The Wisconsin Film Festival has wrapped up another successful year.
Over the five-day event, which ended April 3, 35,858 audience members took in 211 films from around the world that screened in nine downtown Madison and campus theaters.
Organizers said the festival has grown into the largest campus-based film festival in the nation. They average about 200 films and 34,000 attendees each spring. It's a project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arts Institute, with dozens of campus and community partners. It began in 1999.
One of the great things about the Wisconsin Film Festival is its sense of fun and experimentation. The organizers aren't afraid to try new things and take risks by bringing in some unexpected films, and that creates an experience unique to the Wisconsin Film Festival.
For the festival's 13th year, director Meg Hamel thought about the number 13, and what she could do to play off a "Friday the 13th" sensibility.
As a result, this year audiences could chose from a larger selection of horror and genre films, including "Blood Hook" (1986), "Night Train to Terror" (1985), "The Evil Dead" (1981) and "Troll Hunter" (Norway, 2010). The special opening night film was "13 Assassins," a Japanese samurai film from director Takashi Miike.
During the festival, I attended Thursday's late-night screening of another genre film, the supernatural thriller "Outcast" (United Kingdom, Ireland, 2010).
I'm not a big fan of horror movies and I didn't really know what to expect, but that's another great aspect of the film festival -- the ability to choose from a smorgasbord of films and watch something you might not seek out otherwise. It can often lead to pleasant surprises.
Scottish filmmaker Colm McCarthy's feature-film debut is an effective thriller that's genuinely creepy and at times startling. It takes familiar genres -- the monster movie, the killer-stalking-his-victims plot, the doomed-teen love story -- and mixes them together in fresh ways while adding intriguing elements such as Celtic folklore and occult sorcery.
As "Outcast" begins, the audience is dropped into the middle of a game of cat-and-mouse that has been going on for a long time but that ominously seems to be nearing a violent conclusion.
In the film's opening sequence, Mary (Kate Dickey) and her teenage son, Fergal (Niall Bruton), arrive in the dilapidated council housing estates of Edinburgh, and Mary tells her son, "This is the end of the line," as they torch their van. It's clear they're running from something, but we're not sure what.
Mary is fiercely protective of her son and seeks to shelter him from the outside world. They rent a squalid apartment on the spot and brace for the imminent showdown.
We're then introduced to Cathal (James Nesbitt) and Liam, hunters in an Irish gypsy occult society. Cathal goes through a lengthy and brutally painful tattoo ritual, getting his entire back covered with cryptic symbols. Despite the pain involved, Cathal is eager to get the tattoos, which give him supernatural powers he can harness in his hunt for Mary and Fergal.
The bloody tattooing scene is counterpointed by a scene in which Mary, after sending her son off to bed, strips naked, cuts herself to draw blood and then mixes that blood into a paint-like mixture that she uses to paint large occult symbols on the walls of the apartment.
A fair warning to the squeamish: there's quite a bit of self-mutilation and blood ritual throughout "Outcast."
Cathal and Liam track their prey to Edinburgh, and soon after they arrive, a creature begins stalking the housing projects where Mary and Fergal live, viciously killing victims walking alone at night through the slums.
In addition to all this, Fergal catches the eye of Petronella (Hannah Stanbridge), a sexually forward neighbor girl, and their budding romance and teen sexuality plays out against the other dark and threatening plots.
Indeed, a lot happens in the first 40 minutes or so of the film, and McCarthy leaves many things a mystery initially, which heightens the suspense. It also makes the audience do some work to try to piece together what's happening, and why, and you have to follow it closely or risk getting lost.
Many of the characters speak in very thick Irish accents, and, especially early in the film, subtitles would've been helpful to assist an American audience with following the dialogue.
Questions linger throughout much of the film, which can add intrigue but may also try the patience of some viewers. Who or what is the creature hiding in the shadows and back alleys? Why is Cathal so obsessed with hunting down and killing Mary? Why does Mary try so hard to keep her son from developing relationships and seeing girls? These and other questions are eventually resolved, though I feel some of the pieces and the characters' backgrounds could have been connected more explicitly than they are.
One of the film's strengths is its unconventional and daring mixing of genres and subplots, and yet the downside of that is the sense, at times, that it's trying to juggle too much at once.
Despite these quibbles, the film's cast is quite strong, and the performances by Dickey and Nesbitt are especially worth seeing. Dickey, who was excellent in "Red Road" (WFF07), is striking as a sort of modern day witch who, as a nosy social worker finds out the hard way, is not to be messed with. A heavily-bearded Nesbitt is equally compelling as a relentless killer on the hunt. Indeed, some of the best, and most unique, parts of the film involve the supernatural sparring match that plays out between Mary and Cathal as they each harness ancient rituals and occult powers to thwart the other.
Though filmed on a fairly low budget, the film is artfully shot. It's gritty and atmospheric in a way that doesn't look cheap and that complements the desolate setting of urban housing projects.
If, in the end, the film isn't entirely successful at reaching the ambitious bar it set for itself, it's still far more interesting than your run-of-the-mill slasher film or monster movie, and it's worthwhile viewing for horror film aficionados. While most American horror films are dumbly obvious, it's refreshing to see a film like "Outcast" from the U.K. that isn't afraid to dabble in shades of gray and acknowledges and rewards the intelligence of its audience.
The 14th Wisconsin Film Festival will run from April 18 to April 22, 2012.