Escapism Film Festival
Carolina Theatre of Durham
Oct. 17-19

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival holds more artistic merit, and the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival holds more social relevance. Yet for some of us, there will not be a greater film festival in North Carolina this year than the fifth annual Escapism Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre this weekend. Exactly why has to do with Swedish vampires, Australian splatter films and a very long fight over a pair of sunglasses.

Let me explain. Escapism represents that rare middle ground between high and low art, mostly focusing on that area where the latter becomes the former. The festival specializes in both older and newer films in the horror, action, science fiction, fantasy and “What the hell?” genres. Many of the films shown are often festival hits that don’t get much play in theaters, while others are classics rarely seen on the big screen. And then there’s … other stuff.

But whatever the case, you’re almost certainly guaranteed to walk out of a screening having witnessed something you’ve never seen before.

This year’s lineup is no exception, combining some eclectic cult classics with equally offbeat new material. For me, the highlight is the 35mm print of John Carpenter’s They Live, a 1988 satire starring wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a drifter who gets his hands on a pair of sunglasses that reveal an alien invasion taking place around us. A deft satire of 1980s Reaganism and action movies, the film features some great laughs (money, as seen through the sunglasses, reads “This is Your God”); killer one-liners (“I’m here to chew bubblegum and to kick ass. I’m all out of bubblegum.”); and a scene where Piper tries to get an unwilling friend (Keith David) to put on the sunglasses that just keeps going, and going, and going.

(Trivia: The scene was later subject to a shot-for-shot homage on the “Cripple Fight” episode of South Park. When I met Piper at Comic-Con a few years later, I asked what he thought of this. “Oh, I don’t watch South Park,” replied the star of Hell Comes to Frogtown. “I don’t like cartoons about people getting hurt.”)

Older films at this year’s festival include Jack Clayton’s underrated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (a film so dark that Disney repeatedly recut it an attempt to make it more audience-friendly), and a 45th-anniversary screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds in a 35mm print. There’s also the North American theatrical premiere of the 1989 Marvel Comics adaptation The Punisher with director Mark Goldblatt (see below).

Of course, it wouldn’t be Escapism without some new films. And there’s plenty of those, including Takashi Miike’s latest splatterfest, Sukiyaki Western Django; the horror comedy Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer; the self-aware thriller Midnight Movie; and the Triad-filmed Dogs of Chinatown, which combines Jackie Chan-style kung fu movies with the hyper-stylized look of Sin City and 300. The film’s director, Micah Moore, will attend the festival along with producer Blake Faucette.

Based on some screeners made available, it seems like several of this year’s new films might well be destined for cult status. Let the Right One In, a Swedish film that’s already hit big at several other festivals, has been picked up for a remake by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. It’s the atmospheric tale of a bullied 12-year-old who befriends a mysterious young girl with a bloodsucking secret; the result is tragic and curiously moving.

Less moving but highly entertaining is Not Quite Hollywood, a rollicking look at the Australian “Ozploitation” movement of cheap thrillers and sex comedies. The quick editing, animation and presence of Quentin Tarantino among the commentators (who also include more arthouse-friendly Aussie directors such as Fred Schepisi and Bruce Beresford), actually works in the documentary’s favor, capturing the trashy, energetic look of the films it chronicles. Featuring dozens of movies and approximately 900 sets of naked breasts (I lost count), the film runs a bit long as it highlights films even the participants would rather forget, but it’ll definitely have many viewers rushing out to find copies of the likes of Patrick, Long Weekend and Turkey Shoot.

A few films strive for a cult status that might elude them. France’s Eden Log resembles such video games as BioShock in its tale of an anonymous man trying to find a mysterious place while evading mutants; it looks gorgeous, but some might wonder what the hell just happened. Surveillance, Jennifer Lynch’s long-awaited follow-up to Boxing Helena, has the opposite problem: It hinges on a secret the audience will quickly figure out, before heading into outrageous, divisive territory in its last section.

Escapism is perhaps the sort of festival best enjoyed with copious amounts of sugar, caffeine and/ or alcohol. Its films might not say anything important about society, but at least they’re made to entertain. Besides, where else can you see a zombie cop comedy with Treat Williams, Joe Piscopo, Vincent Price and former MTV VJ Martha Quinn? Not at Full Frame, that’s for sure.

Escapism screens original Punisher

Marvel Comics adaptations are all over the multiplex these days, but the first film adaptation of one of its characters, 1989’s The Punisher, didn’t even make it into theaters. Plagued by distributor troubles, the Dolph Lundgren-starrer wound up being one of the first studio films dumped straight to DVD. Filmmakers tried again with the 2004 version with Thomas Jane and John Travolta; they’ll try yet again later this year with Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson.

Now, American audiences will have a chance to see the original film on the big screen for the first time at the Escapism Film Festival when director Mark Goldblatt premieres his personal cut, containing many instances of action and violence trimmed from the original. “It did play all over Europe and Asia, but unfortunately I didn’t get to go to Europe and Asia,” says Goldblatt, who’ll be in attendance at the festival.

Goldblatt points out that the film stayed at the top of the video rentals for “weeks and weeks” despite almost no promotion. “I think some people were disappointed that we didn’t retain the Punisher logo on his shirt,” he says. “Our creative decision at the time to get away from the spandex superhero costumes at the time. But other people liked it because we really pushed the envelope on mayhemit was a pretty violent film back in those days.”

Goldblatt is best known in Hollywood as an editor for such action films as True Lies, Armageddon, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Pearl Harbor and Starship Troopers. His only directorial efforts were The Punisher and Dead Heat, a bizarre 1988 cops vs. zombies comedy that features, among other things, Joe Piscopo and a reanimated butcher shop. Goldblatt fondly recalls working with horror icon Vincent Price on Heat, which also screens at Escapism. “[Price] was just the most talented, down-to-earth person,” Goldblatt recalls. “He used to come in wearing blue jeans and red sneakers. Just a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Escapism might be the only chance fans have to see Goldblatt’s print of The Punisher. “I’m not even sure who owns it any more,” Goldblatt says. “A French video company was interested in putting out a restored DVD of it, but they couldn’t figure out who had the rights! But I’m happy to show it here.” Zack Smith