Whitby, 24-27 October 2013
This is part one of a three-part review. You can read part two here.
This month, my partner (RS) and I headed to the Whitby Spa Pavilion for the Bram Stoker International Film Festival. The festival is an annual event, showcasing horror features, shorts and documentaries from around the globe alongside Gothic-inflected entertainment, such as the Vampire Ball and the 1880s Night. This festival is now in its fifth year, and I’ve attended four out of five (RS has attended for the past three years), so I think we can count ourselves as regulars.
This year saw a couple of changes to the festival, not least the appointment of a new president: Sultan Saaed Al Darmaki, an Emirati businessman who’s made a bit of a splash sponsoring indie film projects on Kickstarter this year. The ‘extracurricular’ activities were also more ambitious than previous years, adding theatre (John Burn’s Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil), live music (Friday night’s Children of the Night event, featuring Inkubus Sukkubus, Vampyre Heart and Global Citizen), a ‘dark art exhibition’ and lectures from Karen Oughton and David Annwn Jones to the programme. In addition to this, a second screening room – Sultan’s Sci-Fi Suite, showing classic B-movies all weekend – was also opened this year.
As far as me and RS are concerned though, it’s all about the films and about discovering something new that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, so we spent most of our time in the main screenings. Here’s what we thought about what we saw…
Thursday kicked off with the feature film Motel 666 (dir. Carlos Jimenez Flores, 2012), starring Wesley John as the host of a ghost-hunting TV show who’ve been called to a motel with a history of supernatural occurrences. The film is a bit of a mixed bag – the premise, while not particularly original, is handled with enthusiasm. The obligatory flashbacks to the ‘horrors’ of the motel are satisfyingly gruesome rather than ghostly, though occasionally my suspension of disbelief was stretched a little bit too far. The spoof credits for ‘Ghost Encounters’ are a lot of fun, and John is excellent (and a lot of fun) in his role as the show’s host Ted. The film’s twist is a bit predictable, but overall we enjoyed the film.
Next up was a double bill: Dollboy (dir. Billy Pon, 2010), followed by Hazmat (dir. Lou Simon, 2013). Dollboy is a short film about a group of people abducted, locked in a disused flea market, and hunted down by a grotesque murderer. The premise is unoriginal and, creepy as the design of the killer is, the execution is nothing new. The film is prefaced with two Grindhouse-style fake trailers: one for Circus of the Dead and the other for Mister Fister. The latter appears to be an excuse to take pointless sexualized violence against women to the most extreme and vile degree – the film is rated ‘PG’ and I can’t even bring myself to say what that stands for: you’ll have to use your imagination – and it left a really bad taste in my mouth.
Fortunately, this was followed up by the feature film Hazmat, which RS and I both enjoyed, and which was introduced by the director. The film followed a TV show (the second fictional TV team of the day!) called Scary Antics – based on the US show Scare Tactics – as they plan and begin to execute a prank on Jacob (Norbert Velez), a dark and unsettled young man who has recently lost his father. Of course, things go horribly wrong. Despite the fact that, in the Q+A following the film, Simon stressed her lack of experience, the film was very well-directed and well-shot. The acting was also good. The only problem we had with this film is that it is very much of a type – a group of characters trapped by a killer, with no chance of escape – and once you accept that premise, there really is nowhere for the narrative to go. As a result, the last half an hour drags a little, and we found ourselves rooting for the killer to get through his task a little quicker. But he is an awesome killer, so that’s not too bad.
After a very short break, we had another double bill. Two shorts, this time: Wounded (dir. Tom Cowles, 2013) and Ascension (dir. James Hart, 2013). Both films were introduced by their directors – and both featured the Yorkshire actor and friend of the BSIFF Mark Rathbone (who, like last year, brought his ferret along for the Q+A). Wounded is a short film about the aftermath of a task force raid on an underground group in an abandoned building. As two survivors face off against one another, one of them begins to feel the effects of his wounds. This film was Cowles’ final degree project, and this showed. I don’t mean to use ‘student film’ as a criticism here, but rather that it was clear that the director was showcasing his cinematography – possible spoiler alert: the film demonstrates Cowles’ skills in make-up, prosthetics and a little CGI, as well as his thorough study of a certain scene from a certain John Landis film) – rather than developing narrative or characterization. Apparently, Cowles got a first in his degree, and from the evidence we saw it was well-deserved, but he said little about his plans for the future.
Ascension was the debut short from James Hart, based on a short story by Dave Jeffery (which was included in Peter Mark May’s Alt-Zombie anthology). In a West Midlands village, a group of survivors band together to protect their community in the face of the zombie apocalypse. Sadly, Hart’s film left us cold (no pun intended). The acting and direction are weak, and there are issues with lighting and audio that make the film hard to watch. I found the film’s premise intriguing (though RS was less convinced), and think I need to read Jeffery’s short story to appreciate this more. I find zombie films that play around with our expectations of the ‘plucky band of survivors’ much more interesting than those films that focus on ‘new’ characteristics of zombies. But the execution here is disappointingly poor.
Thursday was a bit of a full-on day, so we took a break and missed Ivan Zuccon’s Wrath of the Crows (2013). We came back for The Impaler (dir. Derek Hockenbrough, 2013), a film about a group of young Americans who decide to stay at Vlad the Impaler’s castle in Romania during a trip to Europe. The visitors become trapped in a bloody ritual set in motion by Vlad’s 500-year-old pact with the devil. The film was entertaining enough, and competently made, but it could have been a lot better. I think I was expecting more from a film about Vlad the Impaler led by a Romanian creative team. Not only was the film shot in America (though the sets were convincingly European), the version of Vlad was distinctly Hollywood (in fact, it was the ‘Vlad Dracul’ from Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula). I was hoping for a Vlad-as-national-hero rather than Vlad-as-eternal-lover, so was a little disappointed. Overall, The Impaler felt like a modern Hammer horror – complete with a couple of ‘Transylvanian’ characters that would have absolutely been at home in a Hammer feature – and that’s not a bad thing as such, but not the most original offering of the festival.
The next film was a real treat. I’m not sure why I’ve never seen Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001) before, but I’m really glad I’ve seen it now. A dark, gory, surreal, hallucinatory and funny journey through a seemingly incomprehensible series of events, Suicide Club starts with 54 schoolgirls throwing themselves under a subway train. This is the beginning of an epidemic of suicides, investigated by Detective Kuroda (Ryô Ishibashi) and apparently linked to the ubiquitous all-girl J-pop group Dessert (written with various romaji spellings). Everything that happens in the film is baffling, compelling and mystifying in equal measure. Is it a film about the shallowness and disconnection of contemporary Japanese culture? Is it a gory and trippy retelling of the Pied Piper folktale? Is it a musing on the existential angst of youth? Is there any message at all behind the film? Probably… possibly… no one seems to agree. But whatever the film is about, it is a work of disturbed genius and we loved it.
Dessert’s signature song, ‘Mail Me’ (which was used to fantastic effect throughout the film) is now the creepiest earworm I’ve ever had. I couldn’t find a video that gives you the full effect, but here’s the song (sorry, no subtitles on this video) in case you want to listen.
Just two more films for us on Thursday (as we decided to skip the late-night screening of John Badham’s Dracula): short films Child Eater (dir. Erlingur Throddsen, 2012) and Count Yoga (dir. Adam Dallas, 2013). The former was a babysitting horror/bogeyman-is-real story that was well-done but unoriginal. The latter was a cringe-worthy ‘comedy’ about a Bulgarian (?!) vampire who has moved to Bondi Beach, Australia. It was as bad as it sounds.
We saw so many films over the weekend, I've had to split this review up. You can read the next part of this review here.