Rowdy audiences are welcome to the risqué cinema block, Convulsions, during Cucalorus 25. Originally termed “Midnight Madness” before making the switch to Convulsions in 2014, the block is the brainchild of film consultant Aaron Hillis. The 13-year Cucalorus veteran and board member lives in Brooklyn and spends much of the year traveling to film festivals worldwide, scouting movies to bring to Wilmington every November. He says in order for a film to be considered for Convulsions, it must contain two of the following three components: sex, horror and bizarre thrills.
“There are definitely films that are not horror, and there are definitely films that aren’t sexual or erotic,” Hillis says. “But as long as they fit two of those three categories, they tend to play well against one another.”
Since its inception, Cucalorus’ late-night program has earned a reputation for being ahead of the curve. In 2009, it hosted the U.S. premiere of the Greek drama “Dogtooth”—hailed as “perhaps the most outré film ever nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar” by Film at Lincoln Center. In 2013, it played host to the Southern U.S. premiere of Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin,” which won the Cannes Film Festival’s FIPRESCI Prize.
This year’s entries boast similarly impressive pedigrees: “Koko-Di Koko-Da,” about a couple who get caught in an endless cycle of grief while camping in the wilderness, played in competition at Sundance. Both “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “Bacarau” screened at Cannes (the latter won the festival’s Jury Prize).
There’s also the matter of placement. Cucalorus organizers felt so confident about Miguel Llanso’s “Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway” that it was selected for a prime spot on opening night, Wednesday, November 13.
“I think it is one of those films that really is for a Cucalorian audience,” Hillis says. “It’s not just the after-hours sect—it’s a truly bonkers discovery I think people are going to dig.”
Building the selections can be a challenge. Despite the obvious appeal of explicit material, Hillis says, it’s easy to take things too far:
“Programming is a deeply imperfect science, and it’s not just about what’s good but also that negotiation between what you think your audiences are going to like, how far can you push [them] to experience something they haven’t experienced before, and what’s going to meet the tone and the feel of the Cucalorus identity.”
No doubt entries push boundaries. “Koko-Di Koko-Da,” for example, features a sequence in which one of the nursery-ryhme antagonists sings gleefully as his bloodthirsty dog torments hapless campers. However, those wanting to dismiss the films as mere exploitation would be mistaken.
Hillis is an industry veteran whose taste ranges from Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” to Wim Wender’s 1987 romantic fantasy “Wings of Desire” to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Such diversity is reflected in the lineup.
Hillis points to 2018’s “Lords of Chaos” as an example of a film that defies the Convulsions blueprint. “It’s not really a horror movie; it’s a drama, and it’s a biopic about Mayhem, a very prominent Norwegian black metal band,” he says.
Still, things can get a bit squeamish. At the Cucalorus screening of “Lords…” during a scene in which vocalist Pelle “Dead” Ohlin cuts himself onstage, a filmmaker in the audience passed out and knocked out a tooth on the seat in front of him.
“[Afterward], I texted a friend of mine at the distribution company and said, ‘Hey, he’s OK. It’s only free publicity for you now,’” Hillis says with a laugh.
Below he offers tweet-length previews of each of the 2019 films:
“Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway”
Wed., Nov. 13, 9:30 p.m.
Runtime: 1 hr 22 mins
“‘Cucalorus’ kicks off opening night with this outrageous and perverse Cold War techno-fantasy, in which a tiny special agent must fight a Soviet cyber virus in a virtual-reality hellscape that’s part ‘The Matrix,’ part Filipino exploitation cinema, part ‘60s European spy movie.”
Thurs., Nov. 14, 10:15 p.m.
Runtime: 1 hr 26 mins
“‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘The Babadook’ (or maybe ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’?) in this psychologically suspenseful, viciously funny Swedish fever dream, about a couple tormented over and over by the strangest crew of villains you’ll ever see in a movie.”
“Sick, Sick, Sick”
Fri., Nov. 15, 10 p.m.
Runtime: 1 hr 44 mins
“It’s your typical teenage love story: girl meets boy, girl loses boy to hemophilia, girl tries witchcraft and voodoo to resurrect boy. An intense, hypnotic nightmare about obsessive romance, this sensual Brazilian drama is like ‘Pet Sematary’ for fans of arthouse cinema.”
Sat., Nov. 16, 10 p.m.
Runtime: 2 hrs 12 mins
“Get your buttons pushed with this politically satirical, violent and mysterious neo-western (with a touch of horror and sci-fi) from Brazil, in which a village must rebel against foreign tourists who are armed to the teeth with hi-tech weapons. My personal favorite of this year’s ‘Convulsions’ gems.”