Welcome to Part 3 of our coverage of the Nightmares Film Festival.
Nightmares Film Festival is a destination horror and genre fest conveniently held in the heart of the Midwest: easily reached, easily navigated and inclusive Columbus, Ohio.
NFF sets itself apart from other genre fests by its deep year-round connection to the horror filmmaking community, which gives it the first line on the rarest, scariest, most daring and most unsettling films being created around the country. Festival screenings are held at the world-renowned Gateway Film Center, named one of the 20 best art houses on the continent by Sundance. The film centre’s dedicated team of expert projectionists – maybe the last such team in the country – oversees all presentations, to ensure every film looks and sounds its very best. World-class screening facilities. Top-notch films. Filmmakers and fans were shocked and celebrated together. Nightmare Film Festival is a prestige festival and part of advancing horror filmmaking around the world.
Down-trodden Les Hackel wakes to find an explosive device has been implanted in his neck. He must carry out heinous crimes to stay alive while trying to identify the mastermind manipulating him.
Director: Evan Marlowe
Genre-bending mysteries were big in the ‘80s and high concept thrillers were all the rage in the ‘90s. Attempting to combine both is a bit of a tall order, but it’s one that writer/director Evan Marlowe aims for with Abruptio. What we have here is an increasingly tense and weird tale of a mild-mannered sad sack named Les (James Marsters – more on that in a moment) who finds himself at the center of an increasingly weird and violent conspiracy. Forces beyond his comprehension are compelling him to commit heinous acts at the drop of a hat. If he refuses, he dies. But will he be able to live with himself if he continues to accept these diabolical missions?
You’d think that would be enough of a tightrope act for Marlowe to walk, but you’d be wrong. Not satisfied with crafting just any mere genre-melting pot thriller, Evan decided he should also do the entire thing with puppets and other handcrafted effects. The potential failure rate for such an additional complication is high, but Abruptio nonetheless manages to pull it off. Because of this, every last bit of tension, violence, and weirdness gains an extra layer of uncanniness, absurdity, and existential dread.
Quite a few of our puppet leads are voiced by familiar genre performers. There’s the aforementioned James Marsters, who voices a troubled middle aged lead who 30 years ago could have easily been played in the flesh by J.T. Walsh. We also get the late Sid Haig as a sketchy stand-up comedian, the great Robert Englund as a haunted neat freak, and Christopher McDonald as a gruff intimidating police chief. All of this is an added bonus atop a film that bears multiple influences from genre filmmaking luminaries like David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, David Lynch, and Joel Schumacher.
An experimental, genre-bending, high concept thriller performed entirely with advanced puppetry should be a recipe for disaster. In the hands of Evan Marlowe, his crew, and his voicecast, it sings. Abruptio should not work, but it very much does. The world has been gifted a wild little midnight movie here that isn’t for everyone, but the people who it is for are going to love every last bit of it.
HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS
A drunken applejack salesman must go from zero to hero and become North America’s greatest fur trapper by defeating hundreds of beavers.
Director: Mike Cheslik
Earlier this year, quirky auteur Wes Anderson gifted us Asteroid City, which is probably best described as “What if Looney Tunes did its own take on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then poured it through a theatre kid filter?” Some folks found that off-putting, as though Wes Anderson had gone a bit too Wes Anderson for them. Others, like me, found it to be an utter delight. Such a movie was one I never pictured myself needing, yet when it was finally presented to me, I could no longer picture myself living without it.
What does this have to do with Mike Cheslik’s Hundreds of Beavers? Nothing, and yet also everything. This is not Asteroid City, nor should it be. What it is, however, is the answer to the question “What if Looney Tunes did its own take on Jeremiah Johnson and then poured it through a silent movie filter?” I’m not sure who – outside of those who made it – asked for this movie. But I’m glad they did, because for the second time this year, I have been gifted an absolutely lunatic slice of cinema that I never knew I desperately needed.
Not everyone is built to appreciate a movie where a buffoon wanders around a cartoonish wilderness landscape full of animals that are portrayed either by people in mascot suits or puppets. Similarly, not everyone is built to appreciate such lunacy when it feels like it was made by mad scientists who Frankenstein’d together a plushy beast composed of parts from Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Buster Keaton, Terry Gilliam, and the Keystone Cops. This is darkly violent, yet deeply comedic work that blends a love for classic cartoons and early cinema history together into an inspired near-masterpiece of a film. I say near only because it becomes a bit too indulgent during some of its lengthier set pieces, causing the pace to sag a bit at times. Well, that and maybe utilizing an anvil at some point would have also been nice!
Hundreds of Beavers is a gift. It’s one that some might want to return, but by God Bugs Bunny, it’s one that just as many are bound to cherish for the rest of their lives. This lunatic included.
THE WHEEL OF HEAVEN
A woman caught up in predatory relationships is thrown into a multi-layered world of choices after she discovers a mystical book in a thrift store.
Director: Joe Badon
The Wheel of Heaven delivers oddball charm and horror in equal measure.
What’s it about? That’s an excellent question, and not a simple one to answer. We seem to be stuck on late night, all access TV, which is running through a wild set of programs and sponsors. (My favorite sponsor is Rad Abrams, Skateboard Attorney.)
And my favorite show is undoubtedly The Uncle Bobbo Show, which was also the focus of director Joe Badon’s 2021 short, The Blood of the Dinosaurs.
Kids’ TV host Uncle Bobbo (an eerily unblinking Vincent Stalba) wants to teach us where oil comes from. With assistance from his vampire puppet co-host Grampa Universe (voiced by John Davis) and his young helper Purity (Stella Creel), he seeks to enlighten and entertain. And misinform. It’s sort of a Pee-wee’s Playhouse for sociopaths. If that does not seem like a ringing endorsement, you’re not reading it correctly.
So, we’re watching highly local TV programming. Or are we? Maybe each story is a little diorama dreamt up by local artist Margaret Corn (Kali Russell)? Or perhaps we may instead be reading along with Marge the Mechanic (Russell again), who picked up a “choose your adventure” book at a thrift store.
Russell plays at least half a dozen distinct but related characters, each a fully formed and often bizarre individual. Her range and effortless skill with characterization ground the segments in something tangible, however goofy the character.
Whether these characters are part of a book, TV programming or one artist’s imagination is irrelevant. Badon’s upended the concept of a framing story for what is essentially an anthology of short films. Every tale, including the framing stories, morph and mutate and as each folds in on itself, Badon and his crew appear to emphasize the illusion versus reality of this absurdist storytelling.
What else does Badon hit on? Birth. Death. Choice. 3D glasses. Kitch. Homage. Dinosaurs. Storytelling. But mainly creation and how the act of creating is linked to all of these. The Wheel of Heaven throws a lot at you and not all of it hits, but Badon’s instinct for the bizarre, humorous and horrific generate a wonderfully oddball effort.