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California Screaming: Previewing L.A.’s Screamfest 2012

L.A. Live could use a good scare.

It wants to be so clean, so homogenized, and yet a healthy dose of bloody fun movies and the attendant crowd that generally brings – think thick beards, tribal tattoos, gigantic wallet chains – is a visual contrast that warms my heart, and will be happening when Screamfest kicks off at the Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live this Friday night. Sorta like back when they used to hold it at CityWalk. It’s the Chinese 6-plex’s loss, and while Hollywood Blvd. was, frankly, a perfect spiritual location with its mix of the tourist friendly and the sleazy, downtown is still accessible by subway and has more taco trucks for the late night crowd.

Of the three films at Screamfest I’ve had a chance to preview, the clear highlight is On Air, which seems to have been designed with the idea of giving us the creepiest German psychopath onscreen since Dieter Laser in The Human Centipede. Charles Rettinghaus, who apparently is the go-to guy for dubbing Robert Downey Jr.’s voice in Germany, plays the Night Slasher, a slayer of young women who likes to dismember his victims, shove roses down their throats, and speak in rhyme (kudos to the subtitler on this one for maintaining this even in translation). As the title suggests, this story also involves a radio host, who goes by the name of Doc Rock (Marcus Knuefken), and who makes the crucial mistake of baiting the killer on his show. Before long, “Der Nachtschlitzer” is on the line, telling the host he has less than half an hour to talk him out of killing his next victim, and like a combination of Hannibal Lecter and Jigsaw, he will exact a personal and physical toll for doing so, while displaying an uncanny ability to predict exactly what his potential victims are likely to do.

Like the better scary movies, however, there’s more to it than just a body count. The Night Slasher, while real, is a reflection of Doc Rock’s own guilty conscience, a metaphor for repressed memories and the way we can’t hide from our traumas but must deal with them eventually. Meanwhile, a B-plot involving the estranged, alcoholic cop trying to put the pieces of the case together plays as parable for how parents can so easily lose touch with their children as they grow up and apart. None of it should scare you away from thinking this will be some sort of pretentious twaddle – we’re still talking about a creepy bald German guy who must be stopped from doing terrible things. The subtext is simply there if you choose to look for it. Plus it’s hilarious to hear a number of Doc Rock’s callers phoning in with their best German-language Michael J. Fox impersonations (don’t even ask why – just know that it happens).

The other two movies previewed, Thale and Crawlspace, both play on a more everyday anxiety: male fear of attractive women. In the tradition of such movies as Species and The Woman, both feature females with a primal beauty who cannot be tamed or broken, and might just rip your head off (Pro Tip: if you ever encounter a woman named “Eve” in a secret lab setting, ALWAYS assume it’s a Biblical metaphor and she’s part of a new master race that will murder you). In the beautifully shot Norwegian movie Thale, two crime-scene clean-up crew members discover their mystery maiden in a hidden basement, submerged in a tub of milky fluid (it’s always milky, isn’t it?) with tubes down her throat. Most of what ensues plays more as a tale of deduction than one of horror, but fear not – it all ends in violence.

Crawlspace nicely toys with expectations, setting us up for what seems like it’ll be yet another riff on Aliens – an elite team has to go into a dangerous underground base where something unknowably awful has happened – but several surprising plot developments keep things moving in ways that don’t merely involve the offing of every character one-by-one at the hands of whatever the evil is. Nor is it necessarily clear who’s the evil one; again, the threat feels in some ways like a manifestation of conscience.

That’s just what I’ve seen so far. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

The Collection – As one of the few reviewers who actually liked Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan’s The Collector, I’m happy to see them take the concept further, even if the blatant hook (no pun intended, given the image at right) for a sequel was the worst thing about the original (can’t movies about masked maniacs ever be self-contained any more?). Like the Saw sequels the duo are known for, this apparently revels in elaborate death traps without all the bending-over-backwards-to-justify-itself plotting.

American Mary – Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, who got in the ring and kickboxed each other at Fantastic Fest while clad in Mortal Kombat kostumes, directed this tale of a medical student who gets drawn into the underground world of extreme body modification. Cast members include real-life participants in said scene.

True Love – a husband and wife awaken in separate sealed rooms, empty save for projected images on the walls and two buttons to press: one for yes, and one for no. The images that appear, and the questions they are forced to answer, will unearth secrets and threaten lives – yes, the killer-as-guilty-conscience thing appears to be a real theme this year.

Would You Rather? – The Saw films often felt like a logical extension of the playground “would you rather” game – would you rather saw your foot off, or die of sepsis in a dirty restroom? – so it makes sense to build on the zeitgeist success of same by going directly to the source. A sadistic aristocrat and a woman desperate for money make this also sound like a riff on reality shows.

Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal – That title had better not be allegorical, like The Barbarian Invasions or The Princess and the Warrior.

Under the Bed – There’s a monster down there, and it sure ain’t Mike or Sully. It’s up to two brothers to defeat it, even as their family falls apart. Metaphor!

Wrong Turn 5 – To clarify: I’m not genuinely, enthusiastically endorsing Wrong Turn 5, and am astonished that a movie with so little franchise juice to begin with has limped merrily along this far. What I am saying is that this screening is FREE, so if you have the remotest desire to see it, do so at Screamfest.

Nightmare Factory – A documentary about Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and KNB effects. If you don’t know why you should care about this, check out our recent interview with Nicotero.

The Factory – Yeah, yeah…there’s a killer on the loose, abducting prostitutes. But the cop on the case is John Cusack. We love John Cusack.

For showtimes, tickets, trailers and more, check out the official Screamfest website. See you there.

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