Despite undergoing much scrutiny this year for changes to structure, pricing, locations and programming, the Tribeca Film Festival seems to have beefed up their Midnight and genre selections for the year, leaping miles ahead of the 2006 content. Ranging from some of the year's most creative and original, darker work like Gyorgy Palfi's grotesquely beautiful "Taxidermia" and Ha Yoo's perfectly layered gangster mini-epic "A Dirty Carnival" (both so strong that Tribeca elevated them to the Showcase section of the festival) to the more dramatic, less shocking side of midnight like Teng Huatao's composed ghost love story "The Matrimony", the genre programming of TFF 2007 covers lots of ground, with a few fun gems along the way.
The biggest surprise in the Midnight program was the tongue-and-cheek awareness and delivery of Sabastian Gutierrez's "Rise: Blood Hunter". Constructed as a schlocky, b-vampire flick starring Lucy Liu as a crossbow wielding reporter on a quest to kill the vampire that bit her and Michael Chiklis as the cop who aids her, the film teeters carefully on the line of being junk. However, Gutierrez's writing keeps it in check. Though not the poised mockery that is Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever", the script for "Rise" is peppered with self-conscious winks to the audience - the occasional dead-pan zinger just when you thought the action had fallen into simple, late-night TV programming. One gets the sense that Gutierrez consciously wanted to create that kind of guilty pleasure, but didn't want to be judged for the film's lack of cinematic integrity. It pays off, as does the decision to portray vampires as more of a cult than the traditional monster. There's no garlic or stakes or crosses to ward off evil. The focus is kept on the action. The story and camp that make "Rise" worth a look.
On the flip side of the coin are two malformed, misguided monster movies that represent the weakest of the midnight lineup. The first is Matthew Leutwyler's "Unearthed", a trashy monster movie that is destined for the dustiest corners of every local video store. In a small New Mexican desert town, an archeologist accidentally unleashes a man-size lizard-esque monster (courtesy of Leutwyler's unimaginative script) out for the blood of the locals. The film drags its feet from death to death, pretending that low-budget means no ideas. This makes it the perfect companion piece to Jim Mickle's tediously underdeveloped "Mulberry Street" in which virus-carrying rats run rampant throughout downtown Manhattan, turning unsuspecting residents into giant rodents. "Unearthed" suffers from being a textbook outline of terror, more dull than offensive, featuring Charlie Murphy's name on the cast list as its only camp value. "Mulberry", on the other hand, is plagued with a lack of character, making the film feel extremely unfocused and confusing, as well as reveling too deep in its low budget aesthetic. Though both contain a strong sense of location and a fear grown from the everyday animals so native and prevalent to those regions, neither seems to manage to plant a firm stake in their material.
Luckily, the festival did feature one film that made the bloodthirsty animal motif work, though albeit in a more comedic sense. Jonathan King's "Black Sheep" is wild romp from New Zealand that pays close homage to the gooey, gory early films of Peter Jackson ("Dead Alive", "Bad Taste"). The plot centers on an idealistic farmer who wants to revolutionize his product by genetically modifying his sheep. Needless to say, the plan goes haywire and the furry animals run amok, killing everything in their path. Though it may not reach any level of brilliance, "Black Sheep" is a laugh-out-loud riot.
A little less on the genre train, but no less midnight, is the gross-out film to end them all, "Dirty Sanchez". The theatrical edition of the popular British TV show - an almost mirror image of America's "Jackass" - "Sanchez" documents four tattoo clad skater-punks through a world of disgusting hijinks based upon the seven deadly sins. Unlike the grainy, handheld video of its US counterpart, the film is built with a more cinematic aesthetic, resembling the high-speed gangster comedies of Guy Ritchie and giving the audience a higher level of detachment from the revolting activities the quartet undertakes. Perhaps this is why their actions are pushed to a more appalling level, sometimes in unwatchable sequences. Unfortunately, the slick camera work and rapid cutting creates a less personal sense of camaraderie. Where "Jackass" invites the audience in on the joke, "Sanchez" presents it with gusto, glamorizing the stunts instead of giving them the sense of drunken backyard antics and, therefore, providing a more intense effect.
However, despite the cringe-worthy factor of "Dirty Sanchez", easily the most unsettling film in this year's TFF selection is the Dowdle Brothers sophomore feature, "The Poughkeepsie Tapes". Shifting gears from their first feature, an offbeat comedy entitled "The Dry Spell", John Erick and Drew Dowdle take a turn for the sadistic with this faux-documentary about the collection and analysis of the home videos shot by a ruthless serial killer in upstate New York. Cutting back and forth between interviews and experts of footage from the tapes themselves, "Poughkeepsie" tells the story of both the killer's development, continuously changing his patterns to outsmart the police, and the manhunt that breaks out after a local girl goes missing, only to be held as a sex slave and victim of Stockholm Syndrome in the killer's basement.
By far the strongest sections in the film are the content of the killer's home videos. Distorted, grainy VHS recordings pollute the eyes with images of terrified victims in discomfort and horrific sound effects. At first glance, the fake interviews appear to be throwaway with performances ranging from passably realistic to hilariously stilted. However, the level of intensity that the supposed home videos reach is so stirring that the film almost needs a cardboard backdrop to remind you it isn't real.
"Poughkeepsie Tapes" plays like a shock film without the exploitation, the kind of snuff footage passed around from friend to friend that satisfies the morbid curiosity of staring at a three legged dog, but cookie-cut into more digestible pieces that give the flavor without the sting. Though it does have it share of disturbing imagery, the film manages to keep most of the actual gore off-screen, therefore shying away from the perverse imagination found in pop Hollywood fare like "Saw", but still containing the raw shock value of those films with a battery psychological torture. Also, much like the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", the horror comes from a very real world place. Beyond being non-supernatural, the killer is an unglamorized entity with as little special ability as morals. The story was constructed from pieces of the most disturbing news events - everything in it is possible, most of it already happened. In this, I fear "The Poughkeepsie Tapes'" greatest strength might also be its downfall, classifying it much closer to watching "Schindler's List" than "Nightmare on Elm Street". Still, at some point, the voyeuristic quality does come through, even if in a less fun capacity, and the movie is simply the most riveting midnight film Tribeca has to offer this year.