The Cinepocalypse film festival descended once more upon Chicago’s Music Box Theatre this past week, providing seven straight days of movie madness, ranging from grisly horror to gonzo action to outrageous camp. While we weren’t able to see every film that screened during the festival—even die-hard genre fans sometimes have dentist appointments, a different kind of horror—we saw most of them, and from among the good and not-so-good we’ve singled out a few of the most noteworthy titles, ones you should check out as soon as they make their way to your local indie theaters and/or streaming service of choice.
Most fun: Satan’s Slaves
This Indonesian import is, beat for beat, one of the most entertaining haunted-house films since the original Conjuring. When the story begins, a struggling family is searching for ways to stay financially afloat, as the mother suffers from a mysterious and costly ailment that keeps her bedridden. As their situation worsens, the eldest daughter begins having bad dreams, and when she’s left in charge after the father is forced to travel away for work, things quickly go from ominous to supernaturally chaotic. The scares unfold with giddily clockwork precision, as the entire house and its furnishings are employed in the service of delivering popcorn-tossing delight, a combination of early Sam Raimi and the aforementioned James Wan flick. From the moment something appears on-screen, be it a children’s Viewfinder toy or the family’s well of drinking water, you begin counting the minutes until it gets deployed for maximum effect.
Most powerful: The Captain
And then there are the movies that stay with you not because they deliver a fun night out, but because their vision is so raw and potent that it practically sears your eyeballs. The Captain is just such a film; it’s not an exaggeration to say this movie features arguably the bleakest and most despairing vision of humanity you’ll see on-screen this or any year. Ostensibly a black comedy (with gallows humor so dark that you’re often unsure if your laughter is from humor or revulsion, or possibly both), the film traces a young German on the run from soldiers during the final days of World War II. After he finds an abandoned Nazi captain’s uniform and begins impersonating the missing officer as a means of survival, the young man quickly starts to develop a sadistic persona—soon indistinguishable from the regime he was previously fleeing—and then much, much worse.
A black-and-white nightmare that unfolds like a cross between Emir Kusturica’s Underground and Salò (with more than a hint of Luis Buñuel’s most gonzo tendencies in the mix), this harrowing and nihilistic tone poem stems from the unexpected source of writer-director Robert Schwentke, who apparently must’ve had something snap inside of him after more than a decade of delivering blandly uneven Hollywood product like Red, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Insurgent. It wouldn’t be right to say you’ll enjoy The Captain, per se, but you won’t soon forget it. By the time the end credits feature the cast driving around modern-day streets still in character, surrounding random people and demanding their valuables, and being more or less unchallenged, the subtext becomes screamingly overt in the most unsettling way possible.
Most retro slasher: The Ranger
Ah, the simple pleasures of watching a group of obnoxious teens getting systematically dismantled by an unhinged killer. Longtime indie horror producer Jenn Wexler (Darling, Beneath) makes her feature-film directorial debut with this throwback to ’70s and ’80s-style slashers—quite literally, given her protagonists are a group of Reagan-era punks who blare old-school hardcore from their boombox. After killing a cop during a drug bust, the quintet flees to the remote mountain cabin inherited by Chelsea (an excellent Chloe Levine), who quickly realizes her boorish and obnoxious companions may not be cut out for the outdoorsy lifestyle, especially once they run afoul of an odd and uptight forest ranger. Pro tip: If you’re wanted for murder and trying to hide, maybe don’t litter in front of a knife-wielding ranger and then dare him to do something about it, you dumb punk. Fans of the subgenre will find lots to like here, as long as you don’t mind overtly odious characters like Chelsea’s roaringly obnoxious friends.
Most adventurous use of found footage: Gags
Like a lot of low-budget found footage, Gags can be a bit of a mess, yet you can’t help but admire the ambition. This Wisconsin-set comedy-horror continually moves between a wide range of perspectives: Building security cameras, TV crews, cellphones, dashboard cams, and more all get a workout in this supernatural tale of the unlucky people who come into contact with a malevolent, balloon-bearing clown. Based on that rash of real-life sightings of creepy clowns back in 2016, the film follows a group of kids, some cops, a swaggering podcaster, and more as they all try to score a sighting of “Gags,” a mysterious clown who has become a bit of a local celebrity for scaring silly those who happen to see him. It’s all a bit frantic and sprawling, and some individual segments never quite come together, but I found myself slowly won over by the storylines that do work—none more so than Lauren Ashley Carter as a frustrated journalist who scorns the whole idea that some dumbass clown merits news coverage. Carter is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable names in indie horror, someone with a Barbara Crampton-like ability to come in and improve everything around her with her talent and charisma. Gags isn’t great, but between her and the multifarious camera tricks, found-footage fans will find plenty to like.
Most Twilight Zone-esque movie: Await Further Instructions and Empathy, Inc. (tie)
A pair of inventive low-budget thrillers brings the spirit of The Twilight Zone alive with their respective narratives. Those who appreciate a good Rod Serling story (albeit one livened up with some nutso John Carpenter-esque horror) will be rewarded by Await Further Instructions, a bottle episode of a movie that finds a family waking up Christmas morning to discover their entire building has been covered with a metallic-like substance, trapping them inside. Their only information: a notification on the TV screen that reads, “Await further instructions.” Inconsistent characterization and people behaving like morons hampers some of the momentum, but overall this descent into paranoia succeeds as a dark little parable—and it has a wild ending.
By contrast, Empathy, Inc. takes one futuristic concept, gives it a clever twist, and rides it out to its smart conclusion. An out-of-work Silicon Valley tech hustler stumbles upon a brilliant new virtual reality invention that lets you experience the world from the point of view of someone less fortunate, and becomes convinced it’s the key to wealth and success. It comes across much like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi—it was shot in black and white, seethes with low-level menace and anxiety, and features a protagonist navigating a technological marvel that spins off the rails—and while it lacks that film’s daring and visual invention, it tells a solid story with verve and deft pacing.
There were other worthy titles to keep an eye out for as well—the teens-vs.-serial-killer fun of Summer Of ’84, the cracked dramedy of Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost (starring her whole showbiz family, including dad Chris Elliott and sister Abby Elliott)—but these were the films that generated excitement, that once again helped remind audiences that some of the most satisfying cinematic pleasures are to be found amid blood, viscera, and a warped sensibility just a half-step outside the usual multiplex fare.