Popcorn Frights Film Festival, billed as the Southeast United States’ largest genre movie fest, held its fourth annual outing in south Florida from August 10–16. Festival co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman curated an incredible selection of offerings that made it easy to see why this festival set a new attendance record for a third consecutive year. The 2018 edition of Popcorn Frights boasted more than 50 world, North American, U.S., and Florida premieres from 15 countries. This first installment in a series of Popcorn Frights coverage articles looks at three of the features that screened this year.
Lo-fi independent science-fiction/classic Western hybrid Prospect focuses on strong drama with intriguing relationships, stirring performances, and a captivating atmosphere, resulting in a terrific effort that belies its budget. Father-and-daughter mining team Damon (Jay Duplass) and Cee (Sophie Thatcher) travel between a space base and a remote planet gathering an amber-like product from space pods. This substance fetches a high price, and Damon proposes a get-rich-quick scheme on one of their trips to the mining planet. This plan is interrupted, however, when a man named Ezra (Pedro Pascal), who talks at great lengths in what some characters in Westerns might call “high-falutin’ language,” throws a wrench in the works by attempting to rob Damon while Cee hides in the background. Cee finds herself having to contemplate an uneasy alliance with the villainous Ezra. As unexpected dangers present themselves, the uneasy association between the pair grows ever riskier, and the possibility of being stranded on the desolate planet looms larger. Newcomer Thatcher gives a marvelous turn as the increasingly brave Cee, and and Pascal brings his menacing character to life with a fine blend of arrogance and vulnerability. Prospect emphasizes character development and how far Cee can trust Ezra, but the striking visual world that writing/directing team Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl, along with their special effects teams, have crafted is vividly realized.
French filmmaker Xavier Gens (Frontière(s) , The Divide ) has crafted a heady, beautifully shot creature feature in the Spanish–French coproduction Cold Skin. Lovecraft meets Melville in this 1914-set tale about a weather official (David Oakes) who journeys to a distant island near the Antarctic to chart the winds, replacing a man in that position who has gone missing. The official’s predecessor left behind peculiar drawings of monstrous creatures. The island’s only other human inhabitant is lighthouse keeper Gruner (Ray Stevenson), a gruff misanthrope who battles human-like amphibian creatures each night as they attack the lighthouse, though he keeps a female one (Aura Garrido) as a combination pet and sex slave. The two men have greatly differing opinions regarding the intelligence of these creatures, and the rift between the duo grows dangerously wider, with Gruner bent on wiping out the species, while the weather official feels they are intelligent beings that should be left alone. The reach of Cold Skin sometimes exceeds its grasp, but overall the film provides a nice blend of philosophy and monster vs. man battle sequences. Daniel Aranyó’s breathtaking cinematography vividly captures the harsh climes of the unwelcoming island. Garrido gives a splendid performance as the mer-woman, investing her character with a humanity similar to that of Doug Jones’ turn in The Shape of Water.
During the first several minutes of the Japanese film One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na!, 2017), I thought I was going to absolutely hate it because it seemed like yet another low-budget zombie comedy about a crew making a low-budget zombie movie (as in the big-hearted 2014 New Zealand film I Survived a Zombie Holocaust, for example). I’m so glad I stayed with it, though, because the film introduced some surprises that turned it into an entirely different beast altogether, and I was charmed and delighted by it. Avoid spoilers on this one; just know that the first part of the movie focuses on struggling director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), who loudly scolds his lead actress Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) for failing to properly perform a scene in 42 takes. Makeup artist Nao (Harumi Syuhama) consoles Chinatsu and leading man Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya), when real zombies suddenly appear and begin dining on crew members, and Higurashi demands that everything be caught on film. Writer/director Shinichiro Ueda has crafted a heartwarming winner that may be the feel-good horror comedy of the year. The ensemble cast, including actress Mao, who portrays Higurashi’s daughter (also named Mao), is wonderful. I burned out long ago on zombie fare, but One Cut of the Dead is a shining example of how the living-dead subgenre can still have life in it.