Screamfest Screenings: Three Extremes & Bunshinsaba (Ouija Board)

Took a break from Halloween haunts this Saturday, went to ScreamFest instead to see some movies: a few short subjects and two Asian horror films, THREE EXTREMES and BUNSHINSABA (OUJIA BOARD). Both were disappintments, unfortunately, although not without some redeeming features.

The first is an anthology by three different directors: one Chinese, one Korean, one Japanese. All the episodes are interesting and disturbing - perhaps too much so, without any clear reason for the audience to endure the suffering. Director Fruit Chan's "Dumplings" is about the disgusting lengths to which one woman goes to regain her youthful beauty (the not-so-secret ingredient in the titular food is human embryos!). The Korean epidose has the look of a Dario Argento film and a story that plays out like a condensed version of SAW: a psycho killer who traps someone in a room and forces them to kill. It stars off well but goes on way too long, descends at times into foolish comedy, and then winds up with a just plain bad twist ending. Director Takasha Miike's "Box" is the best of the lot, a disturbing, dreamlike tale of a woman novelist haunted by dreams of her twin sister who died long ago. With hints of pedophilia and incest, this one really is disturbing; the only way to "read" it is as a psycho-drama playing out in the lead character's head. Miike perhaps overplays the ambiguity of the story (what's real versus what's dream), but Miike seems in complete control of the effects he wants to achieve, and the film looks absolutely beautiful.

Up next was the feature film BUNSHISABA, which is being called OUIJA BOARD in the U.S. although there is no Ouija Board on screen. Sadly, this was a bit of a muddle mess, a throwback for Korean writer-director Byeong-ki Ahn, whose PHONE is one of the best of the recent Asian horror efforts. This new film feels a bit lke a throwback to his earlier effort NIGHTMARE, only not as good. In fact, if I had seen his previous films, I would have dismissed this one as the work of a hack, shamelessly ripping off other movies. Ahn still has a decent graps of the mechanics of fear, but this his story goes nowhere, and the scare scenes where themselves out through endless repetition. You get the feeling that every idea the guy ever had while working the on script found its way onto the screen, whether it fit in or not. The result seems almost interminable. Fortunately, there are a few nice touches to remind us that the man does have some talent, but it is on better display in PHONE -- that's for sure.

It was a bit sad to see how sparesely populated the screenings were. There was almost a desperate edge to the annoucer's voice after each film as he invited the audience to stick around for the next screening. What was annoying about this is the fact that ScreamFest is selling separate tickets to each movie and also more expensive all-day tickets -- but no one was checking your stubb as you walked in, and the theatre was not being cleared after each film. Consequently, there was nothing to stop someone who had paid only to see the first film from sitting through everything that followed. All I can say is, if I had shelled out the bucks for an all-day ticket, I would have been righteously ticked off at wasting the money.

[UPDATE: can't believe I forget to mention this before] As if that were not bad enough, the actual movie-going experience was fairly dreadful - which is a real shock in a venue like Universal Studios Cinemas. There was something wrong with the print of OUJIA BOARD: a repetitive buzzing sound emerged continually from the soundtrack. Apparently, the window to the projection booth was open: the whirring sound of the machinery was clearly audible, as was every consversation that book place up there. On top of that, there were frequent blasts from walkie-talkies held by the staff. In short, the whole thing felt just barely one step above amateur night at the movies. No film deserves this kind of treatment, but horror (which depends on building tension) is especially ill served.

Perhaps ScreamFest needs to move to a new venue next year. Although the Universal Studios Cinemas are a great place to see movies, they are a bit expensive when you factor in the $10 cost of parking. (To be fair, you get reimbursed at the box office with Monopoly-type money that you can use at concession stand.) Also, Universal City is a bit crowded on weekends, and the whole vibe may just be too upscale for a horror film festival.

The festival continues with screenings and panels for the rest of the week. Highlights include a screening of the unrated version of LAND OF THE DEAD on Thusday, October 20 at 7:30pm. That's a couple days after it comes out on DVD, but it's bound to be more fun in a theatre with an audience (assuming one shows up!).

Location: Universal Studios Cinemas - 100 Universal Plaza, Universal City, CA