NightStream Film Festival 2020: Ranked

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cycle of yearly film festivals had to be put on hold, as have so many other public gathering events. In order to combat these circumstances, a number of regional horror/genre film festivals, including our beloved Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, have collaborated to bring us a streaming-based festival to highlight some of the underground genre pieces that we’d normally be missing out on otherwise. The three RMR hosts set aside a weekend to watch 10 of the selected genre picks that this festival had to offer. 

10. Detention

Movies based on videogames have had a bad track record, to say the least, and in theory, story-driven games like Detention are the types of games that should be receiving film adaptations, rather than the big blockbuster franchises that studios keep trying and failing with. While this movie is able to bring some of the chilling atmosphere and tense encounters from the game to life, it does so with jarring, out-of-place CG monsters, convoluted story structuring, a loose focus on character development, and quite honestly being too confusing and boring to remain engaging. 

9. The Doorman

Can’t say that any of us were expecting to see a generic, straight-to-DVD quality Ruby Rose action vehicle to screen at this supposed horror festival. In what feels like a movie that even Gerard Butler would have turned down, Ruby Rose stars as a retired military veteran who decides to take up a position as a doorman for a New York City hotel, which leads to many instances of men condescendingly asking, “Shouldn’t a doorman be a man?”, and then have no further commentary about traditional gender roles. The film then takes a predictably derivative turn into just becoming a standard Die Hard knockoff when a gang of terrorists, led by Jean Reno, hold the building for ransom and Rose has to put her combat skills to use.

With the exception of some acceptable choreography, the majority of the action scenes are marred by rapid editing, nauseating camera movement, and obvious greenscreen, essentially rendering the movie visually unappealing on almost every front. It keeps up a consistent pace, so the film never feels like an unbearable slog to get through, as most bad movies feel, but it is still a completely forgettable, inessential watch, and hopefully Ruby Rose can land herself a more worthy action vehicle for her strengths.     

8. Lucky

Throughout the history of horror as a genre, one of its most consistently problematic traits tends to be the exploitation of violence against and the victimization of women. In recent years, more women behind the camera such as Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and Coralie Fargeat (Revenge) just to name a few, have taken it upon themselves to use the horror genre to honestly portray the brutal reality of the true horror that women face without. Even in recent iterations of classic horror franchises like Halloween and The Invisible Man, filmmakers within this genre have become more aware of these stigmas and work to tell stories more representative of those struggles, as does Natasha Kermani attempt to achieve with Lucky, but to much less success. 

Lucky is a “Groundhog Day”-style slasher/thriller in which a mysterious man breaks into our protagonist’s house (Bea Grant) and tries to kill her every night. Every night, she kills him, he disappears, her friends and the cops don’t believe her, and she has to take matters of protecting herself into her own hands. What sounds like the promising start for an intriguing slasher concept, quickly divulges into a repetitive onslaught of horror cliches, obvious metaphors, and unsubtle commentary. The third act twist that reveals why this scenario keeps happening is an eye-rolling, pandering excursion that thinks it’s “Get Out for the female experience” but fails to say anything profound or nuanced regarding portrayals of feminism in horror.        

7. Anything for Jackson

From the director of about 25 identical-looking Hallmark Christmas movies where white heterosexual couples wear matching holiday sweaters, comes a movie where an elderly couple summons a satanic cult in order to bring back their deceased grandson. Anything for Jackson is, for all intents and purposes, a standard satanic cult movie which then divulges into a standard exorcism/haunted house movie. It has an incredibly dry brand of Canadian sensibilities from its actors which can either come across as charming or off-putting depending on the viewer. The development of the characters’ relationships, both to each other and to their deceased grandson that they desperately want to bring back, don’t feel as if they ever amount to anything truly impactful. It is a competently directed haunted house movie that delivers on some occasionally effective scares thanks to its moody atmosphere and dark tone, but ultimately doesn’t stand out among the slew of countless other similar looking and sounding horror movies. 

6. Mandibles

From the director of Rubber, a movie about a killer tire, comes another delightfully bizarre concept. Two clueless stoner buddies, a la Bill & Ted, get caught up in an organized crime deal gone wrong and find a giant fly in the trunk of their car. Their plan: train this fly to get money to pay back their debt. The plot ultimately doesn’t really end up going anywhere by the end, it does have a bit of an outdated early 2000’s buddy comedy tone to it, and some of the humor doesn’t always translate perfectly. The fly puppet is actually pretty adorable despite how gross that idea sounds, the two leads have charming enough comedic chemistry, and it has a light and breezy enough pace that flies by in no time. Amidst all of the self-serious horror movies during this fest, this was a cheerful palette cleanser.    

5. Boys from County Hell

An interesting new take on the typical rules and mythology of the vampire genre, Boys from County Hell takes place in a small Irish town that is being ravaged by a newly awakened ancient vampire that doesn’t even need to make physical contact with it’s victims in order to drain them of their blood. It’s now up to a group of scrappy Irish blokes to survive the night and rid the town of this ancient curse. The first half hour of the film takes a while to get into due to the amount of backstory, exposition, and world-building delivered through particularly indecipherable Irish accents, which creates a minor hurdle to overcome. Once the threat finally reveals itself and the gang has to board up and arm themselves, it becomes a solidly entertaining thriller in the style of Attack the Block or Edgar Wright’s Cornetto movies, though not as reliant on humor or wit. Boys from County Hell is a fun ride once it gets going, even when it’s reminding you of better versions of this same premise that you’ve seen before.    

4. Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

It’s become almost customary that the yearly horror film festival circuit ends up providing a documentary about a famous film within the horror genre. Most of the time, as is the case with documentaries such as Wolfman’s Got Nards (about The Monster Squad) or director Alexandre O. Philippe’s own 72/58 (about Psycho), these types of documentaries tend to come across as nothing more than just fan service celebrations of popular movies in which genre aficionados or horror industry figures are called upon to hype up the reputations of already widely beloved movies. 

Leap of Faith takes a different approach as William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, is the only interviewee for the doc, which allows for a lot more of an insightful analytical dive into this iconic film from both a thematic and production standpoint from the mind responsible for its creation. Friedkin reveals a lot of juicy details about the film’s creation, as well as the film’s importance, not just to film history or to the horror genre, but to him personally. Having only one interviewee for a full 90+ minutes can begin to feel a bit monotonous after a while, considering how long Friedkin tends to drone on for, but there are still tons of valuable information that gets highlighted in this piece, to the point where it feels as if no further research on The Exorcist could even be done, at least not to this extent. 

3. Run

Aneesh Chaganty’s follow-up to his gripping and innovative debut Searching, is another tense, yet fairly more traditional thriller. Run stars Sarah Paulson as a mother suffering from a troubled history involving her daughter. Due to complications while giving birth, her daughter is now confined to a wheelchair and required to take specific prescribed medications to keep her health up. Through a series of some admittedly predictable twists and turns, not everything is revealed to be as it seems. Earning the honor of being this festival’s opening night film, it’s no surprise that this is by far the most easily accessible film at this festival for a mainstream audience, and if it had actually gone to theaters as it was originally planned for a Mother’s Day 2020 release, it would have undoubtedly been a highly successful thriller that would have played really well in an auditorium with a large crowd. As it’s now set for a November release on Hulu, hopefully it gets discovered on streaming once the Halloween season has passed. 

2. Frank & Zed

Without a doubt, the most visually unique and outright bizarre movie at this, or any other festival, Frank & Zed is the classic “Frankenstein” story told with an entirely puppet cast. Frank is a “Frankenstein monster” type character, and his sidekick Zed is a zombie that helps him with his daily tasks. In traditional “Frankenstein” fashion, once the townspeople hear word of a monster living in their village, they stock up on their pitchforks and torches to rid themselves of the beast.

With such a distinct and ambitious art style, it’s hard for Frank & Zed not to stand out as being something entirely different from what you’re used to seeing, both in horror and animation. The film takes full advantage of its concept and dials up the wackiness and insanity to astronomical heights. It’s cute, funny, goofy, and gory in all the places it needs to be, and sometimes even more than it needs to. While it does deliver on its intended puppet charm, it does unfortunately wear out its novelty towards the end where the entire third act becomes just an endless orgy of puppet blood and gore for nearly 30 minutes, but it’s still an amusing romp nonetheless.  

1. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

Finishing off with a movie that isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but it’s more representative of real-life horror than any zombie or vampire ever could be. Tunde Johnson is a gay Black teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, stuck in a time loop in which every day ends with him being killed by police. This type of horror is one that the Black community has known for far too long and has become particularly prevalent in 2020. Director Ali LeRoi shows knowledge and consideration of this subject and takes the time to initiate a dialogue about the larger issues at hand, without simply exploiting the collective pain and trauma of a community for emotional manipulation. Major triggering warnings, given the heavy subject matter, but The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a powerfully human story that is as beautifully soulful as it is gut-wrenchingly devastating. 

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