by Dennis Harvey
Considering that the Bay Area has just about every other imaginable kind of specialized film festival, you might wonder that we don’t have one for comedy. There are live annual comedy events (like SF Sketchfest), but nothing for movies.
Well, that is not exactly true. The goriest and (we doubt the organizers will take offense if we say this) trashiest of all Bay Area film fests is also, perhaps, the biggest on laughs. Occasionally, some are unintentional. But Another Hole in the Head, which is about to launch its 11th program, is also full of deliberate hilarity, even if most of it comes blood-soaked and screaming.
Another Hole in the Head’s official mission, natch, is to celebrate the latest and greatest in horror, sci-fi, exploitation and miscellaneous hybrid genre films. But from the beginning, that has made room for a lot of comedy—albeit horror-comedy, sci-fi comedy, exploitation comedy and miscellaneous hybrid genre comedy. Sure, plenty of titles each year take themselves seriously; some may even give you a genuine fright or three. But many are at least partly tongue-in-cheek, whether black comedies, homages to or outright parodies of genre conventions.
This year’s eleven-day program at the New People Cinema in Japantown is no exception. In fact, many of the 2014 selection’s highlights aim to be more hilarious than harrowing. That’s certainly the case with Friday’s kickoff feature, the Canadian Bloody Knuckles , which lets you know what you’re in for by starting out with Mudhoney’s grunge classic “Touch Me I’m Sick” under the opening titles.
Travis (Adam Boys) js an underground artist whose “Vulgarian Invasions” comix go out of their way to offend. Unfortunately, his latest issue makes a point of offending a humorless Chinese crime kingpin, who takes a traditional, proverbial approach to things that offend him: He has them cut off. Travis’ severed drawing hand, however, turns out to have a (vengeful) mind of its own. Matt O’Mahoney’s first feature after a number of like-minded shorts is an exercise in high-grade bad taste that does not shrink from providing its hero an eventual partner in ass-whupping who’s a gay B&D dungeon master.
On a similar theme, there’s Big Man Japan creator Hitoshi Matsumoto’s latest absurdist comedy R100 . Its mild-mannered department store salesman protagonist (Nao Ohmori), in need of an emotional outlet while his beloved wife lies comatose, signs on to a year-long membership at an S&M “club for gentlemen.” He soon realizes that there are no “safe words” to limit what its small army of black-leather-clad dominatrixes (including icky specialists like “The Queen of Saliva”) will do: They’ll invade his workplace, his home, even his unconscious spouse’s hospital room. Growing increasingly surreal as it goes on, R100 turns whips-and-chains fetishism into fantastical slapstick.
Two of the funnier movies in the festival get their laughs not so much from outrageous situations (though they’ve got those), but from encouraging talented actors to riff and improvise within scenes. Richard Bates Jr.’s Suburban Gothic stars Criminal Minds ’ Matthew Gray Gubler as a strenuously “alternative” layabout forced to move back in with his parents, only to end up defending the entire neighborhood from a malevolent spirit accidentally dug up in their backyard. With a cast also including Kat Dennings, Ray Wise, Sally Kirkland and John Waters, this antic diversion has no lack of comic heavy hitters—or wiseass attitude, as underlined by its closing soundtrack choice of another vintage classic, the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.”
Matt Jackson’s equally slick, cheerfully silly Love in the Time of Monsters has Gena Shaw and Marissa Skell as sisters whose weekend getaway at a Klamath County lodge takes a hairy turn when the staff—including a half-dozen bored dudes in Bigfoot costumes—turn into toxic zombies. This is surprising, but perhaps not so surprising as the point at which the movie suddenly stops for an all-too-serious sisterly discussion of who’s really “been there” for the other.
At little risk of such sincere sharing and caring is Ryan Nagata’s The Many Lives of Jovan Cornejo , in which put-upon nice guy Randall (Kevin Ostrowski, who plays Kim Jung-Un in the forthcoming Rogen/Franco comedy The Interview ) reluctantly agrees to celebrate his own obnoxious sibling’s (Steve Agee) birthday in the desert with the latter’s loser friends. Unfortunately their hijinks result in an accidental death that unleashes both a malevolent spirit and a zombie. This exercise in men behaving badly proves sometimes you just can’t keep a good, dead man down.
This year’s Another Hole in the Head features plenty more black comedy where that came from, including the less-inspired bloody likes of Blood Punch (Groundhog Day in a meth lab) and Blood Riders (some mildly delinquent teens’ night out curdles into an unfunny accumulation of corpses). There’s also Troma-style scatological yokkery in Call Girl of Cthulhu , live-performance splatstick in Awesome Theatre’s Zombie! The Musical , and live comedy in the BoneSaw Bros’ Scary Stories: Christmas Edition .
But perhaps the least expected source of laughs this year are two documentaries. My Name is Jonah is a bizarre, eventually somewhat disturbing portrait of “Myspace celebrity” and “self-proclaimed real life adventurer” Jonah Washnis, who says things like “I think of myself as the quintessential warrior.” He also sometimes works as a garbage collector. The imaginatively assembled Limo Ride mixes interview and reenactment to recount a bunch of Mobile, Alabama guys’ tale of epic partying gone awry. Before they’re done, we’ve experienced secondhand instances of semipublic sex, karaoke, rampant substance abuse, race-baiting, bro spooning, police pursuit, and frenching somebody’s grandma. You’ll be glad it happened to other people.
Lest you think Another Hole in the Head is all fun and games, however, be assured that some of its gory mayhem is actually intended to be scary. That includes John Klein’s dystopian thriller Chrysalis , about a couple who’ve survived (so far) a viral catastrophe that’s turned most of humanity into toxic zombies. Their homelessness is sad, but nonetheless preferable to the house of horrors in Where the Devil Dwells , whose hero returns to a family manse with an unfortunate history of serial murders. Needless to say: History repeats itself.
As it does in Australian Charlie’s Farm , whose exceptionally stupid weekend campers (led by the inimitable Tara Reid) descend upon a notorious outback ranch where the resident late cannibal-rapist-killer clan turn out to be not-entirely-dead after all. Likewise it’s not a good idea for the three mean girls of Jennifer Help Us to hold a fourth captive in an abandoned house that once housed a masked murderess. Guess who decides to pay a return visit? Shot entirely on an iPhone, Juan Ortiz’s feature is styled to look like the bottom-rung no-budget 16mm horror movies of the 1970s.
Genuine rather than faux-cinematic flashbacks are offered by three revival titles, each screening in 35mm prints for that extra-old-school flavor. Two are famous 1980s classics you’ve probably seen:
Tobe Hooper’s Spielberg-produced suburban hauntfest Poltergeist , and James Cameron’s Aliens , the first sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. But a third you surely haven’t watched, or likely even heard of, since it was seen by few the first time around and then lost for decades.
From 1975, The Astrologer is a true Me Decade oddity whose director Craig Denney—never heard from before or since—stars as the titular starsign-reading antihero “born to lie, cheat and steal.” (He wasn’t born with the physique to go shirtless so often, but that sure doesn’t stop him.) His extremely arbitrary globe-trotting odyssey goes from carny roots to African diamond smuggling (complete with quicksand and cobras) then global fame as, among other things, official astrologer to the U.S. Navy (!). Just like Citizen Kane , except terrible, this great-man’s-rise-and-fall saga is filmed in “Astravision” (whatever that is), was scored by the Moody Blues, and—as if it weren’t already drunk on its own unfulfilled ambitions—ends abruptly with a lofty text quote from King Lear .
It’s the kind of movie that leaves you with many compelling, basic questions. Ones like, “Did the money run out halfway through production?,” “Were they doing hallucinogens in the editing room?,” “Why is the sound missing in the leads’ climactic argument scene?,” not to mention “Who are these people, and where did they go?!?” Perhaps personnel from Austin’s (and in the near future, San Francisco’s) Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which resurrected this whatsit from deepest obscurity, will be on hand to provide some answers.
Another Hole in the Head. December 5-14. New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF. www.sfindie.com.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor.