Whitby, 23-27 October 2014
This is part one of a multi-part review. Part two coming soon!
Content warning: this is a review of a horror film festival, and I will be talking in some detail about the content of the films we watched. In some places, this includes discussion of graphic depictions of sexual violence.
In October, my partner (RS) and I went to Whitby for the annual Bram Stoker International Film Festival. The festival is now in its sixth year, and this year it ran over five days. As well as a selection of independent horror films, the festival programme included evening events aimed at the pre-Whitby Goth Weekend Goth crowd – including the Vampires Ball, Children of the Night and 1880s Night music events, and a ‘Dark Arts’ exhibition). I’ve been to five out of the six festivals now, and you can read my review of last year’s festival here.
This year’s festival included 48 screenings over five days, so I’m going to jump right in and start talking about the films that we watched…
As RS and I always stay in a (lovely) B+B that’s about half an hour’s walk away from the festival venue – Whitby’s Spa Pavilion – and as we aren’t morning people by any stretch of the imagination, we missed a few of the morning screenings this year. Thursday kicked off for us with the second film of the day, a UK short film called The Dark Hours (dir. Daniel Smith, 2014).
The Dark Hours is a post-apocalyptic survivor tale about Richard (Simon Cotton), a man who is determined to do anything to protect his infected wife Catherine (Anna Skellern). Things take a dark turn when Richard meets another survivor, Cliff (Morgan Jones), and is forced (of course!) to make some difficult decisions. In some ways, the film is a fairly standard apocalypse story, relying on the usual trope of ‘don’t fear the infected, fear the other survivors’. Though we’re only given glimpses of the circumstances of the apocalypse, this also seems fairly standard fare – a worldwide plague of zombie/vampire infection leaving an embattled and disparate group of survivors to fight over dwindling resources and safe areas. However, the film has some pleasing elements that make it rather enjoyable. At the moment, I’m enjoying the current trend in zombie cinema of survivors battling to preserve their relationships with infected loved ones (Dominic Brunt’s 2012 Before Dawn has a nice treatment of this), as it makes a change from the ‘I don’t care who you were when you were alive, I’m going to blow your head off with a shotgun if you come within six feet of this shopping mall’ feel of earlier films. I like the humanization of the survivor/zombie relationship that is becoming more common, and this is very much at the heart of The Dark Hours. I also thought that Smith conjures up a great portrait of (post-)apocalyptic London – the scenes in the post-curfew tube station are particularly well done. Finally, the film has Morgan Jones doing an off-kilter turn as a threatening fellow survivor; I’ll always have a soft spot for Morgan Jones, because he was (and always will be, to me) Archer’s Goon.
Next up, we had our first feature film: Dracula in Pakistan (aka The Living Corpse or Zinda Laash, dir. Khwaja Sarfraz, 1967). To say this was a surprise is something of an understatement! To my shame, I’d never heard of Dracula in Pakistan before, and had no idea what to expect from the film known as ‘Pakistan’s first horror film’ (I don’t know if this claim is true, but it does appear to have been the first X-rated film produced in Pakistan). The film is an adaptation of Dracula, but with some interesting deviations from Stoker’s novel and the roughly contemporaneous Western adaptations typified by Hammer studios. The film tells the story of Professor Tabani (Rehan), a man who uses ‘evil scientist’ bubbling beakers to create a potion bestowing eternal life – and thus a new Prince of Darkness is born. When Dr Aqil (Asad Bukhari) visits the professor’s mysterious home, the vampire’s reign of terror really begins. This film is an absolute gem – the soundtrack and dance routines are just wonderful (although Wikipedia tells me that the dances were cut from the original cinematic release, as they were deemed too provocative). Dracula in Pakistan is kitsch, over-the-top and occasionally absurd – and we absolutely loved it.
After Dracula in Pakistan was another double bill, beginning with Dans L’Ombre [In the Shadows] (dir. Fabrice Mathieu, 2014). This short film is an interesting little piece, in which scenes from around fifty films featuring shadows are edited together and narrated by a shadow. Despite very much being an exercise in editing and research, this is quite an engaging short as the narrative that emerges from the montage (and is told by the shadow’s voiceover narration) is quite compelling.
The feature film in this double bill was Mount Nabi (dir. Seiji Chiba, 2014), which was the first disappointment of the festival. A Japanese found footage film, Mount Nabi is about a group of filmmakers who visit the eponymous mountain to make a horror film – but discover something far more horrific than they could have imagined. I’ll hold my hands up straightaway and admit that I can’t stand found footage films. I hated The Blair Witch Project, and I’ve pretty much hated every film that has mimicked that format since (the only exception being Carlo Ledesma’s 2011 The Tunnel, which I actually did enjoy). Mount Nabi does nothing new with the form, and, in fact, feels far closer to The Blair Witch Project than a lot of other recent found footage films. The screaming (and there is a lot of screaming), the motion-sickness-inducing camera angles, the up-nose snot shots, the inexplicable continuation of filming even after people start dying – all present in Mount Nabi. As an example of this type of horror film, sadly, Mount Nabi feels rather hackneyed. Worse still, the climax of the film’s horror is a lurid and deeply unsettling rape of a female character by a grotesque supernatural creature (and the subsequent rape and impregnation of another woman). There is something rather unsavoury about the way in which this sequence was filmed – particularly in the use of sound – and the narrative focus on the male characters and their respective proprietorial relationships to the raped women. There is little humanization of the violated women (before or after), and female bodies become (literally, in one case) vessels for the horror that faces the men. As we were to discover, this was to be a trend that was repeated throughout a number of the festival screenings.
The next film after Mount Nabi was Hansel and Gretel and the 420 Witch (aka Hansel and Gretel Get Baked, dir. Duane Journey, 2013). In case you can’t work it out from the title, this is a stoner comedy horror take on Hansel and Gretel – as if there haven’t been enough modern takes on that particular fairy tale already. RS and I aren’t huge fans of comedy horror, and the premise of this film really didn’t appeal… but it turned out to be really rather enjoyable. Lara Flynn Boyle plays Agnes, an old woman who is selling her home-grown pot (called Black Forest) to the local stoners. When her boyfriend goes missing after a visit to Agnes’s house, Gretel (Molly Quinn) decides to investigate – accompanied by brother Hansel (Michael Welch), of course. The eponymous siblings are joined by a cast of supporting characters including a local dealer, his Skittles-obsessed girlfriend, and some angry gang members. There’s also a ‘was that really him?’ cameo from Cary Elwes in the opening sequence.
Hansel and Gretel and the 420 Witch is one of those odd films that are much better than they should be. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is that stops this film being as groan-worthy as it sounds, but the way the humour is handled probably has a lot to do with it. On the whole, the jokes aren’t as obvious and crude as you might expect, and in some places the cheap gag is rejected for a slightly more subtle one. The horror, too, is done with a little more intelligence than you might expect. Though there is plenty of gore, the film doesn’t descend to crude buckets-of-blood set-pieces – and, although the film is fairly predictable on the whole, there are a couple of surprises that I didn’t see coming. Overall, this film proves that solid execution can redeem even the silliest of premises.
We had to end our Thursday viewing here, as we’d got plans to meet up with family, and so we didn’t get to see the last three films of the evening.
I’ll be posting my review of Friday’s films shortly…