Why do I love Fantastic Fest? What is it about a week-long, punishing gauntlet of film that has me striking days off my calendar in anticipation? Is it the secret screenings? While they are somewhat thrilling, the secret screenings hold only a modicum of appeal for me. Is it gorging myself on Drafthouse food and drinking until my eyes swim in gin? I’d be a bald-face liar if I pretended not to adore the chicken strips and the myriad cocktails, but again that is not the biggest seller for me. The reason I love Fantastic Fest is that it is a forum for films that I may never see again. Sure, several of the films will get picked up for distribution on DVD but it’s not guaranteed. Not only that, but some titles will get distribution in slightly-less-than-local markets like The United Kingdom or Sweden and importing them becomes quite costly. So the thrill of discovering unsung greatness at Fantastic Fest is not only rewarding, but is expounded by the ephemeral nature of these films. Kaifeck Murder is a film no one was talking about and I therefore had no concept of what to expect. What I got was a great little film that I may never see again; hopefully I’m wrong.
Kaifeck Murder is about a photographer traveling through pastoral Germany with his young son. He arrives in the quaint village of Kaifeck while everyone is making preparations for their version of the Christian Epiphany celebration. Being that his project is to document strange rural traditions, the photographer relishes the opportunity to stay a few days in Kaifeck; his son is not so inclined. Immediately things turn freaky face as the photographer begins having hellish nightmares involving a drowning woman, a multiple murder, and a screaming baby. As if that weren’t creepy enough, turns out part of the celebration involves all the locals donning rejected Where The Wild Things Are costumes and chasing children around the streets. What is the secret this small town is hiding? How does it tie into this bizarre ritual?
I really, really liked Kaifeck Murder. I’m not ready to love it, but I think a few more intimate dates will seal the deal. This is a spooky, atmospheric mind trip that invokes the like of The Wicker Man. And when I say The Wicker Man, I mean the Christopher Lee classic, not Nicolas Cage’s Goober Man. In fact, the more I watched this weirdly religious town and the means to which it would resort to protect its image, I realized that The Wicker Man must have been a formidable influence on the script. I am not usually a fan of brooding, trippy horror, but Kaifeck Murder won me over with its characters, its simple yet fascinating story, and gripping visual style.
Benno Furmann, who plays the photographer, is solid. He plays the quintessential “every man” quite well and his relationship with his son is very honest. He was a terribly decent guy with an clearly evident compassion and that prompted the audience to fear for him; heightening the tension. The unsettling townies formed a great ensemble that would make you seriously rethink purchasing real estate in Kaifeck. I’ve seen “town with a secret” films before that sacrifice believable characters for creepiness and it always takes me out of the story. But Kaifeck Murder delivers a subtle ominousness in the villagers that makes your neck hairs stand up but seems completely tangible. In other words, it was easy for me to understand why Furmann didn’t pack up and leave after an hour and half in Kaifeck.
The story of Kaifeck, the town, is incredibly interesting. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was really compelled by each new piece of the overall puzzle of which we slowly became aware. But while the story was dark and horrific, it never felt forced. Honestly the great mystery behind Kaifeck is terribly simple, but the fervor by which it is protected is what makes it so juicy. The simplicity of the story keeps it grounded and never requires a massive suspension of disbelief. I never once doubted that the events in the film could actually take place in some remote place that time has forgotten.
The visuals of Kaifeck Murder are again pretty simple, but they are also unnerving and dream-like from start to finish. Every moment of alternate reality is beautifully shot and really utilizes the bleak, yet gorgeous terrain of the location. I think the reason the visuals worked so well for me plays into a commonality for the entire film: subtlety and restrain. It would be expected, based on films we’ve seen that are cut from a similar cloth, that the dream sequences and the hallucinations would involve a lot of warped faces and jump scares. But in Kaifeck Murder, these moments are so even-keeled that it allows to focus on the actual events being depicted instead of a hyper-stylized version of the events designed to hook the audience with the gimmick. The hallucinations are connected to the events of the past and those events themselves are more terrifying than a ghost running up to the camera and screaming. It’s less a supernatural thriller as it is an honest, psychological thriller.
I really hope Kaifeck Murder gets distribution in the United States as well as Germany. It is a spectacular little film that illustrates the rewards of employing more substance than scare. I think any big fan of The Wicker Man will really get a kick out of this film. I could understand the argument that it does seem a little slow at times, but I honestly never felt as though there were any pacing problems. The characters are believable, the story is rock solid, and the visuals are fascinating. This film, for me, exemplifies exactly what this festival is about.
The Upside: Subtle, dark horror film that never overplays its hand
The Downside: I could see where the pacing could be perceived as a problem
On the Side: American audiences should recognize Benno Furmann from his work in films like The Order, Speed Racer, and The Mutant Chronicles.