"No man knows what he will do when driven by hunger." Falsely attributed to Alexander Pearce—so called "cannibal convict" of Tasmania and subject of his own 2008 DTV shocker Dying Breed—this epigram could easily have been spoken of devoted fans of Another Hole In The Head ("Holehead"), San Francisco's annual indie horror / sci-fi / fantasy feast. Genre fans, driven, insatiable, and hungry for gore, consume any and all offerings shoveled their way—a casualty of their insatiable hunger being that, like the cannibal convict, they seldom remember the name of their last meal.
Doubtless the most complete film at HoleHead this year was Mike Flanagan's dread-centric character drama Absentia, singled out for a Variety review by prolific SF critic Dennis Harvey (serving a much–needed role as the festival's unofficial cheerleader this year). Callie, an ex-addict in recovery from an unspecified drug, comes to visit her sister Tricia at her Glendale home, where she is preparing to finally declare her husband Daniel "dead in absentia" a long seven years after his disappearance. In Daniel's absence, Tricia's life has moved on, her bills have piled up, and she's become involved with the local detective charged with upkeep on her husband's case. What appears to be largely a clerical matter turns out to be much graver when Daniel begins to appear in horrifying visions and finally re-emerges in the real world, shocked into near-catatonia by his ordeal.
As details emerge we learn that Daniel has been kept by a creature in a world "underneath" our world, released not as a response to Tricia's declaration but as a consequence of a trade accidentally initiated by Callie at the mouth of the pedestrian underpass in which "it" resides. In the course of uncovering the history of the creature, Flanagan can't help but include a few trite shots of aging police reports and newspaper articles and a brief rant about the bible and the existence of other dimensions, but he quickly course corrects, and smartly wraps these in favor of a well-acted (and dismayingly believable) character drama.
What differentiates Absentia from similar fare, apart from its low incidence of creature effects, is that it dares to dwell on the way real humans rationalize the supernatural—not by begrudgingly admitting its existence, but by rationalizing it as the most farfetched of a number of much more plausible possibilities. Ultimately, Absentia declares, there is no way we can ever assent to the truth of the supernatural, as admitting its existence would draw us into it—as it does Callie—and ultimately destroying our connection to reality. It's a complex idea, but not necessarily one that guarantees traction with the crowd who enjoy the genre for its more hoary, gory conventions. Absentia sits comfortably between character driven sci-fi like Donnie Darko and the more abstract, earthbound horrors of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Doppelganger). Taken together with his intriguing, one-bright-room horror short Oculus, Flanagan is emerging as a promising genre director with a unique vision of horror.
Having been introduced to both Borowczyk's The Beast and John Boorman's Zardoz at HoleHead back in 2006, I anticipated the unearthing of at least one minor classic in 2011. The fest befuddled my expectations, screening The Book, a no-budget sci-fi puzzler appearing to be a cult discovery from the genre's boom times in the 70s, but actually completed only last year. The plot of The Book is a bit of an artifact in itself: seeking to spread their influence through a forged manuscript, aliens kidnap and replace a prominent author and his family. It's simple, but spacious enough to accommodate depthy (and faux-depthy) interior monologues about the nature of writing, fame, and the nature of being human—all added, according to its director, "Ø", after the filming was complete.
Somehow appearing to pre-date its influences, The Book toasts the classics. In grand outdoor post-apocalyptic scenes, it glimpses Fellini's Satyricon, its denouement echoes the home invasion scenes of A Clockwork Orange (perhaps due in part to its cast of professional stage actors), Fassbinder's recently screened World On A Wire and a hundred others twinkle in its dated and glamorous futurism. The sets and effects are kitsch and charming—an apartment festooned with colored cellophane and tinfoil, baffling food stolen from the tables of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and re-contextualized local color, most notably Frank Lloyd Wright's turquoise biomorph, the Marin Civic Center. The Book is goofy and endearing, but not quite dopey or camp enough to carry instant cult potential, which is a shame, as it's as enjoyable as anything in Ed Wood's canon, a bit more meaningful and much more intelligent.
Though not as strong as The Book, HoleHead deserves recognition for its broad selection of SF entries this year, the best of which was Red Ice, which manages to be very smart and very San Francisco, and by this I mean that it features a transsexual succubus, a crack-smoking flautist, and a campily sycophantic Asian demon-monger. The Craving echoes its SF setting similarly, toasting local foodie culture with the tale of a lesbian chef with a discerning palate for human flesh. Apocrypha, recasting the now-weathered vampire narrative as a personality conflict heavy with SF locales and refs and Breath of Hate, buoyed the savage charisma of longtime character-villain Ezra Buzzington and bizarrely watchable Jason Mewes, both perform well but fall outside the mark.
Cross-published on Twitch.