Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts

Monday, 23 December 2019

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

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

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

Thursday 21st November

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

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

Short Films Competition Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Sator (dir. Jordan Graham, 2019)

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

The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince

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

Vivarium (dir. Lorcan Finnegan, 2019)

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

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

Friday 22nd November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 December 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 19th November

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 20th November

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

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

Short Films Competition Part 1

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

Norman J. Warren in conversation with Tristan Thompson

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

Inseminoid (dir. Norman J. Warren, 1981)

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

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

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

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.