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The Horror!

Greatest hits at the Kansas International Film Festival include zombies, speed daters and grizzly bears.


In his astonishing new film, Brand Upon the Brain! (7:10 p.m. Friday), director Guy Maddin captures the flicker and shadow of early cinema without sacrificing modern sophistication. It is the work of a master dreaming of the past. He revels in archaic technique, psychosexual rigmarole and the stuff of storytime — mad scientists and kid detectives both figure in the plot. This is art, and it opens the Kansas International Film Festival on a high.

Among the 50-plus films screening this week are plenty of other delights, many of the once-in-a-lifetime variety.

Barring Maddin, the most successful films are the docs and the horror flicks. Both genres include labors of love, correctives even: the former from filmmakers demanding that we see what the world is like, the latter from filmmakers out to show us what they wish movies were like.

The horror knockout is End of the Line (9:35 p.m. Saturday), a nasty piece of work from Canadian director Maurice Devereaux. After taunting us with some thrillingly staged visions of beasts, Devereaux pits a cast of regular folks against do-gooding evangelicals who save through stabbing. "God loves you!" they insist as they plunge cruciform daggers into the juiciest squib packs an indie budget can buy. The mayhem, confined mostly to subway cars and tunnels, is often more disturbing than fun. Still, it has its laughs — love the effort it takes to wrench an ax back from a head.

That detail would click in Lloyd Kauffman and Troma Films' Poultrygeist (5:20 p.m. Tuesday). All you need to know: In the first 10 minutes, a zombie's hand reaches up from the grave, into the ass of a geeky high school loverboy, and then all the way up and out of said geek's mouth.

The horror film revels in formula and subverts it; here, romantic comedies try this as well. The one success is writer-director Tony Herbert's Speed Dating (7:20 p.m. Saturday), which delivers exactly the kind of snappy, bad-date montages the title promises. And like that Troma zombie, it keeps reaching further. Like Hugh Grant in whatever movie that was, our hero is born into such wealth that he has dedicated his life to looking rumpled and darling while seeking something worth dedicating his life to. Herbert satirizes these clichés while getting away with them, and by the time he's piled on a murder and a nurse with a heart of gold, his warm wit and crack ensemble have us applauding the inevitable.

The artier fare also tends to toy with us for a couple of reels yet still wind up where we expect it. The biggest surprise of the festival is Groundhog Crossing (5:30 p.m. Wednesday), a gentle yet absurd road movie starring Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow, both played by guys in furry costumes. Shaken by the pressure of heralding more winter, the shadow — a darker, more id-driven iteration of Phil himself — has eloped to Tijuana. Phil follows, collects his shadow, and then crisscrosses the country, hitting every place from northwestern logging camps to our own Gates Barbecue. With folksy narration and edge-of-the-world vistas ennobling this silliest of conceits, writer-director Tom Carr's work is funny as hell but also kind of beautiful.

Key to Carr's success is a suspiciousness about all that anthropomorphizing sugar that's been spooned into recent nature docs. No such cheating cheapens The Edge of Eden: Living With Grizzlies (7:15 p.m. Monday), the best of KIFF's animal films. Instead of getting all Us magazine or insisting that animals are just like us, directors Jeff and Sue Turner demonstrate that grizzlies are animals, yeah, but not the brutes we consider them. The Turners introduce us to Canadian Charlie Russell and the quartet of bear cubs he mothers in Russia's Southern Kamchatka Peninsula. The bears wrestle in ponds, learn to forage and fish, and — adorably — slide down snowy volcano sides. Russell, meanwhile, stares down adult grizzlies who threaten his brood, apologizes to his cubs when their feelings get hurt, and — also adorably — builds and pilots his own airplane. It's a revelatory film, one of casual majesty and occasional heartbreak.

The heartbreak is anything but occasional in White Shadows (7:30 p.m. Tuesday), Mialyn Hanna's humane but harrowing examination of Hollywood hairdresser Dalee Henderson's fight against AIDS. Told in bracing close-ups and almost entirely in Henderson's own pained voice, White Shadows challenges us to share his remarkable optimism.

Henderson's flame gutters but never goes out. In The Singing Revolution (7 p.m. Saturday) we see how a dying flame can catch. Following a half-century of Soviet occupation, Estonia and its independence movement flared to full, rousing life in the late 1980s. Sharing this story, directors Maureen and James Tusty dig back though decades and oppression to reveal how a national tradition of choral singing kept alight what Stalin couldn't stub out. The film's final third sees unarmed citizens staring down Soviet tanks. It constitutes the festival's most compelling narrative ... and also one of the world's.

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