Two seconds and three quick cuts is all Alfred Hitchcock needed to traumatize me.
Watching “The Birds” on television as an impressionable 12-year-old seemed like a good idea until Jessica Tandy discovered the farmer with his eyes pecked out. Rather than a traditional zoom, Hitchcock used three staccato shots to close in on the wounded face, and that cutting strategy sliced right into me. Those bloody, blinded eyes preyed upon me for months.
I was haunted, yes, but also helplessly smitten by the power of movies. Thinking about how Hitchcock canceled all sound during those two seconds and then withheld Tandy’s immediate reaction by placing her behind a door—after all, the scene’s real subject is the viewer’s shock—helped me grasp how film artists deploy technical schemes to trigger emotional or psychological responses.
Fifty-six years after its release, does “The Birds” still have the capacity to elicit horror? To find out, the Milwaukee Film Festival, which opened Thursday, will present Hitchcock’s apocalyptic story of death dive-bombing out of the clear sky at 10 p.m. Tuesday inside the Oriental Theatre.
The screening is part of the festival’s Cinema Hooligante strand, which collects 19 features that are scary, weird, juvenile or otherwise disreputable. In other words, if you’re in a Halloween mood, these movies are for you.
Veronica Cartwright, who starred in “The Birds” as a teenager, will be in Milwaukee to boost “The Field,” a new Wisconsin-set thriller in which she has a small role as an older woman connected to a rural town’s mysterious past. Directed by area filmmaker Tate Bunker, the movie also features Barry Bostwick and a cameo from local legend Mark Borchardt.
Surely you remember Borchardt as the long-haired, would-be film director at the center of “American Movie”? That classic documentary, now 20 years old, chronicles his hilarious attempts to shoot “Coven,” a no-budget horror flick, in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. One of the great movies about making movies and about making it in America, the film affectionately presents Borchardt as a motor-mouthed, optimistic dreamer in the mold of Ed Wood, both driven and insecure, both barracuda and teddy bear. Borchardt gained a measure of national celebrity in the wake of the documentary’s release—check out his glorious Letterman appearances on YouTube—and remains a beloved, gregarious figure in the Milwaukee filmmaking scene.
Borchardt will bring his personal 35mm print to Wednesday’s archival screening of “Coven,” which stars the director as an alcoholic who learns his self-help group has a dark underbelly. Despite being a labor of love and containing some sharp satirical ideas and stark wintry images, the 40-minute black-and-white movie isn’t particularly strong. Don’t let that put you off, though: Trust me, the planned Q&A session with Borchardt, a freewheeling raconteur, will likely be a festival highlight.
Few storytellers are as unruly as David Lynch, whose “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” (1992) served as the big-screen prequel to a hypnotic ‘90s television series with kooky characters, surreal dreams and an urgent mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? Expanding Lynch’s vision of lurking evil, the movie is nastier than the TV show and somehow even more labyrinthine. Perhaps special guests Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise, who played Laura and her father, can show viewers the way out at the Palmer Family Reunion Meet and Greet that will take place after the Oct. 29 screening.
Demented suburban satires always risk being labeled Lynchian, but “Greener Grass” sounds closer in spirit to the edgy, screwball anarchy of John Waters. Directed by improv jesters Dawn Luebbe and Jocelyn DeBoer, who also star as competitive housewives, this comedy of manners opens with a new mom gifting her baby to her best friend—it’s the neighborly thing to do—and the absurdity only escalates from there.
Animation, of course, is well-suited for ditching reality. The whimsical, family-friendly “Okko’s Inn” concerns a young orphan who befriends the spectral creatures haunting her grandmother’s rural inn, while “I Lost My Body,” which is definitely not for kids, tracks a severed hand as it crusades through Paris, accumulating political metaphors while yearning for re-attachment.
Actor Mark Patton didn’t lose his body while starring in the ‘80s slasher “Freddy’s Revenge,” but he may have lost his career. The new documentary “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street” describes how Hollywood wasn’t ready for the infamous homoerotic subtext of the second Elm Street movie. Facing unexpected homophobia and discrimination, Patton, who was closeted at the time, retreated from the industry.
New works by three major international filmmakers have also been given Cinema Hooligante slots. Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow” is a martial arts extravaganza about palace intrigue in ancient China. Set in modern Tokyo, Takashi Miike’s “First Love” presents a drug addict and a boxer with a brain tumor as lovers on the run, which actually sounds safer than what’s happening in the ‘70s London of “In Fabric,” Peter Strickland’s creepy hellscape about a cursed, murderous red dress.
Souls wishing to brave another realm of devilry (and hilarious pandemonium) might want to check out the Midnight shorts program. For the price of a single ticket, sinners can enjoy 10 wild stories from the most twisted corners of the world.
Both “Knives and Skin,” about the disappearance of a teen girl, and “The Wind,” about a frontierswoman losing her grip on reality, take place in the Midwest, our corner of the world, which makes each feature a sinister choice for local viewing. After all, the most frightening boogeymen are those in your own backyard.
The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 31. The full lineup plus ticket and venue information are online at mkefilm.org.