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Florida has always had its fair share of horror, from the shocking “Florida Man” headlines peppered into the news to the haunted houses of Halloween Horror Nights. Over the last four years, the Popcorn Frights Film Festival has been giving the state exactly what it deserves: a horror festival to match locals’ adoration of the genre. It’s rare that any hidden gems (like Piercing, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and Evolution) appear on big screens in Miami, and even then they’re never released theatrically in the rest of South Florida. Though the festival primarily trades in horror, it does branch out into other realms typically dismissed as “genre” fare. There’s a little high fantasy here, some slow-burning mystery there, and a lot of screams, dreams, and obscene scenes for good measure.
Though many horror audiences lean toward gore and jump scares, fans of unique oddities will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the lineup in Popcorn Frights’ fifth edition. Something like Paradise Hills, a creative fantasy feature by Alice Waddington, may leave a mark on viewers swayed by dystopian fiction and queer narratives, and serves as a terrific example of what talented filmmakers make up the festival’s short film selection. Waddington’s marvelous Disco Inferno was a highlight of 2016’s block.
If there’s a standout short in this year’s program, it’s Meredith Alloway’s Deep Tissue. Described simply as “a girl orders a special massage,” the magic is in the way Alloway (who also acts in the film alongside Peter Vack) teases the surprise that lies within. It’s a fully fleshed-out concept presented in under ten minutes, and as genuinely erotic as it is amusing and unsettling.
But if any two features are perfect showcases for Popcorn Frights’ willingness to take risks, they’re Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin and Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. On the surface, both seem like perfect draws — designed around the past, displaying nostalgia for an era of film that is gone but constantly referenced in contemporary art. Each work seems to exist in a sort of Twilight Zone, simultaneously indulging in absurdities that could never happen in our world while critiquing society as we know it.
Knives and Skin sets its sights on the 1980s, complete with era-appropriate tunes like “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s and New Order’s “Blue Monday” (sung like the choral covers that populate many a modern film trailer). But it chooses to deconstruct tropes common to the period through a deadpan and purposely alienating lens, rather than give the audience an exhaustive amount of references, Stranger Things–style. Conceptually interesting and visually appealing though it might be, Reeder’s film quickly reveals itself as a grating experiment. Every narrative strand leads nowhere, with scenes fading into each other without interest in continuity or development of the ideas that are introduced, and characters deliver banalities as though they were profound dialogues. Flashes of sincerity are present, but the tone comes across as more condescending, taking the same basic premise as David Lynch’s seminal series Twin Peaks — how a community comes to terms with the disappearance and death of a young woman — and stripping it of all nuance and melodrama. It’s a work that’s as frustrating as it is fascinating, almost as though it’s begging you to hate it while also desperately pleading that you engage with it.
No less indulgent is In Fabric, though Peter Strickland has proven time and time again (with the maddeningly fun Berberian Sound Studio and the exquisitely erotic The Duke of Burgundy) that he’s in full control of the stories he tells. Pumped full of brilliant colors and oddball characters out of a Powell & Pressburger feature (or more obviously, Italian horror filmmakers Dario Argento and Mario Bava), In Fabric is as much a tribute to the tales of haunted objects that have scared us throughout history as it is a hilarious critique of the retail industry. A demonic dress is at the core of the film, which is broken into two halves that serve as both an original feature and a sequel. The first and arguably more successful of the two, featuring Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sheila, a divorced woman trying to find love and stability, is as goofy as it is emotionally compelling. Strickland seems as excited by how Sheila navigates the absurd interactions she has with the men in her life as he is in creating new ways for this red dress to haunt her.
Where In Fabric excels most is in its exploration of the fetishism of fashion and exploiting every bit of insanity that comes with selling and buying. A phrase like “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” can be uttered without feeling out of place because of how the filmmaker sets up his unconventional universe, with Fatma Mohamed (who has acted almost exclusively in Strickland’s projects) bringing his fanciful words to life with her best performance to date. Sex is as intimate as it is farcical, as is the experience of finding an outfit that suits you perfectly.
The movie’s back half, which repeats a number of beats from the first and may throw off viewers, is an oddity. The distinct shift in period aesthetics, character focus, and even speech patterns is at first jarring, but comes together as it unfolds, never once betraying its dedication to comically critiquing our consumerist culture. That sense of humor amidst a soundscape built to induce discomfort is precisely why In Fabric remains so riveting throughout. Its purpose seems clear from start to finish, a stark contrast to Knives and Skin’s obfuscation of its own intent and purpose. Though the fact that both are as intriguing as they are is a testament to Popcorn Frights’ ability to surprise with its yearly offerings.
The Popcorn Frights Film Festival runs 8/8-8/16 at Savor Cinema (503 SE 6th St, Fort Lauderdale, Florida).
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