Showing posts with label film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film. Show all posts

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Saturday and Sunday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

And so... here's the final part of my three-part review of this year's Abertoir horror film festival, with reviews of the films (and events) we saw on Saturday and Sunday.

You can read the other two parts of my review here: Part 1 (Tuesday and Wednesday), Part 2 (Thursday and Friday)

Saturday, 17th November

Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t looking forward to the first half of today. The first two things on the programme seemed like they wouldn’t be my cup of tea. First, there was something that was described to me as ‘a bit like Mystery Science Theater 3000’, and then we had something that a reviewer has called ‘the best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead’. I don’t really like MST3000 or Shaun of the Dead (seriously, don’t @ me), so I was expecting to spend the first half of the day watching other people laugh with a slightly baffled look on my face. How wrong can you be??? Turns out, these were two of my favourite screenings of the festival. First up: Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club… comedians Nicko and Joe put on a gaspingly awful film, and then give a commentary on why it’s so awful. They encourage audience participation, talking (jeering) and sweet-eating throughout. I suspect the reason I enjoyed this so much was that, unlike MST3000, Nicko and Joe’s style of comedy is much more my sense of humour (it’s a subjective thing, after all), and so their commentary had me laughing my head off. However, there’s more to it than that: their double act has a pitch and rhythm to it that makes what I’m sure is a carefully-honed comic routine feel like you’ve just wandered into an off-the-cuff chat between tetchy friends. The film screened was Demons of Ludlow – which is so very bad it’s almost impossible to describe (suffice to say a lot revolves around a haunted piano, and there are some… interesting directorial decisions). It’s tempting to say that the film was the real star here, but that would do a disservice to the comedians who presented it. I absolutely loved this!

One Cut of the Dead (dir. Shinichirou Ueda, 2017)

And so next it was the ‘best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead’. I’m not sure how to review this one, as One Cut of the Dead is a film that is best seen without any expectations. Even a hint of a spoiler would be massively unfair. Before the film began, we had an introduction from one of the festival organizers, who gave a bit of context. One Cut of the Dead is a (very) low-budget indie Japanese film. It initially opened on just two small screens in Japan, and the filmmakers had zero marketing budget. However, the film quickly garnered word-of-mouth publicity, and it went on to become a surprise hit. And I really do mean hit – I checked listings after the screening, and it’s in the Top 10 highest grossing films of 2018 in Japan (beating some really big studio productions). Gaz’s introduction also pointed out that the ‘one cut’ of the title refers to a single shot take – the first 38 minutes of the film is a one-shot take. And that was all the explanation we got – the only other thing Gaz said was that, no matter how we felt about that first opening take, we should just stick with it. Trust me, he said, something will happen after the first 38 minutes that will change everything. And so we did trust him. And we watched the first 38 minutes with no idea of where it was going… and then something happened that changed everything. And by the end, we’d fallen completely in love with this utterly unexpected, very funny, clever and audacious little film, and it was clear why it was such a runaway hit in Japan. I’m not going to say anything more about it, but you should definitely see this film. Trust me.

Assassination Nation (dir. Sam Levinson, 2018)

Well, what a contrast with the next film. Assassination Nation is quite a different beast to One Cut of the Dead – and my feelings towards it were rather different too. I didn’t enjoy Assassination Nation much, and to be honest the more I’ve thought about since, the more it’s annoyed me. It’s a flashy, garish and exploitative film that screams its (ultimately shallow) political message from the very first shot. In the town of Salem (yes, Salem), a hacker is set on revealing the town’s deepest secrets to the world (based on the premise that everyone’s secrets are stored on sim cards, and that the world would be the slightest bit interested in the mundane peccadillos of a small Massachusetts town). Things descend from here into Purge-like violence, and four young women are caught up in a cycle of accusation and retribution (because… Salem… do you see?). Assassination Nation falls flat in several ways. The main characters are unlikable and implausible. Given that we’d already seen Blue My Mind, the film’s depiction of teen girls and their friendships rang hollow – imagine Regina George’s Plastics with guns. The film’s attempts to signal its wokeness are also flimsy at best, and offensive at worst (a ‘lynching’ sequence, clearly evoking historic acts of violence, has a rich white trans girl as its victim and heroic survivor… while the film’s two black women spend most of their much shorter screen time simply screaming and crying). This feels like a film written by 40-somethings about how they imagine teens see the world – the ‘hacking’ plot mostly involves Gen Zs using technology like they’re Gen X (do kids today really say ‘for the lulz’?). The film then ends with the main character literally delivering the socio-political message direct to camera. Definitely not a recommendation from me.

Prom Night (dir. Paul Lynch, 1980)

After the rollercoaster of the previous two films, it was quite a relief to get back to a classic. The screenings finished a little earlier tonight, as there was a bit of a disco on. In-keeping with the festival theme, it was a Valentine’s/Prom Night affair… so there was really only one option for the pre-disco screening. During the Q and A with Sean S. Cunningham, I was struck by one of the inspirations he listed for Friday the 13th… Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. With the post-84 rise of the big-name supernatural slasher (Freddy has a lot to answer for), it’s easy to forget the And Then There Were None-ness of the pre-franchise slasher, but Prom Night is one of the films that really makes the template clear. The film opens in 1974, with a group of kids playing in an abandoned convent. A young girl tries to join in the game, but things go horribly wrong and she dies. The kids swear never to speak of it again. Jump to: 1980, and the preparations for prom. The kids are teenagers now, but it seems someone knows what they did last summer (okay, six summers ago). Strange pictures appear in lockers, stabbed with shards of glass. It’s only a matter of time before a masked killer arrives to follow through on the threats. Admittedly not the most well-loved slasher – and certainly far from the most violent – Prom Night has a charm and style all of its own. For me, it’s interesting in the way it plays up the ‘past crimes back to haunt them’ element over the expected hack-and-slash aspect (there are no gratuitous deaths here – though a couple are accidental). It’s an enjoyable bit of fun, and a great way to end another day of screenings.

Sunday, 18th November

Abrakadabra (dir. Luciano Onetti and Nicolás Onetti, 2018)

Abrakadabra is a mystery thriller in the giallo style, which pays homage to films of the 60s and 70s. It’s painstaking in its period detail – not just in terms of set dressing and costume, but also cinematography, sound design and direction. The film begins with the accidental death of magician Dante the Great during a difficult trick (you may be able to guess which trick he’s attempting – it’s a standard reference in pop culture films about magicians now). We then move forward 35 years, and Dante’s son Lorenzo (now also a magician) arrives in town for a show. Not long after this, of course, the murders begin. True to the giallo mode, the murderer is a shadowy, secretive figure who seems to haunt the protagonist (though he may also just be an innocent pawn in the killer’s game – or a patsy set up to take the fall). The murders are brutal, and all seem to revolve around the world of magic. Lorenzo is forced to investigate the deaths – and the death of his father – to work out how (if at all) he is involved in this twisted plot. I’m in two minds about Abrakadabra. I loved the film’s opening, and the denouement and reveal were really good too. Plot-wise, it was a lot of fun. However, the middle section did seem to drag a little, and I struggled with the stylized characterization (though this was somewhat redeemed by the ending). It’s a brave – interesting? – choice to make a film in a mode that, some would argue, ended its heyday over forty years ago, and there were times when the film threatened to tip into style-over-substance territory. This isn’t a satire or pastiche – it is a giallo film, but I’m not sure it really does much to update or interrogate that.

Silent Shorts Vol IV

Something a bit different next – the first time we’d seen it, but the fourth time Silent Shorts had been featured on the Abertoir programme. This was a selection of – surprisingly enough – silent short films, all of a horror (or comedy-horror) bent. The shorts were soundtracked by fantastic original compositions by pianist Paul Shallcross. Shallcross also provided some introduction, background and context for each of the selected films. The striking thing for me at this screening was the variety in the films. I was also impressed by the way each of them made use of techniques and technologies that were highly innovative for the time – a reminder of just how creative a genre horror can be. We began with Georges Méliès’ 1903 The Monster (and who doesn’t want to see a Méliès film on the big screen?), which makes use of practical effects, superimposition and stop tricks to create an illusion of magical transformation that almost makes you forget that cinematography was only eight years old at the time. Next, it was Suspense, a 1913 short written and directed by Lois Weber. Again, this film has some notable new technologies on display – it has an early example of a split screen and an ambitious chase sequence. The third film was a bit different – not least because it was made in the era of sound (and Technicolor), and so its existence as a silent black-and-white short is stylistic, rather than circumstantial. Meshes of the Afternoon is a 1943 experimental film that uses repetition of motifs, slow motion and non-naturalistic camera angles to create a study of the subconscious, evoking both surrealism and film noir. Finally, we had Dr Pyckle and Mr Pryde, a 1925 parody of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Stan Laurel. You can probably imagine how that one went!

Scala Forever! A Presentation by Jane Giles

Next on the programme was another talk, and about something I know little about. Jane Giles is the author of Scala Cinema 1978-1993, a new book from FAB Press about the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross. Giles was a programmer at the cinema – which has variously been described as infamous, influential and iconic – and she talked us through the cinema’s history (from its predecessor sites to the King’s Cross venue) and what came to be its signature style. She also talked about Scala’s relationship with horror cinema, with some great anecdotes about some of the notable screenings. While the history of the cinema itself was really absorbing, I was also quite taken with one of the details about the venue – prior to its becoming the ‘legendary’ Scala Cinema, the venue had a short life as Cyril Rosen’s Primatarium, an educative ‘experience’ designed to raise awareness of primates and their habitat.

Anna and the Apocalypse (dir. John McPhail, 2018)

The final film screening of the festival! I can hardly believe it! The last film to be shown on this year’s programme was the British Christmas zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse. Anna is coming to the end of her time at school and dreaming of going travelling (though her dad wants her to go to university instead) – but all that is about to change when the zombie apocalypse hits. Instead, she’s going to be battling for her life along with a band of other survivors – and breaking into song at various points. Sadly, this film did not work for me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it really succeeded at any of the things it attempted. It’s a British film, but it has no clear sense of place. The accents are a mishmash of North-East and Scottish, and the town of Little Haven doesn’t quite feel like it’s in the UK. It’s a Christmas film, but it seriously lacks the promised ‘feel-good’ element that you want from a festive film. No one learns the true meaning of Christmas, and no one discovers that love and joy are more important than material things. (Mostly because of the zombies, to be fair.) It’s a zombie film, but it’s zombies-by-numbers. There’s nothing interesting or different about its undead. And while there’s a ‘don’t fear the zombies, fear the other survivors’ element, it involves the arbitrary and implausible madness of an individual (played at the highest possible pitch by Paul Kaye). There’s no real fear or angst here – just excuses for Anna (played by Ella Hunt) to stab zombies with a giant candy cane. Finally, it’s a musical (in the High School Musical fully-integrated mode), but the songs aren’t catchy or memorable. Sigh. Just call me the Christmas zombie musical Grinch.

Rob Kemp's The Elvis Dead

Although Anna and the Apocalypse was the final film screening, there was one last event on the schedule… a performance of The Elvis Dead by Rob Kemp. The Elvis Dead is Kemp’s award-winning comedy stage show in which he reimagines Evil Dead II through the songs of Elvis Presley. Now, I like Evil Dead II and I like the music of Elvis, so this seemed okay to me. Ironically, I found myself seated between one guy who likes Evil Dead but hates Elvis, and another guy who loves the King but hates Evil Dead. I felt like the middle of a Venn diagram. Anyway, Kemp’s performance is an energetic romp through Raimi’s film – with scenes projected behind him throughout the show – in which he plays both a version of Ash and a version of Elvis. The King’s hit songs are rewritten to capture the action and OTT emotion of the cult horror film. Kemp’s solo performance is exhausting just to watch, as he uses props, make-up and hairspray (fans of the film might guess when that last one is used) to mimic Ash’s various traumatic experiences. And then, he bursts into song. The rewritten lyrics are often very funny – and I can’t have been the only person eagerly waiting to find out which song would be used for the ol’ chainsaw/hand scene (and I wasn’t disappointed there!) – but it’s the interplay between Kemp’s on-stage performance and the film screening that I enjoyed most. It’s a very well put-together show, which oozes affection for and understanding of both its sources. I loved the show… but so did both the other people in our little Venn diagram, and that seems like a success to me. A great laugh, and a fun way to round off the festival. Hail to the King, baby.

And so, our first ever visit to Abertoir came to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed our week in Aberystwyth, and I'm really pleased we were finally able to make it to the festival. Work commitments allowing, we're really hoping to be able to make it to Abertoir 14 next year. Fingers crossed!

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Thursday and Friday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This is the second part of my review of the films we saw at this year's Abertoir Festival. As we saw a LOT of films during the festival, 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 15th November

Blue My Mind (dir. Lisa Brühlmann, 2017)

The first screening on Thursday was Swiss film Blue My Mind. This is a coming-of-age, body-horror-inflected transformation tale – and one of the highlights of the festival for me. Mia is 15 years old and going through some changes. She’s at a new school, struggling not to fight with her parents, and experiencing new physical sensations that she hasn’t felt before. Her body is also transforming – and it’s clear this isn’t a standard puberty. So far, so Ginger Snaps. But – though I am a huge fan of Ginger SnapsBlue My Mind offers something different, and something more. Desperate to mask the pain and confusion of her transformation, Mia turns to drink, drugs and sex as a distraction. And this is presented with a brutal rawness, which builds to a climactic scene that is truly devastating to watch. But Blue My Mind’s originality really lies in its depiction of Mia and her peer group. Mia isn’t a weirdo loner, but rather a slightly sheltered and awkward teen who wants to find somewhere to fit in. In a sleight-of-hand moment, Mia is rebuffed by the apparent ‘mean girls’ of the piece and a ‘good girl’ tries to befriend her. That’s not what Mia wants though, and she courts the friendship and attention of the ‘bad girls’. With incredible performances from Luna Wedler (as Mia) and Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen (as ostensible ‘Queen Bee’ Gianna), what unfolds is one of the most nuanced and honest portrayals of teen female friendships I think I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a film about ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’, it’s a film about girls. And it’s a film about one girl coming to terms with the fact that she isn’t quite like the others. Blue My Mind is a painful, horrific and beautiful story of transformation. Definitely recommended.

Cut and Run: A Brief History of the Slasher - a presentation by Steve Jones

The next event at the festival was a talk by Dr Steve Jones of Northumbria University on the history of the slasher film. This was a fascinating and entertaining trip through the origins and precursors of the subgenre, through the ‘classics’ to the video nasty era and beyond. Insightful and engaging, this talk really helped crystallize some thoughts I’d been having about slashers, but it also gave me loads of new information and things to think about. It’s always great to see an expert talk about a subject they’re knowledgeable about with such enthusiasm – but I was particularly happy to see that Jones didn’t follow the fashion of denigrating 90s slashers (like I Know What You Did Last Summer) and acknowledging them as simply ‘postmodern’ or ‘knowing’. As he pointed out, the success of those films doesn’t just lie in them being po-mo – it’s also because they’re actually good films.

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. After watching all the short films screened this year, the audience voted, and the festival then awarded a Méliès d’Argent to the highest ranked film, which then goes on to compete for the Méliès d’Or later in the cycle. This year, the shorts were screened in two lots. In this first panel, we saw Caronte (Luis Tinoco, 2017), a visual effects-laden piece in which the story of a young girl’s family life intersects with that of a futuristic space pilot, and Reprisal (Mike Malajalian, 2017), a taut, edgy piece about a woman facing her husband’s return from combat. Miedos (Germán Sancho Celestino, 2018) is a monster-in-the-wardrobe story with a (unfortunately rather predictable) twist, while Post-Mortem Mary (Joshua Long, 2017) is a perfectly pitched and beautifully designed story of two Victorian post-mortem photographers undertaking an unsettling job. Centrifugado (Mireia Noguera, 2017) sees a woman apparently con and trap a young man in her apartment (though, again, the ending was a bit predictable); FlyTrap (Connor Bland, 2018) is a terse animation about a germaphobe trying (and failing) to deal with his flatmate’s unsanitary habits. Another animation, but much less successful, was Sunscapades (Ben Mitchell, 2018). This one is more a cartoon in the Ren and Stimpy vein – more comedy than horror, despite some violence – and not to my taste. Highlights of this panel were Who’s That at the Back of the Bus? (Philip Hardy, 2018), an absurdist but carefully paced piece about a woman on a bus spotting something in the mirror, and – my favourite short film overall – Baghead (Alberto Corredor Marina, 2017), a witty, compelling and bleak story about a grieving man who visits a witch that can channel the dead.

Last Man on Earth with Animat Live Soundtrack

The next event on the programme was a performance by Sheffield-based music producers and performers, Animat. It was an interpretative soundtracking of the film The Last Man on Earth, using original composition, remixes, dialogue from the film and sound effects to transform the film into a soundscape. The Last Man on Earth is the second least well-known adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Made in 1964 and starring Vincent Price, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, though it changes the book’s vampires into something more zombie-like and alters the protagonist’s relationship with Ruth, the infected woman he encounters, and the detail of his ultimate fate. Animat’s performance has the film screened in its entirety with their soundscape superimposed. I did find this an intriguing idea, and I was curious to see how the act of interpretation could be carried through soundtrack. In places, it works very well, with, for instance, repeated and echoed phrases (both musical and dialogue) creating an eerie emphasis on the futility and isolation of Robert Morgan’s (as the Neville character is called here) situation. Elsewhere, however, it falls a bit flat. The inclusion of certain pop songs didn’t really work for me, and this aspect was far less creative than the original scoring. I’m not sure it can really be called an act of ‘interpretation’ to play Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller' as zombies gather in the foreground outside Morgan’s house. The Last Man on Earth is an interesting film to watch if you’re familiar with I Am Legend and its adaptations, and I did find myself at times just wanting to watch the film ‘straight’. However, there were moments of very creative interaction between soundtrack and image that realised the potential of the performance and added a thought-provoking dimension to the screening.

Cam (dir. Daniel Goldhaber, 2018)

Cam is a horror film set in the world of camgirls (models/performers who stage – usually erotic – acts on webcam in exchange for money and gifts). I try not to read much about films before I see them at a festival, as I like to go in without knowing what to expect. So that first sentence was all I knew about Cam before the screening, and I will admit I had some reservations. I was worried it was going to be a ‘killer stalks sex workers’ type of thing, and the film’s opening sequence appeared to be about to confirm this. Once again, I should have had more faith in the festival programmers – by this point, we’d already seen some really interesting challenges to the weary stereotypes of women in horror, and so I should’ve known this wouldn’t be a gratuitous stalk-and-slash. I now know that Cam was written by Isa Mazzei, who drew on her experience of cam work and intended her film to be a more nuanced and authentic representation of the job. And it is certainly that – it’s also a smart and stylish horror film with great performances (particularly from Madeline Brewer as the protagonist). That’s right – this film has a protagonist, not a ‘final girl’ or a parade of screaming victims. And the horror in Cam is also different to what I expected. The ‘bad thing’ that happens to Alice (who works under the name Lola) is creepy and unsettling, with psychological terror taking the fore over a threat of violence. In many ways, the film is at pains to announce its newness – this is absolutely a story of the twenty-first century – but for all its techno-threat and techno-survival, it’s also well-grounded in older Gothic tropes. The madwoman is out of the attic and on the screen.

UK Premiere: The Black Forest (dir. Rodrigo Aragão, 2018)

A Mata Negra is a Brazilian horror infused with fabulist elements and heavy on practical effects. In the heart of the eponymous forest (‘black’ as in dark and scary, not as in Schwarzwald – we’re in Brazil here, not Germany), a young girl stumbles upon a dying man who begs her to wait with him overnight to complete a mysterious ritual. With the man is a book, and he makes her promise to read only the page he has marked – and not to delve into the book’s other secrets. Of course, as a dark fairy tale, we know that she won’t heed this warning. As we learn, the book is the lost Book of Cypriano, which contains within its pages dangerous spells that will give its owner power over life, death and wealth. Of course, when life takes a bad turn for the girl, she can’t help but turn to the book for the promise it holds. And things go very wrong. While the film’s premise seemed interesting enough, the overall effect didn’t quite work for me. Tonally, the film is rather uneven. It begins with a darkly sumptuous fairy tale setting – with almost-echoes of Guillermo del Toro – and a young heroine who seems to be all innocence in the face of a threatening world. But the film’s violence, which is conveyed by in-your-face practical effects, veers quickly towards schlock, with some sequences seeming almost designed to make the audience queasy. As the magic goes repeatedly wrong, and the young spell-caster seeks to correct her errors, the film loses a sense of story, descending into a series of set-pieces and escalating gore. The film’s ending is bizarre – not necessarily in a bad way – with a coda that is both incongruous and suggestive. But, sadly, this was not one of my favourites.

Okay, we arrived on Thursday's morning fully intending to stay until the bloody end. But it seems our stamina was still a bit lacking, so we couldn't hack the final screening of the night. This time, we missed Bloody Moon (dir. Jesús Franco, 1981).

Friday, 16th November

Summer of 84 (dir. Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2018)

After this next screening, one of our fellow festival-goers informed us (no idea how reliably) that Summer of 84 was actually written before Stranger Things, though it was released some time later. For this reason, I’m not going to draw any comparisons with Stranger Things, as that seems a little unfair and – to be honest – unoriginal, as I’m sure plenty of other will do that. Also, I don’t like Stranger Things (don’t @ me), but I did enjoy Summer of 84 so there’s no need for the comparison. However, I will compare it to The ’Burbs as the film treads some of the same ground as the 1989 film (but with very different tone and effect). Davey is a paperboy in the Oregon ’burbs during the summer of 84. The town is alight with news of the Cape May Slayer, a serial killer who’s abducted and murdered at least thirteen teenage boys over the course of a decade. Davey becomes convinced that his neighbour, a well-respected police officer, is the killer. As the adults around him – obviously – don’t share his suspicions, it’s up to Davey and his friends to investigate. The story unfolds with a slow, almost sinister, pace, with the light-hearted nostalgic touches giving way to the dark reality of exactly what is being uncovered. It’s also a coming-of-age story – with hints throughout that this is about more than just one boy growing up. There is a melancholy quality to the nostalgia in Summer of 84 – less prelapsarian idealism, and more the point of the fall itself (a final shot of a Reagan/Bush election sign in a neighbour’s garden subtly underlines this). Unlike The ’Burbs, Summer of 84 really does engage with the horror behind the white picket fence. Well-written, and with great performances, I really enjoyed this one.

My Bloody Valentine (dir. George Mihalka, 1981)

The next screening was another classic slasher, and, as with the other selections, it was an interesting choice. Not least as the festival organizers decided to show the uncut version – with a couple of additional shots/sequences restored that were removed prior to the film’s original release due to violence and gore. My Bloody Valentine is a (sort of) teens-in-peril horror (one of the slew of holiday-themed films that followed Halloween), but it’s not entirely in the clichéd mode you might expect. Set in the mining town of Valentine Bluffs, the film opens with the town planning its first Valentine’s Day dance for twenty years. Such festivities had been abandoned two decades earlier, when mine supervisors left their posts to attend a dance, resulting in a horrific explosion that left miners trapped. The only survivor of the accident – Harry Warden – was driven insane by the experience and subsequently murdered the negligent supervisors. He also vowed to commit further murders if the town ever held a Valentine’s Day dance again. Twenty years on, and Valentines Bluff is throwing caution to the wind and reviving the dance… it isn’t long before the blood starts to flow. A relentless killer in mining gear begins to pick off the townsfolk, leaving grisly gifts in heart-shaped boxes in his wake. Has Harry Warden come back to finish what he started? My Bloody Valentine is rather underappreciated and often-dismissed, but it deserves a bit more attention, not least for its setting and backstory. Valentines Bluff has a grim claustrophobia to it, and there’s an oppressive feel not found in the summer camp/house party genre offerings. While My Bloody Valentine is very much a bit of slasher fun, it’s also got a bit of an edge to it that makes it stands out from the crowd. Great choice!

Short Films Competition Part 2

Another panel of short film screenings next. Clean As You Like (Theresa Varga, 2018) is an off-kilter slapstick comedy about two friends who work as cleaners, and whose relationship is thrown off by the arrival of a man on the scene. Dialogue-free and heavy on the physical comedy, this isn’t really a horror film. Sadly, the humour didn’t work for me. Similarly, Zombie Time (Alfonso Fulgencio, 2018) – a Lego zombie animation – wasn’t really to my taste. The Dollmaker (Al Lougher, 2017) has a bereaved mother turn to a toymaker for a magical solution to her grief – this is nicely done, but a bit predictable. Also very well done is La Noria (Carlos Baena, 2018), an ambitious (and moving) animation. Both Milk (Santiago Menghini, 2018) and Here There Be Monsters (Drew Macdonald, 2018) start off strong, but lack punch. The former has a boy going to the kitchen for a late-night drink, finding his mother there, and then realizing that something’s very wrong. The latter has a bullied girl trapped on a school bus at the end of the day and running into something nasty. I really enjoyed The Blizzard (Alvaro Rodriguez Areny, 2018), an unsettling period piece in which a mother wakes up in a blizzard, separated from her daughter and facing an unspecified military threat. This film made great use of the short film format. Home (Paul Gustavsen, 2018) is an excellent creepypasta-esque film about a woman being woken in the night by her husband coming in from a night out (or has something else come in?). Finally – and the winner of the Méliès d’Argent at this year’s festival – was Skickelsen (Jonas Gramming, 2017): a mysterious man moves into an apartment with an appointment to keep. Stylishly shot and nicely creepy, this was a definite highlight and well-deserved winner.

Friday the 13th (dir. Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)

Next up was the (kind of) signature film of the festival… the original Friday the 13th! Admittedly, we’d already seen Part 3 earlier in the week, but it was time to go back to where it all began. I don’t know whether this film needs much of an introduction – or if there’s much I can say by way of a review that hasn’t already been said. But in the unlikely event that anyone’s reading this review who doesn’t know what happens in Friday the 13th… teen counsellors arrive to set up Camp Crystal Lake for the summer season and are mysteriously (and gorily) picked off one by one. The camp has an unfortunate history – stories of a young boy drowning in 1957, and then the brutal murders of two counsellors the following year, circulate – so this new crop of teens can’t say they haven’t been warned. And yet they pay no heed – they just turn up intending to have fun over the summer (something which, as the slasher genre tells us, is a dangerous thing to do). Given the sprawling franchise that followed, it’s easy to forget that Friday the 13th is, like a lot of non-franchise slashers, a whodunit with multiple suspects, including Crazy Ralph (who wanders around town talking about a ‘death curse’) and friendly camp owner Steve. But the film has a big reveal up its sleeve – and in the event that someone’s reading this who hasn’t seen the film (or the first ten minutes of Scream), I’ll just leave it at that. It’s hard to say what – exactly – makes Friday the 13th so iconic. Perhaps it’s that reveal, perhaps it’s Harry Manfredini’s score. Or perhaps it’s that the film is the absolute essence of the slasher genre and the template for so much that would follow.

Sean S. Cunningham in conversation with Stephen Thrower

The guest-of-honour at this year’s festival was Sean S. Cunningham, producer and director of Friday the 13th (among other things). After the screening of Friday the 13th, we were treated to an ‘audience with’ session, with Cunningham in conversation with Stephen Thrower and taking questions from the audience. This was an interesting session for a number of reasons. There were (as expected) some great anecdotes about Cunningham’s career, the making of Friday the 13th, the making of Last House on the Left, and his work and friendship with Wes Craven. But, also, it was really fascinating to hear a somewhat different perspective on the making of iconic horror films from what I’d heard before. It was clear that Cunningham is – at heart – a producer, rather than an auteur, and so his take on why/how horror films work was quite a different – and, at times, defiantly apolitical – take on the genre.

The Last House on the Left (dir. Wes Craven, 1972)

I wasn’t sure about watching this next one. I’ve seen Last House on the Left before, and I found it a distinctly uncomfortable watch. In case you don’t know, the film was a collaboration between Sean S. Cunningham and Wes Craven, heavily censored (and censured) at the time of its release for its depiction of violence and sadism. Two young women are abducted, tortured and raped by a gang of sociopathic criminals – and then the criminals take shelter in the home of one of the girls’ parents. The sexual violence and humiliation in the torture scenes is intense, and I was very wary about watching this one again. However, the festival organizers were very sensible in putting it on after the Q and A with Cunningham, as it helped to contextualize the film and offer ways to ‘think’ the film’s violence, rather than simply experiencing it. Despite really not enjoying it previously, I’ll admit I was keen to see if the film looked different with this added context and introduction. One of the things that I noted from the Audience with Sean S. Cunningham was the almost incongruous medley of desires that led to the creation of the film: the desire to create a ‘drive-in’ movie that would attract people to the theatre, the desire to rework Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with a contemporary American setting, and the desire to comment on (rather than simply show) violence and its aftermath (and, depending on whose take you follow, the desire to comment subtextually on the Vietnam War). This incongruity results in a film that is difficult to read. Is it exploitation horror? Is it a political anti-violence rhetoric? What is the viewer supposed to take from it? Despite the introduction and context, I’m still not sure I know the answers.

The Last House on the Left is an uncomfortable way to end the night, but once again we couldn't quite manage the final screening of the night. This time we sadly had to miss the UK premiere of Party Hard, Die Young (dir. Dominik Hartl, 2018).

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

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Tuesday and Wednesday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

We were away at Abertoir horror film festival in Wales last week. We've been wanting to go to the festival for ages, but this year was the first time that work commitments (pretty much) allowed it. And I'm so glad that we were able to make it this year - what a brilliant festival! Abertoir is a warm and welcoming festival, and within a few hours of arriving we really felt at home. But it's also a well-organized event, and the programme is very well put together. I was really impressed by the thought that clearly went into this year's line-up: a good selection of classics complimented new releases and a couple of UK premieres... and a few genuine surprises too.

Abertoir is a six-day festival, so we saw a LOT of films. And a lot of these are recommendations, so I'm planning to review all the titles we saw in November. To make it a bit more manageable, I'm going to do the review in three parts. First up... here are the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday 13th November

Sleepaway Camp (dir. Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

As this was the thirteenth Abertoir festival, and Friday the 13th was on the menu, the whole festival had a slasher theme, with some interesting selections made from the subgenre. The first screening was Sleepaway Camp – which set a quirky, off-beat tone to the proceedings. Sleepaway Camp is a cult classic, niche even by slasher standards, and I was surprised to find that even my horror aficionado husband had never heard of it (and it was quite the challenge not to let any spoilers slip beforehand). It’s hard to know what to say about Sleepaway Camp to do justice to its off-key mix of high camp and horror tropes. The film begins with a happy day out on the lake turning to tragedy, as a family is mown down by a rogue speedboat. A father and child are killed, but another child survives. Fast forward eight years, and we’re at Camp Arawak for the summer. Awkward teen Angela is attending the camp for the first time with her cousin Ricky. Angela is painfully shy and so is mercilessly bullied by Queen Bee Judy and malicious counsellor Meg. But an unseen killer is picking off teens (mostly the more unpleasant ones). Camp owner Mel Costic – apparently taking a page from Jaws’ Mayor Larry Vaughn’s playbook – is determined to brush off the violent murders to ensure the summer continues as planned, but the killings just don’t stop. The whole thing builds to a climax that has to be seen to be believed, and which will leave you questioning if this is exploitation, innovation or something somewhere in between. Chock-full of 80s fashion disasters (such tight shorts! such high side ponytails!), hammy acting and murdered teens, Sleepaway Camp is a wild ride. And it was a great start to our first Abertoir festival.

In Fabric (dir. Peter Strickland, 2018)

The first new film of the festival was In Fabric. In a nutshell, this is a film about a haunted dress. But that brief summary does a disservice to Strickland’s highly stylized – often overwhelmingly so – and sometimes disturbing critique of consumerism. The film introduces us to Sheila, a downtrodden single mother to a teen son, who has a boring job in a bank and uses a lonely hearts dating service. Sheila buys a dress from a ubiquitous but sinister department store – and things go badly wrong. Again, this doesn’t really do justice to how Strickland’s film unfolds. In many ways, it is the aesthetic – rather than the plot – which is most important here. Firstly, the film plays around with ostensibly ‘period’ detail and anachronism (a telling example: Sheila has an analogue tape answerphone, but a phone number that begins ‘01’), creating a feeling of timelessness, but not in a reassuring or positive way. Secondly, the film’s design is both minutely detailed and gloriously overblown: Sheila’s place of work and uniform are intricately mundane, which contrasts with the Gothic Victoriana of the department store’s creepy assistants. Other contrasts are used to strong effect in the film, such as dialogue (the juxtaposition of the stilted, comical awkwardness of Sheila’s dates, the daft management speak of her bosses, and the uncomfortable verbosity of the shop assistants) and tone (the contrast of sad silliness during the dates with the Grand Guignol-esque blood and disturbing eroticism in the department store after hours). Does this work? Mostly – yes, I think it does. In Fabric isn’t a horror narrative as such, but it utilizes generic story elements and visual tropes to undeniably powerful effect. My criticism would be that it’s somewhat overlong and loses its pacing once Sheila’s story ends and the dress acquires a new owner.

Piercing (dir. Nicolas Pesce, 2018)

Piercing is an adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s 1994 novel of the same name (translated into English in 2007). It’s the story of Reed, a married man with a young child, who fantasises about killing a woman with an ice pick. Admittedly, in the opening scenes, I did have doubts about whether this film was for me. The last horror film festival we went to (way back in 2015) became a bit of chore, as it felt like every single film we saw featured (sexual, gratuitous) violence against women. When Reed sets about making his fantasy a reality, checking into a hotel and testing out the effects of chloroform, I had a sinking feeling things were heading in the same direction. Oh me of little faith! Piercing was going to take us on a very different journey. Reed hires an escort – Jackie (played brilliantly by Mia Wasikowska) – who arrives at his hotel room, uncomfortable and awkward. Her client, too, is uncomfortable and awkward, and the audience waits for the violence to begin… But then the film takes an unexpected turn, when Jackie’s own psychological issues come to the surface. The film’s design is stylish (and stylized – though not to the same extent as In Fabric), and the back-and-forth between the two protagonists also has a sense of choreographed style (although we see some other characters, this is essentially a two-hander) that flips the script from predator-prey to a twisted pas de deux. Nevertheless, this is not a character study – we learn little about Reed, and even less about Jackie. Instead, Piercing emerges as a viciously glossy, but also funny and touching, tale of two messed-up people finding a way to deal with their mess. No spoilers, but I found the ending (and particularly the last line) really quite a satisfying conclusion.

Sadly, our stamina isn't what it used to be, so we had to skip the final screening of the day in favour of sleep. The last film on Tuesday was Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (dir. Tommy Wiklund and Sonny Laguna, 2018).

Wednesday 14th November

The Tokoloshe (dir. Jerome Pikwane, 2018)

First film of Wednesday was The Tokoloshe, a South African horror inspired by a creature from Zulu mythology. Busi (Petronella Tshuma) is a poor young woman who arrives in Johannesburg looking for work. She manages to get a job at a run-down hospital, but is immediately beset both by the supernatural malevolence of the tokoloshe that’s apparently menacing the hospital’s children’s ward, and by the more human threat of a predatory boss. Desperate for money so that she can ‘save’ her sister, Busi is forced to stay at the hospital as things become increasingly violent and frightening. I really enjoyed The Tokoloshe – it was very skilful in its evocation of Gothic horror and the claustrophobia of Busi’s situation. The film’s bilingual (English/Zulu) dialogue also worked very well, with Busi’s isolation being conjured through the continued pressure to speak English to those in authority. One particular scene, when Busi attempts to flee on a bus, really highlighted the way language works in the film, with her English pleas to the bus driver falling on deaf ears before a voice offers assistance in Zulu – even as an Anglophone I felt the sheer relief that came with hearing Busi’s own language spoken. If I had a criticism of the film, it would be that it tries to do a little too much. The horror set pieces in the hospital are very well done, but these are only part of the story. Busi and her sister’s backstory is also revealed through flashback, and there is commentary on social and economic issues in Johannesburg as well. At times, it feels like the film tries to tell too many stories and this affects pacing. Nevertheless, the ending does an excellent job of bringing the threads together and revealing the underlying truth of the horror assailing Busi.

UK Premiere: Occult Bolshevism (dir. Hiroshi Takahashi, 2018)

Occult Bolshevism is a Japanese film, written and directed by Hiroshi Takahashi (the writer of Ringu). Our screening was prefixed by a short recorded interview by Takahashi, where he spoke of being inspired by classic British ghost stories (in the writing of both Ringu and Occult Bolshevism). We also had a brief intro from the festival organizers, who said that – despite being written by the same man – the film we were about to watch was definitely not in the same vein of horror as his more famous work. I’ll admit I was quite glad about that, because – shock horror! – I’m not really a fan of Ringu (don’t @ me). The organizers were right, though. Occult Bolshevism is a quite different type of tale – and I really enjoyed it. As part of a forbidden experiment into psychological/paranormal phenomena (it’s not made explicitly clear at the start what the nature of the experiment is), a group of people come together in an apparently abandoned industrial facility. As with classic ghost stories, they each take it in turn to tell their own tale of supernatural experience, which are recorded/monitored. But all this is being conducted under looming portraits of Communist leaders and is prefaced with a group rendition of the Bolshevik Party Anthem – and throughout the film the experiment is couched in terms of ‘spiritual revolution’. Occult Bolshevism is a weird and off-kilter ghost story that carries you along for its ride. I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand the ending, but it’s certainly a dramatic and unsettling climax that draws together disparate elements of the stories previously told. For me, the film was at its most powerful when the experiment’s participants narrated their tales – sparsely shot and without diegetic music, these sequences perfectly captured the essence of the ghost story.

Offsite Screening: Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D (dir. Steve Miner, 1982)

And now for a bit of an ‘event screening’. Abertoir have a tradition of holding off-site screenings during their annual festivals – it was one of the things that initially caught our attention about their programme. This year, in-keeping with this year’s theme, it was a screening of Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D at a remote barn in the Welsh countryside (well, not entirely remote – but let’s not worry too much about that). We were advised to wrap up warm, transported to the location by coach, and then given hockey masks with 3D glasses attached (a brilliant little touch, although given my hairdo and spectacles, I sadly had to detach my glasses so I could actually wear them). After a couple of other little surprises – including a nice little ‘I’ll be right back’ moment from an ‘audience member’ – we settled in for some slasher fun. Watching in a group is really the only way to enjoy a 3D film, and there were plenty of giggles and groans as various things flew out of the screen towards us. Arguably, Part 3 isn’t a particularly exciting or memorable instalment in the franchise, but I thoroughly enjoyed this screening. Afterwards, we stepped outside the barn for drinks, food and a bonfire. However, this did give me the distinct impression that we’d crossed our horror subgenres. Huddling around the bonfire in the darkness of the British countryside felt more folk horror than summer camp slasher – I wasn’t scared of Jason at this point, but I worried that someone might have to be sacrificed to ensure next year’s harvest. Fortunately, everyone survived (I think) and we got back on the bus to head back to the festival venue. This was an excellent, fun event screening – perfectly organized and a great addition to the programme.

Tumbbad (dir. Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi and Adesh Prasad, 2018)

When we got back to the festival venue, it was time for another new film. Tumbbad is a Hindi-language historical fantasy/horror with visual and narrative nods to the epic. The film begins with a narration of the story of the Goddess of Prosperity, and of her greedy son Hastar. The other gods attacked Hastar, but his mother saved him – on the condition that he was never worshipped and remained forgotten by humanity. But the village of Tumbbad did not forget him, and so they were cursed with eternal rains. The film’s story is divided into three sections. It begins in 1918, when Vinayak’s mother is servant to the local lord Sarkar. As well as tending to the house and Sarkar’s monstrous ancestor (seriously monstrous… she’s kept chained up in a basement), Vinayak’s mother performs sexual services for Sarkar – who is the father of her two sons – in the hope of acquiring one of Hastar’s gold coins. When Sarkar dies, she intends to leave Tumbbad for Pune, but her son has become fascinated by the possibility of discovering more of Hastar’s treasure. The story then moves to the 1930s, and the adult Vinayak’s return to Tumbbad and discovery of the treasure; the final chapter is set in 1947, when the now-rich Vinayak begins to train his son to extract the gold in his place. Storywise, Tumbbad is a fable: Vinayak desires wealth, then he realises his desire, then he faces the consequences. But it’s the film’s visual style that really makes it. Lavishly rendered, with exquisitely detailed sets and location shooting, Tumbbad is both sensual and disturbing. The eternal rains of Tumbbad village were very well done, to the point where you actually feel drenched just watching it. Tumbbad is a classy and evocative period piece with a timeless fabulist moral.

And despite our best intentions, we were once again too shattered to stay for the last screening of the day. This time, we missed Slumber Party Massacre (dir. Amy Holden Jones, 1982).

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

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No 1

And so we come to the end of Digital Front's countdown of his Top Ten werewolf films, and the end of #lycanthrovember. I hope you've enjoyed this Top Ten - and leave your comments below if you disagree with any of the choices!

All that remains is to reveal Digital Front's selection for the No. 1 slot - the best werewolf film of all time. To be honest, if you've been reading this countdown from No. 10 and you still need me to reveal the film that came in at No. 1, then I'm going to have to sentence you to watch all 5 Twilight films (that's right - both parts of Breaking Dawn) as a punishment. And maybe Red Riding Hood too - it depends how cruel I'm feeling.

Digital Front's No. 1 werewolf film is (of course)...

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Stars: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine
Tagline: Beware the Moon

Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.

Digital Front's Review:
An American Werewolf in London was released the same year as The Howling, but somehow has fared much better against the ravages of time than its rival.

Two American students are backpacking around Europe and find themselves in the Yorkshire Dales. They come across a remote village where the locals are inhospitable to say the least, not taking kindly to a couple of strangers in their midst. After being made aware they're really not welcome, they head back out into the night with a few words of advice: "Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors." Advice that they accidentally ignore, resulting with one of them dead and the other seriously injured.

The surviving tourist, David Kessler (David Naughton), awakes in a London hospital under the care of Dr Hirsch (John Woodvine) and Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter), who inform him of his friend's demise and David's lucky escape from an attack by "a madman". But David insists they were attacked by an animal, not a man.

David eventually leaves the hospital under the care of Nurse Price who offers him a place to stay for a few days. David is plagued by horrific dreams and thinks he's losing his mind as he is also visited by his dead friend who informs him that he is now a werewolf and should kill himself before he hurts anyone. What soon follows is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, as David does indeed transform into a werewolf, just as his friend Jack had warned.

There aren't many films that have successfully combined horror and comedy. An American Werewolf in London achieves this with perfect precision - at its heart is a horror with enough blood and gore to satisfy any fan, while the constant undercurrent of humour provides enough charm and relief to prevent the darker elements from becoming exhausting.

Incidentally, this film did lead to a sequel (An American Werewolf in Paris), but it's certainly one to avoid in my opinion.

Though it's probably no surprise to find this film happily sitting at the top of the pile in the No. 1 slot, it's No. 1 for many people for a very good reason. It's the perfect werewolf film.


So... I hope you've enjoyed this countdown of werewolf cinema, brought to you by my lovely husband. I'm now off to go through his choices and completely disagree with them in the comments section. If you've liked this Top Ten, I'm planning on posting a countdown of my own shortly - this time, the Top Ten werewolf novels. Watch this space! Awwwooooooo!

Go on... you know you want to listen to this song right now...

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 2

And so we near the end of Digital Front's lycanthropic countdown. Time to announce the runner-up...

Drum roll please...

In second place, it's...

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Director: Neil Marshall
Stars: Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby
Tagline: Six soldiers. Full moon. No chance.

A routine military exercise in the highlands of Scotland turns very bloody very quickly.

Digital Front's Review:
A squad of British soldiers lead by Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) are on a training exercise in Scotland only to discover the massacred remains of the special forces squad they have been pitted against. It's not long before they encounter what was behind the brutal slayings and, as they're only armed with blanks, decide to get the hell out of there.

They're saved by Megan (Emma Cleasby) who takes them to a nearby farmhouse and fills them in on the local wildlife - werewolves as it happens. The same werewolves that soon lay siege to the farmhouse leaving the weaponless soldiers and Megan completely stranded and battling for their lives.

This is not a complicated film by any stretch. It's a 'cabin in the woods' scenario with a group of people stranded and fighting for their lives by whatever means necessary - but it's a formula that has worked to great effect for countless classics and Dog Soldiers is no exception. There's plenty of humour, horror, action, a revelation (fair enough it could be seen from miles away but the film is too enjoyable for that to be a negative point), a noble sacrifice, and a satisfying resolution. Spoiler alert - the dog makes it out unscathed too, so gets to join the likes of Jones the Cat in the Horror Film Pet Survivors Hall of Fame.

Another aspect of the film I've always loved is the werewolves themselves. There's no crazy CGI effects on show... instead the filmmakers opted for brief glimpses of the creatures and that's always far more effective in my view.

The soldiers rendered impotent by their absence of firepower are entirely believable and serve as an interesting contrast to Megan, the only female in the film, who is much stronger and collected throughout. Then again, perhaps she knows something that they don't.

All in all, a fantastic werewolf romp that hits all the right notes for me.

Click here to find out what's at No. 1!

Or go back to No. 3!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 3

So we enter the Top Three of Digital Front's Top Ten werewolf films... so let's find out which lycanthropic gem scooped the bronze medal...

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Director: John Fawcett
Stars: Emily Perkins, Katharine Isabelle, Kris Lemche
Tagline: She's got the curse.

Two sisters must deal with the tragic consequences when one of them is bitten by a werewolf.

Digital Front's Review:
In stark contrast to many of the films in this werewolf Top Ten, Ginger Snaps is quite a dark, sombre and gory film.

The story centres around two sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigette (Emily Perkins), whose hobby is photographing death scenes that they've staged and making pacts about dying together. This idyllic existence isn't to last though, as Ginger is bitten one night by a werewolf that has been terrorizing the local canine population. This life changing event also happens on the same day as Ginger gets her first period.

Ginger then starts to gradually change, both physically and in terms of temperament, and Brigette is locked in a race against time to save her sister.

Ginger Snaps is similar to The Company of Wolves in terms of the underlying narrative focusing on the transformation to womanhood, but takes a slightly different direction by drawing reasonably blunt but not overstated direct comparisons to werewolves rather than helpless innocent women being preyed upon.

It's a welcome change watching a werewolf film that isn't dominated by big beastly hirsute men and helpless weak women, but sadly Ginger Snaps falls into a minority in that respect.

The film has spawned two sequels (Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed and Ginger Snaps Back) but sadly they are considerably weaker than the original. I'm undecided if that's because they are genuinely just not up to par or that Ginger Snaps was just too damned good to follow up. This film is one of a kind and just has to be in any serious werewolf fan's collection.

Click here for No. 2!

Or go back to No. 4!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 4

We're counting down the Top Ten werewolf films (according to the lovely Digital Front). In fourth place, it's...

Wolf (1994)

Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader
Tagline: The animal is out.

An ageing publisher is down on his luck, until he is bitten by a wolf and suddenly finds himself rejuvenated.

Digital Front's Review:
Wolf is a bit difficult to categorize - it's not a traditional horror, drama or thriller... it's an off-beat combination of the three.

Will Randall (Nicholson) is a meek and mild-mannered literary editor who loses his job, his wife, and to top it all off is bitten by a wolf. To rub his nose in it a little further, he also discovers that Stewart Swinton (Spader) has not only taken Will's job, but is also the man that has been having an affair with his wife.

However, it's not all doom and gloom for Will as he discovers that since being bitten by the wolf, his senses are starting to get much stronger. And he has so much more energy too. Actually I lied, it is still a bit doom and gloom because all this power comes at a price - Will has also started to have blackouts which always coincide with a tragedy (for example, his wife's murder). And Will also comes to realize he's actually starting to look more and more like a wolf...

Will meets his former boss's daughter, Laura (Pfeiffer), and amid their burgeoning relationship he turns to her for help fearing the worst about his blackouts and growing animalistic urges.

And I'm going to leave it there, because otherwise I'll ruin the film for anyone who hasn't seen it.

The reason Wolf ranks so highly in this list is because it just has a real charm about it. As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn't a standard werewolf film. It's very tongue-in-cheek, and as you'd expect with the calibre of talent on show the performances by the cast are absolutely top notch. Highly recommended.

Click here for No. 3!

Or go back to No. 5!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 5

We're currently counting down Digital Front's Top Ten werewolf films, to celebrate the last day of #lycanthrovember. And at No. 5...

Silver Bullet (1985)

Director: Daniel Attias
Stars: Gary Busey, Megan Follows, Corey Haim
Tagline: When darkness falls, terror rises.

A werewolf terrorizes a small town where only a young paralytic boy knows the truth behind the spate of killings.

Digital Front's Review: Based on a Stephen King novella called Cycle of the Werewolf, Silver Bullet takes place in Tarker's Mills - a trademark King sleepy New England town. Well, not such a sleepy town anymore. Someone is stalking Tarker's Mills every full moon and ripping people to pieces...

Naturally, all the inhabitants of this small town believe a serial killer is on the loose. All except Marty (Corey Haim), a young disabled boy. He believes a werewolf is to blame.

Cue an expected turn of events - the townsfolk form vigilante groups and hunt the killer, only to be picked off in the process, and Marty's sceptical sister Jane (Megan Follows) accepts his werewolf theory after the two have a run-in with the beast. The pair then hunt down the man behind the furry transformations.

Silver Bullet isn't original, it's not groundbreaking, it's not cerebral in any way. But it is a lot of fun, and that's an element I find missing from many werewolf films.

Click here for No. 4!

Or go back to No. 6!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 6

And at No. 6 in Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films...

The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante
Stars: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan
Tagline: Imagine your worst fear a reality.

After a near fatal encounter with a serial killer, a television reporter is sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.

Digital Front's Review:
This is one of the bigger werewolf films of our time. After a near death experience at the hands of a notorious murderer, reporter Karen undertakes a course of therapy at a secluded retreat called The Colony.

Predictably, this gives plenty of opportunity for howls from the forest at night, mutilated animals in the forest, and strange inhabitants at The Colony. This also gives rise (no pun intended) to a fair amount of carnal activity, which does underline the animalistic nature of Karen's newly acquired co-inhabitants but also feels a little gratuitous.

Although the film hasn't aged particularly well, The Howling marries a decent storyline and horror in an almost perfect ratio, producing a classic and watchable werewolf flick.

Click here for No. 5!

Or go back to No. 7!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 7

We're now at No. 7 in Digital Front's top ten werewolf films... and in at seventh place, we have...

Bad Moon (1996)

Director: Eric Red
Stars: Mariel Hemingway, Michael Paré, Mason Gamble
Tagline: Half man. Half wolf. Total terror.

While on assignment in a remote jungle, an American photojournalist is attacked by a fearsome werewolf. He survives the encounter with only a nasty bite, but becomes a werewolf himself. Appalled by his bloodthirst, Ted goes to stay with his sister in the hope that she can stop him, but her dog knows his secret.

Digital Front's Review:
Bad Moon is one of those hidden gems. You'd be forgiven for never having heard of this film, and if that's the case you're really missing out.

Distilled to its basic elements, Bad Moon could have been called "Werewolf Versus German Shepherd". A photographer (Ted) is bitten by a werewolf while on assignment. Disgusted by what he's become, Ted goes to stay with his sister (Janet), her son (Brett), and their pet dog (Thor). And Thor is really not happy about having a werewolf living under the same roof.

Don't misunderstand me, Bad Moon is not a flawless masterpiece of cinema by any stretch. It's clearly low budget, and some of the acting really grates (particularly Brett). The werewolf itself isn't exactly convincing either and everything is a bit rough round the edges, but none of these things derail a very decent film.

Where Bad Moon shines (no pun intended) is with a slight departure from the standard werewolf fare but also the real star of the film. Thor. Trust me, you'll be rooting for that fella.

Click here for No. 6!

Or go back to No. 8!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 8

And at No. 8 in Digital Front's Top Ten werewolf films, we have...

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Director: Neil Jordan
Stars: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner
Tagline: The desire... the fantasy... the nightmare.

After hearing her grandmother's stories about dangerous men, a 13-year-old girl has nightmares that transform her into Little Red Riding Hood.

Digital Front's Review:
Based on Angela Carter's short story of the same name, and co-written by Carter and director Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves is a fantasy dream world containing dreams within that dream. Rosaleen is a young girl haunted by her grandmother's stories that serve as a warning to be wary of men, particularly those whose eyebrows meet in the middle.

It's quite a difficult film to make sense of at times, and its highly stylized macabre tone can be quite unsettling. Littered with coming of age sexual undertones, The Company of Wolves is a metaphor whereby the innocent Little Red Riding Hood is suddenly exposed to a world where werewolves, or beastly men, prey upon women.

Essentially, if you're looking to rip open the popcorn and enjoy some mindless gruesome werewolf action then you will be sorely disappointed.

Moving along from the cerebral aspect however, on another level this is a beautiful film. The production is as clever as the narrative, and although it's now 30 years old the imagery is really quite breathtaking at times, shunning creepy forests for obvious sets that somehow really add to the viewers immersion into the dream world on show.

Yes, it's weird. Yes, it's occasionally difficult to follow. But this film has charm, originality, and vivid visuals that take it to a whole new level and hopefully may inspire more werewolf films to take a path lesser travelled.

Click here for No. 7!

Or go back to No. 9!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 9

Continuing Digital Front's countdown of the Top Ten Werewolf films... in 9th place we have...

The Wolfman (2010)

Director: Joe Johnston
Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt
Tagline: The legend is alive.

A practical man returns to his homeland, is attacked by a creature of folklore, and infected with a horrific disease his disciplined mind tells him can not possibly exist.

Digital Front's Review:
A remake of the 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolfman boasts a healthy cast of big names, big production values, and beautifully captures a dark and foreboding Victorian gothic atmosphere. Everything is dark and subdued - not only the visuals, but (on the whole) the performances as well.

As a horror fan, the addition of gore to the remake is also very welcome, updating the more family friendly format of the original. Anthony Hopkins is, as you'd expect, thoroughly dark and turns in a great turn as Lord Talbot.

There are disappointments however. The eponymous wolfman, in being faithful to the original, doesn't really fit with the polished visuals of the 2010 version. I appreciate the decision to not rely on CG and stick with prosthetics, but it never really hits the mark. And Del Toro, while arguably a great actor, for me is miscast in this film.

On the whole, The Wolfman is a little too subdued and in places really drags its heels. At times it feels like there was never a definitive vision that would add to the original, but it's definitely worth taking a peek at.

Click here for No. 8!

Or go back to No. 10!

Digital Front's Top Ten Werewolf Films: No. 10

To celebrate the end of #lycanthrovember (which, admittedly, seems to have run slightly longer than November as originally planned), I asked independent musician and husband-of-me, Digital Front to come up with his top ten werewolf films. Let's see how many you agree with!

And so... in 10th place...

Underworld (2003)

Director: Len Wiseman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen
Tagline: An immortal battle for supremacy.

Vampires and Lycans have been warring for centuries. Vampire Selene wonders why the enemy are interested in a particular human, Michael, but when she discovers a conspiracy between a Vampire traitor and a Lycan leader, she is forced to question her own origins.

Digital Front's review:
Underworld has all the ingredients for an amazing film - vampires and werewolves have been at war for centuries, beating the stuffing out of each other on a regular basis in a battle for supremacy and world domination. It's stylish, dark, and I really want to love the film.

And that's why it's in this list, albeit at the very bottom. Underworld should be a fantastic action fantasy exploring a power struggle between legendary monsters... but what we get is essentially a visually stunning but hollow film, trading an amazing plot opportunity for countless fight scenes that rapidly become dull carbon copies of each other.

There are a few sequels to the film, but Underworld is by far the better of the franchise. That isn't really saying much, sadly.

If you like your films to look nice, dish out lots of fight scenes, and have Kate Beckinsale in a tight leather fetish catsuit - Underworld will certainly keep you entertained. If however you like a substantial plot tying everything together, then Underworld is really not for you.

Click here for No. 9!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival 2014 - Friday

Whitby, 23-27 October 2014

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) ( 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…