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Atlanta Film Festival freaks out 

Something wicked lurks in the dark corners of the Atlanta Film Festival.

For 32 years, Atlanta’s cinematic celebration has sought out promising new stars and compelling stories from the realm of American and global independent film. This year’s festival presents 166 features and shorts, bookended by the opening night’s The People Speak, a star-studded dramatization of the work of historian Howard Zinn, and the closing night buddy comedy Rudo y Cursi, which reunites Y Tu Mama Tambien stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, and winds down this year’s Spotlight on Mexican Film.

Like a ghost at the banquet, however, another breed of film moves among the scrappy documentaries about the economically disenfranchised and the lo-fi character studies of disaffected youth. A memorable minority of this year’s filmmakers seems less concerned with showing individuals separated from society than showing heads separated from shoulders. The smartest ones, of course, achieve both goals at once.

In a time of economic uncertainty, horror films can seem like the only film genre that offers a reasonable return on investment. So far in 2009, Hollywood has offered remakes of uninspired slasher fare such as My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th. Films that prey on the audience’s fears also stalk the film festival circuit. Atlanta Film Festival executive director Gabe Wardell says, “Horror has proven to be a most financially successful genre for low-budget indies. As such, it should come as no surprise that those with limited budgets and no stars gravitate toward the macabre subject matter.”

The 32nd Atlanta Film Festival features more scare-based content than any in memory, along with some fantastical features such as Moon, which involves lunar colonization and time travel. Wardell avoids extrapolating national trends based on the festival’s lineup, and says the AFF hasn't gone looking for frightful fare. But it may be that horror has come knocking at its door. “Perhaps the festival's recent success with films like The Signal, Blood Car and Dance of the Dead caught the attention of others working in the genre. Atlanta audiences have packed the house for these films — we've had to add extra shows to handle capacity. Filmmakers talk, fans blog, and word spreads. Our reputation for horror is among the best in the country, and the submissions (and selections) reflected this.”

Films that fall under the loose definition of horror have more on their agendas than simply stalking scantily clad women and crying “Boo!” at the audience. Damon O’Steen’s Deadland (3 stars; Sat., April 18, 9:30 p.m.; Mon., April 20, 1:30 p.m.), partly filmed in Georgia, finds suspense and romantic gestures in the end of the world. O’Steen confidently approaches the apocalyptic subject matter from the chilling opening scene, in which Los Angeles-based yuppie Sean Kalos (screenwriter Gary Weeks) stops at a backwoods filling station and sees the opening salvo of thermonuclear war on TV.

Five years later, Sean wanders the remnants of America, now divided into deserted deadlands and paramilitary provinces. He stumbles across evidence that hints his long-lost wife may be alive and in the grasp of a thuggish governing militia.

Deadland’s plot points about the potential rise of superhuman mutants proves somewhat vague. The film also offers arguably one crazy buddy character too many, although William Katt (of “The Greatest American Hero”) has an amusing supporting role as a strung-out ex-codebreaker. O’Steen generally crafts compelling action scenes on a shoestring, and the script proves depressingly plausible in terms of the commoditization of sex and treatment of women following the fall of civilization.

Yuppies face harsher judgment in Adam Mason’s Blood River (3 stars; Fri., April 17, 9:45 p.m.; Wed., April 22, 2:15 p.m.). The sun-struck cinematography drinks in the Southwestern desert and cultivates a mood of dread and isolation. Set near the end of the 1960s — portentously before cell phones or OnStar — pregnant Summer (Tess Panzer) and her new-ish husband Clark (Ian Duncan) drive cross-country to see her parents. An act of automotive sabotage leaves the city slickers stranded in a ghost town with the inhospitable name Blood River, where they find themselves dependent on a sinister, black-clad hitchhiker named Joseph (Andrew Howard).

Blood River plays with Southwestern cat-and-mouse tactics reminiscent of The Hitcher and uses the road movie frame for increasingly violent class conflicts, similar to Kalifornia with Brad Pitt. The film builds to some savage mind games and intriguing reversals, and at least one of the “civilized” people reveals an unimaginable vicious streak. Howard has an intimidating presence comparable to a young Ed Harris, although his Biblical bellowing grows wearying. Blood River doesn’t live up to its ambitious goal of profundity, but it still makes for arresting viewing.

Killer Movie (2 stars; Mon., April 20, 9:50 p.m.; Tues., April 21, 4:30 p.m.) may be the 2009 festival’s answer to 2008’s Dance of the Dead. Dance of the Dead mixed laughter and screams by cross-breeding the high school comedy and the zombie schlock-fest. Killer Movie offers another hybrid genre by mixing the masked-slasher flick with a Hollywood spoof. Reality show director Jake (Paul Wesley) takes the reins of a show about a high school hockey team in a remote North Dakota town where cell phone reception is ominously difficult. The production’s underdog sports team premise increasingly cedes the spotlight to the violent “accidents” that befall first the show’s interviewees, then the television crew. Meanwhile, scandalous sexpot starlet Blanca Champion (Kaley Cuoco, who looks remarkably like High School Musical’s Ashley Tisdale) shadows the director as research for an upcoming film role.

Director Jeff Fisher, a reality programming veteran who recently relocated to Atlanta, clearly understands his subject and appreciates the tensions between rival creative personalities, star-struck locals and condescending film crew workers. Killer Movie features some creative kills and turns a few slasher clichés upside down: The requisite shower scene, for example, features a vulnerable man, not a woman.

Overall, though, Killer Movie feels like a missed opportunity. It hints at a unifying theme between serial killers and reality shows — both put people under surveillance and treat them like objects — but the two elements don’t necessarily inform each other thematically. Plus, the heavy-handed characterizations make the jokes too obvious while blunting our sympathies for potential victims. A more straight-faced approach still would've hit the film’s targets, as attested by Nestor Carbonell (“Lost’s” enigmatic Richard Alpert), who turns up for a small but plummy performance as Jake’s agent.

The Death of Alice Blue (2 stars; Sat., April 18, 2:45 p.m.; Fri., April 24, 4:15 p.m.) takes an even more outlandishly satirical approach. An early subtitle informs us that the film concerns “The Bloodsucking Vampires of Advertising.” Young Alice Blue (Alex Appel) takes a low-level creative job at Raven Advertising, where she tries to write a campaign for Nether Wine. She gradually discovers that not only does the office have bona fide bloodsuckers in charge, but junior employees have organized a “resistance” faction (which includes director Park Bench as a lovelorn drudge).

The filmmakers clearly put a lot of consideration into the film’s vision of goth, with Anne Rice-style vamps amid office skullduggery. The low-budget art direction offers a splendid take of a dismal cube farm, with huge rats in the wiring, computers that probably date to the 1980s, and a "Production Room" that features workers hooked up to blood bags by IVs. The concept should come on like a cross between “Mad Men” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but the dismal, low-rent surroundings call for a deadpan tone. Instead, the cast vainly attempts to achieve campy soap operatics. Even given the incoherent plotting and terrible fight scenes, it’s still more interesting than Twilight.

Idiots & Angels (4 stars; Sat., April 18, 4:45 p.m.; Thurs., April 23, 2:45 p.m.) doesn’t technically qualify as a horror film, but it draws on supernatural elements such as human transformation. Animator Bill Plympton initially found fame for his wry slapstick shorts in the 1980s, including “25 Ways to Quit Smoking.” In recent decades he’s developed independent animated feature films such as Hair High, an entry at the 2004 Atlanta Film Festival that combined horror and 1950s rock/teen musical conventions. Idiots & Angels contains his signature sight gags but proves to be his finest character-driven work to date.

The dialogue-free film follows Angel, a barfly and all-around heartless bastard who seethes with anger and indulges his vices. At one point, his pained conscience causes him to shed a tear, but, in a typical Plympton detail, Angel catches the drop and sticks it back in his eyelid. The antihero reassesses his nasty ways when his back begins to sprout a pair of white, feathery wings. In the usual werewolf movie, a metamorphosis causes a good man to reveal his bestial side, but Idiots & Angels offers the reverse. Despite his desire for mischief — when he learns he can fly, one of his first acts is mooning a passenger jet — his wings turn out to have a mind of their own, forcing Angel to do good deeds against his will.

Idiots & Angels features two Tom Waits songs and resembles the lyrics of the hard-boiled troubadour brought to life, particularly in the many scenes set at a seedy bar. The film takes some surprising, sinister twists but ultimately offers a bizarro allegory of human redemption and indicates that the things that scare us could very well be the things that save us.

The same could be said for the independent film scene.

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