Saturday 12th November
I have to admit I was starting to flag a little by the weekend, but one thing that keeps pulling me back to festivals like Abertoir is for the chance to see the short films, some of which are just magnificent. I think the horror genre really lends itself well to the short story format, with a brief set-up, a build up of tension and then the pay-off; if done well they can work like a beautifully crafted bad taste joke.
Both the Saturday and Sunday mornings started off with screenings of shorts entered for 2011’s short film competition, which, since Abertoir’s inclusion into the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation a couple of years ago, is now a much bigger deal as it means the winner of this competition also automatically goes into the pot to try to win the Federation’s own main competition (the Meliés d’Or) a real honour and great opportunity for the winning filmmakers.
I’m not going to go into much detail here about the shorts, just to say that I enjoyed all of them although there were some that stood out for me including Little Munchkin (Ryan Andrews, UK), which highlights the potential perils of adoption in a darkly comic way, Brutal Relax (Adrian Cardona, Rafa Dengrá and David Muńoz, Spain) an insanely gory trip to the beach with a crazy man on his holidays and the Terry Gilliam-esque CTIN! (Cyrille Dravon, France), which made very little sense, but created its own world quite brilliantly. Whichever way you look at it, the shorts sections were an excellent way to start the last two days of the festival.
The first feature of the day came in the excellent form of The Haunted Palace , the last of the Vincent Price films for this particular festival. I’ve got to say that of all the films screened at the festival this year, this was the one I most wanted to see. I remember many years ago setting my video recorder to tape this off of BBC2, but then finding that because Wimbledon had substantially over run my recorder had only actually taped half of it! Hence I’d been waiting many years to see how it turned out in the end!
The year is 1765 and Joseph Curwen (played by Price), an evil warlock, is dragged from his castle and burned alive, tied to an old tree in his grounds. Of course this being Price he has to get the last word in and curses all the residents of the village of Arkham who have sentenced him to death.
The film then moves on a hundred years, when a distant relative of the warlock turns up to collect his inheritance only to find a village full of disfigured residents who are suspicious and hostile. Not really surprising since this modern day relation of the warlock looks just like him – again he’s played by Price. Warned to leave as soon as possible by a friendly doctor, the relative Charles Ward, finds himself slowly being possessed by the spirit of his long dead relative, much to the horror of his lovely wife.
Rarely seen these days, The Haunted Palace is actually not an adaptation of one of Poe’s works, as it makes out to be, but instead is actually an adaptation of H.P.Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’. The makers of the film actually get around this fact by including a poem of Poe’s within the film, but did finally credit the late, great Lovecraft in the credits.
The film itself is atmospherically shot on some terrific sets and Vincent Price gives one of his best performances. Mention must also go to the lovely Debra Paget, who provides the audience with a relatable character, a hauntingly eerie Ronald Stein score and a creepily ambiguous ending. We were lucky to see this screened in 35mm, a good print too.
And from one warlock to someone who perhaps knows a little too much about them, Gavin Baddeley (journalist, occult historian and Head of the UK Church of Satan) made his third appearance at Abertoir, this time giving a seminar on celluloid and sorcery.
The talk, about how witchcraft and wizardry has been portrayed throughout cinema history, was an engaging one, although I think Gavin needs a longer slot in future since he always manages to get side-tracked and never quite finishes telling us everything, I suspect, that he originally meant to! But that’s more of a frustrated gripe because I wanted to hear more and not a criticism of his talk, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
My only real regret of the festival was not staying for the screening of the world premiere of Devil’s Bridge
, which I’d seen an early version of before at a market screening in Cannes earlier in the year. However, I just needed to get some fresh air and exercise after the earlier seminar so bailed out of the bulk of the screening, returning for the last 15 minutes and the interesting Q & A that followed the film. I have to admit the bit of the screening I did see in Abertoir, to a packed audience, was much better than I remembered and the print looked so much better than the one I’d seen back in May, in France.
The story of Devil’s Bridge basically follows three friends on a trip to the rural wilds of Wales in search of a mysterious contact that the main character, Sean, thinks can help to revive his failing business. But deep in alien and remote territory the friends accidentally cross William Parry, a broken and desperate farmer who’s dangerously hateful and paranoid of all around him. As one thing leads to another the situation spins rapidly out of control and Parry ends up hunting the three friends across a stark and unforgiving landscape…well, Wales then!
For a debut film, by Chris Crow, who went on to make the critically acclaimed Panic Button, Devil’s Bridge is a gripping take on the old ‘strangers in a strange land’ tale. Considering its low budget and the general inexperience of those involved what they’ve managed to create is something special. During the Q & A afterwards they revealed just how out of their depth they were at times, but Devil’s Bridge is a real labour of love, which is clearly on screen for all to see.
The director, producer (David Lloyd) and two of the actors (Michael Jibson and Joseph Millson) attended the Q & A and gave a good account of the film and the trials and tribulations they had in getting it made. The actor, Joshua Richards, who played Parry also turned up the next day to apologise for not being able to attend the premiere and he comes across as quite a character in real life.
I just hope that Devil’s Bridge gets the distribution that it deserves, although according to a friend, who attended the introduction before the screening, the filmmakers haven’t been too impressed so far by their current representatives; so message to the distributors, get your thumb out of your arse, get behind your product more and get it out there!
From one kind of devil to another, the next event of the festival moved it’s audience to the theatre part of the arts centre and into the very capable hands of John Burns who performed his one man play Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil for our delectation. This is Burn’s first one-man play and following the play’s success at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe he has decided to take it on the road, hence this performance.
In case you’re unaware Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947) was an intriguing and controversial figure who was a scholar, mountaineer, writer, poet and apparently even a German spy. But he was perhaps best known for his dabblings with the occult and his famous, but often misquoted edict ‘do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, which gave rise to his best known alternative title, ‘The Great Beast’.
Burn’s stage play sees him take on the role of Mr Crowley, telling of his life in his own words and trying to set the record straight. While not a particularly long play it was a very engaging one and I learnt a lot about both the man and his mythology. And, with John Burns also being a stand-up comedian, there was also a smattering of more humorous moments to lift up the generally sombre atmosphere. Definitely worth a look if you are interested in hearing about interesting people and the occult.
The new film that I’d been most looking forward to was next on the agenda and in an Abertoir first we moved back into the main theatre area, which has considerably more seats, for The Thing
. Essentially a prequel to John Carpenter’s sublime version of the short story ‘Who goes there’ by John Campbell, this modern take on the creepy tale of scientists in the Antarctic who stumble upon an alien life-form trapped in the ice, only to become its prey when it thaws, is not as bad as some critics and fan-boys have made out and is worthy of your attention.
The story told in this version basically covers what happened to the Norwegian team of research scientists that played a fairly minor role in Carpenter’s version back in the early eighties. This time round they have two women in the group, one of whom becomes the main heroine, and much of the special effects on show were obviously done in post-production, although apparently not as much as you’d think – they still use a great deal of physical, in camera, effects shots, I’m very glad to report.
One thing that always amuses me is how some people will never like a film, however good it is, if it’s a remake or reworking of a favourite film of theirs, a fact that’s become apparent when reading some of the bile that’s been written about this movie. And this isn’t a new phenomena, it’s been going on for years with so-called film critics lambasting Carpenter’s film, itself a remake of Christian Nyby’s own version of the same story, which has built up a firm fan base since its own release back in 1951.
To be honest I actually like all three films since they all bring their own take on essentially the same story. The first version has its creepy moments, but has dated badly, especially the special effects and some of the more chauvinistic dialogue and so it was understandable that Carpenter wanted to have a go at telling the story for a more modern audience back in 1982. It has to be said that it is Carpenter’s version that is my favourite, possibly because I saw it when I was an impressionable teenager and hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. In fact it’s definitely in my top five films of all time so stick that in your pipe and smoke it Barry Norman!
The Thing (2011), while not as trend-setting or as important cinematically as its predecessors, still has its moments of brilliance and, as long as you don’t go into it always comparing it to the others, it makes for a pleasantly diverting hour and forty three minutes. Admittedly, there were a few moments during its running time where I groaned inwardly to myself, but on the whole it was a lot of fun. I thought director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr (try saying that after you’ve had a few) actually captured the spirit of the earlier films quite well and should be applauded for trying to keep it enough of the same to please fans of the existing movies, but with just enough differences so we couldn’t entirely predict what was going to happen next. A tricky tightrope to walk for a filmmaker, but I think on the whole he pulls it off.
On the negative side there were a couple of real plot-hole moments in this film and the final section, which endeavours to tie the two films together, feels like it was a bit of a rush job and felt a little tacked on, but I still kind of liked it despite myself. Plus some of the CGI just didn’t work, but there were enough real effects in there to keep it real enough for me; well as real as any film about scientists being menaced by an outer-space monster can be! While I certainly won’t be rushing out to buy the DVD when it first comes out, I’ll probably pick it up at some point since I think it’s most definitely worth a second watch – I owe it that much.
A very eventful Saturday was rounded off by Abertoir’s traditional Grindhouse screening, and for the first time we had half of Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club to steer us through the experience. They were supposed to have showed up for last year’s Grindhouse film (Troll 2), but sadly got waylaid along the way when their car ended up in a ditch down some forgotten Welsh country lane – well at least that’s the version that I heard! This year though one of them, Nicko I think, managed to make it to an autumnal Aberystwyth and the good lady delivered on her promise to present to us one of the worst films ever made. Yes folks, this year’s mystery Grindhouse film was none other than J.A Lazer’s amazingly bad Zombie Lake . But Spanish sleaze minister, Jess Franco, wasn’t fooling anyone with that futuristic sounding pseudonym, as once you’ve seen one of his lesser efforts you quickly learn to recognise his shitty direction style and appalling choice of non-actors!
A troop of Nazi soldiers are killed by Swiss villagers and dumped into a mountain lake during the first crazy sequence. Years later, for some reason not really explained in the movie (although I could have missed that important plot point due to laughing so much), the now Nazi zombies remerge to munch on bathing beauties, a girls basketball team (who I have to say definitely can’t play basketball), and various locals until lured to their crumbling doom in a burning windmill by the young daughter of one of their number.
Now if that description of the film makes it sound in anyway good then please think again! For a start there is so much pointless plot padding in this film, it becomes unbearably painful after a while and it also showcases some of the worst dubbing I’ve ever come across – and believe me I’ve seen a lot of shit movies in my time. The vast majority of the so-called actors can’t act, although you do get to see a fair bit of nudity along the way, and I even felt sorry for poor Howard Vernon (clearly picking up a pay cheque here playing the somewhat corrupt town mayor) who looks in genuine pain throughout most of his scenes. Oh, and the Nazi zombies – their make-up consists of some dubious looking green face paint, which is clearly washing off during a number of their more watery scenes!
It really says something about a film when the highlight of the film is not really anything to do with the plot itself or the acting or even the gore, it’s the shots where you can clearly see all the electrical cabling for the lighting and microphones being used for one interior scene and another where you can clearly see where, rather than reposition the camera to avoid it being seen a second time in shot via a mirror, they’ve covered up the mirror with a black cloth – a wonderful continuity job there me thinks!
I have to admit I had my doubts about having someone sitting stage side pointing out funny things as a film screens, but I think the very amusing Nicko made the screening bearable with her often razor sharp critique of the film, highlighting a few of the things you only really notice on multiple viewing of a movie and, let’s be honest, I’d rather not see this one again…ever. Oh, and if you’re interested, this film was released on DVD as part of the Euroshock collection – the only thing shocking about it is how inordinately bad it is!
Sunday 13th November
Once again the day started with a selection of entertaining shorts, which seemed to go down pretty well with the rather hung over looking crowd. I guess films like Zombie Lake will drive you to drink!
Before I move on to talk about the first feature of the day I’d just like to ponder on why some enterprising distributor hasn’t, as yet, rounded up some of the very many excellent horror shorts out there and started releasing them on compilation discs. I would imagine that many short filmmakers wouldn’t expect much, if any, money for their films, they’d just be happy for them to be reaching an audience, so that should help to keep production costs down. Perhaps some of the many international horror film festivals could be persuaded to get into the distribution game and start releasing compilations of films that they’ve screened in previous years once the films have finished their natural festival life cycle. They could always gauge interest with their audiences before hand and take pre-orders. Just a thought…
The Wicker Man is one of my favourite horror films and I know that it’s held in pretty high regard by genre fans and film critics alike. Hence, it was with some trepidation that I attended the screening of The Wicker Tree , Robin Hardy’s spiritual follow up to that seventies horror classic.
Young, born-again, Christians, Beth and Steve (played by Honeysuckle Weeks and Henry Garret respectively), a gospel singer and her cowboy boyfriend, leave sunny Texas to preach door-to-door in a not so sunny Scotland. When, after some early not-so-enthusiastic encounters with the Scots, they are invited to preach to the rural community of Tressock they gladly accept thinking that their conversion rate will be higher there. However, Sir Lachlan Morrison, who heads up this obscure border fiefdom, has other plans both for them and for his own loyal flock. If I say that Lachlan is a former acolyte of Christopher Lee’s character from The Wicker Man I’m sure you’ll already have guessed that our American cousins are in for an interesting time, but not in a good way!
And that’s The Wicker Tree’s biggest failing – we kind of already know what’s going to happen to our main protagonists so there are very few surprises here. That’s not to say it’s as bad as many critics have made it out to be; it’s actually quite entertaining in a predictably cheesy way, and as long as you are prepared to go along for this rather patchy, pagan ride you’ll enjoy yourself.
Based on Hardy’s own novel Cowboys for Christ, which is not a direct sequel to The Wicker Man, more a novel with a similar spirit, The Wicker Tree gives us even more quirky characters, anarchic black humour, social satire, a good smattering of sex and violence, plus some atmospheric locations, which are well used throughout. There’s even a catchy tune or two.
What is not so good are some clunky plot devices (surely such a high profile person such as Beth will be missed and others would come looking for her eventually), some variable acting (some is a little too pantomime for it own good) and the staging of one major character’s death lacks real dramatic tension and just comes across as being a bit silly.
However, The Wicker Tree is nicely shot and is an entertaining film that I think will amass many more fans over the coming years, much like its predecessor did. It’s certainly worth checking out and I’d definitely be interested in checking out any extras that come along with any future DVD releases since Robin Hardy is an interesting director and, judging by his appearances at previous Abertoir festivals, he has plenty of interesting stories to tell.
The next film, The Perfect Host , took me a little by surprise because I really had no idea what this was going to be like beforehand, although I knew that it was supposed to be a black comedy of sorts. Well, it was a very pleasant surprise because The Perfect Host turned out to be a little cracker of a movie, which had the audience in stitches - not literally, that would just be weird - and kept everyone’s attention engaged with its clever, tightly plotted tale of a strange violent person meeting an even stranger one!
David Hyde Pierce (yes, him from Frasier) stars as Warwick Wilson, a mild mannered man about to put on a fancy dinner party for some of his equally fancy friends. In the middle of preparing dinner he’s interrupted by a stranger (played by an excellent Clayne Crawford), claiming to be a friend of a mutual friend, in need of help. But this unexpected guest has a few secrets to hide from his dinner host and things rapidly get out of hand.
While David Hyde Pierce isn’t really playing a character too far removed from that of Niles Crane in the series Frasier, he’s still a revelation here and there are darker nuances to this ‘not so perfect host’ character that he totally nails.
Now I don’t want to give away too much; I really don’t want to spoil the plot surprises, hence I’m going to be a bit vague. All I will say is that this is a very original and very engaging film, which kind of blind sides you into thinking you know which direction it’s going in and then it pulls the rug from under you. The casting is top-notch, considering it’s mainly set in one location it’s well shot and it’s deeply funny, particularly the song and dance number, which is magnificently barmy; and yes I did say song and dance number!
The Perfect Host is a one of a kind movie and, in an era where we’re constantly bombarded by remakes and sequels, it’s great to come across something as refreshingly different as this. Recommended.
The final film of Abertoir 2011 was strangely enough a silent film. Over the years the festival has screened a number of classic silent horrors including Nosferatu, The Cat and the Canary, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Phantom of the Opera. This year it was the turn of another Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, namely The Fall of the House of Usher , a French film directed by Jean Epstein.
This film is a haunting, expressionistic and atmospheric version of that oft-filmed tale. French surrealist Luis Buňuel was apparently involved and worked as Epstein’s assistant throughout the shoot. There are a few more surreal moments sprinkled throughout the film, which I guess bears this out.
Isolated in his wind-swept castle, Roderick Usher is obsessed with painting the most life-like portrait of his wife, Madeline, he can, but as the painting nears its completion, becoming more and more life-like, the real Madeline becomes paler, withdrawn, thinner and sickly. It’s almost as if the painting is stealing her life essence…
I have to admit one of the main draws to this screening wasn’t so much me being able to see a rare screening of a relatively obscure film, but more the chance to be able to hear the live accompaniment by silent film pianist John Sweeney. Live musical accompaniment is always welcome to me when viewing a silent movie and I enjoyed John’s composition for the film, which added layers of additional atmosphere to an already atmospheric film. Although this wasn’t my favourite musical score out all the silents I’ve seen at Abertoir over the years (that was the music for Nosferatu, in case you’re wondering), I did enjoy the experience and am already looking forward to next year’s (not so) silent offering.
But, I hear you asking, so what was the film itself like – well, ‘ok’, but I found it a bit slow and uninvolving. I think it felt a bit too stage bound to me, although admittedly they were very impressive castle sets. The exterior scenes were more interesting to look at though, with spooky looking trees getting blown about by an eerie wind as our poor Usher visits his wife’s grave. However, I did enjoy the expressionistic lighting that gave the whole film a nice graduated, shadowy look, which was very atmospheric. Worth a look then, but just a little bit disappointing.
The main event of the festival was definitely worth the wait, with Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria, taking to the stage to give a talk about her father and about her time growing up with him. This was at times a funny, moving and fascinating talk, given by a woman who is an excellent public speaker and who was speaking from the heart. Victoria had the audience captivated with tales of her father’s career and she was also very candid about what it was like to grow up with her father and the rest of her family. There were lots of rare photographs shown as part of her talk, some of which were very intimate ones of the Price family together at family engagements etc and there were short video interviews with his son and others.
Victoria Price has a great way of making her audience feel part of something bigger than just a slideshow and I felt very privileged to have been given access to someone else’s life history, especially someone as admirable as Vincent Price. I had thought I knew quite a bit about the late, great Mr Price, but I didn’t realise the extent to which he was respected, not only by those of a theatrical persuasion, but also by international chefs and by collectors from the art world. Apparently Vincent had written cookery books, got involved in a lot of work for charity and was an art collector of some renown.
It was great to hear Victoria’s own opinions about her father’s life and career and also of his three wives including, of course, Victoria’s own mother. Now there is always going to be some bias on behalf of close family, however, I thought Victoria was very candid about her family and about her father’s incredible life and commendably gave a nicely balanced view of life with the Prices.
I also appreciated her sharing some rare photographs with us of her father back stage during theatre and film productions, with one photograph, in particular, really standing out for me, as a horror fan, that being one of Vincent, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre all sitting up in coffins on the set of Roger Corman’s The Raven, all laughing at the camera, looking like they were having a whale of a time (see above). In an era of boil in the bag celebrity it was refreshing to hear about a true cordon bleu cinematic legend, one that will undoubtedly continue to entertain us for many years to come. Thank you, Victoria, for making 2011’s Abertoir film festival more special than usual.
Victoria’s talk was followed by the usual Abertoir giveaway of various T-shirts, books, posters and DVDs that had been kindly donated by guests and sponsors, and also the announcement of the festival favourites, both in the feature and short categories, by Gaz Bailey, the chief organiser*. It was also nice to see one of the festival’s regular attendees, Dan, grab a microphone to personally thank the Abertoir team and Gaz, in particular, for putting on the festival – it’s always nice to see hard working organisers getting the acknowledgement that they so richly deserve – all too often the back room people tend to get forgotten when an audience is faced with celebrities and cool films, but if it wasn’t for those all too frequently unsung heroes then events such as Abertoir wouldn’t exist so my sincere thanks to Gaz Bailey, Nia Edwards-Behi, Rhys Thomas Fowler, Rebekah Smith and all the other people who helped to make 2011’s festival a fantastic event and one I shall fondly recall for years to come.
*In case you were interested the awards this year were given to:
MELIES D'ARGENT AWARD FOR BEST SHORT
(Runner Up: Little Munchkin)
ABERTOIR AWARD FOR BEST SHORT
Check out the Abertoir website for quotes from the winners and for more information. http://www.abertoir.co.uk/
Hope to see you there next year…