Mayhem Film Festival 2017 round-up: a brilliant mix of horror, SF, cult and weirdness

We went to Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival and it was a bloody good time

Last weekend saw Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema play host to Mayhem Film Festival, and we headed into screen one for four days full of horror, sci-fi and cult movies from around the world. It was our first time at Mayhem, and it definitely won’t be the last. With an excellent and eclectic selection of features and shorts (everything from man-eating lions attacking Amsterdam to cannibal brothel staff in Manchester), there was something for everyone. The atmosphere was fantastic, the crowd was great, the organisers and staff were awesome, and there was the opportunity to win a prize based on your knowledge of ‘Love Shack’. What more could you ask for?

The festival kicked off on Thursday night with Benjamin Barfoot’s excellent horror comedy Double Date, in which writer Danny Morgan stars as a sweet if neurotic young man trying to lose his virginity before he’s 30, who runs into two too-good-to-be-true sisters who are actually out for his blood. You can read Anton Bitel’s full review here, and it was a great choice for an opening night movie, full of blood, laughs, heart and surprisingly brutal fight sequences. Barfoot, Morgan, producer Matt Wilkinson and star Georgia Groome were on hand for a hilarious Q&A.

Then there was a pretty powerful tonal shift, as Natalia Leite’s MFA followed. Francesca Eastwood (Heroes Reborn) stars as Noelle, an art student who goes on a vigilante killing spree after being assaulted at a party. Leite and writer Leah McKendrick pull no punches, both in terms of the depiction of crimes and the rage and frustration Noelle feels as she struggles to find justice in a society that is geared to protect men and paint female victims as promiscuous or unstable. The plotting does get shaky and it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a grounded, grim shocker or a stylish, sharp B-movie, but there’s no denying the power of its anger.

Day two began with Marianne Palka’s Sundance hit Bitch, playing in what the festival organisers described as “the Thursday afternoon weird slot.” It’s definitely an unusual film, both in terms of story and style, as Palka plays a housewife who is pushed so far by her uncaring husband (Jason Ritter), and screaming kids that she snaps and begins acting like a dog. In every way. There’s a confrontational quality to the concept as well as the eccentricity of the humour and the score, but there’s a real heart to it too that makes it feel like an odd, angrier cousin of one of Miranda July’s films. You can read Josh Slater-Williams’ full review here.

Next up, Matthew Gray Gubler has one hell of a night (and day) in Trent Haaga’s 68 Kill, as his amiable character Chip is coerced into a deadly robbery by his amoral girlfriend Liza (the excellent AnnaLynne McCord). The film is at its most fun when it really pushes the weirdness, and the subversion of the traditional gender roles is fun, but this reviewer was left a little disappointed. (You can read Anton Bitel’s full review here).

Simeon Halligan (White Settlers) was on hand to present his latest film Habit, an adaptation of Stephen McGeagh’s novel about a young man with a troubled past who finds a new family working at a brothel where the staff have a dark, gory secret. Halligan really makes the most of his Manchester location (and bemoaned the lack of genre films set in the city during the Q&A), and presents a nice blend of Clive Barker-esque urban chills and grim family drama. It’s perhaps in need of a clearer structure, but Michael’s journey is compelling and Halligan does a nice job of teasing out the truth of what goes on behind the curtain of the service industry. Then, wonderfully, the late-night crowd was treated to Friday The 13th Part 3 in 3D on Friday 13th. Damn right.

The first film on Saturday was quite possibly our favourite of the festival. Sion Sono (Cold Fish, Love Exposure, Tokyo Tribe) delivered a barking mad story with Tag that’s honestly difficult to describe…but we’ll try. After an incomprehensible, shocking and kind of amazing tragic event, a high school girl finds herself caught in a labyrinth that involves fate, chaos, choice, dismemberment and pig men. It’s a very strange but absolutely wonderful combination of shoegazing-sound tracked teen drama, horror and sheer confusion, and we loved every delirious second of it.

We were also very impressed by South Korean SF A Day, in which a famous doctor finds himself caught in a Groundhog Day-style time loop while trying to save the life of his daughter. Just when he’s about to give up, he realises that he’s not the only one repeating this day over and over again…At a certain point, A Day threatens to tip into a very nasty revenge thriller, but writer-director Sun-ho Cho works hard to keep the humanity in his increasingly grim story of endless vengeance and heartbreak. It’s well-constructed, very well-acted, and it keeps finding new ways to draw you in. Keep an eye out for this one.

Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island was up next, and dammit, this is yet another one that we really can’t talk about too much. The feature debut from the writer-director-star follows a Spanish immigrant struggling to survive in New York who takes a mysterious job from her friend Olga, and…. that’s all we can really say. Asensio proves that she’s a very exciting talent, building tension to an almost unbearable level and executing the reveal perfectly. It’s out soon, so go and see it. Just try not to read anything about it first.

Then it was time for the short films! As with the features, there was a great mix of pure horror, comedy, SF and weirdness. We’d particularly like to highlight Natalie Erika James’ creepy, atmospheric and moving Creswick, Matt Mercer’s hugely fun Feeding Time, James Moran and Cat Davies’ hilarious Creepshow-esque Blood Shed (“…Bunty.”), Cameo Wood’s upsettingly plausible Hollywood testing tale Real Artists (based on a story by the awesome Ken Liu), Don Swaynos’ wonderful Don’t Ever Change (in which a journalist tries to convince his elderly serial killer idol to get back in the game), and Amelia Moses’ alternately eerie and incredibly gory Undress Me. Our favourite of the bunch, however, was Laurel Vail’s fantastic, fiery and laugh-out-loud funny What Metal Girls Are Into, about three girls at a metal festival trying to decide what to do about the fact that their creepy Airbnb host might be a serial killer.

Up next was Prey, a creature feature from veteran genre filmmaker Dick Maas (The Lift, Amsterdamned). Now, we’ve been conditioned to be cautious of creature features that sound like a good time, so we went into this story of a man-eating lion tearing Amsterdam to pieces with a certain degree of scepticism. We needn’t have worried. Prey is great fun: it’s funny, it’s gory, the CGI is actually pretty damn good, and it’s knowingly ridiculous without going too far. Without a doubt, this was the pleasant surprise of the festival, and Maas took part in a Q&A afterwards to talk horror, trying to use real lions, and always killing kids (in films).

The last film of the night was the new restoration of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria, and good lord, it looked absolutely gorgeous. The colours are simply stunning, the sound is sensational, and it’s just essential to see it on the big screen. The gentleman snoring as Suzy tried desperately to stay awake was unexpected but somehow added to the sense of peril in that sequence.

And so, the final day began with Australian mockumentary (or is it?) Top-Knot Detective, about a bizarre, long-forgotten Japanese TV show that found cult adoration in Australia (or did it?). It’s very funny and meticulously made, blending a Garth Marenghi-style lack of self-awareness with a surprising and genuine love for the material. You can read our full review here.

Icelandic filmmaker Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Rift was a change of pace; a slow-burn chiller about a man who heads out to the countryside to check in on his unstable ex-boyfriend. It’s beautifully shot and obviously personal (which the writer-director confirmed in an adorable video message before the movie), and Björn Stefánsson and Sigurður Þór Óskarsson are excellent in the leads. While the final third doesn’t seem to quite know what it’s doing with itself, it is sincere and affecting, and it has one absolutely brilliant scare in it. Rift is certainly worth a look.

Then there was the festival’s big event. Six actors took to the stage for a live-reading of Steven Sheil’s adaptation of a long-lost Hammer outline for a film that was tragically never made: Zeppelin V Pterodactyls. Sheil’s script perfectly captured the Hammer magic while making some necessary and well-executed updates. Complete with score and sound effects and some excellent performances (Johnny Phillips’ narration was great, particularly when it came to describing viscera splattering across things), this was simply wonderful. Although it did make us a little sad that we don’t have a Hammer film in which pterodactyls attacked a zeppelin. A big round of applause for all involved.

Joe Lynch’s Mayhem put all that splatter back up on the screen, as Steven Yeun’s recently fired attorney takes advantage of an id-liberating virus to go postal on his monstrous, corrupt bosses. Like a more hyperactive Belko Experiment, Mayhem aims to balance social commentary with the sheer joy of bloody violence and snarky humour, but it’s less successful than Greg McLean’s more considered effort. Still, Yeun makes for a good lead, Samara Weaving is wonderfully unhinged, and it’s always nice to see Kerry Fox. Read Anton Bitel’s full review here.

Sadly, it was time for the final film, and the organisers had made sure that the festival ended with a bang. Peter Ricq’s Dead Shack is a huge amount of hilarious, gory, Goonies-esque fun, as three kids band together to protect their drunk dad from a woman who has zombies on a leash. You can read Anton Bitel’s full review here, but Broadway was echoing with the sounds of horror movie fans cackling at the excellent humour and great gore. It was a brilliant way to say goodbye to an awesome weekend.

And with that, the festival was over. We cannot recommend Mayhem Film Festival highly enough, and a huge thank you to Steven Sheil, Chris Cooke, Melissa Gueneau and the whole team at Broadway Cinema for being such incredible hosts. How long until next Halloween?