Previewed here not long ago, Celluloid Screams is a horror film festival based in Sheffield that enjoyed a successful second year at the end of October. I was there to catch (pretty much) every ounce of blood, gore and other such depravities the festival could throw at me. Below are a handful of short reviews for everything that screened (other than I Spit On Your Grave, which I skipped due to tiredness and the thought that it'd get released soon enough anyway).
We Are What We Are
I'd actually seen the Mexican cannibal film We Are What We Are before at Cannes (my write up of which can be found at my blog), but my experience at that festival was marred by the fact that the print had no English subtitles. I still loved the film though and was excited to finally watch it with dialogue I could actually follow.
My thoughts haven't changed since my first viewing, it's a great art-house/horror hybrid that is meticulously crafted with an economy much lacking in Hollywood cinema. Very little is explained about the background of the film's flesh-eating protagonists yet the audience is rarely left confused or short-changed. It's slow-moving yet tightly constructed, holding back on the more horrific elements until the final reel. It's well-performed too, with a memorably powerful mother figure in Carmen Beato.
On second viewing I noticed more black humour in the script, which prevents it from getting over-earnest or bleak although one or two scenes stood on the verges of being silly. There's also an underlying socio-political theme of identity (obvious from the title alone), keeping the film sharper than your average splatter-fest. The film focuses not only on cannibals which can be seen as a metaphor for many aspects of today's society, but also contains a roster of other marginal groups such as prostitutes, transvestites and homosexuals. Characters from 'mainstream' society are all either corrupt or unsympathetic to their causes, presenting a decaying world with little sympathy or civility towards it's fellow man. Finding your place in the world is shown to be an endless struggle, yet the film ends with a tiny glimmer of hope in amongst the carnage.
We Are What We Are won't be to everyone's tastes it must be said, I could hear some disappointment amongst the crowd at the screening, but if you like your horror a little more artful then this is highly recommended.
Director: Christos Petropoulos
Screenplay: Christos Petropoulos
Starring: Fanis Katrivesis & Danijela Radovanovic
Duration: 80 min
I feel terrible for saying this, as the makers of the film seemed like a really nice bunch in their Q&A, but Subconscious was the worst film at the festival by a long shot. As the film began I was enthusiastic. It's yet another entry to the 'found footage' sub-genre, which contains some effective films, but most of these poorly replicate the raw aesthetic they are aiming for (Cloverfield with your crystal clear audio please stand up) and this is the one thing Subconscious gets right. The film looks and sounds like a home-made video diary (a lack of budget probably helped). Unfortunately that's where my praise for the film ends.
There is a lot wrong with Subconscious, but my biggest bugbear was with the editing. The film is only 80 minutes long, but feels about twice that due to most of the scenes being dragged out as long as humanly possible. As a 20 minute short Subconscious might have worked, but there's not enough substance through the sparse selection of scenes to make a fulfilling feature. The writing is very poor too, clumsily jumping between overly long and clunky exposition in the lead character's monologues to repetitive, uncomfortable small-talk (in broken English) between him and his 'date'. Speaking of repetitive, the key 'horror' scenes are irritatingly dizzying, throwing the camera around dark woods and empty rooms for what seems like hours until you're desperate for something to jump out at you. When things do finally start to get creepy in the final ten minutes it's marginally effective, but only in a text-book 'boo!' fashion. The film's finale unveils a semi-intriguing twist, but it's fairly predictable and not nearly as intelligent as the drawn out explanation wishes it to be.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
The directorial debut of Dario Argento, the master of Italian genre filmmaking, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a classic slice of giallo that lacks the frights and surreal style of films like Suspiria and Inferno, but makes up for it with solid storytelling and some memorable set-pieces. Even at such an early stage in his career Argento was able to craft a number of assured, visually impressive scenes that still excite 40 years after their creation. The first (attempted) murder in the all-white art gallery looks gorgeous and makes good use of the glass doors that trap our helpless hero.
It being an Italian genre movie from the 70's, the film is atrociously dubbed and the performances are hammed up to the extreme, but when a film of that era is this well-paced, stylish and enjoyable you can't complain.
Director: Vincent Lannoo
Screenplay: Frédérique Broos, Vincent Lannoo
Starring: Carlo Ferrante, Vera Van Dooren, Pierre Lognay, Fleur Lise Heuet, Julien Doré
Duration: 88 min
A mockumentary about Belgium's vampire community, Vampires is clearly using the 'realism' of the format for humour instead of frights and for the most part it succeeds admirably. The writers have gone to great lengths to mine the concept of vampires living day to day in modern society to the absolute fullest. Although it's most certainly a comedy, there is quite a disturbing and memorable scene where the guests at a vampire dinner party crash a human dinner party, embarking on a bloody killing spree set to the strains of classical music (I forget the piece). The film is crammed with clever ideas and is a lot of fun, but it did feel like a one-trick-pony by the end. It lacked a strong central narrative to keep the audience interested beyond the jokes and felt longer than it should have. In the last third there is an attempt to create a dramatic story, but it was too little too late to fully engross.
That said, it's still a film I'd recommend. It's sharp, makes good use of it's concept and format and is an entertaining if slightly unfulfilling ride.
Director: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani
Screenplay: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani
Starring: Marie Bos, Delphine Brual, Harry Cleven, Bianca Maria D'Amato, Cassandra Forêt
Country: France & Belgium
Duration: 90 min
Amer is a surreal love letter to Italian genre cinema that feels like more of an experiment than a fully fledged film. In three sections, we first follow a young girl as she's haunted by nightmares surrounding her dead grandfather (I think) and a mysterious cloaked figure that resides in the room next door. The second section takes place several years later as the girl struggles to control her burgeoning sexuality and in the final segment she's a young, beautiful woman having to face the threat of predatory males and shadows of the nightmares that haunted her as a child.
The early scenes with the little girl are highly effective, demonstrating from the offset that this is a film where style comes first. It's an absolutely gorgeous film that revels in paying tribute to the work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, searing your eyes with bold colours and vivid imagery especially towards the end of the segment after the girl witnesses her parents in the throws of passion. Unfortunately the film falls apart in the mid-section when the repetitive editing style pushes audience patience way too far. There are only so many shots of billowing dresses you can take and as successful as the director is in creating sexual tension, it's all drawn out past breaking point and into the realm of farce. A tense finale makes up for it though re-establishing a sense of menace and bringing together the film's key themes to a satisfying conclusion.
So overall it's a flawed film that's difficult to sit through, but when it works it really works. An interesting and ludicrously stylish curiosity.
City of the Living Dead
Lucio Fulci's classic splatter-fest was next on the agenda and I had a lot of fun with it. I must admit that of Fulci's oeuvre I've only seen Zombie Flesh Eaters previously and although I enjoyed that for what it is, City of the Living Dead came across as the better film. It's obviously daft and bereft of substance, but it's also well-paced, engaging and packed with the sort of blood-drenched, brutally over the top set pieces that Fulci is famous for.
There's not much else to say about City of the Living Dead to be honest, it's not a film to be studied, just enjoyed for it's well-handled scenes of butchery and dark playfulness.
Director: Franck Richard
Screenplay: Franck Richard
Starring: Yolande Moreau, Émilie Dequenne, Benjamin Biolay, Philippe Nahon, Matthias Schoenaerts
Country: France & Belgium
Duration: 90 min
French horror has been leading the pack (no pun intended) in horror over the last few years and with titles like this under it's belt it's likely to stay there. Taking the From Dusk Till Dawn approach of shifting gears during the film and taking things in a completely new direction, The Pack begins as a road movie, dips it's toes into torture territory then ends as a violent creature feature. Unlike Rodriguez's movie, instead of turning into an all-out tongue in cheek splatter-fest, Franck Richard keeps matters a little more grim and dark. It's not without shades of comedy, but this is an all together more brutal and intense affair. The later scenes when 'the pack' is unveiled are especially effective with some ghoulish make-up and a very dramatic mis en scène. This is aided by some classy cinematography, making great use of the dark and dirty surroundings.
Yolande Moreau impresses as an unhinged and brutish mother-figure, further proof that she's one of France's great talents after an astonishing performance as the lead in Séraphine. The film stumbles towards the end a little when it attempts an over-the-top showdown and doesn't quite deliver. It follows this up with a twist within a twist which ends things on a slightly messy note, but didn't manage to spoil the film for me. Highly recommended.
I'm embarrassed as a film and horror fan to say that I'd never seen The Omen all the way through before this festival screening. Being so highly regarded it had a lot to live up to, but it truly delivered and was probably my favourite film of the weekend. I guess most people have seen it so I won't go into too much detail, but what I loved about the film is how it takes a concept that could potentially be very silly but plays it very straight-faced and still manages to create a great sense of menace. With horror films these days using flimsy plots as filler to tie together their big set-pieces it was refreshing to see something that had grand horror showcases throughout (who can forget David Warner's grisly demise) yet a strong and engaging narrative that means rather than watching the clock waiting for the next murder to occur you're actually engrossed in something that is merely enhanced by the odd fright.
You can't talk about The Omen without mentioning Jerry Goldsmith's fantastic score either (which I'm listening too right now – God bless Spotify). It's gleefully over the top with it's apocalyptic choral chanting, but it's immensely powerful and fits the tone of the film perfectly. Donner and Goldsmith know the subject matter is ridiculous, but by grasping it with both hands and never letting go they make it work beautifully.
Director: Stephen Herek
Screenplay: Stephen Herek, Domonic Muir, Don Opper
Starring: Dee Wallace, M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, Nadine Van der Velde, Billy Zane
Duration: 86 min
A film I remembered fondly as a teenager, it had been a long time since I'd seen Critters and although it's no masterpiece, I still spent an enjoyable hour and a half watching it. It's a horror film with very few deaths and shocks, but enough over the top (yet quite cartoony) violence and humour to drive things along at quite a pace. It's very much a product of the 80's with it's synth-pop-rock inserts and unnecessary high-concept elements, but it's all part of the charm. What keeps it from being a mere nostalgia trip though is it's script. It's hardly Mamet, but the dialogue is gleefully tongue-in-cheek and prompted a number of giggles amongst myself and the rest of the audience. The characters are all textbook but the filmmakers are clearly aware of this and have a lot of fun spoofing creature-features from the 50's.
It has lost some of it's spark over the years, but Critters remains a quirky ride that is sure to plaster a grin across the face of any B-movie fan.
Director: Ho-Cheung Pang
Screenplay: Ho-Cheung Pang, Kwok Cheung Tsang & Chi-Man Wan
Starring: Josie Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eason Chan, Hee Ching Paw, Kwok Cheung Tsang
Country: Hong Kong
Duration: 96 min
A typically schizophrenic horror from Hong Kong, Dream Home is an uneven yet often inspired film. Intercutting the brutal massacre of two apartment's worth of inhabitants (plus a few extras) with the events that led the supposedly crazed assailant (Josie Ho) to commit the act, Dream Home comes alive when it's revelling in this path of destruction. The gore-drenched mayhem contains some of the most original and brutally violent set-pieces I've seen for a long time. These scenes are so insane that you can't help but laugh in wonder and bemusement although occasionally things are pushed a tad too far and verge on sickening (the slow suffocation of a pregnant woman in particular).
Unfortunately the less bloodthirsty scenes failed to hold up the rest of the film. A melodramatic look at the socio-political problems in Hong Kong, the protagonist's backstory just didn't gel with her actions for me and seemed so bland against them, acting as a rest between the carnage rather than any sort of substance to give it resonance. Still, gorehounds and fans of extreme asian cinema will lap this up and there are enough moments of genius to recommend to those with the stomach for it.
A 'Revenant' is some sort of vampire/zombie hybrid where the infected person is technically dead but can function pretty much like any normal human being other than the fact they can't easily be (re-)killed and live off human blood. The Revenant takes this concept and drives it in as many different comic (or otherwise) directions as it can. Luckily it's very successful in most of them too, coming across as a very original horror comedy that has a lot of ideas up it's sleeve. It does throw in a few ideas too many towards the end and suffers from over-indulgence at times, outstaying it's welcome a touch (two hours is very long for a comedy). The humour is a little overly base too, but generally the film is a lot of fun and for someone who grew tired of zombie movies a while ago, it felt fresh. There's a nice mix of jokes and gore that will satisfy most horror-comedy fans. A brilliant use of a vibrating dildo stands out as a classic entry to the genre's rostrum of bad-taste visual gags.
The performances verge on TV-standard, but the two leads are still very likeable and seem to be having a lot of fun, which rubs off on the audience. It's an easy film to pick faults in, but it managed to strike the right chord for me and helped end the festival on a high note. Let it win you over and you'll have a lot of fun.
There were a couple of gems in amongst this years shorts so I thought I'd do a brief roundup of the seventeen mini-movies spread over the weekend.
Firstly, special mention has to go to the Robert Morgan Retrospective – a special screening of all five of director and stop-motion-animator Robert Morgan's short films. Anyone who hasn't witnessed his work needs to rectify things immediately (check out his YouTube channel here and I've posted The Separation below). Stop-motion animation The Man in the Lower Left-hand Corner of the Photograph set the scene nicely demonstrating Morgan's skill for telling stories that are equally disturbing and touching, using twisted surrealistic elements to creep into your psyche. Next was The Cat With Hands a short and simple yet dark and imaginative film that fuses live action with stop motion animation to disturbing effect. A short I'd seen before, The Separation was the next of Morgan's films to be screened and remains one of my favourites, a beautiful yet horrific tale of separated former-conjoined twins who long to be together again (take a look below) Morgan's only fully live-action film is Monsters which lacks the surreal beauty of his other work, yet still has some effective moments especially in a couple of bloodthirsty dream sequences. Finally we were treated to the (almost) final cut of his latest animated masterpiece, Bobby Yeah. This is a project he has been toying with for two years, making the story up as he went along, creating the only example I know of an improvised animation. It's non-sensical approach makes it a baffling watch with less emotional impact than his previous work yet it's dark sense of humour and astonishing imagination make it wonderfully memorable effort.
Elsewhere in the weekend I saw Game Night (directed by Geronimo Deadly), a fun yet overly silly affair that delivered a couple of big laughs yet lacked depth or purpose. Short Lease (Jennifer Eiss & Prano Bailey-Bond) had a nicely creepy atmosphere but was let down by a fumbled opening and a predictable ending. Chemical 12-D (Mac Eldridge) was short and sweet, but not particularly mind-blowing. Taking an original angle on the zombie-movie Alice Jacobs is Dead (Alex Horwitz) is spoiled by a bland TV-movie presentation and performances. When It Will Be Silent (Dan Sachar) was raw, bleak and quite well-presented, but didn't hit home as hard is wanted to. Deus Irae (Pedro Cristiani) was an action packed exorcist movie that let it's low budget and some daft moments hinder things from time to time but was a fun ride.
AM 1200 (David Prior) was the standout for me. It's almost a feature running at 39 minutes and it makes great use of every last second. I'd love to see it as a 90 minute movie, but at the same time I'm glad that the filmmakers knew that at this length it would be perfect. The film is unbearably tense and manages to deliver an effective payoff after a mysterious red-herring opening reminiscent of Psycho. It also boasts some gorgeous and inventive shots, adding to what is a masterful horror film. Check out the trailer below.
BAFTA nominated Off Season (Jonathan Van Tulleken) was a close second, delivering further tense chills in a beautiful, yet heartless snowy landscape. The Elemental (Robert Sproul-Cran) looked nice and was occasionally quite scary, but felt a bit lacklustre in it's idea and delivery. The Czech film Seance (Robin Kasparik) was textbook and pretty cheesy, but nonetheless effective and entertaining in an old-fashioned way. Sinkhole (Eric Scherbarth) builds nicely but the finale is lacking in impact and originality. And finally, Battenberg (Stewart Comrie) was an enjoyably twisted stop motion animation, but failed to live up to the standards set by Robert Morgan's work.
Reviews by David Brook