A genre for all! We're rounding up some films to watch out for out of this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. In this roundup: a few freaky films, whether frightening or just plain weird.
"Boyz In the Wood"
Four troubled teenage boys are sent on a two-day trek in the Scottish Highlands by their schools. They’re supposed to bond and learn about life, and they are scheduled to meet an adult supervisor at an overnight campsite. But this is no ordinary adventure story. The boys are total misfits, and the Highlands are filled with strange, menacing older people like the Duke (Eddie Izzard). To make matters even more complicated, the adult supervisor is hapless — and the boys end up ingesting hallucinogenic pellets of rabbit feces. Yes, you read that right.
As you have probably guessed, “Boyz in the Wood” is an absurdist comedy/horror film. Ninian Doff both writes and directs. If you get a chance and enjoy absurdist humor, this one’s for you.
— Charles Ealy, special to the American-Statesman
"J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius"
In the 1980s and 1990s among various American undergrounds, knowledge of the Church of the SubGenius, the teachings of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs or the doctrine of “Slack” was a pretty good way to identify like-minded dorks.
As chronicled in Sandy K. Boone’s canny doc “J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius,” the titular church was started in about 1979 by a couple of bored, nerdy Fort Worth fellows (think collecting comic books and engaging in Frank Zappa fandom) by the names Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond. This is a very, very Texas story.
As the values of the 1960s “were being flipped on their head” during the Reagan '80s, Stang and Drummond welded together every fringe belief (and the notion of us-versus-them conspiracy itself), televangelist fanaticism, a hodge-podge of clip art and rants that almost mean something (but never quite) in a zine called the Sub Genius Pamphlet No. 1.
Their “prophet” was a 1950s-dad-looking piece of clip art they dubbed “J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs." Trust me, some time in the past 40 years, you have seen this image. They sent the zine hither and yon and, like the memes of today (but slower), the satirical ideas found purchase.
A bit like the Grateful Dead codifying Deadhead culture when they asked their fans to write to the band, Stang and Drummond in the zine requested a dollar from the like-minded.
“If Jim Jones could talk 900 people (into suicide),” Stang says, “we could talk 900 people into sending us a dollar.” Thus, a fake church (or satire of one) was born, and boy, did these folks have fun.
Stang and Drummond soon found that not only were there people like themselves who got the joke but also some folks out there were pursuing the same ideas. The Famous Potatoes zine used clip art in a similarly semiotic way; the “Puzzling Evidence” (which folded in SubGenius content) and “Over the Edge” radio shows took similar views toward audio collage.
Like any real faith, SubGenius was a way of looking at the world. The Conspiracy was anything you wanted it to be, from pressure to conform to the suburban middle class to “the fact that it was too hot on the bus.” Slack was that which should not be stolen from us, from literal free time to thinking for oneself. SubGenius was vague but potent and often very, very funny.
Some of the whole shtick has not aged well. There’s a libertarian streak in there that serves as a good reminder that, in spite of their bohemia, this was very much a movement of middle-class white dudes. And dudes they were (though, to her credit, Boone interviews plenty of women involved). As the late, great Austinite Margaret Moser put it, “It was a boys club, and I wanted to meet the boys.”
But Stang and company found famous folks in other fields had a similar outlook: Penn Jillette, Paul Reubens, Alex Cox, Richard Linklater and Matt Groening are just a few. David Byrne’s wonderful movie, “True Stories,” contains a song called “Puzzling Evidence” that’s essentially a SubGenius tribute.
Eventually there were books (“Book of the SubGenius” and “High Weirdness by Mail” were essential texts for a very certain type.) Then a convention. Then live shows. Then an apocalypse date (X-Day) that came and went.
All the while, a lot of people took it way too seriously. When you set out to attract weirdos, you are going to ... attract weirdos. In 1999, one such follower decided to promote the live show on the back of the Columbine shooting. Not a great look.
But then again, as the doc notes, the rise of the internet made everything both more and less SubGenius-ish. It’s now much, much easier for freaks to find each other, and everything in general became much less mysterious. As SubGenius artist Paul Mavrides puts it, “As a medium, (the internet) flattens everything out. An inconsequential event is the same as the horrendous calamity or a staggering triumph of humanity.”
At the same time, people’s ability to distinguish between real and fake seems to be falling through the floor. The film ends on the somewhat grim note that, what with his penchant for creating his own reality and seeming conviction that facts have no meaning, our current president is “the most SubGenius world leader that’s ever been.”
Which means X-Day is any minute now. Right?
— Joe Gross, American-Statesman staff
"The Beach Bum"
If you had to make up a movie role to fulfill the mandate of “Most Matthew McConaughey Character Ever,” you would likely come up with something very like Moondog, the loopy, the hard-drinking-and-drugging titular character in Harmony “Spring Breakers” Korine’s oddball flick, “The Beach Bum.”
Complete with stringy, half-blonde hair, impossibly ugly flip-up sunglasses and a penchant for what I think are women’s silk-and-fur robes, Moondog is Wooderson of “Dazed and Confused” cranked to 11 and transported from ’70s Texas to contemporary Florida, where all manner of wealthy debauchery takes place in the water between the Keys and Miami. If it floats, you can party on it.
But then, it helps to have a lot of money, which Moondog does. Well, maybe HE doesn’t, but his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), has about $100,000,000, so she spends most of her time with a rapper pal named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg as Snoop Dogg) while Moondog sexes and drugs himself (man, there’s a lot of weed in this movie) into sun-dappled, color-saturated oblivion. As Moondog notes to the missus, “I’m a bottom-feeder, baby. I gotta go low to get high,” which pretty well sums up the entire flick. Did I mention the volume of weed?
Nobody seems worried about anything in this bonkers flick. Complete with Jimmy Buffett in tow, Korine has made a semi-improvised-seeming tone ... poem (I guess that’s the right word) about the indulgent oddness of the rich and/or bohemian at the edge of Florida. Indeed, McConaughey, who is in virtually every frame, is really the only reason to see “The Beach Bum.” McConnanerds will love it, it’s likely everyone else will be scratching their heads. Eh, screw it, who wants a margarita? *Cue Buffett.*
— Joe Gross, American-Statesman staff
In Abe Forsythe's latest film, Dave (Alexander England) is having a hard time coming to terms with his adult life. Former frontman of death-metal band God's Sledgehammer, Dave finds himself crashing with his sister, Tess, and her 5-year-old son, Felix, after splitting up with his girlfriend, because she wants to have kids and he doesn't.
In order to impress Felix's kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (the luminous Lupita Nyong'o), he volunteers to fill in as a chaperone for a school trip to the Pleasant Valley Farm petting zoo, despite the fact that he does not really like children. This all plays out over the first 20 minutes without any indication of what is around the corner.
Physically, there's a U.S. military base around the corner from the farm, and the school trip happens to fall on the same day that a zombie outbreak comes crashing out of the base and settling right where this entire classroom of young children is spending the day. Sheer and utter pandemonium sets in, but not without Miss Caroline doing her best to assure the kids that all of this is just a game so that they don't become terrified.
Despite Dave's utter failures in life, he does snap to attention in crisis mode. Whether this is still to make Miss Caroline like him or because his instinct to protect his nephew kicks in (or a tiny combination of the two), he does everything he can to keep the kids calm.
The child actors are fantastic and get in some entertaining dialogue, but it's Josh Gad ("The Book of Mormon") as a kid's television host named Teddy McGiggle who transforms into an incredibly profane and selfish jerk in the presence of danger who really steals the show.
SXSW audiences can really push a first viewing into the stratosphere, and this was no exception. The laughter was so hard from the crowd that at times I felt like I missed jokes. Reactions to the brief bursts of zombie gore were also priceless. It's also awesome to see Nyong'o — who also starred in the fest's opening film, horror film "Us" — stepping outside of her comfort zone and really delivering as a comic actor, as well. "Little Monsters" is a riotously funny crowd-pleasing zombie comedy that unexpectedly has a lot of heart. It will be released theatrically later this year by Neon.
— Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman
"The Curse of La Llorona"
It's surprising there hasn't already been a film about a folktale as old and familiar and as creepy as La Llorona. After all, the story is practically horror movie gold. The tale of La Llorona, or "the weeping woman," is a myth in Latin American culture about the ghost of a woman who drowned her children in the river. Since then, she wanders around crying, looking for them, and often tormenting those — especially the children — who hear her.
This is the driving force in "The Curse of La Llorona," but the film itself (Michael Chaves' feature debut, produced by literal horror movie master James Wan) takes place in the '70s, following social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini) and her two children. When Anna visits the home of one of her cases, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), and finds Patricia's children locked up in a closet with burn scars on their arms, she has no choice but to take them in despite the protests from both the mother and the boys that "she'll get them." It is not until a little later that Anna finds out who "she" is, but when she does, she's already in the thick of it herself and must recruit outside help to rid her family of La Llorona, whatever it takes.
"The Curse of La Llorona" is all in for the jump scares, and what the film sometimes lacks in story and character development it replaces with suspense through its skillful, intense sound design alone. The story hits all of the beats expected from a horror film, with nothing particularly inventive along the way, but Chaves has an astute sense of how to continuously amplify the scares. For someone who grew up with the idea of La Llorona, is intrigued by her myth or wants the fright of seeing her come to life on the screen, it's worth a watch. Just maybe remember to douse yourself with some sage on your way in and out.
— Natalie Mokry, special to the American-Statesman