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Things get weird at midnight

January 19, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

While many film festivals have midnight sections that screen outre and impolite genre films, there is something about Sundance's "Park City at Midnight" that defies expectations. Frequently brimming with frenzied horror, outrageous mayhem and dark comedy, the section has consistently featured some the most commercially successful films to emerge from Sundance.

"It's our best-kept secret," said director of programming John Cooper, with regard to the relatively low profile of the midnight films in relation to more heavily covered sections such as Spectrum, Premieres or the Dramatic Competition. Films that have previously screened in the midnight section at Sundance include breakout hits "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), "Super Troopers" (2001) and "Saw" (2004).

"The one thing we do is to open it up a bit, to films that almost defy categorization," explained senior programmer Trevor Groth. "These are some of my favorites, just the weirdest ones I can find.

"And the audience that comes to the Park City midnight shows, they're looking for that, they're looking to get twisted in a way that's something new. It think that's what keeps it very healthy, to show films that will rattle people a bit, to keep it on the edge."

This year should be no exception, with any number of films that may prove to be breakouts. Among the eight films screening are "Funny Games," director Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own 1997 Austrian film, and "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead," the latest in the line of zombie pictures from the renowned filmmaker.

Also screening: the new film from flamboyant provocateur Bruce LaBruce, "Otto; or, Up With Dead People"; the enigmatic debut feature from Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, "Time Crimes"; Sean Ellis' "The Broken" starring "300" actress Lena Headey; Ari Gold's air-drumming comedy "Adventures in Power" with Adrian Grenier; and the biker-flick "Hell Ride," written and directed by Larry Bishop and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino.

In particular, the presence of Romero and Haneke brings an unexpected auteur flavor to this year's mix. Haneke has long been one of the most-discussed, closely watched filmmakers on the world-cinema circuit, while Romero, maker of the series of zombie pictures that began with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead," is one of the godfathers of the kind of movies usually screened at midnight.

"We had an opportunity to bring in these two filmmakers and their latest films," said Groth of having such high-profile directors in a section often populated by unknowns. "And I wanted to do it because they have both been so influential on so many of our emerging filmmakers."

"In the program, my film is on the same page as Michael Haneke and George Romero. I'm not complaining about that," said Olly Blackburn, director and co-writer of his debut feature, "Donkey Punch."

Besides simply its outrageous name -- which can be difficult to explain in polite company -- "Donkey Punch," about a group of young women on vacation in the Mediterranean who find their hedonistic holiday turn very wrong, will likely push a lot of buttons for its troublesome mix of sex and violence. The film constantly reinvents itself as it goes along, upending viewers' expectations of what might happen next.

"I think 'Donkey Punch' is one of those films that is going to really be talked about," said Groth. "It is definitely going to produce an extreme reaction, and that's what I liked about it. Some people are really going to be repelled by it, I think, and that's OK. It's fun sometimes to push these boundaries of what people think is acceptable behavior."

"I know the film I think I made," said Blackburn of his feelings going into the festival, "but it will be interesting to see what other people think of it. One of the reasons it's in the midnight section is that it's regarded as a genre film, and it has elements of genre about it, but does a few things traditional genre films don't do."

Romero's "Diary of the Dead" plays as the footage cobbled together after a group of film students videotape their struggle to survive a zombie uprising.

The film plays as a sharp, wry commentary on the way we communicate now, with Internet video and cellphones playing into the mix and mainstream media outlets trying to downplay the horrors occurring right in before the students' very eyes.

"I have this peculiar niche," noted Romero, as to how he is able to repeatedly reinvent the meaning and usage of the undead. "I find the zombies don't represent anything themselves. I can pull the zombies out of the drawer whenever I want to, or when I want to make an observation about what's going on."

While some filmmakers might eventually feel hemmed in by the midnight/genre tag, wanting to break through to a broader, more mainstream audience, Romero does not.

"I feel like it's sort of where I belong," he said.


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