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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs bonus: Strap yourself in for the Warped...

Screen Grabs bonus: Strap yourself in for the Warped Dimension fest

Horror-scifi weekend brings out killer Teddy bears, Estonian dystopia, and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response techniques

The wee societal health crisis we had for the last 14 months or so may have forcibly slowed many arts organizations down, in some unfortunate cases killing them off outright. But SF Indiefest has only sped up, the many film/video showcases under its umbrella not just going forward as usual (albeit in online form), but adding additional events, plus one brand-new festival (the just-finished Livable Planet).

This weekend brings yet more where all that came from in the form of Warped Dimension (Fri/7-Sun/9), a second edition of this adjunct to Another Hole in the Head, Indiefest’s usual place for genre-oriented content.

Last year’s first Warped Dimension was billed as the first-ever film festival presented entirely on the Zoom, meaning it was streamed live (rather than its content being available throughout a longer window of time). This three-day sophomore session offers independent horror, sci-fi, fantasy, action-adventure, thrillers, comedy, animation, experimental, music video and documentary titles, plus Q&A sessions with the filmmakers after each scheduled screening. Adding to the immediacy are polling buttons (counting towards audience awards in assorted categories) and a chatbox for interaction with fellow viewers. 

Opening night Fri/7 offers a double dose of futuristic fantasy: Brandon Crowson’s superhero sendup The Diabolical Schemes of Thadeus Jackson at 6 pm, and anthology feature The Cloud, whose found-footage horror anthology about a malignant app (not Zoom) is based on a prior SF-based online series, at 8pm. 

Other feature-length selections include Saturday night’s “deadpan Lynchian comedy” 13 Knives, involving the investigation of a UFO cult’s mass suicide; and Sunday pm duo The Black Market: San Francisco, a locally-set experimental narrative incorporating Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response techniques (you’ll want to use headphones for the full effect), plus straight-up horror Companion. But we’ll admit what we’re most excited for is 6 pm Saturday night special Death Wish Revision, Jorge Torres-Torres’ returning mashup of clips from all five original Charles Bronson vigilante shoot-em-ups, plus elements of some 250 other films. 

Still, that is just the tip of this Dimension’s iceberg, which encompasses 39 shorts from around the world, including India, Australia, France, Switzerland, the U.K., Japan and Canada. Their number includes local filmmakers and world premieres, plus alluring titles such as Dating in the Zombie ApocalypseGeneva Jacuzzi’s CasketDistinct Properties of the Indonesian Spotted Tree FrogDrug DenA Machine for Boredom and Vampire Bud. There are sure to be some hits and some misses. But seriously, you cannot lose: Registration for Warped Dimension is a ridiculously low $1 PER DAY. For full schedule and info, go to www.AHITH.com

There must be something in the air, since just about every other film coming out at the moment also seems to occupy some “warped dimension” or another, having fun with genre conventions in ways that have long appealed to Hole Head programmers and their audiences. All the below-reviewed are releasing to home formats as of Friday, May 7:

The Paper Tigers

The Karate Kid meets Old School in Quoc Bao Tran’s first directorial feature. Thirty years after they were teenage kung fu hotshots known as “The Three Tigers,” a trio of middle-aged ex-buddies are fully declawed—out of shape, out of moves, and out of their depth when they try to investigate the suspicious death of the master they’d all disappointed in adulthood. You know how this sort of thing has to go: Our heroes (Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins) will suffer many humiliations and arse-whuppings en route to an improbable yet inevitable recovery of righteous mojo. 

A movie this formulaic really ought to have a snappier pace than these too-leisurely 100 minutes. Nonetheless, Tigers is a pleasingly sincere midlife-crisis tale in kung fu comedy disguise, with ingratiating lead performances and a very funny one from Matthew Page as a playground-bully-type old nemesis turned pompous frenemy. It’s in theaters and on Digital from Well Go USA Entertainment.

Benny Loves You

Determined to traumatize the same child within that just got its widdle heart warmed by documentary Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is this UK horror comedy from writer-director Karl Holt. He also stars as hapless Jack, a 35-year-old toy developer whose arrested development suddenly becomes more of a problem once the parents he’s still living with meet horrible (but accidental) deaths. Pretty soon Jack is potentially homeless and jobless. Determined to start afresh, he “buries the past” by tossing his most beloved old plushy, the Muppet-like Benny, in a rubbish bin. 

But in this reversal of The Velveteen Rabbit, the no-longer-loved one isn’t brought to life for magical redemption—he’s brought to life for murderous revenge. Even when this secret weapon works to Jack’s advantage, he’s terrorized by the fact that squeak-voiced Benny really develops a taste for mayhem. This is very bad news for his owner’s mortgage officer, rival coworkers, and miraculous potential girlfriend (Claire Cartwright). 

Benny Loves You is slick, and sick, with the funny puppetry of its sooooo-cute titular character keeping the gore effects farcical in impact. But the cartoonish tenor is one-note, and the whole movie a one-joke concept that doesn’t really come up with enough variations on that idea to justify feature length. Still, it’s probably the best cuddly-critter slasher film you’ll see until the day they reboot the Gremlins franchise. Dread is opening it in limited theaters May 7, with VOD availability as of May 11 and Blu-ray release June 8. 

Fried Barry

Likewise high in snarky bad-taste outrageousness is music video director Ryan Kruger’s South African debut feature. It’s a sort of exquisite-corpse road movie in which tall, gaunt, skeezy-looking junkie Barry (veteran stuntman and “third thug on the left”-type actor Gary Green) is called a “useless piece of shit” in front of his son by his wife, a judgment few would argue with. Stomping out, he’s promptly beamed up into a passing space vessel, where he undergoes myriad unpleasant experiences (you can guess what kind) and then is deposited back on terra firma. 

He is, however, now even spazzier, with some hitherto unknown powers and the loss of some known ones, like speech. Is he possessed by an alien playing tourist? If so, that visitor sure chose the wrong guide. Barry’s misadventures in his very altered state encompass sex (followed by instantaneous childbirth for his unlucky companion), violence, flying, drugs (some things don’t change), more violence, human trafficking, being chucked in a “looney bin,” and more. 

Fried Barry is an expansion of Kruger’s well-received 2017 short of the same name. But what might seem brilliant at three minutes won’t necessarily work at 99. The director certainly brings the energy, plus various visual and other aesthetic gambits. There’s not much story (or point) here, though, and whether you grok the whole will have a lot to do with your tolerance for some fairly loutish humor—as well as, maybe, just what chemical additives you’ve taken as a viewing enhancer.

The film recalls such past gonzo cult favorites as Bad Boy Bubby, but doesn’t have their ideas—just the frenetic surface and desire to shock. One thing you can say, though: It’s probably the most Nicolas Cage movie ever that Nicolas Cage isn’t in. Genre-specialist platform Shudder begins streaming it Fri/7. 

Undergods

Similarly stronger on style than substance is this vaguely sci-fi debut feature from Chino Moya, a multinational European coproduction shot in Estonia and Serbia, where apparently plenty of ruined industrial landscapes can be found. They comprise the convincing dystopia through which two men (Geza Rohrig from Son of Saul, Johann Myers) drive in a massive truck, picking up corpses presumed dead of some plague—though lest you think this duo are public servants, they apparently sell those bodies as meat. 

To pass the time, they tell stories and share their dreams, which ambiguous narratives we see played out: An isolated older couple accept an uninvited guest who turns usurper; a wealthy businessman in a noirish milieu steals an inventor’s idea and his daughter, then pays dearly for both; a bourgeoise family is jarred when the wife’s long-missing, presumed-dead husband shows up, catatonic yet not quite harmless. 

Undergods is visually atmospheric, its mood heightened by a Tangerine Dream-like synth score from Wojciech Golczewski. But it’s also rather dull and random, with stories that do not go anywhere pointed or original, and characters whose interactions are all brutal, negative ones. It’s a distinctive grimy vision, perhaps, but the kind that makes you want to get a rag to clean the dirt off so you can actually see something. Still, fans of a certain type of cryptic fantasy cinema will inject their own profundity in its ample empty spaces. Gravitas Ventures is releasing to limited theaters and VOD Fri/7.

Initiation

Finally, we’re back in the real world, or something close, in this mix of slasher flick and straight topical thriller. A party-hearty fraternity at fictive Whiton University hosts a do with an allied sorority while they’re simultaneously hazing pledges. Amidst the usual boozy excesses, one girl (Isabelle Gomez as Kylie) passes out in a boy’s room, later fearing she might have been assaulted. This is particularly alarming to her roommate Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy), because one of the dudes involved might be her own brother (Froy Gutierrez)—and it would not be the first time he was tangled up in such accusations. Before the truth can be determined, however, one of these students dies a very violent death. Then another comely young Greek is killed…then another.

Complete with a hooded/masked killer a la Scream, this is both a straight-up slasher and a semi-serious look at MeToo issues, with other hot topics (like a bullying sports coach, online harassment, etc.) dragged in as well. Initiation is always watchable, but its juggling of themes and tone doesn’t quite work; it ends up a not-scary-enough horror movie and a not-serious-enough drama. 

Still, director/co-scenarist John Berardo’s feature holds attention until a protracted climax (where all the surviving protagonists are trapped in one campus building) whose final revelation of the killer’s identity is just a complete dud in terms of dramatic effectiveness. It’s not quite “The butler did it… you know, the butler we forgot to introduce until now,” but almost as big a misstep. Nonetheless, if you rue the fact that it’s only May, ergo too soon to watch Black Christmas again, this is near enough in gist to provide an alternative. Saban Films is releasing Fri/7 to theaters, VOD and Digital. 

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