Today boasted the strongest line-up in a strong weekend, despite a shaky(cam) beginning, an over-elongated end, and a middle that got somewhat lost in Albania. Detour‘s writer/director Chris Smith regaled FrightFesters with tales of drinking with Dolph Lundgren and falling in love with Bel Powley and Rosamund Pike – and festival closer The Night Of The Virgin was certainly improved by having director Roberto San Sebastián and producer Kevin Iglesias shout out “Terrence Malick inspiration!” or “The miracle of life!” during all its grossest parts, like the Statler and Waldorf of bad taste.
Sharks, like zombies, are everywhere in genre cinema, creating something of a sink or swim environment. The more serious contenders aspire to the dizzying heights (or is that depths) of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but most are mere bottom feeders, vying in their trashy scavenging with endless Megasharks, Sharknadoes and Sharktopodes. Gerald Rascionato’s Cage Dive certainly aims to keep its head above water, adding the high concept of a found-footage format (with a little faux reportage) to a scenario that has otherwise already been well-explored by Open Water (2003), Adrift (2006) and The Reef (2010).
Californian stepbrothers Jeff (Joel Hogan) and Josh (Josh Potthoff) and Jeff’s girlfriend Megan (Megan Peta Hill) are making a video of their cage dive in South Australia’s Cape Catastrophe as part of a pitch for an extreme reality show – but as they plunge into baited waters, a freak wave overturns the cruise boat. Several weeks later, their digicam is found on the ocean floor, revealing their last hours treading shark-infested water, under constant threat as much from their own jealous squabbling as from circling great whites.
It is a full 30 minutes before these three are swimming with sharks. That is half an hour of watching vapid, obnoxious, narcissistic thrill seekers preening and gurning to camera, high-fiving like idiots and saying “Wow!” a lot. Forget likeable, they are not even relatable – unlike the sharks. We know from the very outset that this trio’s youthful hopes and dreams are destined to be cut short on the teeth of mortality, but also wish it would happen to them much, much faster. By the time Megan is giving her final weepy message to camera, Blair Witch-style, you will be dying to see some frenzied shark action – which, when it comes, is blissful relief.
“I want you to buy more, April,” says Randall (Eric Balfour), “because you’re a pretty woman and I know that you have a special connection to clothes. I want you to use that connection to become more of who you want to be.”
In Simon Rumley’s Fashionista, April (Amanda Fuller, Rumley’s Red White & Blue) does indeed have a special connection to clothes. As a devotee of second-hand wear, not only does she spend most of her time dressed in other people’s garments, but she is also surrounded by recycled castoffs in her apartment – which doubles as a storehouse for the vintage emporium that she runs with her husband Eric (Ethan Embry). Every day she reinvents herself with a ‘new’ outfit, even dreaming of the combinations that she will wear. In her hands, pre-loved clothes are there to be sniffed, rubbed and stroked, to comfort and to arouse. Yet when Eric strays, April needs a change – of both clothes and of man – and so she meets Randall. Smooth, rich, dominant, Randall is everything that Eric is not – but April, torn between her old and new getup, begins to come apart at the seams. Meanwhile, another woman (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) quite unlike April is in the process of leaving an institution.
With its ‘woman in trouble’, its parallel storylines and narrative fugues, Fashionista has Lynch written all over it, and yet it claims inspiration, in a closing credit, from “the films of Nicolas Roeg.” Roeg’s particular influence can be felt in Tom Sainty’s editing, which montages scenes and cross-cuts timelines to create a patchwork mosaic of a character struggling to reconcile conflicting aspects of herself. The results are a disorienting and disturbing exploration of jealousy, obsession, body dysmorphia and ‘the other woman’. Along the way the film also takes in more obliquely the tensions and frictions involved in gentrifying and renewing a community like Austin, Texas (where events are set), as its older look is replaced by a new corporate guise that is not necessarily a good fit. Allowing April’s story to unfold in elliptical fragments, Rumley leaves it to viewers to put the pieces together, showing himself once more to be Britain’s most confronting and confounding genre filmmaker. A movie as much about a split as a breakup, Fashionista was for me the harrowing highlight of the weekend.
Given that, for all their differences, both his feature debut The Horseman (2008) – which had its European première at FrightFest – and now his follow-up Bloodlands place him firmly in the business of revenge cinema, writer/director Steven Katrissios is starting to look like Australia’s answer to Park Chan-wook. Not unlike Peter Strickland setting his revenger debut Katalin Varga (2009) in Romania, Katrissios has taken the decidedly uncommercial decision of shooting Bloodlands in Abania (with an Albanian cast), exploiting that nation’s history of ‘Kanun of Lek’ law and cross-generational blood feuds.
Skender (Gëzim Rudi) struggles to maintain traditional patriarchal authority within his family, as his strong-willed daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) makes her own plans for an independent life abroad, and his son Artan (Emiljano Palali) proves more interested in becoming a photographer than taking over his father’s failing butchery business. Yet even as these bids for modernity encroach, Skender’s aggression towards a family of beggars, rumoured to have a witch (or ‘shtriga’) as their matriarch, dredges up some forgotten family history and an Oedipal vendetta, as the sins of the past are visited upon later male generations in accordance with ancient tradition.
Bloodlands offers a mannered blend of realist domestic drama and the supernatural, with acts of ritualised necromancy symbolising a past that can never truly stay buried. Problems, however, with understanding the motivations of these extremely trigger-happy characters left me somewhat in the shadows, unsure how to engage with their experience. There is the kernel of a good idea in there about the way that savagery ascribed to the Other is often merely just part of one’s own repressed genetic makeup – but the nature of the narrative, meandering and a little incoherent, makes its meaning all rather difficult to disinter.
Some way into Detour, criminal-for-hire Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen) asks law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) what he would do if he could “cut [him]self in half”, so that one half goes off with Johnny and his stripper girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley) to murder Harper’s adulterous stepdad Vincent (Stephen Moyer) in Vegas, while the other stays at home and keeps his hands clean, none the wiser.
Certainly writer/director Christopher Smith is a filmmaker of two halves. There is the part of him that has made straight if savvy genre films Creep (2004), Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010), and then there is the part of him that has taken genre for a loop with his best film Triangle (2009), messing trickily with its narrative structure to confound our understanding of the truth its plot was circling. Smith’s latest, Detour, shows us both sides of the filmmaker. On the one hand, it is a sun- and neon-lit neo noir in which Harper’s drunken encounter with Johnny Ray one night in a bar lead to a Strangers On A Train-style deal with the devil that may just reveal good boy Harper’s dark side – and along the way, it directly references other noirs like Jack Smight’s Harper (1966) and Edward G. Ulmer’s homonymous Detour (1945). On the other, it offers a narrative that itself apparently bifurcates (via split screens and cross cutting) into two separate storylines that run alongside each other before gradually reconverging in an unexpected manner.
In the end, genre convention will triumph over the film’s formally experimental digressions, but in flirting with the parallel plotting of Sliding Doors (1998), Detour not only finds graphic ways of highlighting its character’s moral choices, but also exposes those choices as an illusion in a world of dumb luck. Deftly shot and smartly edited, it’s a two-way trip into heaven and hell.
You will no doubt have heard the stories of people fainting in the aisles at festival screenings of Julia Ducournau’s feature debut Raw – stories which fall into a familiar pattern of PR guff designed as a gauntlet to be thrown down before an audience of drooling gorehounds. The truth is, though, that Raw is much better than all these shock-happy tactics might suggest: a subversive tale of a young woman’s testing of her limits and discovery of her desires (genetic and environmental) as she leaves home and enters her first year at a veterinary school.
Justine (Garance Marillier) has been raised as a strict vegetarian, but after being forced, as part of a hazing exercise, to eat a rabbit’s liver, she starts to change, and develops a hunger for flesh with which, like any self-respecting adolescent who has just flown the coop, she begins to experiment. Meanwhile, she is surrounded by other students who are on parallel quest to define their identity and independence, like her gay roommate Adrian (Rabah Nait Oufella) and her older, more experienced, but also more wayward sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). The question is, how far is each of them willing to go?
Raw is a dreamy coming-of-age allegory, with plenty of subtext to chew on, as it shows the potential for monstrous transgression and human restraint that we all harbour within our developing bodies. It also, rather refreshingly, privileges the female gaze, with its male characters reduced from this perspective to mere meat and bone. To be sure, there will be blood – and scars too – but really, this is a poetic and elegant modern gothic concerned with the end of innocence and the first tastes of experience.
Hounds Of Love
In the prologue to Hounds of Love, while the camera, shooting in extreme slow motion, casts a dreamy hyperrealism over scenes from everyday suburbia, it eventually fixes on – and objectifies – the young bodies of netball-playing schoolgirls. We are sharing the voyeuristic perspective of a predator – and after one of these girls, walking home, accepts a lift from a friendly-seeming couple, she is imprisoned, repeatedly raped and murdered, her body unceremoniously buried in a forest.
Literature and cinema have long been fascinated with the pathology of male serial killers, but for his very strong feature debut, writer/director Ben Young is more interested in exploring the murky psychology of their Rosemary Wests and Myra Hindleys – those infatuated female accomplices who do unspeakable things in the name of love. From the start, John (Stephen Curry) is beneath contempt – a strutting patriarch and lord of his little domain who is also a cowardly, larcenous, manipulative, gas-lighting paedophile (and worse) – but his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth) comes with much greater nuance, all at once loathsome and cunning, yet pitiable. Set around a sweltering 1987 Christmas in Perth, this is one to file alongside other naturalistic crime dramas from Australia like The Boys (1998), Animal Kingdom (2010) and Snowtown (2011).
As troubled adolescent Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out of the low-rent fixer-upper where her recently divorced mother Maggie (Susie Porter) is now living, John and Evelyn spot their next sexual plaything. Though captive and utterly disempowered, Vicki will expose the cracks in the couple’s dysfunctional relationship, even as her struggles to escape bondage mirror not only Evelyn’s own attempts to find her way out of an impossibly toxic relationship, but also misunderstood Maggie’s bid for liberation from a more conventionally unequal marriage.
Harrowing, claustrophobic and tense, Young’s film is thankfully elliptical in its presentation of John and Evelyn’s very worst activities. If the title evokes Kate Bush’s LP Hounds of Love (released two years before the film’s events take place), then the film also concerns three differently trapped women who, like the heroine of that album’s conceptual second side, are all struggling to keep their head above water. Yet while none of Bush’s songs actually features on the soundtrack, Hounds Of Love will certainly change forever the way you hear the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, here played by John as a prelude to his particular brand of domestic horror.
The Night of the Virgin
It is New Year’s Eve, and young Nico (Javier Bódalo) is out on the town, looking to lose his virginity. After various failed attempts to seduce women on the dance floor (the closest he gets is when one of them throws up all over his patent leather shoes), Nico is spotted by the much older Medea (Miriam Martín), who takes him back to her filthy, cockroach-infested apartment. Soon he is trapped inside with his ominously named hostess, while her jealous ex-boyfriend ‘Spider’ (Victor Amilibia) beats at the door threatening all manner of violence against him, even as the gay couple upstairs loudly bangs away together. Yet as Nico learns more about Medea’s adherence to an obscure Nepalese goddess, he finds himself embedded for a sexual initiation that might not turn out quite as he was originally expecting.
The shoe vomit near the beginning of Roberto San Sebastián’s Spanish feature debut serves as an apt prelude to a film in which every imaginable bodily fluid will eventually be ejaculated in impossibly copious quantities. The Night Of The Virgin is two hours long, and feels it too. The pacing is ever so slow, as we spend far more time than we might like watching the dislikable Nico squirm odiously in his every interaction with Medea or her sordid environs – but as the film’s initial comedy of awkward errors shifts into the more visually grotesque modes of body horror, the apparent endlessness of scenes involving cum, spew, menses, sharts, blood and guts only adds to the horrible discomfort of it all. For if Nico’s gender-inverted defloration is a squeam-inducingly long, dark night of the (arse)soul, something of his excruciating torment is certainly experienced by the viewer, for whom the film itself becomes an ordeal of endurance.
The Night Of The Virgin is very hard to love, but it certainly vies for the cherished status of most wilfully disgusting movie ever made – and there is something admirably Delicatessen-like to its lived-in, hyperreal production design. If all the abhorrence displayed by the film towards bodily functions seems just a tad puerile, even pathological, a mid-credits coda puts a pleasing alternative spin on that preceding abjection.
Thank you to the Horror Channel FrightFest team and the staff at the Glasgow Film Theatre.