Showing posts with label London Frightfest. Show all posts
Showing posts with label London Frightfest. Show all posts

Sunday, 11 September 2011

London Frightfest 2011, Part # 3.

Midnight Son
(Scott Leberecht, 2011)

The only flick I managed to catch this year on Frightfest’s smaller ‘discovery’ screen, the unsatisfactorily titled ‘Midnight Son’ wasn’t one I picked out specially or anything – it just happened to be on when I had a film-length hole in my schedule, and I’d already paid for a day pass, so hell, why not. I’m glad I made the effort, because it was pretty good.

Shot on HD Video on what was presumably a non-existent budget, the festival blurb for ‘Midnight Son’ describes it as following in the footsteps of Romero’s ‘Martin’, but really I think it’s closer to a West Coast equivalent of Abel Ferrara’s ‘The Addiction’. Guess that wouldn’t pull the punters in quite so well though.

Anyway, ‘Midnight Son’ invites us into the life of a poor young chap who works the night shift as a security guard in a corporate office building. Seems he has a bit of a skin condition that prevents him from going out in the sun much, and in his spare time he likes to sit in his dingy basement flat painting pictures of sunsets. Understandably feeling a bit washed out, he pursues the kind of remedy that macho doctors in the ‘50s probably used to prescribe to young men with mysterious ailments: vigorously eating a blood red steak and spending the evening chatting to a girl he met selling cigarettes and candy outside a nightclub. This dose of protein and human companionship seems to perk him up no end, but as the working week goes on, the familiar fug descends again, and his discovery that blood works better than coffee as a pick-me-up leads him inevitably toward some rather more unsavoury habits.

So far, so familiar, but the film’s tone of smart, low-key realism goes a long way toward side-stepping the clichés that usually accompany this kind of story, stringing us along effectively enough to make the character’s gradual realisation of his vampiric nature seems both interesting and surprising, as much as we knew it was coming. The awkward quasi-relationship he develops with the similarly troubled young woman is very well played – a combination of her matter-of-fact drug problems and his matter-of-fact vampire problems amusingly conspiring to prevent them ever managing to have a nice evening together.

Although not exactly big on jollity to begin with (thinking about it, this is actually the only film I saw at Frightfest that didn’t have a significant amount of humour running through it), the film takea a darker turn when our man finds himself hanging around by the contaminated waste bins behind a hospital, forging a dubious alliance with a wannabe-gangster porter that eventually leads the story into the realms of a full-blooded (sorry) vampire/crime epic. Here, the video shooting actually works in the film’s favour, allowing for the creation of a believably cold and threatening nocturnal Hollywood underworld, very much reminiscent of the street scenes in Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’, and thankfully entirely devoid of the kind of dated goth/industrial hoo-hah that usually blights movies like this.

The mumbling indie relationship stuff manages to merge convincingly with the final-third shift into brutal noir crime story stuff, and if ‘Midnight Son’ does have a few of the drawbacks and unintentionally goofy moments that go hand in hand with such DIY, zero budget productions, they’re not worth bothering to go into here. By and large, I thought it was a very impressive piece of work, standing way, way, waaaay above the baseline for SOV horror. If you can stomach a heavy quotient of ‘grainy close-ups of pale, miserable people breathing heavily’ type stuff and aren’t sick to the back teeth of the kind of story that the DVD back cover blurb would probably describe as a ‘gritty urban vampire fable’, this one is well worth making time for.

Oh yeah, and another cool thing about this film – Tracey Walter, Miller from ‘Repo Man’, is in it! Yeah, y’know – “plate of shrimp”, “John Wayne was a fag”, “’ll see” – that guy. Always good to see him getting work, even if it is presumably unpaid in a micro-budget horror film. [Clarification: after checking IMDB, Mr. Walter is clearly not short of work – dude’s been in everything; wow, I had no idea.]

The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry
(Ángel Agudo, 2010)

Speaking of dudes who get a lot of work done for precious little recognition, it was depressing to see such a small turn-out for the screening of this documentary about the man Michael Weldon wryly described as ‘Spain’s most popular werewolf actor’, the one and only Paul Naschy.

Despite being presented as a tie-in with the Scala Forever season, only about half a dozen lonesome guys and a couple of couples made it into the auditorium to catch this one, perhaps reflecting the sketchy distribution and mangled presentation of Naschy’s films in the English speaking world. Although most of them are barely available at all in legitimate form, in the past year or so I’ve managed to scrape together a fair selection of the many, many horror films Naschy wrote and starred in during the ‘70s, and from what I’ve seen so far, you can count me a fan.

Whether at a career high watermark with 1971’s Leon Kilmovsky directed ‘La Noche de Walpurgis’ (aka ‘Werewolf Shadow’ aka ‘The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman’) or wallowing in a mass of straight to video shlock through the ‘80s and ‘90s, it seems like Naschy was one cat who was ALWAYS on form, his name guaranteeing a certain mixture of good-natured monster bashing, gleefully amateurish gore, brain-melting un-scripting and unhinged atmospheric weirdness that never gets old… assuming you’re the sort of misfit who enjoys it in the first place. Personally, I think it’s wonderful stuff – I’ll have to get around to doing some reviews at some point.

As a documentary, ‘The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry’ isn’t exactly up to much – basically an extended DVD extra, it doesn’t have a lot to offer beyond an uncritical synopsis of the man’s life and career, interspersed with clips from his movies and talking head interviewees talking about what a great guy he was. But Naschy (real name Jacinto Molina) makes for a fascinating subject, and I don’t see anyone else queuing up to make documentaries about him, so I guess this one wins by default.

Beginning on an interesting note, it tells us all about Molina’s traumatic upbringing during the Spanish Civil War, and his subsequent education in a Nazi-centric ‘German school’ (a clip from one of his ‘80s movies that shows his character violently tearing up pictures of Hitler, Franco etc, cursing their evil legacies, seeks to leave us with little doubt as to what young lad’s feelings on all this were), before we follow him through his initial career as a boxer and bodybuilder. Subsequently working as a gopher in the nascent Spanish film industry as domestic productions began to get off the ground in the ‘50s, Molina initially saw himself breaking into pictures as an art director, and wrote his first werewolf script just in order to have something fun and fantastical that he could hopefully persuade some international backers to let him work on. Legend has it that it was only at a last minute production meeting after their proposed star dropped out that Molina was reluctantly (it says here) persuaded to take on the role of the wolfman himself. Needless to say, the barrel-chested human dynamo took to this assignment with such gusto that his performance helped make 1968’s ‘Las Noches del Hombre Lobo’ (released in the US as ‘Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror’, despite a palpable lack of Frankenstein) into a big hit, and, well – the rest is history, of a sort.

In between the endless personal tributes, generalised hagiography and overbearing music cues, the thing that comes across most strongly in this documentary is a sense of Naschy/Molina’s extraordinary work ethic and unwavering dedication to his own strange corner of cinema. From his initial breakthrough in the late ‘60s through to his death in 2009, it seems that barely a day went by when this man wasn’t busting his ass trying to make some weird movie or other a reality, ploughing on through financial collapse, personal tragedy, government censorship, health problems, disappearing distribution networks and public disinterest to keep his various projects rolling, taking in a long series of Japanese co-productions, an unexpected left turn into oddball thrillers and controversial ‘issue’ movies, and a late career revival aided by American trash-mongers like Brian Yuzna and Fred Olen Ray.

In the final analysis, Naschy has a neat 100 films to his name as an actor on IMDB, 43 of which he wrote, directed or otherwise co-produced. Such a body of work is quite an achievement in itself, and the consistency of vision he seems to have maintained across the decades is remarkable. Of course, a lot of people would argue that such consistency simply means his films were consistently crappy, but who cares what they think? Have they ever made a movie in which a werewolf fights a yeti, or one where the disembodied head of Torquemada freaks people out in nocturnal visions, or where a secretly devil worshipping Indian guru fights zombies with a broadsword in a London cemetery? I think not. The level of basic craftsmanship and goofy invention in Naschy films is always a delight, and say what you like about them, they’re great pieces of demented, gut-level entertainment that are rarely dull, even when they’re almost completely incoherent.

If such eccentric figures as Jose Marins and Jess Franco can become international cult movie heroes then I think Paul Naschy is long overdue his day in the sun, and it would be the greatest gift a horror fan could ask for if some DVD company or other could finally set about reconstructing some nicely transferred, uncut versions of his films before the financial viability of DVD releasing goes down the plughole, leaving us to make do forever with the fuzzed up public domain atrocities currently on the market. If you’re listening out there Anchor Bay or Arrow or whoever, I’ve got money in my pocket and a Paul Naschy Box Set sized gap on my shelves. Make it happen.


Following the Naschy documentary, my plan had been to hang on to catch the 11:30 screening of the fun sounding flick ‘Detention’, but to be honest, I was pretty worn out by this point – I had a splitting headache, and there was still an hour to go before that then, and I just couldn’t face the idea of killing yet more time hanging around the multiplex lobby drinking overpriced, metallic beer or aimlessly wondering the streets before fighting my way home on the nightbuses after the movie finished at 1am-ish, so… I’m sorry readers: I went home instead.

I know, what a wuss. As I sit here sneakily writing this on a rainy afternoon in work, I would absolutely love to be hanging out with a crowd of boozed up horror fans, watching some rip-roaring alien/zombie/high school movie, but on the night it just wasn’t gonna happen.

That aside though, another year of fine and varied programming from this festival, with even a lot of the films on the big screen serving to challenge the mainstream clichés of modern horror, and filling me with a lot more optimism for current genre cinema than I’ve felt for some time, I guess. Good stuff – looking forward to next year, etc.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

London Frightfest 2011, Part # 2.

The Innkeepers
(Ti West, 2011)

Ti West’s ‘House of the Devil’ very much impressed me as a semi-abstract, post-modern horror movie, and if this follow-up is ultimately a less distinctive piece of work, one can hardly blame the director for striking out in a slightly more commercial direction, foregrounding characterisation, humour and reassuring ‘boo!’ moments over weird, minimal dread.

Strong ‘Shining’ vibes are in evidence from the outset here, as the credits roll over a series of faded photographs of a town centre hotel in its historical heyday, leading gradually up to the present day, where we join the establishment's last few minimum wage staff members, sitting out a marathon weekend shift before the place finally closes down for good.

Like ‘House..’, ‘Innkeepers’ goes for the looong slowburn before any horror stuff gets going, and your overall enjoyment of the picture will likely hinge on your tolerance for the bitchy, Clerks-esque chemistry between the two leads - directionless teen Claire (Sara Paxton) and slightly older college dropout Luke (Pat Healy). Personally I very much enjoyed their shenanigans – I thought both performances were very good, and that the script built them up nicely as strong and individually motivated characters whilst keeping things just on the right side of whiny. Individual tastes may vary however – if you don’t have much sympathy for these kinda flawed, slacker-ish characters and their assorted bellyaching, you could be in for a tough ride.

Anyway, Claire and Luke are rather half-heartedly trying to investigate paranormal phenomena in the hotel, running a Geocities-style website full of hilariously unconvincing videos of doors slamming and ‘unexplained bathroom incidents’, and stalking the corridors at night with a tape recorder, in search of ‘EVP recordings’.* As you might assume, this investigation provides the hook that leads us straight into a wholly traditional haunted house narrative.

Aside from the aforementioned nod to ‘The Shining’, the big reference point here is, inevitably, Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting’, from which ‘The Innkeepers’ inherits its emphasis on strong characters, its pattern of slow-building set-piece scares and its atmosphere of gradually escalating hysteria. Indeed, the only other real character in the movie, a TV actress turned new age healer played by Kelly McGillis, seems very much like an older, more washed out version of Theo the psychic from Wise’s movie.

Such similarities can hardly be seen as derivative though, or even deliberate. Wise’s film casts such a definitive shadow over the haunted house sub-genre that all these elements are pretty much mandatory. In fact, ‘The Innkeepers’ is notable for the extent to which West seems to pull back from the haze of referential imagery and horror-fan nostalgia he perfected in ‘House of the Devil’, instead inviting us to see his film as a free-standing, wholly contemporary effort. And this, sadly, is where it falls short.

Like both ‘House of the Devil’ and ‘The Haunting’, ‘Innkeepers’ is extremely well-constructed, and will scare the pants off you exactly as it sets out to – seeing it in the cinema, I won’t deny that I was watching a lot of the later scenes through gaps in my fingers. Unlike ‘The Haunting’ though, the film crucially fails to really tie any psychological depth or emotional resonance into its scares – an absolute necessity for any decent ghost story. The scariness here, though undoubtedly effective, is of an entirely manipulative variety, utilising the kind of purely physical ‘shock’ effects that serve to turn a horror film into little more than a rollercoaster ride. And I don’t know about you, but I hate rollercoasters.

There is nothing genuinely disturbing in ‘The Innkeepers’, nothing that’s going to lurk in your mind in the dark hours of the night, nothing that instigates any particular catharsis, for either ourselves or the characters. Whilst it’s in progress, yes, you’ll jump outta your skin, and feel uncomfortable, and beg the characters not to go down to that bloody basement again, and so on. But when it’s over, it’s over.

Basically Ti West seems to have no interest at all in developing the narrative beyond the bare bones of a generic haunted house story, and in fact he fails to even comply with the basic expectations of the sub-genre by giving us a big reveal regarding the nature of the evil that lurks in the hotel. Some may defend that as a deliberate ambiguity, but given the lack of any particularly striking details to hook our imaginations to it just seems like a lack of interest to me, making the film a strangely hollow experience. Sure there are a few vague intimations of dark and twisted going on, but just as the Satanic cult in ‘House of the Devil’ seemed rather perfunctory when they finally turned up, the supernatural aspect of the storyline here never really extends beyond “there are some ghosts”.

It’s interesting that with both this film and ‘House..’, West seems to be building a reputation for making horror films in which all the best stuff happens before the horror starts. And in a way, I think that’s kinda applaudable – a nice reversal of the priorities of some of his more gore/shock-obsessed peers, anyway. Despite some significant drawbacks, ‘The Innkeepers’ is still well worth a watch for anyone who fancies a nice old fashioned spook movie with a bit of character to it. The humans in the film certainly pull their weight and will give you a few rewarding memories, even if the ghosts don’t.

*When that phrase was mentioned, the pedant in me immediately wanted to scream that, no, the term ‘EVP’ is traditionally used to describe mysterious voices turning up on dead radio frequencies and blank recording media – if you’re wondering around with a microphone capturing external noises then they’re just, y’know… regular recordings. Before I write an angry letter though, I’ll charitably assume this was a deliberate error thrown in demonstrate the general half-arsedness of our investigative duo, rather than a scripting mishap.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

London Frightfest 2011, Part # 1.

Armed with a one day wristband and a couple of additional screening tickets, I made my second annual visit to the appropriately hellish environs of The Empire in Leicester Square last weekend to check out a few of the more exciting offerings at this year’s London Frightfest. Although I was only present for a fraction of the full four day programme, I still managed to clock up nearly twelve straight hours spent in and around a multiplex in the centre of London’s foremost tourist trap hellhole, and I’m telling you readers, it hurt. But along with my hard-earned status as a guy who wastes time writing about weird movies on the internet comes a certain responsibility, and if at least once a year I can make the effort to keep myself- and by extension, yourselves – up to date on developments in the field of movies about people running around in the dark being murdered in horrible ways… well the discomfort is all worthwhile.

Here is what I saw with my eyes.

Troll Hunter
(André Øvredal, 2010)

I know this is the same crack I made at the start of last year’s festival write-up, but the fact remains: when you find yourself setting your alarm on Friday night to ensure you get up in plenty of time to make the 11am showing of a movie called ‘Troll Hunter’, something is going very right in your life.

Most likely you’ve heard a thing or so about this singular Norwegian production by now, given the (justifiable) hype that has grown up around it in the past few months, but in case you haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis:

‘Troll Hunter’ takes the form of a Blair Witch-style ‘found footage’ effort, following a trio of youngsters who are attempting to make a documentary investigating illegal bear hunting in rural Norway. Latching onto an eccentric and unfriendly man they believe to be a poacher, they begin following him around, eventually trailing him on a nocturnal excursion deep into the woods where, well… let’s just say they get more than they bargained for. Pissed off with his working conditions and the attitude of his superiors, the man subsequently admits to the filmmakers that he is actually a government employee, working for a covert Troll Security Service within the Department of Wildlife, and invites them to film him as he goes about his business, keeping the country’s troll population under control.

Beyond that, there is little that can be said about ‘Troll Hunter’ that wouldn’t spoil the numerous surprises and delights that first time viewers have in store for them, but suffice to say: on every level, this is a really great film.

There is something so awesome about the way that, rather than reinventing the trolls as some kind of scary, fast-moving modern horror type beasties, the creatures here basically still look like old fashioned storybook trolls, complete with knobbly noses and hairy kneecaps and all the rest of it. The special effects through which the monsters are realised are pretty incredible too – I don’t know how they did them exactly, but, speaking as someone who probably watches more than his fair share of monster movies, I thought it was remarkable the way that instead of thinking ‘oh right, they’ve got a guy in a suit’, or, ‘oh yeah, that’s some CGI’ when a troll lumbers on screen, the audience basically shares the astonishment of the characters in thinking, ‘fuck me, that really IS a troll’.

The trolls are rendered frightening simply through their size and physical presence, and the scenes in which they attack our protagonists are pretty intense, especially with the booming THX-whatever sound mix in the cinema. Rather than a conventional scare-the-pants-off-ya horror film though, ‘Troll Hunter’ is really more… I dunno - a comedic study in absurdist wildlife management, maybe?

With a blend of dry wit, weird low-key satire and constant visual invention, and a small cast who manage to establish themselves slowly and naturally without compromising the ‘found footage’ conceit (which remains eerily convincing throughout), it’s basically just very, very funny. By turns, it is also exciting, thought-provoking, humane and strangely melancholy and somewhat awe-inspiring - a really unique movie and one that I’m sure will find a healthy audience well beyond the niche horror fraternity.

If you only see one new film at the cinema this year… etc.

The Wicker Tree
(Robin Hardy, 2011)

I wish the same could be said of Robin Hardy’s 40-years-later sequel to ‘The Wicker Man’, but let’s face it… this was always going to be a bit of a car crash, wasn’t it? Taking the view that a pessimist is never disappointed, I went in not expecting much beyond a bit of a chuckle and some incidental weirdness, but sadly the film failed to even deliver on that modest level. ‘Wicker Tree’ is a meandering mess of a production that never really manages to get an angle on its own ideas and ambitions, or even to provide much in the way of entertainment.

Trying to run down everything the film got wrong in the process of updating and rethinking the premise of the original would be both needlessly cruel and extremely tedious, so I’ll try to restrict myself to just discussing some of its most chronic missteps.

Most crucial to the film’s overall failure I think is the way it bungles the attempt to replicate the unsettling clash of ideologies that was so vital to its predecessor’s success. In ‘The Wicker Man’, the reactionary clichés of horror storytelling are challenged from the outset as the pagan islanders’ way of life is presented as being essentially healthy, joyous and rather enticing, as opposed to the repressive, self-denying angst of Sgt Howie’s Christianity. It is only with the gradual realisation that the islanders practice human sacrifice to appease their strange gods that we too become shocked at their amoral behaviour, forcing our sympathies back toward the safer boundaries of Howie’s more puritanical worldview. It is this basic ambiguity, this questioning of easy dualistic thinking, that gives the film much of its enduring power and beauty.

No such subtleties are at play in ‘The Wicker Tree’ however, as the cultists orchestrated by Scottish borders landowner Graham McTavish fail to really rise above the level of weird, misguided villains, no more convincingly motivated in their beliefs or practices than the aristocratic devil-worshippers in the cheesy gothic horrors that the original film’s script set out to transcend. Similarly, the young Texas evangelists who are lured across the Atlantic to provide the cult’s annual sacrifice are little more than brain-washed dimwits – a liberal British director’s cardboard cut-out idea of right wing American culture, with none of the heartfelt intensity that made Edward Woodward’s character such a convincing central presence.

In spite of Hardy’s warning in his pre-screening intro that we “shouldn’t expect a conventional horror movie”, the failures of his script sadly reduce the narrative here to the level of the most banal modern horror, in which pointlessly evil baddies menace obnoxiously shallow ‘goodies’, with the end result that we basically don’t give a shit what happens to any of them, let alone the finer points of their respective belief systems.

Things aren’t exactly helped by poor performances across the board, and some of the most excruciatingly clumsy dialogue I’ve heard in a real world-set film for some time. The more experienced actors in the cast do their best to soldier on and keep things low-key, but hearing the young leads make a meal out of their soap opera level proclamations is absolutely cringeworthy (if I remember correctly, the male lead at one point announces “I’m just a poor, dumb cowboy, a long way from home”).

Perhaps conscious of such drawbacks, the first two thirds of the movie are basically played for laughs, throwing in a bunch of dated nudge-wink humour and ill-advised slapstick silliness that seeks to pre-empt criticism by blurring the line between intentional and unintentional laughs, although frankly neither raises much more than frequent eye-rolling and the occasional snigger of disbelief.

In fact, the more I think about it, it’s definitely the writing that puts the kibosh on this whole venture. The technical aspects of Hardy’s direction are pretty decent for a man who’s only made two films in four decades, and the cinematography, which utilises a kinda high gloss contemporary sheen, is actually very good, providing some atmospheric moments that successfully capture the eerie incongruity of an ancient country estate living on into the 21st century.

Better writing might have inspired better acting, which in turn might have allowed the film to capitalise on at least some of its potential. But with Hardy’s screenplay essentially little more than a load of rambling nonsense devoid of drama or insight, so clearly lacking in the kind of vision that Anthony Shaffer’s script or David Pinner’s source novel brought to the original, it’s hard not to cry ‘abandon movie’ and head for the lifeboats long before the toothless conclusion hoves into view. The final straw for me was when it starts desperately throwing in supposedly audience-pleasing tropes from post-Chainsaw Massacre modern horror, but then fails to actually go the distance and give us any real gore or nastiness, and…

Aah, forget about it, who cares. I think this particular post-mortem has gone on long enough.

Hopefully in a couple of years memories of this one will have faded away, and we’ll be able to remember Robin Hardy as a man who at least made one really great film with the word ‘wicker’ in the title.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Quick Question.

Well you can hopefully see the poll question I've posted above. I picked up a few tickets today for films that are showing as part of London Frightfest over the August bank holiday weekend, and found myself poised over the button that would allow me to drop eleven clams on a chance to see 'The Wicker Tree'.

I've managed to miss all the pre-release publicity, and didn't realise it had even been filmed yet to be honest, so what's the word knowledgeable readers? Forty years later, same director at least? Could it possibly work?

I'll keep the poll open for a few days for a laugh, but I'll probably have to make my decision fairly pronto if I want to get a seat (assuming it's not long sold out already).

The trailer streaming off the website looks nuts, but whether that's good-nuts or bad-nuts remains to be seen.

Sorry for recent lack of updates by the way. Blame summer, in short.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

London Frightfest 2010, part # 2.

(David Blyth, New Zealand, 2010)

New Zealand filmmaker David Blyth is best known for his 1984 movie “Death Warmed Up”, which apparently beat Peter Jackson’s “Bad Taste” to the punch to become the first Kiwi gore film. I guess there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and 2010 sees Blyth returning to the director’s chair with “Wound”, an uncompromising descent into zero budget psychological torment which whilst clearly a lot more ambitious and unconventional than a standard issue splatter flick, at least proves his love of viscera remains intact.

Ostensibly exploring the world of an extremely disturbed woman who has been driven to kill her abusive parents and is haunted by the presence of her abandoned/dead daughter, “Wound” progresses via a feverish schizophrenic/hallucinatory dream logic that owes a great deal to the work of Alexandro Jodorowsky. And if the result ain’t exactly New Zealand’s answer to “The Holy Mountain”, Blyth certainly shares ol’ Alexandro’s distain for any notion of subtlety, and also his fondness for sledgehammer PRIMAL IMAGERY, bookending the film with two close-up oedipal gorefests that had even this battle-hardened horror crowd cringing in disbelief. Holy shit BBFC, did this one fall behind the couch while you were busy trimming ten seconds out of lousy Hollywood rape-revenge remakes, or what?

Secure in the knowledge that the faint-hearted will be long gone by the fifteen minute mark, Blyth proceeds to cheerfully throw incest, mental illness, S&M, clinical depression, rape, voyeurism and schizophrenia into the mix, and whether or not he manages to offer any genuine insight into those issues, or whether he’s merely putting in the hours in pursuit of a career in the tediously pretentious realm of ‘transgressive’ culture, is a question I’ll leave each viewer to decide for him/herself.

Personally, I didn’t enjoy “Wound” very much, just as I didn’t enjoy all that broken caps lock Lydia Lunch ‘poetry’ I waded through as an impressionable youth very much. But for the kind of film it is, I will at least cop that it was extremely well-realised, skating over a lot of potentially ridiculous and/or offensive material in a way that remained credible and non-exploitative throughout, an impression helped in no small part by the harrowing method-style performances of lead actresses Kate O’Rourke and Te Kaea Beri, both excelling in roles that could scarcely be more difficult.

One thing I found interesting whilst watching “Wound” was the extent to which the film’s contemporary setting and lo-fi, shot-on-DV look negatively effected my enjoyment of it. Not that I have a knee-jerk disapproval of such things you understand, but it occurred to me that when I watch disturbing lunatic films from the ‘60s and ‘70s (as a brief perusal of this blog’s archives will swiftly reveal that I am apt to do), the temporal distance between myself and the people and objects on-screen forms a kind of barrier, creating a kind of unreality that I find most pleasing.

At times, the woozy pace and non-linear narrative of “Wound” reminded me of watching a Rollin or Franco film, but something was kinda wrong. When the protagonist of “Wound” crams a corpse into a dustbin and wheels him outside to bury, she’s using a modern plastic wheelie-bin, like the one outside my house, and the guy is wearing ugly supermarket-bought socks like most men probably wear everyday. Putting such activity in the context of Real World just makes it seem ridiculous and uncomfortable, y’know? In a way that goes deeper than just the flatness and lack of definition of the Digital Video shooting?

What I’m saying is: I’m sure that back in 1973 there’d have been some unlikely ‘70s-style garbage contrivance, and the guy woulda been wearing AWESOME socks of some kind. I wasn’t alive in the 1970s. Things that happened there in weirdo horror films seem dreamy and different and fascinating to me; that’s probably part of why I enjoy them so much. The past is another country, quoth Graham Greene, whom I’ll bet never foresaw his words being used in this context. Consider: whenever someone goes to some crazy, anachronistic nightclub to dance to slightly-out-of-date music in a Jess Franco movie, it is clearly awesome. No questions asked. When characters in “Wound” go to some ‘90s style industrial S&M goth club and the film wants us to view it as some terrifying, underground nightmare place, it’s absolutely cringeworthy. You see where I’m going with this…? No, me neither really, but it’s some interesting stuff to ponder.

I’m certainly not suggesting that weirdo horror films were necessarily better in the ‘70s, or that people should slavishly try to recreate past eras in their movies or anything like that, you understand. Just observing that I probably tend to cut bad films from the past a lot more slack than I do vaguely decent ones from the present, simply due to this odd gauze of cultural/temporal dislocation. Or something. I dunno. The past four paragraphs haven’t exactly had much to do with David Blyth’s film, for which I apologise – thinking out loud alert over.

(Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, France, 2009)

Billed as a po-mo tribute to ‘70s Giallo and Italian pop-art cinema complete with recycled soundtrack cues and visual calling cards (see poster art), “Amer”s directors would, you’d imagine, have a thing or two to add to the issues I was muttering about above.

I suppose I was expecting “Amer” would be some kind of stylish, Tarantino-esque retro funfest. All fast edits and bright colours and goofy antics, and “ho ho, why yes, I DO recall that moment from ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’, well played sir”, and so on. It’s probably about time somebody made a movie like that.

As it turns out though, “Amer” is not that movie. “Amer” is something else entirely, something that is quite unlike any feature length film I’ve ever seen. In fact, I was surprised that a film this overtly experimental and essentially plotless should be programmed at a horror festival at all. And when I say ‘plotless’, I don’t mean in the typically Italian “what the goddamn hell was all that about” sense of the term, I mean that “Amer” is actually an abstract film – a collection of images and visual textures, entirely devoid of narrative.

I confess that during the film’s opening half hour – which seems to follow a young girl painstakingly exploring her sinister and oppressive family home - I didn’t really get this, and drove myself nuts waiting for a story to begin to emerge. For this segment at least, the film teases us, offering characters who enter and leave and then return, and who even utter cryptic lines of dialogue from time to time. But that’s not what the film is about. I guess you could probably watch it and come away with some vague sense that we were following a girl through different events in her life or somesuch, but you’d probably have missed the point. “Amer” is pure cinema writ large - trying to connect the threads seems akin to staring at a Pollock painting until you’re convinced you can see a dog or something.

What immediately separates “Amer” from just about every other avant garde film I’ve ever seen though – and probably the main reason it’s playing here rather than at some contemporary art fest – is it’s exquisite production values and awe-inspiring cinematography.

On a purely visual level, each and every shot in this film is incredible. So much so, one suspects that above and behind any high-minded artistic agenda, the film is simply a brazen exercise in technical wizardry, demonstrating just how far-out cinema can get when one combines modern Hi-Def technology with the excess and visual daring of decadent-era European pop cinema.

And if the film does indeed work with a visual palette that often recalls the work of Argento, Bava and so on, it swiftly becomes clear that the directors are using these tropes in the spirit of a Liechtenstein-style artistic recontexualisation, rather than as raw material for a bunch of cool, referential horror movie stuff.

Usually when avant garde filmmakers are attracted to horror imagery, they’re working from a trash/kitsch/shock angle (see, oh I dunno, Nick Zedd or somebody), but Cattat and Forzani come at it from the opposite direction, clearly in love with the languorous pacing, rich textures, lingering tension and dense atmospherics of ‘70s cinema, and determined to take elements that were only hinted at in the work of Italy’s more consciously ‘artistic’ genre directors, and to push them about as far away from the limitations of commercial filmmaking as they possibly can.

Violent and fetishistic imagery may be used (incredibly effectively) in “Amer”s concluding segment, but for the most part the directors seem content to dwell on the strange way in which Euro-cult aesthetics can serve to raise what in any other film would be the mundane to the level of a kind of cosmic radiance.

Use of close ups is excessive and extreme throughout, to an almost unprecedented degree. Seriously – what “Lawrence of Arabia” did for sand, “Amer” does for pores, eyelashes, lips, beads of sweat. By the end of the film, the human body has become almost some endless, alien landscape, swathed in strange colours and tracts of imperishable desert. There’s enough eyeball on show to leave Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi weeping together in a darkened closet.

Ninety minutes of that I just couldn’t take, but thankfully there’re plenty more textures that get the camera’s love. Blindingly bright Mediterranean skies; wrought-iron railings and dense foliage; shards of glass scattered across a dusty bedroom floor; reflecting patterns of light against a taxi’s windscreen; a child’s hands prising glittering treasure from the fingers of an ossified grandfather; a bright cotton print dress rubbing against tender young thighs, and….. look, sorry, “Amer” is just an impossible thing to try to review in a conventional manner. I’ve heard of directors apporaching their films with a painter’s eye before, but this is just ridiculous.

And as I say, on this level, “Amer” is an astonishing achievement, no question. If any given five minute sequence from the film was crow-barred into the middle of a narrative movie, it would be an absolute jaw-dropper, enough to send you reeling, proclaiming the director in question to be a grand new cinematic stylist, the new incarnation of Fellini, or Bertolucci, or whoever.

But as a standalone piece, it is “Amer”s strengths which also serve to make it an absolutely maddening viewing experience. I don’t mind watching a film without a story, but one thing I do appreciate in my cinema is movement, and some sense of forward motion. Without getting too wanky about it, the desire to see people or objects get from A to B, to observe some sort of change or development within a shot, is a pretty basic component of what makes film appealing as a medium.

Cattat and Forzani, by contrast, seem determined almost to fight against the temporal flow of their film, treating the screen as a canvas upon which they can freeze each moment for as long as humanly possible. Instead of taking us forward to the next moment, most of the movement in “Amer” seems to emerge from the filmmakers’ desire to take us deeper and deeper inside the current moment, closer and closer to the subject until we can see the very fibres and stitches that compose the image. It is a very unusual and uncompromising approach to cinema, but one which, presented here in unadulterated form, can make for very gruelling viewing – the cinematic equivalent of trying to quench your thirst solely with espresso and absinth.

When we think of particularly gripping and audacious sequences from the films of, say, Argento or Hitchcock, we are seeing them, whether we like it or not, through the prism of the film’s narrative and forward momentum. However shallow or irrelevant those directors’ storylines may seem in comparison to their technical or artistic flourishes, however little we might care about the characters and their unconvincing motivations, we need that context to make the film work for us. If, as in “Amer”, we were simply to line up the tour de force sequences in succession, they would cease to be gripping and audacious, and would ultimately become meaningless, however beautiful they may look in the editing suite.

So if you happen to be a film technician or photographer with a particular fetish for Giallo-era imagery, then congratulations – you’ve got a new favourite movie.

And if you’re a struggling filmmaker searching for some cool ideas to liven up your horror/suspense flick, congratulations also – you’ve got a new crib-sheet.

If you belong to the rest of the human race though, I fear “Amer” may test your patience.

- - -

As a final note, I’d like to congratulate the organisers of London Frightfest for programming such an interesting line-up of films on their second screen. I’m sure that most of the audience, myself included, would have been perfectly satisfied with a bunch of fun, forgettable generic horror flicks, but instead we were gifted with four films which in their own way were all ambitious, unconventional, forward-thinking, and almost entirely devoid of genre cliché. And if I didn’t think any of them were quite 100% successful, I certainly enjoyed them all, and I’m very glad I had a chance to see them – well done guys, here’s wishing you well for next year.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

London Frightfest 2010, part # 1.

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.

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.