Showing posts with label Robin Ince. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robin Ince. Show all posts

Monday, 23 December 2019

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2019 (Thursday and Friday)

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

This is the second part of my review of the films we saw at this year's Abertoir Festival. We saw a LOT of films during the festival, so I'm trying to make my review more manageable by doing it in three parts. You can see my post about the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday in my previous post, but here are the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Thursday 21st November


The Monster Club (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1981)


Although the ‘headline’ theme for this year’s festival was sci-fi horror, Abertoir was also marking the centenary of Donald Pleasance’s birth. There was an interesting exhibition about Pleasence’s career in the Arts Centre, and the programme was peppered with films featuring Pleasence. And Thursday’s screening started off with a fun example. The Monster Club is a British anthology horror, sort of in the mould of Amicus and Hammer’s classic anthologies, but made just as the fashion for such narrative-driven horror films was waning. Loosely (very loosely) based on the short stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, The Monster Club features a fictional version of Chetwynd-Hayes (played by John Carradine), who is accosted by starving but courteous vampire Erasmus (played by Vincent Price). As a thank you for the ‘small donation’ the writer (admittedly unwillingly) gives Erasmus, he is taken to the titular nightclub, where various supernatural creatures gather to party the night away. Erasmus offers an explanation of these creatures, including the hybrid ones, leading into the anthology stories. The episodes are punctuated by scenes in the club itself, with madly incongruous 80s pop numbers interspersing the stories of vampires, ghouls and the ‘Shadmock’ (a hybrid creature possessed of a demonic whistle). Pleasence gives a riotous turn as a vampire-hunter in one of the stories, and the whole piece culminates in a gleefully disturbing speech by Price about how humans are really the greatest monsters. There are some moments of genuine creepiness – Lesley Dunlop’s ‘Humghoul’ explaining how her town gets its clothing and food ‘from boxes’ is my favourite bit in this respect – but mostly it’s just bizarre fun. The film is notable for being a late horror pairing of Carradine and Price – apparently Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing turned down roles – and it made for a great start to the day.

Short Films Competition Part 2


And now: the second panel of short films. The Original (Michelle Garza Cervera, 2018) is a stylishly made near-futuristic piece about a woman struggling to deal with her partner’s debilitating illness and the implications of a medical procedure. A nasty twist makes for a satisfyingly uncomfortable ending. Rain Catcher (Michele Fiascaris, 2018) – another stylishly made short, with a noir inflection – is about a photographer who keeps seeing a mysterious man in his pictures. In Unmade (Steven Sheil, 2019), a woman visits a medium ostensibly to speak with her dead husband one last time; however, she has more planned than a simple conversation. While Unmade feels like it’s treading ground we’ve seen before in short films, it’s well-executed and has a real bite to it. Where Blood Lies (Byron Qiao, 2019) – in which a Romanian hunter seeks to protect his village from Nazi vampire-hunters – is also well-executed, with a distinct 'who is the real monster?' flavour. Two less successful offerings, for me, were Paranoia (Katherine Lindhorst, 2019), a somewhat unpolished animation about surveillance, and Wild Will (Alan King, 2019), a monster film that (strange as it is to say) leaves far too much to the imagination. More effective were Retch (Kier Siewert, 2018) and Swipe (Neils Bourgonje, 2019), films that – while not massively original in their content as such – go a good way to showing off the talents of the filmmakers. The former is a body transformation sequence that showcases visual effects skills, and the latter is a creepypasta-inspired tale of dating app horror with a confident grip on narrative tension. Perhaps my favourite film in this panel was Midnight (Katie Bonham, 2019), a clever and compelling haunted house piece whose content belies the short running time. The winner of this year’s Abertoir prize and the Méliès d’Argent was Rain Catcher.

Donald Pleasence: Portraits Of Affection, Eccentricity and Mischievousness - a presentation by Tristan Thompson


The festival continued its celebration of the career of Donald Pleasence with a talk by Tristan Thompson. Combining biographical detail with an overview of Pleasence’s work, Thompson’s talk was an engaging and entertaining introduction to the man and his varied career. There was a good balance, as well – the details and anecdotes about Pleasence’s family and personal life never overshadowed the focus on his film career, and there was a consistent focus on his horror roles. I was particularly interested to hear about Pleasence’s theatre career, and his recurrent appearances in Pinter’s The Caretaker, which Thompson talked about in the context of the man’s varied film career. All in all, this talk was an apt celebration of Pleasence’s work, offering a solid introduction for people who didn’t know much about him, but also including enough detail to entertain those who did. And now to watch the great man at work…

The Flesh and the Fiends (dir. John Gilling, 1960)


The Flesh and the Fiends is based on the murderous careers of Burke and Hare, and on their financial arrangements with Dr Robert Knox. The first – very odd – thing to note about this film is that film censors (in various countries) refused to allow the names ‘Burke’ and ‘Hare’ to appear on the film’s title card. Apparently, The Flesh and the Fiends, Mania (US title) and Psycho Killers (alternative title) were perfectly acceptable, but to include the words ‘Burke’ or ‘Hare’ would be too much. Thompson mentioned this fact in his talk, and it’s baffled me ever since. Anyway, the film is set in 1820s Edinburgh. Peter Cushing plays Dr Knox, an eminent medical practitioner and lecturer, who needs to get hold of cadavers for his anatomy lectures. And he’s far too lofty and academic to concern himself much with where these cadavers might come from. Donald Pleasence plays William Hare, a man with an eye for an opportunity, and George Rose is his accomplice William Burke. When they realize that there’s money to be made in corpses, they decide to provide the good doctor with a regular supply. There’s a subplot involving one of Knox’s students and a prostitute, as well, which allows Billie Whitelaw to give a lusty turn as Mary. Overall, The Flesh and the Fiends is a bit of period horror fun. Cushing plays Knox almost as a cousin to his more famous role, Victor Frankenstein, and Pleasence is consistently (but rather charismatically) unpleasant as Hare. The latter also has the distinction of, perhaps, the only accurate accent in the film, as he gives Hare a convincing Northern Irish accent that was (probably) historically accurate, which stands out in a sea of English and bad imitation Scots. Not a ‘classic’, but still a very enjoyable screening.

Sator (dir. Jordan Graham, 2019)


I’m a bit unsure about reviewing this next film, as it’s very much a one-man project with a personal element to it. I’ll say up front that it wasn’t to my taste, and will try to be constructive in my comments. Sator is an impressionistic and rather cryptic story of a family torn apart by the titular demonic presence. Adam lives apart from his family, tracking something in the woods around their home. Intercut with the woodland scenes are sequences in the family home – with Adam’s siblings, and with his grandmother, who talks about her long relationship with the presence she calls ‘Sator’. This is clearly a demon, but the grandmother speaks of it as a more benign presence. There is certainly a clear attempt to create atmosphere here, with more than a few nods to The Blair Witch Project. However, there’s no clear narrative and very little characterization. Perhaps part of the problem is that it is a one-man project (as the on-screen credits make patently clear). One thing that really struck me from the Q&As with guests (Norman J. Warren and Gary Sherman) and the discussion of Donald Pleasence’s career was a repeated focus on how collaborative filmmaking is. All of the guests spoke warmly of the contributions made to ‘their’ films by other creative professionals (and, occasionally, not so warmly about the contributions of more administrative professionals!). They also spoke of their influences, mentors and heroes, evincing a love of cinema and of horror, and a recognition of their power. Unfortunately, with Sator, none of this was obvious. Aside from Blair Witch, there was no evidence of any awareness of other filmmakers or any love for the horror genre more widely. It is a one-man project, and sadly this often results in the audience themselves feeling excluded.

The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince


The next event was a theatre show – a stand-up comedy show from Robin Ince.
The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince is a frenetic reflection on the comedian’s lifelong relationship with horror and other related creepy things. The stage is littered with bits and bobs from Ince’s collection, including novels, film journals and posters, and the backdrop is a PowerPoint presentation featuring yet more ephemera (and a lot of video clips). Ince rattles through his collection, seemingly (of course, deceptively) at random, pulling out little gems and waxing lyrical about their content. There are po-faced reviews of gory horror films, the obligatory shock at revisiting public information films from the 70s, and some well-selected clips from cult movies and TV shows. The highlight of the show, for me, was Ince’s readings from Guy N. Smith’s Crabs novels, and I would happily have listened to loads more of this. The books themselves are funny enough, but Ince’s performance and commentary really brought out the absurdity of it all. Less successful, perhaps, was the hectic listing of traumatic things from 70s childhoods – not that this wasn’t rather funny, but it has been done before a lot. I’m not sure there’s any new way to say that The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was messed up, or that Children of the Stones was kinda weird. Nevertheless, the strength of Ince’s show is the presentation style. It feels so personal and off-the-cuff that it’s very easy to imagine that he’s literally just grabbed an armful of stuff from his attic and rocked up on stage. His Abertoir performance was enhanced by his direct address to the audience as fellow fans of horror, as though we were already in on some of the jokes. I really enjoyed the show – and I did laugh a lot.

Vivarium (dir. Lorcan Finnegan, 2019)


The next screening was Vivarium – which is not (as I was slightly worried it might be) about snakes. Instead, it’s a bit more of an existential horror. Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play Tom and Gemma, a couple looking to buy their first home together. They visit an estate agent who shows them a housing development called Yonder and, despite not being particularly enthused, they agree to a viewing. Yonder is at once an exaggerated suburban parody and a Kafkaesque nightmare. However, if you’re expecting a Stepford-like descent into the claustrophobia of consumerism and conformity, you’re mistaken. Again, Vivarium is a bit more of an existential horror. Left alone in Yonder – and with no way of leaving – Gemma and Tom aren’t thrust into a world of enforced marital harmony and competitive domesticity, but rather into a world of parenthood. Shortly after they have realized the extent to which they are trapped in the blandness of the Yonder show home, Gemma and Tom receive a package – a new-born baby that they are instructed to raise. Again, the audience is somewhat wrong-footed by this plot development, and any assumption about the direction the plot is heading (or the direction the relationships between the characters are heading) is likely to be proved wrong. For the most part, the film relies on its low-key set and near-absurdist storyline (for instance, Eisenberg’s Tom spends much of the latter half of the film digging a hole in the garden) to provide the unsettling and off-beat horror. However (and without spoilers), the film’s ending was the real high point for me. Ultimately, Vivarium is building towards a conclusion that is way darker than anticipated – and which just gets darker the more you think about it afterwards. Definitely enjoyed this one – and I’m glad it wasn’t about snakes.

Once again, stymied by lack of energy (I'm still blaming the cold). This time, we had to miss the late-night screening of First Love (dir Takashi Miike, 2019).

Friday 22nd November


Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (dir. David Gregory, 2019)


We weren’t sure what to expect from the first film today. I don’t like to read the programme in too much detail before screenings, as I like to go in with as few expectations as possible. All I knew about this one was that it’s a documentary – and, I assumed from the title, a documentary about Al Adamson. And I have to admit that, before seeing the film, I didn’t know anything about Al Adamson. I’m very happy to say that this has now been rectified. Adamson was an American filmmaker who specialized in B-movies and exploitation films, with titles such as Psycho-A-Go-Go and Satan’s Sadists on his CV. The son of silent film star Denver Dixon, Adamson was a prolific director between 1965 and the early 80s, as well as being something of a larger-than-life character. In a horrible twist to the story, Adamson was murdered in 1995 by a man he’d hired to do some work on a house he owned. Gregory’s excellent documentary is an insightful and highly entertaining look at a life that was, in some ways, stranger than fiction. The film strikes the perfect balance of talking head reminiscences from Adamson’s friends and colleagues (with admirable authenticity and honesty), archive footage of Adamson, and clips from a good number of his films. Some of the stories – like how Psycho-A-Go-Go got its name, and how Russ Tamblyn came to be closely associated with Adamson’s work – were just genuinely fun to watch. However, the film handles the darker side of the tale (Adamson’s murder, but also the aftermath of the death of his wife, Regina Carrol) with sensitivity and the appropriate level of gravity. This is a documentary which is both testimony and tribute to a life lived through cinema. A definite highlight of the festival programme.

Gary Sherman Masterclass - Creating the Illusion: Poltergeist III and the Secrets of Practical Special Effects


The next event was another theatre event (to accommodate some film students who were attending). It was another one that I wasn’t sure about. I mean… with the best will in the world, Poltergeist III isn’t exactly the most iconic horror film of all time. How interesting could a talk on the special effects be? It turns out… very! Gary Sherman began his talk by explaining that, when he was first invited to direct the third film in the franchise, he wasn’t keen. It was quite a different kettle of fish to his usual projects, so he only agreed on certain conditions. For the purposes of today’s talk, the most important condition was that all the special effects on the film were practical effects, and that there would be no computer manipulation. Now he had our attention. Sherman’s talk was a fascinating and engaging explanation of how various on-screen effects were created for the film. A lot of these involved the use of mirrors of varying types, which finally explains why, in this film’s narrative, the ghosts have to use mirrors to make contact with Carol Anne! I really enjoyed seeing how decisions about how to do effects led to certain choices with storytelling. It was also good to hear about the film’s prolific use of reflective glass panels placed at strategic angles on the set, as I’m pretty sure this is a version of the Pepper’s ghost stage trick (and I enjoy the continuity). Sherman was a great speaker – entertaining and information – and his answers to the audience’s questions were illuminating as well. Of course, Sherman’s warm and personable style – in addition to the interesting revelations in the talk – has created a strange effect of its own. I think Poltergeist III is now my favourite instalment of the franchise!

Off-Site Screening: Prince of Darkness (dir. John Carpenter, 1987)


Each year, Abertoir stages an off-site screening as part of the programme. Last year, we watched Friday 13th Part 3 in a barn in the middle of nowhere. This year, the scheduled film was Prince of Darkness, and we had a sneaking suspicion we knew where we might be watching it. And we were right! The buses dropped us off by a (not quite) abandoned church in the mid-Wales darkness. It was the perfect location for the screening. Carpenter’s film isn’t, perhaps, the most critically acclaimed of his work, but this screening was a lot of fun. The film tells the story of a group of students, who are assembled by a quantum physicist, Professor Howard Birack, to investigate a mysterious green cylinder in the basement of an old church. Birack has been called in by a priest, in order to offer a scientific perspective on something that may or may not be a manifestation of Satan. From this (admittedly far-fetched) premise, the film builds into a claustrophobic horror in which, one-by-one, the various students are either killed or possessed by the eponymous bad guy. Some of the science is rather cheesy, and the underlying supernatural element is a bit OTT, but there’s still a lot to like about Prince of Darkness. Not least… another appearance from Donald Pleasence (who plays the priest)! And a cameo from Alice Cooper as ‘Street Schizo’! Although it’s a bit of an uneven film, there are some great sequences in Prince of Darkness as well, and I particularly like the recurring dream that the students all experience. It’s an unsettling effect that is one of the more stylish elements of an otherwise quite riotous affair. Overall, I really enjoyed this screening. Like last year’s off-site screening, the location and atmosphere really made the experience.

Mystery Screening: Synchronic (dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2019)


From an off-site screening to a mystery one… when the buses brought us back to the Arts Centre, we went into the cinema for a surprise. The next film was listed simply as ‘Mystery Screening’! There’d been quite a bit of speculation as to what this would be, but it turned out (as some people guessed) to be a screening of Synchronic, the new film by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. Synchronic returned us to the world of sci-fi horror (though, I guess you could say that Prince of Darkness did this too). Two New Orleans paramedics are called in to what appears to be a standard drug overdose death, but they discover some strange circumstances when they attend. As further cases follow, they realize that they may be dealing with the effects of a new designer drug called ‘Synchronic’. The two paramedics, who are also old friends, have their own personal issues to deal with. For Dennis (played by Jamie Dornan), it’s family issues that play on his mind. For Steve (played by Anthony Mackie), it’s a cancer diagnosis. For me, the film is at its strongest when it’s exploring the relationship between the two men, with the (potentially) creepy narcotic storyline forming a backdrop to this. Nevertheless, the drug – and specifically Steve’s investigation into its effects – comes to the fore when Dennis’s teenage daughter decides to partake. I wasn’t completely convinced by all the developments from that point, but I enjoyed the film’s neo-noir aesthetic and low-key dystopian vibe. Ultimately, the story unravels a bit, as though it doesn’t really know how to end, but it’s still a stylishly presented piece, with engaging performances from Mackie and Dornan. There’s a bit of buzz about this one, so it was great that the festival was able to secure it.

UK Premiere: Diner (dir. Mika Ninagawa, 2019)


And now to something quite quite different (I do love the mad variety you get on a good festival programme)… The next screening was the UK premiere of Mika Ninagawa’s new film, Diner. Based on a novel by Yumeaki Hirayama, via a manga adaptation by Takanori Kawai, Diner is a film that revels in sumptuous, rich and occasionally kind of surreal visuals. The story is a little slight, with a lot of elements left underdeveloped, but that’s because this is a film that favours style over narrative. And that’s not always a bad thing. Tina Tamashiro plays Kanako, a hapless girl who dreams of ‘something’, but ends up captured and forced to work in the enigmatic ‘diner’ of the title. This place is actually a clandestine restaurant run by assassin-turned-chef Bombero (Tatsuya Fujiwara), and its clientele are exclusively larger-than-life killers for hire. The visuals, which constantly threaten to become overwhelming, take their cue, in turn, from manga and graphic novels, knowing nods to other action films, and visual art installations. Such plot as there is involves two strands: the resolution of Kanako’s predicament, and the fallout from the death of the leader of a yakuza gang. However, Ninagawa’s film constantly draws us away from these almost incidental plot concerns with violent set-pieces, charming comedy (including a bit of wordplay around Kanako’s name that even non-Japanese speakers will get), and some broad-brush character arcs. I’ve seen a couple of other reviews that highlight Tamashiro’s performance as Kanako – and this is a fair assessment, as she gives a surprisingly relatable turn here. However, for me, it was Fujiwara’s seductive, charismatic and unexpectedly human Bombero who stole the show. Diner isn’t the sort of film I’d normally go for (in terms of style and genre), but I was actually quite charmed by it.

Once again, we missed the final screening of the night. This time, it was more through choice than tiredness. I think we may have been the only people at the festival who don't like Event Horizon (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997)!

One more part of this three-part review to come. My next post will be about the films we saw on Saturday and Sunday.