Following the success of the first digital iterations of the Etheria Film Night, a genre festival focusing on horror, thriller, and sci-fi shorts directed by women, there has to be more sequels, right? Etheria Season II, a block of 10 genre shorts, comes to Amazon Prime to rent on Sept. 24, and features many films already shown in previous Etheria Film Nights, making the digital Season II sort of a “greatest hits” collection of shorts. Let’s rundown what’s worth checking out, and what may be worth skipping.
Sweet Little Unforgettable Thing (Slut)
Off the bat, the title treatment of the film being an anagram for “slut” is absolutely hilarious and truly sets the scene for how clever this pulpy little teen horror film is. Maddy (Molly McIntyre), a meek teenager in a small Texas town, finds herself feeling inferior to the prettier, more popular girls like Jolee (Kasia Pilewicz), who always attract the boys’ attention at the local roller rink. When a new face comes to town and takes a shine to Maddy’s purity, she is forced to reckon with his violent tendencies when she tries to reinvent herself as a sexually independent young woman.
I love me a good old fashioned ‘70s roller rink aesthetic, and Slut has this in spades. Yet, there’s a timelessness to the film that sets it apart from any certain era, similar to the way that something like Napoleon Dynamite did, as it paints a rural picture that could be as much of a picture of the present day as it is of the ‘70s. Throw in some heavy Brian De Palma visual stylings and some David Lynch-esque dialogue and you have something really refreshing and oddly empowering. It’s not something that, on paper, would fit into feminist filmmaking by any perspective, but the unique and intimate focus on character over pulp from director Chloe Okuno makes Slut a really unique and oddly lovable romp of violence.
I’ll admit, as much as I like retro-style films and the eponymous 2007 double-feature from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, grindhouse films have never been films I gravitated to. It didn’t take long for me to attempt to write Sheila Scorned off as one of those films that just wouldn’t resonate with me, but it soon became one of these teachable moments to simply shut the hell up and not write something off before you have the opportunity to take something in, because Sheila Scorned kinda rules.
Stripper Sheila (Laine Rettmer) enacts revenge on a former attacker and soon finds herself kidnapped by the crime syndicate seeking revenge for his death. Sheila must use her wits and assets to escape captivity and destroy their organization from the inside out.
Everything about Sheila Scorned relies on the talents of Rettmer, who is That Girl™ and commands the screen with a fiery, but empowering, sexuality that compliments her badassery more than it cheapens it. Sure, she’s borderline superhuman at points, giving into the fun absurdity of the films it pays homage to, but there’s a humanity to Sheila’s drive and ambition that is strangely palpable, even amongst the cheese.
Dolly Parton once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” and I can imagine the same idea applied here, but instead of seeking to make a big-budget romp, director Mara Gasbarro Tasker utilizes the clever workarounds of the genre (missing reels, burned out film strips, skipping film) to fill in the blanks for some of the more high-concept and explicit material. It’s such a unique way to approach the film that really transfers into something really entertaining and engaging. I’ll gladly eat my words on this one.
Easily the most high-concept film of the season, Martha Goddard’s Gödel Incomplete is a strange journey through time and space with a romantic twist to it that surprisingly works. The film follows particle physicist Serita Cedric (Elizabeth Debicki) as she attempts to work out the time travel formula initially proposed by Kurt Gödel in the 1940s. Using a hadron collider, she discovers the formula for crude time travel and finds herself engulfed in Gödel’s world, leading to intense passion and heartbreak.
What isn’t surprising about Gödel Incomplete is how great Debicki is, as she nearly always is. Shot in 2013, before her break in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, this film shows that there is no doubt that the Australian actress has been one of the best of her generation from the start. It also makes for quite a coincidence that this is the first of three films Debicki has starred in relating to interdimensional/time travel (the other two being The Cloverfield Paradox and Tenet).
There’s a grandeur to this film that makes the short-form nature of it feel a bit incomplete when compared to the breathing room it could’ve had as an intimate feature, but what is there, even amongst the romance, is a touching, perplexing, but moving film about the nature of love through time.
Sam, Taylor, and Charley are three best friends having a sleepover, where they soon find themselves describing their various revenge fantasies against each of their deadbeat boyfriends. What follows is a cheesy, violent, but genuinely funny look at the fun, if irrational, nature of revenge fantasies.
I didn’t know how to feel about this one when it first started, as I just couldn’t fully get a hold on the tone of the film, which made the first cold-open fantasy feel less than entertaining. I wasn’t able to tell whether the Cinemax softcore porn acting was intentional and if the film was even the slightest bit self-aware. Luckily, this is all cleared up relatively quickly and the film gets on its way to tell funnier, more entertaining stories (though rewatching the opening scene after getting a grasp on the film’s tone did help bring some major value to it).
The idea of the female revenge fantasy and the public critique of them from your friends upon sharing your own is a clever concept, and the film has something poignant to say in that however irrational these fantasies may be, it doesn’t make them any less joyously cathartic. It’s a comedy with a message, and I can appreciate that.
Cowboy Kill Club
Set in the world of the gargantuan Thai sex trade in Bangkok, Cowboy Kill Club is a film that follows two scorned sex workers enacting revenge on the upper levels of the cartel keeping them hostage, and attempting to save a new girl from initiation in the process. Upon their attempt, they soon discover that general prostitution is not the name of the game for their cartel, but something a bit more…mutant.
Cowboy Kill Club is the first film in the new season I found myself disliking, if only because of the immense waste of opening up the sinister world of the Thai sex trade to audiences. Seeing the inner workings of an industry you know exists, but not the horrifying ways in which it works is enough for me, and it would be an engaging and eye-opening thriller that’s scary enough on its own terms. Unfortunately, adding mutant zombie hookers to the entire endeavor cheapens the entire experience into something far less satisfying or engaging. The worst part about it is that the film isn’t even self-aware enough to fully run with the ridiculous nature of it all. Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.
A demonically possessed inmate transfers his demon, upon his death, to a nearby prison guard, who then finds himself dead after being hit by a group of drunk, Vegas-bound girlfriends in rural Nevada. When one of the girls soon becomes possessed with the same demon, they all find themselves in for the fight of their lives.
This is another one of those films that just doesn’t seem to have the self-awareness to pull off something so completely insane, and if it did, it doesn’t have the wherewithal to convince us that this is anything but a failed piece of horror. Straightforward isn’t a bad thing by any means, but being so straightforward that you don’t pad any elements around the simple plot just makes your film feel…well, simple.
This is the film that showed me that the highs of Etheria Season II are high, and the lows can be painfully low.
Immigration is no joke, and El Gigante, despite digging into some really pulpy horror territories here, doesn’t think it is either. After a brutal border crossing from Mexico into the United States after having to leave his wife and daughter behind, Armando (Edwin Perez) is kidnapped by a rural Mexican-American family, who subject him to the sadistic might of El Gigante, a giant, brutal luchador with a penchant for pain. Call it the Texican Chainsaw Massacre, if you will.
I was afraid in the beginning of El Gigante, not because of anything actually scary, but of my fear that like many other films documenting border crossings, this film would just turn into a Trumpian exercise in violence against immigrants, which it luckily does not. Well…violence does happen against an immigrant, but thankfully, there isn’t all that racist subtext in it that would invalidate the sick fun that El Gigante is.
There’s a moment where you think El Gigante might have something really poignant to say about the entire Mexican-American experience of undocumented immigration, but it soon reveals itself to be a deceptively simple exercise in sadism by way of Tobe Hooper and Resident Evil VII. Unlike Carved, whose simplicity was a hindrance, once I realized how El Gigante was going to play out, I went along with it and really ran with the sickly clever punches…and kicks…and throws it had to offer.
In a post-apocalyptic world, a young boy with physical disabilities lives with his mother in a bunker underneath the ground. Leaving every day to look for supplies, he soon finds himself wondering what lies beyond the hatch of his bunker waiting for him.
Zone 2 is an almost shockingly short little film that does have a twist that, looking back on it, seems a bit obvious, but it doesn’t change how effective it was for me to experience in the moment. This is thanks to the wonderful performances and chemistry between Anne Ramsay and Connor Linnerooth, as mother and son. There is a tenderness and loving nature to their respective performances that bring this very short film a whole lot of emotion. It’s simple and a bit heavy-handed at points, but it’s jarring nonetheless.
When a group of witches conjuring a spell soon find one of their coven not putting her all into their sinister concoction, they soon prompt her to explain herself, leading to unresolved petty tensions among the group coming to light.
On paper, I think something like this could work, as it does have a funny air to its idea that a group of cartoonishly ugly witches would bicker like a bunch of school girls, but it all comes across like an early YouTube sketch that is trying way too hard to cram as many jokes as it can in its seven minute runtime. This isn’t a short that was looking to be subtle, but there is a subtlety to comedic timing that is necessary for something to be…well, funny. Witches misses the mark on that front, which makes everything else feel irrelevant.
Suddenly One Night
It’s Christmas in Madrid, and Maria (Alicia Rubio) is preparing dinner to take over to celebrate with a friend when there is a knock at her door. A stranger (Javier Godino), who claims to be her upstairs neighbor, is terrified after finding intruders in his apartment. Using her phone to call the police, he sits in her apartment while they wait for them to arrive. As time passes, Maria soon begins to wonder if the stranger in her home is telling the truth about his reason for coming.
Suddenly One Night is perhaps the most understated film in the new season, but it’s the one that nails the slow, growing uneasiness in its building of tension that I love most in genre films. It’s quite creepy, but also very intimate and claustrophobic. And while the film sounds obvious on paper, there is a great deal of mystery to the film that is enticing.
And that’s what works so wonderfully about the film, is that you really are as unsure as Maria about whether the man in her house is dangerous or benign, and whether kicking him out to face potential danger would be the right move. You really can’t know anything for sure, and even if you do there are both the grave ramifications of getting it wrong, and the whole “it could never happen to me” hunch if you are somehow right about your suspicions. There’s a lot that can come into or not come into a dangerous situation, and Suddenly One Night is a delicate, volatile scale.
Etheria Season II has higher highs and lower lows than before, but there were far more highs this time around to make this such a worthwhile endeavor. Some of these films are a few years old and many people involved have gone on to do bigger and better things along the way, but it doesn’t make most of these shorts any less fun, engaging and wonderfully female.