Overlook Film Festival 2023: American Monsters and Final Musings (Matinee, The Tingler, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster)
The last official day of Overlook arrived, and I was pleased to spend it watching a double feature of Joe Dante’s Matinee (a special 30th anniversary screening) and William Castle’s 1959 film The Tingler. The double header was programmed by Dante himself, and after the screening I was scheduled to conduct a 20-minute interview with the director.
I’d seen Matinee before, and upon re-watch was struck again by how lush and detailed each aspect of the film’s production is. The set decoration only creeps up on ‘60s-era pastiche, managing to evoke nostalgic memory more than hokey over-stylization. Even the wardrobe and personal sensibilities of each character reflect certain truisms of the period without ever losing the elevated goofiness that serves the film so well. After all, this is a Joe Dante picture, and scathing critiques of hysterical American nationalism only work if coupled with a healthy streak of absurdist humor. Of course, the then-very-real threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis—and Dante’s own experience living through this period as a child—imbues the film with a bit more bite than, say, the anti-consumerist ethos of Gremlins or Small Soldiers. In general, films that toy with the prospect of nuclear destruction tend to get under my skin (Miracle Mile gave me nightmares for a week), but filtering this fear through the curious perspective of children, and the quasi-childlike nature of John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey (himself inspired by William Castle), help keep audiences from sitting with their own preconceived (or remembered) notions of what this anxious epoch entailed. The result is an almost enchanted fable of American “prosperity,” which mostly boils down to dumb luck.
Even though The Tingler was scheduled in the same theater just 20 minutes after Matinee ended, we needed to vacate our seats so that passes and tickets could be scanned anew. This meant that I would need to quickly egress and re-enter if I wanted to snag a specially-rigged seat for the gimmicky Castle film. Luckily, I managed to secure one of a handful of these seats, and placed my back against the bulky buzzer in anticipation for the “shocking” tingling effect (I soon discovered that this feature doesn’t even come into play until the last act of the film).
During his pre-screening intro, Dante was quick to confirm that The Tingler was not, in fact, his favorite Castle film. The top spot was reserved for the classic House on Haunted Hill; I understand why he made the distinction, as The Tingler truly didn’t pack as much of a punch. There are some really wonderful Castle effects in the film—a sudden streak of red bleeds through the black and white picture, and a little tingler appears to crawl across the projector and obscure the screen (Dante later realized he “ripped off” this trick for Gremlins 2)—but the plot is just a tad flimsy, despite really fun performances and even a staged incident involving a woman “fainting” and needing to be carried out of the theater. With an 82-minute runtime, however, it was hard to complain too much—and unlike other theatergoers, I was lucky that my buzzer went off at all.
After a lovely interview with Dante, I decided to catch one last film before Overlook officially came to an end. I settled on The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, written and directed by Bomani J. Story. For a feature debut, the film feels super tight in terms of narrative, cinematography and editing. There are even some gnarly practical effects and very bold story beats that I was genuinely delighted by (too bad this will likely get buried on Shudder if it goes straight to streaming).
The film follows Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), a high schooler and science prodigy who believes that death is a disease merely awaiting a cure. While she lives in a housing project heavily afflicted by gang violence, she attends an affluent (i.e., mostly white) private school due to her phenomenal academic record and, presumably, ample scholarship opportunities. Despite her obvious brilliance, she’s constantly maligned by teachers due to her racial difference. Feeling particularly vulnerable after the gang-related death of her brother, Chris, she decides to prove the naysayers wrong and embark on an ambitious experiment. She scavenges local gravesites in order to bring her deceased brother (whose body, it’s earlier revealed, was never recovered by EMTs) to life again. After re-routing the entire project’s electricity supply to send an intense jolt through Franken-Chris’s corpse, she miraculously manages to reanimate him. Yet his vulgar appearance, brute strength and inability to speak has made him into the very monster that society has always seen him as—a realization that sends him on a murderous rampage throughout the housing complex.
The film is an obvious riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I love that Vicaria is infused with a brand of defiant weirdness that feels more evocative of Shelly than the titular mad scientist she conjures through prose. To have this story of a “monster” reviled and abandoned by society serve as an allegory for the lack of resources for Black communities in America is also incredibly compelling, demonstrating how well the figure of Frankenstein’s monster suits stories of the oppressed. (By far, the best film to do this is Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, but I was also reminded of Laura Moss’s birth/rebirth, which played at Overlook but which I caught at Sundance earlier this year).
While I was satisfied by my last film of the fest, I couldn’t help but lament not seeing the ones I missed and was still quite curious about: Mister Organ, Brooklyn 45, The Wrath of Becky, Monolith, several shorts. It helped, though, feeling the palpable enthusiasm that festivalgoers had for the films they were able to catch (Jim Jarmusch couldn’t stop raving about Jacqueline Castel’s My Animal during the Only Lovers Left Alive Q&A, and Joe Dante praised Ariel Vida’s Trim Season during our own interview). There were also a few films I was confident I’d catch shortly back home in NYC: Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing, Léa Mysius’s The Five Devils and Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl. As for all the rest, I simply had to be thankful that I live in a city that would likely screen most films that got distribution (and pleased that I seem to have every streaming service under the sun for those that’ll only get virtual releases).
With my last 24 hours in New Orleans before my flight home, I crammed in a few “must-dos”: waited in line 20 minutes for beignets (they’re basically just zeppoles?), ate a po’ boy (amazing), visited the Museum of Death (the much cheaper and more renowned Pharmacy Museum was closed, so I got to see Aileen Wuornos’s underwear instead, which admittedly felt very tacky and not at all comparable to, say, a collection of John Wayne Gacy’s personal artwork). I was sad to leave, but confident that if the city left this much of an impression on me in-between screenings, interviews and industry gatherings, it probably meant I’d be back again soon enough.