Saturday, April 14

2018 PFF & IHSFF Festival Recap – Friday, April 13th 2018

2018 PFF & IHSFF Festival Recap – Friday, April 13th 2018

Coda’s ongoing coverage of the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival & International Horror Sci-Fi Film Festival. I'll be using these posts to recap the films I've experienced as part of these festivals.

SECRET SANTA – Directed by Adam Marcus

It dawned on me last night that we may actually be entering into, or right in the middle of a 'Golden Age' of Christmas horror films. This film is one of two at the IHSFF this year. I'll be seeing the other, ALL THE CREATURES WERE STIRRING tomorrow. I know there's nothing new about Christmas horror films. But with a few exceptions like Bob Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), there has never been a time in which they were consistently good until maybe 2010's Finnish film RARE EXPORTS. Since then we've gotten the underrated KRAMPUS (2015) and the underseen BETTER WATCH OUT (2016). 

So the question is, will Adam Marcus' latest effort enter into the lexicon of films that horror hounds put on their regular holiday rotation with some of the others I've previously listed? The answer in short is: yeah... sure it is. At least for now, while we're still in relative short supply. I think your average horror fan would be more than happy to mix this one in with a group of not-so-easily-offended friends during the holiday season. It's the type of flick that, although far from perfect, has a pretty extreme WTF factor that a lot of people just love to share with others (present company included). 

The only issues I really had with this film were all technical. I thought that too many scenes were poorly lit and hard to see. This was compounded by the editing style chosen here. In my humble opinion, this crew likely had a few too many cameras. They shot every scene with multiple angles of coverage and then cut to a confusing mix of perspectives every couple of seconds. This is a particular (admittedly subjective) pet peeve of mine. Every time you cut to a different angle, the audience then has to re-adjust their perspective and grasp of the sense of space in the scene. By putting these cuts ever 1-2 seconds, I find myself having a hard time keeping my frame of reference grounded.

I think the majority of this film's success is due to its screenplay. It tells a story of a family get-together in which passive aggression gets a hell of a lot less passive. The dialogue is outlandish and ridiculous and it keeps a pretty good laugh-per-minute ratio. The characters were all pretty interesting and the plot reveals a solid and surprising twist.

THE RANGER – Directed by Jenn Wexler

This is not the type of polished execution that you should expect from a first time filmmaker. Every scene was composed with far more competence than what you typically find with inexperience. Wexler not only directed, she also co-wrote and co-edited the project. This makes her effort even more impressive because according to imdb, it doesn't look like the rest of her crew was all that experienced either. Inexperience shows up in a lot of first films in ways that are usually very noticable to avid film lovers. The composition of shots, the pacing of each act, the lighting and color correction all tend to be at least a little off when a filmmaker works on their first feature. Most likely, these filmmakers used a healthy dose of research and reverse engineering to get all of these subtle details to come together to look like a much more practiced end product than it likely was.

The film wasn't perfect. But I don't go to festivals to see perfect films. I think it could have used a bit more foreshadowing in the first act. And the original conflict that sets the story in motion really turned out to be unnecessary. As a result, I think the first two acts turned out to be a little bit slow and tedious. And with a running time of under 80 minutes, the 3rd act came and went just a little too fast. This could have been a function of the film's overall budget though as well.

The acting was pretty good here, even though I think the character development left a bit to be desired. It was great to see Chloe Levine. The only other film I've seen her in was one of my favorites from last year's IHSFF called THE TRANSFIGURATION. I think she's likely on her way to a good deal more notoriety. House Of Cards' Jeremy Holm is really creepy and intimidating as the titular character. Horror film stalwart, Larry Fessenden co-produced this film and shows up here in the flashbacks of Chelsea's (Levine) late uncle. (Wexler actually worked as a producer on Fassbender's segment of ABC's OF DEATH 2.)

This won't likely end up of any end of the year lists but taking this for what it is, I could see Wexler working her way into the hearts of horror fans very easily in the coming years. I'm on board. 

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