Midnight Movie Masterpieces – Part 1

Above, a scene from Michael Tully’s Septien.

I’m not usually a fan of “Midnight Movies”—horror, camp, sci-fi, B-movies, etc.—but three nights in a row I’ve loved Sundance’s 12am screenings at the Egyptian Theater. The crowds have been large and raucous, and a touch of weed wafted through the house one night. Sundance Director of Programming Trevor Groth has let loose in his intros, and the filmmaker Q&As have been filled with inappropriate innuendo and cussin’. It’s been a lively environment, but more importantly the films are freakin’ fantastic.

Michael Tully perfectly summed up the vibe of his film Septien, saying at the premiere Q&A that he wanted “to bring a personal touch to a story that’s preposterous, to see if the absurdity can still be human even if the scenario is impossible.” Tully plays a former high school athletic star who returns to his family home after a mysterious 18-year absence. His older brothers uneasily occupy the crumbling family homestead, bickering out their quietly loony existence: the youngest brother an Of Mice and Men Lenny living in a truck tire, the middle brother a painter of cartoon Brueghel sexual violence, the eldest an angry wannabe den mother. Thickly bearded and often sporting granny sunglasses, the prodigal son is at first mistaken for the messiah, were the messiah a gambling, gas-huffing grouch. “Where’s your face?” older brother Robert Longstreet asks. “You smell a little bit like a caribou.”

Old rivalries and antagonisms percolate, filth rises from the septic tank as though hell is spilling over, and the boys can only relate to each other while singing separately in their own rooms: “smother the demons, smother the demons.” But in Septien’s unique tone, a pitch-perfect blend of the ridiculous and deadpan, the humor is rooted in understandable emotions and genuine pathos. A rambling monologue by middle brother Onur Turkel, for example, is crushingly heartbreaking, and it’s fascinating to watch Longstreet as he crumbles emotionally while using blood for lipstick, then snaps himself back into seriousness.

Through the madness, tidbits of realistic dialogue, unexpectedly candid performances, and humane physical details allow the audience an in with which to connect to this religious-parable-slash-surrealist-comedy. With a warm Super-16mm look crafted by Rooftop alum Jeremy Saulnier and a detailed tactile set, the film is a masterpiece of emotionally-impactful, deliberately-inscrutable comedy.

You might well be seeing Septien on a roof in Brooklyn this summer, but if you can’t wait, you can and should check it out on Sundance Selects Video-On-Demand now and for the next 30 days.

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Read more below on the equally brilliant, radically weird films Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal) and The Oregonian (Calvin Lee Reeder).