“Climate of the Hunter”
One of the DIY indie world’s best-kept secrets, Mickey Reece is sometimes nicknamed the “Soderbergh of the Sticks,” in tribute to both his prolific output and the pinballing versatility of his films. His 27th feature taps a highly specific vein of ‘70s vampire psychedelia, suggesting swirls of Stephanie Rothman’s “The Velvet Vampire” and John Hough’s “Twins of Evil.” It’s a tale of two aging sisters, Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and Elizabeth (Mary Buss), who compete for the affections of a long-lost acquaintance, Wesley (Ben Hall). As all three debate loneliness and the winding paths of their lives across a series of hyper-indulgent meals, suggestions that Wesley might be a vampire lend the proceedings an erotic charge. Shooting in Academy ratio with added film-grain texture, Reece has gone to great lengths to make “Climate” feel vividly vintage, even as pockets of sly humor frame him as a filmmaker in conversation with these aesthetics, rather than merely paying them homage.
“Frank & Zed” (World Premiere)
In terms of sheer genre-cinema wizardry, this gleefully grotesque hand-puppet horror is the single most impressive thing I screened in advance of Nightstream. Made across seven years by Portland-based filmmaker/puppeteer Jesse Blanchard (who hand-crafted 40 puppets and a series of impressively detailed miniatures), it casts an ax-slinging Frankenstein’s monster and brain-munching zombie, named Zed, as unlikely best friends living out their undead days in the crumbling ruins of a Gothic castle. Survivors of a long-ago battle between their all-powerful master and fearful villagers, Frank and Zed want for little, save the occasional jolt of electricity and a fresh cranium to eat. It’s that latter delicacy that eventually brings them to outrageously violent blows (and hacks, slices, and chomps) with the outside world, in a constantly crescendoing battle that constitutes the film’s final half-hour. With their bulged eyes, lolling tongues, and blood-splattered felt visages, these puppets conjure disturbing memories of “Mr. Meaty” as much as “The Muppets,” but Blanchard skirts comparisons to Peter Jackson’s similarly unhinged “Meet the Feebles” by investing in the world’s fantasy mythology (à la “The Dark Crystal”) and keeping his endearing odd couple at its goofy, gory heart.
“It Cuts Deep” (World Premiere)
New England filmmaker Nicholas Payne Santos skewers toxic masculinity, sometimes literally, in this darkly funny debut, about a man named Sam (comedian Charles Gould) who returns home with long-time girlfriend Ashley (Quinn Jackson), only for his fears about getting married and having kids to spiral out of control. When a handsome childhood friend (John Anderson) turns up on the doorstep, Sam quickly dispenses with the pleasantries as he senses a possible rival for Ashley’s affections. What initially plays like Santos’ anxiety dream about commitment soon reveals itself to be deliciously self-aware and bloodthirsty; like Josh Ruben’s recent “Scare Me,” on Shudder, “It Cuts Deep” actively reconsiders its male gaze in shape-shifting between mumblecore, slasher, and psychodrama.