Well, it’s been about a week since the Etheria Film Night kicked L.A.’s pasty-gray male cinematic ass for the third straight year. (Or at least it did mine!)
For those of you not in the know: Etheria is an organization devoted to showcasing first-rate female filmmakers who work in the genres (horror, fantasy, science fiction, action, crime, black comedy, and bizarro). Festival founders Heidi Honeycutt, Stacy Pippi Hammon, and Kayley Viteo take their traveling shows all over the country, year-round. Meanwhile connecting women all up and down the motion picture universe, from industry insiders to struggling beginners to international filmmakers the whole world over.
Their mission statement is that not ONLY are women fully capable of directing high-quality, astonishing film and television, but that they have the proof: selecting the cream from the hundreds of films submitted, and saying, “HIRE THESE WOMEN. You have no excuse not to.” And they are absolutely right.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a judge and “Honorary Vagina” for Etheria since the very beginning. So am I biased? You’re goddam right. I FUCKING LOVE THESE WOMEN. Believe in them a trillion percent. Think the case they’re making is incredibly important.
And every year, with every showcase, they do nothing to prove me wrong. Getting better and better all the time. (For more info, check their website http://www.etheriafilmnight.com/about-etheria-film-night/)
This year’s feature also turns out to be one of my favorite films of 2016 to date: Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH, which should be hitting select theaters before the summer is out. It’s a delightfully stylish, funny, and fucked-up 21st-century resurrection of vintage 1960s-70s Eurosleaze, exploitation, and hippie horror. Taking its fem-gnostically fun-packed vision further than any of the films and filmmakers it evokes, on the way to staking its own unique claim on film history.
Think 1973’s THE WICKER MAN meets BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS on its way to THE DUNWICH HORROR – with some Radley Metzger, Roger Corman, Donald Cammell, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Roeg, Jess Franco, and John Waters thrown in for good measure – and you start to get the gist of how insanely juicy this gets.
It’s the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson): a lovely and deranged young woman who really, really wants that fairy tale True Love she’s been promised. And is determined to have it, no matter how high the broken-hearted body count gets. She’s a student of the seductive arts. She’s ridiculously gorgeous. And she’s also a witch. So she’s pretty much three-for-three in the Black Widow Sweepstakes. No man can resist her spell.
But love gotten that easily is pretty hard to respect. And the cruelty of her first love – which propelled her on this quest – has focused and hardened her to the point of pure free-floating psychotic fixation. And as her sloppily-disposed-of stack of dead dudes deepens, she encounters the One Tough Cop who could either be her ultimate dream lover, or the man who finally brings her down.
As a story, this is total fun. But as a film?
OH, MY FUCKING GOD.
It all starts with Anna Biller herself – a filmmaker’s filmmaker, if ever one was – who not only wrote, produced, and directed the living shit out of it, but also edited, composed the music, production-designed and art-directed the exquisite sets, the wardrobe, and every inch of it throughout so hard that she deserves some sort of Stanley Kubrick Award for EXCELLENCE IN EVERYTHING.
You know you’re in unusually good hands when you go, “Omigod, look at those colors. This is gorgeous!” Then start laughing at a perfectly staged joke, leading straight into sequences of genuine horniness, culminating (usually) in some sort of alarming death. All of it exquisitely shot. Eyeball and earball candy all the way. (Her music is both lush AND hilarious!)
And the performances couldn’t be better. Samantha Robinson channels young Liz Taylor by way of Russ Meyer and The Carrie Nations, and is can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her riveting throughout. Love-spell recipients Robert Seeley and Gian Keys both kill it, as does Laura Laddell as the woman most betrayed. Elaine’s fellow witches are also terrific. But Jeffrey Vincent Parise scene-steals his shit so hard (as “Wayne”, the totally good-to-go first fool we meet) that I can’t believe he wasn’t already one of my favorite movie stars.
I gotta say: there’s something about watching men nakedly, vulnerably weep on camera – like women have been asked to do since cameras began – that’s kind of hilarious in a film like this. Seeing the sex roles inverted always cheers me up. But also totally yanks my chains.
Because, yes: the broken heart of a man hurts just as much as the broken heart of a woman, I am here to fucking tell you. It’s just surpassingly rare to see it portrayed on film like this, from a woman’s perspective, and with the stoic manly filter turned off. Watching your guy melt down to a puddle, while you go, “Oof. Jesus, what a pussy,” is as real as real can be; and Parise and Seeley bring that emotion so hard that I’m laughing and crying at the same time. An extraordinary feat, in an extraordinary film.
I love this movie soooo much, in so many ways, that you’d think it cast some sort of nefarious spell upon me. And you’d be right! Am officially an Anna Biller fan for life. Want to see anything she does. But will not be swigging anyone’s love potion, any time soon.
And now we move to the short film block, where the remaining nine filmmakers cued up to weave their respective spells, at 20 minutes or less.
First up was GENGHIS KHAN CONQUERS THE MOON by Kerry Yang, wherein the titular warlord (Cary Tagawa, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) is enticed to spread his empire extraterrestrially, to the Sea of Tranquility, as seen through a telescope owned by James Wong (GREMLINS). It felt like a super-high-end Syfy Channel series pitch to me, in terms of tone. Superlatively dialed. And I hope they listen. Cuz she knocked it out the park. (The production values –including the lunar landscape they created – are legitimately breathtaking.)
HOSS by Christine Boylan is also aiming straight for high-end network viability. Clearly a setup for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi western series, it’s beautifully shot and staged, and the script is clever, with tons of cool implications. My unfortunate complaint is the one I honestly have with most TV. It’s too clean. I don’t smell the sweat, and wonder how this tough heroine keeps her wardrobe so spotless. But taken on its own terms, it’s sharp as a knife, and the death scene that caps it is excellent. Far as I can tell, she could step onto any show and hold her own. Knows how it’s done. And does it very, very well.
From there, shit gets weird in a hurry. Olga Osario’s RESTART is a time-warping, mind-warping gem somewhere between MEMENTO and LOOPER, with all the enormous filmic skill that implies. This story of a kidnapped woman, eternally trying to figure out how to change her past and end the cycle, is profoundly thought-through and directed within an inch of its life. Amazing work. And phenomenal talent.
Toy Lei’s BOXER brought the action, at the shortest running time. It’s the story of a nondescript Asian mom who nobody would suspect came here to kill you. But she can, and she will, with incredible skill and absolute ruthlessness. Somewhere between her succinct, beautifully-choreographed ultraviolence and her love of her son, I fell in love with this thing. It evokes a powerful motherly role-reversing twist somewhere between LONE WOLF AND CUB and LEON THE PROFESSIONAL. If this became a series, I would watch it. Just sayin’!
Likewise with Mindy Bledsoe’s HARD BROADS, the far-and-away laughtastic favorite of the show. It’s the cheapest and rawest of the batch. But fuck if this girlfriend inversion of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S gone horribly wrong didn’t bring down the house. Utterly belongs on Comedy Central, or whoever else wants to surf that hilarious wave. I laughed so hard it hurt.
Jacqueline Castel’s THE PUPPET MAN is thin on plot, but drippingly rich in sleazy textural va-va-vooom. The awesome music and cameo by the great John Carpenter certainly add to the voom. But there’s a giddy, galvanized intensity to every neon-lit speck of the proceedings at this shithole bar, where things go from bad to worse, that’s impossible to ignore. If the feature it implies pays off on its deliciously creepy setup, this one could be a keeper. It definitely rocks. (And Susannah Simpson gives my favorite supporting performance of the short fest. She’s the P.J. Soles of the next generation. I want to see her in EVERYTHING!)
Which brings us, at last, to my top three.
The big festival award-winner – with both the judges and the audience – was Jill Gavargizian’s THE STYLIST. For very many good reasons. Its tale of a lonely, damaged, homicidal hair stylist who longs to live the lives of the successful clients she colors and coifs literally screams to be made into a powerful stand-alone horror feature, of which this is but a chapter. (A series could work, too, But let’s start with the feature!)
Najarra Townsend (CONTRACTED) utterly owns this role, lovably down-to-earth and wincingly tragic by turns. She’s the opposite of a cold-blooded killer. Has a very warm heart. But is unfortunately deeply insane, with some really bad ideas about how to improve her life.
And there’s a grisly, sustained centerpiece – shot in one retina-peelingly astonishing take – that had the entire audience cringing and staring through its fingers. It’s a virtuoso moment of pure hardcore horror that’s as emotionally transgressively shocking as it is meatily unflinching.
Bottom line: it’s a great horror film with a lot of soul, delivered impeccably. SOMEONE GIVE JILL THE MONEY TO MAKE THIS FEATURE NOW.
Speaking of hardcore horror: the one film that had me jumping up and down in my seat was NASTY, by Prano Bailey-Bond. This is a U.K.flick, set in 1982, during the height of the “Video Nasties” scandal, when horror films from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to THE EVIL DEAD were being actively banned. And it dances with the danger and allure of watching such forbidden fruit in a familial setting, with a barely-teenage son trying to figure out where his dad has disappeared to. Stumbling onto Dad’s secret stash of forbidden VHS tapes. And getting initiated into a deeper, darker surreality that may both corrupt his life AND bring the family closer together.
I’ve seen a lot of movies try to reconcile our love of watching horrible things with our desire to understand those horrible things. And recognize them in ourselves, without taking them out on the world.
NASTY’s enormous triumph, for me, is that it uses every naturalistic and hallucinogenic chance it gets to hardwire you inside that experience. Draws a super-clear line between the imaginary and the real. Then pries your brain apart, and drags you through the luminous VHS gateway to revelation.
Lemme just say that Prano Bailey-Bond is one amazing director. She works in at least three distinct styles here, from gritty/jittery/artifact-packed 80s VHS re-creation to Ken Loach naturalism to Chris Cunningham-level mind-bending what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see-ness. She uses every tool in the visionary toolshed, on a tiny budget, and the results utterly blew me away. Fucking loved it. Fucking want to see more of her soon.
But if NASTY had me jumping up and down, Stephanie Cabdevila’s BIONIC GIRL was the one with which I fell most soulfully in love. And it’s the one for which mere words are most apt to fail me. So please allow me to attempt to describe this most intoxicatingly beautiful of bizarro mindfucks.
Let’s start by saying Stephanie Cabdevila is working at a Michele Gondry level of artistic brilliance here, circa his videos for Bjork and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. The movie is, in fact, a musical sci-fi/fantasy from beginning to end, translating its boundless imagination into one breathtaking symbolic setpiece after another. So no, I wasn’t crying. That was just my eyeballs drooling.
From the moment our mad scientist/heroine (Clemintine Poidatz) starts songsplaining the bionic replica of herself she’s created to take her place in the outside world – and we’re shown her ghostly-sheeted, googly-eyed constant companion in alienation – we’re transported to a place made entirely out of magick and infinite possibility. And as her plan goes swiftly, horribly wrong, the depths of her isolation become stunningly manifest. She’s got a long, hard climb to reclaim herself, a process both sweetly comic and sincerely oh-no heartbreaking.
The climactic fight between self and projection is a classic example of the all-too-rare “surrealist action scene”, monumentally played. And where it lands is so achingly lovely and utterly weird that it feels, to me, like home.
If I were ever to start a Fungasm Film line – producing the kinds of films I edit as books for Fungasm Press – Stephanie Cabdevila would be at the very tip-top of my list. BIONIC GIRL is, to my mind, the reason they invented the word magnificent.
So that’s my report! I hope it inspires you to look into Etheria, and their ever-growing roster of femme-tastic filmmakers. Because they’re essential parts of the new frontier. In a world where men direct roughly 96% of the feature films and television being produced, there’s no longer any excuse for saying, “Well, I’d hire a woman director, but there just aren’t any. We just can’t find ’em.”
As Jackie Kong – groundbreaking, troublemaking director of BLOOD DINER, and recipient of Etheria’s 2016 Inspiration Award – said in her keynote speech (and I’m paraphrasing pretty close), “If you want to support us, hire us. We’re right here. And we’re ready to work.”
And as I’ve said before, and will say again: if 49% of the human race is telling 96% of the stories, WE AIN’T HEARING 51% OF THE WHOLE HUMAN STORY. A situation so unjust and untenably insane I should barely even need to point it out.
If you’re as tired as I am of hearing the same old stories, over and over, here’s a simple solution that’s sitting right there, just waiting for us to open the door.
I’d like to suggest that we open that door.
There is no excuse not to.
— John Skipp