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Thrillers, horror, and exploitation at the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival

Thrillers, horror, and exploitation at the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival

A look at seven genre films in this year's lineup. | By Edwanike Harbour, Reid Kurkerewicz, Grant Phipps, and Scott Gordon

  "Good Manners."

"Good Manners."

Genre films are the spice of the Wisconsin Film Festival, applied generously and without shame. From year to year, the festival's programmers seem to take thrillers, horror, exploitation films, Westerns, and the like as seriously as they do documentaries, experimental shorts, and narrative dramas. Rather than offering some fun stuff in the spirit of a middlebrow concession, the festival consistently offers a window into the depth and variety of genre films still being made, with the occasional treat of a restoration.

As often as not, these selections also twist the devices and tropes of genre films toward unconventional ends. This year a coming-of-age film wraps itself in suspense, a Western shoot-'em-up swerves into wild hallucinations, a tale of urban recidivism doubles as an unflinching social critique, and a horror film about clay that eats people is, well, about clay that eats people. We at Tone Madison watched seven feature-length genre films (or films that at least incorporate genre-film elements) screening in this year's festival. Here's how they hold up.

The Great Silence

AMC, Wednesday, April 11, 3:30 p.m.; Thursday, April 12, 6 p.m.

A powerful bounty-hunter gang is terrorizing the townspeople of Snow Hill, Utah, the blizzard-covered mountain setting for Sergio Corbucci's subversive spaghetti Western from 1968. While The Great Silence inverts the typical landscape of the desert into a similarly desolate, white environment, so too does it upend the moral roles of the destitute bandits and their loose-cannon hunters. A man named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who avenges the deaths of those unjustly killed by bounty hunters (a bounty hunter of bounty hunters, if you will), rides into town to kill Trigero (Klaus Kinski), a sociopath who murders as many people as the law allows. Silence, who was made mute by the corrupt banker and judge Pollicut, only shoots after his opponent draws first to avoid jail himself, but his rare, semi-automatic Mauser and excellent marksmanship give him the edge. He's been hired by the beautiful and tenacious Pauline (Vanetta McGee), whose husband is killed by Loco after his destitution forces him to steal.

Corbucci's masterpiece is a stark and brutal example of late-60's counter-cultural cinema, and connects the fraught politics of inequality in America's mythologized frontier to its time as a global power. The poor residents of Snow Hill are labelled criminals by the state because they can't survive without breaking the law the law, and then are hunted down by contracted government agents. This forces the people to organize themselves against the state by hiring Silence, much like violent civil rights groups in the '60s that demanded extra-legal protection. When a good-hearted sheriff (Frank Wolff) working within the system attempts to stand up for what is right and legal at the same time, he is punished.

The film initially earned a chilly reception from mainstream audiences because of its cynical and anti-state themes, but is now considered to be one of greatest Italian westerns. With a melancholic soundtrack by the great Ennio Morricone, an inspiring debut performance from future blaxploitation actress McGee, and the symbolically bleak yet beautiful Italian mountain ranges presented in stunning long-shots, The Great Silence is a rare treat for festival audiences who might not have the chance to see this film otherwise. —RK

Sollers Point

Vilas Hall, Friday, April 6, 8:15 p.m.; AMC, Saturday, April 7, 1:45 p.m.

Matt Porterfield's 2017 film Sollers Point is a character study of Keith (McCaul Lombardi), a low-level drug dealer recently released from a short stint in prison. He is on house arrest living with his dad Carol (Jim Belushi, yes that Jim Belushi) in a run-down house in a poor Baltimore neighborhood. Try as he might, every effort Keith makes to turn his life around is thwarted by a combination of circumstances and poor choices. The choices themselves are often a result of Keith's limited economic opportunities.

Keith might be a young, able-bodied white man, but he seems to have every strike against him in this slice-of-life narrative. Porterfield humanizes Keith and the denizens of his beleaguered neighborhood to an extent, but has no qualms about offering stern social critiques of the life choices these characters have made. In one scene in which Keith confronts an old gang member, Porterfield drags the shot out long enough for the audience to sincerely root for Keith to stop following the code of the streets. But old habits die hard, and Keith is not one to let anything slide.

Zazie Beetz plays Keith's old girlfriend Courtney, and is just as astute here as she is in Donald Glover's Atlanta. (Let's hope Beetz stops getting typecast as a jilted girlfriend—she's got much more to offer than that.) The relationship between Keith and Courtney begs the question of why Keith's life turned out the way it did—he is surrounded by family and friends who love him, even if the relationship with his father is strained.

Porterfield brilliantly portrays the pitfalls of recidivism and hopelessness of a young man with so much potential trying to get back on his feet. This is a tight, well-shot narrative that really makes the viewer question the types of inequalities that lead a person not just down this road, but how the odds are so stacked against them that they can't escape. Even when Keith is presented with opportunities to leave this lifestyle, his coping skills and judgement aren't intact enough to make the right choice. Porterfield will be visiting the April 7 screening in person for a Q&A. —EH

Cold November

AMC, Friday, April 6, 6:15 p.m.; Monday, April 9, 1:30 p.m.

The quiet, poignant 2018 film Cold November stars Bijou Abas as Florence, a 12-year old girl who goes deer hunting with her family for the first time. Florence presents herself as a reticent, yet eager to participate in a family tradition that dates back generations. Armed with hope, promise, and a 30/30 rifle, Florence embarks upon a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the north woods of Minnesota.

Be forewarned that vegetarians may find several scenes unsettling—the film does focus heavily on the process of dressing a deer in the woods. For any other upper Midwesterners, this film serves up a familiar premise. But writer and director Karl Jacob depicts a matrilineal family in this film, which turns the "guys in the woods" trope on its head for a change. It's refreshing to see the family bonding through shared stories and camaraderie as they rally around Florence, who has recently suffered a tragic loss of a young family member.

Florence is sensitive and thoughtful but doesn't let the idea of killing an animal scare her away. While on this trip, she gets her first period and Jacob does an excellent job of drawing the parallels of  killing one's first deet and entering into adulthood without beating us over the head with the metaphor. While the film is quite understated, there are indeed moments of heightened tension as Florence finds out what participating in this ritual really entails. Anyone who has ever had to face danger alone as a child will be able to relate to Florence's character and the poise and determination she shows throughout the film.

The film is as contemplative as Florence herself, a character Abas portrays with an impressive degree of subtlety. She demonstrates frustration and still keeps a cool head in some harrowing scenes in the tree stand. Cold November will serve as quite delicate fare for those with stronger palates. —EH

Good Manners

AMC, Saturday, April 7, 11:15 a.m.; Sunday, April 8, 3:15 p.m.

Co-writers/directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas mine the gothic literature template for their latest feature, a decadently entertaining and ingenious genre amalgam. Equal parts dark Guillermo del Toro fantasy and vivid Pedro Almodóvar melodrama, Good Manners also hints at the body-horror appetites of Julia Ducournau's Raw (2016). And yet, between all its shape-shifting that knowingly mirrors its own subject matter, the film most readily stands as a subversive black comedy. If the aforementioned references paint the film as starkly theatrical throughout, the pleasure in experiencing Good Manners is sometimes in its surprisingly subtle and elegant tonal shifts.

It begins rather plainly in an opulently pastel-colored condominium near the heart of São Paulo, Brazil, as the aspiring, unassuming nurse Clara Macedo (Isabél Zuaa) is interviewed for a nanny/housekeeper position by the recently pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who already seems to be experiencing a strange cramping. Impressed by Clara's therapeutic consolation, Ana hires her on the spot, and the two quickly develop an inseparable friendship that is largely dependent on Clara's levelheaded demeanor as a sober contrast to Ana's impulsiveness. Through this comic dichotomy, Dutra and Rojas' screenplay indulges in an escalating baroque sensuality while suggesting a sinister backstory, as it is soon literally conveyed through use of ink-sketched, graphic novel-like stills.

Good Manners' latter half delights in unconventional detours from some cursed revelations that follow in the wake of Ana's trauma. The satirical sensibility burrows into the illusions of domesticity; and, in fact, it can be comically summarized with a shot of Clara clutching an infant werewolf to her bosom as analogous to an image of Ned Flanders cradling a blanketed gremlin in his arms. But, slight exaggeration aside, there is simultaneously a sincere compassion in the depiction of this newly-formed bond that exists out of both love and obligation, as the film becomes progressively more overt in its mythical, gothic symbolism and manifestations. This is aided by a genuine artistic restraint, as the visual effects team tastefully integrates a series of luminous matte-painted skylines and CGI.

Ultimately, Dutra and Rojas' collaboration bridges the gap between classic creature features and a range of art cinema through its content and themes, emphasizing a certain transparency and strength in interspecific unity. Perhaps this is most cleverly expressed in Gilherme and Gustavo Garbato's score, which possesses a quasi-musical dimension. Characters, particularly Clara's vocally trained landlady Amélia (Cida Moreira), break into cathartic and inviting songs that curiously form an amusing, running narration. First indicated in a chorus of voices over the opening credits, Good Manners' musical identity builds with ominous woodwind melodies that mingle with occasional harp pizzicati and glissandi. The Garbatos' sounds are the perfect fit for a film rooted in familiar tropes but set on intelligently upending them to create its own spirited postmodern grammar. —GP

Vampire Clay

Vilas Hall, Sunday, April 8, 6:45 p.m.; AMC, Tuesday, April 10, 8:15 p.m.

Sôichi Umezawa is a veteran makeup-effects artist in Japan's film industry, and makes something of a playground for himself in his debut as a writer-director, Vampire Clay. The owner of a rural pottery studio discovers a mysterious batch of clay buried on the grounds, and lo and behold, it eats people. There's a tiny bit of character work up front—an exacting art teacher fleeing her professional disappointments, a group of young students working out crushes and petty rivalries—but Umezawa's screenplay mostly just sets us up with a gallery of victims. What happens to them is gruesome indeed; WFF programming director Jim Healy, in this year's guide, compares the effects to those used for the shape-shifting creature in John Carpenter's The Thing. That's spot-on, and I'd also compare it to the squishy body horror of 1989's Society (which you should totally watch if you have a Fandor account and are a bit of a ghoul).

The problem that sets in early on in Vampire Clay is that Umezawa and his cast can't seem to decide what balance to strike between camp and playing it straight. This tension basically never gets reconciled. There are elements here that could make for a film at once darkly funny and profoundly fucked-up (in an Evil Dead sort of way, perhaps), but ultimately Vampire Clay is neither. It's a lukewarm entry in a genre that's all about pushing people to feel extreme feelings. Umezawa's effects hint at esoteric aspects of how and why the clay does what it does (it seems to turn people into clay while attacking them, and maybe absorbs the consciousnesses of its victims); there's an opportunity here to enrich the narrative but Umezawa never really follows through on it. The exposition that we do eventually get feels a bit thin. —SG

Let's Scare Jessica To Death

Vilas Hall, Saturday, April 7, 3:15 p.m.

John Hancock's 1971 film Let's Scare Jessica To Death begins when the titular Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is released from a mental institution, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their live-in friend and farm-hand Woody (Kevin O'Connor) move with her to a country mansion so she can recuperate. The town is almost exclusively populated with hippie-hating old men with neck bandages, and the group soon learns from an antique salesman (Alon Manson) that their house may be haunted. Coincidentally, they also discover a squatter in their home named Emily (Mariclare Costello), who they decide to let stay indefinitely. A mysterious young girl (Gretchen Corbett) appears to lead Jessica to a corpse, and hears about a roaming vampire, but is never able to prove that there's a killer on the loose, as she expects to be gas-lit before she can convey her perspective. Lampert's admirable performance is aggressively stilted, as Jessica confronts a dangerous and surreal new reality that pushes up against her only recently regained health.

This is a film about gaps of information, much of which are intentionally left unfilled, much as they are in Henry James' novel The Turn Of The Screw, which Hancock has cited as an influence. Even the nature of basic relationships between the characters are unclear, as there appears to be an almost orgiastic sexual energy between the entire cast. Most importantly, Jessica is constantly riddled by self-doubt. The fact that many of the central questions of the film are left unanswered means that much of the pleasure of this experience comes from twisting around the ideas yourself. The film is polarizing, but has achieved something of a cult status, evidenced by this wonderfully campy website. While Let's Scare Jessica To Death is a low-budget, campy horror movie that strains to be a psychological drama with uneven levels of success between scenes, it is generally captivating in its incomprehensibility. Many of the plot holes are justified by the eerie, dream-like atmosphere, which is set up with somber and claustrophobic cinematography. An additional bonus is Orville Stoeber's frantic score, which  is an early gem of atmospheric, electronic movie music. —RK

Let The Corpses Tan

AMC, Saturday, April 7, 8:45 p.m.; Wednesday, April 11, 8:45 p.m.

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's 2017 acid-Western blowout Let The Corpses Tan devotes most of its runtime to a grueling shootout in a complex of ruined buildings along the rocky coast of Corsica. The basic plot revolves around a gang of hardened thieves who steal a haul of gold bars, only to fall into a fast-moving series of betrayals after the cops show up at their spartan yet idyllic hideout. The fighting is close, strained by the Mediterranean sun and the competing egos and libidos within the group.

Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse seems to be trying to wring each shot for maximum significance and tension here. Whether or not that always advances the story, this hyper-stylization creates a wonderful blurring of exploitation-cinema grit and oil-painting saturation. (Cattet and Forzani have already earned a reputation for their bold visuals and atmospherics, including in the 2014 horror film The Strange Colour Of Your Body's Tears.) At times the action cuts away to hallucinatory scenes that depict either performance art or elaborate sex rituals or both. In these latter scenes it's never entirely clear who everyone, why they're there, or how they all relate to one another, but that's also true of some of the film's more straightforward stretches. Throughout it all, an artist named Luce (Elina Löwensohn) provides a charismatic center, but this is a film that never quite lets you get your bearings, and that is part of the gruesome fun.—SG

Madison calendar, April 5 through 11

Madison calendar, April 5 through 11

Mike King on the omnivorous nature of the Wisconsin Film Festival

Mike King on the omnivorous nature of the Wisconsin Film Festival

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