Each year I see at least 36 films at the Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, and thankfully only about 2 out of that number are usually clunkers. I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews without discussing some positive aspects, but Baal’s Flowers leaves me with pretty much nothing to recommend.
This Italian production is a loosely woven, slow-paced piece that features writer, director, and editor Leonardo Pepi in the starring role as as unnamed university student who stumbles across an ancient botany book. He then meets a mysterious woman who distracts his attention from another nice girl who is interested in him, spends a lot of time talking with a male friend, and tries to talk to a rare-books shop owner who yells about how busy he is. Interspersed between these scenes are shots of witches in the forest performing rituals. The film leans toward some psychotronic moments but just never gets there, and the rest of the proceedings are simply cumbersome, making for an overall confusing and uninteresting final product. My respect goes out to Pepi for putting his hard work and heart into this film, but I really think he could have used an editor to help with this effort, as well as someone to help him fine tune his screenplay.
Spanish effort Asmodexia starts out as an exorcism film but breaks free of the constraints of that subgenre with some ambitious twists. Pastor Lluis Marco (Eloy de Palma) and his teenage granddaughter Alba (Claudia Pons) journey the land performing exorcisms on those possessed by The Evil One, an entity that infests weaker members of humankind, such as children and mental patients. Members of a mysterious cult are in pursuit of the duo, and other strange goings-on take place at a mental hospital. The film takes its time in revealing secrets about its characters and their relationships and takes some unexpected turns, revealing intricate, unanticipated relationships and revelations.
Debuting director Marc Carreté, who also co-wrote the screenplay, makes a striking debut with Asmodexia, and looks to be a talent to keep an eye on in the future. I found the film’s climax quite intriguing, but had problems with the actual ending.
Grzegorz Muskala offers up another impressive debut with his German psychosexual horror thriller Whispers Behind the Wall. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and Roman Polanski’s apartment house trilogy (which Muskala certainly seems to be, and I mean that in a good way) will find much to like here. The story centers around university student Martin (Vincent Redetzki), who has moved from a smaller town to Berlin. He desperately wants to find an apartment that he can afford, but he has a lot of competition. After waiting in a long line with seemingly frustrating results at one particular building, the caretaker offers to help him seal the deal on getting the one vacant apartment, but Martin must first pose shirtless for a photo demanded by potential landlady Simone (Katharina Hayer). She approves, and after Martin moves in next door to to her, she seduces him. As you might guess, this is when trouble starts. First, Martin learns that the previous male tenant in his apartment went missing. Second, he learns about pianist Sebastian (Florian Panzner), who has his own unhealthy relationship with Simone. Martin’s window happens to have a clear view of Sebastian’s apartment, where the drapes are usually open and something is almost always happening. Third, Martin starts searching for answers to a number of questions, and one of his main sources is eccentric neighbor Frau Schaffrat (Almut Zilcher). Curiosity driven by jealousy gets the better of the naive student and he finds himself part of a deadly game.
The cast is solid, especially Hayer in her femme fatale role, and Muskala’s moody visuals and claustrophobic ambiance are rich, and sometimes reminiscent of David Lynch’s unsettling tones. The debuting helmer crafts a sense of growing dread that builds to a thrilling climax. Though some elements of this film may feel a bit familiar to seasoned viewers, Whispers has a slick, strong sense of originality that warrants a watch.
I capped off Day 4 with what would be one of my favorite films at this year’s PiFan, and also of this year: the New Zealand horror comedy Housebound. Morgana O’Reilly gives an ace performance as the initially pessimistic, brooding Kylie, who is sentenced to house arrest after she and her boyfriend screw up an ATM robbery attempt. Her usually cheery, extremely talkative mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) has pretty much the opposite personality style of her wayward daughter, who from the start has no qualms about showing just how much she hates being around her mother and her mother’s milquetoast boyfriend. Kylie overhears Miriam calling in to a late-night paranormal radio show about the possibility of a ghost in the house, which fuels another tirade against her mother. Eerie things start happening to Kylie, too, though, and her skepticism does not last long. Her probation officer Amos (Glen-Paul Waru in an outstanding effort) takes a keen interest in these new developments, as he just so happens to be a part-time ghost hunter. The two start searching the house and neighborhood for clues as to who or what is haunting the home. Kylie’s house arrest and paranormal situations are further complicated by her condescending counselor Dennis (Cameron Rhodes), who does his best to convince everyone that she needs serious psychiatric care in a proper facility.
Director Gerard Johnstone, who also wrote the screenplay and edited, hits all the right notes in his debut effort. Balancing suspense and humor well enough to make an outstanding horror comedy is not easy, but he does so almost flawlessly, aided by a cast that is absolutely delightful. O’Reilly and Te Wiata play off each other and their splendid supporting actors magnificently.