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Gaming Events 2019 - Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Thursday and Friday) -

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This is the second part of my review of the films we saw at this year's Abertoir Festival. As we saw a LOT of films during the festival, I'm trying to make my review more manageable by doing it in three parts. You can see my post about the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday in my previous post, but here are the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Thursday 15th November

Blue My Mind (dir. Lisa Brühlmann, 2017)

The first screening on Thursday was Swiss film Blue My Mind. This is a coming-of-age, body-horror-inflected transformation tale – and one of the highlights of the festival for me. Mia is 15 years old and going through some changes. She’s at a new school, struggling not to fight with her parents, and experiencing new physical sensations that she hasn’t felt before. Her body is also transforming – and it’s clear this isn’t a standard puberty. So far, so Ginger Snaps. But – though I am a huge fan of Ginger SnapsBlue My Mind offers something different, and something more. Desperate to mask the pain and confusion of her transformation, Mia turns to drink, drugs and sex as a distraction. And this is presented with a brutal rawness, which builds to a climactic scene that is truly devastating to watch. But Blue My Mind’s originality really lies in its depiction of Mia and her peer group. Mia isn’t a weirdo loner, but rather a slightly sheltered and awkward teen who wants to find somewhere to fit in. In a sleight-of-hand moment, Mia is rebuffed by the apparent ‘mean girls’ of the piece and a ‘good girl’ tries to befriend her. That’s not what Mia wants though, and she courts the friendship and attention of the ‘bad girls’. With incredible performances from Luna Wedler (as Mia) and Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen (as ostensible ‘Queen Bee’ Gianna), what unfolds is one of the most nuanced and honest portrayals of teen female friendships I think I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a film about ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’, it’s a film about girls. And it’s a film about one girl coming to terms with the fact that she isn’t quite like the others. Blue My Mind is a painful, horrific and beautiful story of transformation. Definitely recommended.

Cut and Run: A Brief History of the Slasher - a presentation by Steve Jones

The next event at the festival was a talk by Dr Steve Jones of Northumbria University on the history of the slasher film. This was a fascinating and entertaining trip through the origins and precursors of the subgenre, through the ‘classics’ to the video nasty era and beyond. Insightful and engaging, this talk really helped crystallize some thoughts I’d been having about slashers, but it also gave me loads of new information and things to think about. It’s always great to see an expert talk about a subject they’re knowledgeable about with such enthusiasm – but I was particularly happy to see that Jones didn’t follow the fashion of denigrating 90s slashers (like I Know What You Did Last Summer) and acknowledging them as simply ‘postmodern’ or ‘knowing’. As he pointed out, the success of those films doesn’t just lie in them being po-mo – it’s also because they’re actually good films.

Short Films Competition Part 1

Abertoir is part of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation and participates in the Méliès Awards cycle for short films. After watching all the short films screened this year, the audience voted, and the festival then awarded a Méliès d’Argent to the highest ranked film, which then goes on to compete for the Méliès d’Or later in the cycle. This year, the shorts were screened in two lots. In this first panel, we saw Caronte (Luis Tinoco, 2017), a visual effects-laden piece in which the story of a young girl’s family life intersects with that of a futuristic space pilot, and Reprisal (Mike Malajalian, 2017), a taut, edgy piece about a woman facing her husband’s return from combat. Miedos (Germán Sancho Celestino, 2018) is a monster-in-the-wardrobe story with a (unfortunately rather predictable) twist, while Post-Mortem Mary (Joshua Long, 2017) is a perfectly pitched and beautifully designed story of two Victorian post-mortem photographers undertaking an unsettling job. Centrifugado (Mireia Noguera, 2017) sees a woman apparently con and trap a young man in her apartment (though, again, the ending was a bit predictable); FlyTrap (Connor Bland, 2018) is a terse animation about a germaphobe trying (and failing) to deal with his flatmate’s unsanitary habits. Another animation, but much less successful, was Sunscapades (Ben Mitchell, 2018). This one is more a cartoon in the Ren and Stimpy vein – more comedy than horror, despite some violence – and not to my taste. Highlights of this panel were Who’s That at the Back of the Bus? (Philip Hardy, 2018), an absurdist but carefully paced piece about a woman on a bus spotting something in the mirror, and – my favourite short film overall – Baghead (Alberto Corredor Marina, 2017), a witty, compelling and bleak story about a grieving man who visits a witch that can channel the dead.

Last Man on Earth with Animat Live Soundtrack

The next event on the programme was a performance by Sheffield-based music producers and performers, Animat. It was an interpretative soundtracking of the film The Last Man on Earth, using original composition, remixes, dialogue from the film and sound effects to transform the film into a soundscape. The Last Man on Earth is the second least well-known adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Made in 1964 and starring Vincent Price, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, though it changes the book’s vampires into something more zombie-like and alters the protagonist’s relationship with Ruth, the infected woman he encounters, and the detail of his ultimate fate. Animat’s performance has the film screened in its entirety with their soundscape superimposed. I did find this an intriguing idea, and I was curious to see how the act of interpretation could be carried through soundtrack. In places, it works very well, with, for instance, repeated and echoed phrases (both musical and dialogue) creating an eerie emphasis on the futility and isolation of Robert Morgan’s (as the Neville character is called here) situation. Elsewhere, however, it falls a bit flat. The inclusion of certain pop songs didn’t really work for me, and this aspect was far less creative than the original scoring. I’m not sure it can really be called an act of ‘interpretation’ to play Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller' as zombies gather in the foreground outside Morgan’s house. The Last Man on Earth is an interesting film to watch if you’re familiar with I Am Legend and its adaptations, and I did find myself at times just wanting to watch the film ‘straight’. However, there were moments of very creative interaction between soundtrack and image that realised the potential of the performance and added a thought-provoking dimension to the screening.

Cam (dir. Daniel Goldhaber, 2018)

Cam is a horror film set in the world of camgirls (models/performers who stage – usually erotic – acts on webcam in exchange for money and gifts). I try not to read much about films before I see them at a festival, as I like to go in without knowing what to expect. So that first sentence was all I knew about Cam before the screening, and I will admit I had some reservations. I was worried it was going to be a ‘killer stalks sex workers’ type of thing, and the film’s opening sequence appeared to be about to confirm this. Once again, I should have had more faith in the festival programmers – by this point, we’d already seen some really interesting challenges to the weary stereotypes of women in horror, and so I should’ve known this wouldn’t be a gratuitous stalk-and-slash. I now know that Cam was written by Isa Mazzei, who drew on her experience of cam work and intended her film to be a more nuanced and authentic representation of the job. And it is certainly that – it’s also a smart and stylish horror film with great performances (particularly from Madeline Brewer as the protagonist). That’s right – this film has a protagonist, not a ‘final girl’ or a parade of screaming victims. And the horror in Cam is also different to what I expected. The ‘bad thing’ that happens to Alice (who works under the name Lola) is creepy and unsettling, with psychological terror taking the fore over a threat of violence. In many ways, the film is at pains to announce its newness – this is absolutely a story of the twenty-first century – but for all its techno-threat and techno-survival, it’s also well-grounded in older Gothic tropes. The madwoman is out of the attic and on the screen.

UK Premiere: The Black Forest (dir. Rodrigo Aragão, 2018)

A Mata Negra is a Brazilian horror infused with fabulist elements and heavy on practical effects. In the heart of the eponymous forest (‘black’ as in dark and scary, not as in Schwarzwald – we’re in Brazil here, not Germany), a young girl stumbles upon a dying man who begs her to wait with him overnight to complete a mysterious ritual. With the man is a book, and he makes her promise to read only the page he has marked – and not to delve into the book’s other secrets. Of course, as a dark fairy tale, we know that she won’t heed this warning. As we learn, the book is the lost Book of Cypriano, which contains within its pages dangerous spells that will give its owner power over life, death and wealth. Of course, when life takes a bad turn for the girl, she can’t help but turn to the book for the promise it holds. And things go very wrong. While the film’s premise seemed interesting enough, the overall effect didn’t quite work for me. Tonally, the film is rather uneven. It begins with a darkly sumptuous fairy tale setting – with almost-echoes of Guillermo del Toro – and a young heroine who seems to be all innocence in the face of a threatening world. But the film’s violence, which is conveyed by in-your-face practical effects, veers quickly towards schlock, with some sequences seeming almost designed to make the audience queasy. As the magic goes repeatedly wrong, and the young spell-caster seeks to correct her errors, the film loses a sense of story, descending into a series of set-pieces and escalating gore. The film’s ending is bizarre – not necessarily in a bad way – with a coda that is both incongruous and suggestive. But, sadly, this was not one of my favourites.

Okay, we arrived on Thursday's morning fully intending to stay until the bloody end. But it seems our stamina was still a bit lacking, so we couldn't hack the final screening of the night. This time, we missed Bloody Moon (dir. Jesús Franco, 1981).

Friday, 16th November

Summer of 84 (dir. Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2018)

After this next screening, one of our fellow festival-goers informed us (no idea how reliably) that Summer of 84 was actually written before Stranger Things, though it was released some time later. For this reason, I’m not going to draw any comparisons with Stranger Things, as that seems a little unfair and – to be honest – unoriginal, as I’m sure plenty of other will do that. Also, I don’t like Stranger Things (don’t @ me), but I did enjoy Summer of 84 so there’s no need for the comparison. However, I will compare it to The ’Burbs as the film treads some of the same ground as the 1989 film (but with very different tone and effect). Davey is a paperboy in the Oregon ’burbs during the summer of 84. The town is alight with news of the Cape May Slayer, a serial killer who’s abducted and murdered at least thirteen teenage boys over the course of a decade. Davey becomes convinced that his neighbour, a well-respected police officer, is the killer. As the adults around him – obviously – don’t share his suspicions, it’s up to Davey and his friends to investigate. The story unfolds with a slow, almost sinister, pace, with the light-hearted nostalgic touches giving way to the dark reality of exactly what is being uncovered. It’s also a coming-of-age story – with hints throughout that this is about more than just one boy growing up. There is a melancholy quality to the nostalgia in Summer of 84 – less prelapsarian idealism, and more the point of the fall itself (a final shot of a Reagan/Bush election sign in a neighbour’s garden subtly underlines this). Unlike The ’Burbs, Summer of 84 really does engage with the horror behind the white picket fence. Well-written, and with great performances, I really enjoyed this one.

My Bloody Valentine (dir. George Mihalka, 1981)

The next screening was another classic slasher, and, as with the other selections, it was an interesting choice. Not least as the festival organizers decided to show the uncut version – with a couple of additional shots/sequences restored that were removed prior to the film’s original release due to violence and gore. My Bloody Valentine is a (sort of) teens-in-peril horror (one of the slew of holiday-themed films that followed Halloween), but it’s not entirely in the clichéd mode you might expect. Set in the mining town of Valentine Bluffs, the film opens with the town planning its first Valentine’s Day dance for twenty years. Such festivities had been abandoned two decades earlier, when mine supervisors left their posts to attend a dance, resulting in a horrific explosion that left miners trapped. The only survivor of the accident – Harry Warden – was driven insane by the experience and subsequently murdered the negligent supervisors. He also vowed to commit further murders if the town ever held a Valentine’s Day dance again. Twenty years on, and Valentines Bluff is throwing caution to the wind and reviving the dance… it isn’t long before the blood starts to flow. A relentless killer in mining gear begins to pick off the townsfolk, leaving grisly gifts in heart-shaped boxes in his wake. Has Harry Warden come back to finish what he started? My Bloody Valentine is rather underappreciated and often-dismissed, but it deserves a bit more attention, not least for its setting and backstory. Valentines Bluff has a grim claustrophobia to it, and there’s an oppressive feel not found in the summer camp/house party genre offerings. While My Bloody Valentine is very much a bit of slasher fun, it’s also got a bit of an edge to it that makes it stands out from the crowd. Great choice!

Short Films Competition Part 2

Another panel of short film screenings next. Clean As You Like (Theresa Varga, 2018) is an off-kilter slapstick comedy about two friends who work as cleaners, and whose relationship is thrown off by the arrival of a man on the scene. Dialogue-free and heavy on the physical comedy, this isn’t really a horror film. Sadly, the humour didn’t work for me. Similarly, Zombie Time (Alfonso Fulgencio, 2018) – a Lego zombie animation – wasn’t really to my taste. The Dollmaker (Al Lougher, 2017) has a bereaved mother turn to a toymaker for a magical solution to her grief – this is nicely done, but a bit predictable. Also very well done is La Noria (Carlos Baena, 2018), an ambitious (and moving) animation. Both Milk (Santiago Menghini, 2018) and Here There Be Monsters (Drew Macdonald, 2018) start off strong, but lack punch. The former has a boy going to the kitchen for a late-night drink, finding his mother there, and then realizing that something’s very wrong. The latter has a bullied girl trapped on a school bus at the end of the day and running into something nasty. I really enjoyed The Blizzard (Alvaro Rodriguez Areny, 2018), an unsettling period piece in which a mother wakes up in a blizzard, separated from her daughter and facing an unspecified military threat. This film made great use of the short film format. Home (Paul Gustavsen, 2018) is an excellent creepypasta-esque film about a woman being woken in the night by her husband coming in from a night out (or has something else come in?). Finally – and the winner of the Méliès d’Argent at this year’s festival – was Skickelsen (Jonas Gramming, 2017): a mysterious man moves into an apartment with an appointment to keep. Stylishly shot and nicely creepy, this was a definite highlight and well-deserved winner.

Friday the 13th (dir. Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)

Next up was the (kind of) signature film of the festival… the original Friday the 13th! Admittedly, we’d already seen Part 3 earlier in the week, but it was time to go back to where it all began. I don’t know whether this film needs much of an introduction – or if there’s much I can say by way of a review that hasn’t already been said. But in the unlikely event that anyone’s reading this review who doesn’t know what happens in Friday the 13th… teen counsellors arrive to set up Camp Crystal Lake for the summer season and are mysteriously (and gorily) picked off one by one. The camp has an unfortunate history – stories of a young boy drowning in 1957, and then the brutal murders of two counsellors the following year, circulate – so this new crop of teens can’t say they haven’t been warned. And yet they pay no heed – they just turn up intending to have fun over the summer (something which, as the slasher genre tells us, is a dangerous thing to do). Given the sprawling franchise that followed, it’s easy to forget that Friday the 13th is, like a lot of non-franchise slashers, a whodunit with multiple suspects, including Crazy Ralph (who wanders around town talking about a ‘death curse’) and friendly camp owner Steve. But the film has a big reveal up its sleeve – and in the event that someone’s reading this who hasn’t seen the film (or the first ten minutes of Scream), I’ll just leave it at that. It’s hard to say what – exactly – makes Friday the 13th so iconic. Perhaps it’s that reveal, perhaps it’s Harry Manfredini’s score. Or perhaps it’s that the film is the absolute essence of the slasher genre and the template for so much that would follow.

Sean S. Cunningham in conversation with Stephen Thrower

The guest-of-honour at this year’s festival was Sean S. Cunningham, producer and director of [ITAL]Friday the 13th (among other things). After the screening of Friday the 13th, we were treated to an ‘audience with’ session, with Cunningham in conversation with Stephen Thrower and taking questions from the audience. This was an interesting session for a number of reasons. There were (as expected) some great anecdotes about Cunningham’s career, the making of Friday the 13th, the making of Last House on the Left, and his work and friendship with Wes Craven. But, also, it was really fascinating to hear a somewhat different perspective on the making of iconic horror films from what I’d heard before. It was clear that Cunningham is – at heart – a producer, rather than an auteur, and so his take on why/how horror films work was quite a different – and, at times, defiantly apolitical – take on the genre.

The Last House on the Left (dir. Wes Craven, 1972)

I wasn’t sure about watching this next one. I’ve seen Last House on the Left before, and I found it a distinctly uncomfortable watch. In case you don’t know, the film was a collaboration between Sean S. Cunningham and Wes Craven, heavily censored (and censured) at the time of its release for its depiction of violence and sadism. Two young women are abducted, tortured and raped by a gang of sociopathic criminals – and then the criminals take shelter in the home of one of the girls’ parents. The sexual violence and humiliation in the torture scenes is intense, and I was very wary about watching this one again. However, the festival organizers were very sensible in putting it on after the Q and A with Cunningham, as it helped to contextualize the film and offer ways to ‘think’ the film’s violence, rather than simply experiencing it. Despite really not enjoying it previously, I’ll admit I was keen to see if the film looked different with this added context and introduction. One of the things that I noted from the Audience with Sean S. Cunningham was the almost incongruous medley of desires that led to the creation of the film: the desire to create a ‘drive-in’ movie that would attract people to the theatre, the desire to rework Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with a contemporary American setting, and the desire to comment on (rather than simply show) violence and its aftermath (and, depending on whose take you follow, the desire to comment subtextually on the Vietnam War). This incongruity results in a film that is difficult to read. Is it exploitation horror? Is it a political anti-violence rhetoric? What is the viewer supposed to take from it? Despite the introduction and context, I’m still not sure I know the answers.

The Last House on the Left is an uncomfortable way to end the night, but once again we couldn't quite manage the final screening of the night. This time we sadly had to miss the UK premiere of Party Hard, Die Young (dir. Dominik Hartl, 2018).

One more part of this three-part review to come. My next post will be about the films we saw on Saturday and Sunday.
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