VBAFF’s second day offered up two features from Darkside Releasing: Brazilian black-magic-and-blood-splatter fantasy horror A Mata Negra (The Cursed Forest), and women-in-prison exploitation throwback Amazon Hot Box. Maybe it was the cheerfulness of both films’ gratuitous violence, or maybe it was the kitchen-sink feel, but the two made for a surprisingly complementary pair.
Before A Mata Negra, the day kicked off with two shorts. Captured is a Lights Out-style showcase short, the kind aimed at selling a concept to fund a feature on. In this one, digital photography upsets a supernatural force and we get plenty of tense moments scrolling through an iPhone Camera Roll. I’m sure Mr. Blum would give it a look. Astray is an animated piece with a wicked sense of style and a Lynchian sense of narrative. I dug this one—it’s probably what Terry Gilliam’s nightmares look like.
As usual, the shorts were well chosen. A Mata Negra combines a few of the crowd-pleasing horror tropes of the Captured approach with all the weirdness of Astray in its tale of innocent foundlings, black magic, cursed gold, and apocalypse. (And if you think that list escalated quickly, just wait until you see the film.) At times, it feels a bit like the low-budget, down-and-dirty horror version of Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales—and that’s meant as a compliment. This flick is wild, weird, and real good.
A Mata Negra starts small: an old herbalist adopts an abandoned child, raising her in total solitude in the woods outside a tiny village. As adulthood approaches, the young Clara prepares to take her first steps out into the (slightly) bigger world, and like the star of any fairy tale, she sets off into town with precious items, meets a handsome young man, and winds up in a jam. The less of A Mata Negra’s story you know after that, the better. The thrill of the movie is its constant escalation. Like Captured, it’s clearly a work aimed at generating more work: references to Kubrick and Raimi-esque sequences abound, and A Mata Negra should play well with the international audience that it seems somewhat tailored for. But if director Rodrigo Aragão is flexing his chops a bit, the movie’s the better for it: the complications are surprising and some of the later sequences truly inventive.
Only one short headed the day’s second feature, but what more could you need than 30th Night, a women-in-prison horror flick about werewolves? Sometimes these mashups are organic, sometimes they’re gimmicky; 30th Night is the former, with a ridiculous premise that somehow yields a straightforward, effective story. But all you really wanna know is whether this thing delivers the lycanthropic goods, and the answer is yes.
Amazon Hot Box delivers the goods, too—as long as you know what you’re in for when you sit down to a movie called Amazon Hot Box. Look: if you don’t get a little smile on your face when you hear that this one features a midget henchman named Gordo, a General “Franco,” and Ellie Church as the new wardress Inga Von Krupp, it’s possible that this isn’t your movie. This is one of those rare grindhouse throwbacks that doesn’t fit the post-Tarantino mold—it’s authentic. You can tell by the crocodiles.
The plot is treated with appropriate disdain for convention, and isn’t really the engine driving the story, but here goes. Young Penny is mistakenly imprisoned in a fictional banana republic during a crackdown on militant dissidents. She’s initiated into the prison by the casual brutality of ‘Queen Bee’ Val, but the real problem is that the new overseers of the prison are psychotic torturers with competing visions of what should be done with the inmates. Needless to say, there are also buxom kung-fu-fighting super-spies, stoner prison guards, and gut-ripping zombies.
The real strength of Amazon Hot Box is that it feels more like pastiche than parody. Driven by aesthetics rather than sensibility, the mainstream grindhouse resurgence has lacked a basic sincerity from the beginning. Amazon Hot Box, by contrast,is actually sleazy. If there’s a heart to what the Vancouver Badass Film Festival’s project is, surely it’s this kind of movie: “badass” as self-possession. A Mata Negra and Amazon Hot Box won’t be for everyone, but they’re true to themselves. No gimmicks or false marketing here. If they look like your kinda thing—trust me, they’re your kinda thing.