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The best, worst, and weirdest of this year's Cinepocalypse film festival

Tammy And The T.Rex
Screenshot: YouTube

The Cinepocalypse film festival splattered across Chicago’s Music Box Theatre last week, bringing with it a gaggle of freaky, campy premieres to accompany guest appearances by GWAR, Glenn Danzig, and one goofy-ass T-rex. We’ve already written about a few of the festival’s disreputable pleasures—Hulu’s upcoming Culture Shock, for example, as well as some killer Godzilla shorts and the instant midnight masterpiece that is Danzig’s Verotika—but below you’ll find an in-depth dissection of the other titles filling out the weekend, most of which we’d highly recommend scouring for in the digital bargain bins of our streaming overlords.

Alex McLevy

Film festivals are as much endurance test as celebration of film, as the viewing of numerous movies a day can start to turn the brain to a fine powdered swirl of imagery over the course of an entire week. This may be especially true for a genre festival like Chicago’s Cinepocalypse, which for seven days straight offers up a barrage of murder, mayhem, mystery, and downright weird cinematic offerings designed to push the boundaries of horror, sci-fi, and more in new and unexpected ways.

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Of course, there’s also the duds, as not every film can succeed in its mission to shock or surprise, or even entertain. But for the 2019 installment of this festival, there did seem to be a slight uptick in quality across the board from the previous year, the collection of films from around the world delivering a more consistent moviegoing experience for those dedicated fans who kept coming back all week long for more. Not that you’d know it from the opening night offering: The world premiere of Glenn Danzig’s Verotika was the kind of once-in-a-blue-moon, “What the hell did we just see?” experience that beggars belief, a movie so profoundly absurd it reduced an entire theater of presumed fans to uncontrollable giggles. Cinepocalypse has always seemed to have a profound weakness for getting its hands on world premieres, regardless of quality, and Danzig’s magnum opus—which reportedly hadn’t been seen by anyone, even the festival programmers themselves, prior to its screening—is a testament to the mistake of that mindset.

But that was merely the biggest and most gonzo misfire of the whole endeavor. Randall, you and I did our best to catch everything this year’s festival had to offer; what were some of the high points for you?

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Randall Colburn

Though I so wish I could’ve been amongst the giggling masses at Verotika, I’m grateful to have been cackling alongside the hundreds who came out for Tammy And The T-Rex (or, per the title card: Tanny And The Teenage T-Rex—yes, “Tanny”), a film at which we were supposed to laugh. Monday night marked the first-ever screening of the film’s “gore cut,” which restored a ton of gnarly, gut-strewn footage that was previously excised to make the 1994 comedy more family-friendly. Having never seen the edited version, it’s impossible for me to imagine how it plays without its decapitations and disembowelments, which were filmed by director Stewart Raffill (the guy who did Mac And Me!) with the appropriate amount of low-rent viscera.

The biggest surprise, though, wasn’t the gore, but how well Tammy And The T-Rex works as the piece of winking, over-the-top exploitation it originally set out to be. A baby-faced Paul Walker plays Michael, a wholesome hunk whose brain is transplanted into a mechanical T-rex by a comically evil, vaguely German doctor played by Weekend At Bernie’s corpse, Terry Kiser. Once he’s assumed the form of the dino, Michael tries to woo back his ex-girlfriend, Tammy (Denise Richards), while getting bloody revenge on the bullies who, earlier in the film, fed him to a fucking lion. Absurdity piles upon absurdity as the story unfolds, leaving my audience barely enough time to catch its breath between gales of laughter. There’s seriously no reason why Tammy And The T-Rex shouldn’t become a midnight movie staple after this. Its forthcoming Blu-ray release should help on that front.

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Truly, my favorite moments of Cinepocalypse are the ones that serve as crystallizations of what make it special. Cinepocalypse isn’t a horror festival, but a genre festival—one that, to me, feels like a celebration of the kinds of movies you’d have never have wanted your parents to catch you watching as a kid. Tammy And The T-Rex’s gore cut is one of those, as is Hot Dog...The Movie, the naughty 1984 cult classic that was here given a 4K producer’s cut restoration for its 35th anniversary. Whether or not it’s a good idea to revisit such a horny, uber-male film in our current era is up to you, but it was a joy to boo the scenes that didn’t age well with an audience that can still appreciate the raunchy spirit so many of us worshipped as kids.

The Cinepocalypse spirit spewed from a number of the new titles at this year’s festival, but nothing captured that particular blend of disreputable and absurd quite like Ghost Killers Vs. Bloody Mary, a Brazilian splatter comedy that weaves its distinct, profane brand of comedy in with Dead Alive-style gore and a few genuine scares. It follows a gaggle of huckster YouTubers in the mold of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures gang as they “investigate” its namesake urban legend at a high school. Director Fabrício Bittar and his hilarious cast go meta without veering into cuteness, mining a great deal of comedy from silly riffs on Ghostbusters and no shortage of other horror classics. I believe I heard this one is hitting U.S. Netflix queues sometime in the future, and I can’t recommend it enough.

What were your high points, Alex? And how would you say they melded with the Cinepocalypse spirit?

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AM: I think you’re absolutely right to call out the fact that certain films seem to embody the spirit of the festival more than others, Randall, especially when it comes to movies that deliver a specific type of gonzo cinema—be it horror, comedy, fantasy, or anything, really, so long as it possesses a touch of “WTF.” And by that standard, the controlled chaos of Why Don’t You Just Die!, from Russian writer-director Kirill Sokolov, fit the bill nicely. Taking place almost entirely inside a one-bedroom apartment, the film kicks off with a young man (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) showing up claiming to be the boyfriend of the middle-aged couple’s daughter, though his intent is clearly to kill her father. However, once dad is revealed to be a police detective, things start to spiral out of control, as secrets are exposed, alliances fray, and some of the most brutal fight sequences this side of a Tarantino film are played for absurdity rather than thrills. It’s nasty, nihilistic stuff, but I think it was around the time a TV flew into someone’s head with a slow-motion crunch that I gave myself over to the crass pleasures of this little slice of grindhouse spectacle.

But with each passing year, the idea of what constitutes a film befitting the Cinepocalypse treatment expands a little more. After all, there was nothing “fun” per se about The Captain, the gut punch from last year’s fest that stuck with me the most, and likewise, this year’s The Mute contained moments I won’t soon forget. Essentially a parable about the horror of religion and man’s propensity for reactionary violence in the absence of leadership (or worse, with the encouragement of same), it follows a pair of medieval missionary Crusaders as they attempt to bring Christianity to a remote pagan society, the older man pushed to cruelty as the younger one is repelled by it. Stylistically, it’s a sort of Herzog-by-way-of-Malick tone poem of misery, and while it can’t approach the heights of those directors’ better works, it nails its bleak and foreboding atmosphere, rendering more effective the blunt-force crudity of its story.

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Photo: The Mute

But I retain a primal affection for horror, which I still think of as the ghostly heart and soul of the fest. I was sad to have missed a couple of the more explicitly spooky films this year, but I know you managed to catch a few that got you at least a little closer to the edge of your seat, right?

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RC: Indeed I did. I was a big fan of Talal Selhami’s Achoura for that very reason. Selhami’s Morocco-set story is a bit of a mess, an amalgamation of ’80s Spielberg and Stephen King’s It that, with its multiple timelines and complex lore, is positively screaming for the space afforded to King’s gargantuan horror classic. Still, the film’s tale of four friends who must face the evil spirit they first encountered as children contains a genuinely horrific adversary that feels simultaneously demonic and extraterrestrial. As with 2017's It adaptation, the CGI can sometimes overwhelm the horror, but it’s always good to see genre that values its characters as much as its scares. I felt similarly about Belzebuth, though Emilio Portes’ film eschews the magical, storybook qualities of Achoura. That’s clear straightaway, as the film begins with an act of horrific violence that lets you know just how dark this is going to get. That said, Portes populates his film with a likable, charismatic cast that manages to make his story of dead children, the U.S.-Mexico border, and an ancient demon not entirely dispiriting.

Speaking of dispiriting, let me take a moment to highlight the festival’s big winner, The Last To See Them, which the Cinepocalypse jury voted Best Film. Based on real events, Sara Summa’s movie begins by informing us that the Durati family, with whom the audience is about to spend 80 minutes, was murdered in their secluded farmhouse in 2012. What follows is a relatively uneventful day, as the unsuspecting victims prepare for a wedding, bake a cake, and save the hard conversations for another time. What the viewer knows, though, is that there won’t be another day for these characters, which gives their casual interactions and workaday chores a cosmic, painful significance. The result works as a meditation on both the weight of our mortality and the banality of violence, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a punishing experience in which I found little enjoyment.

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Photo: The Last To See Them

I’m still thinking about it, though, so that’s something. Did anything you caught challenge you? What would you say you’re still chewing on?

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AM: Something that didn’t exactly blow me away, but has remained on my mind since I saw it, is Culture Shock, the latest installation of Hulu’s horror anthology series Into The Dark, which received the big-screen treatment on the second-to-last day of the festival. I’ve written about this experience already, so I don’t want to rehash the same points, but as the days go by since I’ve seen this tale of a desperate Mexican woman trying to cross the border to provide a fresh start for her unborn child, what has stuck with me is the clever Twilight Zone-esque twist of the framework. Anyone who’s a fan of that style of storytelling can more or less guess what’s happening, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable as it unfolds. And it’s surprisingly funny—a hearty spoonful of sugar to make the the harrowing real-world medicine go down.

Among the other offerings, there were a variety of entertaining but uneven films. I was excited to see Darlin’, a years-later sequel to Lucky McKee’s squirm-inducing The Woman (itself technically a sequel to an earlier adaptation of author Jack Ketchum’s work, Offspring). The prior film’s star, Pollyanna McIntosh—she of recent Walking Dead fame—takes over writing and directing duties, and while it results in a wholly different tone and vibe, the clash of styles she brings together is vivifying. Following a feral girl (Lauren Canny) as she’s taken in by a Catholic girls’ orphanage and “civilized” as part of a project to burnish the church’s image and restock its dwindling coffers, the film soon transitions into a mish-mash of sequences meant to outrage and electrify in equal measure. McIntosh doesn’t yet have McKee’s command of editing or transitions, and some of the elements are undercooked, but it also delivered at least a few blunt-force moments of elevated inspiration (including a very funny cut to the first time the feral woman experiences a car ride) that make it worth your time.

There were, of course, disappointments, on which we don’t need to linger (though I will urge viewers to stay far away from Mope, a genuinely unpleasant wannabe exploitation-comedy that tries to find humor in two hapless nerds’ efforts to become porn stars, only to fall headfirst into a clumsy and distasteful narrative about cruelty and mental illness). But mostly, I found myself happily engaged by Cinepocalypse’s offerings, even though a full week still feels like a lot of time to fill. Randall, did it leave you wanting more, or ready for a break?

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RC: One can only engage with horrors, be they harrowing or hilarious, for so long before the brain begins begging for something so simple as, say, The Great British Bake-Off. Still, there were plenty of titles that I’m glad I caught despite them bringing me to the brink of exhaustion. Culture Shock, a movie with smash cuts and texture-heavy, stomach-churning sound cues designed to make you squirm, is one such example, but I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of its distinct vision and lingering impact. I was also struck by Dean Kapsalis’ The Swerve, an emotionally brutal slice of suburban ennui built around the bravura performance of Azura Skye, the winner of this year’s Best Actress award. What resonated most for me, though, was how the resentment and depression exhibited by Skye’s put-upon housewife is characterized by her loved ones as “crazy” behavior, a distinction that slowly guides her towards acts of destruction. It burns a touch too slow for my tastes, but the message lingers.

Photo: The Swerve
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It’s tougher for me to recommend The Lurker, a Chicago-set slasher that builds up a body count against a high school production of Romeo And Juliet. While the setup is nostalgic and the soundtrack evocative in much the same manner as Adam Wingard’s excellent The Guest, the kills fail to distinguish themselves in a crowded genre. Nor does the theatrical setting, ostensibly the story’s hook, pay off in any kind of satisfying fashion. Deadcon was another disappointment for me; as a fan of tech horror, I’m always interested in spookers that incorporate the terrors of the internet age. Caryn Waechter’s premise is fresh, bringing together a gaggle of social media influencers at a convention for online celebs, but the ghostly mythology afflicting them is simultaneously overwrought and undercooked.

Still, there’s an air of experimentation to both features, be it through the revival of a bygone style or an embrace of our current anxieties. Cinepocalypse is nothing if not textured, its organizers embracing genre as the big, messy, indefinable concept it truly is. No screening is too similar to the last, and thank Satan for that.

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About the author

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.