From the Archives: Nightstream Festival Reviews: Shock Value, Detention, and Darkness

From the Archives: Nightstream Festival Reviews: Shock Value, Detention, and Darkness

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

In response to the many challenges impacting the film community amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the concerns of safety and security that presently come with physical exhibition and festivals, a collective online initiative is being launched by organizers of a number of American genre festivals for the upcoming fall season to offer a singular experience for U.S. audiences. Together the Boston Underground Film Festival (MA), Brooklyn Horror Film Festival (NY), North Bend Film Festival (WA), The Overlook Film Festival (LA), and Popcorn Frights Film Festival (FL) have joined forces under the banner of NIGHTSTREAM to present a dynamic and accessible virtual festival in October 2020.

Shock Value: How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror (dirs. Dan O’ Bannon, John Carpenter, Charles Adair, Terence H. Winless, 2014)

Don’t be fooled by the title of this one. It is NOT a documentary about the influences of the above referenced USC outsiders. Shock Value is actually something much better than that: a presentation of short films from the era of USC that gave us the minds behind some of the most legendary and influential horror. No talking heads, no commentary, just a basic anthology of rarities that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

What amazes me most is how versatile a talent Dan O’Bannon proves to be. He appears in every one of these shorts in some way, shape, or form, and the films he put together run the gamut from crass and violent to surreal and emotional. It’s no surprise that he was able to leave such an indelible fingerprint on genre cinema.

Watching this collection of shorts, one can’t help but feel inspired. There’s a rugged DIY charm to all of them, which highlights how limited these student filmmakers’ resources were. Essentially, they were working with much less than what is provided by the phones we all currently carry in our pockets, so there’s really no excuse not to make a movie if you’re so inclined. Shock Value shows that all you really need is a bit of imagination. And if you’re a film nerd like me, you’ll revel in getting to see and hear the earliest cinematic seeds planted by the legendary John Carpenter, who has managed to maintain a foothold in genre cinema for 50 years.

Detention (dir. John Hsu, 2019)

Set in a period of history for which most Americans, myself included, have no historical reference point, Detention takes the backdrop of the “White Terror” period in Taiwan, and uses it to inform a spooky supernatural thriller. In 1962, Taiwan was under martial law, and anyone showing any sort of resistance to the acting government was considered dangerous, and many were executed for their “crimes.” In Detention, we see how this affects the every day life of students and staff at a no-nonsense educational facility.

One thing that is strictly banned at the school is books that are deemed subversive, but being filled with teens and impassioned educators, there is naturally a resistance to this idea, and from it spawns an underground reading club attended by a handful of students and teachers. When this reading club is discovered by the authorities, the hammer falls hard, and we follow two young students as they navigate the fallout in both the real world, and a supernatural parallel plane where surreal representations of real-life occurrences rule the day.

The way the film is structured allows for both realities to unfold simultaneously, each informing the occurrences within the other, and slowly revealing how the always careful underground book traders ended up getting caught. This format takes a little getting used to at first, but once we’re off to the races it becomes a novel and compelling way to tell the tale, serving to show the trickle-down effects of institutional trauma. Also, there’s one monster that has a unique, scary design, and I’m glad this isn’t an American movie or we’d have a bunch of spinoffs starring just that monster, and all of them would be lukewarm.

Darkness (dir. Emanuela Rossi, 2019)

There’s a lot to like about this moody little thriller, which tells the tale of a broken family quarantining in their house after a global weather event made the outside world uninhabitable for females. Stella lives with her two sisters and their widower father, who often treks outdoors for days at a time to obtain supplies and provisions for his family. Dad is strict and controlling, but in a world where sunlight would make the young women in the family sick if they were exposed to it, it is important for Dad to keep his daughters contained. The thing is, Stella is starting to get some wanderlust, and when one of Dad’s excursions takes much longer than expected, it’s up to her to assume the role of caretaker.

The first half of the film, while quite well done overall, hinges upon a mid-movie reveal that is pretty obvious at the outset. The second half of the film, also quite well done, hinges upon another reveal that is quite obvious pretty early on. Granted, the reveals are handled with care, it’s just that we’ve seen them before. And since we don’t get much by way of strong character work amidst the trio of youngsters, due to a minimalist script, it thus becomes hard to gauge the effects of these revelations upon them. So without the surprise element for us, and without the character element for them, it feels more weightless than it should. Still, the design of the world is quite thorough and compelling, and the actors do a great job turning these minimalist depictions into something more workable. Despite a handful of missed opportunities, the resultant product is worth checking out.

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