Thursday, September 28, 2017

NYFF ’17: Genre Shorts

It is nice to know wherever you go in the world, you can still find vicious psycho killers and ragingly dysfunctional families—the two often go together hand in hand. Once again, the short programmers indulge our appetite for the chaotic and speculative when a new block of genre short films plays during the 55th New York Film Festival.

Frankly, the family in Natalie Erika James’ short film Creswick (trailer here) seems to be healthy and well-adjusted, but their furniture is sinister. Sam never felt comfortable in her father Colin’s cabin-workshop-home, but she never really understood why. Nevertheless, she is somewhat sad to return as a grown adult to help him close-up and move out of the property. However, he finally realizes what unsettled her as a child. Rugged old Colin is convinced there is another entity haunting the space.

Although only ten minutes long, Creswick is a terrific example of economical and evocative story telling. Thanks to the smart disciplined performances of Dana Miltins and Chris Orchard, the audience quickly picks up on the loving but somewhat strained nature of their relationship. It is also cool whenever a horror film credits a furniture designer—in this case Isabel Avendano.

The family in Angelita Mendoza’s The Last Light also love their children. Unfortunately, they are already down one cousin, who presumably fell victim to the budding ten-year-old serial killer they have tied up in the barn. Sadly, it seems tragedy is likely to compound when another young girl sneaks off, hoping to cultivate a friendship with the boy. Even though we suspect we know exactly where it is headed that sense of inevitability makes it palpably intense.

We next shift gears from the arid, windswept Mexican desert to a deliciously lurid Italian clinic. You might uncharitably accuse Alberto Viavattene’s Birthday of favoring style over substance, but what rich giallo style it is. A morally flexible nurse is assigned to help a rich old patient celebrate her 100th birthday. The nurse isn’t exactly Willard Scott, but that’s okay, the patient isn’t exactly Jessica Tandy. Birthday might be a bit more fantastical than classic giallos, but Sandro De Frino’s cinematography and Enrico Ascoli’s score or totally in the patent leather glove.

Gabriel de Orioste’s Program is probably the slightest film in the block addressing themes more fully explored in Guy-Roger Duvert’s feature Virtual Revolution and Grace Rowe’s short The Sweetening: digital love as a means of escape in trying times. Juan Pablo Arias Muñoz’s Hombre also treads a familiar path, forcing us to watch a sensitive adolescent struggle through a hunting trip with his judgmental father, while suspecting something unnatural is out there in the woods.

In a surprise rebound, the genre program closes with one of the strongest shorts, Hitchhiker from Damien Power, whose brutal and somewhat pedestrian Killing Ground we did not dig at Sundance. As an homage to hitchhiking horror and noir, Power cut-and-pastes his dialogue from films like The Hitcher and Detour, yet it never sounds like it is trying to do something cute. In the rather macabre tradition of Rabid Dogs, a violent but somewhat immature fugitive crosses paths with a no-fooling-around psycho hitchhiker. Hilarity does not ensue, but there are some lean cuts of morbid humor and man oh man, is Julian Garner ever something as the titular hitchhiker.

Cheers to Australia for starting and ending the program on high notes. Special thanks should also go out to Italy for inventing and constantly reinventing the giallo. The combined merits of Creswick, Hitchhiker, Birthday, and Last Light are more than sufficient to recommend Shorts Program 2: Genre Stories when it screens this Saturday (9/30) and Monday (10/2), as part of the 2017 New York Film Festival.