Boston Underground Film Festival’s (BUFF) 20th anniversary edition featured a bevy of cutting-edge genre films, including a pair of films hearkening back to the days of grindhouse fare and a werewolf musical fantasy drama. BUFF took place at the Brattle Theatre and Harvard Film Archive, where audiences were treated to some of the more unusual cinematic fare on the festival circuit.
Writer/director Orson Oblowitz’s The Queen of Hollywood Blvd received its world premiere at the festival. This revenge thriller features a 60-year-old woman as its main protagonist, giving the film a new and different angle as it treads familiar territory. The movie is 1970s grindhouse homage, to be sure, but it sets itself apart from the pack with its unusual titular character and gorgeous, eye-popping, sometimes lurid color palettes. Thankfully there is plenty of substance to go with the style, as well, including the strong character study element of the film.
Rosemary Hochschild — Oblowitz’s mother — stars as Mary, who runs a strip club and wears multiple hats there, such as being a boss, mother figure, and lover. On her 60th birthday, Duke (Roger Guenver Smith in a remarkably creepy performance), a former lover and current criminal figure with delusions of grandeur, alerts Mary that he is tired of waiting for her to pay back money that she owes him, and that he means to take over her club. Mary states that the only way he will get the club from her is to pry it from her cold, dead hands. Threat-filled attempts to persuade Mary otherwise lead to escalating acts of violence on both sides.
Mary takes minor Grace (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) under her wing, reluctantly and initially at arm’s length, and the dynamic between the two is a strong point of The Queen of Hollywood Blvd. Mary sees a sort of redemption in rescuing Grace from a seedy exploiter, and helping her to hopefully escape a certain lifestyle. This relationship is also fraught with danger, however.
Hochschild is mesmerizing as Mary, delivering her lines with an entrancing accent and presenting the character with an air of royalty among the seamy subculture in which she dwells. The rest of the cast fares well, too, particularly Mulvoy-Ten as a vulnerable girl suddenly thrust into the heart of a dark world.
Oblowitz has crafted a hypnotic motion picture that successfully builds an alien-feeling world, a crime-ridden place with darkness overpowering the neon and glitz that try to cover it. This terrific film is a dizzying journey and an outstanding calling card for this new director.
Another nouveau grindhouse movie playing at BUFF was The Theta Girl, director Christopher Bickles’ low-budget, outré cinematic descent into a nihilistic, decadent world. I’ll state up front that this film did not work for me, but I can certainly see that it will have strong appeal for viewers seeking envelope-pushing fare.
Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio stars as Gayce, a young woman selling a hallucinogenic drug named theta which connects its users to a bizarre being, possibly a supreme one. After one of Gayce’s friends is murdered and his intestines laid out in a symbolic pattern, she goes on a deadly mission to find out who murdered him. Along the way, she encounters orgies that include her friends in the punk rock band The Truth Foundation, violence-dealing Bible thumpers, all manner of unsavory characters, and the outlandish otherworldly being. With plenty of nudity, gore, and violence, The Theta Girl will find a cult audience, but I felt that it too often wallowed in shock-for-shock’s sake excess.
Brazilian/French co-production Good Manners is an intriguing effort from co-writers and co-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, who combine social issues with a dark fantasy tale involving werewolves. Pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) hires Clara (Isabel Zuaa) as a nanny, but soon has her performing household chores. The two form a bond that becomes more and more intimate, and when Ana gives traumatic birth to a baby that is something other than human, Clara must take on a role that she never considered before. Giving away much more would be unfair to first-time viewers.
Touches of classic Hollywood, from moody lighting to musical numbers, are at play here, and though the tonal shifts sometimes come across as a bit odd, the film works well overall, even though it feels a bit long with its 135-minute running time. The filmmakers examine class differences, sexual and familial relationships, and other topics while delivering a solid horror chiller, as well. The two leads are superb, and Miguel Lobo as the young boy Joel deserves special mention for his top-notch performance, too. Good Manners is one of the more thought-provoking genre films that viewers are likely to see this year.