Horror’s had a presence at the Tribeca Film Festival ever since I started covering it back in 2009, but 2013 marks the first year the festival’s Midnight Section feels particularly well-programmed and cohesive to the point that it’s attracting attention normally reserved for sections like Spotlight and Viewpoints. Not every film in the program is a winner, but the group does offer a little something for every breed of genre fan, from horror-comedy to sci-fi to sheer terror and more.
Best Brutal Combat: Raze
If you've got a taste for boxing, MMA or particularly vicious big-screen hand-to-hand combat, Raze delivers and then some. However, the "then some" will likely chase some away. The movie is about women who are kidnapped and forced to fight each other to the death until just one remains, so, yes, violence is necessary, but there's just so many heads you can see bashed in until even the hungriest gore hounds start to squirm. Then again, that also makes Raze the ideal showcase for actress/stunt woman Zoe Bell. Clearly she's got the combat skills that make her the ultimate action hero, but here she really gets the chance to prove herself as a commanding leading lady.
Whereas the ruthlessness of Raze could very easily be too off-putting to stomach, Bell’s Sabrina functions as an appealing and entertaining vehicle of sorts, making you want to stick with it. She also gets a surprisingly profound assist from Tracie Thoms and Bailey Anne Borders who contribute an unexpectedly emotional and heart-wrenching scene that's far more successful than it should be considering the context.
Best Creepy Kid: Dark Touch
If a creepy kid in a bloody nightgown ever shows up at my door, I’m shutting it in her face and going back to bed – especially if it’s Dark Touch’s Neve (Marie Missy Keating), who basically bops from house to house killing everyone who attempts to give her a better life. Marina de Van’s Midnight entry does boast a handful of eerie visuals, namely one unforgettable mass death, but with no clear protagonist, zero well-developed characters, and no narrative, shock value is the only possible way for Dark Touch to make a mark. Perhaps there’s something interesting within Neve’s Carrie-esque situation, but it’s too unclear whether she’s being consumed by her powers against her will or if she’s enjoying crushing folks with furniture to even know what to hope for – her well-being or death.
Best Urban Legend: Mr. Jones
Maybe it's just me, but thinking about the creepy guy next door who could be an axe murderer comes with an innocent thrill. Mr. Jones boasts a similar effect courtesy of the found-footage style and the villain's unique backstory. Scott and Penny (Jon Foster and Sarah Jones) ditch the big city for a remote cabin so Scott can make a nature documentary. However, when they realize Mr. Jones is living next door, they find his creepy scarecrow statues and eerie underground workshop far more interesting than the sunrises and wildlife.
What gives Mr. Jones more dimension than most horror antagonists is that he's not some random find; he's famous for his work, but has also remained anonymous. As Scott starts to interview people who've received Mr. Jones originals and art dealers that have tracked his work and success, we get multiple perspectives rather than just the one from the folks holding the cameras, making Mr. Jones a more developed and memorable villain. If only Mueller stuck to that more tangible evil and didn't let the film implode through a somewhat ethereal conclusion, the experience could have left you with a concrete nightmare to hold onto rather than letting it get consumed by the confusion of a third act that feels like an entirely different story.
Best Future Tech: The Machine
Apparently the silver lining to a second Cold War is cybernetic super-soldiers that look and fight like Cait Lotz. In Caradog James’ The Machine, Dr. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is hired to develop a robot to give Britain’s Ministry of Defence an edge. After extensive research, and trial and error, Vincent ends up striking the ideal balance between human and robot, and the result is Lotz’ “ the machine.” James packs loads of intricate sci-fi details into his 92-minute running time and while some are questionable, he generally succeeds in offering just enough to make you believe.
And once you do believe, The Machine is an absolute blast courtesy of Lotz’ ability to go from bubbly budding scientist to stone-cold machine, and then slowly tread back to humanistic territory as the machine begins to learn and understand. She also strikes the ideal balance between charm and aggression. Essentially, the machine is like a child, totally naïve and innocent, and while it does strive to abide by Vincent’s rules by not harming anyone, every now and then she slips and shows the destruction she’s capable of, making you consider all sides of the situation.
Best Horror-Comedy: Fresh Meat
As someone who prefers her horror deeply disturbing and terrifying, horror-comedies can be a tough sell. While Fresh Meat does feel the effect of that at the onset, there’s no denying that the characters and scenario grow on you. During her first night back from boarding school, Rina’s (Hanna Tevita) home is ambushed by a brigade of criminals. While their guns and quick fists give them the edge at first, the tables turn when the felons and Rina find out that her parents and brother are cannibals. It’s as outrageous as it sounds, but it works because director Danny Mulheron and company don’t hold back in the least. Just about every single character is off his or her mind, going from sensible helpless victim to maniacal villain, or vice versa, and the dance between the two is amusingly mesmerizing.
The Best of The Best: V/H/S/2
V/H/S/2 wins big yet again. After its SXSW screening it was clear V/H/S/2 was above and beyond its predecessor, and now a second watch at Tribeca proves its got repeat-viewing value, too. Many moments do retain the shock and horror of the first go-around, but the more striking sensation that comes from multiple viewings is that you’re truly looking forward to each segment. Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” is still the pinnacle of the feature, but as the first encounter astonishment abates a bit, it’s easier to recognize that the other three segments only come just short of achieving the same.
With the wraparound component, all four shorts come together to offer an experience that taps into a variety of very different horror genre subsections while still feeling like a cohesive experience, making V/H/S/2 just as enjoyable and appealing as any single story feature. There’s still no word on whether or not the V/H/S franchise will continue, but if it means more material like what we get in this installment, the horror genre needs a V/H/S/3.