A Night Of Blood And Roses

It’s a big day for UK indie film-maker Simon Aitken. Blood + Roses, his first feature, has it’s cast, crew and press screenings tonight. I’m really excited, and can’t wait to see it on the big screen at last. It’s been a long, hard two year fight to get the film to this position, and it shows the sort of tenacity and single-minded drive that Simon has in spades that he’s done it with no money, and certainly no help from government or lottery-funded grants. It’s a tremendous achievement, and I’m proud to be associated with it.

Plus, beer afterwards. Always good.

Frightfest: peaks, troughs and a mission.

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Saturday dawned, sunny with clear blue skies. A blessing, after three twelve hour days at work in the dark, staring at a screen.
No sun for me. I would be spending the day voluntarily sitting in a dark room, staring at a screen. Saturday was Frightfest day.

I met Leading Man Clive and Blood ‘n’ Roses Aitken in the one decent pub in Leicester Square. They were breakfasting. I had already eaten, so fortified myself with a pint of crude. It’s good for you, right? Besides, I didn’t want any more coffee. Twitchy in a horror movie crowd is not a good look.

To the Empire, the big new venue for Frightfest. We grabbed wrist bands, perused the retail opportunities around the main concourse (The Cinema Store had a decent selection of goodies, but I contented myself with a Frightfest teeshirt) and all too soon it was time to go in for the first movie.

SMASH CUT is a loving tribute to the work of Hershell Gordon Lewis, The Wizard Of Gore. It wears it’s influences lightly and isn’t afraid to make fun of itself. The story of a director who starts harvesting murder victims for props for his movie, it’s light on it’s feet, funny, sharp and impassioned about the state of the industry. It features a lot of genre names in cameo and supporting roles, including Hershell himself, who was clearly having a ball. It was a great casting move to include porn star Sasha Grey, who gives a fairly solid performance as the investigative journalist tracking down the psycho director. There’s a fine horror tradition of giving strong female roles to porn actresses, and it’s carried off with aplomb here.

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I loved it. It will never win any Oscars, but for fans of the genre it’s well worth the time. Director Lee Demarbre and star David Hess introduced the film and gave a hilarious Q&A afterwards, which also addressed the central dilemma at the heart of the film. A love story to cheap and cheesy 16mm film-making, it’s shot on video. I’m never convinced by the arguments given for shooting on HD versus film, and just think it always looks a bit cheap. I’m biased, I know, but I simply don’t see HD as the only choice for the lo-to-no budget film-maker.

Aaaaanyway. Twenty minutes later, we were back in our seats for HIERRO, a Spanish horror that’s clearly going for the same creepy ghost child feel as The Orpanage and The Devil’s Backbone. It doesn’t, sadly, feeling leaden and plodding. Rather than building a mood and putting us on edge, director Gabe Ibáñez seems content to make a good looking frame, and ensure that his lead actress, the lovely Elena Anaya, always looks stunning even at the height of her despair.

Elena plays Maria, who lost her son on a ferry trip to the island of La Hierro, on the southernmost tip of the Spanish territories. Crazed with grief, she returns to the island when a child’s body is found, only to then believe that the child is still alive.

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It’s a shame that it doesn’t work. The performances are fine, the last plot twist is clever, and Gabe Ibáñez can compose a beautiful looking shot. But the funereal pace and lack of shocks just do for it, in the end, and I found myself unable to care for Maria or her plight.

Another short break, which led Aitken to indulge in the Pick ‘n’ Mix counter as we didn’t have time to get anything proper to eat, and back in for MILLENIUM, aka THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. This, we were told, was something of a departure. Not strictly speaking a horror film at all, it contains enough horror tropes to make it suitable for we merry band of hardcore Frighters. “Trust us on this one,” we were urged. “It’s great.”

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And it is. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of detective stories, but this was utterly absorbing. A twisty, clever tale of the decades-spanning work of a serial killer and the journalist and hacker who team up to stop him, it features one of the best new characters of the decade, and if there’s any justice, Bizarre magazine’s new muse, the heavily tattooed and pierced Lisbeth Salander. Vicious, antisocial, but stridently moral and incorruptible, she is no victim despite her harsh upbringing. Her revenge on the guardian who abuses her is jaw-droppingly cruel – but he deserves everything that happens to him, and she had the whole cinema cheering.

Already a massive hit in Europe, you need to search this one out when it hits the UK early next year. There are two other films in the trilogy, which are out in Scandinavia in September and November. Time for me to start brushing up on my Swedish…

Yet another short break (you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?) which gave us just enough time to dash out and inhale a Burger King. It was getting on for seven o’clock at this point, and we’d all had to skip lunch. Pick ‘n’ Mix, Simon opined, is no substitute.

I was excited now, as the next film up was the new one from one of my horror heroes, Dario Argento. A return to his slasher roots, to the point where it was simply named after the genre: GIALLO.

These days, it’s unusual for me to watch a film through my fingers. I like to think I’m pretty hardcore. Giallo was a rare exception. I was in a knot throughout.

It’s utterly, mind-buggeringly, squirm-inducingly awful. It would be laughable without the name of a master attached. The dialouge is rotten. The performances veer from flat to scenery-chewing without ever hitting decent. The effects are no better than the ones in Smash Cut, and they were supposed to be laughable. I spent the first reel hoping against hope that it would improve, and realised by the end of the second that there was no hope for it. I very nearly walked out, but I was so utterly mesmerised by the slow-motion car-crash unspooling in front of me that I was rooted to my seat.

It’s interesting to note that Argento’s most recent mainstream interview, a three-page spread in this month’s Bizarre, fails to mention Giallo at all. There are strong rumours that he has completely disassociated himself from it, that it was taken out of his hands, even that Emmanuelle Seigner, the lead actress, was on drugs throughout. Can’t properly comment on that one as it’s pure speculation, but it would explain the dreadfully flat performance. I’m not a believer in the so-bad-it’s-good school of film appreciation, but it honestly has laugh-out-loud moments. If it’s a spoof, it’s a work of utter genius. If it’s not, then I’ve just witnessed one of my favourite directors piss what’s left of his reputation away.

After that we all needed a drink, so I got them in while we waited for the next film of the night. I had tried and failed to get tix for Pontypool, a clever spin on infection horror, but I was assured that I would not be disappointed by my second choice.

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And so it proved to be. TRICK ‘R TREAT is a loving tribute to the horror anthologies of the eighties. It’s chock full of invention, wit, charm, proper scares and features the most genuinely inventive new horror character in years, the Halloween sprite Sam. It’s being hailed as the highlight of the festival, and rightly so, as it’s genuinely, properly entertaining. Quite honestly, it’s a film I could take Clare to, feeling sure she’d enjoy it.

So, it’s a shoo in for Halloween screenings, right? Warner Bros must be all over this one like a rash, right? A proper, honest horror hit in the making, right?

Wrong. Trick ‘R Treat was made in 2007, and has been shelved ever since. It’s finally getting a DVD release this year, which is totally bogus for a film that really comes to life in front of a cinema audience. For this film to be sat on, when formulaic retreads and remakes get the nod is frankly sickening. Michael Dougherty, the director, was there, and made an impassioned plea for people to get behind this film and push for it. He has support from none other than John Landis, at Frightfest for the re-release of An American Werewolf in London, and who made his feelings about Warner’s actions very clear indeed, with a bellowed “Fuck ’em!”

Supporting this criminally overlooked film is the least I can do. It’s available for pre-order now – go snag a copy. Better, if you get the chance to see this film on the big screen, do it. It’s brilliant. It’s just the most deeply satisfying horror I’ve seen in a long time.

The last film of the night, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, started late, and was shaping up to be good, sugared-up gory fun, but something made me check the train schedules, which was just as well. The 3:30am train I was counting on wasn’t running, which meant an abrupt exit, hasty apologetic texts to Simon and Clive, and a dash across town to catch the last train home. A shame, as I enjoy the anime-brought-to-life of films like Tokyo Gore Police. The twenty minutes I saw came across like Grange Hill on meth. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

(The clip below is NOT SAFE FOR ANYBODY)

And that was me done. I was drained after just one day, so Gods know how Clive does it year after year. I can see why he does it though. It’s a great way to get a real snapshot of what’s going on in the horror and fantasy field, as well as seeing rare and interesting movies that you simply wouldn’t see otherwise.

My one problem was with the density of programming. It’s great that they cram so many films into the day, but it does mean if you want to network or kick back with your mates, you’ll probably have to miss something, and if you’re on a day pass that’s just not the best use of your time.

Still, that’s a minor grumble against a day that was otherwise well worth the money.

Frightfest – very nearly the best fun you can have with lots of people in the dark.

Frightfest

August Bank Holiday is rolling around, in the same sort of way as a rhino that’s about to run you down. It’s big, it’s slow-moving, but somehow it’s on you before you realise it.

Normally at this time of year I would be getting ready to wallow in the mud at the Reading Festival. Due to circumstances both beyond (tickets sold out in 15 nanoseconds flat) and within my control (laziness) Radiohead will just have to manage without me. No, this year I shall  be at Leicester Square, for a day of Frightfest.

The UK’s premier horror and fantasy film festival hits it’s tenth anniversary this year, and it’s ringing the changes in a big way. A move to the Empire, one of the bigger cinemas in The Square, and the opening of a second Discovery Screen for new talent. Which means more films, of course, and with that the chance to miss something you really want to see because something you want to see more is screening at the same time. So it goes.

I’m easing in gently, by just doing the Saturday, which has the highest concentration of must-sees for me. Unlike hardcore Festers like Leading Man Clive, who regularly do the whole thing, which can’t be good for you.

The real pick of the crop for me, is Giallo, the new film by Dario Argento. It seems like a move back to his stylish slasher roots, and should be an absolute blast. There are rumours that he might be attending, which would make me a happy horror head.

(FanBoy Fact: One of my discoveries of this year, Frederic Brown’s noir novel The Screaming Mimi, was the uncredited source for Argento’s first giallo, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. Different kinds of pulpy yumminess).

One feature of the fest that I may well miss is the Zombie Walk around Leicester Square on the Monday morning. Don’t be fooled. That’s not makeup. This is what horror fans tend to look like after three days in a dark room with inappropriate nutrition and not enough kip.

Bacon saaarnieesss... erm, we mean braaaainnnns...
Bacon saaarnieesss... erm, we mean braaaainnnns...

I’ve meant to do Frightfest for years, and I’m really excited to be sitting down with some good friends and just indulging my geeky half.

Alright, two-thirds.

Frightfest begins tomorrow evening with the premiere of seaborne shocker Triangle. Hopefully nothing like the old soap opera set on the Le Havre ferry…

Straight 8: showing your mistakes in public

It’s done for another year. Three days of screenings. Three days of triumph, of disappointment, of joy and pain, of ecstasy and despair. There’s nothing else like Straight 8, and that’s probably a good thing. I’ve done four films under the discipline now, and I still can’t honestly say I recommend it. It’s like any addiction. You know it’s going to do you some damage, but you just can’t help going back for another hit.

This year was new for me for a few reasons. It was the first time working with my good friend and docobuddy Dom Wade. It was the first time working with a pick-up crew sourced from Shooting People.

And it was the first time that we badly screwed up.

Rewind to March. We are in London Bridge, at our first location. We’re set up in the kitchen of the flat that is our primary indoor location.

And Dom is convinced something’s gone wrong with the camera. He didn’t hear the film roll on the last two shots we ran. And that mechanical claw is loud. But we have a lot of ambient noise going on, to help our actress Kiki get into character. He can’t be sure, but he’s used the Braun Nizo on every Straight8 film he’s shot. In his bones, he knows something ain’t right. So he reseats the battery.

It’s a tense moment. We reset the shot without the noise, and are relieved to hear the clatter of the camera mechanism. Problem solved, we think, although there’s a danger that we have the same scene twice. That’s something we have no way of checking, so we carry on.

Dom was right. There had been a problem. The scene was shot as planned. But at some point, the camera triggered while left on its side, and rolled for 8 seconds. There is a shot of a corner of a kitchen counter in the film that shouldn’t be there. It was a mistake which blew our carefully timed sound effect, and the entire conceit of the film, to bits.

We found this out at the same time as everyone else, in the crowded screen two at the Curzon Mayfair.

The heightened atmosphere at a Straight8 screening is like no other. Everyone is in the same position, not knowing, hoping, dreading. The highs when your film goes well are unbelievable. The lows when it doesn’t are black dogs.

Confronted with the realisation that my carefully laid plans had gone horribly wrong, and were playing out in front of a room full of my peers was not one of the finer nights of my film-making life.

I felt sick. I needed a wee. I wanted to cry. I watched the rest of the film through my fingers.

I excused myself as soon as I could, and stood in the loos, letting the waves of nausea ebb. I felt frantic, panicky. If I’d had my jacket with me, I probably would have walked out. But no. This kind of thing is always a risk with Straight8. You can never be sure what you’re going to get. I took a deep breath, and walked back in. The place for drama was up on screen.

Afterwards, a surprise. Both Ed, who runs Straight8, and Fiona Brownlie, who made the best film of the night, mentioned how much they liked the idea. (“But Ed,” said Dom in the quote of the night, “It’s completely wrong!”) We must have been doing something right for it to get into the screening in the first place. But my disappointment was tangible. I don’t know if it was better or worse that only one member of our brilliant cast and crew, Hayley, could make it. As it was, I found it hard to look her in the face as we said goodbye. I felt like I’d let everyone down somehow.

Enough of this pitiful attempt to curry sympathy. It belittles us all. The fact is that this can be fixed, and no-one has to see Time Out in that form ever again. We have the film, and will retransfer today. Then it’s a simple matter of cut, top and tail, and we can get the film out there properly. I’m fascinated to see just how well the sound drops back into sync once we chop out the offending shot. I’d like to feel that all my hard work with stopwatches and schedules wasn’t completely in vain.

I have to remind myself that we went through exactly the same shit last year with Code Grey, where we lost the important final shot. the fix was done, and it went on to great success. Who knows where Time Out will lead us?

So, that’s it for this year, and I ask the question I always ask. Will I do it again in 2010?

Dunno. Like any addict, I have to take it one day at a time.

Scare Tactics

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist appears to be stoking one hell (sorry) of a row. It was the subject of controversy at it’s Cannes screening, and now has a reputation to defend as a hardcore slice of nastiness.

If Von Trier was hoping for the sort of press that helped Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible to acclaim, he’ll be disappointed. The critical response to his psychological horror about the descent into madness of a couple following the death of their child has been at best muted, at worst out and out hostile.

Masochistic readers of the Daily Mail film column were treated to a frankly surreal tirade from Christoper Hart in which he reviewed the film without actually having seen it. Fair point, I suppose. I don’t read the Daily Mail, but that doesn’t stop me from ripping the piss out of it. 

A common reaction to Antichrist, and one which I’m seeing used more often from critics that clearly have no better commentary, is to call this kind of horror “boring”. Not the words that look good on a poster.

However, now self appointed media watchdog Mediawatch and Tory backbencher Julian Brazier have waded in, calling for the abolition of the BBFC. Their argument:

“Films of this sort, with such extreme content, should not be classified for public exhibition anywhere. The BBFC should have declined classification and rejected this film.”

“When people are being entertained by mutilation, that is beyond the pale.”

Better yet, Mr. Brazier has said:

“From the accounts I have heard of Antichrist, this does seem to be one more example of how the BBFC has given up on trying to regulate material which the majority of the public feel is offensive.”

Pretty typical cant from a loudmouth who hasn’t seen the piece in question, but fancies a few column inches.

But actually, as the clever chaps at MediaWatchWatch point out, advice rather than regulation is a good thing. The BBFC have been guilty of some downright bizarre spates of nannying over the years (take the debacle over cuts to The Sasha Baron-Cohen homomentary Brüno which has led to two different versions of the film being available at the cinema) but in general they seem to be showing a bit more restraint than one would fear. An advisory role would seem to make sense for a body that is, after all, the British Board of Film Classification, not censorship.

The reaction to all this that most closely mirrors my own comes, appropriately enough, from a fellow film-maker. Michael Booth of Pleased Sheep Film heaps approbation on both Brazier and John Beyer of Mediawatch, calling, in a priceless display of righteous fury, for the abolition of Mediawatch. I recommend the whole post on his forum, but couldn’t resist this quote:

I propose we ban Mediawatch and censor their ridiculous outbursts as one day someone may read one of their quotes and is patronized to the point of a machete/gun spree killing. Trust me on this, as there’s just as much foundation to this as any of Mediawatch’s petitions, protests or claims. Lives could possibly be lost or corrupted by Mediawatch’s very existence. When I read the quotes by John Beyer, I myself a mild mannered person punched a cushion in anger. I hate to think what would have happened if another person had been in the room – or I was a more violent man. It could quite easily have been someone’s smiling face, a child or a pensioner. It could have been catastrophic.

I also propose we seek out and remove politicians that try to exploit the subject of fictionalized violence instead of tackling the real crime that happens on our streets. And in some cases using fiction as a scapegoat for real crime. And all to win many misguided votes to keep them in a very large wage courtesy of you and I the taxpayer – who will have our right to decide for ourselves removed.

I’m siding with him. I, like Mike, believe that if you are expected to act like an adult then you should also be expected to be treated like an adult. Adult films are exactly that, made for an audience that should be able to make up their own minds about what is distasteful.

Let’s not forget too that Mediawatch are vocal but pretty much powerless. They have as much chance of getting Antichrist taken off the screens as I do. By their own logic, if they can’t fulfill their duty, then they should be dissolved. Michael’s right to be angry, but I don’t think he has anything to worry about.

It’s interesting to note the intersection between this film and bête noire of this site, section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Let’s remind ourselves of what constitutes an offence under this law, shall we?

(7) An image falls within this subsection if it portrays, in an explicit and realistic way, any of the following—

(a) an act which threatens a person’s life,

(b) an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals,

(c) an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse, or

(d) a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive).


I hope I’m not spoiling your enjoyment of the film, or indeed your dinner, if I mention that Antichrist is chockful of subsection (b). Which would make the film illegal, were it not for it’s 18 certificate, quite literally a get out of jail free card. Proof, once again after the dropping of a test case attempting to apply the Obscene Publications Act to writing hosted purely on the internet, that legislation attempting to foist value judgements onto a legal framework seems to be unworkable.

Let’s not get too complacent, though. This little storm in a teacup took place in the week when the first trial attempting to convict under the Act is taking place in Belfast. Publicity there is pretty much absent.

Which, I guess this is really all about. Reports of the furore Antichrist created at Cannes have been somewhat exaggerated, as Michael pointed out. Four people walked out of the screening. Four. That’s hardly a damning indictment. Combined with the poor reviews, the noise is all starting to feel like a tactic to gather some heat under a director whose reputation has been tepid for a while.

It also shows is how in this country our relationship to censorship and freedom of speech could not be more conflicted if they dressed up in armour and whacked each other around the helms with axes. The only winner in this battle would appear to be Lars Von Trier.

Blood & Roses – And Now The Screaming Starts

B&RExcellent news from X&HTeam-mate Simon Aitken – his horror feature Blood + Roses is finally finished!

It’s been a long, hard road, with a lot of pitfalls, mis-steps and out-and-out crashes along the way, but the completion of this film shows what can be done with determination, hard work and the willingness to max out as many credit cards as you can lay your mitts on. Simon tells the full story in unexpurgated detail on his website, which is well worth a look if you’re interested in finding out just how much time and effort has to go into a low-to-no budget film.

I’m very very happy for Simon, and will be buying him a celebratory beer when he joins the Time Out crew on Monday for our Straight 8 screening.

Just the one, though.  I don’t want success to go to his head just yet…

Straight 8: The Word Is Out, And The News Is Good.

Excited texting from DocoDomsy this weekend, with a piece of very good news. Our Straight 8 short, Time Out, has been selected to be screened as part of this year’s Rushes Soho Shorts Festival, sometime in late July. Venue and screening time are yet to be confirmed, but be assured you’ll hear as soon as I do.

Obviously, I’m insanely chuffed. I was worried about this one, as it offered so many new challenges. I was working with a crew and cast I didn’t know that well, and Dom and I had never worked together on a Straight 8. Camera glitches and squiffy timings didn’t add to my piece of mind. However, it seems to have worked out, and I am now desperately eager to see how the film has come out. And I would happily work with Kiki, Lewis and Hayley again, who were inventive, cheerful and bloody hard-working. The perfect crew. 

 

Congrats also go out to other Friends of X&HT who will be screened: Fiona Brownlie, whose film features Leading Man Clive in a cheeky cameo, first time 8er Andrew Bradley and of course Nick Scott, the man by which all our humble efforts are judged. Props, hugs and sturdy handshakes to all who have done the do and snagged a screening this year. You’re all stars!

Here’s to July. More news as I get it.

A couple of scary toons

Leading on from the previous post, these two prime examples of the form are both beautifully made and deeply, wrongly disturbing.

The last shot of this one has stayed with me for a very long time. Lazy critics will call this Burtonesque, but I think it’s a lot darker-hearted than that. Burton always goes for the happy ending. There’s none of that in this.

I remember watching Harpya as part of a late night animation season on Channel Four years ago, and being so freaked out by it that it gave me bad dreams for weeks. Even now, I have no intention of watching it again. But I thought you might appreciate it, my brave Readership.

Straight 8 at Cannes


A quicky from Nick Scott, super 8 film-maker extraordinare:

This could be appallingly premature given that I haven’t actually seen the film myself (!) but tomorrow night, at the same time as the straight8 films screen in Cannes, they are also posting them on-line for a hour at 9pm UK time. I made one of them, called ‘Visions of Jack’, and this will be the first time that anyone, including the filmmakers, has seen them.

Twelve of the films that the Straight 8 judging panel consider the best of the bunch are screened in a tent on the Croisette every year. It’s the prime goal for all Straight8ers, and I’m chuffed to bits for Nick, especially as he wasn’t planning on doing a film this year!

The link, if you fancy checking out innovative low budget film-making at it’s rawest and most exciting, is HERE.

Sadly, Nick can’t be there, but I’m issuing a shout out to the Friends of X&HT who are there and waving the banner high for low-budget British film-making. Brownlie, Aitken, Coppack and Booth, go forth and spread the word!

Meanwhile, the wait continues for the other Straight8ers who haven’t heard about potential screenings yet. Nervous? Moi? I didn’t need these fingernails, anyway…