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Event Report: The Hollywood Underground Film Festival

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Would you believe that, in the entertainment capital of the world, Hollywood does not have an underground film festival? How does an oversight like this happen? Luckily, Jumpcut Cafe and the Underground Film Journal have joined forces with the American Cinematheque to launch the first annual Hollywood Underground Film Festival.

For the inaugural fest, held on February 21st at the historic Egyptian Theater, we got over a dozen shorts of all kinds, plus a special, very early screening of BETAMAX, a new horror-comedy anthology. While plans for future iterations of the festival include programs divided up by genre, the current edition was a mish-mosh of the weird and wonderful from the Los Angeles film scene.

The biggest surprise of the night was the pre-show discussion with underground film legend Kenneth Anger. Film historian David Del Valle’s brief, schizophrenic chat with the director covered topics as wide-ranging as Anger’s time as a child actor, his groundbreaking short film “Fireworks” and its effects on gay cinema, and his HOLLYWOOD BABYLON books.

This writer has long been a fan of Anger’s HOLLYWOOD BABYLON books, which reveal the seediest stories of Hollywood, starting in the silent era. With two volumes published, it has long been rumored that Anger has a third ready to go. When asked about it tonight, Anger said he is “waiting for Tom Cruise to die” before he publishes it. Now in his late 80s, Anger is still making 16mm films and refuses to go digital. “I just prefer film,” he tells the audience. “Film is the real thing.”

And now, onto the shorts:

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CROW HAND, dir. Brian Lonano
A man picks up a strange crow toy from the ground, only to have it “bite” him, and a crow dig its way out of his palm, forms to his hand, and attacking his wife. It is brief, it is silly, and it has great, gory practical effects. This was probably my favorite in the program.

UP THE VALLEY AND BEYOND, dir. Todd Rosken
This short biopic about Russ Meyer is set between the end of WWII and the beginning of his film career, when he was just a photographer. The short is as much a story about how he met his first wife, Eve Turner, as it is about his obsession with large breasts. The short is slick, stylish, and really captures the time period well. Plus, I am fascinated by how many different ways writer/director Todd Rosken can refer to large breasts.

HALF LIFE, dir. April Simmons
This non-narrative short features children, nature, and a creepy drone voice-over. It is pretty to look at, but it’s not my thing.

FISHFUCKER, dir. Brandon Daley and Dennis Johnson
It starts out promisingly enough, with a baby-obsessed teen sabotaging her boyfriend’s prom night condoms. The boyfriend goes to the bathroom to take a leak and pop some Viagra when he slips on a used tampon, inexplicably left on the floor. When Erin finds him dead – but with a boner – she has sex with the corpse and nine months later gives birth to a son whom we are meant to assume is a freak. This all happens in the first minute of the film. Erin locks her freak son, Brandon (who, other than looking pale, doesn’t seem particularly deformed), in the basement, feeding him a bucket of fish heads while she tries to lead a normal life. Brandon escapes from his basement while Erin has a date over, and the date catches Brandon fucking a fish. A fight ensues, and Erin kills to protect her child.

It has all the elements to be “extreme” and “edgy,” but it falls apart with flat characters and the distinct impression that directors Brandon Daley and Dennis Johnson were trying too hard. According to the credits, this was a film school project – and it shows.

RECKONING 3, dir. Kent Lambert
This compilation of video game footage, film scenes, and real gamer talk probably works better if you are really into your Xbox. It ends with a couple gamers talking about Sandyhook and similar mass shootings, which leads me to think this is some kind of statement on gun violence in entertainment and its effects on society.

SEX BOSS, dir. Jackson Stewart
Another “trying too hard” piece, SEX BOSS features a pervy boss who makes no attempt to hide his proclivities and will only hire the most depraved applicants. I didn’t find it funny, and was frankly bewildered when the Sex Boss randomly dresses in drag to hit on one applicant.

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SHEILA SCORNED, dir. Mara Tasker
A great nod to the grindhouse tradition, SHEILA SCORNED has all the trappings of 42nd Street, both good and bad: a tough-as-nails stripper looking for revenge, sex, violence, and no logistical plot.

FROM GOD’S MOUTH TO YOUR EARS and ANONYMOUS MORTICIAN dir. Joseph Bennett
Both are animated shorts directed by Joseph Bennett. The first is animated to the random, continuous babbling of an old man at a bus stop; the second is a hilariously filthy story about a mortician fucking a corpse. YOUR EARS is quirky and enjoyable, but MORTICIAN is the winner in my book.

LANA TURNER OVERDRIVE, dir. Michael Frost
A true psychotronic assembly piece, “Lana Turner” combines footage from Lana Turner films, crudely pasted-in characters, trippy lighting, and unique editing to create a truly effective piece on voyeurism. This is what I imagine an acid trip is like.

I’M DOYLE SPITZ!, dir. Carr Cavender
A man kills Doyle Spitz in order to take over his life, but the bodies pile up in an attempt to keep his secret, and he soon discovers that just because Doyle’s life looks perfect, doesn’t mean it actually is. A humorous piece that uses each frame economically, making for a tightly-paced short.

RED LUCK, dir. Mike Olenick
This Slamdance winner was beautiful to look at, but I found it boring and way too lengthy. I dozed off for a few minutes during this one.

MOMENTS EXCERPT #7, dir. Clu and John Gulager
A grown man admits to a childhood friend that he killed a classmate of theirs when they were ten years old. Then he decides to cook and eat his friend. This is easily the strangest narrative short in the program, veering between dark and disturbing to strangely upbeat, with a truly out-of-nowhere postscript. Bonus points for a musical number, of all things.

MOVING, dir. Marc Horowitz
Two alien-like lumps of pink chisel away at a huge block of… something, all while partaking in normal office conversation. The normalcy of the conversation (told in subtitles, because pink blobs don’t speak English) between two blobs that look like attic insulation make this one a delight.

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After a brief intermission, BETAMAX screened. In true “underground” fashion, they were still filming footage mere hours before the movie screened. Because this was an early, early cut of the film, a full review would not be fair. Consider this a “preview.”

According to producer David Gregory , BETAMAX came about after he and some friends watched another anthology movie and decided that the could make something better. Well, maybe not better, but more interesting. The result is BETAMAX, a collection of short films that, like many modern anthologies, fails to maintain a through line, making it another collection of shorts to me.

It starts off well enough, in the mid 1970s, where the “format wars” between VHS and Betamax meet an insane, violent end. Forty years later and a couple of starving douchebag hipster/actors go looking for super-obscure films to inspire their own burgeoning careers (or perhaps give them something to impress their friends with). We get three very different segments that are deliriously deranged, but have nothing to do with one another, and no connective tissue to link them back to the “format wars” theme. Perhaps that is something that is coming in a later iteration.

In the first segment, a middle-aged man spends entirely too much time adjusting his new CCTV, when suddenly an alien-monster that looks like it got lost on the way to a MST3K film, chases him and his wife through their backyard. Next, what starts as soft-core lesbian porn between a vampire and a Frankenstein’s monster quickly evolves into a naked throwdown over Hitler. Finally, a trio of kids are enrolled in the Tom Savini School of Gore when John Carpenter dies unexpectedly. The kids decide to dig him up and take him to a party to show how good they are at practical effects. No one is fooled, but people start dying when Carpenter stands and starts shooting lasers from his eyes – then joins forces with equally laser-equipped Rutger Hauer and Dario Argento. It gets more surreal from there, if you can believe that.

I had hoped that Betamax would have been shot on Betamax. It wasn’t. There should have been a wrap-up segment to tie it all together. There wasn’t. I am still at a loss as to how the segments tie in together, but as this was an advanced preview screening, I can’t be too critical. It was a fun combination of segments that are clearly made by movie fans, for movie fans. It didn’t dampen the fun of the Hollywood Underground Film Festival, and I look forward to seeing what next year has in store.

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About the author
Alyse Wax http://www.alysewax.com
Los Angeles native, horror nerd, and TV addict Alyse Wax was the associate editor of the dearly departed FEARnet.com before Kabletown shut it down. She now freelances for a number of sites, including ShockTillYouDrop.com, Bloody-Disgusting.com, ComingSoon.net, and DailyDead.com. Alyse is currently working on her first book, Curious Goods: The Complete Friday the 13th: The Series Compendium for Bear Manor Media.
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