For more than 15 years, the Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) has earned its moniker: The movies it plays are depraved, disturbing, and altogether unfit for mass consumption. Most of the programmed pictures belong to some subdivision of the horror genre, but the festival’s only operating principle is to show works that are too wild, too alternative, and too explicit to show anywhere else. Here’s a telling detail: One of this year’s short film programs is titled Trigger Warning.
The 2015 festival kicks off with The Editor (screening Wed. 3.25,) a spoofy callback to genre pictures of the ’70s and ’80s. Grindhouse hardly set the world on fire back in ’07, but it did kick-start a long-dormant mode of filmmaking: self-aware schlock. The Editor carries that torch, and even works it into its plot. The narrative concerns the eponymous crewmember, who gets caught up in a murder mystery while working on an Italian exploitation picture. It’s a Dario Argento-style film, about a guy working on an Argento-style film, who uncovers a violent plot worthy of an Argento film.
Our titular editor is short four fingers, and so are all the victims cropping up on set, which makes him suspect number one. Many of the kill scenes, which playfully obscure the perpetrator, are lifted directly from the classics: Sequences from Argento’s Deep Red and Cronenberg’s Videodrome are recreated verbatim, among numerous visual signifiers of the ’70s and ’80s. (There’s lots of neon.) The tone veers throughout from comical (a woman’s face is ripped off and reattached) to oppressive (the results of said detachment are repulsively gory), and then back again. The one thing that remains constant is the sustained attempt to replicate the rhythms of movies past—The Editor is even dubbed, in a perverse grasp at authenticity. For better or worse, this is a work of fandom as much as it is a work of filmmaking.
For the real-deal grindhouse article, stick around on Wednesday night: A recently restored cut of Gone With the Pope will be playing on 35mm film after Editor. One-man crew Duke Mitchell shot the film in the mid-’70s (he wrote, directed, produced, starred, and contributed music), but it was only finished during the past few years. The disreputable auteur stars as Paul, one of three mobsters who, tired of handling dangerous hits, generate a retirement plan: kidnap His Holiness, then ransom the Pope, demanding 50 cents from every practicing Catholic in the world.
The hitmen protagonists and scuzzy cinematography aren’t the only grindhouse hallmarks contained herein. Expect superfluous gunfights, casual racism and misogyny, and more than a few moments of camp. But there are also striking moments of directorial invention; I can’t stop thinking about a shot that frames the blinds of a hotel room as if they were the curtains on a main theatre stage. The blinds open up, and reveal a whole new world with them, ready for our criminals to claim. This may be vile stuff, but there’s a sensibility for street poetry shining through.
We Are Still Here (screening Sat. 3.28) is probably the most traditional horror picture at BUFF this year—it’s downright archetypal. The premise is built using parts we’re already familiar with: two grieving parents, a creaky new home with a hole in the basement, an evil spirit out to possess human souls, séances gone wrong, a shady town hiding a shameful secret … the list goes on. First-time director Ted Geoghegan’s palette is all weathered greens and rusted browns, consciously evoking the isolated-town look of pictures like The Wicker Man. And the way his cursed demons play around with household items recalls Poltergeist. The constant clichés and references can’t help but halt the film’s momentum for good: A movie can’t be scary if you’ve already seen it.
So what are the scariest films at this year’s fest? The two creepiest pictures of BUFF ’15 pack a bilious bite—they’re both satires that look at high art only to find lowness. Bag Boy Lover Boy (screening Sat. 3.28) attacks the photography industry, and Excess Flesh (screening Thur. 3.26) takes aim at the fashion scene. Each film borrows the bloody, shadowy aesthetics of horror movies—with no winks and nudges attached.
In Bag Boy, the boogeyman is a Terry Richardson type, and the Frankenstein’s monster that his acidic influence spawns. Longtime pro Ivan (Fred Garcias) shoots semi-political softcore stuff, and the models are expected to provide off-camera services whether they like it or not. Albert (Harry Orfanos), a droopy-faced do-nothing whom Ivan finds working at a hot dog cart, is his latest muse. Ivan sees Albert as Napoleon Dynamite, and imagines the work Albert inspires being compared to that of Diane Arbus. But the new guy turns out to be more of a Norman Bates.
Albert starts taking his own models into the studio during off-hours. He “directs” as Ivan does: by manipulating weaker individuals into demeaning positions and exploiting them for his own pleasure. (This is the part of the review where we’re obligated to warn you that this film features necrophilia and cannibalism.) Director Andrew Torres restages the early shots of Ivan composing photography, putting Albert into the same position within the artist/subject dynamic, with doomed streetwalkers standing in for Ivan’s models, and in this way the film draws a direct line between what Ivan does (directorial manipulation) and what Albert does (horrific violence). These two approaches aren’t enemies, they’re ego and id.
The cultural pressures instilled by the fashion industry provide the terror in Excess Flesh. Jill (Bethany Orr) is a perpetually buzzed sorority-girl stereotype working at a fashion agency; she swills cocktails by night and blacks out on men by morning. Her roommate Jennifer (Mary Loveless) is her reverse image, a character paralyzed by anxiety who eats her feelings nightly, and who reacts violently to the mere presence of sex. They’re both under pressure—professionally and socially—to look good and to get around. One reacts by starving, and the other reacts by gorging.
Jennifer gets vengeful and locks Jill up in their apartment, as their personalities converge and break apart, over and over again. The two of them begin to succumb to anxiety, and Flesh becomes an abstracted split-personalities movie—shades of Bergman’s Persona and Altman’s 3 Women cast over it. The women’s carefully curated facade of fashionability (couture clothes and a swank apartment) comes crumbling down as their extended lock-in leaves them a filthy mess. As in Bag Boy, this isn’t quite psychological horror, or body horror, or slasher horror. The most terrifying demons at this year’s festival are born of BUFF’s antithesis: High culture.