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After a slower start to Day One than I expected, it was time to step my game up for the remainder of the festival: I only had three more days to get through 23 films, after all. To that end, I screened six films on the second day, including another one of those pesky “instant classics.” Like I mentioned earlier: there was no shortage of quality films at this year’s Chattanooga Film Fest…just a shortage of hours in the day.
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Indie writer/director/producer Chad Crawford Kinkle first landed on my radar with his excellent, backwoods creeper Jughead way back in 2013, so I was pretty excited to find out he had a new film hitting the festival circuit. When I saw indie auteur Larry Fessenden’s name in the cast, well, let’s just say that pretty much sealed the deal: one of the titans of independent cinema reuniting with one of its most promising indie up-and-comers? Done and done.
Kinkle’s ultra-naturalistic new film follows a troubled young woman (Katie Groshong) as she tries to piece her life together after a truly horrible trauma ripped it to shreds. Living out of her car and with no resources, Katie finds a job at a care facility for adults with special needs and comes to care deeply for one of her charges, Stephanie (Kinkle’s real-life sister), a young woman with Down Syndrome. Just as Katie begins to become comfortable in her new life, terrible flashes of her past begin to interject themselves, leading her to wonder if a truly evil figure (Fessenden) has returned to target poor Stephanie or whether Katie has finally lost the last frayed edges of her sanity.
Unlike Kinkle’s more polished debut, Dementer is pretty much the definition of no frills, low-budget indie filmmaking. Cinematographer Jeff Wedding shoots the film in such a way that, when combined with the mostly non-professional cast (the film is set at what appears to be an actual care facility and features the staff and residents), achieves a startling degree of realism. At times, I was reminded of something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, if for no other reason than their shared ability to completely demolish the barrier between film fiction and reality.
This is also an extremely personal project for Kinkle since his real-life sister, Stephanie, stars as the woman that Katie tries to save from sinister forces. As such, the film never feels disrespectful of the residents of the home and nothing about it feels forced or exploitative. If anything, the various residents all receive ample opportunities to express themselves in the film, resulting in a work that feels notably character-driven for an ultra-low budget horror film. It’s something that I wish all films took the time to do, regardless of genre or finances.
All that being said, I must confess that I did not love this film, despite my deep respect for it. While the setting provides for an unbeatable atmosphere of reality, too much of the film involves Katie’s various duties around the care facility, broken up with regular interjections via flashback. After a certain point, it develops a pattern and becomes rather predictable, making the film seem repetitive on a narrative level. I also felt that the drama elements worked better than the horror ones: they felt more authentic and, ironically, interesting (workday routines not withstanding), although Fessenden was a force to be reckoned with whenever he was on-screen. Call this a near miss for me, although I eagerly await Kinkle’s next film.
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The Ringing Bell
Poor Judah (Brandon Cole) has a bit of a problem: he’s a lucid dreamer and having an impossible time telling his vivid waking dreams from reality. This inability to tell fact from fantasy is messing with not only Judah’s ability to process grief (someone close to him is gone) but also with his participation in an ill-advised bank robbery concocted by his cousin, Brona (Anieya Walker), and her on-again/off-again lover, Orva (Joelyn Dormady). Will the contents of the mysterious box they seek have the answers that Judah is looking for or will the pursuit of forbidden knowledge be the downfall of them all?
It’s quite obvious that The Ringing Bell is a very personal project for multi-hyphenate filmmaker Casey T. Malone. He says as much, in a festival intro, but he also serves as writer/director/producer/editor/score composer and cinematographer: that’s a lot of hats to wear, especially when the subject is personal pain, grief and loss. As such, there’s a weight to The Ringing Bell that you don’t often get in low-budget genre films, especially those rare ones that are fantasy-leaning.
The other thing you will remember about this film long after it’s over is how amazing so much of it looks. Combining animated sequences, surreal live-action and stop-motion effects, The Ringing Bell is, without a doubt, a truly singular, imaginative, mind-boggling film. I’m not sure if Malone was involved in the animation and effects or if that was the work of John Baker (creature designs) and Fred Franczak (production design) but whoever did it absolutely blew my mind, especially when you consider that this was most likely another very low-budget production. There’s a monster effect, at one point, that’s easily in my Top 20 moments of the year. Not all indie films have a discernible sense of style and design but The Ringing Bell brought enough for the whole class.
Here’s the thing, though: as much as I loved the film’s look and sense of surreal imagination, I’m pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was actually about. Despite watching the film closely and being fully engaged, I still have no idea who Judah was mourning (or why), which made it difficult to get into his mindset. I have a feeling that much of the film was supposed to exist in a dream logic realm but I found myself along for the ride more than actively engaged. When combined with a particularly quiet sound mix that made it difficult to hear dialogue, too much of the film became the equivalent of visual interludes strung together.
Perhaps repeat viewings would prove beneficial in this case: I’m sure that I missed something that would have cleared up a few loose ends for me. It’s obvious that Malone and company brought a lot of passion and innovation to The Ringing Bell, even if it never fully clicked with me. I’m more than willing to see what they have up their sleeves next time around.
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As I mentioned earlier, most of the films playing at this year’s CFF were complete unknowns to me, but there were a few exceptions, chief among them being Swedish writer-director Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. While I had purposefully avoided spoilers, I’d read enough advanced press on the film to know that it was being heralded as disturbing and surreal. Turns out, the critics hit it right on the nose.
Existing in the same general vicinity as the works of Alex van Warmerdam, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, Nyholm’s thought-provoking sophomore feature plays out like a truly horrifying, demented fairy tale. Tobias and Elin (Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon) take a camping trip and try to work on their collapsed marriage three years after a horrible tragedy destroyed their family and future happiness in one, fell swoop. As if trying to repair a fractured relationship isn’t hard enough, however, they soon discover that they’ve chosen a rather unfortunate place to set up camp, managing to cross paths with a trio of demented individuals who are only too happy to teach them a truly twisted lesson. And then things get really strange.
Right off the bat, let me issue a gentle warning: this is one severely fucked up film. Engaging in the same sort of psychological terrorism that’s been von Trier’s stock in trade for his entire career, there are elements of Koko-di Koko-da that will stick to your brain like plankton, whether you want them to or not. By turns powerfully sad, disturbing, odd, disgusting and eye-opening, Nyholm’s film makes a perfect compliment to works like Funny Games, Borgman, Antichrist and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. If there are not moments in this film that don’t absolutely sting you to your core, I daresay that you didn’t pay much attention.
From a production standpoint, the film is immaculate: Nyholm achieves a completely immersive sense of icy-cold magical-realism that makes one feel as if they’re taking an (unfortunate) look into a parallel universe that’s as beautiful as it is terrible. Cinematographers Tobias Holem-Flyckt and Johan Lundborg shoot some gorgeous images, including plenty of amazing overhead shots that turn the film’s repeated theme into something of a museum diorama: it’s awesome stuff and something I never got tired of. Combine this with Pia Aleborg’s insanely detailed production design and Koko-di Koko-da is a world that you never tire of looking at, even if it’s never a place you want to visit.
The acting is all top-notch, with heart-breaking performances from Edlund and Gallon that are almost too real and painful to be anything close to entertaining. The ghastly trio, bemusing as they are, are perfect antagonists, coming off as a bit of a marriage between Rob Zombie’s Firefly clan and van Warmerdam’s invasive Borgman. While the cast is small (essentially five people, two dogs and a cat), it plays in perfectly with the film’s general sense of isolation and alienation.
Is Koko-di Koka-da a well-made film? Without a doubt: in fact, I daresay it’s one of the best films of the year, from a purely technical standpoint. Is it a good film? Depending on your tolerance-level, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a great film: Nyholm has a singular vision and executes it perfectly. Is it a film that I intend to revisit any time soon? Not a chance, friends. Even as I type this, images and scenes keep popping into my head, none of which I’d prefer to remember. Like the best (most difficult?) works of the aforementioned filmmakers, Koko-di Koko-da is an uncompromising, unpleasant and unforgettable deep dive into the misery of the human condition. You won’t see much gore on display here but the characters are skinned and filleted, nonetheless.
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This takes us through the first half of Day Two: in service of trying to break up a rather considerable chunk of text, I’ve opted to split the screenings into two posts. Tune in for the remainder as we continue to move through our experience at this year’s Chattanooga Film Festival. As always, boos and ghouls, stay safe and remember: there’s always room for one more at The VHS Graveyard.