Last weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, Finnkino’s Kinopalatsi venue hosted the bi-annual Night Visions film festival, the biggest genre film festival in Scandinavia, which focuses on fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and action cinema.
Although the festival selection was adorned with several prominent titles, such as this year’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite (Bong Joon-ho) and Takeshi Miike’s festival favorite First Love, there were also plenty of hidden gems, old cult classics (Freddie Kruger made an appearance), and off-beat curiosities that form the backbone of the genre film corpus on display. The latter category includes Douglas Burke’s Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear, which screened on Saturday night.
The titular surfer, played by Douglas’ son Sage Burke, is a teenage boy who wiped out on a huge wave some time ago and has since been afraid to get back in the water. The story, as the title explains with staggering transparency, is about the kid confronting his fear. In this quest, he is aided by a man who emerges suddenly out of the water, claiming to be his long-lost father. Douglas Burke himself took on the role of this magical mentor, as well as writing, directing, producing and scoring the film.
By any traditional measure, Surfer is a bad film. The acting is either over the top (Douglas Burke) or entirely deadpan (Sage Burke), the dialogue is at times repetitive, and the plot consists of a boy who’s afraid of surfing starting to surf again. To boot, many of the scenes are poorly blocked, and the sound is far from clean.
But if we can chalk all these up to the curious nature of genre film, Surfer could just as well be described as a very watchable B-movie. Indeed, many people in the audience thought so, especially one presumably intoxicated man who laughed himself out of his seat during scenes that I’m pretty sure were meant to be emotionally poignant. (The man also proffered some heavy commentary along the way, which was luckily lost on me.)
It is true, however, that scenes in which the mythical father ruminates in worn-out clichés about the nature of fear and the meaning of life (and surfing), the poor execution of the whole thing imbues the spectacle with enough oddity and absurdity to make the whole thing strangely comical. The dynamic between the father and the son, too, is funny: while the former frowns his brow intensely when relating his paternal wisdom, the latter betrays no emotion whatsoever behind his non-committal “yeah.”
To what extent the comedic tone is deliberate is anyone’s guess. Later scenes, which introduce some supporting characters, give reason to believe that at least parts of the film were meant to be funny. But overall, the story is quite blasé about its own badness and seemingly takes itself seriously all the way to the expected climax, which the audience can again glean from the title. Maybe that’s why it works.