Commemorating 15 years of bringing subversive cinema to the Boston area, the Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) kicked off their 2013 edition with a pair of seemingly disparate films linked by a common thematic thread. Both films are explorations of manipulation when employed by either fear, charisma, or both as group motivators. Though the presentations couldn’t be more different (examination of a murderous cult vs. children playing war games), the association is befitting discussion.

The festival’s opener, I Declare War, is a story of war told through the eyes of pre-teens playing a summer war game in the woods. The filmmakers smartly eschew an adult presence, and instead, concoct a hermetically-sealed microcosm where kids make and break their own rules of engagement without adult interference. Though the film is delivered with periods of levity, the use of children to comment on the horror of war is affecting and often harrowing.

With an obvious reverence for war and action films (the works of Kubrick and Coppola come to mind), directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson assign familiar character archetypes to their impressive cast as a means of exploring pre-pubescent angst and confusion. As the filmmakers expressed during a Q&A after the film, they wanted to portray a child’s narrow “life or death” view – no matter how trivial the circumstance – of their immediate world. In this case, each faction lives or dies according to the strategies of “decorated” vet PK (Gage Munroe), and Skinner (Michael Friend), the villainous dictator of a coup d’état.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of James Van Bebber’s incendiary 2003 film The Manson Family. It took Van Bebber more than 10 years to complete his surreal examination of the Manson cult, and the film is now touring across the country in re-release. BUFF was among a few handfuls of screening dates showcasing Van Bebber’s controversial film, and also unleashed his latest short Gator Green.

The Manson Family is part fictional narrative, part documentary recreation, and a sobering snapshot of an era when the Manson cult captivated the nation. Van Bebber avoids glorifying Manson and his followers in tracing their roots as free love hippies to devolution into a delusional collective of bloodthirsty killers. The director employs a number of aesthetic techniques one might find in film offerings from the grindhouse era to showcase the grim ugliness in an unsanitized manner.

Stylistically, Van Bebber’s film is a phantasmagoria of surreal and horrifying imagery meant to capture the frenzy of drug-induced orgies and horrifying acts of murder. The depictions of the murders are relentlessly savage, and remove all traces of romanticism associated with Charles Manson and his disciples. Van Bebber challenges an entire culture obsessed with Manson, by showing events through the eyes of the cult members. He balances the full spectrum with a subplot involving an equally enthralled TV crime show host named Jack Wilson (Carl Day).

The remainder of BUFF’s impressive lineup includes E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a film about the lengths desperate folks will go for money or notoriety. Sion Sono completes his “Trilogy of Hate” (Love Exposure, Cold Fish) with Guilty of Romance, which is sure to continue Sion’s soulful meditations on love that happen to feature dismemberment and deviant sex. Chad Crawford Kinkle’s Jug Face is an exploration of religious extremism set in a secluded rural village where a mysterious “pit” demands sacrifice. The festival will close with Mike Mendez’s Big Ass Spider, an uproarious and unapologetic homage to giant mutant animal films, as well as clever monster movies like Tremors. These titles are in addition to the plethora of provocative documentaries (A Band Called Death), music videos (Where the Music’s At), and surrealist dramas (Los Chidos) that normally grace the screen during BUFF events.

– By Chris Hallock