Not the four-letter kind: Familiar curses get new stories at the Austin Film Fest

Time Trap, Chasing the Blues, and Meerkat Moonship are cursed (as Ars’ favorite AFF indies).

Within this sneaky cinema town, perhaps no event outpaces the annual Austin Film Festival & Conference. It’s a non-profit-led, eight-day movie love affair with panels devoted to screenwriting (both practical industry advice and folks like the team behind Arrival sharing insight on crafting believable sci-fi) and a wide-reaching film program. This year, buzzy A-list work like Armie Hammer’s Call Me By Your Name or Margot Robbie’s I, Tonya shared the schedule with “documentaries” about Apollo 18, actual documentaries on famed political cartoonists, and a slew of independent filmmakers (from both Texas and beyond).

That last category caught our eye in particular because of an unexpected overarching theme—curses. Among the handful of films we managed to catch, many relied on an inexplicable, supernatural omen to bring the story together. Luckily, none of ‘em left us muttering the four-letter variety on the way out. Instead, each took a familiar brand of ominous curse and used it within a new context.

Ben Foster and Mark Dennis, the Texas team behind Time Trap (and former festival darling Strings), evidently grew up on the same ‘80s movies many of us did. An academic archaeologist has a dangerous pursuit in mind that may or may not involve an otherworldly relic. A group of kids takes on an adventure larger than they could fathom in order to save a friend. And as part of a school project, students inadvertently end up with people from multiple time periods running around within the same space.

Those ideas happened in separate ‘80s films, of course—but Time Trap audaciously strives to mix ‘em all together in a not-so-straightforward adventure flick. The Indiana Jones-ish professor here is named Professor Hopper, and he knows of a local urban legend that involves an entire family gone missing while exploring a cave somewhere nearby. Hopper tells a group of his best students that he thinks he’s recently found the spot. And when the professor soon goes silent for several days, the students (along with their kid sibling and her friend) suddenly must take up the search, too.

Time Trap wears its inspirations on its sleeve and has fun doing it. For instance, the younger sibling’s pal is a rotund, long-haired, annoying boy nicknamed Furby. When he expresses a bit of nervousness about dropping down into a cave, student Taylor has a winky line ready and waiting. “Relax,” he tells Furby. “It’s not The Goonies.” (“What’s The Goonies?” the kid asks. “You do look like Chunk,” another student replies.) The film also references the Holy Grail/fountain of youth, and at least one character possesses an Indiana Jones-and-snakes-like fear of spiders.

The curse in Time Trap comes into play late in the film after the group of students successfully deciphers exactly what is happening to people when they enter this cave. (That process happens through some clever deductive reasoning via smart phone footage.) It doesn’t turn the film tonally into a horror; it doesn’t stand-in for any profound lesson. Instead, Time Trap’s curse is ultimately what allows its dizzying array of varied genre-inspirations to co-exist within a single story. Without spoiling anything, even if you can foresee this twist, you can’t predict how it winds up for our present-day heroes. As a coherent story, it mostly works. But what you’ll walk away admiring most is the film’s ambition.

Time Trap is currently within the film festival circuit, including a January screening at Japan’s Yubari Fantastic Fest. Follow its Facebook page for future screening dates, distribution news, and evidently an endorsement from Kathie Lee.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before—a cursed piece of media causes bad things to happen to anyone who comes in contact with it. However, Chasing The Blues is distinctly not like The Ring. Instead, this film takes the same basic curse concept and transports it into a comedy about vinyl-obsessed music nerds.

Back in the late 1980s, Alan taught music history at a local Chicago school. And his favorite shop in the city, located on the other side of town, belonged to Paul. The two share of a love of blues, and it’s quickly evident they’re frenemies at best. “This is the people’s music,” Paul tells Alan as the latter flips through the stacks and complains about the asking price for what he sees as pedestrian records. “A blues snob is an oxymoron; a white blues snob is just a moron.”

One day, Alan gets a tip that an elderly black woman near Paul’s shop recently lost her husband… who left behind a giant vintage record collection. Even better, this collection is rumored to contain a ultra-rare copy of Jimmy Kane Baldwin’s only single, “O Death, Where’s Thy Sting?” It’s one of just four pressings in circulation because, well, the people in that studio back in the 1930s all mysteriously died shortly after the recording session. Unbeknownst to the studio exec or session musicians, Baldwin was wanted for murder in Louisiana when he beelined up to Chicago to record. Evidently, certain listeners can hear screams in the background of the chorus, and those people usually suffer tragedy soon after.

Chasing The Blues mostly focuses on the love/hate relationship between Alan and Paul and how the duo encounters more and more absurd bad happenings in pursuit of the cursed record. (Luckily, Grant Rosenmeyer, aka one of The Royal Tenenbaums kids, and Ronald L. Conner work together charmingly as Alan and Paul.) On the milder end, the duo ends up spending the better part of a week living with this elderly woman in order to befriend her for the album (and ensure the other guy doesn’t do it first). “These aren’t worth much anymore, people are switching to compact discs—digital is the future,” Alan tells the woman at one point. “It sounds like you’re in the room with musicians, and I hear they last forever. In 100 years, you’ll still have the same albums you have today.”

The story bounces around time periods while crime and death occur. But Chasing the Blues keeps its audience smirking throughout as these two adults try to screw each other over a record that would supposedly ruin them anyway. “I can’t explain why this supposedly cursed-by-the-devil record made me move into someone else’s apartment, made me abandon my own life,” Alan tells someone on a bus later in the film. Well, that’s simply what curses do, Alan. They operate in mysterious ways.

Chasing The Blues is currently within the festival scene, including an upcoming screening at the Anchorage International Film Festival in Alaska. Follow its Facebook page for notices about upcoming screenings or distribution announcements (the film has also compiled its referenced blues tracks in a Spotify playlist; you’ve been warned about “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?”)

Meerkat Moonship may likely be the most traditional curse movie we caught at AFF 2017, or, at least it seems like a traditional curse movie. But South African filmmaker Hanneke Schutte’s quiet film offers more depth and artistry than other tales of the young and ill-fated.

We meet young Gideonette as she’s watching community theater with her father, and the production tells the story of a local monster that preys on young kids in the woods. But the monster on stage soon appears to be a metaphor—off-stage, the local village is convinced the name Gideon is what’s cursed. Several prior Gideons in town met early and unfortunate demises, so Gideonette’s preacher/father named her as such to demonstrate to his parishioners that this was BS.

Gideonette initially believes her father, but slowly her confidence erodes. A series of unfortunate events leads Gideonette to fear some kind of monster constantly lurking around the corner, conveniently looking like the troll-ish thing from the play. After being shipped to her grandparents to get away from the toxic community, she’s scared to even step outside.

That is, until she meets young Bhubesi. Bhubesi is a younger deaf boy who lives down the street from Gideonette’s grandparents, and he has been working with Grandpa on a longterm project to build a spaceship that looks like a meerkat (and may be an extravagant treehouse to non-believers). Bhubesi constantly carries his space helmet and a notebook with his illustrated astronaut plans around, fearlessly enjoying the many wooded areas in the neighborhood without fear of wildlife, creaky bridges, or slippery rocks on the water.

Gideonette initially only watches Bhubesi’s adventures from her window, but the kid’s charming antics and constant invitation eventually help shake the girl out of her fear of the unknown. The adventures these two go on—interspersed with behind-the-scenes conversations Grandpa and Grandma have about the village and Gideonette’s parents—represent the strongest parts of the film. (Meerkat Moonship filmed in a rain forest in Limpopo, South Africa, and the setting is as picturesque as you’d expect). Imagination and companionship allow a young girl to have her childhood back following tragedy, and her caring grandparents debate how much reality to let seep into this dream adventure throughout.

But like all of these films, curses prove to be curses for a reason—bad stuff does unexpectedly happen. No monster has been after Gideonette this entire time, but life itself proves it can be monstrous: death lurks over everyone to various degrees, even the adults we trust most (and seem most sane) can fall prey to illness or paranoia, and all adventures end (even those involving imaginary meerkat-like spaceships). Yet no matter how dark it gets for Gideonette, Meerkat Moonship does not subscribe to nihilism in the end. Instead, she perseveres through a rough patch with the encouragement of friends and loved ones. Growing up can be both a curse and a blessing, after all.

Meerkat Moonship is currently on the festival circuit. Follow along with its Facebook page for future information on screenings and distribution; its South African premiere is March 16, 2018.

Listing image by Film Factory