It was 10 days before the 22nd annual Boston Underground Film Festival was set to begin when COVID-19 closed down the world, leaving the upstart organization saddled with unrecoverable expenses and artistic director Kevin Monahan stuck with stacks of cases of BUFF beer specially brewed for the event. “He drank it all,” laughs the festival’s director of programming Nicole McControversy. The two are in considerably higher spirits than when we talked two years ago, now that the self-described “annual sensory bacchanalia from beyond the mainstream” is back in-person at the Brattle Theatre this Wednesday, March 23, through Sunday, March 27, once again bringing the wildest, weirdest and most outré offerings to a loyal area audience with nerves (and stomachs) of steel.
BUFF began as an all-night movie marathon founded by local film legend David Kleiler, and has over the decades moved and metamorphosed around venues like the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes in Jamaica Plain, the long-gone Allston Cinema Underground and even a stint at an image-incongruous Kendall Square corporate multiplex before finding a home at the Brattle back in 2012. But the pandemic would have put an end to the operation altogether were it not for the Nightstream project, in which five regional genre film festivals joined forces for a stay-at-home streaming extravaganza while theaters were closed. Monahan said the group effort helped stanch the financial bleeding of these past two years, enabling them to “get the band back together” for a second stab at the 22nd BUFF.
(He kids that the involuntary hiatus has at least resolved the “hashtag confusion” of the festival being two years ahead of the calendar, with #BUFF22 no longer taking place in 2020. So I guess something good came out of all that.)
McControversy says she watched over 800 films in assembling this year’s program of 14 features and 84 shorts, promising (or threatening) that “all the extreme isolation and paranoia of the past two years” will be well-represented in the program, which kicks off Wednesday night in typically ferocious fashion with the New England Premiere of director Goran Stolevski’s “You Won’t Be Alone.” The Sundance sensation stars “original girl with the dragon tattoo” Noomi Rapace in the tale of a 19th-century Macedonian peasant child who gets kidnapped and transformed into a shape-shifting “wolf-eatress” by a wrinkled old witch (played by Anamaria Marinca of “4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days.”) Grisly and intentionally alienating at the outset — it’s narrated with the child’s limited understanding of language — the film develops to something more philosophical as it goes along, meditating on what it means to be human, like Terrence Malick directed one of Robert Eggers’ folk horror films.
Director Addison Heimann’s “Hypochondriac” has a similar way of sneaking up on you. The film stars Zach Villa as an ambitionless LA artist whose breezy existence is thrown out of whack when his paranoid schizophrenic mother — who tried to strangle him when he was a child — is released from a mental institution after 18 years and tries to re-enter his life. He’s constantly haunted by hallucinations of a human-sized wolf in a film where the supernatural shadings could have less comforting psychological explanations. Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt — a current Oscar nominee for co-writing “The Worst Person in the World” — likewise explores such blurry boundaries with “The Innocents,” in which battle lines are drawn in a housing project playground when some bullied kids discover that they might, or might not, have special powers.
The most confident microbudget movie I’ve seen in some time, Avalon Fast’s “Honeycomb” follows five teenage girls bored during the doldrums of a humid, post-high school summer. When one discovers an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods, they all move in together, forming a secret society with their own rituals and rules that become increasingly unsettling as the picture wears on. It’s “Lord of the Flies” by way of “The Virgin Suicides,” but what impresses are the striking tableaux in which Fast arranges the characters and her innovative, unconventional staging of the story. It’s one of those debuts that suffers from some technical hiccups but when you look at the colors and camera concepts you know you're in the hands of a natural born filmmaker.
There’s plenty more up-and-coming talent showcased in the expansive selection of shorts, including an aptly titled program called “Trigger Warning 2022” and the homegrown fears of “The Dunwich Horrors,” collecting scary stories filmed throughout New England. From the latter, I was especially fond of Seth Chatfield’s “Mairzy Doats,” which gets some good mileage out of the old sing-songy earworm while confronting mortality in a New Hampshire cabin. Another standout is the exquisitely specific period detail of director Jean-Paul DiSciscio’s “Poor Glenna,” about a mom tending to a monster in her suburban basement. If you told me this was a recently unearthed relic from 1983 I’d believe you, so convincing is puppetry straight out of “The Thing” and even a vintage MPAA rating card.
Saturday night brings a double dose of films from punk provocateur Gaspar Noé. His pulverizing “Vortex” stars Italian giallo pioneer Dario Argento and French cinema legend Françoise Lebrun as an elderly couple coping with her dementia and his heart problems in a cozy, cluttered apartment that becomes a split-screen obstacle course over these two-and-a-half grueling hours. It’s Noé’s most humane film, which ironically makes it maybe his most difficult to watch. (Think “Amour” from the director of “Irréversible.”) It's followed by “Lux Aeterna,” in which Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle play themselves during the shoot of a witch trial movie that goes stereoscopically astray. I’m both enticed and terrified by the idea of Gainsbourg and Dalle being in a film together, as they’re often almost too much to handle on their own.
Unfortunately, the festival’s usual “Saturday Morning All-You-Can-Eat Cereal Cartoon Party” wasn’t deemed COVID-safe this year. But there’s still something for the kids, in typically traumatic BUFF style, with a special 40th-anniversary screening of “The Secret of NIMH,” director Don Bluth’s animated adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s classic rat-and-mouse adventure that I remember terrifying my little sisters back in the early days of HBO. (The crew confesses it was a tossup between “NIMH” or the bunny snuff-film shenanigans of “Watership Down.”) For those looking for entomologically-minded '80s nostalgia, BUFF is also presenting a new restoration of the 1987 gross-out cult classic “The Nest,” in which a small New England town is overrun by a massive army of mutant cockroaches. Or as McControversy calls it, “my tribute to lower Allston.”