NIGHTMARE ROYALE # 19: Etheria Pushes Toward Critical Mass, and Pins it Down to Earth (On The Women Who Bring The Change, Pt. III)Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),Movies/TV,News John Skipp
So I’m standing outside Hollywood’s legendary Egyptian Theater two Saturdays back – June 13th, to be precise – surrounded by excited people of every genre film-loving persuasion. And there’s a well-deserved buzz flowing through the hundreds assembled for year two of the Etheria Film Festival. A festival devoted entirely to films directed by women. And as one of the judges, I already know how great the night’s going to be.
The last of the red carpet interviews are going on to my right. I’m getting ready to sneak a parking lot smoke to my left. There’s a little cluster of sharp-dressed women and men right in front of me. And one of the guys looks at the gals and says, “You know, I really think you’re about to hit critical mass.”
Everybody smiles. And I smile, too. Because I giddily suspect that fucking guy is right. Which is to say:
We’re about to hit a breakthrough point in cinema history, where there are a) so many undeniably talented female directors in the field that b) the notion that women can’t be trusted to handle complex and demanding features or series will become entirely laughable; and c) woman directors will start to be actively sought out, not in spite of but because of the fact that they’re kickass women directors.
You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. And as a rallying force for bringing the world’s finest female genre filmmakers together to prove that very point, nobody is kicking ass harder than the Etheria Film Festival.
Established in 2014 (after the breakup of the pioneering Viscera Film Festival), Etheria heads Heidi Honeycutt, Stacy Pippi Hammon, and Kayley Viteo have devoted themselves to carving out a magnificent proving ground. Whereas Viscera was often a showcase for filmmakers-in-progress, Etheria is more of a crucible, where insanely high achievement is the starting bar.
Just to frame this numerically: this year, Etheria pared down roughly 590 entries – not counting the hundreds of men who didn’t bother to read the entry specs – and winnowed it down to six shorts, one feature. Not because they didn’t get lots of good films. But because they put their focus on greatness.
First up in the official selection was the feature, Ursula Dabrowsky’s INNER DEMON. It’s the story of a fifteen-year-old girl named Sam who’s babysitting her adorable little sister when a couple of sick fucks break into their home. Next thing she knows, she’s waking up duct-taped in the trunk of their car, rattling swiftly toward doom; and her desperate escape, even more desperate chase, and ensuing hide-and-seek make up the nail-biting entirety of the film.
It’s an intimate piece, almost entirely sensory in impact, with the little moment-to-moment-to-moments registering as seismically deep as the big ones. Which is to say, pure cinema. The emotional terror and claustrophobia that Dabrowsky delivers are chokingly, believably thick; and the fact that our girl spends a huge chunk of the movie bleeding out from a wound more severe than we’d hoped, while spying through a hole in the door she’d hiding behind, should tell you as much as I care to about how intense the whole thing is. Anything else would be spoilers.
I loved it. The suspense is immense. The moments of serious hardcore gore, when they come, are genuinely no-shit shocking in a way fans of French modern hardcore might connect with. And while the performances of first-timer Sarah Jeavons (as Sam) and Kerry Ann Reid (as Denise, the distaff half of the psychopathic couple) are truly outstanding, it’s the astonishing Andreas Sobik as Karl who dominates every single moment he’s in (and infects every moment he’s not), with an almost Klaus Kinski level of mesmerizing, blowtorching psychosis behind his glowering, drug-addled calm and command.
So that was the feature. But now we come to the six short films competing for “Best”. Which is to say, in this case, “Best Director”.
As a judge this year, my mandate was clear: not to pick my favorite film, per se, but to select the female director best equipped to step up and steer a mainstream film or televised/streaming series. An insane task, as it turns out. The hardest thing I’ve ever attempted to judge, for reasons that will become clear as we go.
So let’s take ’em one by one.
First up was Mara Gasbarro Tasker’s SHEILA SCORNED. It’s a KILL BILL-flavored, GRINDHOUSE-inflected dose of pure kickass: neon-colored, ultraviolent, sexy, and smartass. For anyone just showing up to the fest, it instantly dispelled the notion that women can’t direct fight scenes. And Laine Rettmer (as the deadly, deadpan Sheila) gives Uma a serious run for her money.
The bad news is, Tasker’s film is the one that most clearly showed its influences. The good news is, you can clearly see her telling Tarantino and Rodriguez, “Thanks for the riffs, boys! Think I’ll take it from here!” Claiming this territory for her own. Did she direct the shit out of it? You bet she did! Would I want to see this feature, or anything else she did? Why, yes I would!
Next was SHEVENGE, the raucously awesome girly horror-comedy by the much-beloved Amber Benson. And it’s clear she learned a lot on the set of BUFFY, because she delivers a multi-tiered bundle of fun Joss Whedon couldn’t help but admire.
Three girlfriends sitting on a bed, drinking wine, doing their nails, and discussing what they’d like to do to their worthless boyfriends is the operating premise. But then we go into their fantasies, giving us essentially four short movies in one. The first is a SIN CITY-toned black-and-white kill scene involving a promiscuous musician boyfriend who needs to die (hilariously) by his own guitar neck, tricked out in flourishes of occasional bold color.
The second plays more like a delirious Betty Draper revenge fantasy from MAD MEN, impeccably staged and entirely lafftastic. The third is a wonky Roger Corman witchcraft rip, simultaneously psychedelic and post-modern absurd. And possibly the funniest. But it’s all so very, very good.
Would I recommend that Benson turn this into a series? Why, yes I would! Would I watch it? Allow me to repeat myself! Did she direct the shit out of it, leaping from style to style with grinning, graceful ease, while holding the whole piece together? Do I even need to answer that question?
Then came Gigi Saul Guerrero’s gore-packed Mexican cannibal/luchador blowout EL GIGANTE (based on the opening chapter of Shane McKenzie’s already-legendary novel MUERTE CON CARNE). And if nobody else has said it, let me say it here first: Gigi is gonna be the next groundbreaking major female horror director, straight on the heels of the Soskas and Jennifer Kent. She and her LuchaGore production teammates have been building their filmmaking family for years, making one ambitious short after another. They’ve worked through their influences to become utterly distinctive, in a league of their own. And are gonna be game-changingly breakthrough huge.
As a judge, I had to recuse myself from this one, because I’ve been actively cheerleading it from the start. But do I believe in her ability to deliver the mind-bendingly brutal and provocative Tex-Mex Chainsaw Massacre that will live in cinematic legend eternally? Why, yes, I do. Not a doubt in my mind.
Comical side note: the woman sitting next to me took out her phone and started scanning it for comfort, about five minutes in. Not because she was bored. Because she was utterly horrified. Desperately trying to distract herself, until she couldn’t take it no more. And bailed. Which, to my mind, was a standing ovation. WAY TO GO, GIGI!!!
Next up, in a complete change of pace, was Martha Goddard’s GODEL, INTERRUPTED: a gorgeous, heartbreaking and unimpeachably sublime science fictional meditation on subatomic physics, scribbled math equations, time travel, and star-crossed romantic love. It made me cry when I first screened it, and god damn if it didn’t make me cry again in the theater. Much like the time loop at its core.
So passionately intelligent. So symbol-drenchingly immersive. So beautifully directed at the microcosmic level. SUCH A WORK OF ART. And with a performance by one Elizabeth Debecki that luminously, achingly embodies every single one of those qualities, and makes you want to see her star in a series created and directed by Martha Goddard. I was utterly blown away. I suspect you might be, too.
Then came Arantxa Echevaria’s DE NOCHE Y DE PRONTO, another white-knuckled and jaw-dropping suspenser, this time giallo-flavored, and shot in her native Madrid with such astonishing cinematic verve that you’d think vintage Dario Argento was trying to remake AMELIE as its own dark shadow. With all of the grand style and terror you’d expect from such an unlikely amalgam.
It’s the story of a woman who lets a desperate stranger – presumably a neighbor who lives upstairs – into her apartment. He claims that someone’s broken into his place. Wants to call the cops. Just wants to be safe. But the situation psychologically dissolves from there. Who’s worse: the guy who’s allegedly out there, criming, or the guy she just let in?
At this point, I need to single out Director of Photography Pilar Sanchez Diaz, who walks away with my personal “Best Cinematography” award flat out. She shot this fucking movie within an inch of its life; and her ability to capture every psychological and physical beat of Echevarria’s immensely gripping narrative says something else about women making films. There’s not a job on-set that a woman couldn’t just as impressively do. I frankly can’t think of a man on Earth who could have shot this movie better. And the level of meticulous technical collaboration between director and DP here is inspiringly profound.
But Echevaria clearly steers it every step of the way, from script to vision. That’s what directors do. And the performance she gets out of Javiar Gordino as the creepy is-he-a-neighbor-or-not is one for the books. One of the best Norman Bates-style inversions since PSYCHO itself. All in all, a phenomenal piece that left me hungry for more more more.
And finally, we come to Chloe Okuno’s SLUT. It’s the simple story of an awkward teen named Maddy (beyond-engagingly played by the pitch-perfect Molly McIntyre), who’s single-handedly taking care of her incapacitated grandma somewhere deep in the heart of Nowhere, Texas. And all she really wants is to be noticed. Found attractive. Maybe even loved. But first things first.
If dressing in short-shorts and a revealing Daisy Duke halter top might result in making out with some boy outside the roller rink, that would be fantastic. But the more she goes for it, the more she disappoints the wandering serial killer who kinda took a shine to her, and personally prefers them a little more pure.
The result is a berserk Little Red Riding Hood fable to rival Matthew Bright’s FREEWAY, with more than a little Coen Bros. BLOOD SIMPLE precision to boot. Immensely stylish and emotionally acute, funny and fucked-up by turns, cutting across genres from traditional coming-of-age to hardcore Texas noir with both genuine fight-scene muscle and gleeful unexpected shocks abounding, this was an enormous jump-up-and-down crowd-pleaser. And the perfect way to end the show.
While the Etheria committee scrambled to tally up the audience votes, Fango’s own Rebekah McKendry led the attending filmmakers in a spirited Q&A. I’m hoping that footage will pop up somewhere, because every single woman had a lot of smart, fun shit to say about what they do, how they do it, why they do it, and where they hope to go from here. I ain’t gonna even try to paraphrase it all here. (Future interviews, perhaps?)
Then came the verdicts. In the end, DE NOCHE Y DE PRONTO took the judge’s prize. And SLUT went home with the Audience Award. But I can only imagine that, for every adjudicator, this had to be as tough a call as it was for me. Which is to say, crazy hard.
If the goal was to pick the director best prepared to take it to the next level, the clear winner was every single one of them. And I’m not saying that in some “Everybody’s a winner, just for being on our show!” platitudinous candy-ass manner.
I’m saying that Etheria rocked the house this year, and made nothing but excellent choices. And I don’t know about you, but I feel some critical mass coming on. WOMEN IN HORROR CENTURY, BABY!!! This crusade is just getting’ warmed up.
Yer pal in the trenches,