Boston Underground Film Festival celebrates the weird and the wonderful
It was around this time last year, during the Boston Underground Film Festival closing night awards party at Charlie’s Kitchen, that all of our phones started blowing up with news alerts and texts from friends, breathlessly reporting that Will Smith had just stormed the stage and slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. It was hard not to laugh—here we were celebrating some of the most depraved and disgusting spectacles independent cinema had to offer, yet we’d all managed to behave ourselves (even with an open bar), and the awards had been distributed without incident. I guess Hollywood could learn a thing or two about decorum from the folks at BUFF.
The Boston Underground Film Festival is back this week for a five-day binge at the Brattle Theatre showcasing the oddest and most outré offerings assembled by director of programming Nicole McControversy and artistic director Kevin Monahan. The 23rd edition of the city’s self-described “sensory bacchanalia from beyond the mainstream” boasts 14 features and six shorts packages covering the whole waterfront of weird. From splattery horror to environmental terrorism to alien invasions and even some Scandinavian cringe comedy, there’s something here to blow just about anybody’s ears back. Given the vagaries of distribution these days, it also might be your only chance to catch these movies the way they were meant to be seen.
“In a way, I feel like our mission has slightly changed,” McControversy explains. Noting the explosion of streaming services like Shudder that specialize in independent genre fare, she says, “There are so many more avenues for filmmakers to get their movies out there. Now I feel like I’m fighting for certain films that would really benefit from being shown on a big screen, in the community, for fans.” While it is a wonderful thing that streaming has made so many off-beat movies accessible to everybody, there’s nothing like the electric experience of watching a BUFF selection in a packed house with a like-minded audience. Feeling the room react is a thrill you can’t get at home.
Opening night kicks off with the world premiere of Jeffrey A. Brown’s Wellfleet-set chiller “The Unheard.” The filmmaker previously brought Lovecraftian horror to Cape Cod with 2019’s icky, unsettling “The Beach House.” This time he’s got the help of local hero screenwriters Shawn and Michael Rasmussen, who are fresh off their surprise smash alligator-in-the-basement adventure “Crawl.” Lachlan Watson stars as a young deaf woman undergoing an experimental gene-editing treatment to restore her hearing when she starts suffering from some eerie, extrasensory side effects that might hold the key to her hometown’s darkest secrets. The film features a densely layered audio track that is sure to give the Brattle’s new surround sound system a workout. “I feel like I cheated myself watching it at home,” Monahan confesses.
Speaking of soundscapes, “Stand By for Failure: A Documentary About Negativland” chronicles the Bay Area audio collage artists’ 40-year career in a manner as irreverent and experimental as their albums. Directed by the band’s frequent collaborator Ryan Worsley, the movie does for traditional rock documentaries what Negitvland did for Casey Kasem. “The lineup is doc-heavy this year, in the sense that we have more than one,” quips Monahan, putting in a good word for “Mister Organ,” director David Farrier’s follow-up to his 2016 curiosity “Tickled.” It’s a study in emotional toxicity that makes a fitting companion to the gasp-inducing Norwegian comedy “Sick of Myself,” in which a young woman conspires to contract a rare skin disease because she’s jealous of all the attention her famous artist boyfriend is getting. (Such a shame the title “The Worst Person in the World” was already taken, though that 2021 film’s co-star Anders Danielsen Lie has a very funny cameo here as a doctor diagnosing the protagonist's personality defects.)
Of the selections made available in advance, “Piaffe” was the one that melted this critic’s mind. Berlin-based Ann Oren’s debut feature is about an introverted Foley artist who becomes so obsessed with her job creating sound effects for commercial footage of dressage horses that she starts to grow a tail. “And it’s like the most liberating and freeing thing,” says McControversy, who can’t wait to watch how the film plays with a BUFF audience. As the tale goes on (sorry) our formerly timid heroine begins to assert herself with increasingly equine mannerisms, eventually entering into a BDSM relationship with a fern-obsessed botanist. It’s a slippery meditation on sexuality and gender that drifts into a wondrous state of abstraction, full of dialogue-free interludes powered by sound, movement and sex scenes in which people aren’t actually having sex. “It’s a 100% McControversy movie,” the programmer cackles, acknowledging how her taste has become a festival brand. “It’s so erotic and weird.”
She has a hard time singling out specific movies because they’re all her “favorite babies.” But McControversy makes sure to shine a light on “Spaghetti Junction,” a visually accomplished debut from director Kirby McClure in which the travails of a poverty-stricken Atlanta family take a surprise turn into science fiction. She’s also quite fond of “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster,” writer-director Bomani J. Story’s retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” set in a housing project with a teenage mad scientist who attempts to reverse the carnage in her community. It’s a film that walks the line between social commentary and exploitation horror in provocative, unexpected ways.
The shorts packages come with mostly self-explanatory titles. “Sound + Vision” is the festival’s annual mixtape of music videos, and you probably can tell what you’re in for with “Trigger Warning.” The comedy block “Butter My Noodle” sounds a bit more mysterious. But when pressed, Monahan says, “Somehow, we ended up with a lot of submissions relating to pasta and butter.” (I guess sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one.) As always, area talent abounds in “The Dunwich Horrors,” a collection of supernatural New England stories curated by Chris Hallock. Standouts include local film worker Miriam Oklen’s frighteningly funny “Petunia,” about a realtor with a rather unusual pet. Filmed at the North Scituate Commuter Rail station, Andrew Connelly’s “Last Train” scares up a scenario somehow even more terrifying than taking the MBTA these days. And for sheer star power, there’s the Vermont-shot “Skin & Bone,” featuring a singing Amanda Seyfried and her husband Thomas Sadoski.
The closing night film, “Rebel,” is one McControversy has been obsessed with since a late-night screening at last summer’s Cannes Film Festival. “She’s been talking about it for a solid year,” Monahan confirms with a sigh of comedic exhaustion. The story of a Belgian family caught up in the war in Syria is a genre-smashing action-drama-musical from directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. The two recently made headlines when their “Batgirl” was shelved and buried as a tax write-off by the corporate shills currently running Warner Bros. Discovery into the ground.
“It’s just so bold and ballsy,” McControversy enthuses. “They made the movie for me and people like me.” In other words, it’s a festival full of films that, blessedly, aren't for everybody.
Boston Underground Film Festival runs from Wednesday, March 22, through Sunday, March 26, at the Brattle Theatre.