REPORT: BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2016

The final weekend in March saw a sudden influx of weirdness to the Boston area with the arrival of the 18th annual Boston Underground Film Festival, the region’s primary hub for new independent genre fare. Ever concerned with keeping the 366 Weird Movies community up to date with the latest in the bizarre, I took in a few of the weirder-looking titles (minus the special Belladonna of Sadness screening, which I reported on from Fantastic Fest).

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The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)

In her first feature, Agnieszka Smoczynska brings to life a delightfully strange genre mash-up that combines elements of fairy tale, horror, romance, coming-of-age drama,  and dark comedy, played out in catchy new wave musical numbers and set against a slightly surreal Soviet backdrop. With a loose, dreamy narrative structure, the story follows the adventures of mermaid sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) as they come ashore in Warsaw and establish themselves as a musical act at a seedy nightclub, shacking up with the house band, an eccentric mother/father/son trio. The sweet-natured Silver begins dating the son, a hunky but noncommittal bassist, though Golden warns her against the consequences of falling in love with a human. The sisters experience the ups and downs of life in show business (drugs, sex, betrayal, etc) while also occasionally feeding their lust for human blood.

Yes, The Lure has a lot going on, and yes, it is overly ambiguous at times, but if you aren’t completely entranced by a lush, synth-driven musical about killer mermaids then I don’t know how to help you. The film is at times funny, at others tragic, and frequently strange and viscerally gross. The locations pair dingy interiors and rain-soaked streets with neon lights and sequined costumes, with subtle reminders of the Soviet regime peppered throughout. The soundtrack, composed by Ballady i Romanse (a real-life sister act who partially inspired the film’s premise), is absolutely stellar, emotionally varied but generally sticking to the 80s discotheque vibe. While it offers weirdness in spades with its many genre oscillations, perhaps what is most notable about the film is how it subverts tropes relating to gender and sexuality. Silver and Golden are introduced as the typical seductive sirens many myths associate with mermaids, but their naiveté is soon made clear. They are viewed as sex objects from the beginning, but also treated as children due to their lack of understanding of the human world, a sly commentary on the sexualization of young girls so dominant in the media. A cult-friendly oddity with a feminist slant, The Lure is the first List-worthy release I’ve seen this year.

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Chasing Banksy (dir. Frank Henenlotter)

Largely based on a true story, indie horror favorite Frank Henenlotter‘s latest film focuses on Anthony (Anthony Sneed, playing a version of himself), a street artist struggling to make it in New York, who hatches a wild scheme to steal one of the Banksy artworks that popped up in the American South a few years after Hurricane Katrina. He enlists a few artist friends to help him out for a share of the profits, and the result is a farcical heist caper that moves from snooty Brooklyn art openings to New Orleans neighborhoods still in need of rebuilding.

Chasing Banksy has the elements of an interesting satire but they don’t actually add up to a worthwhile whole. There is some attempt at poking fun at the contemporary New York art scene and the Brooklyn hipster lifestyle, but it’s not a focus. There is also a minor commentary on Banksy as an artist, and on the ethics of stealing and selling another artist’s work, even if it is public. But ultimately, the story still boils down to white male artists barrelling into a black southern neighborhood still reeling from environmental destruction (and lack of government aid), taking something worth thousands of dollars, and then popping back up to New York City to do what they will with it. While there are many moments of the film I really liked, especially the nail-biter heist sequence that ended in a ridiculous chase, the overall implications of this true story left a bad taste in my mouth. And for the record, the weirdest thing about it is that most of it really happened.

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Antibirth (dir. )

Lou (Natasha Lyonne) is a hard-partying slacker in the middle of a serious drug and alcohol binge when she notices some strange happenings in her own body. Her best friend Sadie () thinks she might be pregnant, but Lou is certain she hasn’t had sex in months, despite a recent night where she blacked out at a party. She continues to drink and smoke as much as she can get her hands on, but her deteriorating health, the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Meg Tilly), and generally wonky goings-on in her small, snowy Michigan town eventually lead to the discovery of a sinister conspiracy, and Lou’s at the center of it.

Part neo-noir, part body horror, part acid trip, Antibirth pulls from some familiar sources (Lynch, Cronenberg, Araki, et al) to push itself into weird territory. While imaginative in its own right, the plot is secondary to the terrific performance by Lyonne, whose incredible snark prevails even as her character’s body transforms in ever more disgusting ways. While a successfully grueling metaphor for the actual body horror of pregnancy, the film loses itself in a convoluted narrative and tonal change-up in the third act. Writer/director Danny Perez’s freaky-fun vision is something to be applauded, but it isn’t assured or coherent enough to carry the entire movie. Luckily, with Lyonne’s wisecracks and a few notable fever dream sequences, Antibirth is compelling enough to just about work.

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Blood of the Tribades (dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael Epstein)

Filmmaker/musician couple Sophia Cacciola and Michael Epstein are something of a cult dream team around Boston, with several locally made genre films under their belts and a host of musical projects (including a concept album based around The Prisoner) reflecting their seemingly never-ending creativity. Their third feature, Blood of the Tribades pulls liberally from 70s Eurohorror (primarily Hammer and ) while also writing a new mythology for the vampire genre, resulting in a loving homage with a few unique twists. Set within an isolated vampire society that has existed for hundreds of years, the film examines the conflict between the group’s conservative, sadistic men and peaceful lesbian women, who each have their own views of their central god-figure, Bathor.

Filled with bloody battles, copious nudity, extreme over- (and under-) acting, and a fair amount of melodrama, Blood of the Tribades is at times goofy, at others dark and gory. While it doesn’t attempt to hide its low budget (appropriate for the films it’s referencing), the camera work and landscape photography are truly gorgeous, with a deep color palette and sprawling exterior locations. The film’s strength lies in its unique take on vampirism, treating it as a kind of religion, as well as its focus on subverting women’s roles and the idea of a matriarchy. Cacciola and Epstein find humor in hamminess, delight in an overabundance of fake blood, and empowerment in sisterhood, but it probably wouldn’t work for an audience who didn’t already have an appreciation of those things, or at least a passion for cheesy vampire movies.

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Karaoke Crazies (dir. Sang-chan Kim) – reporting by Ben Sunday

On the outskirts of a South Korean factory town, a lonely and middle-aged man named Sung-Wook (Lee Moon-sik) tries to keep his seedy karaoke bar afloat while staving off suicidal depression. Enter the enigmatic Ha-Suck (Bae So-eun), an unwashed gaming addict turned karaoke hostess who, despite being hired to draw new business, drives client after client away with her antisocial demeanor. It’s only when lack of revenue threatens her internet access that Ha-Suck begins pleasing her customers, not by improving the karaoke experience but by turning the bar into a low-rent brothel. Ha-Suck and Sung-Wook’s fortunes improve accordingly, but both the illegality of their new venture and a serial killer who targets hostesses soon threaten the pair’s fragile livelihood, as well as the odd bond between them.

The struggling bar that Sung-Wook and Ha-Suck call home proves to be an ideal setting for Karaoke Crazies, embodying the union of whimsy and desperation that runs through the film. While exhibiting a zany wit akin to Save the Green Planet or I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK, a true sense of melancholy undergirds the strange personalities on display and renders them recognizably human. The film may meander and drag as it waits to reveal the secret traumas of its characters, but each of them are endearing enough to keep you invested as the story finds its way. Sung-Woof, Ha-Suck, and their friends are just a group of misfits trying to build a refuge from the injustice of the outside world, yet one can’t help but love them and hope, against all odds, that they’ll succeed.

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