Ok, so it would be an exaggeration to claim that I fully ‘attended’ this year’s FilmFour sponsored horror-fest at Leicester Square’s Empire Cinema, considering I didn’t buy a festival pass and didn’t watch a single film on the event’s main screen. I mean, you know how these things go: I was busy on the Thursday, busy on the Friday, busy on the Saturday, and to be honest, selections like a 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave” are unlikely to do much to revive my love for contemporary horror cinema, even if I had time and money to spare. (For a quick rundown of the festival’s main programme, and discussion of the absurd and anachronistic censorship trouble faced by the organisers, I refer you to The Quietus review here.)
On the other hand though, I did think the more, er, ‘marginal’ movies the fest was showing on its smaller second screen sounded kinda interesting, so I bit the bullet, blocked off Sunday in my diary and bought tickets for all four of that day’s screenings.
And boy, what a day it was, but between seasickness, genital mutilation footage and extreme eyelash close-ups, I made it out alive – I hope you appreciate the things I do for you readers.
Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island
(Kim Tae-gyun, Japan, 2009)
Proceedings begin after breakfast with this promising sounding manga adaptation, and let me just say, when you find yourself finishing breakfast and immediately watching something called “Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island”, it’s hard not to feel life is going pretty good. 1:00pm
Through it’s opening half hour, “Higanjima” looks like it’s gearing up to be a tremendous amount of fun, as we’re swiftly introduced to our school kid hero Akira and his loveable gang of misfit buddies, incorporating a Fonz-like ‘cool guy’, a sweet girl who’s a crack shot with a bow and arrow, a chemistry nerd ‘brainiac’ guy and even a comedy fat kid who’s always making jokes about sex. So when a mysterious lady turns up to darkly hint that Akira’s long-lost older brother is still alive and fighting vampires on a mythic uncharted island, this whole scooby gang of one dimensional funsters are soon ploughing toward adventure aboard a rickety fishing boat, armed with a rough assortment of golf clubs, samurai swords etc, and you could be forgiven for thinking there is no way this movie could possibly be anything less than awesome.
Up to this point the film has been pleasingly fast-paced and frivolous in tone, but when our crew reach the titular island things take a somewhat ‘dark’ turn (and not just literally), with the Secret-Seven-with-gore style hi-jinks we’d been anticipating sadly taking a back seat in favour of a lethal dose of the ol’ Japanese machismo, largely centred on Akira and his brother, as characters roar each other’s names incessantly, engage in unconvincing tests of strength and say stuff like “it is anger and sorrow that make a man!”.
By the halfway point, the film’s sense of humour has gone completely AWOL, and none of the secondary characters get to realise any of the fun stuff their pre-island foreshadowing would have led us to expect – the cool guy fails to prove his cool one way or the other, the bow & arrow chick is unforgivably reduced to the level of a helpless hostage for the movie’s duration, and as for the fat kid and the nerd, they just sort of tag along behind the tougher characters, failing to do a damn thing beyond just, y’know, being on the screen sometimes. Much like the recent ‘Scott Pilgrim’ adaptation, one gets the feeling that these characters must have had a lot more room to stretch out on paper, and in a 90 minute movie they are sadly rendered surplus to requirements.
Meanwhile though, there’s a dizzying whirligig of vampire-related action scenes, daring pursuits, swashbuckling and general shit-kicking etc to help keep us amused, most of it highly enjoyable, despite frequent lapses into “let’s shake the camera around to hide the bits we couldn’t be bothered to choreograph” territory. The vampires here seem to take a happy-go-lucky, comic book approach to their trade, freely mixing Western and Eastern tropes, as the foot soldier-level creatures wear peasant garb and wide, old-fashioned hats, resembling those weird ‘hopping vampires’ from old Asian horror flicks, whilst our arch-villain boss vampire is, inevitably, a fey albino goth guy with a rock star haircut who dresses like a Japanese Tim Burton fan’s idea of a 18th century European aristocrat.
And they’ve got a mad scientist vampire guy who’s doing twisted experiments to create cyborg vampires, and they all happily run around in the sunshine, and they’ve got leathery-winged lady-lizard vampires, and giant CGI monsters of some kind too, because… well who the hell knows - I guess that’s just the way they roll on Vampire Island.
As an energetic horror/action crossover, “Higanjima” effortlessly kicks the crap out of those ‘Underworld’ movies on a fraction of the budget, but, viewed at this time in the morning, its obvious deficiencies re: being completely stupid and poorly scripted can’t help but shine through brighter than the grubby night-time photography. Had I watched it, say, twelve hours earlier, after a few beers, I think I would have been happily numbed to the point of mindless satisfaction by the constant barrage of swordplay, bloodshed, explosions and monsters. So if that sounds like your idea of a good time (and frankly why wouldn’t it?), you can make a bee-line toward this flick with my blessing.
(Colm McCarthy, Ireland/UK, 2010)
A council block-set urban horror shot mainly in Edinburgh by an Irish creative team, “Outcast” deals with the scarier corners of celtic folklore, and surprisingly emerges as the overall most impressive film I saw today.
I say “surprisingly” simply because, well, you know, let’s be honest… British horror films that have emerged from the Lottery funding/Film Council treadmill in the past few decades have not done much to raise expectations for projects like this one, especially when, like “Outcast”, they adopt a hackneyed, TV drama approximation of “gritty realism”.
I mean, maybe you beg to differ, but I just don't think this combination of aesthetics that does anyone any favours, y’know? Ken Loach or Shane Meadows have never needed to put werewolves in their movies to fuck you up, and by the same logic, low budget horrors have (with a few notable exceptions) generally proved more successful, and indeed more capable of addressing real world issues, the further they manage to swing their action away from tepid recreations of ‘reality’.
So yeah, “Outcast” was a surprise. Whilst far from perfect, it’s an intelligent and effective occult thriller, kept afloat in potentially unpromising waters by way of a tightly-plotted, character-driven script, a rare understanding of the emotional underpinnings of occult shenanigans, and some really strong performances.
In brief, “Outcast” tells the tale of Fergal (Niall Bruton), an Irish lad of, shall we say, complicated ancestry, whose mother Mary (Katie Dickie, whom you might recognise from Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’ and a wealth of TV work) has had no choice but to become a formidable practitioner of folk magic, keeping her family constantly on the move through a succession of cities and social housing projects in an attempt to escape the clutches of Fergal’s monstrous father Cathal (James Nesbit), a violent brute who has been granted temporary powers and assistance by the underground order who oversee such practices in Ireland, with the understanding that he must ‘hunt down’ his misbegotten son, before the boy comes of age and… well, this IS a horror movie, what do you think is gonna happen to him that would make these learned fathers feel the need to hunt him down? (Hint: see poster.)
Although it occasionally lapses into silliness, “Outcast”s approach to the idea of a subterranean world of celtic black magic is applaudably subtle, never deeming it necessary to spell things out for us through cornball ‘trip to the library’ exposition, instead giving the mystery of the story room to breath and leaving viewers to piece together their own understanding of what’s going on – spectators of inexplicable events, in the classic weird tales tradition. This may be a practically realised contemporary horror flick, with gore and squalor and drained colours and implied social criticism, but somewhere deep in the woods off screen the ‘fair folk’ of Arthur Machen’s mythos still lurk.
On another level though, “Outcast” also works well as a horror-aided exploration of the perils of adolescence and familial conflict, recalling elements of both ‘Ginger Snaps’ and Romero’s ‘Martin’, probably two of my all-time favourites amongst horror movies that adopt a ‘realist’ aesthetic. Despite the vagueness and peculiarity of the film’s subject matter, most of the cast bring a real sense of believability to their characters, with Dickie and Nesbit in particular burning up the screen with the charismatic intensity of tough, troubled people whom you simply would not fuck with should you encounter them in real life – no small boast when their roles require them to fart about with candles, hair clippings and pigeon entrails, reciting gypsy-curse style dialogue and talking of unholy powers, against the backdrop of an authentically grim Lothian housing estate and its real-life residents.
The only problems I had with “Outcast” really were technical/cinematic ones. I realise this is an odd thing for a film fan to admit, but in the past few years I’ve had real trouble watching films shot primarily with handheld cameras. I’ve never met anyone who has the same problem, so I guess it’s just me, but basically even the most unassuming documentary can make me motion sick if the camerawork is unsteady - a situation that’s led to me making a dramatic exit from the cinema more than once, sad to say. As such, I was less than thrilled to discover that most of “Outcast” is filmed, for no discernable reason, as if the cameraman was aboard a pirate ship in rough seas, meaning I spent a considerable portion of the movie staring at my feet trying to stay grounded, and left the screening feeling distinctly unwell.
Admittedly, this style of filming will prove a minor annoyance at worst for most other viewers, but speaking more generally, wouldn’t it be just a wonderful thing if modern filmmakers could get over this rather tedious idea that jerky camerawork + lightning strike editing effects + drained colours + constant Eraserhead hum = HORROR? But again, maybe that’s just me – stylistic missteps aside, I thought “Outcast” was excellent – well worth making time for, assuming it manages to earn itself some kind of half-decent release.