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Brooklyn Horror Film Festival special report: Sex, Laos, and videotape

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Piano

“Why is this ‘horror’?”

That’s a question which has been asked recently of several big screen terror tales that did not stick like glue to accepted genre tropes, particularly Robert Eggers’ commercially successful, but divisive, The Witch. It is also a question that was voiced, literally and loudly, by one outraged audience member at a recent New York screening of We Are the Flesh, the centerpiece film of the inaugural Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

We Are the Flesh, the directorial debut of young Mexican filmmaker Emiliano Rocha Minter, stars Noé Hernández as a maybe-prophet, maybe-maniac who persuades two siblings to embark on an incestuous affair. While the assorted grotesqueries are brilliantly shot, and it was hard to argue with Hernández ultimately winning the festival’s Best Actor award for his berserk central performance, the film is a long way from the land of Freddy and Jason or James Wan’s supernatural spookfests.

Minter’s film wasn’t the only festival selection that had things on its mind besides meat-and-potatoes mayhem. Laos-based director Mattie Do’s assured Dearest Sister follows a woman with failing eyesight who is gifted winning lottery numbers by ghosts. But the film was also an evocative slice-of-life drama from a country rarely seen on film (Dearest Sister is apparently just the thirteenth feature film in the history of Laos cinema). 

In many ways, Irish movie Without Name could not have been more different, but it too boasted a fresh, and dualistic, vibe, which helped win filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan the awards for Best Feature and Best Director. Is it about a man haunted by a supernatural presence in the Irish woods he is supposed to be surveying? Or does it concern someone who just makes the mistake of taking magic mushrooms in that same, already somewhat phantasmagorical, locale? If the answer is deliberately debatable, the high quality of the film is not.

Alcide Bava Pictures

Other enjoyably idiosyncratic movies screening at the festival included the Johnny Galecki-starring The Master Cleanse — essentially a humorous take on Cronenbergian body horror — and Beyond the Gates, the tale of an extremely dangerous VHS board game, a movie that earned director Jackson Stewart the festival’s Audience Choice Award at the closing night party. In fact, attendees had to wait until that final night to see a no-nonsense, old-fashioned horror movie with the world premiere of Erlingur Thorrodsen’s Child Eater, whose titular villain is a blind lunatic with a fondness for consuming eyeballs.

“The more we got into it, I realized that there is really no traditional horror movie in our lineup — maybe Child Eater,” Matt Barone, the festival’s head programmer, said. “They’re either really heavy character dramas or they’re like the Master Cleanse, which is a weird comedy. Then, the horror elements seep in subtly, and, when it’s over, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I realize why that’s at a horror festival.’ Which is exciting. This year, it feels like genre is at its best because it’s unpredictable. If people say horror is dead, and that kind of bulls—, go to a genre film festival, and realize that it couldn’t be more alive. So many want to condemn horror and write its epitaph, but if you look beneath the surface, you’re going to find some great stuff.”

The Brooklyn Horror Film Festival is not the only new genre event in New York this fall. The Manhattan-based FearNYC — which is screening both new movies and classics like Halloween and Nosferatu — kicks off Oct. 21, while the more established New York Horror Film Festival opens for business (and bloodiness) Nov. 10. But with 18 of this year’s 22 events at the BHHF selling out, festival director Justin Timms is confident this event will return next year.

“For sure,” he says. “We learned a lot — what we did right and what we did wrong. And, hopefully, the stuff we did wrong, no one noticed! But I think everything went pretty smooth. So, yeah, we’re hopefully going to be doing it for the foreseeable future.”

See trailers for Dearest SisterWithout NameChild Eater, and Beyond the Gates below.