This year’s Abertoir Horror Festival, the sixth of its kind, was bigger and better than ever and, having increased in length by yet another day, had even more great guests and films lined up for our delectation. This was my fourth year at the festival and although it was an exhausting experience it was a thoroughly rewarding one too.
Tuesday 8 November
After a lengthy drive across from my residence in Bristol to the festival’s setting of The Arts Centre at The University of Aberystwyth, I arrived to find the festival kicking off with a rare screening of The House of Long Shadows (1983) a Pete Walker film that hasn’t really been treated kindly by critics or film distributors alike. Available normally only on a dodgy DVD-R copy, we were lucky enough to see a pretty decent 35mm print, which looked good and certainly improved my opinion of the film. Basically, the story tells of an American writer who travels to a remote mansion in the middle of the Welsh countryside (very apt for this festival) after accepting a bet to write a novel in 24 hours. Upon his arrival at the supposedly deserted mansion he finds that he’s not the only person residing at the mansion and they’ll be more visitors to the old country pile before morning breaks, and not all of them are sane!
This was a great way to start the festival and apart from an overly contrived ending I really enjoyed this ‘old dark house’ styled flick, which featured four masters of horror, namely Peter Cushing, David Carradine, Christopher Lee and of course Vincent Price, who featured heavily throughout this year’s festival, as this year saw the Centenary of his birth (on May 27th), which Abertoir was celebrating.
As a side note, Abertoir has always screened Vincent Price movies and he’s become a kind of unofficial patron to the festival; officially confirmed this year by Price’s daughter, Victoria, who had travelled from ‘across the pond’ to talk to us about her father and his legacy, but more on that later. Before each of the Vincent Price features screened this year, Abertoir also screened three parts of his one-man ‘stage shows’ originally shot for television under the title of An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe. Told exactly word-for-word as Poe wrote them, Price manages to bring the great author’s words to life in his own inimitable way and I enjoyed all three episodes. The Pit and the Pendulum preceded this film; The Cask of Amontillado was screened before The Masque of the Red Death and The Sphinx prior to The Haunted Palace.
Abertoir isn’t just about films, it’s also about horror music, historical horror, horror theatre and topical debate and the next event on the agenda was a censorship debate, which reflected on the British Board of Film Classification’s (BBFC) recent decisions to ban The Bunny Game and Grotesque outright and heavily censor The Human Centipede 2 (Full sequence) and the now notorious A Serbian Film. The debate featured actor Laurence R. Harvey, the main star of THC 2, along with various academics from the university. The debate was quite lively and was fuelled by some interesting and articulate questions from the generally anti-censorship audience.
Following on from this was a very well attended screening of said Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) a film which has been stirring up considerable controversy up and down the country in recent months. Having not already seen Tom Six’s earlier offering, The Human Centipede, I didn’t really have anything similar to compare it with, but I have to admit that going into the screening I was expecting a steaming turd of a movie. However, while the film is never going to be to everyone’s taste (in fact probably to very few people’s taste in reality), I was surprised at how competently made a film it was. The film follows Martin, a loner working the night shift as a security guard in an underground car park, who is obsessed with the first Human Centipede film. He watches it repeatedly, getting off sexually on the idea of a human centipede and decides he wants to create his own. The rest of the film tails him as he kidnaps various people using the car park as a hunting ground, persuades the lead actress from the first film to attend a fake audition for a Quentin Tarantino film so he can use her to front his own creation, and we watch him coping with his quite frankly disturbing home life, living with his rather creepy mother.
While I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the film (I’m not a big fan of the so-called torture porn sub-genre of horror films) I have to say that Laurence R. Harvey’s performance as Martin was astoundingly good, especially having now met the actor in the flesh and realising he’s so not like the person he portrays here, which I guess is a good thing! Seeing as he has only a couple of words of dialogue throughout the film, what he manages to express in just a glance or a hand gesture, is incredible and if there was any justice in the world Laurence should be nominated for a few acting awards for his role here. In particular the scenes he shares with his warped mother are both cringe inducing, riveting and rather saddening. There’s very little ‘plot’ to speak of since the film is more a character study about a lonely, unloved and previously sexually abused man and how his creation becomes his outlet to deal with his monstrous upbringing and his unfulfilling life in general. While no sane person could ever condone the character’s actions it’s commendable that the filmmakers have created a film where we can at least partly understand why Martin is driven to his twisted actions.
To be honest, I’m not surprised the BBFC had problems with this film, and according to Laurence, the bits they excised, in order to obtain a certificate for the film, involved Martin’s masturbation using sandpaper whilst watching THC 1 and more footage of Martin’s rape of the human centipede, which I’m kind of glad I didn’t get to see; it was disturbing enough as it was without this additional footage! I have to say I can only really recommend this film to lovers of extreme cinema, but it certainly wasn’t as bad a film as many critics have been making out. Somewhat ironically, Laurence’s only other significant acting gig was in children’s television – now that’s what I call a change in career direction!
The first day of the festival finished off with a late screening of the Japanese film, Tomie Unlimited , which I’d already seen at the recent Celluloid Screams horror film festival up in Sheffield so I ducked out of that particular screening. The film, by director Noboru Iguchi (Machine Girl), is based on the popular Japanese manga comics about a dead schoolgirl who comes back from the grave to wreak havoc on her still living family and friends. Slightly more restrained than Iguchi’s other movies Tomie is typically bizarre with plenty of off-the-wall imagery and double take moments that have you thinking that you just hallucinated. I’ve got to admit I found this a hard one to say awake for when I saw it back in October, even though it’s a well-made film with some impressively imaginative moments. I just found the story and characters rather unengaging and the film, like so many other Japanese horror/fantasy films, was too long for it own good and was trying too hard to be weird and wacky and therefore quickly became rather wearisome.
Wednesday 9th November
The day’s films kicked off with a traditional ‘slasher’ film given a bit of a twist by German director Andy Fetscher. Urban Explorer follows a group of pretty teens that hire an equally attractive guide to take them into the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels beneath Berlin. When said guide has a bad fall, the others have to split up and go for help, but they soon realise that this subterranean world holds deadly secrets that are best left unearthed. I have to admit I quite enjoyed Urban Explorer for all its faults. I thought the location used was great, the crazed killer a bit more interesting than most, and the ending was pretty satisfying, in a bleak way. My main gripe with it was that two of the most interesting characters (a couple of neo nazi thugs the group met early on) don’t actually make another appearance, which seems a bit of a waste of a tense set up to that scene, when it promised so much.
Next up was Some Guy Who Kills People an amusing black comedy by Jack Perez, which follows a lonely man, fresh out of the loony bin as he tries to rebuild his life. Once again I’d already seen this at Celluloid Screams (another great festival by the way), so I cut loose from this to get some much needed fresh air and sample the pleasures (?) of Aberystwyth. The film, however, was one of my favourites from the CS fest so I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s got executive producer, John Landis’s fingerprints all over it, with quirky characters, a jet-black vein of humour running throughout and a ‘hero’ you actually care about. The acting in this is excellent across the board, and Barry Bostwick, in particular, has a ball playing the sheriff who, most definitely, has all the best lines. I’d thoroughly recommend this film.
Where Some Guy… was quirky and light, the next film, Mirages
was a slightly surreal, survival film following five job candidates being driven through Morocco on their way to be tested for a highly sought after job. When the van they’re travelling in flips over in the middle of the desert, and with no supplies or driver, they set off across the scorched landscape looking for answers, unsure as to whether or not this is part of the job test or not. Mirages is French director, Talal Selhami’s first film and on the strength of this debut I think he’s one to watch in future. Impressively shot and well acted this was one of the most original films of the festival and deserves to be seen outside of festivals.
Next up was another French film (and another UK premiere), this time by director Fouad Benhammou, who strangely enough had only heard about his film being screened at the festival when his friend, Talal (the director of Mirages) told him about it! This was a good thing because both he and one of the main actresses from the film made it over for the screening and stayed on for a Q & A afterwards.
The film, Village of Shadows is Benhammou’s first feature and was a festival favourite. Basically, a group of friends go travelling in order to revisit the ancient village of Ruiflec, in two different cars. When they get close to their goal the occupants of one of the cars mysteriously disappear, and when the others arrive at the village to get help they find the whole village is similarly deserted. What follows is an old fashioned type of creepy horror flick that plays down the gore and ratchets up the suspense.
Unfortunately, at the time this film was screened I was seriously struggling to stay awake so my memories of the film are a little blurred, but I did enjoy what I was consciously aware of and would recommend it to fans of more subtle, Val Lewton- styled horror. It also features one of the best opening scenes in fright cinema, period.
The question and answer was a decent one with the director on good form reliving stories about the shooting of the film and joking in a self-deprecating manner about his trials and tribulations on the film. The actress who’d accompanied him was less comfortable with speaking English, but was still engaging and gave her own insight into the shooting of the movie.
There followed a horror pub quiz upstairs in the bar area of the Arts Centre and this was hosted in a genial fashion by two of the organisers of the festival, namely Gaz Bailey and Nia Edwards-Behi. There was a music round, a poster round, a strap-line round and plenty of other rounds besides, all of which had us scratching our weary heads. Our team missed out on first prize by just two points, finally coming second, but it was a fun evening nevertheless.
Since the quiz extended a bit later than anticipated I bailed out of the last film of the day, The Vicious Brother’s Grave Encounters, which apparently went down pretty well, with one person I spoke to afterwards saying that it really freaked him out and he felt it was a little too real for his liking, and therefore he had left the screening after about 30 minutes. You can take from that what you will, but if a film has the power to cause a hard-core horror fan to leave the theatre, it can’t be all that bad! In case you’re wondering it’s a Canadian film about a ghost-hunting reality show that unsurprisingly goes a bit tits-up!
Continued with Part 2