Known just as Sitges to its fans, the 46th Sitges Fantasy film festival – which ran from 11 to 20 October this year in the Europa gorgeous coastal town near Barcelona – has to be the greatest horror movie festival in the world. Given its geographical compactness and idyllic setting, the event screens around 200 movies, offering a choice of about 18 features a day, plus hundreds of shorts, making it the most expansive celebration of the genre imaginable.
The sheer volume of movies may sound crazy, but the festival is impeccably run by director Angel Sala, and his team, making it a really nice place to be. That’s one reason so many horror greats (Roger Corman, Eli Roth, Anthony Hopkins, Sam Raimi, Tarantino) are here every year. Also the festival’s definition of fantasy is wonderfully broad, taking films from everywhere across all kinds of genres, from 3D Korean animation to mockumentary and documentary.
The huge crowds in attendance are as varied in gender and nationality as the movies, and enthusiastic to a degree that amazed me when I first came here. At every screening they cheer the elaborate Sitges logo – shorts that are made every year on a different horror theme (this time it was Satanism and Rosemary’s Baby) and also applaud particularly great shots or sequences, usually with fine judgement. This audience never feels like a Saturday night crowd who just want to make noise; their reactions are precisely calibrated so nothing is missed. They may be having fun but the movies come first.
Given this love of the genre, it’s no coincidence Spain has become one of the leading producers of horror talent in the world, something Sitges has certainly fuelled. Del Toro was already a long-time regular here when he opened Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. The festival has been instrumental in nurturing the rise of the Spanish horror movie and it is amazing to discover it began in 1967 when Spain was still a dictatorship: in fact it’s rumoured Spain’s then-dictator, General Franco, only agreed to fund it because fantasy seemed safe from any political message. He could hardly have foreseen movies like Pan’s Labyrinth.
This year the sheer breadth of Sitges was on display to great effect, though, unlike last year when Alice Lowe took an acting prize for Sightseers, no British movie made the prize-list, which was mainly shared between US, Israel, Canada, Spain, and the Netherlands. A few years back, when I was on the jury, we managed a prize for James Watkins and Eden Lake, but this year’s entries from the UK comprised Ben Wheatley’s weird historical study A Field in England, set on a single field during the civil war – ambitious with some striking moments but more a filmed play than anything else – and The Machine, an effective dystopian fable about artificial intelligence which might have won something if the competition had not been so tough.
Here are my seven stand-out movies (avoiding spoilers but with some generalized synopsising).
Directed and written by James Ward Byrkit, this is an impressive, creepy and extraordinarily well written ensemble piece that reminded me a little of the first reel of Cloverfield, and also of the better bits of Von Trier’s Melancholia. But there is more complexity here than in either. Guests gather for a dinner party as a comet flies closely but safely by Earth. Strange things start to happen and slowly the film develops into a suspenseful exploration of string (multidimensional universe) theory, but it’s also very witty with some highly effective improvisation from a uniformly good cast, including up-and-comers Nicholas Brendon and Elizabeth Gracen. The film richly deserved its best screenplay win. Some of its dialogue may be improvised but the structure is fascinating, intricate and downright spooky.
Found footage may be getting unfashionable but this is a near-perfect example of the genre, using the home documentary approach to amazing effect. Stylistically a cross between The Last Exorcism and Chronicle, it’s closer to the latter in theme and shows what you can do with a good double act. Cliff Prowse and Derek Lee write, direct and star in what feels just like a home movie about a trip to Europe that turns into big special effects. The film won at Sitges for those effects but it’s much, much more than that; it’s really persuasive in its recording of a journey into…well no spoilers but catch it.
The Congress (Israel, Germany, Poland, France)
One of the most original and ambitious films of the festival adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress in which Robin Wright (Princess Bride) plays a fading star who’s forced, by circumstance, to sell her soul to Hollywood, namely her computerised image and voice, so she can be cast in any movie the studio wishes and in any role they want for all eternity. The idea is all too plausible and for the first half at least it’s handled intriguingly by Israeli writer/director, Ari Folman. Then the film branches into full animation of a remarkable kind. But be warned: the present cut (at least the one shown here) is far too long and soon becomes repetitive. The long animation section in the last half badly needs a shortened edit
A sober but gripping space exploration movie from Ecuadorian film-maker, Sebastian Cordero, about an international space voyage to Jupiter’s fourth largest moon Europa and what is found there. Fairly accurate technically (though some details have been challenged) the film has been slightly upstaged by the marvels of Gravity, but it’s enjoyable, convincing and tense. Few semi-realistic movies about space exploration have made it into production recently, so it’s odd to have two come along at once. Admittedly, unlike Gravity, this will never convert those who hate the subject. Even so, it tackles the notion of space exploration with due seriousness and wonder.
Open Grave (US)
This is a well-crafted entry in the How the hell did this all happen to me? sub-genre, where someone wakes up in a horrific situation with no idea at all of how it happened and then spends the rest of the film discovering why and how to get away. Here Sharlto Copley (District 9) wakes up in the wilderness in a pit of dead bodies with no memory of how he got there. Soon he finds he is one of a group of people from a nearby house but nobody knows how they are there or why. It all unwinds at quite a pace, with at least two outstanding suspense sequences from yet another promising Spanish director, Gonzalez Lopes-Gallego, who gave us the enjoyable found-footage sci-fi movie, Apollo 18.
From the same team who made the excellent Prisoners, director Dennis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Indeed the films were shot back-to-back in Canada. The story is utterly different from Prisoners but just as impressive. It deservedly won the Melies d’Argent award for Best Film. It is the first movie I have ever seen that has convinced me you CAN make a successful thriller from the old gothic-horror theme of the doppelganger or phantom double. In the past, endless movies (such as The Man Who Haunted Himself) have failed to make the theme work, but Villeneuve strikingly succeeds in bringing home the full horror of the idea. He is helped by some very good performances and an enigmatic, but suspenseful, script from Javier Gullon based on a Spanish novel. Strangely, given that this tricky subject has fallen out of favour, yet another doppelganger movie, The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg played the London Film Festival this year. I have yet to see that, but evidently it’s a comedy, which Enemy certainly is not. The film positively drips tension and manages some real shocks. Its ending is frightening but also puzzling; in fact it’s one of those rare endings that haunts you, even though you can’t fathom its meaning.
Finally, Jorge Dorado’s debut, Mindscape, won no prizes but appears to be part of a trend. Nominally American, and in English, it originated from and was partly shot in Spain, showing how low-budget genre productions that would once have been in Spanish (or perhaps French or Italian) are now being shot in English with English-speaking stars and even (as here) US settings.
In an interview with the newspaper El Pais producer, Jaume Collet-Serra, explains how his idea “is to make one or two films a year in English, supporting young Spanish, emerging directors. The productions will be genre pieces – thrillers, horror films, fantasy movies.” In other words, this is the kind of genre film that would once have been shot in the country’s native language and consumed largely by a domestic audience. Mindscape in fact cost about as much to make as a high end UK TV show, and concerns a ‘psychological detective’ who enters other people’s memories as John Washington (Mark Strong) tries to discover whether young troubled Anna (Tessa Farmuiga of American Horror Story fame) is a sociopath or a victim.
Set largely in a rich household full of dark secrets, the whole thing feels a little like an old psychological Hammer horror of the Paranoiac or Crescendo ilk, albeit with a futuristic background and a slightly more elaborate plot. You can only hope the Spanish find this easier to pull off than the British, where almost all low budget genre productions (with the exception perhaps of comedy) have moved to TV. Mindscape has its weaknesses but I, for one, found it welcome; a bit like an old friend you never expected to see again.