Grabbers: top B Movie SF-Horror from Ireland

Edinburgh Film Fest: Edinburgh Film Fest: Grabbers

Dir: Jon Wright

Another late evening science fiction-horror screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival and another absolute gem with this monster movie with a strong comedy undercurrent. A glowing fireball streaks across the night sky off the coast of Ireland, past a solitary nocturnal fishing boat. Mistaking the green glow for a distress flare they set off thinking someone needs helps, but it’s not another vessel they encounter…

Daybreak on a small island off the mainland and young career-girl policewoman Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is arriving on the ferry, taking what she thinks should be a wee change of pace for a couple of weeks duty, swapping the hustle-bustle of a city centre Dublin copshop to provide temporary cover on the rural island while one Garda officer is on his break. The remaining officer, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) – a constant alcoholic – is less than happy to have anyone else drafted in to keep an eye on him, let alone an eager, fresh-faced female officer from the big city, but soon they will have more important issues to deal with. The trawler has been found adrift with no crew off the coast, then a local doctor walking his dog on the beach comes across the horrific sight of an entire pod of pilot whales washed up on the beach.

Such sad sights are not unknown to coastal communities, of course but when the local marine scientist Doctor Adam Smith (Being Human’s Russell Tovey) examines them he finds huge wounds and concludes they didn’t beach themselves but died at sea and were washed in by the tide. Quite why a whole pod would be killed at sea like this no-one can say. Meanwhile one of our local drunken fishermen finds some very odd creature caught in his lobster pot. Deciding it might be worth money he hides it in his bath before, this being Ireland, he heads to the pub, gets drunk and tells everyone he has a ‘sea monster’ in the bath. Of course, no-one believes him. Until people start to go missing and there’s a storm coming that will cut off the island from any outside help, even if those on the mainland believe what they tell them…

Okay, so far I imagine for anyone who loves their SF and horror we’re on fairly familiar ground here – small, isolated rural community, an outside menace arrives, stealthily at first, picking off one or two people in the dark before anyone can notice, only being properly revealed when it seems it may be too late to protect themselves. We even have the couple of outsiders who come into the close knit community in so many tales of this kind. The pure joy of Grabbers is that the folks who made it clearly know and love the genre; they take these familiar characters and situations then play them absolutely pitch-perfectly, with a good combination of horror and humour, with the latter deriving less from any puns but evolving naturally from the interaction of the characters.

Grabbers is also proud to wear its Irishness on its sleeve and not try to Americanise itself for the international cinema market. This is a classic monster movie like many an American B flick, sure, but one that could only work in Ireland – where else (excepting perhaps parts of Scotland, perhaps!) could part of the protection against devilish, blood drinking sea monsters involve a lock in inside the village pub and getting drunk? Where else would you get a shout of “aw, shut yer fecking hole!” as a hero wallops the giant monster? A great combination of B-movie SciFi roots, horror and character driven humour, great cast and a lot of heart (plus some nice homages to other genre greats, including a brilliant Aliens pastiche), Grabbers is simply perfect late night movie viewing – in fact I think this is the most enjoyable comedy-horror I have seen since the Nathan Fillion-starring Slither.

 

And if my opinion doesn’t convince you then consider the fact that the late night film festival audience gave the movie a huge round of applause – when a festival crowd does that, it’s the mark of a great film. This time last year I saw a wee horror movie called Troll Hunter at the film fest and told you it was one to watch for. Well, Grabbers is slated for general release later this summer in Ireland (hopefully UK soon thereafter) and I’m telling you that for me it’s this year’s Troll Hunter.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Guinea Pigs

Edinburgh Film Fest: Guinea Pigs,
UK, 2012, running time 85 mins
Dir: Ian Clark

Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.

A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).

The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…

Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.

The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…

Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.

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(writer/director Ian Clark, second from right, with some of his crew at the late night Edinburgh Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

Rent-a-Cat

Edinburgh Film Fest: Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko)

Dir: Naoko Ogigami

Well, as you may infer from the title, this is not a film for anyone who dislikes felines. That said you don’t have to be a cat lover to take enjoyment from this film (although it helps, those of us who are were sitting in the audience going aww at particularly cute kitty antics) as Naoko Ogigami’s film is a rather lovely, slow-paced, gentle look at life and urban loneliness in modern day Japan, how one can be living in a busy city with a huge population and yet remain isolated, alone despite being surrounded by people. And the wonderful power of our animals to enrich our lives; we know sometimes we may be projecting our own human emotions and motivations on them, but as anyone who has ever lived with animals knows they do seem to set up a familiar domestic habit with their humans, both ‘owner’ (not a title that really can apply to a cat, as anyone who lives with them knows) and pet settle into their rhythms around each other, making their own household, an ersatz extended family.

Sayoko lives alone in her small house, overlooked in her garden by her odd neighbour (who has a remarkable resemblance to a sort of Japanese Ronnie Corbett in drag). Since she was a child she’s never found it easy to make friends, let alone find romance, but while other humans don’t seem to warm to her for some reason cats do. Each day she pulls a small cart along near the river, crying out through a bull horn that if you are lonely she can rent you a cat. It’s not as bizarre a business idea as you might think (although some of the local schoolkids have already branded her as the crazy cat lady archetype) – I’ve read of professionally run cafés in Japan where cats live and the customers come not just for tea and cake but to stroke the cats, people who love animals but for whatever reason (not enough space, not allowed pets in their rented home, only staying a few months) they can’t have animals at home, so they come for the undeniable comfort that stroking a purring kitty can give.

One of Sayoko’s first customers we see is a very old lady, looking through the cats napping contentedly in her cart. She is taken straightaway not with the youngest or cutest but with a mature ‘grand old lady’ of a ginger cat, who reminds her very much of her own cat who has passed on. Her cat had helped her fill that awful hole after losing her husband, her son, we get the impression, is pretty distant from his elderly mum, and now with her beloved pet gone she is alone, the apartment empty, lifeless to her. When Sayoko checks her home to make sure it is suitable for cats she can see right away the old woman is perfect for this – she desperately wants another cat to bring some warmth and companionship into her life, but being so old she has decided pragmatically she can’t have one as who would look after it when she dies (a genuine worry for many elderly who value their animal companions even more than the rest of us)? But here she can have the cat from Sayoko and know she will come to take her home when the old lady is gone, that the kitty will still be looked after and loved – hearing this she knows the old woman has a good heart and that the cat will make her remaining weeks better. It’s incredibly touching and, animal lover or not, you’d have to be a brick not to feel empathy for the old woman’s situation and the pleasure she gets from the cat’s company.

The film moves through some more encounters with people in the city – a businessman who has to work away from his family and home and is lonely in his isolated city home, a young girl working dedicatedly away reciting her company mantra but realising she spends all day at work then at home mostly alone. Through her encounters Sayoko’s own faults and problems are as on show as much as those lonely souls she helps with her cats – on her own since her gran’s death (rather sweetly she talks to the departed old lady every day at her household shrine), she writes goals up for herself, such as find a husband, but has no idea how to attain them, tells her clients when she charges them only a pittance to rent the cats that she doesn’t need the money because she makes lots as a stockbroker playing the markets, or as a famous psychic. We can never really tell how much of this may be genuine and just how much is a Walter Mitty fantasy of Sayoko’s to make herself feel better.

Rent-a-Cat moves at a very slow pace and, like the pets who help to fill the holes in people’s lives, it doesn’t render a judgement on the poor, lonely humans who move through its scenes; they and their lives and flaws are simply presented as is and while you may not identify totally with any one character there are elements of each that pretty much all of us will recognise and empathise with. Sweet, gentle, moving and touching, a lovely little flower of a film that you should stop to inhale the scent from. Then go tickle a cat’s soft tummy afterwards.

Edinburgh International Book Festival programme launched

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be invited along to one of the highlights of the UK’s literary calendar, the launch for the programme for the world’s biggest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This year the team held the launch in the gorgeous historic splendour of the Signet Library next to the old Parliament hall. There was a mixture of looking back to the beginnings and towards the future; director Nick Barley paid tribute to the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference in 1962 and great Scottish scribes like Hugh MacDiarmid and others who helped to reshape the cultural landscape in a city and country that was still struggling with the post-war place in the world and the decline of traditional strong areas like heavy manufacturing and a seemingly declining interest in our rich culture. Fast forward to 2012 and a very different Edinburgh (and Scotland and the rest of the UK), home to the biggest arts festival in the world, the largest literary festival, home to many great writers past and present, a UNESCO City of Literature… Well, you get the point, the richness of our artistic culture has become far more celebrated and has also given a practical boost in terms of bringing in visitors,and it makes me happy to think that books are at the core of that change. To mark that early 1962 beginning the EIBF has teamed up with the British Council and will be recreating those writer’s conferences, not just here in Edinburgh but in various nations around the world, celebrating the importance of writing and reading and publishing.

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(inside the beautiful Signet Library)

The programme for the adult and the children’s section is, as always, stuffed to the gills with events – over 800 authors I think Nick said during his introduction. On the children’s side there will be an artist in residence, none other than the very fine Chris Riddell, who will be doing various events and classes throughout the festival, including discussing his political cartooning for the Observer and he will be working with his regular collaborator Paul Stewart and also with a certain Neil Gaiman, who had such a ball last year at the EIBF he’s back again this August, I am delighted to say (he and Riddell will have an event marking the tenth anniversary of the delightful Coraline, a children’s book which is far, far too good to be left just to children, I think, discussing the interaction of writers and illustrators).

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(Janet Smyth outlines the extensive children’s programming for this August’s EIBF)

Also on the extensive kid’s programme those Etherington Brothers are again being allowed out (under responsible supervision) for a comics workshop, the Tolkien Society celebrates 75 years of the Hobbit (especially appropriate with the first part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie on the way later in the year), the Genomics Forum folk will be doing a piece for younger readers on science in fiction (which should be good, they have held regular science-literature crossover events in recent years in the city which have been fascinating and informative). The actor McKenzie Crook has not only written a book it turns out that illustration is his first love and he’s returned to it, providing his own artwork to his book The Windvale Sprites, Jenny Colgan and Steve Cole discuss writing Doctor Who novels, top illustrator Axel Scheffler will be there, as will his regular collaborator the wonderful Julia Donaldson.

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(director Nick Barley introduces the adult portion of the Book Festival programme, pic from my Flickr)

In the adult programme one of our finest science fiction writers, Ken MacLeod, continues his work bringing together art and science as part of the festival’s Science Meets Fiction strand (on a related note if you haven’t read Ken’s recently published novel Intrusion you should – an absorbing near-future UK slice of SF very much dealing with some of today’s issues in a clever manner, much recommended). The inventive Jasper Fforde returns once more, local lad Iain M Banks will be there, of course, the excellent reviewer, cultural commentator and writer Kim Newman will be talking about the very welcome new editions of his Anno Dracula series (huge fun), Flame Alphabet writer Ben Marcus will be part of the Science Meets Fiction series, and the brilliant China Mieville will be in Charlotte Square talking about his new novel Railsea.

On the comics front as well as Neil Gaiman returning another of last year’s guests returns too – one of the medium’s best known scribes and one who has just recently been ennobled in the Queen’s birthday honours list, no less: Grant Morrison, MBE (how cool is it that one of our top comics scribes should appear on that kind of list? Not something I ever expected to see, well done, Grant!). Grant will be following up from last year’s sold-out event where he discussed his new Supergods book; he will continue on from that work to discuss the place of superheroes in the modern multimedia age. Bryan Talbot pays a return visit to the EIBF and this time he is joined by his wife and now artistic collaborator Mary to discuss their fascinating graphic novel Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which intersects Mary’s childhood with a noted Joycean scholar for a father and the life of Lucia, daughter of James Joyce (an excellent work and again highly recommended – you can read a guest commentary by Mary and Bryan about Dotter here on the FP blog). Another welcome returning face is one of the finest editorial cartoonists working in the UK today, Martin Rowson (I was lucky enough to get into his last talk at the EIBF with Steve Bell, one to try and book if you can); Martin will be discussing his updated take on Swift’s superb fantasy satire Gulliver’s Travels.

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(above: Grant Morrison at last year’s EIBF, below Neil Gaiman at the 2011 EIBF, pics from my Flickr)

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Naturally with such a vast programme I can only bring you a little taster of some of the comics, illustration and science fiction folks out of a much larger, incredibly diverse programme featuring literally hundreds of writers, not to mention many other events – debates, live readings and performances, masterclasses and more. You can now get hold of the programme in print or browse online: this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from 11th to the 27th of August in the New Town’s splendid Charlotte Square (box office opens on June 29th), right slap bang during the absolute madness of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe exploding all over the city. Despite how incredibly busy it is though, the Book Fest also offers up a nice oasis of calm among the greater festival madness, also being a nice place to sit back in a deck chair (if the weather stays nice) with a book and an ice cream or of an evening into the Spiegeltent, or browse the very well stocked bookstore. It’s a book lover’s dream tucked away into one historic square and has to be experienced. As always I’ll hopefully be reporting later in the year from a couple of the events.

 

(this report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog)

The Manhattan Project

Cameron Michael lugged 130 pounds of camera gear around Manhattan to record these scenes for a wonderful time-lapse of this intensely vibrant urban cityscape through day and night. The high definition imagery is beautifully clear for both day and nocturnal scenes, while the the speeded-up nature of the time-lapse film creates an almost animation-like feeling in places. I love time-lapse work, it’s one of those fascinating faculties we are denied in the real world – we can’t pause time, slow it, loop it, repeat it or speed it up in the waking world, but in the lucid dreamscape of our various media (film and comics being perhaps the best for it) we can make time dance to our desires to open new windows into ways of seeing that so-called real world in a different way. I must also confess to a real weakness for urban cityscapes, especially night scenes – probably why I love Michael Mann films so much and why I take so many photos and night shots myself, there’s just something intoxicating about the mix of photographing the real but it looking slightly imaginary in the image, the Looking Glass effect of the camera…

The Manhattan Project HD1080P from Cameron Michael on Vimeo.

D-Day

Today is June the 6th; to a boy who had seemingly endless amounts of Warlord, Victor, Action and Commando war adventure comics to read growing up it’s a historic date drummed into the memory: D-Day. Despite what criticisms a modern reader could heap on those old comics they did impart a fair chunk of familiarity with major events so that when you came to them in history lessons in school you realised you already knew some of it. D-Day for me has always remained in my mind since first reading about it as a lad, an unbelievable effort by thousands by land, sea and air on a daring but desperate attempt to breach Fortress Europe and drive the vile evil of the Nazis back to their own bombed out ruins of their homeland. It’s passed almost into myth now, decades on, the vast armada of Allied ships appearing off the coast of France in the morning mist, like the fabled thousand ships of Homer’s Odyssey arriving on the shores of Troy. A lot of mostly young lads wouldn’t last through that day.

Of course as I got older I learned more about that history and found out that well before the thousands of British, Canadian and American troops stormed the shores of Nazi occupied France that day many other very brave men had risked – sometimes lost – their lives to make it possible. Not just the veterans of the Dieppe raid, but smaller, quieter missions, often carried out in secret, in the dark of night – French Resistance members risking capture and torture before death on missions to disrupt German lines or supply information to D-day planners, Commando or SIS members sneaking ashore to take samples of a beach to see if it could support a landing, masses of men, tanks… More than a few would vanish into the dark night and never be seen again, dying somewhere alone, unknown, to try and make that day possible, while others orchestrated astonishing projects of disinformation, stage magicians designing the greatest illusions of their lives, entire fake regiments of tanks and men made of mannequins and inflatables to fool the German aircraft into the Allied intentions. The sheer effort that went into planning the entire thing even before the actual landing is Herculean and it is astonishing to look back at a time when everyone just simply got on with ‘doing their bit’ for the greater good in a way that seems amazing to today’s far more selfish me-me-me society. And through it all these amazing photographs by one of my great photography heroes, Robert Capa, running ashore at bloody Omaha with the troops, terrified, fingers fumbling to reload his film… He shot several roles, escaped the beach and returned to London only for the developer to rush the film and ruin most of them – only a handful of shots, blurred, survived, first hand images from the beaches of D-Day, the day the Allies started to change history and roll back the Nazi menace with a mixture of cunning intelligence use, amazing engineering projects and sheer, naked courage (think of the Scottish regiments marching ashore under fire defiantly playing the bagpipes, like something from a movie scene and yet it really happened) and quite enormous cost. A cost paid for us, for the right to live in a free, democratic society. It should always be remembered.

And there is the legendary Robert Capa himself, having a ciggie break between combat coverage. Hard enough to imagine having to rush ashore into withering fire as you carry your rifle and pack, but imagine rushing ashore between machine gun fire and shells exploding, mines underfoot, and you are armed only with a 35MM camera. And yet Capa and others did and because of them we have these visual images to remind later generations of the debt that was paid for the future generations to come after them, a debt of blood paid so we would grow up never having to do what they had to. No muscled superheroes or supersoldiers like Captain America, just ordinary blokes from the streets of Glasgow, London, Cardiff, Toronto, Chicago, New York and many others, ordinary men doing extraordinary things…

View from a roof

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(dome of Old College Building at Edinburgh University on Southbridge)

The roof terrace of the modern section of the National Museum of Scotland is one of Edinburgh’s best ‘secret’ spots to take in views across the roofs of the city’s Old Town. I say secret, it isn’t really a secret, it is free and open to the public like the rest of the museum, but I mean secret as in so many people – visitors and natives – simply don’t seem to know it is there and the remarkable panorama across the city it offers. Highly recommended for a visit.

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(above: looking down on historic Greyfriars Kirk, below: top of Edinburgh’s splendid Central Library)

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(view right across the Old Town to the clock tower of the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, visible even over the tall buildings of the Old Town), below: fluttering flags on the roofs of the City Chambers and other buildings, bottom: dome of the Bank of Scotland HQ on the Mound)

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