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Highlights of this year's festival include Maniac, Tron, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, In the Shadow of the Moon and The Monster Squad.

Escapism Film Fest 

Revenge of the nards: Anniversary screening of The Monster Squad headlines

Escapism Film Festival
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Oct. 5-7

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"Wolfman's got nards!" If that line rings a bell, then this weekend's Escapism Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre may be for you.

Billed as an "attempt to capture whatever's hot in the movies," highlights of this year's festival include an uncut version of the grindhouse classic Maniac with director William Lustig in attendance, anniversary screenings of Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the new, ultra-escapist doc In the Shadow of the Moon (read our review), and a special anniversary screening of 1987's The Monster Squad that features appearances by cast members Ashley Bank and Cary resident André Gower.

Gower, whose Cinema South production company co-produced this year's festival, starred in the cult hit, which was recently released on DVD from Lionsgate. Directed by Night of the Creeps' Fred Dekker and co-written by future Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black, the film pits a group of monster-hunting kids, led by Sean (Gower), against a group of real monsters that includes Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man.

The Los Angeles-born Gower appeared on many popular TV shows in the early 1980s before moving to North Carolina to attend college. His roles included playing William Shatner's son on T.J. Hooker and George C. Scott's son on the Fox sitcom Mr. President. "I've only been chewed out by one person in my entire life, and it was George C. Scott," says Gower, now 34. "But he was right. And it's kind of a badge of honor, getting yelled at by him."

The Monster Squad was not a hit on its initial release, but earned a cult following through VHS and showings on cable. A 2006 reunion screening at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, arranged by the Web site Ain't It Cool News, led to more reunion shows and a top-selling DVD release. "[After the screening] for a lot of people, it was like a light switch was turned on, and the memories came flooding back," says Gower, who credits the screening for the DVD. "That launched everything."

The film strikes a darker, more subversive note than most of today's films for kids, including kids smoking, swearing (see the above "nards" line) and at one point blowing away a monster with a rifle. It also doesn't shy away from making the monsters genuinely menacing, including a memorable climax where Dracula (Duncan Regehr) hisses, "Give me the amulet, you bitch!" to a 5-year-old (Bank). "You couldn't make a movie like this today," Gower admits. "But touches like that is what helps make The Monster Squad fun and relatable to younger fans."

Gower is unafraid to embrace his past as a child star and often makes appearances at screenings and conventions. "I have no reservations about what I did or who I was, because those experiences are part of who you are," says Gower, who still gets recognized for his role in The Monster Squad. "Monster Squad fans are fantastic, loyal fans, and you can't beat that."

André Gower and Ashley Bank will appear at Saturday's 7 p.m. screening of The Monster Squad.


Escapism highlights

Of all the scheduled shorts, the most imaginative, can't-miss entry is Apocalypse Oz. Simply put, the plot is The Wizard of Oz meets Apocalypse Now. Amer-Asian Dorothy Willard lives in Kansas with her abusive aunt and uncle. A dreamscape propels her onto a mission to track a renegade Army colonel, code-named "The Wizard" (M.C. Gainey from Lost), and terminate his command. Dorothy steals a red car (with a vanity plate reading RUBY) for her journey and attempts to evade a wicked cop whose arsenal includes poppy fields and napalm. The joy of this regrettably short (25 minutes) movie is wallowing in the original dialogue and soundtrack lifted directly from the source films and observing how writer-director Ewan Telford synthesizes them into a cohesive production. His level of success on this point fluctuates, and the film would have benefited from a bit less campiness and the financial resources to expand the novel storyline to the feature-film length it demands. Nonetheless, it might be the most entertaining of all the festival's entries and, if nothing else, will send you scurrying to rewatch and appreciate the two superlative films it lionizes. —Neil Morris

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The award-winning Fong juk (Exiled) is Hong Kong director Johnny To's unofficial sequel to his 1999 The Mission. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Infernal Affairs) and Francis Ng (Infernal Affairs 2) reteam for this film, set in 1998 Macau on the eve of Portugal transferring their erstwhile colony to Chinese rule. The gangster plot revolves around hitmen sent from Hong Kong to take out a renegade member. —Neil Morris

New Zealand's Black Sheep aspires to ape both the zombie-film satire of Shaun of the Dead and the over-the-top gore comedy of another New Zealand film, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (Jackson's WETA workshop also did Sheep's effects). This tale of wooly quadrupeds gone bad boasts some decent effects and funny lines, but a predictable storyline and tired gross-out images keep it from its desired instant-cult status. There are only so many times you can watch a sheep bite a man's face off. —Zack Smith

Cthulhu, an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation featuring Tori Spelling (a sentence you don't get to write every day), features some moody set pieces and potentially entertaining satire, but suffers from slow pacing and an overlong two-hour running time. Also, despite the title, the famous octopus-faced monster doesn't show up, instead updating ideas from Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." —Zack Smith

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Longtime indie horror director-producer Larry Fessendon (Wendigo) offers a thoughtful, handsomely produced entry with The Last Winter, an eco-terror thriller set in the Arctic region of northern Alaska. An oil company has been granted drilling rights in the heretofore pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and their advance struggles to set up a base of operations. A mysterious mental disintegration gradually begins to affect each team member, leading to horrific results. Ron Perlman, James LeGros and Connie Britton (TV's Friday Night Lights; Spin City) give solid performances, but the real star is Fessendon's surprisingly polished, sure-handed cinematography using his barren Arctic backdrop (although some of his special effects are amateurish at best). The film's style and plot call to mind several previous works, notably John Carpenter's The Thing. —Neil Morris

The Signal, a darling at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is a tense, inventive horror film shot in three segments—called "transmissions"—by three directors using three styles of filmmaking. Using common characters, the plot involves a mysterious electromagnetic signal being transmitted through all televisions, cell phones and radios that drives people into a bloody, homicidal rage. Different audiences will have their favorite part; mine is the splatter-inspired Part 1, while many will enjoy the satirical love story of Part 2 with its passing evocation of the ever-popular Shaun of the Dead. The story, and the otherwise terrific energy of the cast, winds down during Part Three's "thriller" finale, but the trip there is bloody and bodacious. —Neil Morris

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