This is just a sample of the goodies that were on offer at Grimm Up North’s annual festival in Manchester in October 2013. There were far more films on show than This Is Horror were able to catch for review, but virtually everything we saw was excellent.
First up, as a special pre-festival preview, was an old friend, The Wicker Man – now in a new, high-quality Director’s Cut. While any self-respecting horror fan should have seen it already, it was a particular treat to see it on the big screen – especially as its director, Robin Hardy, was on hand to talk about the film afterwards. Robin stated that he never saw the film as horror to begin with, but as a black comedy, and the laughter that accompanied the screening proved that it is, in fact, a very funny film. Sergeant Howie, Edward Woodward’s dour, Calvinist protagonist, who arrives on the island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl, is, viewed from one angle, a modern-day descendent of Hammer Films’ square-jawed, righteous heroes. Viewed from another, he’s a repressed, humourless prig, ripe for guying and mockery, which is largely what he gets. The matter-of-fact, almost documentary style in which the world of pagan faith embraced by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in his favourite role) and the other islanders – everyday to them but outlandish to Christianised eyes – is presented as almost surreal in and of itself; it’s easy to see why The League of Gentleman cite the film as a key influence. By happy coincidence, it was also the director’s birthday, so there was even cake afterwards.
So, onto the festival proper. First of all, Chad Crawford Kinkle’s Jug Face (USA, 2013), an original and grimly effective piece about a backwoods community whose religion revolves around ‘the Pit’ and its unseen inhabitant. They have a long-standing bargain, whereby the Pit heals any sickness afflicting the community in exchange for regular blood sacrifices. The Pit makes known its requirements through the community’s potter, Dawai (Sean Bridgers), who produces a ‘jug face’ showing the designated victim’s likeness. When Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), a teenage girl impregnated by her brother, is chosen, she tries to escape her fate, only for increasingly gruesome consequences to fall on her family and friends. Jug Face is a brilliantly imagined, atmospheric and claustrophobic film that boasts consistently excellent performances, both from its two leads and from the always-reliable Larry Fessenden and a near-unrecognisable – and truly scary – Sean Young as Ada’s parents. It may even be a classic.
Anyone who was a schoolchild in the ‘video nasty’ days of the 1980s will remember the Chinese Whispers that surrounded so many horror films; scenes were described that never appeared in the films themselves, but whose sheer gruesomeness would have made Lucio Fulci or Umberto Lenzi’s worst excesses look tame. There’s a sequence in Scott Schirmer’s Found (USA, 2012) where Marty (Gavin Brown), the film’s young protagonist, watching a movie called Headless, views a murder straight out of those playground descriptions, that even the most deranged 80s schlock-slinger would never have got away with. But when the film-within-a-film’s masked killer is revealed to be his brother, Steve (Ethan Philbeck) it’s clear that, for Marty, the line between fantasy and reality has become somewhat blurred. Which is no surprise, as Marty’s recently discovered that Steve is a serial killer whose victims include the kids who bully Marty at school.
To his parents, Marty is the good, well-behaved little boy, while Steve is the angry teenager, repeatedly getting into confrontations with his father (Louie Lawless). But Steve is out to ‘save’ Marty from a life of suburban comformity and victimhood and to teach him how to fight back against his enemies – ultimately with horrendous results as he himself is little more than a damaged and maladjusted child. Found is a blend of grimly humourous social observation, a warped coming of age tale and gut-wrenching horror, and it’s one of the festival’s best and most disturbing films.
Xan Cassavettes’ lush and glossy Kiss of the Damned (USA, 2012) is something of a nod to 80s movies by the likes of Jess Franco, but it’s none the worse for that. Vampiress Djuna (Josephine de la Baume) falls in love at first sight with screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) and vice versa, but if she yields to passion she’ll be unable to contain her bloodlust. So far, so Twilight, but thankfully that part of the plot is disposed of very quickly as she turns Paolo and initiates him into the life of a modern-day vampire, subsisting on animal or synthetic blood instead of that of humans. After all, as one character notes in a key scene, having a basic urge or craving doesn’t automatically mean you have to act on it; finding ways to control or sublimate such impulses is the means by which humans have built a culture. And that’s what the vampires of Kiss of the Damned ultimately are – ourselves, writ large. And this conflict is thrown into sharp focus when Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), moves in with her and Paolo. Beautiful, cruel and manipulative, Mimi’s capable of pretty much anything, and sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to tear Paolo and Djuna apart. Beautiful and atmospheric, Kiss of the Damned is a fine debut from Cassavettes.
Christopher MacBride’s The Conspiracy (USA, 2012) mines a seam – the faux-documentary horror film – that you could be forgiven for thinking was completely exhausted. But you’d be wrong. Aaron Poole and James Gilbert set out to make a documentary on conspiracy theorists, centring on New York ‘truther’ Terrance G. But then Terrance disappears, and attempts to follow his trail lead them to the mysterious Tarsus Club – outwardly a social circle for the ultra-rich, but in reality something darker by far. The Conspiracy maintains its appearance of a documentary flawlessly, blurring the line between fact and fiction as its protagonists seek to infiltrate Tarsus and uncover a dark secret thousands of years old. The last half hour is a masterpiece of mounting tension, with a truly terrifying climax; MacBride delivers a scary, satisfying and thought-provoking chiller that demands to be seen.
The standout film of the festival – in the face of very stiff competition – is Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves (Israel, 2013). There was a strong tendency towards jet-black humour in many of the festival’s picks this year, and Big Bad Wolves takes it to the limit and beyond. A killer is kidnapping little girls, abusing them and then decapitating them. Police detective Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) suspects divorced teacher Dror (Rotem Kelnan), but is filmed on a kid’s smartphone while he and two goonish colleagues attempt to beat a confession out of Dror with a phonebook. When the footage hits YouTube, Mickey finds himself suspended, and sets out to take matters into his own hands. But Gideon (Tzahi Grad) father of the killer’s latest victim, has his own plans for revenge, and abducts both Mickey and Dror to a cabin in the woods with a nicely soundproofed basement. This is only the beginning of a very, very black, and very Jewish, comedy – quite possibly an allegory for contemporary events in Israel – that manages the difficult trick of being hilariously, horribly funny without ever allowing the viewer to forget the stakes being played for, or the horrendous human consequences of what’s happening. Consistently funny and surprising, Big Bad Wolves ultimately packs a ferocious emotional punch that will stay with you for a long time after. This is a film that cannot be recommended highly enough.
But while black humour was distinctive of many of Grimmfest 2013’s films, it’s distinguished by its total absence from Eric Falardeau’s Thanatamorphose (Canada, 2013). Laura (Kayden Rose) is a young sculptress, in a near-abusive relationship with an oafish, boorish and largely absent lover. Trapped in her flat by depression and agoraphobia, her physical state begins to parallel her mental one, as her body starts to decompose. And that’s about it in terms of plot. Paced with almost glacial slowness, Thanatamorphose is a bleak and unflinching portrayal of someone literally falling apart, driven by the twin engines of an outstanding central performance from Rose (who’s on-screen for virtually every second of the film) and all-too-convincing special effects from Remy Couture. It most certainly isn’t a lighthearted Saturday night’s entertainment – at times it feels more like an experience to be endured than enjoyed. For all that, while Thanatamorphose can feel almost impossible to look at at times, it’s equally hard to look away from as it progresses relentlessly towards its conclusion. A film well worth seeing, albeit so gruelling that Threads or Snowtown would be considered light relief afterwards.
The cast of Jonathan Zarantonello’s The Butterfly Room (Italy/USA, 2012) reads like a roll call of cult and horror stars: Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, The Pit And The Pendulum), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) Camille Keaton (I Spit On Your Grave), PJ Soles (Halloween) and Heather Langenkamp (Nightmare on Elm Street) to name but a few. It opens with a flashback: a young girl in the bath begins to bleed, experiencing her first period; when her cries of alarm summon her mother, Mum’s response is to force her head under the water, as if pushing a kitten’s nose into its mess, as a punishment for being ‘dirty’. Fast forward to the present and the mother, Anne (Steele) lives in a New York apartment, estranged from her daughter Dorothy (Langenkamp) and with only her hobby of killing and mounting butterflies to occupy her time, she needs an outlet for her brand of all-controlling maternal affection. In fact she’s found two; her relationship with the mysterious child Alice (Julia Putnam) is told in flashback, intercut with her new, developing one with Julie, (Ellery Sprayberry) daughter of her feckless next door neighbour Claudia (Erica Leersehn.) Julie is an innocent, but Alice, it emerges, was angelically beautiful but manipulative, playing on the affections of a number of women for money. When Anne discovers the truth, the consequences are deadly. All of which puts Julie in greater and greater danger, until only Dorothy can save her, by facing her own childhood terror.
The Butterfly Room’s flashbacks are a little confusing to begin with – chronologically speaking, Anne’s relationship with Alice precedes the main events of the film by only a few months, making it hard to tell which scene is set when – but overall it’s a nice mix of psychological thriller, giallo and black comedy, with excellent performances all around from its cast of genre stalwarts, its two young stars Putnam and Sprayberry, and of course, at the centre of it all, Steele herself.
Wither (dir. Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund) is one of the festival’s few disappointments. It’s allegedly based on something from Swedish folklore, but other than a few faux-mediaeval woodcuts deployed during the title sequence, you’d never know it. Other than that, we’re left with what’s essentially a Scandinavian rip-off of – sorry, homage to – The Evil Dead, where young couple Ida (Lisa Henni) and Albin (Patrik Almkvist) decamp to a long-disused house in the woods with their friends for a weekend away. Something nasty lurks in the cellar, infecting one of their number, who swiftly transforms into a raging undead monster. In fairness to Laguna and Wiklund, the film’s decently acted, fast-paced and made with vim and verve, but not enough to overcome the fact that there isn’t anything here that horror aficionados won’t have seen a hundred times before.
W.C. (Dan Palmer), the aptly-named protagonist of Christian James’ Stalled (UK, 2013) is an office janitor who’s just been sacked. On Christmas Eve. So he robs his ex-employers’ charity box while they’re occupied with the office party and is all set for a clean getaway, but can’t resist swiping a smartphone and sneaking into the ladies’ room to film a couple of women who appear to be – er – experimenting while drunk. And while he’s there, the zombie apocalypse kicks off. Leaving him trapped in a cubicle in a toilet filled with hungry flesh-eaters.
The film revolves around W.C.’s attempts to escape, and the dialogue between him and Evie, the unseen occupant of a nearby cubicle. The blurb describes Stalled as ‘a worthy successor to Shaun Of The Dead’ but for our money this is actually the better film. Star and scriptwriter Palmer plays a likeable loser that you can’t help rooting for; the comedy’s a mix of macabre slapstick and barbed exchanges between W.C. and Evie, with far less toilet humour than you’d expect, and the payoff to W.C. and Evie’s relationship is unexpected and touching. All told, Stalled is great gory fun.
Short and Sweet
Grimmfest also offered a plethora of excellent short films, beginning with Mat Johns’ Radio Silence. Tracy Sheals plays Elaine, a lone woman boarded up in her house, her husband and daughter dead in the zombie apocalypse. She copes with her isolation with an iron routine: up early every morning, exercise, breakfast – and then regular appeals for help on her ham radio set. As the days becomes weeks, then months, Elaine begins to break down. Shot in black and white, Radio Silence is a zombie movie refreshingly free of zombies, and practically a one-hander, with the weight of the production carried by Sheals, who delivers a brilliant, emotionally wrenching performance. Johns is a excellent filmmaker – anyone wanting evidence of that need only check out his six-minute short, Run, on Vimeo – but the film, and its triumph, ultimately belong to Sheals.
In The Guest (dir. Bryan Ryan), Dana, (Alyshia Ochse), a young woman alone in her house, finds herself trapped with a fugitive from the law (Robert Seay.) He maintains his innocence – but then he would, wouldn’t he? However, Dana may have some secrets of her own… a taut, effective and atmospheric thriller, available to view on YouTube.
Paul Davis’ The Body stars Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen as a hitman who’s picked the perfect method of disposing of his victim’s body: he commits the murder on Halloween, dabs a little fake blood on his face and walks out, dragging the plastic-wrapped corpse, passing it off as his Halloween outfit. But things threaten to go badly awry when he’s shanghaied by partygoers full of admiration for his ‘costume’. A great little black comedy.
A final slice of gallows humour is delivered by Before Dawn director Dominic Brunt with Shell Shocked, where a British Tommy (Anthony Streeter) and a German soldier (Geoffrey Newland) are trapped together in the middle of a battle, but find themselves faced with a common foe when zombies attack. Strong performances from the two leads and grittily effective direction. Available to view on YouTube.