While Chicago hosts many successful film festivals, it’s unfortunate that a lot of the genre films screening at them (many of which only play once) never connect with the viewers who would seemingly most appreciate them. That’s because the very phrase “film festival” has become synonymous with “art films” in the minds of casual filmgoers. This year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival, which kicks off Friday, April 8 and runs through Thursday, April 21, offers a typically impressive and eclectic lineup of movies spanning myriad genres, countries and styles. My best bets for the festival’s first week are two inventive thrillers that will hopefully find the wide audience they deserve.
The Similars is Mexican sci-fi with an outrageously entertaining premise worthy of The Twilight Zone. During a torrential downpour, eight characters take refuge in a bus stop outside of Mexico City. One by one, the characters experience seizures, after which they awaken to find they all look alike. Hysteria soon takes over: Did a virus cause their facial transformations? Is it a mass hallucination? Is one character among them the Devil? Utilizing a claustrophobic single setting, writer/director Isaac Ezben maintains an atmosphere of tension and a sense of high style throughout. This may lack the allegorical punch of something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the droll humor should make it fun to watch with a big festival crowd.
Thirst is another thriller set in a single location, albeit minus the supernatural element, and an impressive debut for Chicago-based Ecuadorian director Joe Houlberg. The story concerns a young blind woman who vacations at a country home with her cousin and their boyfriends. The house, a colonial mansion where the cousins spent summers in their childhood, seems to bring out carnal desires in the foursome and effectively functions as a fifth central character. Featuring ambiguous flashback inserts and an evocative use of image and sound to convey the sensory experiences of the blind heroine, this haunting mood piece establishes Houlberg as a director to watch.
The Similars screens Saturday, April 9 and Monday, April 11. Thirst screens Sunday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 13. All screenings occur at AMC River East.