For a long time I had a fickle relationship with horror flicks. I only selectively dug ‘em until I got to college and my buddy, Evansville, Ind.-based filmmaker Jakob Bilinski, taught me the ways of terror. He’s my Sensei of Shock. His enthusiasm for the genre is contagious and I’ve been a fairly hardcore devotee ever since.
It’s almost 20 years later and I’m fairly confident I know what comprises an engaging bit of genre entertainment. This brings me to the Heartland Horror section of the Heartland International Film Festival. I watched three selections from their programming – “The Color Rose,” “Darkness in Tenement 45” and “La Dosis.” I wasn’t granted access to “Hum” and had already seen “Host” on Shudder (seriously, check this one out – it’s one of 2020’s best films). While I found admirable traits in each of the three selections I viewed for this piece, I could make a strong argument that none of these films are quote, unquote “horror” – thrillers, sure – but horror, I think not. There are two “F’s” that are integral to the horror genre in my humble opinion – fun and frights. You gotta have fun and you’ve gotta have frights – if you don’t have at least one of the two … you don’t have shit … or at the very least, you don’t have horror.
The Color Rose:
This was the slickest of the entries I watched. It was also the most fun and felt the most like a horror flick. I dug that it opened with a good-ish Nirvana cover at the very least. Actress-turned-director Courtney Paige makes her feature directorial debut with this story of seven high school girls who start a gang/cult called the Sinners at their Christian school with each of them representing one of the seven deadly sins. They are Grace/Lust (Kaitlyn Bernard), Aubrey/Pride (Brenna Llewellyn), Tori/Wrath (Brenna Coates – Is Brenna that common of a name?!!!), Katie/Greed (Keilani Elizabeth Rose), Stacey/Envy (Jasmine Randhawa), Molly/Gluttony (Carly Fawcett) and Robyn/Sloth (Natalie Malaika). When one of their ranks breaks from the pack and starts ratting them out for their misdeeds, they decide discipline is in order. Things grow more complicated from there on in a fashion that’s reminiscent of “Heathers” and “The Craft” … but not nearly as interesting.
I don’t feel great slagging on a movie that’s directed by a woman, co-written by women (Paige alongside Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith) and stars a bunch of mostly promising young actresses. We need more of this in genre filmmaking. I wish the kills had been more graphic and staged with more panache. (This is likely the result of budgetary issues.) The proceedings would feel more like a horror flick this way and less like a Lifetime movie. I also didn’t dig that they incessantly ripped on Fawcett’s appearance as Molly … she’s plenty attractive and the assertion that she’s not may give certain audience members self-esteem issues. There are certainly enjoyable elements of the flick. It’s cool that it goes by more than one title (it’s also known as “The Sinners”), which is a badge of honor for any good piece of exploitation. It was fun to see Lochlyn Munro (most fondly remembered as Cliff from “Dead Man on Campus” – “My name is Cliff, brother of Joe. I got me some crack. I want me some hoes!”) and Michael Eklund (who I just saw and reviewed in “Welcome to Sudden Death”) as a pair of crooked big city cops. There’s also a doozy of a twist I didn’t see coming … kudos on that humdinger.
Darkness in Tenement 45:
The number 45 is plenty scary in and of itself these days. So is the prospect of a deadly virus plaguing and eliminating humanity. Despite these ingredients being cooked into “Darkness in Tenement 45,” the flick was sort of a snooze for me. This movie is slower than Philip Rivers running a football, which is a cardinal sin for a feature running a mere 95 minutes. The picture sports one outstanding performance (Casey Kramer – bringing BIG TIME Nurse Ratched energy to the role of Martha) and one achingly atrocious one (I don’t like harping on child actors, but Nicolas Aleksandr Bolton is capital “B” bad as Tomás.). Writer/director Nicole Groton has said his character and performance were inspired by Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth.” If that’s true, she should’ve done a better job of guiding a 14-year-old boy through the role and its complexities. He’s a young enough and good-looking enough kid that I hope and think he’ll bounce back. “Darkness” is Groton’s feature directorial debut. She did a lot right. She did some wrong. She shows talent and promise … these traits will likely be better realized with more money and experience. I hope just hope next time out she makes a movie as cool as this one’s poster.
This Argentinian import is certainly the most assured of these three entries. It takes place almost entirely in a hospital, which is just about the scariest place you can be in 2020. The picture focuses on experienced nurse Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi). Marcos is good at his gig, he gets along with fellow nurse Noelia (Lorena Vega), works long hours and genuinely cares about his patients. Perhaps he cares too much? He will put patients down if he senses their suffering is too grand. A new nurse comes along. His name is Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers). He too is not above putting patients out of their “misery,” but what’s his reasoning?
This too is a feature directorial debut. Writer/director Martin Kraut acquits himself well. The picture is well-acted and sharply shot. I was especially impressed by Portaluppi’s performance. It’s not every day you see a man of his size headline a picture, but it’s refreshing and realistic. In spite of his heft, Portaluppi is a handsome fella with a face that conveys just how dogged, determined and tired his Marcos is.
Part of me wishes “La Dosis” had gone bigger, badder and more grandiose … think Brian De Palma. It’s more character study than horror or thriller. (I think my wife was most terrified by Marcos’ frequent meal of cold, canned peas … spooky!) I don’t know if it says more about me or these movies, but I found this one kinda slow too – and it’s only 93 minutes. Perhaps it’s time I talk to my physician about a Ritalin prescription?
This year’s Heartland Film Festival will be a combination of drive-in and virtual screenings. For a complete schedule and to buy tickets, click here.