Monday, 14 November 2011

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival (Sunday & Monday)

Whitby 29-31 October 2011

This is part two of a two-part review. You can see my review of Friday and Saturday here.

Sunday (for RS and me) started with Axed (Ryan Lee Driscoll), a dark and witty British horror feature. Kurt Wendell loses his job – a victim of the global financial crisis – and the tension begins to show in his relationship with his family. He surprises them with a daytrip to the countryside… though ‘surprise’ is probably a bit of an understatement. Kurt is losing his mind, and the title of the film should give a good hint of what is to come. Axed is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, and the lead actor (stand-up comedian Jonathan Hansler) played his role with a fantastic mixture of sinister menace and maniacal exuberance. There were, unfortunately, a couple of continuity errors, which might be a result of the shoot taking less than three weeks! But otherwise, RS and I agreed that this was definitely one of the best films of the festival. The cast and crew took a Q and A after the screening, and the director announced that he has just signed a distribution contract. I’d recommend you watch out for this one.

Next up was Shadows (John Penney), which stars Cary Elwes and William Hurt (surely the most prestigious cast of the festival). Set in Thailand, this feature told the story of Jeff Mathews, who survives a car accident that kills his wife and child. Troubled by visions of the dead, Jeff realizes that his soul has remained in the ‘Shadowlands’ and he must go on a scary journey to the underworld to ‘reunite’ with himself. Filmed on location (including some scenes on the River Kwai), Shadows clearly had a far bigger budget than the other films shown at the festival, and the direction and shooting were excellent (not to mention the acting by Elwes and Hurt). Though the story wasn’t the most original, this film felt very much like a mainstream release. The Q and A with writer/director Penney revealed that there has been a problem securing distribution, and so release had been put on hold. This is a shame, as Shadows definitely holds its own against recent studio releases.

Two features wrapped up Sunday for us. Bruce Ornstein’s Vamperifica was a comedy horror (complete with musical number, ‘Ha Bloody Ha’) in which two of the world's last surviving vampires have sworn to bring back their dead king (Raven), but discover that he has been reincarnated as a bitchy and camp wannabe actor called Carmen. Vamperifica was good fun, though a little predictable and didn’t really go anywhere. I’d watch it again though, as it was engaging and (in places) rather witty. And finally, we watched Baby Shower (Pablo Illanes), a rather brutal and bleak Chilean horror. Angela is pregnant with twins, and her friends (Claudia, Manuela, Olivia and Ivana) arrive at her secluded home to throw her a baby shower. Angela has a troubled past, and the truth about her relationship with husband Felipe is revealed slowly as the film progresses. She has become involved with a sort of spiritual leader, and does not welcome the intrusion of her ‘friends’. Things take a turn for the violent, and a series of gruesome attacks occur (including a brutal rape, a man hoisted onto a meat hook and something involving a silver cocaine straw that still makes me a little queasy). Overall, the film was very enjoyable, though full of very bloody and graphic violence. RS and I were a little divided on our final verdict though. He felt the film was rather confusing, with too much left unexplained, whereas I thought it was one of those films that make the audience work a little harder than usual. We also couldn’t decide whether the ‘spiritual leader’ was a Wicker Man-type Pagan or a devil worshipper. Apparently it’s a very fine line…

As a side note, when we got back to our guesthouse, we just couldn’t resist the lure of the B-movies, and watched Omega Cop - crazy post-apocalyptic fun starring Adam West. About as different as you can get from Baby Shower!

Monday was the final day of the festival, and due a long drive home, we couldn’t stay for all the films. What we did see caused some strong feelings though…

The first screening was a selection of shorts by Elisabeth and Brenda Fies. Hard to Do was a comedy horror drawing heavily from Dexter. A man kidnaps his ex-girlfriend and therapist in order to terrorize them. There were some funny lines, but I was too distracted by numerous continuity gaffs (like disappearing tape and a missing drill bit). Scrutinize was based on an urban legend about a woman getting onto a train and seeing two men holding up an apparently unconscious girl; Faux showed a glamorous woman driving down Rodeo Drive, before returning to a slum apartment and removing all the artificial aids to her glamour (false nails, breasts, butt enhancements, eyelashes and wig). Finally, Scream Queen was a slasher-type horror, but with a ‘victim’ who pulls back at the last minute and begins criticizing the film in a brattish way – revealing that we are actually watching a film being shot. The entire selection was poor and fairly lacklustre, as well as being poorly made in places, and RS and I were left wondering why a whole session had been devoted to the work of these filmmakers (but more on that below).

Next was a screening of Joseph Maddrey’s Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. As many readers will already be familiar with this documentary (or with Maddrey’s book on which it is based), I won’t say too much about it. Suffice to say, this is a fabulous survey of the genre, with insightful comments from influential filmmakers (John Carpenter and George A. Romero, particularly, won our hearts).

So, finally, our last selection of six shorts. Playthings: Hunt (Wade K. Savage) was a promotional short for a forthcoming feature film, in which two young women are hunted through the woods and must do some horrible things to survive. I really enjoyed this short – almost all the violence took place off-camera, and no explanations were offered, which worked really well. This was all about atmosphere, tension, and the audience’s own imagination, and was a great example of how to make a genuinely scary film on a small budget. Next, Juan Con Miedo [Fearful John] (Daniel Romero) was a Pan’s Labyrinth-inspired Spanish horror, in which two children - Maria and Juan - shelter from a storm and read an unsettling fairy tale in an apparently abandoned house. Stylish and creepy, this film’s debt to Guillermo del Toro was impossible to deny. Next, The Furred Man (Paul Williams) was a brilliant British (and very British) comedy horror about the interrogation of Max Naughton (a campsite owned who is, for the duration of the short, wearing a werewolf costume) for a series of brutal murders on his property. The hapless Max tells his story to two sceptical police officers, and the truth is finally revealed. This short was absolutely wonderful – funny, but with a good dash of horror, and all beautifully underplayed by Daniel Carter-Hope as Max. And after this gem, we had Sacrifice (sadly, I didn’t catch the name of the director and haven’t been able to find this film online). This was a stylish modern Gothic about a priest who hunts vampires. It didn’t do anything new plotwise, but was visually stunning.

Unfortunately, the next film really put a downer on the day for us. We’d seen the cast/crew promoting Attack of the Martian Mutant From Mars during the weekend, and from what we could see it was going to be a spoof B-movie. While this was, in a way, true, the film (which was hardly a ‘short’ at half an hour long) was a joke project by Neal Harvey of Rubber Gorilla Mask Making Studio. Shot in shaky black-and-white, and supposedly mimicking the bad acting and implausible plots of earlier monster movies, this film felt like a (bad) student film project. The humour was heavy-handed (mostly revolving around the vague use of the word ‘science’ and the fact that the main character smoked a pipe), and the filming amateurish. It massively missed the point of the B-movies that allegedly inspired it – however silly those films were, they always took themselves seriously. What really riled RS and me was the fact that this film featured the son of the festival director and, clearly, many of his friends. I was also shocked to see Elisabeth Fies (who I have mentioned above) appear, which explained why she and her sister were offered a full session of their own films earlier in the day. This was a piece of self-indulgent nonsense, which had no place at a serious horror film festival. As far as we could see, this was the festival directors letting their friends mess about on the big screen, which was a bit disrespectful to the serious filmmakers who had shown their films and, in some cases, travelled a long way to attend the festival.

Nevertheless, we had one final ‘real’ film on offer before we had to leave. Jonathan Martin’s An Evening With My Comatose Mother was a 33-minute Hallowe’en horror, giving a twist on the ‘terrorized babysitter’ movie. Dorothy is called in to look after the catatonic mother of Alice Poe… and bad things happen. The film was well-made, with some pretty creepy set pieces. In the Q and A afterwards, director Martin said that the film was made on a $10,000 budget, and this certainly showed in the production values. However, the premise and execution seemed a little dated – though maybe I’ve just seen too many babysitter horror films. Martin said he is planning a feature film, as the short has been well-received. It might not be the most original film ever, but I would definitely watch a feature-length Evening With My Comatose Mother, maybe on a dark and creepy Saturday night.

Final thoughts on the festival? I’m not sure it quite lived up to last year’s success. The focus on indie horror was good – though I did enjoy the classic movies in last year’s programme. But the organizers seemed to have different priorities this year. By taking over Hallowe’en weekend – meaning that the main events of the Whitby Goth Weekend were moved to the following week – the festival promoters were obviously trying to cash in on the number of Goths who flock to Whitby at Hallowe’en. For this reason, a number of non-film-related events threatened to overshadow the screenings, designed as they were to pull in cash-laden Goths instead of indie horror geeks. As noted, Monday’s programme was too self-indulgent for our tastes, and seemed to imply a lack of respect for the hardworking filmmakers who were showing their films.

This is a real shame, as the festival has the potential to be a great horror film festival. I mean… come on… horror films at Hallowe’en in Whitby, you shouldn’t be able to go wrong. And if we ignore the questionable choices on the final day, this year’s schedule was really good. I would love to see the festival return to showing a range of good quality indie horror, coupled with a few classics for balance. RS and I will definitely look forward to seeing what’s on offer in 2012.

Next year’s festival will take place on 25-28 October. For more details, visit the festival website.

You can see the awards given out by the festival here, but here are mine and RS’s ‘awards’:

Best Feature: Vampires (Vincent Lannoo)

Second Best Feature: Axed (Ryan Lee Driscoll)

Best Short: The Furred Man (Paul Williams)

You can see my review of Friday and Saturday at the festival here.


  1. Hello!

    Thanks Kindly for the postive feedback for my latest film, 'Hunt'! It's really appreciated.

    Wade K. Savage

  2. Hi Wade,

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the feature film.

  3. I find your review incredibly accusational as well as personal (therefore an unreliable criticism) on regarding the 'disrespect' of the makers of the B movie spoof towards the other film makers.
    As the people who run the festival they are entitled to show anything they want on the basis of their hard work putting the festival together. It is fine if you did not like the film but to accuse the directors of allowing their friends into the festival line up is out of context of the whole picture; everyone including the other film makers are all good friends and the supportive spirit of the festival is what makes it a unique and friendly film festival.
    If you do attend next year perhaps you would like to focus on the event and films themselves and any problems you have with the festival take up with the organisers in a much more creative way of criticism.

  4. Thanks for the review. I agree with almost every thing in it except I enjoyed Axed more than Vampires!! That film was so good. :) I completely agree with what you said about the martian mutant film. That should have been on youtube, not shown at a film festival. The commenter above me is quite rude and clearly hasn't read any of the rest of your review of the rest of the films. :(