Thursday, 31 October 2013

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival (Saturday and Sunday)

Whitby, 24-27 October 2013

This is part three of a three-part review. You can read part two here, and part one here.


Nothing on the main screen on Saturday morning appealed to us, so we decided to take the opportunity to try out Sultan’s Sci-Fi Suite… and this was a very good move. We started off with The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (dir. Joseph Green, 1962), slightly silly, slightly sinister evil scientist fare. Brilliant. As was our next choice… Strange Invaders (dir. Michael Laughlin, 1983). Not the best remembered sci-fi flick of the 80s, granted, but a wonderful homage to earlier B-movies and an awful lot of fun. Sultan’s Sci-Fi Suite got a big thumbs up from us.

Back to the main screen, the next film we saw was Pieces of Talent (Joe Stauffer, 2012). This feature film tells the story of Charlotte (Kristi Ray), a wannabe actress stuck working as a waitress and living with her deadbeat mother. One night at work, Charlotte runs into David (David Long), a weird loner who says he’s a filmmaker, and the two strike up a friendship. David wants Charlotte to be part of his new project… but she has no idea what this project really is.

It would be easy to describe Pieces of Talent as a serial killer film. And it is, sort of. But it also a lot more than that. It’s an unsettling, strange and compelling film, which is moved up from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ by David Long’s amazing performance. Long’s character (he is listed in the credits as playing himself) is more than a hackneyed ‘creepy loner’. Without offering too much backstory, there is a depth and complexity to the character that is almost entirely conveyed through subtle dialogue and physical performance. There’s a scene part way through in which David takes a bath – that’s all that happens – but the combination of skilful direction and Long’s facial expressions communicates beautifully. Pieces of Talent was, without doubt, the highlight of our festival.

Following this, there were two shorts. The first of these, The Graveyard Feeder (dir. Rich Robinson, 2012), was a comedy horror about a graveyard keeper hurrying to save his father’s soul from a creature that’s feeding in the cemetery. I guess this was the sort of film that you either find funny or you don’t. We didn’t, so it didn’t really appeal. The second short in this double bill, on the other hand, could have been made for us.

Killer Kart (dir. James Feeney, 2012) was about exactly that… a killer shopping cart (or trolley for those of us on the other side of the pond). I should probably say that, on our first date, RS and I watched Rubber – a film about a homicidal tyre named Robert – and we credit our shared love of that film as one of the reasons we got together. So a film about a homicidal shopping trolley looked too good to be true… it wasn’t. It was everything we hoped it would be: a silly idea, but played completely straight and packed with references to horror classics and generic tropes. Hands down, the best short film of the festival this year (and one of the best we’ve ever seen at the festival).

Our final film of the evening was Devil in my Ride (dir. Gary Michael Schultz, 2013). Bad-boy Travis (Frank Zieger) returns for his sister Doreen (Erin Breen)’s wedding – but he accidentally gets her possessed by a demon. Travis and Doreen’s new husband Hank (Joey Bicicchi) have to go on a road trip (with demon-Doreen secured in the back of a van) to Las Vegas to find an exorcist. Devil in my Ride is a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy, which manages to stay just the right side of slapstick and hammy acting. The pacing wasn’t always great – the final hunt for the exorcist in Las Vegas was a bit too drawn out – but it was a good film, nonetheless.


The final day of the festival started with another trip to the sci-fi screening room, for Invaders From Mars (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953). What can I say? An absolute classic – B-movie heaven, complete with pipe-smoking scientist and visible zips on the alien suits, and dripping with Cold War paranoia.

Next on the main screen was a double bill from Japanese director Kayoko Asakura. It began with the short film Hide and Seek (2013). A young girl visits a teacher for a koto lesson, and sees the teacher’s son playing hide and seek. Things are not what they seem. This was a skilful and engaging short film, beautifully shot and carefully paced. Were it not for Killer Kart, this would have been my favourite short of the festival.

Hide and Seek was followed by Asakura’s 2013 feature film, It’s a Beautiful Day. A group of international students in the US travel out to a backwoods retreat – which just happens to be the home of a pair of sadistic and brutal criminals. What differentiates this from the standard rural horror is a strange subplot that may or may not introduce a more supernatural element to the story (it’s not completely explained, and I don’t want to give any major spoilers). It’s a Beautiful Day is a competently made film, but was hard to follow in places. It is a bilingual film – trilingual, technically – with some of the characters only speaking in Japanese and some only in English (the subtitles switch between English and Japanese, clearly anticipating a mixed audience), and with a little Korean here and there. RS found it harder to follow this than I did, and he struggled a little with the heavily accented and broken English of the Japanese characters. I didn’t think this was much of a problem, but I did feel that the communication issues that were signalled so carefully at the film’s opening (the Japanese students didn’t know any English or Korean, the Korean student – though proficient in English – could speak no Japanese, and the backwoods American killers, naturally, were not polyglots) went anywhere. Much more could have been made of this. Overall, the film was a little confused and it was hard to reconcile the disparate plotlines – it was almost as though it was two different films mashed together. The events of the last half an hour complicated things even further, and we still can’t agree on exactly what happened at the film’s climax.

The next film was Heretic (dir. Peter Handford, 2013). Sadly, this was not a high point of the festival. Heretic told the story of Father James (Andrew Squires), a troubled priest who is coming to terms with the deaths of a teenage girl and her stepfather. James is plagued by guilt and returns to the girl’s home to face up to his responsibilities. Poor pacing and lacklustre acting made for a rather dull film, unfortunately, and we didn’t enjoy Heretic.

Following Heretic was the annual festival awards ceremony. Eight awards were given (designed by Neal Harvey of Rubber Gorilla Mask Making Studio), and the winners were announced by Sultan Darmaki. Seven awards were selected by a panel of judges (not sure who they were), and one was voted for by the audience.

Best Screenplay: Vampire Guitar

Best Male Lead: David Long (Pieces of Talent) – and RS and I both wholeheartedly agreed with this choice

Best Female Lead: Lexy Hulme (Lord of Tears) – this seemed like a foregone conclusion, given the praise Hulme’s performance had from the Lord of Tears team and members of the audience in the Q+A. While Hulme’s performance was undoubtedly the high point of the film, RS and I felt that Melanie Serafin (Throwback) or Michele Feren (The Visitant) showed far more range and carried much more of their respective narratives. But they weren’t playing ‘sexy’ characters, of course…

Best SFX: Thanatomorphose – from what I heard, this was a well-deserved award

Best Director: James Hart (Ascension) – this wouldn’t have been our choice

Best Short: Killer Kart – needless to say, we fully agreed with this award

Best Film: Gwai Wik (Re-Cycle) – one of the films that we missed, and apparently we missed out

Audience Choice: Lord of Tears – needless to say, this wasn’t the film we voted for, but as I said earlier, we appeared to be in a minority

After the awards, we watched a couple more films before heading back to Manchester. Dead Shadows (dir. David Cholewa, 2012) was a French horror about a comet crossing the path of the earth and bringing something terrible with it. RS enjoyed this one more than me, though he said it was a bit ‘Day of the Triffids-y’. I thought it needed a little more plot to balance out the gory (and, in one place, grotesque) violence. And then our final film of the festival was The Pyramid (Roberto Albanesi, Luca Alessandro, Simone Chiesa, Alex Visani and Antonio Zannone, 2013), an Italian anthology film about a demonic pyramid-shaped device that passes from person to person, promising infernal destruction. The less said about this film the better… it was not a high point for us.

So with that, we headed home. Some really nice surprises at this year’s festival, and we really enjoyed having the sci-fi movies as an alternative to the horror. Apparently next year’s festival will be five days, rather than the usual four, so we’re intrigued to know what new entertainment will be on offer.

In case you missed them, you can also read my reviews of Thursday and Friday's films.

For more information about the Bram Stoker International Film Festival, please visit their website.

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