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

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

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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.

Summary:
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) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2574666/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) reads:
“A sewage worker gets trapped inside a septic tank during a water contamination crisis and undergoes a hideous transformation. To escape, he must team up with a docile Giant and confront the murdering madman known as Lord Auch.”
As you can imagine, we were expecting another comedy horror with a sewage-contaminated superhero and a larger-than-life cast of supporting characters. But no. Far, far from it.



Septic Man is a dark and disturbing Canadian horror, carried almost entirely by Jason David Brown’s excellent performance as Jack (the eponymous Septic Man), a sewage worker who is asked by the shadowy Phil Prosser (Julian Richings) to assist with the aforementioned contamination crisis that has caused an entire town to be evacuated. As Jack investigates the source of the contamination, he becomes trapped in the sewers, and his ‘hideous transformation’ begins. The film is, at heart, a psychological horror – though there is a fair amount of bodyshock thrown in for good measure. It is, by turns, claustrophobic, grotesque, menacing and surreal. As Jack’s physical and mental wellbeing disintegrates, he is both threatened and rejected by the various people who become aware of his presence in the sewers (including the Giant (Robert Maillet) and Lord Auch (Tim Burd), but also Prosser and Jack’s wife Shelley (Molly Dunsworth)). Towards the end of the film, the line between reality and hallucination begins to blur, until it’s not quite clear what the reality beyond the sewer really is, and Jack becomes a sort of embodiment of the disavowed effluence in which he is imprisoned.

You definitely need a strong stomach for Septic Man, but I would highly recommend it. As a sustained exploration of the abjectification of the male body and the concomitant disintegration of masculine identity, it has few rivals. It’s quite simply the classiest and most intelligent film about poo that I’ve seen.

Another double bill followed Septic Man, kicking off with a Japanese short film, Bandaged (dir. Takashi Hirose, 2011). This was not a highpoint of the day for us. Hirose’s short film aims to shock, but falls rather flat. A young couple (played by Hiroshi Sekine and Ayano) spend their nights attacking and mutilating one another – and their days walking the streets swathed in bandages – as a way of feeling ‘connected’ and overcoming their existential despair. It was very hard to identify with these characters, as their alienation and angst was both pretentious and juvenile – not that juvenile alienation isn’t a serious matter, but more that this film presented it in a rather clichéd and two-dimensional manner. Additionally, cheap effects (including that pink-tinged fake blood that ruins horror films) and a predictable ending made this a somewhat disappointing addition to the schedule.

However, our disappointment didn’t last long, as the feature film in this double was another good one. Treehouse (dir. Michael Bartlett, 2014) seems to have had a few negative reviews from people who’ve seen it at other festivals, but we really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it.



Treehouse tells the story of Killian (J. Michael Trautmann) who stumbles upon the aftermath of a violent kidnapping in his American home town. Ascending into the treehouse of the title, while he and his brother Crawford (Daniel Frederick) are trying to find a party, Killian discovers Elizabeth (Dana Melanie) hiding from the abductors of her younger brother. Together, the two teens try to evade the kidnappers and find Little Bob (Elizabeth’s brother). One of the film’s main strengths lies in characterization, and I enjoyed the development of Elizabeth and Killian, as well as their relationship with one another.

One of the criticisms of the film appears to revolve around the reveal of the perpetrators of the kidnapping; some viewers seem to have found this unsatisfying. I have to say I’m struggling to understand this criticism, as I thought the revelations were handled very well and were completely right for the tone and setting of the film. I also thought that the amount of information and backstory provided for the kidnappers was well-handled, with the film going for suggestion and implication rather than in-your-face shock. The pace of the film isn’t slow, by any means, but it has a measured feel to it, which allows for more character development (but less high-energy action). The use of flashbacks to intercut the main narrative heightens this focus on character, which adds depth to the protagonists’ flight from their aggressive foes.

All-in-all, Treehouse is a recommendation. It might not be the most original narrative ever, but was an engaging and well-made film that offered an interesting take on well-trodden ground. The screening was followed by a Q+A with executive producer Steve Weston, who talked a bit about the reasons for a UK production company making a film in the US, as well as some of the ups and downs of casting and producing the film. This session was interesting, but I was surprised to see that – unlike in previous years – the Q+A sessions weren’t chaired by one of the festival organizing team. A student volunteer introduced various filmmakers throughout the festival (though not always by name), but they were then left to field their own questions and moderate the sessions themselves. This didn’t seem like the best way to introduce a guest speaker, and a return to the more structured sessions of previous years would be advisable.

After a short break, we returned for the next double bill of the day, beginning with the Japanese short film Anemia (dir. Maya Kato, 2013). Anemia is the story of a female vampire who can only survive on the blood of male virgins. It’s a rather amateurish affair, with unconvincing acting and cinematography. Not our favourite short film by a long way, and definitely not a recommendation.

The feature film following Anemia was another Japanese offering. Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (dir. Takayuki Hirao, 2012) is an anime adaptation of the manga Gyo by Junji Ito. I’m not familiar with the manga, so I couldn’t say how well the film works as an adaptation. I’m also not particularly well-versed in anime, so I struggled a little to get my head into the right frame of mind to watch this after a day of horror films. Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack is about a sudden infestation of biomechanical walking fish that carry ‘the stench of death’ with them. A group of friends discover that it is possible to become infected and devolve (evolve?) into a green, bloated fish monster, and so try to escape the infestation. I’m not sure if this film carried a deeper message or meaning, but it hasn’t converted me to anime. There were also a couple of scenes involving the forcible violation of the female body by a monstrous non-human that reminded me of the gratuitous tentacle rape of Dagon earlier in the day – as a result Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack left me rather cold.

On to the final film of the day…

At last year’s festival, we watched a short film called Dollboy by director Billy Pon (and you can read my review of that piece here, which was prefaced by what we thought were two Grindhouse-style fake trailers for films called Circus of the Dead and Mister Fister (which was as horrible and misogynist as it sounds). However, it turns out that these were actually trailers for upcoming feature films by Pon. The final film of the day was Pon’s Circus of the Dead (2014), starring Bill Oberst Jr. as a sociopathic and brutal clown named Papa Corn, who kidnaps and tortures family man Donald Johnson (Parrish Randall).

Hmmm… what to say about Circus of the Dead? Initially, I was very much inclined to like it. The circus (and its clowns) are simultaneously malevolent and squalid, and there is a feeling of griminess that pervades the carnival. Papa Corn begins as a sublimely menacing and unsettling figure (heightened by the fact that we never see him out of costume or make-up), who gets some really quite funny one-liners. However, the film soon descends into a rather childish attempt to pile up the most shocking and distasteful imagery possible, simply for the sake of it. Once Papa Corn begins his night of tormenting Donald Johnson, the film really has nowhere to go, and it becomes just one vicious attack after another with escalating levels of shock and diminishing levels of menace. The levels of gratuitous sexual violence in Circus of the Dead were also off-putting. There are no female characters in this film, only female bodies to be violated by male characters. Rape is lazily played for laughs – it is part of the ‘black humour’ that Papa Corn is a ‘serial rapist’ – or for the purposes of torturing a male character. Women are dehumanized to the point of objectification, and we see both the rape of a dead woman’s severed head (as a way of tormenting her husband) and the violent removal of a foetus from a woman’s uterus, as well as a number of other attempted rapes. This was all utterly unnecessary and added absolutely nothing to the film or to the characterization of the male characters. Perhaps this is my personal taste, but I generally don’t enjoy films that set out so blatantly to exceed previous levels of violence and violation simply for the purposes of shock and titillation. I felt rather let down by Circus of the Dead, as it started out with so much promise, and I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be watching a feature-length version of Mister Fister.

While I enjoyed a lot about the films on Friday – with Border Patrol, Septic Man and Treehouse being my favourites of the day – I left a little disturbed by the prevalence of sexual violence and violation of the female body in the day’s schedule. It seemed a worrying trend, particularly the way in which rape of the female body was being used as a punishment for men (with little to no attention given to its impact on the actual victim).

That’s it for the Friday films. I’ll be posting my review of the Saturday screenings shortly…

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival 2014 - Thursday

Whitby, 23-27 October 2014

This is part one of a multi-part review. Part two coming soon!

Content warning: this is a review of a horror film festival, and I will be talking in some detail about the content of the films we watched. In some places, this includes discussion of graphic depictions of sexual violence.

In October, my partner (RS) and I went to Whitby for the annual Bram Stoker International Film Festival. The festival is now in its sixth year, and this year it ran over five days. As well as a selection of independent horror films, the festival programme included evening events aimed at the pre-Whitby Goth Weekend Goth crowd – including the Vampires Ball, Children of the Night and 1880s Night music events, and a ‘Dark Arts’ exhibition). I’ve been to five out of the six festivals now, and you can read my review of last year’s festival here.

This year’s festival included 48 screenings over five days, so I’m going to jump right in and start talking about the films that we watched…

As RS and I always stay in a (lovely) B+B that’s about half an hour’s walk away from the festival venue – Whitby’s Spa Pavilion – and as we aren’t morning people by any stretch of the imagination, we missed a few of the morning screenings this year. Thursday kicked off for us with the second film of the day, a UK short film called The Dark Hours (dir. Daniel Smith, 2014).

The Dark Hours is a post-apocalyptic survivor tale about Richard (Simon Cotton), a man who is determined to do anything to protect his infected wife Catherine (Anna Skellern). Things take a dark turn when Richard meets another survivor, Cliff (Morgan Jones), and is forced (of course!) to make some difficult decisions. In some ways, the film is a fairly standard apocalypse story, relying on the usual trope of ‘don’t fear the infected, fear the other survivors’. Though we’re only given glimpses of the circumstances of the apocalypse, this also seems fairly standard fare – a worldwide plague of zombie/vampire infection leaving an embattled and disparate group of survivors to fight over dwindling resources and safe areas. However, the film has some pleasing elements that make it rather enjoyable. At the moment, I’m enjoying the current trend in zombie cinema of survivors battling to preserve their relationships with infected loved ones (Dominic Brunt’s 2012 Before Dawn has a nice treatment of this), as it makes a change from the ‘I don’t care who you were when you were alive, I’m going to blow your head off with a shotgun if you come within six feet of this shopping mall’ feel of earlier films. I like the humanization of the survivor/zombie relationship that is becoming more common, and this is very much at the heart of The Dark Hours. I also thought that Smith conjures up a great portrait of (post-)apocalyptic London – the scenes in the post-curfew tube station are particularly well done. Finally, the film has Morgan Jones doing an off-kilter turn as a threatening fellow survivor; I’ll always have a soft spot for Morgan Jones, because he was (and always will be, to me) Archer’s Goon.

Next up, we had our first feature film: Dracula in Pakistan (aka The Living Corpse or Zinda Laash, dir. Khwaja Sarfraz, 1967). To say this was a surprise is something of an understatement! To my shame, I’d never heard of Dracula in Pakistan before, and had no idea what to expect from the film known as ‘Pakistan’s first horror film’ (I don’t know if this claim is true, but it does appear to have been the first X-rated film produced in Pakistan). The film is an adaptation of Dracula, but with some interesting deviations from Stoker’s novel and the roughly contemporaneous Western adaptations typified by Hammer studios. The film tells the story of Professor Tabani (Rehan), a man who uses ‘evil scientist’ bubbling beakers to create a potion bestowing eternal life – and thus a new Prince of Darkness is born. When Dr Aqil (Asad Bukhari) visits the professor’s mysterious home, the vampire’s reign of terror really begins. This film is an absolute gem – the soundtrack and dance routines are just wonderful (although Wikipedia tells me that the dances were cut from the original cinematic release, as they were deemed too provocative). Dracula in Pakistan is kitsch, over-the-top and occasionally absurd – and we absolutely loved it.



After Dracula in Pakistan was another double bill, beginning with Dans L’Ombre [In the Shadows] (dir. Fabrice Mathieu, 2014). This short film is an interesting little piece, in which scenes from around fifty films featuring shadows are edited together and narrated by a shadow. Despite very much being an exercise in editing and research, this is quite an engaging short as the narrative that emerges from the montage (and is told by the shadow’s voiceover narration) is quite compelling.

The feature film in this double bill was Mount Nabi (dir. Seiji Chiba, 2014), which was the first disappointment of the festival. A Japanese found footage film, Mount Nabi is about a group of filmmakers who visit the eponymous mountain to make a horror film – but discover something far more horrific than they could have imagined. I’ll hold my hands up straightaway and admit that I can’t stand found footage films. I hated The Blair Witch Project, and I’ve pretty much hated every film that has mimicked that format since (the only exception being Carlo Ledesma’s 2011 The Tunnel, which I actually did enjoy). Mount Nabi does nothing new with the form, and, in fact, feels far closer to The Blair Witch Project than a lot of other recent found footage films. The screaming (and there is a lot of screaming), the motion-sickness-inducing camera angles, the up-nose snot shots, the inexplicable continuation of filming even after people start dying – all present in Mount Nabi. As an example of this type of horror film, sadly, Mount Nabi feels rather hackneyed. Worse still, the climax of the film’s horror is a lurid and deeply unsettling rape of a female character by a grotesque supernatural creature (and the subsequent rape and impregnation of another woman). There is something rather unsavoury about the way in which this sequence was filmed – particularly in the use of sound – and the narrative focus on the male characters and their respective proprietorial relationships to the raped women. There is little humanization of the violated women (before or after), and female bodies become (literally, in one case) vessels for the horror that faces the men. As we were to discover, this was to be a trend that was repeated throughout a number of the festival screenings.

The next film after Mount Nabi was Hansel and Gretel and the 420 Witch (aka Hansel and Gretel Get Baked, dir. Duane Journey, 2013). In case you can’t work it out from the title, this is a stoner comedy horror take on Hansel and Gretel – as if there haven’t been enough modern takes on that particular fairy tale already. RS and I aren’t huge fans of comedy horror, and the premise of this film really didn’t appeal… but it turned out to be really rather enjoyable. Lara Flynn Boyle plays Agnes, an old woman who is selling her home-grown pot (called Black Forest) to the local stoners. When her boyfriend goes missing after a visit to Agnes’s house, Gretel (Molly Quinn) decides to investigate – accompanied by brother Hansel (Michael Welch), of course. The eponymous siblings are joined by a cast of supporting characters including a local dealer, his Skittles-obsessed girlfriend, and some angry gang members. There’s also a ‘was that really him?’ cameo from Cary Elwes in the opening sequence.



Hansel and Gretel and the 420 Witch is one of those odd films that are much better than they should be. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is that stops this film being as groan-worthy as it sounds, but the way the humour is handled probably has a lot to do with it. On the whole, the jokes aren’t as obvious and crude as you might expect, and in some places the cheap gag is rejected for a slightly more subtle one. The horror, too, is done with a little more intelligence than you might expect. Though there is plenty of gore, the film doesn’t descend to crude buckets-of-blood set-pieces – and, although the film is fairly predictable on the whole, there are a couple of surprises that I didn’t see coming. Overall, this film proves that solid execution can redeem even the silliest of premises.

We had to end our Thursday viewing here, as we’d got plans to meet up with family, and so we didn’t get to see the last three films of the evening.

I’ll be posting my review of Friday’s films shortly…

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival (Saturday and Sunday)

Whitby, 24-27 October 2013

This is part three of a three-part review. You can read part two here, and part one here.

Saturday

Nothing on the main screen on Saturday morning appealed to us, so we decided to take the opportunity to try out Sultan’s Sci-Fi Suite… and this was a very good move. We started off with The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (dir. Joseph Green, 1962), slightly silly, slightly sinister evil scientist fare. Brilliant. As was our next choice… Strange Invaders (dir. Michael Laughlin, 1983). Not the best remembered sci-fi flick of the 80s, granted, but a wonderful homage to earlier B-movies and an awful lot of fun. Sultan’s Sci-Fi Suite got a big thumbs up from us.


Back to the main screen, the next film we saw was Pieces of Talent (Joe Stauffer, 2012). This feature film tells the story of Charlotte (Kristi Ray), a wannabe actress stuck working as a waitress and living with her deadbeat mother. One night at work, Charlotte runs into David (David Long), a weird loner who says he’s a filmmaker, and the two strike up a friendship. David wants Charlotte to be part of his new project… but she has no idea what this project really is.

It would be easy to describe Pieces of Talent as a serial killer film. And it is, sort of. But it also a lot more than that. It’s an unsettling, strange and compelling film, which is moved up from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ by David Long’s amazing performance. Long’s character (he is listed in the credits as playing himself) is more than a hackneyed ‘creepy loner’. Without offering too much backstory, there is a depth and complexity to the character that is almost entirely conveyed through subtle dialogue and physical performance. There’s a scene part way through in which David takes a bath – that’s all that happens – but the combination of skilful direction and Long’s facial expressions communicates beautifully. Pieces of Talent was, without doubt, the highlight of our festival.



Following this, there were two shorts. The first of these, The Graveyard Feeder (dir. Rich Robinson, 2012), was a comedy horror about a graveyard keeper hurrying to save his father’s soul from a creature that’s feeding in the cemetery. I guess this was the sort of film that you either find funny or you don’t. We didn’t, so it didn’t really appeal. The second short in this double bill, on the other hand, could have been made for us.

Killer Kart (dir. James Feeney, 2012) was about exactly that… a killer shopping cart (or trolley for those of us on the other side of the pond). I should probably say that, on our first date, RS and I watched Rubber – a film about a homicidal tyre named Robert – and we credit our shared love of that film as one of the reasons we got together. So a film about a homicidal shopping trolley looked too good to be true… it wasn’t. It was everything we hoped it would be: a silly idea, but played completely straight and packed with references to horror classics and generic tropes. Hands down, the best short film of the festival this year (and one of the best we’ve ever seen at the festival).



Our final film of the evening was Devil in my Ride (dir. Gary Michael Schultz, 2013). Bad-boy Travis (Frank Zieger) returns for his sister Doreen (Erin Breen)’s wedding – but he accidentally gets her possessed by a demon. Travis and Doreen’s new husband Hank (Joey Bicicchi) have to go on a road trip (with demon-Doreen secured in the back of a van) to Las Vegas to find an exorcist. Devil in my Ride is a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy, which manages to stay just the right side of slapstick and hammy acting. The pacing wasn’t always great – the final hunt for the exorcist in Las Vegas was a bit too drawn out – but it was a good film, nonetheless.

Sunday

The final day of the festival started with another trip to the sci-fi screening room, for Invaders From Mars (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953). What can I say? An absolute classic – B-movie heaven, complete with pipe-smoking scientist and visible zips on the alien suits, and dripping with Cold War paranoia.



Next on the main screen was a double bill from Japanese director Kayoko Asakura. It began with the short film Hide and Seek (2013). A young girl visits a teacher for a koto lesson, and sees the teacher’s son playing hide and seek. Things are not what they seem. This was a skilful and engaging short film, beautifully shot and carefully paced. Were it not for Killer Kart, this would have been my favourite short of the festival.

Hide and Seek was followed by Asakura’s 2013 feature film, It’s a Beautiful Day. A group of international students in the US travel out to a backwoods retreat – which just happens to be the home of a pair of sadistic and brutal criminals. What differentiates this from the standard rural horror is a strange subplot that may or may not introduce a more supernatural element to the story (it’s not completely explained, and I don’t want to give any major spoilers). It’s a Beautiful Day is a competently made film, but was hard to follow in places. It is a bilingual film – trilingual, technically – with some of the characters only speaking in Japanese and some only in English (the subtitles switch between English and Japanese, clearly anticipating a mixed audience), and with a little Korean here and there. RS found it harder to follow this than I did, and he struggled a little with the heavily accented and broken English of the Japanese characters. I didn’t think this was much of a problem, but I did feel that the communication issues that were signalled so carefully at the film’s opening (the Japanese students didn’t know any English or Korean, the Korean student – though proficient in English – could speak no Japanese, and the backwoods American killers, naturally, were not polyglots) went anywhere. Much more could have been made of this. Overall, the film was a little confused and it was hard to reconcile the disparate plotlines – it was almost as though it was two different films mashed together. The events of the last half an hour complicated things even further, and we still can’t agree on exactly what happened at the film’s climax.

The next film was Heretic (dir. Peter Handford, 2013). Sadly, this was not a high point of the festival. Heretic told the story of Father James (Andrew Squires), a troubled priest who is coming to terms with the deaths of a teenage girl and her stepfather. James is plagued by guilt and returns to the girl’s home to face up to his responsibilities. Poor pacing and lacklustre acting made for a rather dull film, unfortunately, and we didn’t enjoy Heretic.

Following Heretic was the annual festival awards ceremony. Eight awards were given (designed by Neal Harvey of Rubber Gorilla Mask Making Studio), and the winners were announced by Sultan Darmaki. Seven awards were selected by a panel of judges (not sure who they were), and one was voted for by the audience.

Best Screenplay: Vampire Guitar

Best Male Lead: David Long (Pieces of Talent) – and RS and I both wholeheartedly agreed with this choice

Best Female Lead: Lexy Hulme (Lord of Tears) – this seemed like a foregone conclusion, given the praise Hulme’s performance had from the Lord of Tears team and members of the audience in the Q+A. While Hulme’s performance was undoubtedly the high point of the film, RS and I felt that Melanie Serafin (Throwback) or Michele Feren (The Visitant) showed far more range and carried much more of their respective narratives. But they weren’t playing ‘sexy’ characters, of course…

Best SFX: Thanatomorphose – from what I heard, this was a well-deserved award

Best Director: James Hart (Ascension) – this wouldn’t have been our choice

Best Short: Killer Kart – needless to say, we fully agreed with this award

Best Film: Gwai Wik (Re-Cycle) – one of the films that we missed, and apparently we missed out

Audience Choice: Lord of Tears – needless to say, this wasn’t the film we voted for, but as I said earlier, we appeared to be in a minority

After the awards, we watched a couple more films before heading back to Manchester. Dead Shadows (dir. David Cholewa, 2012) was a French horror about a comet crossing the path of the earth and bringing something terrible with it. RS enjoyed this one more than me, though he said it was a bit ‘Day of the Triffids-y’. I thought it needed a little more plot to balance out the gory (and, in one place, grotesque) violence. And then our final film of the festival was The Pyramid (Roberto Albanesi, Luca Alessandro, Simone Chiesa, Alex Visani and Antonio Zannone, 2013), an Italian anthology film about a demonic pyramid-shaped device that passes from person to person, promising infernal destruction. The less said about this film the better… it was not a high point for us.

So with that, we headed home. Some really nice surprises at this year’s festival, and we really enjoyed having the sci-fi movies as an alternative to the horror. Apparently next year’s festival will be five days, rather than the usual four, so we’re intrigued to know what new entertainment will be on offer.

In case you missed them, you can also read my reviews of Thursday and Friday's films.

For more information about the Bram Stoker International Film Festival, please visit their website.

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival (Friday)

Whitby, 24-27 October 2013

This is part two of a three-part review. You can read part one here, and part three here.

We were up bright and early on Friday for Throwback (dir. Travis Bain, 2013), an Australian ‘creature feature’ that made for a great start to the day. Two men travel into the remote wilderness of Far North Queensland in search of a legendary hoard of gold. Instead they fall foul of the Yowie, Australia’s mythical hominid. Well-made and enjoyable, though the ‘fight for survival’ drags a little towards the end. The direction is done well, and the reveal of the monster is handled skilfully. The inclusion of a female character, Rhiannon the bush ranger (Melanie Serafin), gives a bit of a ‘King Kong’ moment that’s a tiny bit predictable, but this is sort of subverted at the film’s climax.



We had to duck out of the festival for a couple of hours (to buy wedding rings, in case you're interested), so missed Terence Fisher’s classic Brides of Dracula and Richard Pawelko’s black comedy Vampire Guitar. We came back for Lord of Tears (dir. Lawrie Brewster, 2013). And I suspect I’m going to be pretty unpopular with festival regulars and the denizens of the internet in my review of Brewster’s debut feature film.

Lord of Tears was, without doubt, the most talked about film at the festival. The creative team behind it introduced the film, gave a Q+A and stayed for the rest of the festival and chatted to other attendees. Though the film was privately financed by the production team, a successful Kickstarter appeal has funded the post-production and publicity. As it transpires, one of the backers was Sultan Al Darmaki, the new BSIFF president, and this has led to Al Darmaki creating his own film company – Dark Dunes Productions – with the intention of working with Brewster and his team on another project in the near future. As can be seen from the Kickstarter pitch, Lord of Tears has been marketed as a ‘Slender Man’, ‘Lovecraft’ horror, and Brewster also listed The Haunting and The Innocents as film inspirations and M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe and generic ‘Gothic’ ghost stories as literary ones. The film tells the story of James Findlay (Euan Douglas), a schoolteacher who is haunted by his past and inherits a property in the Scottish Highlands. James travels to this house – which he had lived in once as a child – and is forced to revisit the dark secret of his past. While there, he meets a mysterious woman named Eve (Lexy Hulme) and is stalked by the Owl Man (voiced by David Schofield) – the ‘Slender Man’-esque character of the film’s PR campaign.

I’m afraid to say RS and I really did not enjoy this film. Admittedly, it is a low-budget indie film, but the production values are very low. The direction and acting are particularly bad, with some lines read so badly that it is difficult to connect with the characters. Lexy Hulme – known more as a dancer than an actor – shows some promise, but she’s given such terrible lines (“When I go to Paris, I shall waltz down the Champs-Élysées!”), and used mostly for extended and incongruous slow-motion dance sequences (including a ‘supernatural’ sequence inspired by Ringu), that her talents are wasted. The Owl Man – much anticipated by the film’s supporters – is essentially Slender Man with an owl head, and more comedic than frightening.

I think it’s only fair to say, however, that this is just our opinion of the film, and it doesn’t seem to be shared by anyone else. I believe this may be the only negative review of Lord of Tears anywhere on the internet, as every other review is glowing and effusive.

Luckily, our disappointment didn’t last long, as the next film was great! The Visitant (dir. Joe Binkowski, 2012) was an American paranormal entity chiller. Samantha (Michele Feren) performs as a ‘fortune teller’ while trying to make it as an actress, though she doesn’t believe a word of what she tells her clients. When a panicked woman appeals to her to end a ‘haunting’, Samantha is left with more than she bargained for. The Visitant was well-made and well-acted. It’s worth noting that Feren carries almost the entire film herself, with other actors appearing only at the beginning and end (or in video chat), but the film never feels like it was missing other actors. Despite her character running the horror-heroine gamut of screaming, crying, inadvisable actions and confusion, Feren’s performance never grated and we had nothing but sympathy for Samantha at the end of the film. By the end of the second day, The Visitant was definitely our favourite film of the festival so far.


Our evening ended with two short films: Cold Calling (dir. Dan Price, 2013) and The Earth Rejects Him (dir. Jared Skolnik, 2011). Cold Calling was a UK short about a market researcher who needs to knock on one more door to fill his quota… but chooses the wrong house to visit. It was reasonably well-made and intriguing, but at less than five minutes long, it’s hard to say much about this little piece. It felt like there was so much more that could have been shown. The Earth Rejects Him was a more developed piece, telling the story of Ray (Ellis Gage) a young boy who discovers a corpse while out in the woods with his friends. When Ray removes a tooth from the body, things begin to get strange. I really enjoyed this film, and found it unsettling and engaging. RS wasn’t so sure, and felt that too much was left unexplained at the end. However, we both agreed that it was a very well-made short, and showed a lot of promise. I understand that Skolnik is in the process of making a second short film, and I’m looking forward to seeing how his work develops.

The final film of the day was Thanatomorphose (dir. Éric Falardeau, 2012), but we didn’t watch this because I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to body shock stuff. Thanatomorphose is a Canadian film about a young woman who wakes up one day to find her body decomposing. By all accounts, the effects in this film are first rate… but that meant it was too rich for my blood.

Still quite a lot of films to go, so I'm going to split this review again. You can read part three here.

Review of the Bram Stoker International Film Festival 2013 (Thursday)

Whitby, 24-27 October 2013

This is part one of a three-part review. You can read part two here.

This month, my partner (RS) and I headed to the Whitby Spa Pavilion for the Bram Stoker International Film Festival. The festival is an annual event, showcasing horror features, shorts and documentaries from around the globe alongside Gothic-inflected entertainment, such as the Vampire Ball and the 1880s Night. This festival is now in its fifth year, and I’ve attended four out of five (RS has attended for the past three years), so I think we can count ourselves as regulars.

This year saw a couple of changes to the festival, not least the appointment of a new president: Sultan Saaed Al Darmaki, an Emirati businessman who’s made a bit of a splash sponsoring indie film projects on Kickstarter this year. The ‘extracurricular’ activities were also more ambitious than previous years, adding theatre (John Burn’s Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil), live music (Friday night’s Children of the Night event, featuring Inkubus Sukkubus, Vampyre Heart and Global Citizen), a ‘dark art exhibition’ and lectures from Karen Oughton and David Annwn Jones to the programme. In addition to this, a second screening room – Sultan’s Sci-Fi Suite, showing classic B-movies all weekend – was also opened this year.

As far as me and RS are concerned though, it’s all about the films and about discovering something new that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, so we spent most of our time in the main screenings. Here’s what we thought about what we saw…

Thursday kicked off with the feature film Motel 666 (dir. Carlos Jimenez Flores, 2012), starring Wesley John as the host of a ghost-hunting TV show who’ve been called to a motel with a history of supernatural occurrences. The film is a bit of a mixed bag – the premise, while not particularly original, is handled with enthusiasm. The obligatory flashbacks to the ‘horrors’ of the motel are satisfyingly gruesome rather than ghostly, though occasionally my suspension of disbelief was stretched a little bit too far. The spoof credits for ‘Ghost Encounters’ are a lot of fun, and John is excellent (and a lot of fun) in his role as the show’s host Ted. The film’s twist is a bit predictable, but overall we enjoyed the film.

Next up was a double bill: Dollboy (dir. Billy Pon, 2010), followed by Hazmat (dir. Lou Simon, 2013). Dollboy is a short film about a group of people abducted, locked in a disused flea market, and hunted down by a grotesque murderer. The premise is unoriginal and, creepy as the design of the killer is, the execution is nothing new. The film is prefaced with two Grindhouse-style fake trailers: one for Circus of the Dead and the other for Mister Fister. The latter appears to be an excuse to take pointless sexualized violence against women to the most extreme and vile degree – the film is rated ‘PG’ and I can’t even bring myself to say what that stands for: you’ll have to use your imagination – and it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

Fortunately, this was followed up by the feature film Hazmat, which RS and I both enjoyed, and which was introduced by the director. The film followed a TV show (the second fictional TV team of the day!) called Scary Antics – based on the US show Scare Tactics – as they plan and begin to execute a prank on Jacob (Norbert Velez), a dark and unsettled young man who has recently lost his father. Of course, things go horribly wrong. Despite the fact that, in the Q+A following the film, Simon stressed her lack of experience, the film was very well-directed and well-shot. The acting was also good. The only problem we had with this film is that it is very much of a type – a group of characters trapped by a killer, with no chance of escape – and once you accept that premise, there really is nowhere for the narrative to go. As a result, the last half an hour drags a little, and we found ourselves rooting for the killer to get through his task a little quicker. But he is an awesome killer, so that’s not too bad.



After a very short break, we had another double bill. Two shorts, this time: Wounded (dir. Tom Cowles, 2013) and Ascension (dir. James Hart, 2013). Both films were introduced by their directors – and both featured the Yorkshire actor and friend of the BSIFF Mark Rathbone (who, like last year, brought his ferret along for the Q+A). Wounded is a short film about the aftermath of a task force raid on an underground group in an abandoned building. As two survivors face off against one another, one of them begins to feel the effects of his wounds. This film was Cowles’ final degree project, and this showed. I don’t mean to use ‘student film’ as a criticism here, but rather that it was clear that the director was showcasing his cinematography – possible spoiler alert: the film demonstrates Cowles’ skills in make-up, prosthetics and a little CGI, as well as his thorough study of a certain scene from a certain John Landis film) – rather than developing narrative or characterization. Apparently, Cowles got a first in his degree, and from the evidence we saw it was well-deserved, but he said little about his plans for the future.

Ascension was the debut short from James Hart, based on a short story by Dave Jeffery (which was included in Peter Mark May’s Alt-Zombie anthology). In a West Midlands village, a group of survivors band together to protect their community in the face of the zombie apocalypse. Sadly, Hart’s film left us cold (no pun intended). The acting and direction are weak, and there are issues with lighting and audio that make the film hard to watch. I found the film’s premise intriguing (though RS was less convinced), and think I need to read Jeffery’s short story to appreciate this more. I find zombie films that play around with our expectations of the ‘plucky band of survivors’ much more interesting than those films that focus on ‘new’ characteristics of zombies. But the execution here is disappointingly poor.

Thursday was a bit of a full-on day, so we took a break and missed Ivan Zuccon’s Wrath of the Crows (2013). We came back for The Impaler (dir. Derek Hockenbrough, 2013), a film about a group of young Americans who decide to stay at Vlad the Impaler’s castle in Romania during a trip to Europe. The visitors become trapped in a bloody ritual set in motion by Vlad’s 500-year-old pact with the devil. The film was entertaining enough, and competently made, but it could have been a lot better. I think I was expecting more from a film about Vlad the Impaler led by a Romanian creative team. Not only was the film shot in America (though the sets were convincingly European), the version of Vlad was distinctly Hollywood (in fact, it was the ‘Vlad Dracul’ from Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula). I was hoping for a Vlad-as-national-hero rather than Vlad-as-eternal-lover, so was a little disappointed. Overall, The Impaler felt like a modern Hammer horror – complete with a couple of ‘Transylvanian’ characters that would have absolutely been at home in a Hammer feature – and that’s not a bad thing as such, but not the most original offering of the festival.

The next film was a real treat. I’m not sure why I’ve never seen Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001) before, but I’m really glad I’ve seen it now. A dark, gory, surreal, hallucinatory and funny journey through a seemingly incomprehensible series of events, Suicide Club starts with 54 schoolgirls throwing themselves under a subway train. This is the beginning of an epidemic of suicides, investigated by Detective Kuroda (Ryô Ishibashi) and apparently linked to the ubiquitous all-girl J-pop group Dessert (written with various romaji spellings). Everything that happens in the film is baffling, compelling and mystifying in equal measure. Is it a film about the shallowness and disconnection of contemporary Japanese culture? Is it a gory and trippy retelling of the Pied Piper folktale? Is it a musing on the existential angst of youth? Is there any message at all behind the film? Probably… possibly… no one seems to agree. But whatever the film is about, it is a work of disturbed genius and we loved it.

Dessert’s signature song, ‘Mail Me’ (which was used to fantastic effect throughout the film) is now the creepiest earworm I’ve ever had. I couldn’t find a video that gives you the full effect, but here’s the song (sorry, no subtitles on this video) in case you want to listen.



Just two more films for us on Thursday (as we decided to skip the late-night screening of John Badham’s Dracula): short films Child Eater (dir. Erlingur Throddsen, 2012) and Count Yoga (dir. Adam Dallas, 2013). The former was a babysitting horror/bogeyman-is-real story that was well-done but unoriginal. The latter was a cringe-worthy ‘comedy’ about a Bulgarian (?!) vampire who has moved to Bondi Beach, Australia. It was as bad as it sounds.

We saw so many films over the weekend, I've had to split this review up. You can read the next part of this review here.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: The Hunters (dir. Chris Briant, 2011)



I know it’s a little strange to review a film two years after its release, but RS and I watched this a couple of nights ago, and I wanted to post a little something about it. In fact, this isn’t really a review of a film so much as a review of a bizarre piece of marketing. We found The Hunters – an indie film, director Chris Briant’s first feature film – on Netflix as a recommendation based on what we’d previously watched. The blurb promised:
“Before parting ways after high school, six friends venture into a forbidden part of town and explore what they think is an abandoned fort. But the adventure soon turns bloody, and the kids realize they’re trapped in a nightmare of the goriest sort.”
It probably tells you a lot about what RS and I usually watch that a) Netflix thought a film like that would suit us and b) we agreed and watched it. RS was more enthusiastic than me, I must admit, as I've seen more than enough teens-in-peril films to last me a lifetime. But we decided to give it a go. Bear that blurb in mind, though, as I’ll come back to it shortly.

The Hunters begins with two men arriving at what looks to be an abandoned fort in the woods. They have outdoorsy-type gear with them, and they appear to be away for a weekend. One of them, Ronny (played by Steven Waddington), is uncomfortable, claiming to hear shouts and screams coming from the fort. His friend, Oliver (Tony Becker), laughs off his concerns, making some jokes about Ronny being trapped in his marriage and his daily life. As they get their gear ready, some other men arrive at the fort.

I think it’s worth pointing out here that none of the characters so far are high school age – but more on that later.

The film then cuts to another character, Le Saint (played by Briant himself), a war veteran who has taken a job with the police force. In the early scenes, Le Saint clashes with his boss Bernard (Terence Knox) about whether or not to pursue a series of missing persons cases. Le Saint believes there is a pattern to the disappearances, but Bernard wants him to drop the case and concentrate on his actual job. Le Saint is troubled – both by the restrictions placed on him at work and by flashbacks to Iraq and to his (presumably) ex-girlfriend. He meets a young woman, Alice (Dianna Agron), and is obviously attracted to her, but keeps a cold distance (cue more flashbacks to his ex).

Again, none of these characters are high school age. Not a single one. There also is no group of ‘six friends’ at any point in the film.

Le Saint’s story is then intercut with Oliver and Ronny’s. We see Le Saint’s growing frustration with the administration role he has been forced into, alongside scenes of Oliver’s unsatisfying day job and Ronny’s disillusionment with family and home life. Le Saint is instructed to take on the task of protecting a foreign agent, which necessitates a meeting at Fort Goben – a place that Bernard insists is just a hangout for ‘homosexuals humping on each other’ and drug-users, but that Le Saint suspects has something to do with the missing persons cases. When he arrives to meet the agent, we see that Fort Goben is the same place that Oliver and Ronny go to at weekends.

Shortly after arriving at Fort Goben, Le Saint runs into Oliver, Ronny and their friends, and begins to discover the truth about what is going on at the fort. Things do, eventually, ‘turn bloody’ (but with no high school kids).

The Hunters is a very muddled film – in more ways than one. The two plotlines – Le Saint’s story, and the story of Oliver and Ronny – don’t always gel, and each one feels like it should have been developed further. Potentially rich backstories are hinted at for all three of the main protagonists, but these don’t really go anywhere. Le Saint’s relationship with Alice is confusing, and it’s not clear what the point of this is – outside of highlighting Le Saint’s troubled past and inability to connect with others. What makes this more confusing are a series of scenes with Alice and her friends, hinting at the woman’s disillusionment with small-town life – culminating in some angsty dialogue towards the end of the film, after Alice’s boyfriend takes her to Fort Goben as a birthday surprise. Again, this potential storyline is not developed in any depth or detail. Personally, I would happily have paid money to go and see a film just about Oliver and Ronny. Their Fight Club-esque reasons for being at the fort, and how they ended up working with Bernard, William and Stephen (the other - dramatically different - men at the fort), made, for me, the most compelling and intriguing story, but it was too diluted by the competing plotlines.

The setting of the film is also confused. Though the film never explicitly states where it is set, the ‘police force’ that Le Saint joins and the ‘small town’ Alice speaks of seem to be American, both visually and in the way people talk about them. However, the ‘abandoned fort’ is quite obviously nineteenth-century European. In fact, Fort Goben is a real fort – Fort de Queuleu in Metz, which was named Fort Goben by the occupying German forces during WWII. The building is so obviously a European WWI/WWII fortification that it makes it difficult to reconcile this with the American ‘cops’ in the rest of the film. It’s a beautiful location though, and if The Hunters did nothing else, it made me want to visit Fort de Queuleu.

Finally, the direction… again, this was a bit of a jumble. There were some fantastic shots and set-pieces. When Le Saint is confronted by the reality of what has been happening at the fort, there is an extraordinary sequence (no spoilers) that is possibly the film’s high-spot. However, other sequences, such as Le Saint’s flashbacks to his war experiences, are more lacklustre and some scenes are overlong.

Ultimately, The Hunters is a reasonable debut indie film with a great premise and some decent acting. It didn’t blow us away, but it wasn’t the worst film we’ve seen recently.

But the fact remains that it is not the film described in the blurb. There are no high school kids, no group of six friends, and no ‘adventure turned bloody’. At first, we just had a laugh about this and assumed that either the Netflix summary had been written by someone who hadn’t seen the film, or that the synopsis had been switched with another by mistake.

But then I watched the trailer for The Hunters on imdb. Watch this video, bearing in mind what I’ve said about the film’s plotlines…



Erm… what?? The trailer is made up almost exclusively of scenes from the end of the film – when Alice and her boyfriend arrive at the fort. There is no mention of Oliver and Ronny – though there are a couple of shots of Ronny interacting with the couple – and no hint of the (main) storyline involving Le Saint. The trailer even adds a plotline that isn’t even in the film: ‘they wanted the perfect escape’. And, of course, the trailer’s most blatant lie is the recasting of Dianna Agron (who has around 15-20 minutes of screen-time overall) as the ‘star’. This is carried on with the DVD cover. The image at the top of this post is the film’s original poster; here is the DVD cover:



Woah… what’s with the massive image of Alice’s face? Why is she dominating the cover? Worse, why does the back of the DVD case have this blurb (which is complete fiction)?
“Alice and her friends are approaching the end of the school year where their dead-end lives will end and the chance of a new life will begin. Before heading off to college they spend one last day together in the woods, the one part of town that has always been off limits to them growing up. As they stumble upon what they thought was an abandoned fort only to find the walls dripping in blood and decomposing body parts lying around, they are startled to learn they are now a part of an undercover investigation. After being told to get out of the woods they realize they're trapped, for the Hunters, who call the fort home, never let anyone out alive.”
I repeat: complete fiction.

And that’s when I paid a bit more attention to the dates, and everything started to make sense. The Hunters was released in 2011, with distribution by Lionsgate. I’ve listened to enough indie filmmakers to know that there was a good chance that distribution didn’t come straightaway, and that there may have been a gap between the film being made and its DVD release. Sure enough, the film’s website reveals that it was filmed in 2009, edited and taken around festivals in early 2010.

When Dianna Agron was cast in the minor role of Alice, she was an unknown actress who’d had a few TV roles (Heroes, Veronica Mars, CSI, Numb3rs). The original promo trailer for the film reflects this:



But what happened shortly after Agron shot her scenes for The Hunters? She landed a role in Glee. Suddenly, this little, low-budget indie flick could link itself to one of the biggest phenomena on US TV. And, of course, the first season of Glee had already aired by the time The Hunters saw the light of DVD-day, so it could bank on the new legion of Quinn Fabray fans looking out for Agron’s other work.

I don’t know if I want to blame the filmmakers for this. The original trailer and promo reel, made to take around festivals and send to distributors, is a perfectly honest ‘teaser’ of the film. Their website, while praising Agron’s work in Glee, is far from a cash-in on the actress’s new-found fame. My suspicion is that we have the distributors to thank for this – aside from the prominence of Alice, the main difference between the two trailers is the word ‘Lionsgate’ across the screen. The ‘honest’ trailer was made prior to distribution; the Dianna Agron one made after a deal had been signed (and I have no idea whether that deal was, in part, helped by Agron’s casting in Glee). So what we have is a cynical, corporate attempt to cash in on an actor’s later work by repackaging an earlier film with blatant dishonesty.

And if you still don’t think there’s anything tacky about this, consider the revision of Alice’s age. Both the Netflix summary and the DVD case claim that Alice and her friends are just finishing high school and about to go to college. This is not the case at all. Alice is clearly in her early twenties, and she and her boyfriend dress and act like young professionals, rather than college kids. Agron was 23 when she made this film, and is playing a character her own age. But, as soon as she was cast in Glee (also at the age of 23), Agron became known for playing a teenager, a high school cheerleader, and so the marketing for The Hunters recast her character as a school-leaver – regardless of the fact that this isn’t true.

Ultimately, The Hunters is an indie thriller and a directorial debut, and had we watched it at a film festival we would have considered it a decent addition to the programme. As a Netflix recommendation of an evening, it really wasn’t bad. But the film itself is completely overshadowed by the absolutely shameless marketing strategy.

And the sad part? We would've watched the film based on the original synopsis and trailer anyway - in fact, it sounds a hell of a lot less cliched than the Agron-heavy one.