It’s A Cinema World After All

When I was a kid, we lived for a few years in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a town about 32 miles outside of Pittsburgh. My dad ran two of the local radio stations, WHJB-AM and WOKU-FM. I was five when we moved there, nine when we left. Even at that tender young age, I was obsessed with movies. Obsessed. And not just kids’ movies — any movies. My favorite day of the week was Sunday, because we’d get the Pittsburgh newspaper with the big entertainment section filled with movie ads. I’d spend hours staring at them, trying to imagine what they were like from the artwork and the taglines.

As such, my parents took me to the local theaters on a fairly regular basis. One of them has always stood out: Cinema World in the Eastgate Plaza. It was your basic ’70s movie theater — a square building with four shoebox-like auditoriums inside, two on either side of the concession stand. The place was located in a shopping plaza that also had a Gee Bee department store and a supermarket, among other things. Cinema World was an important part of my childhood, one that I have always remembered with great fondness. Here’s what it looked like:

Photo courtesy of Third Stop on the Right

Some of my most important moviegoing memories happened inside this building. My dad took me to see Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein here when I was six years old. The film was my introduction to Brooks, who instantly became the first director I was consciously aware of. Decades later, I remain a major fan. Around the time I turned eight, my parents brought me to Cinema World to see The Bad News Bears. That film was a revelation. I’d never seen a movie in which children used profanity. There’s a moment at the end where one player hurls an insult at the other team, and it blew my young mind that a kid could talk that way.

Dad and I also saw the Neil Simon-penned detective comedy Murder by Death, starring Peter Falk and Peter Sellers, at Cinema World, along with the car race comedy The Gumball Rally, the Jane Fonda/George Segal romp Fun with Dick and Jane, and the Blake Edwards farce The Pink Panther Strikes Again. My family also caught the disaster movie sequel Airport ’77, which completely freaked me out. That’s the one where the plane crashes into the ocean, trapping everyone a hundred feet under water. To this day, deep water makes me nervous, and I’ve never flown in an airplane.

Like I said, I was obsessed with movies. We ended up in the Eastgate Plaza quite a bit because of the stores there. Whenever we went, I would make my parents walk me over to Cinema World so that I could study the posters displayed on the far left and far right sides of the building. In 1975, there was a sex comedy called If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! I looked at that poster for the longest time before finally asking what the title meant. My folks wouldn’t tell me. Similarly, I stood there examining the poster for Mother, Jugs & Speed, eventually figuring out that there was a reason Raquel Welch’s character was “Jugs.”

Photo courtesy of Third Stop on the Right

One of the really cool features of Cinema World was its right-hand side, facing the road. There were four mini marquees there. Each held the title of one of the movies playing. Now, there was a traffic light right beside the theater, so whenever we got stopped while traveling beyond the Eastgate Plaza, I would intently stare at those marquees until we moved again, once more trying to imagine the movies’ content based solely on their titles.

I saw the words Marathon Man up there and contemplated what that phrase might mean. I also recall other titles that captivated my young mind: Two-Minute Warning, The Man Who Would Be King, Gable and Lombard, Annie Hall, A Star Is Born (the Streisand/Kristofferson version), and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Of course, I was not old enough to see most of those, yet they captured my imagination nevertheless.

The reason Cinema World has taken up a small place of residence in my heart is that it held a lot of awe and wonder for me. My passion for film was in its earliest stages, and this was a location where it started to blossom. As you can probably surmise from the movies I saw there, my childhood wasn’t confined strictly to kiddie fare. Getting a taste of stuff a bit above my level suggested a whole world waiting to be explored. That’s why I was so consumed with posters and marquees and newspaper ads; they were the promise of what was to come.

Cinema World lasted a fairly long time — 25 years, in fact. It closed its doors in 2000 and was demolished shortly thereafter. A Chick-fil-A restaurant now stands in the spot where it once existed. I still think of it often. For hardcore film buffs, our personal history isn’t just the movies we saw, it’s also the theaters in which we saw them. Those experiences make up who we become as cinephiles. Cinema World was an essential part of my story.

A Chick-fil-A restaurant on the site of the former Cinema World in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo taken from Google Maps)

My most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Rachel at Third Stop on the Right for graciously allowing me to use her pictures of Cinema World. Her blog is a lot of fun to read, and there are some great reflections on notable locations in Western Pennsylvania. 

Photo courtesy of Third Stop on the Right

Tigers Are Not Afraid [Fantasia 2018 Review]

The Mexican film Tigers Are Not Afraid combines gritty reality with horror/fantasy in a way that recalls Guillermo del Toro’s superb films The Devil’s Playground and Pan’s Labyrinth. At the same time, writer/director Issa Lopez forges her own path, creating a dark fairy tale that oozes imagination while also showing deep empathy for the story’s young characters. The film, which has been making a splash on the festival circuit, screened at Fantasia 2018.

Paola Lara plays 11-year-old Estrella. Her mother has disappeared, presumably falling prey to the violence of the local drug cartels. Abandoned and lonely, she falls in with a group of boys who are similarly living on the streets. One of them is in possession of a cell phone belonging to a cartel member. That guy and his cohorts come looking for it, causing the kids to become embroiled in a struggle to survive.

The fantasy element in Tigers Are Not Afraid comes from the way Estrella clings to imagination as a means of dealing with the terrifying reality in front of her. She sees a line of blood that follows her around when something unpleasant is about to happen, there’s a stuffed tiger who provides her with an important clue, and a couple of times she views ghostly figures. Estrella also believes that she has been given three magical wishes. Over the course of the story, she uses them strategically.

Those elements are used to underline the harsh experience she’s stuck in. Lopez wisely does nothing to water down the depiction of young Mexican children living on the streets. The film takes you deep inside that issue, showing how scary it is and how helpless these kids feel. To call the film a gut punch would be an understatement. The sole bright spot is that Estrella finds connection with the other children, most notably Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). All in the same boat, they overcome initial mistrust, recognizing that their chances of survival increase when they band together. Watching how this happens is affecting.

At 76 minutes (minus end credits), Tigers Are Not Afraid certainly had room to develop everything even further than it does. Then again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when a movie is so good that it leaves you wanting more, right? The performances from the young actors are authentic, and the film spotlights a very real problem too many children are forced to deal with, in a manner that rattles you while still providing the entertainment value that comes from watching a skillfully-made work.

Mike McGranaghan

For my reviews of movies in current release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Bodied [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Joseph Kahn has directed music videos for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Eminem. Clearly, he’s someone very in touch with contemporary style, music, art, and film. Those things serve him well with Bodied, a movie about  rap battles. This is an unusual picture, in that it’s overwrought to the point of becoming tiresome, yet it also has some worthy things to say about race and its use in pop culture. The film screened at Fantasia 2018.

Former Disney Channel star Calum Worthy plays way against type as Adam, a young (white) man writing his Master’s thesis on the use of the N-word in the competitive rapping community. His investigations put him into the orbit of a master rapper, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). Through a series of events, Behn encourages Adam to take on another guy in an impromptu battle, and it turns out that he’s kind of good at it. This gives him entry into the competitions themselves. Adam’s politically correct girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) is none too happy about him partaking in an event that routinely utilizes misogynist and racist terminology.

The value of Bodied is twofold. First, it has a ring of authenticity in its portrayal of rap battling, taking you into a culture where bravado and creative wordplay are powerful tools. As Adam points out, it’s really people competing against each other using cleverly-crafted, sometimes vulgar poetry. Second, and more importantly, the movie is an examination of how different races view each other — and themselves. In order to fully make it in rap battling, Adam has to adhere to the style, which involves saying racist things that he would never dream of saying in daily conversation. At the same time, to say such things means that they must first be thought. Bodied suggests that we all have a touch of racism within us somewhere.

Concurrent with that, the film wants to be a satire of political correctness and the mindset, common especially among younger people, that every sentence uttered by someone must be intensely scrutinized to determine whether it could be even the slightest bit insensitive to any group of individuals. That’s absolutely worthy of satire, and there are moments when Bodied hits the comic bullseye. More often, though, the movie is too on-the-nose about it. The point of satire is that the message need not be explained; it’s inherent in the joke. The screenplay has a tendency to have the satire explain itself, which robs it of humor.

A few other things undermine the picture’s total success. The performances are mostly very exaggerated. Worthy, for instance, plays Adam with that broad quality that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcom stars are trained in. He raps credibly, but his scenes outside the ring make Adam nerdy to an un-relatable degree. Bodied also runs two full hours, which is much longer than the story needs to make its point.

There’s definitely some good stuff in here, particularly the rap battles themselves, which — just by sheer virtue of the things said — point out that offensive remarks are  sanctioned in certain situations, yet still bring with them repercussions and the ability to wound. Those positives are, however, buried under a needlessly long running time and frequent heavy-handedness.

Bodied deserves admiration for its ambition, even if the execution isn’t where it could have been.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of movies in current theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

Lifechanger [Fantasia 2018 Review]

If Richard Linklater’s Slacker was remade as a horror film, it might resemble Lifechanger. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, is ambitious and intriguing, with one heck of a twist in the final ten minutes. Writer/director Justin McConnell clearly has big ideas on his mind, which makes this something worth paying attention to.

Bill Oberst, Jr. provides the voice of Drew. We don’t really see him because he’s a “body thief.” Somehow he moves from person to person, killing them and taking over their bodies until they start to rot, at which time he finds a new host. Early scenes in the film show him inhabiting a body, spending a day or two in it, then moving to another (hence my Slacker reference). Aside from the trail of death and destruction left in his wake, there is an additional complication. Drew has fallen in love with Julia (Lora Burke, in a very good performance), so he continually works his way into her orbit with each new guise.

The heart of Lifechanger is that Drew wants to be near Julia, but he can’t if he dies, so he has to continue his murderous ways. That’s one heck of a hook! We follow him as he uses various metrics to determine whose body he should take over, and as he tries to figure out how to achieve the desired closeness with Julia in spite of his inability to remain static.

It takes a little while for the movie to get going. Understanding what’s happening and the “rules” of it takes some time. You also have to get to know Drew through his voiceover, since we don’t see the real him onscreen. That involves listening to what he says as he passes through several bodies and analyzes his predicament. Put the effort into doing those things and you’ll be rewarded. Lifechanger builds to a climax that pays off its premise in a thematically perfect way designed to make your jaw drop.

In terms of horror, there are absolutely some moments that will shock you. McConnell shows an aptitude for making things just as gruesome as they need to be to maintain effectiveness, without going overboard. The way violence is handled here makes Drew’s situation feel almost as tragic for him as for his victims. It becomes a warped, twisted version of the food chain.

Lifechanger combines an interior kind of horror with a very external kind of horror, which makes it a movie to have on your radar.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of current theatrical releases, go to the main page of The Aisle Seat.


The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot [Fantasia 2018 Review]

From the title alone, you might expect The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot to be a massive slice of cinematic insanity. It’s true that there’s a really bonkers sequence in which star Sam Elliott fights the legendary Sasquatch. Beyond that, though, the movie — which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018 — is fairly restrained. That’s a good thing, because there’s far more depth here than the awesome and technically accurate attention-getting title suggests. Using the word “melancholy” to describe a film with such a moniker is odd, yet also perfectly apt. However you want to describe it, this is a special work that hits you in unexpected ways.

Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a man who has been carrying around a secret for decades: he assassinated Adolf Hitler. For a variety of reasons best unrevealed here, he never got credit for it, not that he cares. Despite eliminating one of history’s greatest villains, Calvin regrets having taken a life. The event also cost him his relationship with girlfriend Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is seen in the flashbacks that permeate the film. Aidan Turner plays Calvin during those scenes.

It is not a welcome event when representatives from the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police show up at Calvin’s door asking for his help. The FBI agent (Ron Livingston) knows about Hitler and now wants him to track and kill Bigfoot, who is carrying a disease that could wipe out mankind. After some initial resistance, Calvin agrees to put himself into a situation where he’ll have to kill again.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot has two questions at its core. The first is, What if you did something truly remarkable but had ambivalent feelings about it? The second is, Would it be foolish to do something remarkable again, given those ambivalent feelings from before? Writer/director Robert Krzykowski explores how Calvin struggles to reconcile what he did with how it affected his life. Yes, he made the world better for everyone else. For himself, though? That’s another matter. He’s not sure if it was ultimately worth it. In some respects, the movie is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in the way it maps the emotional toll getting pulled back into violence takes on the lead character, although Calvin Barr’s outcome is certainly different than William Munny’s.

Sam Elliott gives yet another stellar performance here, expertly conveying the way Calvin’s ordeal and its subsequent repercussions have worn him down over the years. You can feel every drop of guilt, remorse, and sorrow. At the same time, the actor shows how his character gradually opens up to himself and finds some form of acceptance over the course of his adventure pursuing Bigfoot. It’s more great work from a performer who routinely delivers greatness.

The fact that The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is so hard to categorize is part of what makes it so special. Predicting where it will go from minute to minute is impossible. Krzykowski confidently weaves the story between past and present, reality and fantasy. A “big” moment will be followed by one that’s quieter and more introspective. He scatters little cross-references between timelines, and utilizes a clever metaphor for Calvin’s problem — one that involves his shoe. The cumulative result is that the movie takes what could have been a jokey premise and instead melds it into something mythic and meaningful.

One of the most pleasing qualities of genre films is their ability to tackle deep themes in a way that’s not as heavy-handed or obvious as they could be if tackled straight-on. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is as good an example of that as you will find. This is a touching, affecting story about a man coming to terms with his life’s deeds. And it just happens to have him fighting Bigfoot.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information about Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of movies currently in theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

Cam [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Cam is like a really taut episode of The Twilight Zone set against the backdrop of sex work. From the opening scene, it grabs you and doesn’t let go for an hour-and-a-half. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, pulls you into the world of “cam girls” — women who host sexually-explicit online shows, and often get on slightly personal terms with their fans. Graphic, but never offensively so, it delves into the psyche of one such cam girl as her world starts to fall apart.  

Madeline Brewer gives a brave, ferocious performance as Alice. She has a loyal viewership in her guise as “Lola,” but is obsessed with breaking into her web host’s top 50. That entails using extreme tactics like implications of self-harm in addition to the usual sexual teases. Alice wants to tell her mother (Melora Walters) about her profession, yet figures it’s better to wait until she’s reached the appropriate level of success first.

Trouble strikes when Alice gets locked out of her account. Worse, someone else is broadcasting on it. Someone who looks and sounds exactly like her. How is this possible? Her effort to find out puts her in contact with two creepy regular viewers, and in pursuit of the #1 cam girl around. What she discovers is shocking.

The questions of how Alice’s account gets hacked and who does it are only answered very generally. That’s perfectly okay, because Cam isn’t so much about what happens as it is about Alice’s reaction it. Despite some horror overtones, this is ultimately a story of control. On her shows, Alice has it. She decides what she’s comfortable doing, how to present herself, and in what ways she wants to interact with her viewers. Using sex appeal as leverage, she calls all the shots. Once her account is hijacked and the other Lola takes over, she no longer has that control, which threatens to derail her dream of rising in the ranks. This realization leads to taking greater risks to get that control back.

Cam was written by Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl herself. That makes a huge difference, as the movie is filled with authentic details that add exponentially to the effect. Even if you’d never watch one of these broadcasts, the way Cam delves into the behind-the-scenes preparations, the relationship-building with viewers, the technical complications, and the rivalries between hosts is captivating. Director Daniel Goldhaber paces the film like a rocket, zipping back-and-forth between Alice’s real world and her online existence, showing how the two have become intertwined.

At the center of it all is Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale). She palpably captures Alice’s single-mindedness in wanting to be a top cam girl. Although tough and determined on the outside, Brewer also suggests an inner vulnerability, as though Alice doesn’t see much potential in herself other than that which her hotness provides, so she willingly capitalizes on it. This role deserves to make the actress a star.

Cam is destined to be compared to the work of David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Dr., with its nightmarish, surreal quality and duel identity plot. Truthfully, though, the movie is more accessible than Lynch’s (admittedly great) output. There’s also a freshness to the treatment of the subject matter that makes it unique.

All the way around, Cam is a bold, electrifying thriller.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Mega Time Squad [Fantasia 2018 Review]

If you’re a fan of time-travel comedies, Mega Time Squad is going to blow your mind. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, puts an ingenious and often hilariously funny spin on the whole concept of how time-travel is used in movies. If you think you can guess where this New Zealand import’s story is headed, you’re completely wrong.

Anton Tennet plays Johnny, a low-level drug dealer who performs errands and chores for a local kingpin, Shelton (Johnny Brugh). One day, he gets the bright idea to stage a heist of his own, making off with the money Shelton has ordered him to steal from a local Chinese-run antique store with ties to a triad. In the process, he also swipes a magical ancient bracelet — one that, when a button on it is pushed, allows him to travel a short way back in time. There’s just one hitch: it also creates another version of him. And according to legend, a demon appears if a time-traveler meets himself.

Needless to say, Johnny uses it. What follows is a madcap adventure in which five different iterations of Johnny are pursued by people trying to get the money back.

Early scenes in Mega Time Squad are highly comical, as Johnny repeatedly gets out of trouble by foolishly generating new copies of himself. One scene, set in a public restroom, is especially uproarious. Then there’s a unique twist in the second half. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Johnny and his duplicates don’t necessarily trust each other. (That the character is self-aware about his own disreputable nature is one of the film’s shrewdest jokes.) Everything leads to a climax that finds Johnny and Shelton confronting each other. The way this resolves itself is deeply satisfying.

The special effects used in the movie are so seamless that I assumed director Tim van Dammen had somehow found quintuplet actors to play Johnny. You can’t see the seams anywhere. There’s a jaw-dropping sequence in which all the Johnnies confuse Shelton and his goons by wandering through a house simultaneously. Done in long, steady shots where he repeatedly passes himself, the scene is astonishing to watch. These are, however, just effects. There is only one Johnny, and Anton Tennet does a terrific job playing all the many versions of the hapless character. It is a testament to his abilities that we can keep them all straight.

One of the hardest things for any time-travel movie to achieve is to have everything be airtight, so that there are no “holes” in the plot and so that everything adds up 100%. I’m not entirely sure Mega Time Squad does that. Then again, it really doesn’t matter. The clever premise and appealingly offbeat sense of humor are more than sufficient to make this a comedy worth savoring.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Mike Diana drew insanely offensive art. That was his whole point. He wanted to be appreciated not by the masses, but by people who were on his own demented wavelength. Odds are you’ve never heard of Diana. He is the first U.S. artist convicted of obscenity. Now he’s the subject of an important documentary from director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) called Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana. The film had its international premiere at Fantasia 2018.

After a brief, informative history of underground comics, the documentary zeroes in on its subject. Diana was a young Florida man who published a zine (a homemade magazine sent out to subscribers by mail) called Boiled Angels. It was filled with cartoons that spoke to his personal obsessions: sexuality, religion, and violence. The sexual assault of children and infants was a common theme in his work, although it was presented in an extremely exaggerated fashion.

Through a freak confluence of events, Diana’s drawings came to the attention of the police. A traffic stop turned up a copy of one issue, and the officer noticed some similarities between the illustrations and a series of brutal murders that had taken place in Gainesville, Florida. Authorities tracked him down and immediately began investigating to see if he might be the killer. He wasn’t. That said, his work was deemed obscene, leading to an arrest and trial, at the end of which he was convicted of obscenity. No one had been hurt, and the zine only went into the hands of 200 or 300 people, all of whom voluntarily subscribed to it.

Henenlotter interviews Diana about his ordeal, but also talks to his parents, the prosecutor who won the case, a woman who followed the story in the media and showed up in court to confront him, and multiple fellow artists. Each offers a unique perspective on the trial and its long-term ramifications.

Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana uses these interviews to get at its main point, which is that it’s absolutely absurd for anyone to have been convicted for drawing provocative pictures. It’s precisely the thing the First Amendment is supposed to protect, and yet somehow, in this particular instance, justice was not served. If anything, Diana used his artwork as a means of getting rid of his demons in a productive, non-violent way. The problem is not what he drew, it’s that people couldn’t deal with those drawings once they saw them.

Narrated by punk rocker Jello Biafra and featuring a healthy swath of its subject’s work, Boiled Angels makes a strong statement about the need for art to push boundaries, to confront us, and to occasionally assault our sensibilities. Diana is clearly a shy man, so he doesn’t necessarily go deep into his feelings, but Henenlotter makes sure to fill everything out, leading to a documentary that will offend and enlighten you simultaneously.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Four Must-See Movies at Fantasia

The annual Fantasia International Film Festival is soon upon us. The event, which takes place from July 12 through August 2, brings together some of the most innovative, cutting-edge genre films from around the world. The 2018 fest has an amazing-looking roster of titles.

Here are four must-see movies playing at Fantasia this year, which are certain to get a lot of attention:

Arizona – Danny McBride stars in this dark comedy, set during the 2009 housing crisis, as a disturbed guy who takes out his frustrations on anyone who displeases him. McBride is, of course, best known for goofy comedy, but there’s always been an underlying angry edge in his work. Here, he appears to indulge in that edginess, which promises an unforgettable ride. The screenplay was written by Brooklyn Nine-Nine scribe Luke Del Tredici, so you just know the dialogue is going to crackle. This could be a picture that shows its star in a whole new light.

Tales from the Hood 2 – Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood is one of the most important horror movies of the 1990s. The anthology uses issues related to race in each of its segments, leading to a viewing experience that is both provocative and entertaining. Years later, Cundieff delivers a sequel starring the great Keith David as the new Mr. Simms. (He takes over for Clarence Williams III.) It will be exciting to see how the director weaves in contemporary issues of race, especially in light of recent events that have rocked America. Tales from the Hood 2 looks to be a much-needed cinematic barn-burner.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich – If you grew up in the era of VHS, you doubtlessly know the Puppet Master franchise. These low-budget productions are notable for their murderous puppet creations, twisted violence, and wicked sense of humor. The latest installment, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, is more than just another sequel, though. It was made by the people behind the acclaimed genre film Bone Tomahawk, so it’s obviously going to be a totally original take, especially since it revolves around a Nazi puppetmaker played by Udo Kier. Thomas Lennon and the always-awesome Barbara Crampton co-star.

Our House – Thomas Mann plays a young guy working on an invention that allows for wireless electricity, while also caring for his brother and sister following the tragic death of their parents. What he doesn’t initially realize is that his gizmo actually opens up a portal allowing contact from the Other Side. I’m including Our House on this must-see list for a simple reason: I’ve already seen it, and it’s terrific. (The movie has begun screening for critics in advance of its July 27 opening.) A full review will follow in the weeks ahead. For now, I’ll just say that it continues the trend — started by A Quiet Place and Hereditary — of 2018 horror films that are as concerned with character and emotion as they are with scares.

Of course, there are many other awesome films playing at Fantasia, and I’ll be covering some of them here. For more information on what’s screening, check out the official Fantastia 2018 website.


Gags [Cinepocalypse 2018 Review]

Remember that news story about a clown prowling the streets in Wisconsin and freaking out residents — the one that made national news and launched copycats all across the country? That was a marketing stunt for a short film, directed by Adam Krause. And a very effective one at that. Now there’s a feature version of the short, Gags, which had its world premiere at Cinepocalypse 2018. Anyone with coulrophobia (including a certain film critic whose work you might be familiar with) is certain to get a shiver or five.

The movie follows several characters, all of whom are fascinated by a clown named Gags who has been trolling Green Bay, carrying black balloons filled with deadly powder. There’s TV news reporter Heather Duprey (played by genre favorite Lauren Ashley Carter) who wants to get a big scoop; a right-wing podcaster, Charles Wright (Aaron Christensen), determined to scare the clown away during a live broadcast; a couple of cops trying to find and arrest him; and a group of teenagers attempting to mimic his actions. All of them convene on one fateful night. Not everyone makes it out alive.

Gags is a horror-comedy, so there’s a mixture of scares and laughs. Of course, last year’s It set the gold standard for clown-based horror, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some effective scenes here. Krause makes excellent use of locations, having the villain pop up in darkened alleys, at a carnival, and in a parking garage, among other places. The biggest chill occurs in the final ten minutes, in which Gags’ lair is revealed. Conception and design of the place are wonderfully eerie. What happens there might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Elsewhere, the film has fun taking some digs at story-hungry reporters and angry right-wing types. Sometimes the humor is overt, such as the way Heather carries out an ongoing rivalry with a reporter from another station. Other times, it’s more darkly satirical. One of the best scenes has Wright confronting Gags by whipping out his gun and engaging in macho, I’m only tough because I’m packing! posturing.

Gags could have used just a little more of its title character, who appears sparingly. The film is more about the reactions of everyone else to him than it is about his reign of terror. Nevertheless, there are some interesting insights into how people view bizarre, un-quantifiable threats — with fear, with aggression, as an amusement, etc. Carter and Christensen give very good performances that add significantly to the overall impact, and the story builds to a conclusion that is as ingenuous as it is creepy.

In the realm of clown-horror cinema, Gags is definitely a movie to pay attention to.