Another week, another film festival.
Following my trip to Austin for Fanastic Fest, I made the yearly pilgrimage to the International Film Festival of Catalunya, aka the Sitges Film Festival of Fantasy and Horror. Set in a small seaside town south of Barcelona (which has been featured in horror films itself, from DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS to THE STRANGE VICE OF SIGNORA WARDH), it’s always a blast with great guests, good films (and lots of them) and screenings from 8am in the morning until 5am the next morning! Here’s what I saw.
THE LAST PRINCESS – another big-budget Akira Kurosawa remake, this time of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS and from the director of LORELEI and SINKING OF JAPAN (the remake), Shinji Higuchi. Surprisingly watchable, it’s light but rousing entertainment (like the original) that only falters in the third act, when the former spfx designer feels compelled to throw in too much CGI, resulting in gargantuan explosions and INDIANA JONES-style impossible stunts.
ICHI – Fumihiko Sori, director of PING-PONG, goes chanbara with a remake / reboot of the ZATOICHI franchise, except that this time out the main character is a blind young woman. And it doesn’t work at all. Overall the film feels like a TV drama, lacking exciting swordplay scenes or any dramatic tension. Changing Ichi to a woman works fine, but the actresses’s age and inexperience works against the character, particularly when the plot depends on her having a heavy, dark past. Furthermore, like the Takeshi Kitano version, this film is more concerned with side characters than with Zatoichi him/herself. While that was fine in the Kitano film, which more than made up for the lack of Ichi with crazy dance sequences and innovative stylistic touches, this film is left with nothing as an alternative to its missing main character.
THE MOSS – HK noirish action with Shawn Yue and directed by THE PYE DOG’s Derek Kwok. Starts off great with a stylish and gritty raid on a whorehouse in Shan Sui Po, one of the sleazier districts of HK, with rogue and on-the-take cop Jan tipping off the house owner, then trying to get a little free service in exchange. A young orphan and helpless hooker wind up in possession of a Macguffin which drives the plot only so far. Cliches abound in the second half, with a resolution that’s completely unsatisfactory. Big-time missed opportunity for all involved.
MONSTER X STRIKES BACK: ATTACK ON THE G8 SUMMIT – the latest cinematic crime from Japanese director Minoru Kawasaki, the madman behind CALAMARI WRESTLER, THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN and EXECUTIVE KOALA. He seems to be working with his biggest budget yet—and a major Japanese studio—in this remake / sequel to one of the worst giant monster movies of all time, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE. The laughs are intermittent and the heavily foreign cast is wildly uneven, but like most of Kawasaki’s films, this one (mostly) succeeds on charm alone, and goofy makeup f/x. Kawasaki’s a huge fan of sci-fi and monster films, and it shows in his treatment of this genre send-up.
THE SKY CRAWLERS – new Mamoru Oshii anime, which I couldn’t make it all the way through. Looks great, but the story about a private group of fliers and their soap opera-y adventures just didn’t get its hooks in deeply enough.
DACHIMAWA LEE – CRYING FIST and CITY OF VIOLENCE director Ryu Seung-wan goes retro with this madcap action comedy spoofing 1960s South Korean spy films. Unfortunately, it goes a little overboard in recreating their poor quality, broad acting, lame comedy and ridiculous scenarios. Screened in the 1:00 am timeslot at Sitges, it was a poor choice for such a late hour despite its loud and colorful presentation. Without the background knowledge about the films it was spoofing, it just comes off as overly broad and desperate. Maybe it’ll play better at an earlier hour some other time…
THRILLING BLOODY SWORD – thanks to Toronto Film Festival programmer and HK film collector Colin Geddes, we were able to catch a midnight screening of this brain-addled Taiwanese fantasy flick from the early 1980s. Basically a magic swordplay version of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (no, really!), it’s best summed up as “crack addled” and is everything a midnight movie audience could wish for. Let’s hope the DVD label Mondo Macabro winds up releasing it someday.
ENCANAÇAO DO DEMONIO / EMBODIMENT OF EVIL – Brazilian horror legend Jose Mojica Marins is back as evil gravedigger Coffin Joe, and it was well worth the 25+ year wait since his last film as the character. This one completely blew away the midnight audience who caught it at Sitges, many of whom were expecting a lame retread of familiar elements from his 1960s and 70s films (ahem…like Dario Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS). But all such thoughts were soon banished during the screening, as this one opens with a bang and never lets up. Mojica is in fine form as the theatrically evil lead character / villain, and his direction is strong, ably supported by newcomer Dennison Ramalho, whose short film “Love from Mother Only” channels the Coffin Joe style without the camp—his influence is clear in many parts of the film. Truly shocking in parts (a fetish model gets her lips sewn shut on camera, for real) and with the right tough of moustache-twisting evil and revenge, the audience I saw it with cheered at the end, and I was on my feet soon after. Coffin Joe, we love you!
EDEN LAKE – British survival horror that pits a yuppie couple against a group of rural white trash teens led by a sadistic thug. The violence is shocking and the overall mood is stomach-upsetting (like Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES, maybe), but too many plot holes and contrivances crop up in the second half and the film never recovers from the stumble.
LONG WEEKEND (2008) – a new Australian remake of the 1970s classic, yet little-known Aussie “nature strikes back” film. Directed by STORM WARNING’s Jamie Blanks, it’s technically competent but lacking in emotion or thrills. Jim Caveziel, as an American transplanted to the Outback, brings a bit of anti-US subtext into the film, but not enough to make it substantially different from its much better (and grittier) predecessor.
DOROTHY – multiple-personality disorder meets CARNIVAL OF SOULS meets THE EXORCIST meets THE SIXTH SENSE a whole raft of other inspirations. A young girl in a remote island village seems to have a psychological disorder, but she can really channel the voices of the dead. And wouldn’t you know that the citified psychologist sent to town to investigate her case just recently lost her son in a drowning accident? If an asteroid-sized cliché like that doesn’t bother you, then maybe you’ll be able to sit through the whole film without smacking your forehead. I wasn’t.
VIRUS UNDEAD – produced by German filmmakers, but in English, this tedious low-budget production barely qualifies as direct-to-DVD fodder. Cliched and poorly acted (since the actors aren’t even speaking their native language), give it a miss.
EDEN LOG – French sci-fi about a mud-covered guy exploring a gargantuan subterranean chamber. Gorgeous but dull and uninvolving.
DANTE 01 – more French sci-fi, but this time from veteran f/x specialist Marc Caro (ex-partner of Jean-Pierre Jeunet of AMELIE and ALIEN 4). While most of the time it feels like an alternate-world version of ALIEN 3 (prison satellite, bald guys walking around mechanical corridors in their own criminal society, etc), the introduction of a Jesus-surrogate plot elevates the film and, of course, the f/x are top-notch. Worth seeking out.
100 FEET – the return to feature filmmaking of famous 80s screenwriter Eric Red (THE HITCHER, NEAR DARK), who made a suicide attempt after a car crash that resulted in the deaths of several people. It’s nice to be able to say that the film, while it has some missteps, is an involving and scary ghost story in the old-school style (THE HAUNTING, BURNT OFFERINGS, THE CHANGELING). Famke Janssen is a battered wife who returns home to her Park Slope house after serving jail time for killing her abusive, cop husband. But she’s under house arrest and can’t leave the edifice without setting off her ankle collar alarm. So when hubby’s vengeful ghost comes back (played by Michael Pare in unfortunately overused CGI), she has to get creative about how she’s going to deal with it. Clever, entertaining, and featuring a great central performance, it’s perhaps unlikely to get much theatrical play, but is definitely worth watching.
ABLE – artsy horror from Germany (but like VIRUS UNDEAD, shot in English), about zombies and angst-ridden people. Nicely shot on a miniscule budget and very existential, but not for everybody.
MUM & DAD – an English PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, minus the stairs. A cute, young immigrant girl working at Heathrow Airport goes home with a co-worker, only to find herself drugged and tortured by her insane “parents”. Nothing new here, but the plot is generally involving and disturbing, even though there are some missteps in the screenplay (like making the parents alternately puritan and porn-addicted).
HOME MOVIE – the unofficial theme at Sitges this year seemed to be evil kids or evil parents. This is the flip-side of MUM & DAD, done in the style of something like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS. A married couple living in a rural home videotape all their holidays and significant events, and we the viewer see only the results of those tapings. But it’s soon obvious that something is wrong with the children, who display no emotion and soon move from mischievous disobedience to torturing small animals, and worse. Creepy as hell and never overstaying its welcome, it’s a real treat that uses suggestion, performance, sound f/x and unique ideas to make its point, rather than gory makeup f/x.
SURVEILLANCE – Jennifer Lynch creates a thriller that plays like SEVEN wedded to the TV show RENO 911! Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond are FBI officers investigating a pair of serial murderers wreaking havoc in a rural town. Told through flashbacks via witness interviews (captured on a video system by the agents, hence the title), it pulls a twist toward the end that’s as easy to see as a truck coming down an empty highway. Coupled with some bizarre character comedy involving redneck cops and their patrol antics, it doesn’t add up to much.
THE COTTAGE – fairly high-profile English horror comedy with Andy Serkis and THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMAN’s Reece Shearsmith as a pair of brothers who kidnap a mobster’s big-boobed daughter and take her out to the country to hold her for ransom. Little do they know that a deformed slasher-killer lives nearby, complicating matters. Intermittently funny and super-gory, this one achieves its modest success based mainly on the performances of its leads, who are both great. It’s already out on DVD in the US, so it’s worth a rental.
TRICK ‘R TREAT – long-delayed American anthology horror film from director Michael Dougherty (writer of SUPERMAN RETURNS and X-MEN 2), unfairly bumped from a late 2007 date to…well, nobody knows where. And it’s a shame, as this modest black comedy with some decent acting power in it (Brian Cox, William H. Macy) is terrific, macabre in the rights places but funny where it needs to be. Like a modern-day EC comic book, it channels both the 1970s portmanteau films of Amicus studios and George Romero’s CREEPSHOW, with a bloody flair and witty assembly of familiar elements. With the right promotion, this could have been a decent hit during Halloween time.
SEXYKILLER – hot tamale Macarena Gomez (from Stuart Gordon’s DAGON and others) is the headliner in this great-looking but tiresome horror comedy from Spanish director Miguel Marti. Given a big premiere at Sitges due to local interest, it won’t play much overseas though it’s got a few neat setpieces. But when a horror flick starts off with a lame parody of SCREAM (does anybody in the US care about that movie anymore?), you know you’re in trouble.
VINYAN – impressive sophomore feature from Belgian filmmaker Fabrice du Welz, director of the fantastic survival horror / DELIVERANCE hybrid CALVAIRE (aka THE ORDEAL). Du Welz graduates to the big time here, putting international stars Rufus Sewell (DARK CITY) and Emmanuelle Beart (MANON OF THE SPRING) into harm’s way as bereaved parents of a missing child, lost during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Beart is a lost soul, refusing to believe that the boy is dead, while Sewell does the best he can to appease his wife’s fruitless quest. When they catch glimpse of a photograph that may or may not be their boy in a remote Burmese village, the descent into Hell begins. Beautifully photographed—and under extremely debilitating conditions for the cast & crew—it’s a slow-burning tale that may suffer if viewers expect another bizarre festival of cruelty like CALVAIRE. But once you find the film’s wavelength, it really delivers; Beart in particular is astonishing in a deglamorizing role that looks like it took its toll on her sanity. Transgressive but ultimately uplifting in a horrifying way.
CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS – speaking of New York, notorious director Abel Ferrara is back, but this time with a documentary about the (in)famous Chelsea Hotel, located on 23rd Street and home to many famous people over the year, from the lunatic to the legendary, as well as the place where Janis Joplin died and Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Combining interviews with everyone from artists to filmmakers to poets and ordinary working people with re-created scenes of the Sid & Nancy and Janis stories (which don’t quite work), the movie is a microcosmic story about what’s currently happening in New York on a greater scale: the replacement of long-standing institutions that had a personal touch, flair, and individual style with corporate cut-out, soulless recreations.
LOS BASTARDOS – an assistant director of Carlos Reygadas makes his feature debut with this slow-burn portrait of two Mexican day laborers who do a home invasion job on a suburban white lady that turns bad. Competently done, though its political and social criticism is pretty obvious and its molasses-slow pacing will turn of many viewers.
NOT YOUR TYPICAL BIGFOOT MOVIE – an hour-long documentary about two hillbilly losers who believe that their nightly visits to the woods with a cheap video camera constitute “Bigfoot research”. Alternately mocking the pair and holding them up as some kind of blessed simpletons, the film’s tone is uneven but the subjects are fascinating, as the movie delves deeper into their failed lives and the reasons why they pursue such a bizarre dream. And when a more “legitimate” Bigfoot researcher comes into the picture, only to dismiss the rural pair because he doesn’t want to potentially share any fame or fortune with them, should they be able to capture a Sasquatch, I found myself really rooting for them, despite one guy’s claims that he’s got sheep DNA inside his body.
BLACK CAESAR – a vintage print of possibly the best blaxploitation movie (that isn’t really a blaxploitation movie!) ever made, starring Fred Williamson (who was a guest at the screening) as a James Cagney surrogate who works his way up and down the crime ladder in New York City, to the beat of James Brown’s legendary soundtrack. Still one of the best movies about New York, as well as one of the best films ever shot there. — MW