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Screen Grabs: You need a bizarre film moment like Another Hole in the Head

This year, the offbeat film fest sports 30+ features and 200+ shorts. Here's our critic's top picks.

Billed as “The Last Film Festival of 2021!,” Another Hole in the Head provides an apt such finale for another bizarre year, offering as it does a range of genre films in which fiction can still be stranger than truth—something that seems reassuring these days. Running Wed/1 through December 15, its 30+ features and 200+ shorts will feature a mix of in-person screenings at New People Cinema in Japantown, live Zoom shows, and on-demand streaming via Eventive. (Masks and proof of vaccination are required for the New People programs.)

Heavy as usual on horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, Hole Head’s 18th annum sidesteps some of the more obvious genre tropes in several films that enter the realm of full-on trippy phantasmagoria. That includes the official in-person opening nighter on Fri/3 of Samuel Tressler IV’s debut feature Leda, a wordless midpoint between Maya Deren, Eraserhead, and Ambrose Bierce that reimagines the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan as a vaguely 19th century fever dream. Its poetical, sometimes grotesque B&W imagery looked great on a regular “flat” screener, so it will no doubt be even more compelling projected at New People in 3D.

Other eccentric visions on tap include Bashira, the first directorial feature by Nickson Fong, a VFX veteran whose credits go back to the original Matrix films and Starship Troopers. This surreal whatsit involves a US electronic musician and his troubled long-distance collaborator in Japan getting drawn into a hallucinatory morass of supernatural interference that culminates in an explosion of CGI fantasy spectacle. It doesn’t make much sense, but you certainly can’t indict Fong for formulaic storytelling.

Likewise unclassifiable, if also more in control of their circuitous narrative paths, are two impressive smaller features: David Buchanan’s Laguna Ave, a B&W tale of fringe-y LA life that starts out like a faintly absurdist neo-noir, then gradually turns something more fantastical; and Kevin Kopacka’s German Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, an homage to golden age Euro-horror that eventually transcends genre in favor of an Escher-like puzzle structure. Needless to say, there will also be plenty of playful strangeness in Hole Head’s New People closing event on Sun/12, Christopher Coppola Presents A Crazy Evening Of Clownhead Cowboys, Demon Fireplaces, Living Headless Chickens, and Lunar Sexpots, featuring shorts by Coppola, his late mentor George Kuchar, and Parker Chehak.

This edition of AHITH features plenty of Bay Area talent, including no less than four “Strictly Local” shorts programs, the clever Zoom-format, linked-anthology horror feature The Cloud from SF’s Awesome Theatre Company, and Sean Nicholas Lynch’s Christmas-themed vampire comedy Red Snow. There are also documentaries about indie genre filmmaking (The Brilliant Terror), the intersection between architecture and cults (A Machine to Live In), and the self-explanatory History of Metal and Horror. Plus movies from Chile (occult thriller APPS), Italy (videogame adaptation Lost in the Woods), Australia (black-comedy slasher My Cherry Pie), Canada (Blair Witch-y mindgame Woodland Grey), and beyond. Many programs, both in-person and Zoom, will have filmmakers and other guests on hand.

For full schedule, program and ticket info, go to www.ahith.com.
Beyond Hole Head, the week brings several regular commercial releases also of interest to genre fans:

The Advent Calendar

French actor turned writer-director Patrick Ridremont’s feature may not quite make good on the aspirational promise of its opening with a Baudelaire quote, but it does manage to rise above the general run of seasonally-themed slashers. Still suffering PTSD from the head-on collision that left her a paraplegic, ex-dancer Eva (Eugenie Derouand) is living a none-too-happy life, working a crap job, separated from her formerly doting father by both his senility and his coldly hostile current wife. At least she has free-spirited friend Sophie (Honorie Magnier), who gives her a birthday present of an elaborate, presumably antique wooden Advent calendar. But along with dispersing chocolates each day of the Yuletide season, its little compartments also issue weird promises/threats.
At first this seems to work in Eva’s favor, as demon in the device (it sure ain’t Baby Jesus) wreaks vengeance on those who’ve wronged her. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that its bloodlust cannot be controlled, or her loved ones protected. Despite an episodic “kill count” structure, The Advent Calendar is better acted and crafted than most such films, playing more like a supernatural morality drama than a gimmicky horror flick. It’s not particularly scary or suspenseful, and it doesn’t always seem certain just how seriously it means to take itself. Nonetheless, it’s an involving tale worth a look for adventurous genre fans. It begins streaming on Shudder Thu/2.
Misfires: Silent Night and Wolf
Experiencing much worse problems of wobbly tone and intent are two intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying attempts to straddle fantasy concepts and more serious real-world issues.

Camille Griffin’s UK production Silent Night echoes the Canadian Last Night from 1998, in that it’s about diverse characters reacting in very different ways to the fact that the world is apparently coming to a (murkily-explained) end this very evening. At first, however, this seems to be just another dysfunctional-family holiday comedy, complete with glossy setting (why do people in these movies always seem to have six-figure incomes?) and kitschy Christmas radio favorites on the soundtrack. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode play a couple with three children who’ve invited various friends and relatives to what turns out to be a warmer, fuzzier version of the bunker suicides in Downfall. To self-euthanize or not? That is the question. The morrow will bring a worse fate, we are told.

This is one of those movies that trusts arch, argumentative adults and swearing bratty kids will be hilarious (rather than annoying), and that somehow we’ll magically find them poignant when the script decides we ought. But as the mood turns from yelling to tearjerking, these characters (including ones played by Lily-Rose Depp, Lucy Punch, and so forth) still demonstrate little reason to mourn humanity’s imminent demise. Even the film’s slickness feels misjudged—it offers a generic upscale-catalog-lifestyle that further undermines the larger cosmic-tragedy theme. Silent Night is a feel-bad holiday movie for those who want even their sobering entertainment to be reassuringly superficial. It opens in limited theaters and streams on AMC+ as of Fri/3.

More dedicatedly offbeat if also somehow even more off-key is Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf, which is kind of like The King of Hearts minus the whimsical humor. Jacob (George MacKay from 1917) thinks he’s a wolf, though he’s not happy about it—he doesn’t want to howl at the moon or occasionally maul people—so his parents take him to a special sanatorium-like facility for such “species dysmorphia” cases. There, other patients (who include Lily-Rose Depp, again) think they are squirrels, birds, German shepherds, horses, pandas, spiders, monkeys, etc. These fancies are discouraged by the staff, with particularly harsh Clockwork Orange-like aversion “therapies” doled out by a chief doctor known as The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine.)
Wolf is an allegory at once simplistic and convoluted, suggesting these animal personas are a rebellion against social conformity, but failing to deliver that or any other message with cogent consistency. The progress arbitrarily wavers from satirical to pretentious to silly. It eventually grows a tad dull, because Blancheri doesn’t really develop her ideas, let alone her story. It’s the sort of enterprise that might have made for a fairly arresting short, but runs out of steam at 100 minutes, stranding performers who throw themselves into roles that end up little more than acting-class improv exercises.
Biancheri supposedly drew inspiration for this English-language, Ireland-shot feature from Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but it might just as well be based on The Adventures of Captain Underpants, for all the meaning she fails to impart—and for all the shirts that chiseled MacKay neglects to wear. Focus Features opens Wolf in theaters Fri/3.

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