Triskaidekaphobia

Let Me In

Well that was… nice. Something of a strange reaction to have at the end of a festival that delights in inflicting gross acts of inhumanity within and without the fourth wall, but such was the creature that was Horrorthon 2010. Was it a lucky 13th year for the festival that dripped blood? In retrospect, the answer would be in the affirmative.

Having shrugged off a case of mid-decade malaise, Horrorthon 2010 stuck to its formula of new releases + revival screenings + offbeat gems + b-movies = win. This year, festival organiser Ed King built on the success of last year’s varied bill, but you might be forgiven for thinking the genre as a whole was losing its lust for undeath. For the first time it seemed as if ghosts, vampires, ghouls and other familiar creatures of the night making only the most cursory of appearances. For the second year running you might be forgiven for thinking that Asian horror was a passing fad as France continues its domination of nihilistic extreme cinema.

Also conspicuous by their absence were revival screenings celebrating the likes of Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, John Carpenter (whose new movie The Ward was hotly tipped to be the surprise film) and Wes Craven – although Dario Argento’s Phenomena, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space and Tim Burton’s biopic of same covered that territory nicely. Then again there may have been external factors at play, with the Screen putting together its own, somewhat more predictable, programme running concurrently. Oh and the IFI were good enough to let people in with their drinks through the miracle of plastic cups.

So what of this year’s movies themselves? Maybe it’s the desensitisation writing but there wasn’t an awful lot you could actually consider scary. Such are the tropes of the horror genre that it’s the way they are played with, rather than originated, that is the hallmark of the picaresque. Bearing this in mind, it could be said there was very little one could consider very ‘new’ and hence genuinely ’scary’. If one film was conspicuous for its absence, perhaps for reasons not unrelated, was Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film – perhaps the only title this year guaranteed to shock, enrage and push IFCO to draw a further line in the sand following its decision to uphold the ban on the original I Spit on Your Grave.

Of the opening double-bill on the Thursday night, Paranormal Activity 2 proved ample, but it was French zombie flick The Pack that proved a more interesting, if hardly shocking, alternative. Featuring a cast of regulars including Emilie Dequenne (Brotherhood of the Wolf), Philippe Nahon (Seul Contre Tout) and Benjamin Biolay (more known for his Hollywood soundtrack work than his acting) – this pseudo-gothic Western has undead miners, deviant bikers and a one-horse town setting that thinks it’s more Deep South than Loire Valley. For the latter element alone it’s worth a look.

While the Friday delivered sureshot revivals of Carrie and Night of the Hunter, an unlikely highlight was Nico Mastorakis’ infamous Island of Death. A victim of the video nasty scare, that the action elicited more chuckles than screams says a lot about how effects work and social mores have moved on. Working to some kind of gameplan to cleanse the Mikanos of perverts, English crazies Christopher and Celia go on a kind of serial killer busman’s holiday, making the most of local hospitality (and livestock) before tearing into a local cast of seedy painters, unashamedly camp shop keepers, hippies and a policeman sent to track them down. The mini-twist at the end falls just on the right side of ridiculous to engender it with some amount of charm amidst the grisly shenanigans.

On hand for a brief post-screening Q&A, Mastorakis described his writing process: trying to come up with the worst kind of violence and sexual perversion, then making a script out of them in a weekend. An unashamed piece of schlock made for money over any interest in genre, Mastorakis struggled to explain to the audience that he saw no redeeming worth in the movie and was influenced by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre only as a benchmark for how far he could go. There were a few serious questions but they fell flat with Mastorakis, clearly taken aback by how seriously some elements in the audience took his film. One audience member asked which character he should be identifying with. On such moments are great anecdotes made.
Aside a short film competition, there were few features of Irish interest this year. The ever-enigmatic October Eleven Productions’ Blood got a late screening on Sunday night, but it was a UK/Ireland co-production that attracted an almost full house on Saturday.

Made for a paltry €300,000, Spiderhole was the first feature shot in Ireland to use the RED camera (beating Savage by a full three months). As torture porn goes it’s not a terrible film, either. Shot between London and South Kerry, the production values are good and the plot zips along. The kills (or rather the order they happen in) may be telegraphed, and their manner a little contrived, but it’s an efficient little number.

The primetime 9pm Saturday night slot was reserved for the ‘brutal in a good way’ remake of I Spit on your Grave – widely regarded as being an effective remake with extra gloss. The more adventurous did well, however, to give German survival horror Siege of the Dead (aka Rambock) a go. Without giving too much away, it’s about how to handle the end of a relationship and the end of the world at the same time.
Sunday’s main talking points were surprise movie, Let Me In (in a good way) and the Giallo homage Amer (in a really, really bad way) – the latter scoring a record number of walkouts.

The Monday represented probably the strongest day of the event, yielding four must-see movies in the shape of documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Video Nasties, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Red Hill and grand finale, Monsters.

One of the better documentaries about that period in the 1980s when video libraries were controlled by wide boy traders, Video Nasties… examined the culture of the time and the hysterical reaction of evangelical groups in their attempts to control the kinds of material on the market based on their own personal tastes and mores. Director Jake West balances interviews with academics, filmmakers and the political players to paint a portrait of a time when an unregulated market led reactionary moralists and print media on a crusade against material they found distasteful, and therefore evil. West’s achievement is to nail down exactly what made the nasties so compelling, but best of all, he gets interviews with the establishment players responsible for passing legislation banning the ‘nasties’. What’s most interesting is the degree to which those involved consider their stance to have been vindicated over the course of time. As an objective examination of a revolutionary time in the history of home entertainment it makes for fascinating viewing. One wonders if we’ll be seeing similar material about the spectre of piracy apparently threatening to eradicate the entertainment industry as a whole.

Back to narrative cinema and Australian revenge thriller Red Hill merged the traditional High Noon-esque idea of the killer coming to town, with the relentless brutality of Dead Man’s Shoes. Ryan Kwanten plays the part of a new cop in a small town with a secret. It’s hardly new but a series of set pieces and a villain who’s a lot more complicated than initially given credit for give the film more than passable.

The final film of the weekend was, arguably, it’s strongest. Not due to hit Irish cinema until December, Monsters is a genre film unlikely any other of recent years. Taking its cue from District 9, Monsters is another take on intolerance, where aliens are ghetto-ised and ‘civilised’ society shuts up shop lest it get tainted by forces beyond its control. Where D9 went for documentary realism, however, Monsters takes its cue from National Geographic, with some truly stunning photography of its Mexican settings. Genre fans will likely be blindsided by the narrative arc, whose walking and talking approach owes more to indie romances like Before Sunrise than Independence Day. The characters may have been slightly stock and the ending a little too neat, but it’s definitely a film to put a smile on your face on a rainy evening.

So what can we learn from Horrorthon 2010 about the state of the genre? Horror may not have completely shrugged off the burden of stolid torture porn, but there are signs that the mainstream is getting back into story – or at least set pieces that move story forward instead of coming up with new and exciting ways to perform surgery on conscious patients – by the way, there are none.

It’s also worth noting the films that scored highest in the jumps-per-minute ratio were the token Hollywood entries in Paranormal Activity 2, I Spit on Your Grave and Let Me In – a sequel and two remakes respectively. That all three were well received gives lie to this writer’s criticism that remakes reflected nothing more than a narrative dead end, doing the genre a disservice in the long run. It’s good to see that Hollywood can still manufacture a good set piece when it has to. What with the Saw franchise coming to an end in ignominious 3D, the mainstream will need a cadre of new monsters to populate the multiplexes, and hopefully some new ideas to go with them. Fingers, toes and tentacles crossed.

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