Friday was my first chance to see the Downtown Cowtown at the Isis, the newly restored former movie theater that was known as the New Isis Theatre until it closed down in 1988. There will be other acts playing here before the venue’s official grand reopening next month. The 500-seat auditorium doesn’t offer the plushest accommodations, but it looks like it’ll be a handsome and well-placed (on North Main Street) entertainment venue that’ll compete with Bass Hall for booking bands and variety acts. I wish the seats had more legroom, but that minor complaint is my biggest one. The theater displays memorabilia from its history stretching back to 1914, including a menu from the adjoining cafe with a fried-chicken dinner with sides and beverage for 25 cents. That space now holds a bar and lounge. On a related note, I bought a box of candy for only $2.17, a bargain compared with that same candy at a multiplex and competitive with supermarket prices. That made me feel good.
The morning and afternoon sessions here were given over to short films. Colin Babcock (who shone with Dudes at our festival two years ago) contributed The Cow, a comedy film set at a deserted BBQ joint in rural Texas where a chopped brisket sandwich becomes possessed by Satan. It’s a case of an excellent premise that doesn’t go anywhere. The same goes for Sammy James Jr.’s The Acolyte, in which a bunch of old dudes wearing robes and ceremonial masks chant in Latin to try to bring about the end of the world, and a young nebbish among them tries to back out when he realizes they’re trying to make the apocalypse happen.
That last one at least has beautiful black-and-white photography that makes it look like an Ingmar Bergman film. Another vintage photography job is on Tipper Newton’s The Dangerous Type, which imitates the grainy look of a late 1970s drama, with the director starring as an auto mechanic who yearns to escape her small town and move to California. Julia Barnett also stars in a film she co-directs, First Day, giving a funny performance as a sad mother whose kids have become too old to be walked into class on the first day of school, so she’s reduced to offering to walk strangers’ children into their classes. The best short I saw was Eric Jungmann’s Body of the Mined, a science-fiction film set in the future, where he plays a thug who invades an apartment owned by an aging tech nerd (Leonard Kelly-Young) and aims to steal all his equipment, only to receive a nasty shock when he finds out what it’s for. That film has some cool effects as the thug’s arm muscles start to twitch uncontrollably and burst through his skin.
After a dinner break, Downtown Cowtown switched to feature films, beginning with Timothy Stevens’ The Ghost Lights, which is about a cliché of a New York journalist (Katreeva Phillips) returning to Dallas for her father’s funeral and finding his audio cassette tapes of a 1970s interview with an old Mexican (Billy Blair) about the Marfa lights. Blair gives a really good performance as his character relates his own childhood experiences with the lights, but the flashbacks within flashbacks here disrupt the story’s momentum, and the whole thing needed to upgrade its creep factor.
The evening concluded with the Spanish domestic tragedy La mancha negra, a movie that manages to be somber even when it’s taking in the full sunshine of Andalusia. It’s set in the 1970s, when a construction magnate (Pablo Puyol) whose mother has just died returns to the country estate where he grew up and discovers that his sisters are destitute and about to lose the property to a greedy priest (Juanma Lara). What happened to the 2.7 million pesetas he sent them over the years? It’s the first of a series of buried secrets that come to light and result in multiple gruesome homicides of people inside and outside the family. I wish writer-director Enrique García had had a little more fun when so many of these characters turn out to be horrible people, but the script and the film both hang together. The parking fee notwithstanding, I’ll gladly return to the Downtown Cowtown for the next big event.