Graphic horror movies, exploitation films and porn are typically left on the margins of mainstream film festivals, if they're included at all. But they can be just as ambitious and artful as any challenging drama, and last week in Vegas two start-up festivals worked hard to bring that kind of underground work to local audiences.
The more extensive endeavor was PollyGrind, a five-night event at the Sci Fi Center put on by local filmmaker and writer Chad Clinton Freeman, with over a dozen features, plus tons of short films, trailers and music videos; the quality ranged from borderline incompetent to undiscovered genius, virtually all within the confines of horror and sci-fi.
The best films I saw at PollyGrind were Calvin Lee Reeder's shorts The Rambler and The Snake Mountain Colada, beautifully impressionistic pieces that could hardly be classified as straight-up horror, but which used certain horror conventions, including sex, gore and mysterious hitchhikers, as jumping-off points for series of bizarre and haunting images that evoked the desolation of the American open road.
Sometimes artistic ambition is just an excuse for depravity, though, as in the baffling Argentinean film Zombie Apocalypse Now: A Zombie Hunter, one of the most trying movie-watching experiences I've ever endured. The sparse late-night PollyGrind audience could only laugh at director German Magariños' surreal ineptitude in staging endless, dialogue-free scenes of people being disemboweled, alternated with depictions of repellently deviant sexual behavior from the movie's protagonist.
Across Commercial Center at the Onyx Theatre was the two-day CineKink festival, a traveling version of the New York City festival devoted to films about sex and sexuality. There was more of a high-minded air to CineKink, even with offerings like "Bring It!," a selection of excerpts from actual hardcore porn films. "Bring It!" was as unexpectedly jarring to watch as Zombie Apocalypse Now, only the CineKink audience wasn't inclined to laugh and jeer. It's tough to know how to react to watching nearly 90 minutes of porn in a theater full of strangers, so respectful silence is probably the only safe reaction.
The rest of the CineKink offerings were less extreme, even though bits of unsimulated sex did crop up here and there. The festival's best feature was the Belgian film S&M Judge, a sober, serious examination of the true story of a judge who was put on trial for assault after colleagues discovered his sadomasochistic sex life with his outwardly demure wife. Judge succumbed at times to message-movie clichés, but it got a lot of mileage out of treating sexual fetishes with the same degree of respect as any misunderstood persecuted lifestyle.
Respectability is fine, but the festival's most arresting and fascinating film was in its own way more shocking than hardcore porn: The short film Coverage, directed by Jef Taylor, told the story of a man so consumed by watching footage of the 9/11 attacks that it became the only way he could get sexually aroused. What started out seeming like a cheap device developed into something deeply disturbing and unexpectedly powerful.
That mix of disgust and arousal was something that both festivals embraced. PollyGrind's Saturday-night showcase for prolific Los Angeles filmmaker Creep Creepersin featured Orgy of Blood, a movie every bit as twisted and sexually explicit as any of CineKink's non-hardcore offerings. Orgy was a little too serious and drawn-out, but Creepersin's other films, Vaginal Holocaust and Caged Lesbos A-Go-Go, were loads of fun — clever and well-crafted homages to classic grindhouse films, complete with deliberate sound and continuity errors and a wicked sense of humor.
There was a decent-size crowd at PollyGrind to appreciate Creepersin's work, and the event as a whole had a strong turnout. Attendance at CineKink was weaker, and its organizers seemed iffy on whether they'd return for another year. I hope to see both festivals back; they provide a reminder that artistic expression comes from all corners of cinema, and deserves to be celebrated.