Science Fiction and Horror highlights from the Edinburgh Film Festival

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:

The Divide

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.

Xavier Gens at Edinburgh International Film Festival 02
(Director Xavier Gens talks about The Divide at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

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.

By Day and By Night

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.

Phase 7

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.

Stormhouse

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.

Stormhouse at Edinburgh International Film Festival 04
(director/writer Dan Turner and some of the cast of Stormhouse on stage at the Filmhouse after their Edinburgh Film Festival debut, pic from my Flickr)

Troll Hunter

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!

André Øvredal at Edinburgh Film Festival 01
(director/writer André Øvredal in a post screening Q&A in the Cameo Cinema at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)