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Brussels after midnight
A report on the 21st Brussels International Festival of Fantasy, Thriller and Science-Fiction Film
Frank Lafond recently returned to the site of one of the premiere international festivals for contemporary horror cinema. He came back with this report on "Brussels after midnight."
With its 21st edition, taking place from 14-29 March 2003, it is fair to say that the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy, Thriller and Science-Fiction Film has reached adulthood. Hardly surprising was the fact that a third of the films screened were produced in Asia (from Japan to Indonesia), but the Festival also brought to the fore some interesting new developments: this year, England, Spain and France were among the strongest challengers to American supremacy of the genre, with almost ten films each if one includes co-productions. However this panorama would hardly be complete without films coming from the rest of Europe as well, including Sweden, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Serbia/Montenegro.
The last British horrors
Marc Evans' My Little Eye (2002) is a rather intense film that can be seen as updating the documentary feeling of The Blair Witch Project (1999) by tackling the reality-TV phenomenon. Five young people agree to take part in a real-life "game" to be broadcast live on the Internet: if all of them manage to stay for six months in an isolated house, laden with hundreds of cameras, they will win one million dollars. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, things becoming increasingly tense as a killer seems to be hanging around the house. Evans' direction is effective, if not always completely consistent; one can notice some subjective shots that clearly work against the realism of the main device of the monitoring system (mostly composed of grainy images, unceasing zooms, infra-red effects, and unbalanced framings) which are supposedly used for the whole picture.
My Little Eye marks a shift from the more traditional psycho-killer narrative to the snuff movie one; in fact, the film depicts a society where psychological motivations seem to be wholly out of fashion and where the only thing that still links human beings is money. But we, as paying spectators (and thus customers of the diegetic "snuff website") are also targets for the director. Two or three times during the course of the movie, after a murder, a character speaks directly to us, saying in effect something along the lines of, "That's what you wanted to see, didn't you?" –thereby addressing the voyeurism of reality-TV consumers and audiences of horror films.
If My Little Eye has been somewhat underrated to date, one has to wonder how Brian Gilbert's The Gathering managed on the contrary to win the Youth Jury Grand Prize at last year's Gérardmer Film Festival, since the beginning of this supernatural thriller generates expectations that it sadly fails to meet in the end. The film is somewhat reminiscent of David Twohy's 1991 TV movie Timescape, in which a group of people travel through time in order to witness famous disasters. Here, in an old church buried near Glastonbury, a strange mural of the Crucifixion is discovered: the mural centers not on Christ, but on those gathered to watch, and soon we realise that these people are condemned to attend tragic events throughout history because of their behaviour (morbid curiosity, etc.). Finally, one of them (Christina Ricci), momentarily amnesiac, prevents a murder from happening and is thereby released from the curse.
The main message conveyed by The Gathering seems to be that we can always do better than just sit and watch evil things happen in front of us. At one point, one of the characters, a priest who has just discovered the truth, has an accident on the motorway; he manages to get out of his car, but other vehicles keep racing by without stopping, until he is suddenly killed by a truck. This scene is striking because it could have been linked to the film's main theme, whereas its only purpose seems to be to make a (bad) joke. Although at times effective, Gilbert's film nevertheless suffers from a number of narrative flaws; to begin with, the viewer might ask why the condemned group is now in a small village, where a man is set to take revenge on the person who abused him as a child, whereas he has previously witnessed such major global disasters as Hiroshima and the Crucifixion.
After Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Dead Creatures was the second British zombie film screened this year. Andrew Parkinson, who works as an editor and technician for the BBC, made his feature debut in 1998 with I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain, a highly original amateur film that was bought by Fangoria magazine for the American video market. The young man (Dean Sipling) who slowly transforms into a zombie in this film is depicted as a human being conscious of his physical depravation and suffering from an irrepressible need to consume human flesh; he evolves in the realist setting of everyday England.
Dead Creatures, made with a higher budget and professional actors, displays roughly the same characteristics, with its narrative centred on a small group of young women slowly turning into zombies and hunted down by a mysterious man. The picture was presented as the near-equivalent of a horror film made by Ken Loach, but because it lacks any of the political or sociological explanations it claims to possess, in fact it is simply boring and pretentious. Not only does the story turn without gripping its audience, leaving all the major narrative questions unanswered, but some scenes also show the limitations of Parkinson's skills as a director in that he is unable to install his characters in a rigorously constructed space.
Although David Mackenzie's The Last Great Wilderness barely qualifies as a horror film, this captivating debut feature nonetheless succeeds in disturbing viewers when most of the contemporary productions that clearly belong to the genre fail in this task.
Two men, Charlie (Alastair Mackenzie) and Vicente (Jonathan Phillips), are traveling together across Scotland when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. They find refuge in a retreat full of social pariahs, and, during their forced stay in their company, make all kinds of strange discoveries about the others and themselves. Finally, the film confronts the audience with brutal horror: caught by two henchmen sent by a jealous husband, Vicente is castrated and enucleated to death. This unexpected (but thematically justified) burst of violence, shown without any graphic depiction of the mutilations, benefits from the strange but realistic atmosphere displayed until that point.
Lastly, Doctor Sleep (2001) is the disappointing follow-up to Nick Willing's Photographing Fairies (1998). Despite the fine acting (a quality sadly not shared by all the films included in the Festival selection; for example, see—or don't—The Gathering) and an interesting focus on 16th-century alchemy, the film is ultimately a routine supernatural thriller.
Spain: Filmax and beyond
For the past few years, Spain has proven to be the centre of the horror genre in Europe, not only because of the commercial and critical success of Alejandro Amenábar's films (Tesis [Snuff, 1996], Abre los ojos [Open Your Eyes, 1997]), but also because it houses the only European production company dedicated to the genre, Fantastic Factory, which was honoured during the festival by Filmax, its parent corporation. The company, headed by Julio Fernandez and Brian Yuzna, produces films shot in the English language and are thus designed primarily for the international video market, such as Yuzna's Faust, Love of the Damned (2000) and Stuart Gordon's Dagon (2001). The Filmax Group also set in motion a second label, Fantastic Discovery, which is dedicated to first efforts in the genre: Jaume Balagueró's Los sin nombre (The Nameless, 1999), which won several awards, and Paco Plaza's El Segundo nombre (Second Name, 2002).
Beyond Re-Animator (2003), the long-awaited third installment of the cult series initiated in the United States during the 1980s, was certainly one of the audience's favourites, but Yuzna's gorefest really does nothing other than bring once again to the fore the special effects created by Screaming Mad George. Herbert West's (Jeffrey Combs) useless comeback stands as a good example of the lack of ambition and personality that characterizes most of the Fantastic Factory's films. In fact, Yuzna himself recently put his finger on the schizophrenic nature of the label, stating that they deliberately try to hide everything that might look Spanish while simultaneously wanting to work with local talents.
Thus, Darkness (2002), directed by Jaume Balagueró, might at first give the impression of being a more original production. But the picture, which met with great commercial success upon its home theatrical release, fails to fulfill its promise of bringing the darkness to life, save for a couple of well-executed sequences.
This haunted house movie is above all handicapped by some narrative flaws and by everything that Balagueró borrows from various canonical horror films (as in The Shining , for example, a dysfunctional paternal figure tries to smash down the door of the bathroom where the mother and her child have taken refuge). Even the climax of Darkness is devoid of any real scares, at least until the final two minutes.
Palabras encadenadas (Killing Words, 2003) was by far the best Spanish film presented during the course of the Festival. Instead of elaborating yet another serial killer narrative which mixes together elements from both the horror film and the thriller, actress-turned-director Laura Mañá here focuses on sheer psychological tension.
The title of the film, which literally translates into English as "chained words," is also the name of a game. Hence, the apparent killer plays a cat-and-mouse game with both his ex-wife (he tries to convince her that he is a serial murderer while intentionally leaving clues around that undermine this assertion) and the police. Mañá's accomplished directorial skills, a tight screenplay and a talented cast (including actor Dario Grandinetti, who recently appeared in Pedro Almodóvar's Habla con ella [Talk to Her, 2002]) all serve to make us forget the film's theatrical origins.
Of course, Filmax isn't the only company producing horror movies in Spain today. Nos miran (They're Watching, 2001), co-produced with Italian backing, saw its initial release slightly delayed because it is adapted from a novel which has the same title as Alejandro Amenábar's Los Otros (The Others, 2001).
Like Amenábar's film, Nos miran—the feature debut of Norberto López—deals with child abuse and dysfunction within the family unit, and it too features terrific, and terrified, child actors. Investigating the disappearance of a rich businessman, a police inspector (Carmelo Gómez) discovers hundreds of similar cases and eventually comes to learn that all these people are still living among us, although only children or a properly-trained eye can detect their presence. This disturbing discovery is linked with the inspector's own past, when we find out that his sister also disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Needless to say that nowadays the "ghosts" try their best to make a bad father out of him. The film presents a few chilling shots (like the weird, shadowy figures appearing on the walls of a subway station) but doesn't seem fully able to deal convincingly with the important issues raised by its screenplay. In this regard, the supernatural happy ending, where the father joins the ranks of the ghosts, is particularly problematic, insofar it clearly refutes what has been established in the narrative up until that point. But Javier Elorrieta's Pacto de brujas (Witch Deal, 2003) is far duller than Nos miran, since it mainly consists of a bunch of clichés that are unable to frighten or even interest viewers. Most of the contemporary Spanish horror films undeniably possess a kind of charm. However, unless and until the screenwriters redouble their efforts and/or the directors begin distancing themselves from the Hollywood canon, one can seriously wonder how long such a trend will last before meeting with total indifference from audiences both at home and abroad.
The visible other side of European horror
The various films coming from less "fashionable" European countries were of interest first and foremost because of the original ways in which they handled the conventions of the horror genre. These films were not necessarily good, but they were at least refreshing since, for most of the directors, the use and manipulation of horror elements was far from being their only aim.
Joel Bergvall and Simon Sandquist's Den Osynlige (The Invisible, 2002) is a promising debut feature from Sweden that was made on a shoestring budget with nearly no preparation at all. Niklas (Gustaf Skarsgård) is finishing secondary school and hopes to go to a writing school in London, despite his protective mother. One night, his best friend, believing he has already left, tells Annelie (Tuva Novotny) that Niklas is the one who gave her away to the police for robbery. Annelie and her gang find the young boy, beat him up and leave him for dead in the woods. The next morning, Niklas wakes up and comes to realises that he is invisible; moreover, unless the police find his body in short order, he will die.
At first, the two filmmakers take advantage of Niklas's slow understanding of his situation in order to set up some predictable gags. Little by little, however, Niklas ceases to be the main protagonist and the film concentrates on Annelie, a real tomboy who, for most of the film, remains literally invisible under her clothes (But the term "invisible" could also design the real nature of other characters, such as Niklas' best friend). By the end of Den Osynlige, the change in tone is complete: Annelie's personal and family troubles overcome Niklas's own difficulties, and the young girl finally kills her schoolfellow, but this time out of compassion and not out of anger. An intelligent film which augurs well the career of its two directors.
Petr Zelenka's false rockumentary, Rok ďábla (Year of the Devil, 2002), follows the real Czech singer-songwriter Jaromir Nohavica and the band Cechomor during a tour they went on together. Although it definitely has a few funny moments, as a mockumentary Rok ďábla is extremely flawed, because the form it rather loosely borrows appears to be completely arbitrary. Moreover, Zelenka juggles so many disparate subjects (including spontaneous combustion, ghosts and extra-terrestrials) that his film finally seems as absurd as one of his characters, a guitar player who, for no good reason, refuses to get out of his car to go on stage.
In both Mladen Juran's Potonulo groblje (The Sunken Cemetery, 2002) and Miroslav Lekić's Lavirint (Labyrinth, 2002), the male protagonist returns to his native town after long years of traveling all over Europe, to finally discover his own dark half or portion of guilt. Juran's desolate Croatian film, filled with images of physical as well as moral decadence, seems to be always on the verge of giving itself up to pure graphic horror with the introduction of themes such as illegal experiments on children and the possible resurrection of the dead. Nothing is ever really shown on the screen, however, even during the tortuous climax when every subplot finds a resolution simultaneously. The young protagonist (Sven Medvesek) wanted to find out why he had been taken away from his mother, only to discover in the end that he is the one to blame.
The pressbook for Lavirint, meanwhile, proudly presents the film as "the first domestic feature bearing Dolby Digital and DTS licenses," but Serbian director and screenwriter Lekić appears to be more interested in developing his characters than in making noisy action sequences. When his main protagonist, Pop (Dragan Nikolić), a professional gambler, arrives in Belgrade, he is tormented by the death of an old friend, Zoran (Ivan Zarić). Soon enough, he encounters Zoran's alleged murderer, Suzana (Maja Sabljić), and her forward daughter, Tamara (Katarina Radivojević). Pop's journey between the two women comes to an end in a labyrinth buried beneath Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, where he finally realises that he has been framed by Suzana, who is a member of an Arian sect and who seeks revenge against him for getting her pregnant (he is, of course, Tamara's father).
In both Potonulo groblje and Lavirint, then, the present is weighed down by secrets from the past (the title of Juran's drama even indicates a double repression), but the two films end quite differently. In the Croatian one, things have admittedly managed to re-emerge, but a priest symbolically throws away a key during the last sequence, thus the return of the repressed here is only partial and things will basically remain frozen like the eponymous cemetery. On the contrary, in the last shot of the Serbian film, Pop, his brother and his daughter all come from under the water that just swallowed up the ancient labyrinth and surface in the open air, implying that a clean sweep of the past has been made for the two generations depicted on screen.
The 21st edition of the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy, Thriller and Science-Fiction Film did reveal, as always, several surprises—both good and bad. But one thing can't be more certain and less subjective: there is not a single national distribution system in the world today that is able to showcase the true variety of the horror genre. And that really is a shame.
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