic gastronomic carnage.” Pair this with “La Grand Bouffe.”

Very silly and with a pop art 60s flair is the horror comedy “Far Out” (2007) from Phil Mucci. Cute gag, moderately well executed, this short was entertaining but paled in comparison to the evening’s competition. From Spain, came the dark, visceral “El Ciclo” (2003) by Victor Garcia. Again, a well-made horror short but just not up to the caliber of the best in show.

Only two shorts proved disappointing. Failing but in something of an interesting artistic manner was “Magini” (2005) from Africa and the USA. Director Fernando Apodaca delivers a surreal experiment in horror and social commentary. The program described it as “an art project that exaggerates relationships in culture and explores themes such as reproduction, consumerism, and obsolescence.” That’s a lot to bite off and Apodaca is not up to the task. He offers some occasionally stunning imagery but nothing else. And finally “Il Bruto” pretends to be found footage of cannibalism but it’s excessively shaky camerawork and lack of any artistry or any kind of point put this film at the bottom of the list in terms of quality. Fortunately it was brief.

Hopefully this post mortem will make any horror fans out there realize that they have missed an amazing night of films and art (artists had their paintings and sculptures on display in the lobby as well).

Speed adds, “The horror and underground culture in San Diego has needed an outlet for a longtime and we are proud to fill that void. Hopefully we can find enough support to keep this beast going.” And hopefully they will. San Diego needs to pay more attention – and more respect -- to the horror genre.

And horror fans will have another opportunity to support horror when Miguel Rodriguez presents Horrible Imaginings on November 6 at the 10th Avenue Theater. He will be showing the darkly enticing “Peeping Tom” from Michael Powell, and “The Beyond” from Lucio Fulci. SO put that on your calendars now.

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