Horrorthon: Biehn and nothingness

| November 23, 2011 | Comments (0)

Michael Biehn

 

Usually the success of the IFI’s annual Horrorthon is dependant on the organisational skills of festival director Ed King. This year, however, that burden came to rest on guest of honour Michael Biehn who came to Dublin with three films on the bill: his directorial debut, a tense ensemble piece, and a sci-fi/horror classic – it should also be mentioned that he doesn’t particularly like horror movies. What could possibly go wrong?

 

As it turned out Horrorthon 2011 was arguably the most successful yet, thanks to a strong programme and one of the most enthusiastic audiences in film. As a snapshot of the horror genre, the programming reflected a field finally shaking off the yoke of torture porn and regaining its sense of fun. Up for viewer consideration this time out were 19 new films, 13 revivals, one documentary, a short film showcase and a collection of grindhouse trailers that made this writer reconsider everything he had ever thought about Sweden.

 

The choice of The Awakening as opening movie didn’t inspire at first, but was well worth the effort. Set in post-WWI England, the film pits hoax-busting proto-feminist Rebecca Hall against a ‘ghost’ at a remote boarding school. Hired by Dominic West, a schoolteacher, himself haunted in a very different way by his experiences in the trenches, Hall finds that it’s her own needs and fears that need dealing with, not those of the young charges at the school. The ‘dark night of the sceptic soul’ trope might be familiar to followers of ghost stories, but the glossy production design and precise set pieces elevate The Awakening above traditional haunted-house fare. In the same way that all good tales of the supernatural have a touch of a whodunnit structure, The Awakening’s reveal is meticulously constructed and, in the end, even playful. An effective chiller that manages to produce a few jumps without resorting to bloodshed. How British is that?

 

The first non-English language film of the festival, Kidnapped, was a brutal home invasion thriller where a gang of three hooded men take a family hostage. Giving the impression of being more or less in real time (there are only 12 shots in the film), Kidnapped is tightly paced and thoroughly mean-spirited. Though convention would demand that some kind of moral crisis interfere with the cirminals’ mission leading to a reprisal by the hostages, what hints of it there are, are mercilessly snuffed out. Think Funny Games without the social commentary. Only worthy of a side note, Sunday’s Surprise Film was the US remake Trespass, starring Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman. Now let us never speak of it again.

 

Australian films have become a popular addition to the programme in recent years. Both The Horseman and Red Hill were fan favourites, and these were joined by Snowtown, an account of how a suburb of Adelaide, and one family in particular, came under the thrall of serial killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Obsessed with paedophilia and moral degeneracy Bunting set about killing men in his locale that he suspected of child molestation – often without evidence. The story is told through the eyes of vacant 16-year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) as his mother begins a relationship with the killer.

 

Bunting becomes a big brother figure until things take a turn for the sinister when Vlassakis is forced to turn a gun on the killer’s pet Alsatian. Here begins a downward slide that covers the deaths of four people in meticulous detail. One sequence involving the eldest Vlassakis boy’s murder starts at vicious and ends on a level that had seasoned gorehounds squirming. A powerful film, Snowtown is one part Mike Leigh, one part Jack Ketchum and deserves to find an audience from both camps. The chilling denouement will have you scurrying to Wikipedia to find out more about Bunting and his damaged associates.

 

Victims

 

Given the plum Saturday night prime time slot, Michael Biehn’s directorial debut The Victim was a modest piece of exploitation filmmaking. Made on a shoestring ‘after the cheque cleared’, it’s the story of a woman who takes shelter with a loner in the woods after her friend is accidentally killed by crooked cops. The pulpy revenge story lacks gore and suspense but was clearly made with simple goals in mind. In a detailed Q&A session, Beihn and his wife and collaborator Jennifer Blanc explained how he pulled in favours from friends and family to get the movie made and how it was playing to generally good responses at festivals – true to form, the Horrorthon audience were the most receptive.

 

It was Biehn’s performance in the following night’s tent-pole feature, and festival fulcrum, The Divide, that proved the defining moment of the event. Following a nuclear attack on New York, a disparate band of survivors cower for shelter in the basement of their building while an unknown enemy sifts through the ruins of the city. The group: a 9/11 fireman, an intellectual, a wise-guy, a devoted mother, etc. try to deal with the inevitability of their situation with determination until resource-sharing becomes an issue.

 

As food, water and the chances of escape become diminished, factions emerge, relationships disintegrate and mores are transcended. Expertly directed by Xavier Gans (Frontiers) and played to the hilt by an ensemble cast at odds with each other and the script – much of the film was improvised – The Divide works as a thriller in the Hitchcock mould (think Lifeboat with nukes) spiced up a hint of French nihilism thrown in. Are any of these characters even worth surviving, having cheated and debased each other for their own ends? The question is largely left unanswered.

 

In the Q&A that followed, Biehn said the theatrical cut to be released in January would have an additional 15 minutes of footage. Given the cut shown here was such a tight package it’s hard to see what could be added with out stalling the momentum. Still, it’s fair to say the majority of the packed house would gladly pay the price of admission to see the extended cut.

 

Schlock

 

As always with Horrorthon, the late night screenings did not fail to deliver on the schlock front. A double bill of The Exterminator and Maniac Cop played to a largely full house. One of the worst films ever made, Troll 2 was simultaneously one of the highlights for its sheer ineptness and lowlights for the behaviour of the audience – seriously, movies this bad don’t need heckling. Quiet down the back lads, some of these demons are trying to emote.

 

Regular visitor Tim Sullivan discussed his contribution to Chillerama, an anthology film of varying degrees of wackiness. He was also at the opening film to introduce One for the Road, a short he produced for Paul M Ward based on Stephen King’s short prequel to Salem’s Lot.

 

A new slot this year was the children’s film for Saturday and Sunday mornings. Flash Gordon and The Dark Crystal (in a flakey ‘vintage’ print) went down well, but the number of actual kids in the audience barely approximated for a third of the audience.

 

J-horror also made a welcome return on Sunday with Tomie: Unlimited. The story of a young girl having trouble coming to terms with the sudden death of her older more beautiful sister takes a turn when said sibling returns from the dead in pristine condition to take over the lives of everyone she touched. What starts as an enjoyable, if eccentric, examination of the bonds of sisterhood and the nature of grief quickly becomes overshadowed by set pieces of increased weirdness leading up to a denouement that defies logic. A sad reflection on the current state of extreme cinema from the Far East. A revival screening of Akira was as good as it got.

 

Naturally there were some outright duds. The Wicker Tree, Rabies, Urban Explorer and The Theatre Bizarre failed to pass muster. A Horrible Way to Die was redeemed by a satisfying ending and The Dead retained the attention if only for its rolling African landscapes. Anniversary screenings of Play Misty for Me (40-years-old) and Blow Out (30-years-old) made for refreshing mid-afternoon fare.

 

On the subject of classics, proceedings were brought to a close with a showing of Aliens in a 70mm print to mark its 25th anniversary. Cometh the sequel, cometh the man as Biehn introduced the movie to a rapt audience. By then it was all over bar the chest-bursting.

 Niall Kitson

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