This week I should be off, taking a break from work for a week to enjoy the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Sadly things have been going from tight to simply untenable on the financial front, several years of a bad situation without any relief, and among the many things I have had to give up on is my annual film fest sojourn. It’s on right now, I haven’t even looked at the programme since I know I can’t afford to go to it. Since I almost never get to go away on a proper break a week off going round the film fest is about as much holiday as I normally get, and now even that’s gone. Depressing. Along with ongoing other stresses and strains in recent years a break would be bloody nice, and I have been going to this since the 1990s, really upsetting to have to give up on it, something I look forward to all year. And after a lot of not very good stuff a nice break and enjoying myself would be rather nice, instead of which the usual break is lost and now becomes another one of those depressing things to add to the list of why life is often grinding and depressing and stressful. I don’t just mean losing that one break, I mean that it represents yet another thing I am forced to give up and cut out because of years of severe pressures; right now it has been so increasingly tight that even though with dad better I can start thinking about taking in another cat, I find I can’t afford it, which is pretty pathetic, not to mention disheartening, a year and a half after losing the last of my old furry girls. Meeting the basics is hard enough, nothing else can be added. On a short term we all get times like that, but this has been grinding on for a long time, getting slowly harder and worse. Does make you wonder why you bloody bother sometimes.
Another quick review of one of the genre movies I caught recently as part of my annual Edinburgh Film Festival week, this one by the great J-Horror director Hideo Nakata. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:
Director: Hideo Nakata
Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Katsumura, Naomi Nishida, Kanau Tanaka
Hideo Nakata is a name well known to fans of horror films, especially that rich seams of J-Horror, with very influential entries in the genre such as Dark Water and Ring. When I went to see The Complex I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – much as I love horror film and have enjoyed the works which Japan (and them more parts of Asian cinema) have been adding to the genre, I have to admit that there has been a bit too much in terms of generic tropes and repetitive imitations – too many close ups of rolling eyeballs over loud soundtrack noise and very long haired girls crawling in unnatural poses have diluted this part of the genre through inferior copying and imitation. Refreshingly with The Complex Nakata treads a different but highly effective path, here opting for more of a straight ghost story, proper hauntings with real reasons for the ghosts’ existence and mostly avoiding the jump-shock or gore approach for creepy atmosphere, something a well told ghost tale can do so well and to such phantasmagorical effect.
Asuka is a young student, moving into a slightly run down looking 60s style concrete apartment complex with her family, in order to be nearer to her college, where she is studying to work in healthcare. The opening scenes of unpacking in the new home seem very tranquil and domestic and fairly cheery, with her little brother and loving parents around her, but for those of us who have a lot of horror flicks under our belts there are signs even then that there are dark clouds in the horizon. A solitary, rather tatty box of possessions, oh, these are mum’s thinks Asuka as she unpacks in her room, and takes it through to her parent’s room. Somehow you just know that box is foreshadowing something later in the film. Other warning signs that not all is right with the apparent domestic bliss of a new family home come when over breakfast on different mornings her mother and father have exactly the same conversation… It Nakata’s world it isn’t just the dark, spooky places that can harbour something odd or frightening, as with Lynch so too can the cheerfully suburban dometic.
And then there are the neighbours – Asuka is sent with little homemade cakes to introduce the family to their new neighbours and starts with the apartment opposite them on their landing. She rings the bell and knocks the door; she thinks she hears someone inside, but no-one actually answers the door. And then in best creepy horror tradition the door opens itself, just a few inches, but with no-one visible. And then it closes again. Creepy things going on or just an elderly neighbour who doesn’t care for company? And why are there no kids in the playground, save for one single wee boy? As night falls on those first evenings in the new apartment the noises start, some awful, drawn out noise from the apartment right through from her bedroom…
I’m not going to expand any further into what the source of that noise is in the neighbouring apartment, or indeed why the apparent domesticity of the new family home feels so off despite the apparently happy surface, because that would take us into the realm of spoilers. Suffice to say Nakata takes his time in slowly building up the setting and introducing characters, the slow burn, ratchetting gradually up with the tension and creepiness that a good ghost tale requires. My only complaint about the Complex is that a couple of the twists I saw coming very early on in the film; perhaps Nakata telegraphed them a little less subtly than he should, but then again it is equally possible there’s no real fault in the narrative and it is simply having seen so many genre flicks the regular viewer picks up on some foreshadowing quicker than other viewers. It certainly didn’t spoil my viewing and Nakata being the master of horror that he is there were other revelations I didn’t see coming. Besides, J-Horror or horror from anywhere else, the key to a good ghost story is atmosphere, and that Nakata has in spades here. Good late night horror viewing.
Director: Richard Raaphorst
Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang
I’ve just enjoyed my annual week off going round an enjoyably diverse series of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; of course some of those films I caught just happen to fall into the genres we cover on here, so I thought following last week’s review of the very unusual Iranian SF flick Taboor I’d share another interesting genre flick I saw, one I couldn’t resist, not with a title like this: Frankenstein’s Army.
World War Two rages, and a forward scout unit of weary, wary Russian soldiers is advancing cautiously, searching out German positions. Unusually this advance unit has had a film unit attached to them (so yes, you guessed it, we’re in ‘found footage’ territory, although don’t despair, this is actually pretty damned good fun), for recording and propaganda purposes allegedly (they may not be mad on the idea, but the grizzled combat veterans of the Soviet Army know better than to question orders from above in Stalin’s Russia). Their commander is growing concerned at their lack of radio contact with any other Soviet units in some days as they push forward. When they do finally receive a signal it is short, a desperate plea from another Soviet unit in dire trouble, and their coordinates, before the lose the radio signals again. They are wary – this doesn’t sound like a unit that should be as far forward as their scouting group, and why is it that again they cannot pick up any signals? None the less, comrades may be in trouble so they have to investigate, and soon come across a deserted village and semi ruined buildings – and fresh graves. Open fresh graves with emptied coffins…
Exploring the buildings they are surprised to find the interiors are less like any farm or village buildings and more reminiscent of factories. Still puzzling over where everyone went to and why these rural buildings seem to have been refitted as some sort of industrial units they are attacked and take their first casualties. Their vicious enemy attacks suddenly, the familiar Nazi swastika is visible, but these are no ordinary Wermacht troops. In fact they don’t even seem entirely human…
We soon discover our cameraman is not working for the propaganda unit, he is actually under top secret orders from the very top, and the unit must help him with it (and they are none too subtly reminded these orders come from Comrade Stalin himself and they know where all of the soldier’s families live… It’s not just the Nazis Russian soldiers have to worry about in this time, it’s also their own leaders). Soviet intelligence has become aware of an unusual advance weapons project the Nazis have, but this isn’t some engineering wonder like the V2 Rocket, this is all the work of one man, a certain Baron Frankenstein. And while he uses machinery just like Von Braun does for his ‘wonder weapons’, the Baron, of course, also uses human body parts. The reason for the desecrated, emptied graves nearby becomes clear, and soon the men are plunged into a hideous struggle with inhuman creatures, part human, party machine and the chances of them surviving, let alone capturing or killing the elusive Baron, seem to be diminishing rapidly in a series of nightmarish skirmishes.
I’m not going to say anything more of the story here for fear of spoiling it, but it is a very satisfying slice of sci-fi/horror, going from the open fields of war (open but eternally dangerous) to the closed, claustrophobic underground chambers of the Baron’s lair, enclosed and full of danger and grotesque horrors. The dark corridors and first person perspective of the cameraman’s footage (he keeps recording even after his real mission is revealed) combine to give an almost video game, first person shooter kind of feel to some scenes as the soldiers are pursued by the Baron’s monstrous creations through the decaying, dark, underground halls and corridors. The creatures themselves are a marvelous addition to the history of imaginative creatures in the genre, literally stitched together from pieces of Nazi corpses and then united with pieces of machinery, which gives a sort of steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them and which also reminded me (in the good way) of running around the remarkable sets and encountering the bizarre part human, part machine beings in Bioshock.
The Film Festival had the good sense to schedule this UK premiere of Frankenstein’s Army as a late night movie and that suits it perfectly – it is an ideal slice of late night genre movie, best viewed after a couple of drinks, by turns scary and horrific (some scenes in the Baron’s house of horrors are like an explosion in a charnel house) and yet also delightfully over the top in places, knowingly so, tipping a nod and a wink to the hardcore fans in a way that makes it clear the makers are fans of the genre themselves. It really is an ideal late night genre flick, the combination of action, horror and dark comedy, and the inventive creature designs seem destined to become cult faves. Sadly in the UK you’ll need to keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals as there’s no word on a UK general release yet, although the makers tell me that they are concentrating on an American release for now, with screenings in select cities and also video on demand at the end of July in the US market. Hopefully it won’t be too long before it gets a proper UK release too. Meantime keep up with the film’s release progress via Twitter and Facebook.
It’s that time of year when I take a few much needed days off to relax and spend even more time than usual concealed away in dark cinema auditoriums for the Edinburgh Film Festival. I’ve not had a proper holiday in far too long – this time last year, on the very first day off for the film festival I got a call to say dad had been rushed into hospital, so I spent a good chunk of that week off going back and forth to hospital in Glasgow, most of the remaining holiday days I had for the rest of the year were saved to use up later as I knew when dad finally went for his surgery and in his recovery afterwards I’d need days off. So to say a whole week off just to relax and enjoy a variety of world cinema is a welcome relief is an understatement. This afternoon was my first FF screening.
Directed by Vahid Vakilifar
Starring Mohammad Rabbanipour
Taboor is one of those movies that make me go to film festival screenings – I don’t know anything about it apart from the single paragraph description in the festival programme (unusual for most flicks I see as I keep up with film reviews, interviews etc, so rarely see something I don’t know anything about), and what I find is odd, unusual, different – delightfully so. Vakilifar’s Iranian film defies labeling (which is often a good thing) – ostensibly it is a simple tale, following the nocturnal work of a solitary, middle-aged, silver haired and bearded (rather dignified looking) man as he goes around the quiet, night-time streets of Tehran on his motorbike and sidecar, carrying out his work as an exterminator. But to tell you that, while accurate, really doesn’t tell you much, because this is less a film about narrative, or indeed even about character interaction and more about an experience, one of those films you are simply taken into and feel rather than follow. It makes for an engrossing film-watching experience, but it does make it damned difficult to convey in a review just why you enjoyed it so much!
The film is mostly wordless – it is a good half hour before we hear a single human voice, and even then it is a voice-over, for just a few moments (indeed the few other moments of speaking will also be as voice overs, not as dialogue, we never actually see two characters speaking to one another, which adds to the unreal atmosphere pervading this film). That small voice over is one of the very few bits of exposition in the film, as the man is visiting a hospital for a full body scan. Following the scan a doctor takes him (again with no dialogue between them) to an old lift and down to a shabby basement kitchen, where, for no apparent reason, he throws a piece of meat from the fridge onto a skillet. As the cinema stares at the animal flesh shrinking in the heat, curling, smoking, spitting fat, the voice over remarks that he had tried to warn the man that his condition is getting worse, that this is what is happening to him, to his internal organs, which for some never specified reason are being cooked from within by microwave radiation which he seems unusually sensitive too, and the condition is accelerating, despite his elaborate precautions.
Precautions? Well right at the start we spend several minutes watching the man wake in a single room in a converted trailer; the room is entirely lined in aluminium foil, walls, floor, ceiling, no windows visible. Rising from his bed in the almost monk-cell like silvery chamber the man dons overalls also made of shiny foil, before donning trousers, a large jacket with hood, buttoned right up and then a motorbike helmet with extra material coming off it over his neck and shoulders, reminiscent of some firefighter’s helmets. Obviously thoughts of paranoid obsessives worried about secret CIA projects trying to read or control their mind leap to mind and it is only half an hour later we get this tiny fragment of information to explain why he lives and dresses as he does.
But the reason behind it really isn’t terribly important, this is more an odd night-trip through a largely empty city, the urban world at night, streets, houses, road and rail tunnels, all lit up so we can see clearly but that feeling anyone who lives in a city gets, that the light is somehow false, that those artificial lights let us see our way around our cities after night but that those lights make everything, from buildings to roads to trees to people, look different than the natural light of day does. Vakilifar clearly has a love of perspective – many shots are static, fairly long sequences – the point of view of our man looking down a city highway and tunnel at night, the lines and curves running away into the background, a long hospital corridor, an underground railway tunnel, even the opening shot of his solitary room in his trailer. No cuts and dissolves here from long shot to medium to close up, the bulk of the shots are very static and usually lined up on some interesting perspective (a particularly effective sequence sees the camera stay filming the same shot as our man is lead to a door, the double doors open, he walks through a hall to identical double doors which open to lead to another set, all without the camera’s perspective changing. It creates a kind of detachment, as does the lack of close ups or personal interaction or dialogue, leaving us as observers, also sometimes reminding us of the voyeuristic nature of cinema (an inexplicable scene with the man, naked save for underwear and a metal bin over his head, standing at the end of a long corridor being shot at by a pellet gun underlines this voyeuristic feeling, while the man’s near naked, head covered post is reminiscent of those horrible shots disgraced US troops took of abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib).
The film is full of odd scenes and imagery, with the work of David Lynch, that inference of the odd and weird just hidden below the surface of seemingly normal, everyday places and people, a very strong influence (right down to another unexplained scene which sees our man calling on a client not to exterminate bugs but to stand in a richly decorated room regarding an expensively dressed dwarf in the other corner). The empty, night-time urban cityscapes also hint at influences such as Michael Mann (like Mann some beautifully shot nocturnal cityscapes, occasionally accompanied by very atmospheric, ambient music, which is used sparingly) and also Ridley Scott (in what I presume is an in-joke as the man and doctor silently share an elevator the muzak in the lift is a version of Blade Runner Blues from Vangelis’ soundtrack for that film). It’s a very odd piece of film-making from Iran, hints of Lynch, Mann, Jim Jarmusch and more. The lack of dialogue is replaced with a hyper-realised soundtrack, where the silence is filled with noises from the rustling of the man’s foil suit to footsteps, echoes, clunks and clicks of doors – like Berberian Sound Studio (an offering at last year’s film festival) even when it appears little is happening the soundscape creates a hugely atmospheric feeling, while the lack of explanation and dialogue and the distance the camera keeps from the man (he is never named), rather than alienating the viewer instead draw us in, inviting us to imagine narrative, be a part of the film, while the odd scenes, the static long shots and the mostly empty night time scenes the man travels through create a very dream-like feeling.
I suspect some will find it tedious or dull, it’s certainly not for everyone, but personally I found it compelling, drawing me into this odd, solitary, isolated night-time, mostly unexplained life and man. This isn’t really the sort of film that you can explain easily to someone why you like it, it just touches some viewers and draws them in. Certainly did for me, one of the sort of films I love to find at film festivals, odd, unusual, compelling and the sort of thing I’d probably never get to see screened outside of a festival setting.
Edinburgh Film Fest: Eddie – the Sleepwalking Cannibal
Dir: Boris Rodriguez
Another late night horror gem unearthed during my week at one of the world’s oldest movie fests, the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right now I will raise my hand and happily admit that I circled this film in the programme as one I wanted to see the instant I saw the title; seriously, folks, how could I pass by a film with a title like that? It called to the horror and humour geek parts of my cine-soul and, as I was to find out, my instinct to jump straight into booking that film was a good call.
Eddie: the Sleepwalking Cannibal (not to be confused with Eddie the Sleepwalking Campbell, comics peeps) is a Danish-Canadian co-production (now there’s something you don’t often say in a film review). Lars Olafssen (Thure Lindhart) is a Danish artist who achieved some level of celebrity in the arts world a few years before, but now seems to be a bit burnt out, unable to inspire himself to paint anything new in years, with his agent having arranged a change of scene for him, teaching in a remote, rural art school at Koda Lake in wintry Canada. The move doesn’t start well for Lars when, too busy checking his map while driving, he hits a deer on a country road. Worse the creature isn’t dead but is dying in agony; he hesitates for a moment then realises he has to put it out of its misery. He’s repeatedly striking the unfortunate animal on the head with a rock when a police cruiser pulls up behind him…
Not his best introduction to his new community, and at the art school he quickly gets the impression that some want him there thinking he will produce new work and so put their art school on the map while others are simply jealous that he has had success as an artist while they never have (including his colleague and neighbour, a philandering artist with a constantly barking dog he leaves out all night keeping Lars awake). In his class we meet Eddie (Dylan Smith), a largely mute, developmentally challenged man. His elderly relative has looked after him since his parents were killed in nasty circumstances in front of him as a child, something he has never recovered from. The same old lady generously endows the school so as a thank you they let Eddie paint away in the back of the classes, producing work like a small child, but happy. When his relative dies Lars is persuaded to look after Eddie – if he goes to a care home the school loses the endowment and no-one else seems to want him. But on the first night with his silent man-child charge Lars is rather startled to find Eddie has left the house in the middle of the night. He’s even more alarmed when following him reveals a recently killed and partly devoured animals in the woods nearby and Eddie, almost naked, blood caked around his mouth, and quite asleep…
And so begins a series of blackly comical horror scenes. He finds out that Eddie has done this sort of thing before, but as a child years ago after the death of his parents – perhaps he is just emotionally upset again and it has come back, he will settle down soon once he feels secure with Lars. Deciding on preventative medicine Lars is going to nail Eddie’s bedroom window closed so he can’t open it in his sleep and go outside. Until the constantly barking dog of his unfriendly neighbour catches his attention and slowly Lars puts down the nails. I wish I could get some sleep, if only we could do something about that dog, he remarks, seemingly casually, before wishing Eddie goodnight. And a little while later, just as he hoped, sleepwalking Eddie drifts out into the night and the dog barks no more. But when he follows to make sure Eddie is okay he finds out somnambulistic Eddie has sunk his fangs and terrifying physical strength into more than the dog…
Lars is horrified but at the same time exhilarated – returning to his studio with images of blood and dismemberment flashing in his brain he stares at that damned blank canvas on his easel that has been teasing him with it’s untouched whiteness. And suddenly he is painting, with manic energy, creating his best work in years. When his agent comments that his last big creative burst came after he was in a bad accident, perhaps he needs pain and blood and suffering to gain inspiration, Lars laughs at him, but we can see his discomfort. Perhaps his agent is correct – is the violence stimulating his desire to create art? And if so dare he indulge in more?
Boris Rodriguez delivers a pretty much pitch-perfect dark comedy-horror – yes, the humour is as dark as tar in a barrel, but it’s the sort of bloody (literally sometimes) humour many horror fans will love, and the relationship between Lars and Eddie is well handled. Dylan Smith is a stand-out as the simple, backwards innocent (except in his sleepwalking excursions) Eddie, a really superb piece of acting, and the dynamic between the lead pair is rewarding: yes, it seems like Lars may manipulate and use poor Eddie for his own ends, but at the same time he clearly comes to care for the big lug and looks after him. There are evil acts of violence on here, slowly escalating, but there is no true villain, just a simple man-child who really doesn’t know what he’s been doing and an artist who is increasingly prepared to take suffering for artistic creation to an entirely new level… It’s funny, bloody and frequently touching, the scenes between Lars and Eddie giving it a nice emotional context that keeps it from becoming a slice of mere exploitation movie, the bitching and jealousy between the artistic community is amusing and the entire film has something of the Coen Brothers to it (which is a huge compliment, Ethan and Joel are cinematic gods as far as I am concerned) with a mixture of comedy, horror, drama and absurd farce. It’s still on the festival circuit and I don’t know when it will get a UK general release, but trust me, this is one to keep an eye out for, it is destined to become a cult classic.
This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
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
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.
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.
Just over a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying my annual week off at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, taking in all sorts of cinema, from hard-hitting documentaries from modern combat reporters to stylish French crime thrillers. And of course I took in several science fiction and horror themed flicks along the way, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the ones that I enjoyed the most:
I was told by a friend who had already seen a press screening of Xavier Gens’ The Divide that it was ‘very disturbing’. She meant this as a warning, but to me it was an endorsement! The Divide opens with a moment of sheer, modern, urban terror as a young woman gazes terrified out of her skyscraper window across New York – as a nuclear device is detonated. Screaming, panicking residents flee down the stairwells as the shock front approaches their building, a few manage to rush down to the basement and force their way past a reinforced door as their building superintendent tries to close it. The shockwave reaches them, and in the dark basement of their huge block the ground shakes, pieces fall from the roof and the sound is awful, reminiscent of the fall of the Twin Towers.
A handful of terrified, disparate survivors pick themselves up to realise they are trapped in a subterranean sarcophagus – will rescue teams come looking for them? Are they safe until they do? When will they come? Why is the super (genre stalwart Michael Biehn) acting so oddly? What secrets does he have in his underground domain that he is now forced to share with the motley survivors that have been forced on him? The tension and claustrophobia builds and when a much hoped for rescue turns out to be something quite different it becomes clear our dwindling band of survivors are on their own, sealed in, and slowly they lose cohesion, breaking into groups, suspicious, violent… The nuclear attack and the bizarre ‘rescue’ are never really explained and they don’t need to be, the film is really an exercise in claustrophobic horror and the resulting breakdown of the people trapped in this situation, until we have a post 9-11 war on terror meets Lord of the Flies scenario. Compelling.
Alejandor Molina’s slice of Mexican science fiction has a real 60s/70s SF feel to it, with a future dystopian society controlled by a mostly unseen group of scientific despots (unseen except for a few delightfully odd looking scenes between one leader and a dissident scientist which recall the 60s Prisoner series with their bizarre styles and angles) and science has been used to divide the population medically into day and night shifts, one half going to sleep as the other wakes to work. Families are banned, children are looked after in a formal manner by guardians rather than loving parents and following the rules is all in this society, questioning is not permitted, the past is largely a blank, sanitised book and the outside of the sealed city is off limits (see what I mean about that 70s SF vibe?).
Of course no amount of scientific tinkering with the human body and mind can eliminate human nature completely and we see one woman from the day shift distraught at the disappearance of her young girl ward, displaying a motherly concern that is not desired in this society, while a night shift doctor takes charge of a mysterious, unidentified body of a young girl, but a body that turns out to be comatose, not dead as his colleagues think, and he secretly takes her in, his formal life rapidly changing as the girl bonds with him and brings out his paternal, caring instincts. As the man, woman and girl converge the question is can their medically programmed nature of night and day rhythms be crossed and can they find somewhere where they can actually learn to express a parental love for the child? The pace of By day and By Night is very, very slow, quite gentle actually, but stick with that slow pace to find a quite charming and, for modern cinema, unusual slice of thoughtful, old-fashioned (in the good way, reminiscent of short tales by Silverberg or Bradbury) piece of science fiction.
Director Nicolas Goldbart’s slice of post-Apocalypse medical horror from Argentina proved to be a hugely enjoyable work. Guillermo Del Toro regular Federico Luppi lends his dignified presence as a quiet, elderly resident in an apartment block, downstairs neighbour to Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart). A dull routine of shopping, domestic chores and residents meetings are suddenly derailed when it is suspected someone in their block has a new and highly contagious disease and the authorities seal them in while tests are carried out. What starts as an all in this together for a few days bit of almost-fun soon turns nasty, however: cut off from the outside world they watch TV news reports of more cases of the disease breaking out around the world. As what starts as a swine flu like media panic becomes a pandemic reality. Soon the authorities stop their visits, alarms and gunshots are heard outside their sealed block in the streets of the city and as it becomes clear how large a scale the problem is the neighbours begin to plot in small groups against one another…
Luppi’s distinguished elderly resident seems like a likely first victim as one group of neighbours plot to break into his apartment, supposedly over concerns he is infected, to help him, but really because they think he has a large stash of food. Little do they know he is a former big game hunter… Coco proves pretty hapless throughout but luckily for him his next door neighbour turns out to be a survival nut who has been preparing for something like this (he is sure it is a conspiracy by world governments to reduce the population strain on the planet). In fact his neighbour turns out to be Phase 7’s answer to Tremors’ Burt Gummer (which is a compliment) and he has a soft spot for Coco and his pregnant wife. As events escalate the pair of them are drawn into confrontations with the surviving residents and Luppi’s formerly Nice Old man turned shotgun toting hunter. It isn’t all The End of Society, disease and neighbourly violence though, Phase 7 is well laced with humour throughout giving it a perfect balance of characters, story, action, violence and some decent laughs too. A real find.
Welcome to Stormhouse, a secret, underground black-ops base for the British Army. It is just a few months before the invasion of Iraq and a covert unit has a very special prisoner deep within this subterranean complex. No, not some black-hooded terror suspect (although there is that too) but something else, something not human – the Entity. The British Army has managed not only to find a ghost but to imprison it. Now they want to find a way to use this supernatural entity as a secret weapon, but other than putting the heebie-jeebies up all the squaddies on the base they’ve had little success in communicating with it, much less getting it to perform to their orders. So the Minister for Defence sends in Hayley Sands, a ‘ghost whisperer’ psychic to help them make contact. She’s talked to the dead before but is amazed to find out that the Army has managed to hold a ghost (through an electro magnetic barrier) and wonders how they brought it over from the other side in the first place. Of course, she is told that is on a need-to-know basis and the commanding officer, clearly unhappy with her presence, is acting very oddly, as are many of his soldiers after prolonged exposure to the entity.
Stormhouse is one of those horror films where you have a fair idea of where it is going to go, but that isn’t really a handicap as it gets around its small budget by concentrating mostly on atmosphere and in this it is highly effective. The underground bunker setting generates a seriously tense sense of claustrophobia, the soldiers inside effectively as trapped as the mysterious ghostly entity is and despite the electromagnetic field containing it, it becomes clear some of its influence is seeping out into that dark, dank, underground lair to effect them all and the arrival of a single, young, attractive female presence into this all-male environment doesn’t help either. Stormhouse plays its small budget cleverly – the ghostly effects are few but effective; in fact the director in a post screening Q&A said they could have stretched to some more ghost effects but decided to tone it way down so we get tiny but terrifying sudden glimpses on a monitor. And as things unravel, as you know they will, Hayley may find out just how the army got themselves a ghost – and wish she hadn’t… An interesting, atmospheric piece of low-budget Brit horror, playing cleverly on both the fear of the supernatural and creeping, unseen but always present feeling of unease in society post 9-11 and 7/7.
This Indy slice of fantasy from Norway from director/writer André Øvredal was, without a doubt, my highlight from this year’s Edinburgh Film Fest (with the exception of the new Studio Ghibli film, which I reviewed here). A group of media students are making a video news article for their college, following a group of bear hunters in the Norwegian countryside when their attention is drawn to an odd man who follows the hunters but stays apart from them, coming and going late at night on his own. Is he a poacher? Following him into the deep, dark woods they soon find out he is after a very different game when roars echo frighteningly through the dark trees and the man runs out of the forest yelling “Ttttroooooolllllllllll!!!!!!”
And this is the set up, our mystery man is an operative for a secret branch of the Norwegian government which looks after any rogue trolls which threaten human areas of habitation. Sick of years of working unappreciated in a covert role (and with no hazard pay!) he agrees to let the students follow him as he deals with all sorts of trolls, forest trolls, cave trolls, even gigantic trolls which stride across the frozen northern landscape. The format is ‘found footage’, as with Cloverfield or the Blair Witch, but much more knowing and more tongue in cheek about it than either of those films and the effects are excellent, the film looking far more than the 3 million Euro budget it was made on. It has a terrifically enjoyable mix of action, scares, cool effects, characters and humour (a moment on a bridge with three billy goats gruff had everyone in the audience laughing) in just the right proportions, pretty much a perfect Saturday night movie. Chris Columbus has already bought the rights to an English language remake, so Hollywood has already taken as much note as festival audiences have of this cracker of a fantasy flick. You could almost imagine some of Troll Hunter as a story from a Hellboy comic, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Troll Hunter is getting a general UK release in September – trust me, you want to go and see it!
(trouble finding an English language move poster so here’s the French one for Arrietty, (c) Studio Ghibli)
It’s no secret to regular readers of the blog that I’m a huge lover of all forms of animation, so when I got the chance to see the new (well, to us, Japan had it last year!) Studio Ghibli offering, The Borrower Arrietty, at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (where I am currently enjoying my annual celluloid banquet), of course I had to go along. Unlike their previous film, Ponyo, which was deliberately aimed at a much younger audience (still enjoyable for those of us who have no problem communicating with our inner child though), The Borrower Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s classic novel The Borrowers, is more suitable for an older audience; the very young will probably still enjoy some parts but it is aimed at older kids and, of course, us great big kids who simply never lost our love for this kind of work.
(Arrietty finally relents and reveals herself openly to Sho in his aunt’s garden, (c) Studio Ghibli)
As with Mary Norton’s book the story concerns the titular Borrowers, tiny little people barely a few inches tall, who have made a home for themselves hidden away inside the homes of full sized ‘human beans’. Their homes and clothes are a delightful and charming version of our own world in a perfectly realised miniature scale and evoke the same sense of pleasure and wonder as, say a beautifully set up and detailed doll house, model railway set or model village. In fact during the film a gorgeously detailed doll’s house come to the attention of young Sho, a boy facing an operation for a dangerous heart condition, who has been sent away from his busy mother to rest in the large, beautiful home of his great aunt Sadako, the home where his mother had grown up (and had told him tales of glimpses of little people who lived secretly in the house, ‘borrowing’ items from the larger humans to live). When he asks his aunt about the incredibly detailed doll’s house in his room she explained her grandfather had it made in England, that items like the kitchen oven actually worked, all made for these little people to use, but they never showed themselves to him or to her.
Indeed secrecy is a code for the Borrowers – when Arrietty is seen by Sho he tries to befriend her and help her and her mother and father. At first she tries to conceal herself from his approaches, but as she comes to realise he is only trying to help she relents and begins to talk to him, but explains the only way they can survive is to conceal themselves, always, from full sized humans and that now he has seen them he might inadvertently lead others to their home so they may have to face a dangerous journey to move somewhere else, news which upsets poor Sho who only wanted to help and protect Arrietty and do something noble before his operation, which he knows he may not survive. Arrietty’s fears seem to be confirmed when the housekeeper, who has long suspected the existence of the little people, starts spying on Sho, convinced that he has seen them and knows where they have concealed themselves; his attempts at friendship and help may well have placed the tiny Borrowers in dreadful peril.
(Arrietty on a borrowing expedition, climbing inside the walls of the ‘human bean’s’ home on a staircase of nals and tiny strings, (c) Studio Ghibli)
Okay, no more of the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But this is, even by Studio Ghibli standards, an absolute delight of a film, utterly charming and totally absorbing. Many of the usual Ghibli themes are present – youngsters with family problems having to realise that they must and can deal with problems using their own bravery and resources, touching young friendships and – a regular theme in Ghibli works – the environment and the fragility of species (never a bad theme to get over to younger audience members). As you would expect the animation is lovely and the painted backdrops exhibit the usual warm, wonderfully detailed art that is a hallmark of Ghibli, from the lush garden (a nice retreat for the ill Sho, a veritable jungle for Arrietty) and it is easy to lose yourself into this magical world.
The soundscape is equally detailed and very, very clever; for example scenes from Arrietty’s point of view have the everyday sounds of the world – the wind through grass, footsteps, the rustling of the fabric of Sho’s shirt – magnified considerably so we experience the aural world as her tiny, sensitive form would, as well as the more obvious visual. French musician Cécile Corbel, a new collaborator with Ghibli, must also receive praise for her lovely score. Having just recently re-read the immortal satirical fantasy Gulliver’s Travels for my SF Book Group I especially appreciated the level of detail and attention Ghibli put into making the audience comprehend how the differences in scale felt for the little people (something Swift does admirably well too with Gulliver, first as a giant among tiny people then as a tiny person among a race of giants). Tiny little details throughout compliment this – for instance raindrops on Arrietty’s dress or tea being poured from her mother’s wee kettle are little round beads, not flowing water, but beady droplets because this is as small as the water can be (think of the beads of water on a leaf when viewed close up, like clear pearls). The details of scale and the inventive uses the Borrowers make of items from the larger world (using sellotape on feet and hands to climb a table leg, for example) mean that, like a lot of Ghibli work, it will invite repeat viewings to admire all the craft and attention which went into not just the main story and characters (which is wonderful) but the backgrounds and the details of their little, miniature world.
It’s one of those films where I left the cinema with a huge smile on my face; this was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi rather than the great Miyazaki himself, although Miyazaki wrote it, but it carries the Ghibli stamp that Miyazaki has so carefully crafted for his animation house over the years in style and themes, without ever feeling that it is recycling idea, it is still fresh, vibrant and engaging. It also does what some of the best animation does and what Studio Ghibli has done for me – and I suspect many of you – so many times, it makes you feel like a child once more in a garden of magical delights, and that’s a truly wonderful gift to give to an adult. It is as perfect for adults as it is for children, and if you are a parent then yes, you really must take your kids along to see this, you will probably find you love it as much as they do. And then you should take them to the local library and point them to Mary Norton’s fabulous novel which inspired it and send them on another wonderful journey.
The Borrower Arrietty was released last year in Japan; the UK will see a general release towards the end of July according to the IMDB, perfect for the school summer holidays (and making a welcome change, we often don’t get a new Ghibli until the autumn of the year after the Japanese release). I was pleased that the Film Festival screened the original language version with English subtitles – I suspect the general release may be the dubbed version as is common with previous Ghibli releases here and in the US market and although these are always done well with a fine voice cast I still prefer the original language version with subtitles – even when you don’t know the language, I prefer to have the cadences and tones of the original actors’ voice. In a summer of big, CGI-packed superhero movies or CG, 3D animations, here’s a charming, traditionally drawn animation for all the family to lose themselves in.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival apparently suffered a 10% drop in tickets sales for 2010 (not my fault, I went to a pile of shows!). One of the factors being blamed is the very late launch this year, which I know really pissed off regular Film Fest goers like myself and others I know who go each year. The programme came out so close to the actual festival it didn’t leave much planning time – annoying for those of us who live in and around the city, a real problem for visitors who have to make their way here from much further afield. And when the programme did launch (with a website crash – again) we had barely a couple of days to go through it before the box office opened. Everyone I know was really annoyed at this, it simply didn’t give us enough time to plot out which films we most wanted to see then check times and dates to see if they clashed and work out alternates if they did and so on (plus the now traditional web box office crash again when tickets went on sale, bah). Pretty poor planning.
The Film Fest is blaming some of this on being late in securing some of the films because of the Cannes Film Festival being held in May, meaning they didn’t want to launch until they had everything confirmed. Which is fine except this is the same Film Fest who decided to move out of their decades long home of August, when the Edinburgh Festival is on, to be a standalone festival in June. Which you might recall me being quite put out about, I was totally opposed to that move, thought it was foolish and their reasoning flawed. One of their reasons was allegedly so it wouldn’t be too close to other major international film festivals and therefore competing too much for screenings of certain movies. Now they are blaming proximity to one of the most famous film festivals in the world for this year’s problems? Oh come on, make up your bloody minds, Film Fest, which is it? maybe you should just admit you got it wrong and move back to August again, then you can can also pick up on the extra visitors who are in the city for the Festival? And it would give the Film Fest some of its buzz back – while I enjoyed the movies the atmosphere is lacking the magic present during the main Festival in August, it’s jsut not the same. Oh and while we’re at it, please keep screenings restricted to CINEMAS! No more dubious vanity projects like gala screenings held in an old (and uncomfortable) theatre which was totally unsuited for film screenings.