Monday, 14 November 2011

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival (Friday & Saturday)

Whitby 29-31 October 2011

This is part one of a two-part review. You can see my review of Sunday and Monday here.

In October, my partner (RS) and I headed to Whitby for the Bram Stoker International Film Festival. The festival is an annual event, showcasing horror features, shorts and documentaries from around the globe. I attended last year’s festival, which featured a number of classic Hammer horror films alongside independent shorts and features. This year’s programme promised a greater focus on indie films, as well as a Vampire Ball, a couple of live performances and horror-themed stalls and merchandise. So… here’s what we thought…

We arrived in Whitby on Thursday and the festival started on Friday. RS hadn’t been to Whitby before, but I’ve been many times – I was a Gothy teenager, so it’s only to be expected. I mention this only to explain why we spent Friday morning wandering around the town, and didn’t arrive at the film festival itself until the 2.30pm screening. This was a duo of shorts, followed by a feature (all of which were allegedly premiering at the festival). First up was Zombiefication, a seven-minute short (available to watch on the YouTube). The film is a fairly fun little take on a safety instruction video, offering a guide to how to deal with a zombie outbreak in a movie theatre. Following this was the French short Cabine of the Dead (Vincent Templement). Again, this was a zombie outbreak film, with a man called Patrick trapped in a phone booth, trying desperately to call for help. The production values and acting were excellent, and the basic idea (though not completely original) was compelling.

However, this leads to my first criticism of the festival as a whole. In the course of writing this review, I happened to look up a few of the films online. I was a bit disappointed to find that the screening of Cabine of the Dead was far from being a premiere, as the short was shown at a number of other festivals prior to the Bram Stoker Festival. I suspect ‘premiere’ on the programme meant ‘UK premiere’, but it would have been better if this had been made clearer.

This session was finished off with the 2008 Chilean-American feature film Descendants – AKA Solos – directed by Jorge Olguin (again, not strictly a 'premiere'). This post-apocalyptic zombie infection movie told the story of Camille, a young girl born with an undefined genetic immunity to the ‘infection’ that is destroying humanity. Highlights included the good (and somewhat unsettling) portrayal of Camille and the development of the ‘beware of other survivors’ trope. However, the film was somewhat let down by a very odd ending involving a giant squid (which was almost entirely incomprehensible). Up to the final scene, though, RS and I thoroughly enjoyed Descendants.

The next screening was the undoubted highpoint of the festival for us. The Belgian ‘documentary’ Vampires (Vincent Lannoo) followed a family of vampires living in modern-day Belgium. George Saint-Germain, his wife Bertha and their ‘children’ Grace and Samson share their daily (or, rather, nightly) lives with a rather nervous film crew. The film was beautifully shot and acted, and very funny in places. Yet it was also creepy, sinister and, at times, really rather dark. This was without doubt our favourite film of the festival, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next was a selection of short films, each retelling a story by Edgar Allen Poe. We had a black-and-white Spanish version of El Corazon Delator [The Telltale Heart], which had the feel of a much older horror film (which is not necessarily a bad thing). This was followed by The Raven, featuring a Professor Yaffle-like raven that was surprisingly sinister, then a ‘Ray Harryhausen Presents…’ retelling of The Pit and the Pendulum. Finally, we had a very dark animated version of Annabel Lee. We did disagree about which of these shorts were the best. RS preferred The Raven, in part because he has a real soft spot for this poem (and he did like the animatronic raven). But I loved Annabel Lee for its puppet Edgar Allen Poe (with nails in his eyes!) and the very creepy baby-doll angels. We were in complete agreement about The Pit and the Pendulum, though, which was a silly little short, missing most of Poe’s original story and with the feel of a kid’s cartoon rather than a horror short.

We decided to call it a night after the Poe shorts, and go for dinner. I do just want to add a word about the guesthouse we were staying in. Prospect House was clean, friendly and welcoming. But one of the highlights for us was the collection of DVDs available for guests to watch – particularly the superb selection of B-movie horror. As if we hadn’t got enough films to watch, we decided to end the night with Psycho Cop. Not exactly of the same quality as the films shown at the festival, but very, very funny.

On Saturday, we were also a bit rubbish at getting to the start of the screenings. Instead of heading straight to the festival, we spent the morning at Whitby Abbey – possibly one of my favourite places in the UK.

We got to the Pavilion at 3pm for Cassadaga (Anthony DiBlasi). This was a rather disjointed feature, telling the story of a deaf woman (Lily) who moves to Cassadaga (the ‘psychic capital of America’) following the death of her younger sister. Lily takes part in a séance, which leads to her being attacked by the ghost of a murdered woman. She decides to investigate the murder, which was apparently at the hands of a deranged psychopath attempting to build a woman-marionette. The problem with Cassadaga was that it appeared to be several different films sewn together. Lily’s story had the tone and plotting of a TV movie about coming to terms with grief; the séance storyline (complete with spiritual black woman in tribal-esque clothes) was more psychological thriller; the marionette killer felt more like Saw-inspired torture porn. Everything about these storylines was different – from the lighting and direction to the levels of violence and sexual reference. Lily’s story was by far the weakest, with way too much backstory (some of which didn’t go anywhere) and over-sentimentalization. Anyone who follows me or RS on Twitter might be aware of our recent Saw binge, so it should come as no surprised that we thought the strongest part of the film was the deranged puppet man. It’s a shame that these elements didn’t come together to create a coherent narrative.

No more films for Saturday, as we decided to go to the Vampire Ball (compered by the wonderful Rosie Lugosi).

You can read my review of Sunday and Monday here.


  1. RS? Don't you mean TB?

  2. Only certain people call him 'TwitterBoy', and I have a feeling you might know who those people are, Anonymous (if that is your real name'. ;-)