8/29/2010

AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS Script Review

If you like horror in any shape or form, then you must've read one of the greatest, scariest and most intelligent SF-horror novels of the 20th century - AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by H. P. Lovecraft.

And, if you like horror movies, then you probably know that Guillermo del Toro (HELLBOY) is set to direct a solid-budget version of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS with James Cameron producing. The recent announcement that the long-gestating project will be financed by Cameron's AVATAR money was largely considered good news. With dozens of announced Del Toro projects in various stages, this development made it seem like this particular film is going to happen, after all. And reasonably soon, too.

Well, I managed to lay my tentacles on the screenplay for AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, written by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, and here's what I thought of it.


Before you read it, just a brief note - as it turns out, the version of the script this review is based on is a slightly older one: there were three more drafts after this one. See the PS note at the bottom of this text.



Briefly: it feels like a HELLBOY movie without Hellboy, with a light dose of Carpenter's THE THING.

It's not as bleak as Lovecraft's novel or Carpenter's film which was vaguely inspired by the spirit of this same novel, although based on J. W. Campbell's novella. With the kind of budget this film will require one cannot reasonably expect it to go too far into the unconventional and risqué territory. I guess we should be content with the fact that this is most definitely a script for an R-rated monster-fest and there's no way of cutting it down to a PG-13 or some such shit without throwing more than a half away. However, with all the monster-mayhem, this still remains a Lovecraft-lite project.

There's plenty to like and a few things to dislike in this script.



AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, as written by Del Toro and Robbins, is definitely aimed at those who "know" their Lovecraft from second- or third-hand: not directly from his stories, but from the way his work was re-imagined and grotesquely dumbed-down by the pop-culture. by this I mean his genre fiction "followers" (in name only, mostly), comics, video-games, RPG, heavy metal songs and the like. Those who perceive Lovecraft merely as an eccentric who wrote about some cool mega-monsters with lots of tentacles and slimy orifices are in for a treat here. Because that's ALL of Lovecraft they're gonna get. Those who expect a certain meaning and symbolism behind those "monsters" – those who expect philosophy – cosmic horror – loads of atmosphere, suspense, build-up... Well, not much of that, sadly.

It is a period piece: the frame story takes place in 1939, at the very beginning of World War 2 (quite unnecessary and silly parallel!), but the bulk of the film is made up of a flashback narration by the last survivor of the previous expedition to the South Pole from 1930. Of course, it is told to the chief of the new expedition going there… This being a classic, I guess there's no need for going too much into details, you know the plot. Scientists go to Antarctica, find remnants of primaeval, alien creatures, reveal terrible things about the (pre)human history. In this version, it si somewhat simplified into: Scientists go to Antarctica, resurrect primaeval monsters, mayhem ensues.



WHAT TO EXPECT?


1) More monsters, creatures, mutants, hybrids than in the entire Lovecraft's opus.

Just to make myself clear: I love me some cool movie monsters as any guy, and then some. Especially if those monsters are made-up of humans – men and women merging with things, or other creatures, human forms emerging from blobs of alien flesh with plenty of tentacles... ehhh, there's nothing out there in horror cinema to please me more. This script takes Lovecraft's concept of Shoggoths – large blobs of intelligent protoplasm which can assume any shape (including human) – and runs with it to lengths that Lovecraft never bothered with. In his novel, those creatures had a clever role in the complex history of the rise and fall of The Old Ones (basically, slaves rebelling and destroying their masters). In this film, they are a perfect alibi for countless scenes of cool monster action – those blobs swallowing, partly digesting and re-creating humans (and dogs) into shapes nature never intended. The bigger picture they belong to is paid just a brief lip service, in a couple of lines of dialogue you might just miss while checking your text messages.

Yes, there will be inevitable comparisons to THE THING: the magnitude of some shape-shifting scenes here definitely surpasses what Carpenter (and Rob Bottin) concocted; there are dog-things and dog-related action similar to THE THING as well; and some brief "is he human or Shoggoth?" doubts – though, what with all the stress on action, there's no time to lose on suspense, atmosphere, drama and stuff like that. Also, there is a much quicker and simpler test here, to see if one is a thing or human.


Like in THE THING, there are numerous characters in this script, briefly sketched, even more so here since there must be at least two dozen of them – plenty of food for Shoggoths, for sure, but only 3 or 4 of them really stand out as characters at all. The main guy, Dyer, is pretty lame, defined solely through the either/or dilemma: pregnant wife at home or scientific breakthrough at the South Pole. (Enter the moralizing tone, typical for Del Toro, and totally absent in Lovecraft – even more obvious in the character of an unscrupulous Doctor Lake, a comic-book Mad Scientist sacrificing everything and everyone to reach his goal. Damn those pulps!)

I never thought I could have too many creatures, but there's such an overload of them in this script that at some point they lose their entire scare factor and become just cool effects in broad snowy daylight – interesting images to enjoy while detachedly observing the fight of two-dimensional characters against them.


As for other thingees: The Old Ones have very little to do (except one human dissection which could be cool unless it's too brief to register); the albino penguins are slightly more prominent in this script than in the novel, but still remain mostly in the role of creepy bystanders; and, in case your monster-thirst remains insatiated, at the very end there is (yet another) appearance of Cthulhu itself! This last detail (if you can consider the mountain-sized monster – a detail!) is not only incongruous but downright stupid. Cthulhu is supposed to be "sleeping" in the deep warm waters of Pacific Ocean in his lair at R'Lyeh – not in the ice wastes of Antarctica!

No, this is not just some "geek" nit-picking: I'm all for artistic liberties and reimaginings (and there's plenty of those in this script – some of them fine), but bringing Cthulhu into this story out of nowhere makes absolutely no sense whatsoever within the film's own dumbed-down "mythology". It seems like an artificial, forced attempt at upping the ante and out-climaxing the climax – but, with no rhyme or reason. Hell, bring in Yog Sothoth and Shub Niggurath to the party, too. The more, the merrier! Or not?

Much as Lovecraft was accused of not knowing when to stop, his balanced, mostly restrained prose and well-thought narrative from his masterwork is used here as a starting point for a non-plus-ultra in monster-exaggeration with very little subtlety preserved. Lovecraft was forced to publish most of his works in pulp magazines, but his best work (such as AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS) is most definitely NOT pulp fiction. This script, in its essence, IS pulp – but big budget may hide this fact from many. And after decades of cheap direct to video in name only "adaptations" with shoddy effects and laughable dialogues – Del Toro's large-scale version will certainly be a step-up and a welcome improvement, at least in terms of visuals. Other than THE THING, FROM BEYOND, DEEP RISING and HELLBOY, few other films have even tried creatures this elaborate. That department certainly won't disappoint.


2) More action, action and action than in the entire Lovecraft's opus.


There are fights, flights, chases, shoot-outs, cliffhangers, last second salvations, big explosions... The pace is quick: once the action starts, around 30 minute mark, it never stops. NEVER. So, once this gets made and you go to the theater (as you should!), grab your popcorn in time and go to the bathroom BEFORE the film, because there's not a minute of non-action here to waste.

This approach is understandable in the light of bringing droves (and drones) of youthful audience into the theatre: Del Toro certainly doesn't want to bore them with some big thoughts or life-changing revelations. He's out there to entertain you with incredible creatures, action and 'splosions. Nothing wrong with that – unless you're one of a dozen remaining people on this planet who still believe that Lovecraft was about more, much more than that.



WHAT NOT TO EXPECT?


1) There's relatively little stress on atmosphere. OK, the Antarctica setting is spooky in itself, but it's mostly used as a background for chase and action scenes. Very little space for poetry and weird, alien beauty of the landscape. Hopefully they add some of that.

2) Don't expect a long and complex retelling of the history of the Old Ones – the bit that, according to many critics, is the key innovative element of Lovecraft's novel. It is the narrative which powerfully surpasses the pulpy Good/Evil dichotomies and presents a complex, clever and highly relevant account incomparable to genre fiction of its times – or to genre movies of our times, apparently. In this script, it is reduced to 3 or 4 sentences. I hope they make it a bit longer, and stress the human place in the entire story more convincingly and powerfully.


3) The section from the novel when the expedition goes deep, deep, insanely deep into the bowels of the Mountains of madness is entirely gone. Perhaps the scariest part of the book is gone completely. The submerged city in the deep caverns, too. None of that here. And very little exploring of the city above, as well. It seems like they discover the bas-reliefs with the Old Ones' history in the first building they come across, and that's it. I wanted to see more of the deserted city of the Old Ones!



4) Don't expect the same ending as in the novel. Expect a more predictable one.

To sum up: it all depends on your expectations. It'll definitely be an entertaining creature feature. The big budget will certainly buy some creative people to depict those cool monsters, and it will be a joy to see them on a big screen, in 3-D. I'll be there to see it the first chance I get, no doubt about it.

If, on the other hand, you're not too happy with the idea of turning Lovecraft's far more complex (and scary!) novel into a rollercoaster monster romp, well, tough luck. You'll have to pray to Azathoth that this film earns enough money for a much belated resurrection of Lovecraft at the movies. With greater interest for his stuff among the movie audiences, who knows, maybe someone, some day, will conceive and produce a truly Lovecraftian film which will not be pulp – a film to capture Lovecraft's spirit, not just creatures? For now, we'll have to be content with those.



PS: In the meantime, I got a message from someone close to the production in reaction to my review, and he said that the version I read & reviewed above is older, an that there are some (minor, I'd say) changes in the current version. Also, that the Thing appearing at the end is not really Cthulhu (as it was labelled in the version I read), but that it is some other, nameless 'deity'. This person also said that much of the detail remains VISUAL instead of TEXTUAL or dialogue oriented. What I called "poetry" and "atmosphere" is entirely dependant on execution, tempo and visual design, and thus not "scriptable". Or so they say.

Let's see.

With all possible pitfalls I mentioned (and some that I hadn't – like the WW2 allusions, which, for me, diminish the timeless horrors of Lovecraft to a historically superseded and all-too-human nazi horror), Del Toro's film is still the best chance Lovecraftian cinema has to break through from the confines of schlocky B-movies. With all due respect to Stuart Gordon, whom I interviewed a month ago at Fantasia (and whose work I more than respect and love!), I think Del Toro is the only real hope for truly Lovecraftian cinema at this moment, especially on this large scale. Well, maybe a mutant between Carpenter, Herzog and Lynch would do a better job at capturing the 'madness' part of these mountains, but as things stand, he's the one holding the torch. I can only pray that the production does not require too many compromises, and that they let him make an adequately dark and provoking vision of truly epic, alien terror.



PPS: A few more exclusive MADNESS pics, made in the John Hay Library at the Brown University, Providence, RI.


1. A certain Lovecraftian scholar poring over the original manuscript of HPL's MOUNTAINS:


2. Lovecraft's magazines with his stories in them + more of the MOUNTAINS manuscript:


3. A certain Lovecraftian scholar with Lovecraft's own copy of the issue of ASTOUNDING in which MOUNTAINS was originally published.


8/24/2010

VARIOLA VERA (1982)

(Variola Vera)

Serbia 1982

110 minutes


Director: Goran Markovic
Screenplay:
Goran Markovic, Milan Peca Nikolic
Cast: Rade Serbedzija,
Erland Josephson, Dusica Zegarac, Aleksandar Bercek, Bogdan Diklic

Producer: Aleksandar Stojanovic


Variola Vera's title refers to the Latin name for smallpox, and it is loosely based on a real event. In 1972, in then-Yugoslavia, an Albanian Muslim from Kosovo was infected by smallpox on his pilgrimage in the Middle East, and upon his return to Serbia he caused an epidemic in the Belgrade City Hospital, since his symptoms were not immediately recognized. In a claustrophobic environment of a quarantined hospital a group of characters, led by Rade Serbedzija (Eyes Wide Shut), try to survive the best way they can, and to retain their humanity in the process, if at all possible. While people are gruesomely dying, the opportunistic but inefficient politicians have more pressing issues in their minds than saving lives.


The director uses the disease as a metaphor: it provides a distorted mirror for an unhealthy system. Variola Vera deals with a fear that drives even the strongest to commit unspeakable acts of dishonor in order to save their lives. The common theme of Markovic's entire opus is the disastrous effect of the totalitarian communist regime on the minds of common people. For this purpose, the film uses legacies of at least two distinct genres: the disaster film and the horror film. Variola Vera borrows the general framework of a disaster-epidemic movie (realistic portrayal of a group of characters whose unity and humanity are challenged by the same, non-supernatural threat), but in its treatment it employs methods familiar from horror cinema. This does not refer only to the gruesome imagery of the disease (ulcers, scabs, pus, blood-vomiting), but, more importantly, to the way the disease is used to tell the story, and to enhance it through constant suspense, fear and an occasional shock.

Markovic manipulates the audience's emotions by using the subjective camera in an environment which provides a minimum of visual information. Suspense is accentuated by the context, i.e. the reality (and physicality) of the threat. A haunting score strenghtens the dense atmosphere of doom hanging over the entrapped characters (the cast also includes Bergman's actor, Erland Josephson). Variola Vera is filled with spooky imagery of men in white protective suits and of corpses of the deceased, wrapped in sheets soaked with disinfectant, to be sealed in metal caskets. No one is safe, not even children, in this bleak (but also blackly-humorous) account of body horror infecting the body politic.


Since the film is currenty unavailable in any legal DVD form with English subtitles, the DIVX with fan-made English subs can be found here.

8/16/2010

A SERBIAN FILM TO DISTURB YOU

A SERBIAN FILM was featured in the issue 295 (August) of the horror magazine FANGORIA.

Here's the text:


A SERBIAN FILM TO DISTURB YOU

Think you've seen it all? Then strap yourself in and prepare for the latest Eurohorror assault.


By JAY SLATER

As horror cinema goes, A Serbian Film (Srpski Film) does not know where to stop. It spits in the face of taboos, charges through boundaries where others fear to tread and gives the one-fingered salute to authority. It doesn't care about sensibilities or good taste. It laughs at the censors. It's a movie that wants to disturb, sicken and haunt, its twisted angst guaranteeing such promises as it goes through its motions, the gas pedal pressed firmly to the metal.


A Serbian Film is the first feature-length movie by Srdjan Spasojevic, who had previously experimented with student shorts. With this project, he went for the jugular with gusto and glee, wanting his audience to wallow in its bloody depravity but also to enlighten them with an overtly political allegory. An extreme Heart of Darkness, Spasojevic's film is, believe it or not, more intense and hard to watch than such past infamous splatter and torture flicks as Faces of Death, Cannibal Holocaust, the Saw series and In a Glass Cage. This is the real deal-a movie that is not afraid of censorship or controversy. The horror film of 2010 has arrived, and it means serious business. You have been warned-but if you dare, A Serbian Film is now making its way around the festival circuit, including a showcase at Montreal's Fantasia in July.

An independent production with crisp RED ONE cinematography and a breathtaking techno score by Sky Wikluh, A Serbian Film weaves the crimson-spattered story of Milo (Srdjan Todorovic), an ex-porn star who is reluctantly sucked into the underground sex 'n' snuff racket. The narrative then nosedives into incredible bad taste and unpleasantness as Milo's world is turned upside down, shaken by a reality that is twisted by nightmares and false turns. As a consequence, it replays the structure of Videodrome while retaining a unique sociopolitical flavor. "My desire was to communicate some strong ideas and feelings about my environment and the world we live in today, and shape them into a kind of film I would love to make," Spasojevic says modestly while sipping from a generous glass of black vodka and ice in Blaywatch, a noisy, bustling bar stocked with long-legged beauties that floats on the Danube River.


A Serbian Film, which Spasojevic scripted with Aleksandar Radivojevic, is indeed a political animal as well as an all-out horror movie, stomping in the template of a confused motherland after sudden social upheaval once the Cold War thawed -and, of course, extreme physical violence and sexual degradation in spades. It is proud of its origins, and like a phoenix rising from the ashes, came out of nowhere to stun the fest circuit into submission. The film benefits from the wonderful lead performance by Todorovic, who gives it his all in the role of the haunted Milo.


(...)


-READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE IN FANGORIA # 295 (pages 66-68)!-


8/10/2010

AN INTERVIEW WITH DJORDJE KADIJEVIC

-->
THE POWER OF THE IRRATIONAL

AN INTERVIEW WITH DJORDJE KADIJEVIC
THE DIRECTOR OF A HOLY PLACE
Conducted by Dejan Ognjanovic

DJORDJE KADIJEVIC is a Serbian director born in Šibenik (in what is now Croatia) in 1933. He is an art historian by education, but become a film director in the late 1960s. His first film, PRAZNIK (A FESTIVITY, 1967) is considered by many – I included – to be one of the top-10 Serbian films of all time. It was followed by POHOD (THE TREK, 1968), ŽARKI (THE FIERY ONE, 1970) and PUKOVNIKOVICA (THE COLONEL'S WIFE, 1971). The first three are dramas set in the WW2, while THE COLONEL'S WIFE is a black-comedy-drama set in WW1.
After those he continued his career on TV, where he directed some of his best films. Those include ČUDO (A MIRACLE, 1971), ZAKLETVA (THE OATH, 1974) and KARADJORDJEVA SMRT (THE DEATH OF KARADJORDJE, 1983).
LEPTIRICA (SHE-BUTTERFLY, 1973)

He is especially popular as the pioneering author of horror film in Serbia with his beloved cult TV film LEPTIRICA (SHE-BUTTERFLY, 1973). In the same year he also directed a grim gothic romance DEVIČANSKA SVIRKA (A MAIDEN'S MUSIC, 1973) and a metaphysical dark fantasy ŠTIĆENIK (THE PROTECTED, 1973). SVETO MESTO (A HOLY PLACE, 1990) was his long awaited return to a film made for cinemas – however, the outbreak of civil wars in Yugoslavia prevented its cinematic life and the film was only shown on Serbian TV, and nowhere else.
In July 2010 the film was selected as a part of the SUBVERSIVE SERBIA program at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Here is an excerpt of a much longer talk I had with the director.
ŠTIĆENIK (THE PROTECTED, 1973)

--- Have you at any point, while adapting Gogol's story "Viy", considered to keep the monsters and supernatural creatures that appear at the end of the story?

No, I rejected those because, you see, my film is realistic. Films of this genre can have success if they are rendered naturalistic. Only if you believe in this horrible situation you can accept that which seems impossible. If you immediately mystify things and if the viewer starts wondering from the start - you will not have the same effect.

--- Have you seen the Russian film version of "Viy"?

Yes, I saw it, and didn't like it. This kind of superstition I am not fond of. I did not want to make the film about the state of mind which is identified with the concept of superstition. I was aiming for something else, outside of that context. Gogol could always say: 'I did not make this up, this is a folk tale, folk imagination, Russian folk story ...'' But peasant's superstitions were not my primary concern.

--- The Russian film was actually made as a fable-like, benign fantasy.

Yes, and my film is not a fairy tale (laughs), this is an anti-fairy tale. It is precisely based on the standpoint of being anti-fairy tales, in terms of stressing the negativity which defines my whole strategy. The whole film is based on it.
SVETO MESTO (A HOLY PLACE, 1990)

--- It seems to me that A HOLY PLACE is more open to psychological interpretation, with all the perversion and teeming passions?

I wouldn't use the term 'perverse'. This film goes beyond the concept of perversion. Perversion is trivial. For example, if you have a man who can not experience an erection if he does not see blood. There is such a perversion: you must cut a woman, and only then are you a man, and unless you see the blood you are powerless. Perversion is always conditioned by something. Perversion falls into what I call triviality. This film deals with the mystical. The mystical is a kind of knowledge without explanation, without commentary.

--- The irrational.

Yes, irrational. Essential irrationality. It's awfully difficult to portray. When we talk about the essential irrationality, we are looking for an expression. It is a real challenge to show an image accompanied by sound and to create an illusion of real life scenes while dealing with essentially irrational themes.

--- The reason I mentioned the possibility of psychological reading is that it seems to me that in A HOLY PLACE you left the door slightly ajar for such an interpretation ...

It is possible to turn to psychology. If we start that way, then we will eventually return with one explanation, we'll get an excuse and I did not want any excuse nor explanation for the irrational. You know, we are a nation well suited for fantasy, for the mystical. We are people of the East. And we have a deeper sense and yearning for the metaphysical dimension of things than men in the West. If you take Slavic folklore as a basis, there are a lot of fantastic and horrific, creepy stories. If you consider our little-known and barely studied ancient Slavic pagan beliefs, or if you consider our medieval mysticism, the Manichean, Bosnian, Bogumil beliefs, we are one of the most mystic-oriented people in Europe.

8/08/2010

THE HEIRLOOM (2005)

Country: Taiwan

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 97 min.

Producer: Michelle Yeh, Aileen Li

Director: Leste Chen

Cast: Jason Chang, Terri Kwan, Chang Yu-chen, Tender Huang


GHOUL RATING:

**(*) 2+


Story: Young architect James Yang (Jason Chang) returns from the UK to take over his inheritance, a musty mansion on the outskirts of Taipei. His modern ballet dancer girlfriend, Yo (Terri Kwan), wants to study abroad, but then, she inexplicably moves into the spacious house to keep him company, never referring to her previous plans (and plane tickets bought). Several mysterious disappearances and deaths later we get to see what made her change her mind. But should we care?

Review: HEIRLOOM spoils any surprise and mystery in the very first 10 seconds: too proud of its idea, it spills it out in the inscription preceding even the prologue. In it, we are told about the practice of hsiao guei ('raising child ghosts') which consists of keeping dead fetuses in special jars, and 'worshipping' them through regular feeding with their master's blood. Allegedly, dead baby ghosts have enormous power, and can be used to further the wealth of a person or whole family. They can also be used to kill an entire family, as evidenced only seconds later in a decidedly spooky prologue: a dozen bodies are hung in the attic, their feet waving, producing a morbid sound with their tight ropes.

After a well-designed credits sequence and operatic-romantic-gloomy music which would not feel out of place in a Chanwook-Park film, HEIRLOOM opens with a highly economic introduction of its main characters and situation. But then, fifteen or twenty minutes later, just when you sit back in your armchair and start drooling 'Yeah, now let's see some of that dead fetus action!' – the film forgets its high concept, and starts falling apart in a series of dull, cheap, uninteresting and/or silly goings on. People hear strange noises; people investigate strange noises; sudden sights and sounds create cheap jolts; people disappear and reappear while you wonder: 'Why did they bother to waste such a great premise as dead fetus worship if they're going to spend half of the movie investigating entirely stupid phenomena such as some guys' being lifted out of or into the old house? This is not what the flick was supposed to be about!'

Other than the almost-wasted concept of baby ghosts, HEIRLOOM's centerpiece is the old house, the setting for majority of the film. This masterpiece of production design is certainly among the spookiest ever seen in Asian horror film, and Kwan Pun-leung's more than excellent cinematography makes the most of it. Simply, it is a joy to watch: pastel colors, great shadow play, inventive framing... all of it makes you fall in love with the place. Unfortunately, it also makes you want a more involving plot going on in this place. Because, the problem is, nothing of interest really happens until the very (anti-climactic) end. The scare scenes are often rushed or ended with cheap shocks, while murders are so misdirected that it ain't funny! In all of them the director is so shy of scaring you or of creating a memorable set-piece that his results are poor not merely in terms of horror, but in terms of basic filmmaking. You'll be left scratching your head: 'What have I just seen? What happened there?' What's even worst, some of them sound good on paper. If you imagine people hung by invisible ropes and lifted into the air, you'll have much better scenes in your heads than the botched, incomprehensible, forgettable ones that Leste Chen (un)delivers.

The script is lazy, most obviously in the tired cliché of a 'person who knows' coming out to fill in the gaps in the family's history. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson: ''How convenient!'' The opening seems to promise some drama, but HEIRLOOM pretty soon forgets about its bland characters and goes on with its main business: creating a heavy atmosphere of gloom and spookiness and delivering some uninspired scares. We can forgive such convenient details as the characters' moving into undecorated, dilapidated house with paint still peeling off the walls, because had they done the reasonable thing and repainted it in bright colors the film would have lost its sole attraction. But dropping the characters for the sake of plot mechanics is not a good idea, especially if you're not substituting drama with some set-piece-oriented frightfest a la EVIL DEAD TRAP. Music video director Leste Chen opts for the 'style over substance' approach, but his debut as a horror film director lacks conviction and talent to create genuine fear or shock, or to fully exploit genuinely morbid concept of 'hsiao guei'. Instead, he goes the safe and unimaginative way, and produces merely an average, forgettable eye-candy. It is a bit ironic that this flick is part of Tartan's 'Asia Extreme' series, since the only 'extreme' thing about it is its basic idea: sadly, very little of it is there on the screen!

8/01/2010

FANTASIA 2010: STILL SUBVERSIVE SELL-OUTS


This text was cross-posted on Beyond Hollywood too.



Dejan Ognjanovic


Upon seeing this year's Fantasia program, my immediate thought was: "Are they selling-out?" After all, the fest once known for weird and eccentric films from around the world was opened by THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, a Jerry Bruckheimer's Disney production! That sounded like announcing Frank Henenlotter opening the Venice film festival (not happened – yet)! But, fear not: it just meant the organizers were trying to cover as many bases as possible. After all, in spite of the apparently lesser number of, say, horror films, this year's Fantasia had more than its usual share of transgressive shocking craziness: dicks were chopped off, eyes picked out and eaten, horses' dicks sucked, people exploded, mutant girls cut men in half, reanimated revenants roamed the streets, cannibal families and ghouls fed on the unsuspecting victims... and more!


The alibi for the Disney opening was, actually, quite good: after all, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is based on a sequence from the animated film which gave Fantasia its name, and the young star Jay Baruchel is a local boy from Montreal who also happens to be an old Fantasia-regular. So, this particular opening was not a sell-out sign but just a proof that Fantasia's ambitions are rising higher – with a program (and, hopefully, budget) to support those. Whatever the case, it was particularly pleasing to see sold-out and mostly sold-out screenings, not only of the highly anticipated genre premieres (like, say, the new I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE) but also of relatively lesser known titles (like the Serbian TEARS FOR SALE or Hungarian artsy flick called "1"). Fantasia has always been about discoveries, explorations into the far out, unusual and exotic, and this year's 14th edition was no different.


Here's my brief overview of what I managed to see at Fantasia 2010 (in order of excellence):


FISH STORY

9/10


A gloriously feel-good Japanese film about the end of the world and the power of attitude and self-confidence in the face of calamity. Too complex to be briefly retold, the plot concerns several characters in three time periods (late 1970s, late 1990s and 2012) and has too many applause-inducing moments to be counted. Clever script, confident direction and excellent performances. A sheer joy from beginning to the end.



SYMBOL

9/10


Monty Python meets Stanley Kubrick in this crazy existential fantasy-comedy about a man who wakes up in a white room whose walls are covered by tiny angelic penises (!). Pressing those is the only way of getting means to leave the room, but the question remains: even if he gets out, what exactly IS out there, and how many more penises are there to touch before the ultimate salvation? The description may sound dirty and perverted, but the film is actually very good-humored, inoffensive and entertaining. Its unpredictable absurdities seem to suggest that human life is governed by the mixture of highly limited "free will" and the sick jokes from the unseen forces above.



AT WORLD’S END

8/10


You might not expect Denmark to produce a witty homage and accurately modernized reinvention of the American action-adventure comedies from the 1980s, but here it is nonetheless! A socially awkward lawyer becomes an unlikely hero in the jungles of Sumatra where various groups attempt to find the flower which allegedly provides eternal youth. Written by Anders Thomas Jensen (ADAM'S APPLES, THE GREEN BUTCHERS...) with his trade-mark mixture of black comedy, absurd and tragi-comedy, but augmented by some action set-pieces and stunning location photography! Hollywood has long since stopped making spirited and quirky movies like this: thank Azathoth for the Danes!

(with the director of this film)



THE REVENANT

8/10


A crowd-pleaser if there ever was one! A theatre full of Fantasians cheered and applauded throughout the full two hours of this horror-comedy about a recently reanimated guy, his buddy and his ex. They have to cope with his new thirst for blood, with the rising crime in the streets of LA, with his girlfriend – and, in the end, even with the American military-industrial complex and their questionable foreign policy! It covers all the bases, from fart-jokes to social-satire, from touching human drama to first rate splatter effects. Few films after AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON have managed to pull off the difficult balance between horror, humor and drama, but THE REVENANT is certainly one of the more successful attempts to grasp that magic.



POSSESSED

7/10


A slow-moving South Korean horror-drama about a girl's search for her missing sister and her efforts to connect it to a series of gruesome demises in the neighborhood which seem to be linked to a peculiar exorcism of the Eastern kind. This is one the very few recent horrors coming from Asia which actually seem to have something on their minds. It possesses the competence to scare you and make you think at the same time.



HIGANJIMA

7/10


Based on a manga, this dynamic action drama takes place on the vampire-infested Japanese island where a teen boy and his friends try to find his brother. Characters are better rounded than you might expect and one actually cares for them in the midst of all the fights, escapes, bloodletting and monster-fighting. High production values and solid effects make this an enjoyable visual feast, even if over-the-top ending and the final twist feel forced.



HEARTLESS

7/10


The first film by Philip Ridley (THE REFLECTING SKIN, PASSION OF THE DARKLY NOON) in 14 years certainly deserves attention: visually stunning, with some indelible images of horror (but also of beauty), it proves that Ridley is still in top form as a visual artist, though not as successful as a storyteller. His Faustian drama of a boy with a mark on his face who enters an otherworldly bargain to have it removed could use a little more coherence and a little less predictability. Jim Sturgess carries the film admirably on his back.



BLADES OF BLOOD

7/10


A costume drama cum action film uses the period setting for a story of complicated political divisions in medieval Korea, but wisely puts a boy and a blind master-swordsman (think Korean Zatoichi!) in the middle of those power struggles. Their relation is at the heart of the film and provides its most comical moments. Great sets and costumes, fine fights, good cinematography…



FEAST OF THE ASSUMPTION: BTK AND THE OTERO FAMILY MURDERS

6,5/10


This is a touching and thought-provoking account of how one of the sickest serial killers on record (BTK – Bind Torture Kill) affected the life of a victim that got away – a boy who was late from school just enough to avoid being killed with his parents and siblings, whose bodies he discovered. Complex emotions are evoked in yet another proof that sometimes true crime is stranger than genre fiction.



HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS –THE GODFATHER OF GORE

6,5/10


The greatest asset of this documentary is that it doesn't try to present its subject any more elevated or significant than he really is. H.G. Lewis may not be a great director, but he certainly deserves a big footnote in cinema history, and this film shows why. All is there: the (d)evolution from nudie to gore flicks, the particulars of how those splatter-fests were made, advertised and received, accompanied by valuable insights by David Friedman (Lewis's producer), John Waters and tell-it-like-it-is Joe Bob Briggs.

(Frank Henenlotter, left, who directed the documentary on H. G. Lewis, right)




THE EXECUTIONER

6,5/10


The characters (prison guards and inmates of a large South Korean prison) are handled well for a while, but the film, sadly, devolves into a pamphlet in the second half. Its anti-death-sentence message is commendable, but the over-melodramatic way it is presented in the later parts of the film takes away from the story and characters.



BLACK DEATH

6,5/10


Medieval setting. Plague is everywhere; witches; black magic; black sabbaths; dark woods… And yet, Christopher Smith (CREEP) decides to shoot the "dark ages" in broad daylight and rather sparse woods, with few shadows, while his story is not so much about witches and devilry as it is about the plague of Christianity. This makes for a good point in the end, but it is not so well prepared by the bulk which preceded it, and which mostly echoes THE WICKERMAN and other vastly superior titles. As is, the film is indecisive whether it wants to be a horror or a history drama (eventually it opts for the latter) and its insecurities make it look and feel half-hearted and slightly misguided, in spite of some good bits in it.



THE LOVED ONES

6,5/10


A "troubled" girl has an unconventional (and brutal) way of testing possible future husbands, and with the help of her sicko dad nevertheless. Our main guy is subjected to various tortures (psychological and corporeal), but we had too little time to get to know him before he ended up bound and gagged, so the involvement in his predicament is rather small. This Australian black torture comedy plays like a prolonged sick joke, and is pretty solid as such. Not particularly deep and far from a modern classic, but still, it's entertaining enough.



SELL OUT!

6,5/10


This plays like a very belated Malaysian discovery of Monty Python and especially of Terry Gilliam's bleak and grotesque satires on consumerism and soulless corporations destroying idealistic and naïve individuals. The pace is slower than required for a good comedy, the song routines aren't really needed (and the songs themselves are far from Eric Idle's inspired and melodic tunes) and not all of the jokes really work. Still, this is a well-meaning, a bit naïve, sledge-hammer subtle satire with enough good moments to merit your attention. After all, it got the Silver Award (Asian films) from Fantasia audience.



PHOBIA 2

6,5/10


Above-average anthology with enough creeps (especially in the first two segments) and laughs (in the last one) to please genre fans. The second one is the best: a teenager ends up in hospital with a hurt leg. The old scary looking guy in the bed next to him seems to be much more than a dirty old man, but, in any case – he wants the boy's body! The last segment is a pretty funny send-up on the Asian ghost-flicks craze, dealing with a horror film shoot in which reality and fiction are intriguingly interrelated and confused.



[REC] 2

6/10


Everybody else seems to like this sequel, so who am I to complain about the indistinguishable cast of unrecognizable helmeted soldiers roaming the corridors of the infested building, or about pointlessly introduced teen characters, or about constant twists which progressively render events sillier and sillier? It is fast-paced enough for people not to notice or care about this, and it is at least well-made enough to provide more scares than most stuff that passes for horror these days. So, check it out, but don't expect a classic like the first one.



1

6/10


A visual feast and a thought-provoking mind-boggler which asks more questions than anyone could answer. In the end the film chews much more than it can swallow and its deliberate obscurantism may be more than some audiences are led to expect after the intriguing mystery in the beginning. It is all related to a book titled "1" which describes EVERYTHING that happened during one minute everywhere in the world – to everyone.



DOWN TERRACE

6/10


I don't like the "verité", almost Dogma style of shooting, and I don't think much of "films" whose look resembles filmed theatrical performances or made-for-TV dramas. That aside, this is a solidly scripted and excellently acted black dramedy whose witty dialogues might need subtitles outside of UK to be properly appreciated.



MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD

6/10


This delivers exactly what the fans of Japanese puerile "cult" splatter action comedies expect, so – you know who you are. Mutants, girls, imaginative and outrageous bloodletting, and craziness – it's all there, in great amounts. It plays strictly for its (limited) audience, but within the confines of its ambitions, it is an honest, fun-loving romp.



OUTCAST

5,5/10


A Clive Barker-like plot is directed and acted like a Mike Leigh film. Yeah, if a "naturalistic" approach to a monster movie with occult overtones sounds great to you, take a look at this. Sadly, they decided to invest too much in the twist, thus disabling a better understanding of the main character – a young man hounded by a sect and haunted by his (unknown) father's supernatural legacy. Because of keeping the audiences in the dark for too long about certain crucial facts about what's going on, there is no sufficient emotional investment in the boy's plight and eventual tragedy.



RED WHITE & BLUE

5,5/10


Yes, the performances are brave and very good. Yes, the film is painful, explicit and shocking. Yes, there is plentiful nudity, sex, torture and gore. But the point of all that eludes me. One character with an over-the-top background I could take: but THREE of them, with such extremely fucked up psychologies and grotesquely exaggerated personal histories are way too much for something which pretends to be a serious, realistic drama about human condition, or some such. Essentially, this plays more like an uncredited adaptation of Richard Laymon or Edward Lee's gruesome "real"-life grotesqueries and sado-splatter-fests than an insightful peek into the lives and minds of real people.



I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2010

5/10

(Zarchi speaks, but the remake's director - bearded - doesn't listen)

The remake is nowhere near the significance of the original. It is just a competent, polished, dumbed-down version for the strong-stomached empty-heads to cheer and root at the sadistic (and unrealistic) ways of dispatching people. It is a shallow product by the people who didn't get a single thing worth getting from the original. Both films reflect their respective times - and our times are defined by rather more forgettable, lazy and shallow filmmakers (or should I say – craftsmen). The score is good and the make-up effects far more elaborate, to please the "demanding" SAW-crowd. And that's all.

PS: The Q & A was briefly interrupted by an inebriated or otherwise 'altered' person who claimed that Zarchi's original is a masterpiece, while the remake is shit. While I whole agree with the sentiment, it was pronounced in a rather confused, impolite and tiresome manner (see photo above).



LA MEUTE (THE PACK)

4,5/10


A half-assed French horror which opens half-promisingly but ends up being less than competent even on the most basic level, say, of scripting relatively convincing events, characters or monsters. Barely passable but entirely forgettable flick whose gore is nowhere near as extreme as some reports would have us believe. Even when it comes to using the great actor Philippe Nahon (HAUTE TENSION), or delivering the gore, this PACK is – half-assed.



WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

4/10


This is a boring, uneventful, unintentionally funny and all-around clumsy Mexican attempt at delivering a social satire by means of a cannibal metaphor. Heavy-handed in all departments, and ultimately shallow and uninvolving. Both the drama and the horror aspects of the film are undercooked – yet the film is not even raw as a cannibal film should be.



THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE)

2/10


I will forever remain mystified by the relative success of this thing with the audiences (and some critics). Is the great, sick concept enough to save a barely-competent direction and flat cinematography, poor acting, cheap sets and almost no effects? This dull, spiritless film would be a godsend to someone like Frank Henenlotter to invigorate it and exploit its central idea to the hilt, the way it should've been done. As is, however, this is just a one-joke "movie" where the joke gets stale pretty soon, and even lacks the punch in the end.



NEIGHBOR ZOMBIE

2/10


I left this terrible, cheap South Korean bore-fest after 30 minutes, so I can't write a review, only a warning: stay away from this time-waster.



(with the screenwriter of A SERBIAN FILM)


But that's not all: a program called SUBVERSIVE SERBIA showed some great stuff from a place few people could locate on the map, and even fewer expected good films from. Since I co-programmed this selection with Mitch Davis, it would be inopportune for me to write reviews of them. Instead, I'll just enumerate the facts. The following recent Serbian films were shown: a black-comedy road-movie splatter THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG, shockingly shocking and insane A SERBIAN FILM, darkly-humorous fantasy TEARS FOR SALE (Director’s cut) and a cyberpunk anime TECHNOTISE: EDIT & I. Three somewhat older titles were also shown: a gloomy smallpox-epidemic disaster-horror VARIOLA VERA (1982), perversely supernatural adaptation of Gogol's "Viy" in A HOLY PLACE (1990) and a gory slasher T. T. SYNDROME (2002).


Films from this program got more awards than any other Fantasia program this year: the jury awarded Mladen Djordjevic's LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG for BEST SCREENPLAY, while A SERBIAN FILM got SPECIAL MENTION for BEST FIRST FEATURE. The Fantasia 2010 Écran Fantastique prize went to the Serbian film TEARS FOR SALE. As for AUDIENCE AWARDS, A SERBIAN FILM got the Gold as BEST EUROPEAN, NORTH AMERICAN OR SOUTH AMERICAN FILM, and shared Gold with SYMBOL as MOST INNOVATIVE FILM. Also, TECHNOTISE: EDIT AND I got the Silver as BEST ANIMATED FILM.

(Q & A after A SERBIAN FILM)




There were some other great retro films on Fantasia 2010:


THE DEVILS (1971): the one-of-a-kind masterpiece by Ken Russell, who was in attendance and received a life-achievement award. Words cannot describe this audio-visual feast, but also the sentiments of disappointment when we realized that, for reasons too complicated and stupid (old feuds; censorship laws; unavailable prints…), the film was not shown in its 35mm glory, as promised, but from an inferior digital source. OK, THE DEVILS is such a great film that it would be still enjoyable even if watched in black & white through a gauze veil, or reenacted by hand-puppets, but still… a bitter taste was left after the screening of such a great cinematic feat from an inadequate source. The organizers did their best to provide the best possible print but in the last moment that sadly turned out to be impossible.


KURONEKO (1968), a masterpiece of Japanese horror, by the master Kaneto Shindo (ONIBABA). Shoot me, but after seeing this from a stunning 35mm print on a large screen I can claim that this is the best Japanese horror made before RING (1998). Yes, that means better than KWAIDAN (1964).

Sadly, I could not attend the screening of a recently restored version of the classic METROPOLIS (1926) accompanied by a live orchestra: by all accounts, it was an event not to be missed by any cinephile within the reasonable, accessible distance.



Two more events deserve to be singled out:


(with Jeffrey Combs)


NEVERMORE: AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE, a theatrical one-man show in which Jeffrey Combs shows his significant dramatic chops as Edgar Allan Poe himself. This clever and entertaining mixture of Poe's poems, stories and life was concocted by Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli and directed by Gordon.

(with Stuart Gordon)



Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli also held a panel on ADAPTING H. P. LOVERCRAFT FOR THE SCREEN: A MASTER CLASS. It was an insightful presentation (with clips from their Lovecraftian movies) where the quotes from Lovecraft were well integrated in a clear, precise and well-rounded two-hours lecture which never felt tedious or confusing: quite the opposite! The audience wanted more!

(Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli)



After all this (which barely covers ¼ of all films shown!), is there any need at all to stress that Fantasia is the leading genre festival on the North American continent? Its carefully selected films, events, guests and exclusive programs make it a delight and treasure to visit and enjoy. It's pleasing to hear official announcement that they sold 10% more tickets than last year: obviously, the festival's inevitable growth is followed by its faithful and ever increasing audience. This last fact should be a definite proof to the powers that be that Fantasia means business and should be taken even more seriously when the time comes to provide funds for the next year's edition which will, hopefully, be even bigger and better.