This is part two of a multi-part review. You can read part one here. Part three coming soon!
For more information about the Bram Stoker International Film Festival, please visit the festival website.
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.
Our Friday began, again, with the second screening of the day: Stuart Gordon’s 2001 Lovecraft adaptation Dagon (based on the short stories ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’). A group of friends are stranded at sea during a frightening storm and race to a nearby town (Imboca) to get help – with disastrous (and eldritch) consequences.
The film starts off well, and the first landing at Imboca is really promising. As Paul (Ezra Godden) and Bárbara (Raquel Meroño) attempt to find some sign of life in the seemingly abandoned town, hints at the danger lurking behind the closed doors begin to emerge. The ever-present storm and torrential rain, which soaks the protagonists to the skin, adds an imposing and threatening backdrop that is almost tangible – the viewer begins to feel drenched by the town as Paul navigates Imboca’s twisted and unfriendly streets. As the inhabitants begin to show themselves, the glimpses of their ‘wrongness’ are suitably disturbing; Ferran Lahoz is particularly creepy as the town’s priest, a man who manages to be both friendly and menacing at the same time.
Unfortunately, Dagon soon begins to fall into the same trap as many other Lovecraft adaptations – when the horror is finally revealed, it actually looks rather ridiculous. At the risk of annoying the entire internet, I have to say: tentacles just aren’t scary, and neither are fish-people. The early glimpses (a gill here, an unblinking eye there) of the horror of Imboca eventually give way to hordes of fish-men chasing the protagonist from one deserted house to another, and the arrival of the half-woman, half-squid Princess Uxía (Macarena Gómez) is more absurd than horrific (especially when she dons her ceremonial headdress). That’s not to say that there isn’t any merit in the later sections of the film – I enjoyed Francisco Rabal’s performance as Ezequiel, the traumatized token non-fish resident of Imboca – but the film is much stronger at building up, rather than revealing, its horror.
Dagon was also the second film of the festival to use the grotesque violation of the female body as a vehicle for horror. The character of Bárbara is woefully underdeveloped, and she serves more as the object of Paul’s frantic search, rather than as a person in her own right. After the initial arrival at Imboca and the interaction with the priest, Bárbara fades into the background as Paul races around trying to discover her fate – before she is eventually raped to death by Dagon. Bárbara and Paul’s female friend Vicki (Birgit Bofarull) had earlier suffered a similar violation by tentacle, but, despite the fact that the woman is clearly traumatized by this event, Vicki’s rape is played almost for laughs (as Ezequiel struggles to think of the right words to explain it) and serves mainly to advance the ‘I can’t let this happen to my woman’ motivation of Paul. Dagon’s treatment of sexual violence – albeit penetration by a supernatural being, rather than rape by a human man – is not unique, but it feels disappointing, particularly as the early part of the film sets up Bárbara as more of a protagonist than she turns out to be.
After Dagon was a double bill that made for somewhat odd mix. The first film was a short film called Border Patrol (dir. Peter Baumann, 2013). Two German guards at the Austrian border find a body hanging from a tree, but they are not particularly keen to have this discovery prevent them from watching the big football match. This award-winning short film was really enjoyable – it was well shot and well acted, with just the right level of off-beat creepiness. Narrative can be difficult to handle in short films, but Border Patrol managed to balance characterization and atmosphere with a satisfying story arc that suited the form. I’ll admit, I did see the ending coming, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. Apparently, despite being filmed in Germany, this short was an MA graduation project for students at Leeds Beckett University and it has been shown at a fair few festivals over the past year. We were definitely pleased to have caught it in Whitby.
The feature film in this double bill was Insectula! (dir. Michael Peterson, 2014), which was quite a dramatic change of pace. Inspired by creature-feature B-movies and The Twilight Zone, Insectula! is an in-your-face homage to schlock, with (deliberately) lurid Technicolor, gruesome visual effects and hammed-up acting. The film’s strengths are its obvious affection for its cinematic inspiration and its privileging of physical effects over CGI (this is particularly evident when a decomposing head is fished out of a river and dissected – not for the squeamish, but an impressive attempt at recreating the physicality of pre-CGI horror effects). I can see Insectula! going down well with fans of Troma films, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me; it isn’t my sense of humour, and it’s the sort of film that you either ‘get’ or you don’t.
Speaking of Troma, the next film on the schedule sounded an awful lot like it was going to be something along the lines of Troma’s 1984 film The Toxic Avenger. The blurb for Septic Man (dir. Jesse Thomas Cook, 2013) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2574666/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) reads:
“A sewage worker gets trapped inside a septic tank during a water contamination crisis and undergoes a hideous transformation. To escape, he must team up with a docile Giant and confront the murdering madman known as Lord Auch.”As you can imagine, we were expecting another comedy horror with a sewage-contaminated superhero and a larger-than-life cast of supporting characters. But no. Far, far from it.
Septic Man is a dark and disturbing Canadian horror, carried almost entirely by Jason David Brown’s excellent performance as Jack (the eponymous Septic Man), a sewage worker who is asked by the shadowy Phil Prosser (Julian Richings) to assist with the aforementioned contamination crisis that has caused an entire town to be evacuated. As Jack investigates the source of the contamination, he becomes trapped in the sewers, and his ‘hideous transformation’ begins. The film is, at heart, a psychological horror – though there is a fair amount of bodyshock thrown in for good measure. It is, by turns, claustrophobic, grotesque, menacing and surreal. As Jack’s physical and mental wellbeing disintegrates, he is both threatened and rejected by the various people who become aware of his presence in the sewers (including the Giant (Robert Maillet) and Lord Auch (Tim Burd), but also Prosser and Jack’s wife Shelley (Molly Dunsworth)). Towards the end of the film, the line between reality and hallucination begins to blur, until it’s not quite clear what the reality beyond the sewer really is, and Jack becomes a sort of embodiment of the disavowed effluence in which he is imprisoned.
You definitely need a strong stomach for Septic Man, but I would highly recommend it. As a sustained exploration of the abjectification of the male body and the concomitant disintegration of masculine identity, it has few rivals. It’s quite simply the classiest and most intelligent film about poo that I’ve seen.
Another double bill followed Septic Man, kicking off with a Japanese short film, Bandaged (dir. Takashi Hirose, 2011). This was not a highpoint of the day for us. Hirose’s short film aims to shock, but falls rather flat. A young couple (played by Hiroshi Sekine and Ayano) spend their nights attacking and mutilating one another – and their days walking the streets swathed in bandages – as a way of feeling ‘connected’ and overcoming their existential despair. It was very hard to identify with these characters, as their alienation and angst was both pretentious and juvenile – not that juvenile alienation isn’t a serious matter, but more that this film presented it in a rather clichéd and two-dimensional manner. Additionally, cheap effects (including that pink-tinged fake blood that ruins horror films) and a predictable ending made this a somewhat disappointing addition to the schedule.
However, our disappointment didn’t last long, as the feature film in this double was another good one. Treehouse (dir. Michael Bartlett, 2014) seems to have had a few negative reviews from people who’ve seen it at other festivals, but we really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it.
Treehouse tells the story of Killian (J. Michael Trautmann) who stumbles upon the aftermath of a violent kidnapping in his American home town. Ascending into the treehouse of the title, while he and his brother Crawford (Daniel Frederick) are trying to find a party, Killian discovers Elizabeth (Dana Melanie) hiding from the abductors of her younger brother. Together, the two teens try to evade the kidnappers and find Little Bob (Elizabeth’s brother). One of the film’s main strengths lies in characterization, and I enjoyed the development of Elizabeth and Killian, as well as their relationship with one another.
One of the criticisms of the film appears to revolve around the reveal of the perpetrators of the kidnapping; some viewers seem to have found this unsatisfying. I have to say I’m struggling to understand this criticism, as I thought the revelations were handled very well and were completely right for the tone and setting of the film. I also thought that the amount of information and backstory provided for the kidnappers was well-handled, with the film going for suggestion and implication rather than in-your-face shock. The pace of the film isn’t slow, by any means, but it has a measured feel to it, which allows for more character development (but less high-energy action). The use of flashbacks to intercut the main narrative heightens this focus on character, which adds depth to the protagonists’ flight from their aggressive foes.
All-in-all, Treehouse is a recommendation. It might not be the most original narrative ever, but was an engaging and well-made film that offered an interesting take on well-trodden ground. The screening was followed by a Q+A with executive producer Steve Weston, who talked a bit about the reasons for a UK production company making a film in the US, as well as some of the ups and downs of casting and producing the film. This session was interesting, but I was surprised to see that – unlike in previous years – the Q+A sessions weren’t chaired by one of the festival organizing team. A student volunteer introduced various filmmakers throughout the festival (though not always by name), but they were then left to field their own questions and moderate the sessions themselves. This didn’t seem like the best way to introduce a guest speaker, and a return to the more structured sessions of previous years would be advisable.
After a short break, we returned for the next double bill of the day, beginning with the Japanese short film Anemia (dir. Maya Kato, 2013). Anemia is the story of a female vampire who can only survive on the blood of male virgins. It’s a rather amateurish affair, with unconvincing acting and cinematography. Not our favourite short film by a long way, and definitely not a recommendation.
The feature film following Anemia was another Japanese offering. Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (dir. Takayuki Hirao, 2012) is an anime adaptation of the manga Gyo by Junji Ito. I’m not familiar with the manga, so I couldn’t say how well the film works as an adaptation. I’m also not particularly well-versed in anime, so I struggled a little to get my head into the right frame of mind to watch this after a day of horror films. Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack is about a sudden infestation of biomechanical walking fish that carry ‘the stench of death’ with them. A group of friends discover that it is possible to become infected and devolve (evolve?) into a green, bloated fish monster, and so try to escape the infestation. I’m not sure if this film carried a deeper message or meaning, but it hasn’t converted me to anime. There were also a couple of scenes involving the forcible violation of the female body by a monstrous non-human that reminded me of the gratuitous tentacle rape of Dagon earlier in the day – as a result Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack left me rather cold.
On to the final film of the day…
At last year’s festival, we watched a short film called Dollboy by director Billy Pon (and you can read my review of that piece here, which was prefaced by what we thought were two Grindhouse-style fake trailers for films called Circus of the Dead and Mister Fister (which was as horrible and misogynist as it sounds). However, it turns out that these were actually trailers for upcoming feature films by Pon. The final film of the day was Pon’s Circus of the Dead (2014), starring Bill Oberst Jr. as a sociopathic and brutal clown named Papa Corn, who kidnaps and tortures family man Donald Johnson (Parrish Randall).
Hmmm… what to say about Circus of the Dead? Initially, I was very much inclined to like it. The circus (and its clowns) are simultaneously malevolent and squalid, and there is a feeling of griminess that pervades the carnival. Papa Corn begins as a sublimely menacing and unsettling figure (heightened by the fact that we never see him out of costume or make-up), who gets some really quite funny one-liners. However, the film soon descends into a rather childish attempt to pile up the most shocking and distasteful imagery possible, simply for the sake of it. Once Papa Corn begins his night of tormenting Donald Johnson, the film really has nowhere to go, and it becomes just one vicious attack after another with escalating levels of shock and diminishing levels of menace. The levels of gratuitous sexual violence in Circus of the Dead were also off-putting. There are no female characters in this film, only female bodies to be violated by male characters. Rape is lazily played for laughs – it is part of the ‘black humour’ that Papa Corn is a ‘serial rapist’ – or for the purposes of torturing a male character. Women are dehumanized to the point of objectification, and we see both the rape of a dead woman’s severed head (as a way of tormenting her husband) and the violent removal of a foetus from a woman’s uterus, as well as a number of other attempted rapes. This was all utterly unnecessary and added absolutely nothing to the film or to the characterization of the male characters. Perhaps this is my personal taste, but I generally don’t enjoy films that set out so blatantly to exceed previous levels of violence and violation simply for the purposes of shock and titillation. I felt rather let down by Circus of the Dead, as it started out with so much promise, and I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be watching a feature-length version of Mister Fister.
While I enjoyed a lot about the films on Friday – with Border Patrol, Septic Man and Treehouse being my favourites of the day – I left a little disturbed by the prevalence of sexual violence and violation of the female body in the day’s schedule. It seemed a worrying trend, particularly the way in which rape of the female body was being used as a punishment for men (with little to no attention given to its impact on the actual victim).
That’s it for the Friday films. I’ll be posting my review of the Saturday screenings shortly…