Vancouver Badass, Day One: Polterheist, Perfect Skin, and a séance!

Polterheist (2018).

There are lots of ways you can take the word “badass.” The Vancouver Badass Film Festival, now in its fifth year, seems happy with any and all of them. Over four short films and two features, the fest offered demonic possession, gangsters, self-flaying, bank heists, body modification, and existential horror. All this, and a couple séances to boot—one of which, courtesy of hosts Gidget Gravedigger and Aleister Crane, was live.

VBAFF is that increasingly rare experience—a film festival that’s actually uncovered some flicks you might not otherwise see. As even midsize festivals continue to devolve into glorified trade shows, driven by market researchers instead of curators, it’s an experience worth seeking out. Streaming platforms sell themselves as a one-stop, bottomless fix for every kind of content, and at thirteen bucks a month or whatever, it’s a tempting illusion. But a few shows at a fest like this are all it takes to remind you how narrow the mainstream is.

There’s the flipside, of course. Both features from the fest’s opening night are wildly uneven. But badass isn’t supposed to be on an even keel, is it?

After a couple short films—Parlour Tricks (a throwback trifle, funny) and Young Blood (standard post-heist complications with occasional stylistic flair)—the festival kicked off with the UK gangsters’n’ghosts flick Polterheist. The obvious question is whether the movie lives up to that fantastic title, and the unfortunate answer is: “heist” yes, “polter” not so much. Director David Gilbank told the crowd that his two primary influences were Get Carter and The Exorcist, but while Polterheist does its due diligence with projectile vomit, the horror side of the equation never really lands.

Luckily, the demonic possession angle also gives Polterheist the performance that sells the whole film. Actress Jo Mousley is introduced as Alice Moon, a timid, bespectacled psychic with a perpetually apologetic tone. In need of money that only a dead man can find, two hapless gangsters show up on Alice’s doorstep demanding help. Unfortunately for Alice, her séance turns into a possession, and Mousley spends most of the movie embodying dead gangster Frank, dropping C-bombs and chewing scenery with Bob Hoskins-level grit. As the missing money sparks a gang war, the plot offers the usual twists, double-crosses, and revelations. But Mousley is so perfect as Frank that she pulls off a miracle: when the gunfire stops and the bloody dust settles, the character you know and care the most about is the one that’s been dead since the beginning.

Perfect Skin (2018).

The fest’s second feature was also preceded by two tone-setting shorts. Skin Deep somewhat botches its social satire but delivered on the beauty-gore contrast (at last, a film that combines croissants and skin removal), while Red Moon, in its premiere screening, offered an agreeably bare-bones existential freakout, short on character but enough visual chops to stick in your brain.

If Red Moon is style over substance, the fest’s second film, Perfect Skin, is style over nothing. It’s a great riff on torture porn tropes: a tattoo artist kidnaps a woman and tattoos her head to toe against her will. And the visuals are a giddy mix of slow-motion macro photography, body-mod fetishism, and music-video sensibilities, all within a grimy groundhouse aeshetic. The film is at its best when dismembered bodies are piled in the frame or swinging from hooks, reminding you that there’s real menace to go along with the slick cinematography.

But Perfect Skin’s script is both slow and crushingly dumb, two traits that are much better off on their own than combined. The movie seems to have a lot on its mind—bodily autonomy, the male gaze, the dangers of being unable to find emotional closure—but it’s not able to develop any of it. In the end, Perfect Skin hasn’t convinced you that the tattoos, or the movie itself, are more than pretty pictures.

Check out the fest’s weekend schedule at the official festival website. Plenty of badass movies to come!