Saturday, 21 December 2019

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2019 (Tuesday and Wednesday)

19th-24th November 2019
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This November, we once again travelled down to Aberystwyth for the Abertoir horror film festival. It was our second time at the festival - we went for the first time in 2018, and absolutely loved it. Fortunately, work commitments allowed for us to go again this year, which we were very happy about! Abertoir really is a great festival, with a very well-planned programme and lovely (very hard-working) staff and volunteers. This year, the theme was (loosely) sci-fi horror, in honour of the 40th anniversary of Alien (more on that later). However, as 2019 is also the centenary of Donald Pleasence's birth, there was a bit of a secondary theme running through this year's programme (again, more on that later).

As Abertoir is a six-day festival, and we saw a LOT of films, I'm going to once again do my review in three parts. First up... here are the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday 19th November

This year’s festival had a couple of different themes, which ran in parallel. The theme that was used in all the advertising was sci-fi/horror, in honour of the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien. As such, it was fitting that the week kicked off with a classic bit of 50s sci-fi. It Came From Outer Space begins with amateur astronomer John Putnam (played by Richard Carlson) witnessing a meteorite crash. However, Putnam believes that the object is, in fact, an alien spaceship. His assertions are met with derision by the rest of the townspeople – and, indeed, by the academics he’s worked with at the observatory. As you can probably imagine, Putnam is eventually vindicated, but with an interesting (and somewhat unusual) spin on the standard ‘alien invasion’ narrative – which was introduced by Ray Bradbury in his original story treatment. The film was an early 3D movie, but in the introduction to it as Abertoir, we were told that it is now rarely shown in 3D. It was apparently quite difficult to get hold of a digital version of the film that could be screened with adequate 3D. In the end, the festival organizers had to do some digital mastering of their own – one of several ‘above and beyond’ tasks they took on this year with the films in order to enhance the audience’s viewing experience. The result was incredibly well-done, one of the best 3D visual experiences I’ve seen. I was really impressed by it! 3D rendering aside, It Came From Outer Space was a great start to the festival. While in many ways it’s classic Cold War B-movie fare, the film offers a quirky message about close encounters and an idiosyncratic take on the ‘bodysnatchers’ trope. I definitely enjoyed this one – a good start to this year’s festival.

The first new feature film of the festival was The Nightingale, written and directed by Jennifer Kent (of The Babadook fame). I wasn’t overly enamoured with The Babadook, but The Nightingale is a bit of a different beast. Set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825, the film follows the story of Clare, an Irish convict who begins as a servant on a British army camp. It’s a grim story, which apparently provoked walkouts at other festivals due to its brutal depictions of sexual violence. (Anyone who knows their classical mythology may guess that a character nicknamed ‘The Nightingale’ will be a victim of rape, but may not anticipate the ferocity of the repeated attacks.) When the British soldiers escalate their violence towards Clare and her family, she sets out on a journey of revenge. Kent’s film navigates the violence of colonialism and the genocide upon which Australia (as colonial state) was founded. It is – a word that comes up in several reviews – unflinching in its presentation of brutality and terror. However, it’s also a film about the relationship between Clare and Billy, the Aboriginal man she hires to be her guide in tracking the men who have destroyed her. Kent navigates difficult territory, drawing some equivalence between the victimhood of the transported convict and that of the Aboriginal survivor (a somewhat problematic narrative), but the film handles this with sensitivity and some nuance. Ultimately, the story is focused on Clare, and so Billy (and other Aboriginal characters) are seen through her gaze, and it is the change in her understanding that we are invested in. The Nightingale is a far cry from Walkabout, and it rightly steers clear of happy endings and clear resolutions. This isn’t a film to ‘enjoy’ as such, but it is a very powerful piece.

For me, the real pleasure of film festivals lies in the variety on offer. And the next film we saw was completely different to The Nightingale. Come to Daddy begins with Norval Greenwood (played by Elijah Wood) arriving at the remote home of his estranged father Gordon, preparing to reconnect after decades of separation. The reunion doesn’t go well, as Gordon turns out to be a heavy-drinking bully, who takes pleasure in tormenting his son. Norval is a quintessential (perhaps even clichéd) millennial, complete with ill-defined artistic career, self-help books and fragile mental health. Gordon exploits all of these aspects of his son’s character, repeatedly taunting him with increasing cruelty. But then (and I’m going to be very careful about spoilers here), something happens to shift the father-son conflict into different territory, introducing another dimension to the inter-generational friction. And the friction is definitely ‘inter-generational’, as Come to Daddy often draws us out of the individual father-son dynamic to gesture towards wider questions about masculinity and identity. Although the film garners a few laughs from some of Norval’s millennial affectations (not least, his pompous attempt to describe his unsuccessful ‘career’), sympathies are divided, and by the end of the film (no spoilers) the angsty self-absorption of the millennial seems far preferable to the repellent selfishness of the older generation. For all this, though, Come to Daddy is a bit of a confused film, both tonally and in terms of genre. The scenes with Norval and Gordon are excellent, and suggestive of a relationship-focused horror film that’s both quirky and deeply unsettling. However, when that thing happens (that I’m not giving spoilers for), the film shifts into different territory that, for me, is less successful. Much like Norval himself, I’m not sure Come to Daddy is completely secure in its identity.

Much like last year, we found we were struggling with our stamina again this time, so we decided to skip the final screening of the night (and given that I was suffering with a really bad cold, we knew it was likely we'd miss more of the late night shows, sadly). This meant that we missed the UK Premiere of Lake Michigan Monster (dir. Ryland Tews, 2018).

Wednesday 20th November

UK Premiere: 8 (dir. Harold Hölscher, 2019)

The second day of the festival began, for us, with another new feature film – 8. This South African film follows William and his wife Sarah, who move back to the remote farm where William grew up, after declaring bankruptcy. William and Sarah have adopted their niece, Mary, after the death of the girl’s parents. One of the first family scenes we see, prior to their arrival at the farm, is a brief stop at a roadside memorial to Mary’s parents – death and grief will loom large throughout the film. William is keen to make a go of the farm, though Sarah isn’t convinced that it’s the right place for them. Although 8 doesn’t tackle it overtly, the tension of South Africa’s past (and present) hum under the surface of this one – William is an outsider, though he believes he isn’t, which is played out with some thought-provoking sensitivity in scenes where the white farmer attempts to interact with black villagers. William’s travails on the farm aren’t actually the film’s main focus, though. 8 is really the story of Lazarus, an old man who (for reasons that unfold in the narrative) is fated to collect souls for all eternity. Lazarus arrives at the farm and offers to help William, who accepts the offer despite his wife’s suspicions. But it’s the relationship between Lazarus and Mary that really steals the attention, as the troubled young girl finds a strange comfort in a friendship with the cursed old man. The creepy supernatural horror escalates, with some well-crafted special effects (particularly the ever-present moths), but 8’s real strength lies in the human relationships at its heart. Some good performances (especially from Keita Luna and Tshamano Sebe as Mary and Lazarus) and powerful sense of landscape and place make 8 a compelling and watchable film.

Short Films Competition Part 1

Abertoir is part of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation and participates in the Méliès Awards cycle for short films. The audience votes on a selection of films, and then the festival awards a Méliès d’Argent to the highest ranked film, which then competes for the Méliès d’Or later in the cycle. Like last year, this year’s shorts were screened in two groups. In the first panel we saw L'Auxiliaire (Frederic Plasman, 2018), a darkly dystopian setting infused with the threat of body horror that gives way to social commentary (and, in the end, a bit of a punchline), and El Cuento (Lucas Paulino and Ángel Torres, 2019), a creepy domestic horror about a witch-like neighbour and an unsettling bedtime story. Both these shorts are very well-made, though both explore familiar territory. Dog Skin (Tiago Teixeira, 2019) presents a folkloric tale of metamorphosis and obsession, and Flowers (Ismene Daskarolis, 2019) – one of the shortest films this year – offers a tech-flavoured take on control and identity. In Ida (Cassiano Prado, 2018), a mother grapples with her daughter's bad-tempered rejection – but there's a sting in the tail. And Limbo (Dani Viqueira Carballal, 2018) offers a more impressionistic take on family disintegration and (self-)destruction. My highlights of this panel were The Cunning Man (Zoe Dobson, 2019), a darkly charming (and ultimately rather heart-warming) story inspired by real-life 'cunning man' John Harries. I was particularly impressed by how much narrative this film managed to present in the short format. The Game (Rogger Vergara Adrianzén, 2019) is a stylishly brutal twist on a children's game, wrapped up in a Saw-esque aesthetic. And Hopes (Raúl Monge, 2019) is a slow-burn (as much as a short film can be) tale of a homeless child and her adult companion, which builds to a wonderfully demented and disturbing climax.

Norman J. Warren in conversation with Tristan Thompson

The first guest at the festival was British horror director Norman J. Warren. Warren’s films – including Satan’s Slave and Prey – are sometimes called ‘New Wave horror’, as they were known for an explicitness (in terms of both sex and gore) quite unlike earlier horror offerings from the UK. In conversation with Tristan Thompson, Warren talked about his early love of cinema, and his early work on filmsets. Thompson’s prompts allowed Warren the opportunity to share many interesting – and funny – stories about the ups-and-downs of low-budget filmmaking (including some pointed comments about why some of his films had such low budgets). This session was enjoyable for the warmth and affection for cinema (and the insights into the nuts-and-bolts of the industry) that came through, which is characteristic of the festival as a whole. Warren’s films may not be ‘academic’, but his understanding of the power of film for audiences was palpable.

Inseminoid (dir. Norman J. Warren, 1981)

Following the Q&A with Norman J. Warren it was, of course, appropriate that we watch one of his films. In-keeping with the sci-fi horror theme of the festival, the next screening was Inseminoid. While this might usually be a ‘so bad it’s good’ film choice, watching it after hearing Warren talk about making it meant gave the screening a different vibe. There was a lot of affection from the audience and, while there were undoubtedly lots of laughs, it felt more like we were in on the joke, rather than that we were mocking the film. Inseminoid is a film about a spaceship crew beset by a hostile alien presence, which impregnates one of them (and, as we’d see, this is going to be a recurrent subject for this year’s festival). Low budget effects, just-the-right-side-of-hammy acting, and a gross impregnation sequence (which, as we’d learned in the Q&A, was effected with the help of ‘lots of Swarfega and raw eggs’) make for a riotous and gory space horror. One of the things I like about Inseminoid is that, although there is a bloodthirsty alien on the rampage, much of the tension comes from the messed-up relationships between the crewmembers who, at various points in the film, needlessly put one another at risk. They bicker, squabble and boss each other about, as the creature picks them off one by one, and their colleague Sandy goes through an accelerated and monstrous pregnancy. While this might be standard fare for a horror film, it is very enjoyable here, and it was good to see the film again on the big screen. I’d forgotten just how ruthless (and hilarious) Stephanie Beacham’s Kate is in her desire to save herself and the ship from the invading predator. If only the others had listened to her…

Unfortunately, my poorly head couldn't cope with a late night, so we had to miss the last screening again. Sadly, this time we had to miss Why Don’t You Just Die! (dir. Kirill Sokolov), which we were told is very good.

My next post will have reviews of the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

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