A Dead Channels diary

jackie-chan
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A Dead Channels diary

A rollicking slate of national and international premiers, rare repertory screenings, and shorts produced on micro and macro scales, the inaugural Dead Channels festival in San Francisco unleashed a strong opening volley of mind-bending titles. The brainchild of head programmer and all-around friend to cinematic esoterica, Bruce Fletcher, the festival showcased a unique slate.

Attending on behalf of Red Harvest, a short film I wrote and co-produced which was selected to screen at the festival, I managed to take in a sampling of what Dead Channels had to offer and came away impressed. What follows is a ScreenAnarchy-ified version of a diary kept during my stay.

August 9th - The festival’s opening night saw it host the US premier of Uwe Boll’s new film Postal. Having built a substantial amount of buzz based on early word of mouth (some courtesy of ScreenAnarchy grand pooba Todd, right here) and a collection of hilariously inappropriate trailers posted online, the film itself lived up to the hype and then some. An all-out assault against anything and everything, Postal gets so much right it’s a little stunning. Those not taken with the scatological hi-jinks on display in the film’s trailers should be pleased to know it manages to take a number of intelligent swipes at its targets as well (primarily religious extremism – from all corners of the globe) in between a constant barrage of transgressive, cleverly constructed sight gags.

Dr. Boll (as introduced by Bruce) was a ball of energy, jazzed by the film’s positive reception at Dead Channels. He talked at length about what drove him to write Postal, and I have to say the man really impressed me. He wanted to create something people would talk about and critics would be forced to evaluate, and has succeeded with flying colors. Postal is as personal a project as you’ll find, a manic response to the world’s increasingly segmented cultures. Like the horrific actions it smartly parodies, Postal seems poised to draw attention not only to itself but events at large. It’s a like an errant shotgun blast in a maternity ward – unexpected, unsettling, and once the panic dies down pretty damn funny.

Afterward Boll greeted fans and passed out DVDs containing some extended clips of Larry Thomas as Osama bin Laden in the film. Other cast members, including star Zach Ward, Thomas, and Michaela Mann were on-hand.

I feel like I have to say something about the theater in which Postal screened, the Castro – what an amazing place to see a film. It’s an old-style theater, one enormous screen in front of row after row of seats. Prior to the film an older gentleman seated at a pipe organ rose up from below the screen on a pedestal and proceeded to play for 10 solid minutes; the audience was clapping along in rhythm by the end. Quite a spectacle. The remainder of the festival we attended was split between the two Roxie theaters found at 16th and Valencia – both good venues, though a far cry from the grandeur of the Castro.

Read Michael Gullien’s interview with Uwe Boll at Dead Channels here.

August 10th - A long night of movie-going at the two Roxie screens started with a screening of Jamaa Fanaka’s notorious Welcome Home, Brother Charles. Directed by Fanaka while he was still a film student at UCLA, Brother Charles chronicles a man’s twisted revenge at those who wrongly jailed him by way of hypnotism and, well, his monstrous penis. Yep.

Brother Charles was clearly a first-time effort, marred with pacing and structural errors, out-of-focus photography, and continuity slips. It was also something of a marvel. Several sequences – including the open credits, the montage of Charles’ time in prison, and the climactic murders – were staged with gusto and possess a wild, avant-garde energy. The performances were naturalistic and the soundtrack – its more outré portions created by Fanaka himself – informed the film in perfect measures.

Fanaka was in attendance and spoke after the screening. It was interesting to watch some of the other audience members – including a few who tagged along with me – have their eyes opened to the film in new ways by what Fanaka had to say. Clearly a born storyteller – the tale of his road to UCLA’s film program (by way of an aborted auto theft) was priceless – he talked at length about the subtexts at work in Brother Charles and his goal of using it as a way to burst the myth of physical superiority in African Americans. He ended with an inspiring message to up-and-coming filmmakers, and capped things off by embracing Bruce and thanking him for the opportunity to exhibit Welcome Home, Brother Charles on the big screen again.

The next film caught was Maurice Devereaux’s End of the Line. Already familiar with (and honestly indifferent to) Devereaux’s earlier catalog of work, Line had caught my attention some time ago here on ScreenAnarchy and looked promising. Deciding I couldn’t let the opportunity to see it on the big screen pass me by, I have to say Line repped a considerable step forward for Devereaux as a filmmaker, even with a few caveats. A few confusing opening segments – which seemed as though they could be shorn at no great loss (sure there’s a scare or two, but they seem less effective without any of the context the film later provides) – gave way to the tale of a group of people, stranded in the subway, on the run from a religious cult bent on “saving” (read: stabbing) as many as possible before the coming of Armageddon. When the story proper started moving, Line quickly became a tense and exciting piece of survival horror, delivering above-average performances and ample gore within a creative spin on the tired doomsday sect subgenre.

The final feature of the day (in this case night – around 11:30pm) was the great Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a classic MFTV from 1973 shown at Dead Channels in a rare 16mm print. One of the few audience members to have already seen Dark, I knew we were in for a treat. Focusing on a wife and husband who inherit a family home and accidentally unleash malevolent forces trapped inside a mysterious room, the film drew as many shudders as chuckles for its old-fashioned presentation and restrained scares. Consistently creative framing and a spooky score and sound design elevated the proceedings, which were capped by a to-this-day terrifying climactic duel between Kim Darby (as nosy housewife Sally) and the trio of small, demonic creatures that dwell inside the home’s walls.

August 11th - The second of two blocks of short subjects at Dead Channels, “Short and Really Scary,” unspooled on Saturday. Our film Red Harvest ran as part of this section, so we spent the better part of the morning and afternoon trying to relax prior to its start.

The first short, Rhyme Animal, centered on an MC who may be drawing his strength as a rapper from literally consuming the competition (to say nothing of groupies and unsavory promoters). From a conceptual standpoint, the film takes an original tack and gives its characters fluid, believable dialog. With a background in commercials and music videos, director Phil Roc showed surprising restraint behind the camera. The film’s only heavy stylization came in the form of drawn “panels” that subbed for more expensive set pieces (a murder, a character trashing their penthouse). With further exploration of its central theme of consumerism in all forms, Roc’s proposed feature version of Animal would stand as an interesting addition to the horror genre.

Red Harvest screened next. You can read Michael Gullien’s interview with the cast and crew of Red Harvest at Dead Channels here.

Anonymity, a short scene from a proposed feature by director Shad Clark, drops a young woman in a labyrinthine series of corridors as she attempts to evade her hazmat-suited captors. Without context given for its heroine’s predicament the film failed to build any real sympathy for its characters, through it did generate considerable tension, particularly in a sequence involving the removal of a pair of hands nailed to a table. Clark has a strong visual sense and understands how to turn the screws on audiences, but whether he can sustain a full narrative remains to be seen; color me curious to find out.

A scathing look at both the film criticism establishment and the realities of modern-day low-budget filmmaking, Criticized followed an unhinged horror director who kidnaps a critic he believes ruined his film’s future with a dour, personally insulting review. Beyond it having featured an unbelievably drawn-out suspense sequence which culminated in some of the best eye-related violence this side of Italy’s genre golden days, Criticized spoke some real truths related to the lower rungs of the industry. Well-written and sharply edited, Criticized arrived as a real standout.

The final short screened, writer / director Cecil B. Feeder’s San Francisco-lensed Meter Maid Me Massacre, was a wild-eyed homage to Troma and a good-natured jab at the city’s traffic enforcers. A young man, in the midst of a really, really bad day finds himself embroiled in a long-brewing feud between a martial arts clan and demonic meter maids, under the control of a deadly new parking czar. The film culminated in a rather epic battle wherein our hero saw fit to fix a parking meter in place of his recently severed hand. Good, good times.

In addition to our troupe, the director and star of Criticized and the director of Meter Maid Me Massacre were on hand for the event. Bruce brought the filmmakers up front before and after the screenings, and each chatted briefly about their films and experiences on the festival circuit thus far.

In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, we decided to forgo festival-going for the remainder of the evening in order to celebrate a successful screening, spending waaay too much time at Zeitgeist (featured in Meter) before staggering into a diner in the wee hours of the morning.

August 12th - Our final day of film-going saw us catch the other block of short subjects Bruce had programmed. All shot on film with glossy production values, they provided an interesting counter balance to the micro-budgeted shorts screened Saturday.

The first short featured was Phil Mucci’s much-heralded The Listening Dead. An exercise in extreme stylization, Mucci managed to nail silent-film aesthetic using a mixture of methods old and new, including miniature photography and rotoscopic animation. Self-financed through his work as a commercial photography, Mucci’s labor of love impressed festival-goes with its sumptuous visuals and elaborate sound design. On-hand to help present the film, Mucci was self-effacing and seemed genuinely charmed that audiences had taken to his film with such enthusiasm. Good news for those who haven’t seen it yet – The Listening Dead will appear online on Atom Films this October.

The next segment, Lump, started as a Cronenbergian piece of clinical horror before arriving at a cynical comedic payoff at the expense of the health care complex. A young woman (the excellent Lara Belmont) repeatedly finds a lump in her right breast, despite procedure after procedure to remove it and assurances from her doctors said lump is benign and incapable of spreading or causing her harm. As her condition seemingly worsens, Belmont’s character resorts to increasingly far-fetched self-diagnosis and lapses into paranoia. Lump’s final image was as jarring as it was sickly amusing.

Akai, a high-gloss vampire tale from Brazil, impressed with its calculated design. A melancholy young man, living alone in an expansive town home, invites escorts over and feeds on their blood; he seems none too happy about his lot in life but does what he must to survive. Director Carlos Gananian has crafted his story almost purely from visuals and allowed his characters only one line of dialog in telling their story. Akai managed to build a compelling spin on familiar themes in an abstract manner.

Read Todd’s take on Akai and Gananian’s other short films here.

Providing the most out-and-out fun of this shorts block, Mike Williamson’s In the Wall sashayed from Poe to Larry Cohen to Stuart Gordon without batting a blood-encrusted eyelash. In Wall, an abusive father-to-be sets in motion a chain of events around his long-suffering, pregnant girlfriend that culminates in a gory showdown between him and a devilish newborn. At its mid-way point, In the Wall seemed poised to drift into a more suggestive horror story – absolutely nothing wrong with that, mind you – but instead veered off into a wild, oft-hilarious gorefest. Such an abrupt shift might have crippled another short subject but Williamson’s assured direction and a game cast made it work.

The final short here, Happy Birthday 2 You, was a typically polished Spanish spin on the torture porn subgenre. A young social worker named Clara, distraught over the loss of her son, begins an investigation into a boy she believes is being abused. What she finds when she tracks down his father is something far, far darker at play. Lead actress Laura Dominguez, front-and-center for most of the piece, gave an impressive performance and hinted at something unhinged within Clara herself when things really began falling off the rails in the pic’s closing segment.

Our last selection was the feature-length Fingerprints, a low-budget shocker inspired by an urban legend involving a fatal collision between a school bus of children and a train in a small Texas town. Told through the eyes of a young girl returning home after a stint in rehab, the film shifts from being a ghost story to a slasher film halfway through its running time to diminishing results. While the cast – especially lead Kristen Cavallari – turned in generally good work, rote dialog, tired scenarios, and an indecisiveness as to what sort of story was being told didn’t help the proceedings. Fingerprints had moments and featured solid performances and production values but didn’t just didn’t jell for me.

We spent the remainder of the evening knocking back drinks with other festival-goers and filmmakers at Delirium and Dalva, two laid-back bars found on the same block as the Roxie 1 and 2.

With that, Dead Channels came to a close for me. There were plenty of titles I regret having missed – especially Nuit Noire and Trapped Ashes – a testament to the strong program offered. For a first-time festival Dead Channels really impressed, and I’m excited to see where Bruce and friends take it with subsequent installments. If you’re in the Bay Area or nearby and didn’t make the trip in for the festival this year, atone for your sins and support the array of Dead Channels-sponsored screenings held throughout the year – and be there next August!

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videoalexAugust 18, 2007 2:27 AM

I found Dead Channels to be quite enjoyable as well, and while I walked the line on "fingerprints" - I thought the acting was (mostly) good, the story to be almost more outlandish than Postal - I ultimately decided that major structural flaws could not save the latest from Lou Diamond Phillips. But I was extremely impressed with the shorts offered (not counting our own Red Harvest) and the "short and Scary" batch were all slick looking, in not also excellent stories as well.

Thanks to the DC folks for putting up with an invasion of Red Harvesters - including Collin, myself, Dylan Griffith (the director) and lead actress Samantha Simon (she's all yours, west cost! lucky you!) and our decent entourage and well-wishers.

Hopefully, we'll return again next year, and not just for the incredible city and fresh seafood...

---Alex Johnson
Co-Producer, Red Harvest