FanTasia 2005: The Short and the Long
The Year of Harryhausen
GUESTS AND PERFORMANCES
FanTasia 2005 was back yet again with another strong over-all program, but what set it ahead from last year was the inclusion of several wonderful and varied guests, performances, and presentations, most notably the appearances of Joe Coleman, Steven Bissette, and Ray Harryhausen. The appearance of painter, filmmaker and performance artist Joe Coleman, his first in Montreal, was entitled “Retinal Stigmatics: An Evening with Joe Coleman.” Described in the festival catalogue as “A Live Multimedia Midnight Mass,” the evening was principally a slide show of magnified details of his paintings, accompanied by dirge-like music and Coleman’s own partly autobiographical, partly analytical running commentary. To make these slides Coleman must have panned over his paintings with a camera (digital I would think), highlighting portions of his colorful, finely detailed works. To see Coleman’s art, which are small in their original size –most about 20 by 22 inches– projected on a huge screen rendered an operatic flavor to his highly “iconographic” art (You can see some of Colemen’s art on his official website.) In fact, the “representations” of his original artworks were so powerful, and spoke so clearly to the senses, that his running philosophical-religious commentary usually hindered rather than aided the overall performance. Less intrusive was Coleman’s autobiographical commentary, where we learn that he was born and raised Irish Catholic and has endured a lifelong love-hate relationship with God and religion. Again, this is evident from the art itself, but at least the autobiographical commentary did not attempt to pigeonhole the meaning of the art as did the analytical interjections. We also learn that his favorite artists are mainly pre-Renaissance, naming Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, as well as post-Renaissance painters Otto Dix, and William Blake (I also saw elements of William Hogarth in his art). In Coleman’s view, art died with Michelangelo, because he valued the aesthetic over the subject (a debatable point which would require, well, a lot of debate). In Coleman’s approach to art, he paints not for aesthetic reasons but to depict the inner pains of his subjects; not to change or make the world a better place, but to exorcise his inner demons. As such, Coleman’s style stands as a strange combination of Renaissance classicism and early 20th century Expressionism (leaning more to the latter).
To break up the slide show Coleman showed a sampling of some of his film material, including a 1992 film where he played a white trash sociopath, some ‘home’ movies, an autopsy film, and footage of his live performance art pieces, which contain bits of ‘shock art’ gambits such as biting off the heads of mice, wearing a pigs head, and setting off body explosives. The films have clearly not aged as well as his art.
Steven Bissette’s two-part talk on the evolution of violence in comic books, entitled “Journeys into Fear,” was a highlight for those FanTasians looking for some historical and intellectual contextualisation of the fascination that violence holds in popular art. Bissette’s talk gave hope that future editions of the festival will incorporate similar type of lecture/performances with the screenings. The first part of Bissette’s talk was the more sprawling of the two, a veritable ‘archeology of comics’ bearing years of historical research on the use of violence and horror in comics, starting from the “12th Century Japanese ghost scrolls, to the Mixtec illustrated Codex Nutall, to European broadsheets, to the Penny Dreadfuls.” The talk was illustrated with film clips and slides. Part two concentrated on the impact of the Hollywood style censorship code on US comics, ending with an illustration of its affects with a close-analysis of the Pre-Code and Post-Code versions of a Harvey Comics horror story illustrated by Bob Powell. Bissette also related comics to horror in a broader sense, demonstrating with clips how Winsor McCay’s early animation works prefigured certain formal/structural aspects of horror cinema; namely the dream-within-a dream structure (illustrated with a clip from Dreyer’s Vampyr to match McCay’s Dream of a Rarebid Fiend); and big monster films such as Godzilla and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (illustrated with McCay’s The Pet, a short film where an oversized dog stalks through a city eating and toppling buildings).
Bissette’s talk also shared a passing link to Joe Coleman in that they both claim to have been influenced by their Irish Catholic upbringing (the use of pain and violence/retribution in Catholic art and religion). The indirect influence of the Judeo-Christian morality of guilt and retribution is evident in the morality play of crime and punishment (with a healthy dose of pain) that is a staple of the horror comic (with the revenge plot so common to EC comics a prime example). Bissette used this fact to make an interesting point about how some of the codes censorship decisions to eliminate violence had the ironic consequence of lessening the moral message. To quote Bissette, “Like the early European broad sheets, the pre-code crime and horror comics of the early 1950s would show the crime as well as the punishment that went with it; like the later European broadsheets, the post-1954 comics-code approved horror comics would cut out the criminal act and censor the violence in order to just show the punishment.”
Bissette was in Montreal at the same time as Harvey Fenton of FAB publishing, who has been a long-time regular of FanTasia and has launched many of his excellent books during FanTasia. This year was no different, with the launch of Tom Mes’ book Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto. This year was also witness to another significant publishing event (at least for horror film scholars): over lunch at McGibbon’s Pub Bissette finalized a contract with Fenton which will see FAB Press publish Bissette’s self-published book on cannibals in cinema, We Are Going to Eat You!. There was something endearing about Bissette’s low-tech, photocopied/bound book, but I for one can’t wait to see the revised version with the usual high quality FAB make-over.
The Ray Harryhausen tribute, co-sponsored by FanTasia and the animation magazine fps, was special. It was wonderful to see the great man graciously accept the palpable sense of love pouring out from a jam packed Hall Building. FanTasia programmer André Dubois and fps editor Elmu Townsend both made nice introductions, while the audience was then treated to an Oscar-type montage of his greatest moments. Harryhausen was given several long standing ovations; this outpouring of cinephilic and fan admiration will be tough to surpass at the Hall Building. As if seeing Harryhausen in person was not enough, this was followed by the screening of the restored 35mm print of Jason and the Argonauts….a festival highlight for sure. Argonauts is one of the best US peplums, with some great animated creatures: Talos the giant bronze man who guards the chamber of treasures for the God’s; the plucky Harpies who cause havoc for a poor blind man; the seven-headed Hydra, guarding the golden fleece, and the aquatic God who helps Jason and his ship pass through the “crashing rocks”. Following the screening Harryhausen hosted a Q/A period, where he was amicable, funny, gracious, and appropriately cynical when it came to modern animation/cinema. Even though Harryhausen had a flight to catch soon after the event, he managed to get through a huge autograph line waiting for him after the Q/A.
Bissette may feel compelled to include the excellent Thai cannibal film Zee Oui (Buranee Rachjaibun and Nida Suthat Na Ayutthaya, 2004) in his revised edition. Zee Oui was one of several interesting Thai films on offer this year, which collectively marked an improvement from last year’s poor sampling of films from Thailand. The serial killer in Zee Oui is a slightly slow-witted Chinese man who immigrates to Thailand before World War 2. The man, named Li Hui but renamed Zee Oui (Long Duan) because his name is continually mispronounced by the Chinese customs officials, is sponsored by a cousin who secures him work slaughtering chickens at a restaurant. The poor man is continually abused by the owners and, especially, their children, which partly sets up the character’s eventual turn to child serial killing. The film succeeds where other similar serial killer films fail on several counts. To begin, it is visually arresting, with striking images of both urban and rural landscapes and a motif of high angle shots that serve as both an homage to M (Lang employed the high angle shot throughout as a visual trope for the theme of investigation) and an angle which reflects the character’s sense of social alienation from the Thai people who continually mock and abuse him. Also, before he becomes a serial killer he is humanized, making his fall to psychosis more affective. The film succeeds largely because it helps us understand the multi-layered factors behind the pathology of his serial killing. Firstly, through the amount of abuse he receives from both adults and children; secondly, through the slow realization of his horrible experience as a soldier in the Sino-Japanese war; and, thirdly, by the folkloric treatment he received from his mother, who believed that his childhood tuberculosis could be treated by a diet of heart and liver of young children. On top of all this, his initiation into murder is the result of an accident. Zee Oui suffers from terrible nightmares caused by the abuse he received during his war experience. During one particularly vivid nightmare where he feels he is being attacked, a young girl, the only human being who has been kind to Oui, attempts to wake him up. Unable to distinguish between dream and reality, Zee Oui arises in a state of semi-consciousness and strangles the poor girl to death.
Another Thai film, Buppah Rahtree (Yuthlert Sippapak, 2003), may have suffered from its drastic changes in tone (comedy to horror), but never failed to entertain. The film plays on the classic Eastern ghost story of a man who returns home to a woman he has wronged only to slowly realize she is a ghost. Similar to the shifts in tone are the references to varied films: The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973: with green vomit, praying priests, etc.); and In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976: the ghost cuts off her boyfriend’s legs –a surrogate form of castration– and imprisons him in her apartment). Most of the humor stems from the attempts of the frustrated landlady to exorcise the spirit of the ghost from the apartment, since the presence of the ghost is harming her business. This humor works better than the humor at the expense of the Downs Syndrome character, or the farcical treatment of the two overweight transvestites who work at the tenement’s hair salon. As with a few other Asian horror films this year (The Eye 2, Shutter), the horror is served with a dose of feminism. In this case Buppah Rahtree’s (Laila Boonyasak) vengeful spirit is dramatically justified by the actions of her victimized boyfriend Ake (Krit Sripoomseth), who we learn only went out with the girl to win a bet among friends. Ake, who comes from a rich family, pays for Rahtree’s abortion and then leaves to study abroad in England. In the meantime the girl dies in her apartment and turns into a mean-spirited demon with no intentions of leaving the apartment. The young man proves a failure abroad, spending more time stoned than studying, and is sent back home. Only upon his return does the demon girlfriend return to human form. Ake has come to realize that he loves Rahtree, and attempts reconciliation, only to be caught, mutilated, and imprisoned by the vengeful demon. The film ends with the young man once again asking for Rahtree’s forgiveness. The scene cuts to the film’s final image: an exterior long shot of their yellow-lit bedroom window, through which we see the short silhouette of the legless Ake embracing the ghost woman Rahtree. This ending renders the film a sad yet perverse after-taste.
The Thai film Shutter delivers the type of post-??Ringu??, frissons we expect from an Asian horror film; namely the vengeful spirit who can appear anywhere and anytime, most frighteningly when with the characteristics of a spider rather than a human (leading to great moments where the ghost girl chases her prey by walking upside down on the ceiling, crawling head first down a fire escape staircase, etc.). While derivative of many recent Asian horror films (The Ring, The Eye), Shutter manages to interject difference where convention is the norm. An example is the convention, established in Ringu (Nakata, 1998), of the chemical smear on the photograph as an indication of spirit presence (although in fact, the effect of tampered photographs as an indication of the supernatural occurs in The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shymalan, 1996, made two years before Ringu). This occurs in Shutter but with more of a textual reason, since the lead male character, Tun (Ananda Everingham), is a photographer (which leads to some “Blow Up”-like scenes of the photographer examining negatives in his dark room). However, the use of the ‘smeared’ photograph effect is closer to the origin of this idea than to Ringu, which was also inspired by actual photographic history: groups of people called ‘spiritualists’ who lived in the 19th century during the early years of photography, who believed that a photograph could represent the spirit of a deceased person, and that deceased people appeared as shadows in photographs. The representation of the spirit presence in Shutter is very close to written and visual accounts of the spiritualists; and Shutter contains one genuinely unique moment where a series of photographs are manipulated by Tun’s girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) in flip-book fashion to animate the eerie greyish-blue spectral figure in the photographs (a clever allusion to cinema itself, but which finds a kindred moment in another FanTasia film, the Japanese The Taste of Tea (Katsuhito Ishii, 2004), in the scene where a family come across a series of personalized flip books drawn by a deceased family member). Shutter is also of interest because, like The Eye 2, it harbors a not-so-subtle feminist undertow. Whereas in The Eye 2 the male character is peripheral and never vies for our sympathy, the central male character in Shutter has a much larger role, and filmmakers Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom set up the film to make us at least identify with the horrors being experienced by him. However, as the back-story about why the spirit girl committed suicide begins to unravel, so too does our image of the male lead, capped off by a key flashback where we see him conspiring in a brutal gang rape of the ghost girl Natra (Achita Sikamana) by his ‘friends.’
The Asian (Japan, Hong Kong, Korea) potpourri film Three Extremes lived up to its title in the sense that each segment represented an “extreme” change in style for each director: Park Chanwook’s “Cut” plays like Grand Guignol meets pop art extravaganza. The art design is its highlight, while some of the breaks and shifts in mood don’t work (like when the psychotic crew member who has taken a film director and his wife hostage takes to a song and dance). There are also some coy reflexive elements that come easily by setting the lead character as a director who gets terrorized by a crew member. The segment opens powerfully, with a big close-up on a still image of shocked-looking man. The camera tracks around him as a woman bites into his neck. The camera pulls back and we see him frozen, literally, like some frozen food vampire snack. The Takashi Miike segment “The Box” is a change of pace for him too, as it is enigmatic, controlled, restrained, and reminiscent of Gemini (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999), Dolls (Takeshi Kitano, 2002), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) and the animated short film that prologued for The Mystery of Rampo (Kazuyoshi Okuyama, 1994). In fact the latter short encapsulates Miike’s story in miniature: a woman suffocates her husband in a treasured heirloom chest. The consensus choice for the best segment seems to be the Fruit Chan story, “Dumplings,” and I would agree. It is essentially a retelling of the Countess Bathory story: the vain woman (an aging television actress) who will stop at nothing to maintain her youthful appearance. In this case the blood of young female virgins is replaced by dead/aborted fetuses. The film is again pure Grand Guignol and full of dread, achieved right from the start, before anything strange happens, simply with Christopher Doyle’s probing tracking shots inside a seedy apartment accompanied by otherworldly industrial sounds. Living in this apartment is a young woman, Aunt Mei (Ling Bei), famous for her “fountain of youth” dumplings, which she makes with “tender loving care.” We soon find out that her secret recipe is unborn/aborted fetuses which she chops up finely and stuffs into her dumplings (including the bones, which accounts for the ‘crunchy’ texture of her dumplings). The woman gets the fetuses either at the local hospital, where she pays an employee for them, or at her own apartment where she hires herself as a mid-wife. An aging television actress, Li Qing (Miriam Yeung Chin-wah) becomes her best customer after she discovers that her millionaire husband, played by Tony Leung Kar-fai, is cheating on her with younger women. Even when the actress discovers what is in the dumplings, it does not faze her, and indeed asks for more powerful, ‘quicker acting’ medicine. The gruesome use of the fetus as a revitalizing agent seems natural in a horror tale out to shock: what can possibly be younger than an unborn fetus?
In fact, fetuses were given a bad time in general at FanTasia this year. In Shadow: Dead Riot (Derek Wan, 2005) a woman’s just born baby is pulled into the ground by the titular demon (played by “Candyman” Tony Todd), only to return in a post-credit, Carrie-style overture; while in The Eye 2 spirits try to infiltrate themselves into women’s wombs at the moment of birth to be reincarnated into the body of the newborn baby.
SHORT BUT STRONG
Short films have always been held in high esteem (and respect) by the FanTasia programmers. Short films of all variety and length are regularly shown before feature films and within special all-short programmes (the “Small Gauge Trauma” block having become an important festival staple). An unusual coupling of short films was the teaming of Singaporean director Tzang Merwyn Tong’s revisionist retelling of the classic coming of age story “Little Red Riding Hood” A Wicked Tale, with Christopher Hyatt’s less accomplished but strangely compelling homage to old school surrealism and trance cinema, Eye of Cruelty (the title being a nod to Luis Buñuel).
A Wicked Tale begins with a close-up of an attractive, blond-haired young Caucasian man recounting how he corrupted the soul of a young, innocent girl. The character stands for the seductive ‘wolf’ male figure from many versions of the short story. The film begins with the male character seemingly being in the position of power and authority. As the film develops, and scenes cut back to broader shots of the opening scene we see that the young man is an amputee in a hospital bed, and the young girl (well played by the innocent and enchanting Evelyn Maria Ng) slowly begins to usurp his power. The act of a woman amputating a man’s legs –which also occurs in the Buppah Rahtree– can be seen as a symbolic act of female dominance (castration). One can also read the film as being the young man’s sexual fantasy, as we see the same young girl playing Little Red Riding Hood as his nursemaid in the hospital scenes. The young man’s erection under the bed sheets is noticed by the nursemaid and triggers a cut back to the Little Red Riding Hood scene, where the young girl mounts the helpless man (masochism or sadism?). The act of sex is sensually suggested by slow-motion, close-up shots of the girl’s head bobbing up and down. The scene is given an edge of perversion by having the young girl reach back to caress the young man’s bloodied leg wound. This gesture, along with the cut legs, can be seen from either the male (masochistic fantasy) or female (sadistic fantasy) point of view.
The second film in the program, Eye of Cruelty is also an open-ended text which features a young man in a ramshackle apartment living in terror of the casual violence he sees around him through his window and in his apartment building hallway. The man hovers in a corner when a nun knocks on his door with his meal (suggesting that he is living in a personal prison). In the courtyard below he (and everyone else in the tenement block) witness two brutes beat-up a defenseless vagabond. Everyone feigns indifference and turns a blind eye to the beating. Across the courtyard, a la Rear Window, the fearful man spies on a loutish, beer drinking man and his girlfriend, whose antics culminate in a costume Halloween party which ends in a senseless murder. The film could be seen as an agoraphobic’s nightmare, or a pseudo-comical vision of the horrors of living in an urban environment where the threat of random violence lurks around every corner.
The much anticipated Japanese short programme was somewhat of a disappointment, with the only standout being the final one, Migakagami, directed by Torico, who was on hand to introduce the film. The film was produced by Hiroki Yamaguchi, who directed one of the best Japanese films from last year’s FanTasia edition, Bottled Fool. The short is a Cocteau-styled story played out in a hip fashion reminiscent of Yamaguchi’s Bottled Fool. A bored young woman who wastes her time dozing on her apartment couch finds escape, literally, in a full-length mirror which leads her into a time-space dimension where the world runs backwards. A short man named Alio (the serial killer from Bottled Fool, Keisuke Urushizaki), helps her return to her dimension.
The film is very playful and inventive, including the same home grown cheap bullet time effect Yamaguchi used in Bottled Fool: hanging objects in the air on wires and playing the action in slow motion, with movement to match. The film also recalls the mirror story from the classic British omnibus chiller Dead of Night (1946) –with an added punk sensibility. Humor grows from the way humans in the ‘copy world’ move backwards; while the color red mysteriously dominates the sets. Things get out of hand when a white fluorescent strobe light begins to scroll down vertically in the mirror, spitting out endless ‘copies’ of the young protagonist (a satire on Japanese conformity?), and culminating in a wonderful trick shot where we see dozens of her lying about her apartment floor.
A short film standout was the latest in a series of revisionist/homage gialli by the Belgium tag team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, L’Etrange Portrait de la Dame en jaune (2005). Cattet and Forzani have become regular fixtures at FanTasia, with this their second visit, and their previous three gialli having also played at FanTasia: Catharsis (2000), Chambre Jaune (2002), and Le fin de notre amour (2004). For their latest entry Cattet and Forzani seem to have imposed an Hitchcockian-like structural limitation to work themselves out of: Can we make a 6 minute giallo with the camera fixed in a single set-up? The answer is a resounding yes. The film begins. The camera is positioned at a high, slightly skewed angle looking down on bluish bathroom tiles. A shard of light exposes only the middle portion of the frame. Female legs extend outward into the frame, a telephone cord wrapped seductively around the legs; offscreen we hear the sound of a female voice giggling, and a raspy off-the-hook phone tone. The sound of the phone placed back on the cradle follows. The offscreen figure drops her silk bathrobe to the floor. A red heat light is turned on, then the sound of running water. This is a giallo after-all, so a pair of proverbial black-gloved hands enters the foreground of the frame to fetishistically caress the bathrobe. The film continues in this seductive manner, with offscreen sounds and a kaleidoscopic montage of shifting light patterns, shadows, silhouetted figures, reflected imagery, and iconographic objects (pearls, a rose, glass shards, eyes) combining to achieve the very palpable suggestion of a violent murder. Long live the giallo…Belgium style.
Another excellent short with a similar structural conceit to L’Etrange Portrait de la Dame en jaune is S.O.S. (Francisco Serrano, 2005), which was strategically programmed before the Columbine-influenced American indie film Zero Day. In this case the structural conceit is also a single shot, only here it is a five minute moving single take which runs backwards in time, replaying a daughter’s 911 phone call in response to her fallen, blood-soaked mother, starting from the daughter straddled over the mother, trying to revive her, and ending with the phone call and the beginning of the accident.
THE EYE 2
Returning to the features films, The Eye 2, the Pang Brothers (Danny and Oxide) sequel to their successful The Eye, was a pleasant surprise with its innovative turn from the usual, and sometimes stale, Asian horror scares. The film marks an interesting development from the first film in that it sacrifices scares for a different tact: layering the horror within a feminist melodrama. As the first, The Eye 2 is primarily structured through the identity of the singular female character, Joey Cheng, played by the Taiwanese actress Shu Qi in an odd against the grain casting. Only now her dilemma bears more of a sociological weight, as she is about to become a single parent in a world where her status seems to be majority. The film is populated by female characters, while the only male character of consequence is wholly unlikable: a two-timing man name Sam (Jesdaporn Pholdee) whose marital conduct causes two women to attempt suicide: his wife and his lover, Cheng. The latter is desperate to inform him that she is pregnant, but he begins to avoid her at all costs, which leads to Cheng’s failed suicide attempt. However, Cheng’s brush with death leaves her with unwanted prescient powers to ‘see’ other spirits who are about to die, which leads to the film’s main plot twist: that unsettled or ill mannered spirits hover around pregnant women about to give birth, waiting to float into the womb to become reincarnated into the soon-to-be-born baby (in the excellent Korean film Spider Forest the spirits of unloved people are reincarnated as spiders in a forest). Cheng begins to see spirits in the most innocuous of places, like an elevator, in a scene which tries to repeat the famous set piece from the original film. Uncertain of who or what she is seeing, Cheng begins to question her sanity, to the point where she becomes dangerous to herself and others. For example, in one scene she is having dinner at a restaurant with a pregnant friend. She looks under the table and sees a spirit hovering near her friend. She begins to yell and scream, upturning the table and nearly hurting a small girl in the process.
Qi’s character cries throughout the film, traumatised by her troubled relationship, her visions, her pregnancy, and her suicidal tendencies, which culminates in a great Polanskiesque (The Tenant) sick humor ending. Her ex-lover’s dead wife has now become her own spirit-in-waiting. Rather than let her body/womb be infiltrated by the spirit, Cheng jumps off the roof of her high-rise apartment building in a second suicide attempt. She somehow miraculously survives the fall, and drags her bloodied body up the stairs to fall off the roof again. As she lies on the floor, bleeding but still alive, the spirit pleads with her to allow her into her womb: “I won’t let you die. I beg you. Let me go.” Either through empathy or exhaustion, Cheng allows the spirit to enter her womb. In the next scene Cheng is lying in a hospital bed and is handed her baby for the first time. The moment brings out some remarkable acting from Qi, as she has to emote both joy over her newborn child and trepidation at the knowledge that her baby houses the reincarnated spirit of her former lover’s wife!
The film ends, appropriately enough, with a wonderful “pregnant shot”: the camera tracks right past the glass window of a gymnasium pre-natal class, where we see a group of pregnant women with several ‘spirits-in-waiting’ silhouetted next to them. This mixture of horror and melodrama makes The Eye 2 a unique addition to the contemporary Asian horror film.
A GLANCE AT NORTH AMERICA
To turn an “eye” closer to home, there were several interesting US films, and one exceptional Canadian film. The Dark Hours, a disturbing and relentless psychodrama, was by far the best Canadian entry at FanTasia. Playing the fine line between objective reality and subjective psychosis, director Paul Fox and writer Wil Zmak have crafted a taut experience from a simple premise. The film’s key opening scenes establish the strength and character of a thirty-something psychiatrist Dr. Samatha Goodman (played with chilling restraint by Kate Greenhouse). In the opening scene we discover that she is suffering from a malignant brain tumor. In the follow-up scene she coolly provokes a psychiatric patient during an examination, to the point where he attacks her, ensuring that he remains institutionalized. After the rough day at work she decides to make a surprise visit to her writer-husband David (Gordon Currie), who is staying at their country cottage with her sister Melody (Iris Graham). When she arrives unexpectedly there is a suggestion that her husband may be having an affair with her younger sister. Shortly after her arrival a meek looking young man knocks on their door asking for help. The husband is suspicious, but Samantha convinces her husband that they help him, which ends up being a terrible decision. In a moment’s turn the man shoots their pet dog dead and a second, larger, more imposing accomplice, Harlan (Aidan Devine) joins them. The second man is a former patient of Dr. Goodman, out to exact revenge for her dubious medical practice (we learn that she was using him as a guinea pig for an experimental drug that could cure her illness). From this point on the film tightens like the proverbial vice grip around a series of violent and perverse psycho-sexual parlor games concocted by Harlan to reveal the lies and hypocrisies surrounding Samantha’s professional and personal life. Then, what seems like a straight forward (though very effective) thriller takes a turn into the terrain of the “head game” as the clever editing begins to reveal that what is happening may be a subjective construct on the part of Dr. Goodman.
Straight into Darkness is a US war film couched as a European art film, not something I would expect from its director Jeff Burr. A jeep carrying a load of World War 2 American soldiers is destroyed by a land-mine, leading to a harrowing aftermath of confusion and bloodied corpses. Only two soldiers come out of the ordeal alive, loose-canon Deming (Scott MacDonald) and sensible Losey (Ryan Francis). This powerful opening is followed by atmospheric scenes where the two men, lost behind enemy lines, make their way through a misty, vegetation-rich woods. The soldiers come across an abandoned church and take shelter there only to come across other survivors: an odd surrogate family led by a British man (David Warner), a French female schoolteacher (Linda Thorson) and a group of war-torn children who look like they stepped out of a Luis Buñuel film: all have some sort of physical defect or loss (legs, limbs, burned face, etc.). One of the feral girls goes through the whole film wearing a Edith Scoob-type mask from Eyes without a Face. The motley group bond together to stave off a German regiment who are set on entering the church to steal the priceless art that is stashed there. An ensuing battle scene takes away from the film’s finely wrought intimacy, but gives way to a satisfying conclusion. Visually the film plays with muted and single toned color patterns (blue/green), black & white, and color video flashback/memories; the latter are from the point of view of Losey, who has a sixth sense ability to ‘see’ the previous experiences of people he encounters.
I’ll conclude with discussions of three US films, Firecracker, a poetic drama centered on a real life murder in small-town America circa the 1950s; Zero Day, a serious mockumentary loosely based on the Columbine murder spree; and The Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie’s white trash sequel to House of 1000 Corpses (2003). On the surface these films are drastically different, but all three share a social critique (or exploitative expose in the case of The Devil’s Rejects) of American gun culture and the conservative, right-wing led illusion of rural or suburban Americana as a ‘family values’ driven social Mecca.
Firecracker was one of the festival’s most interesting films in terms of its success in fusing form/content into an aesthetic whole. Set in the 1950s and based on a true story about fratricide, Firecracker cuts thematically between black and white scenes of gritty realism and carnival scenes shot in a saturated color scheme that are counterpoised to reflect an ironic escape from the mundane reality of the black and white world. The irony being that the candy-colored carnival world that alienated youngster Jimmy (Jak Kendall) goes to as a form of escape from his dreary, oppressive family life ends up being just as violent and oppressive. Both Karen Black and Michael Patton are awesome in dual roles. In the black and white scenes Black plays Eleanor, a religious zealot mother trying to cope with an overbearing son, David, played by Patton, who physically and sexually torments both her and her younger son Jimmy. In the carnival scenes Black plays Sandra, a member of the carnival team billed as a ‘freak’ after being sexually mutilated by her boyfriend/carnival owner Frank (Mike Patton). Sandra represents a life-affirming presence to both Jimmy, who sees her as a positive mother figure, and the carnival community terrorized by its psychotic owner, Frank. Firecracker recalls Freaks (1932, Tod Browning) in its treatment of carnival life, demonstrating how the ‘performers’ band together to defend themselves against the real human ‘monster,’ in this case Frank. Parallels between the two separate physical locations are drawn thematically and visually. For example, both worlds have a mistreated female/mother figure (Eleanor and Sandra) and a bad male/father figure (David and Frank); both David and his counterpart Frank are felled by a blow to the back of the head; and the final scene evokes a parallel between the way Jimmy camouflages David’s corpse behind a clothesline while carrying it to the shed where he eventually buries it; and the way the carnival performer Enigma (the blue horned man) leads Sandra out of her dressing room to temporary sanctuary from the vendetta seeking Tall man (George the Giant). (For an interview with director-writer Steve Balderson click here)
Critics have been right to describe Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) as Blair Witch Project (1999) meets Van Sant’s Elephant (although it was released contemporaneously with Elephant). The film is cleverly structured as a ‘reality’ video diary of two male teenagers who are planning a Columbine-style murder spree (although the high school remains unnamed). The two teenagers prepare themselves for posterity by carefully composing a video diary in the weeks leading to the day, ‘zero day,’ which they will bequeath to the media, upon their death, via a suicide note placed in a safety deposit box. The believability of the confessional video diary is enhanced by great performances that manage to mix a fresh, ‘unprofessional’ off-the-cuff feel, with skillful acting. The former is best expressed in one of the film’s best scenes, and closest to the spirit of Cassavetes: Andre’s post-18th birthday diner banter between with his parents. The diary entries are split between private moments between the two teens where they discuss strategy, technical issues (constructing pipe bombs, shortening rifles, the merits of certain caliber guns, etc.) and more public moments.
An element which distanced me from the main conceit was how well written the lines were for the two teenagers, and how well spoken they were (for the most part). One could of course argue that since they were filming themselves they were primed for the camera and hence prepared for what they were about to say, but it also raises an interesting question/problem with regards the representation of teenagers in general: are we so used to seeing dumb teenagers that when we see intelligent, articulate teenagers we assume it can’t be ‘reality-based’?
The film’s conclusion, or two-part conclusion, is something which will no doubt get people speaking with regards its effectiveness. The film’s central conceit is maintained from the moment after the opening montage of childhood photos of the two teenagers, to the moment when they arrive at the high school, “zero day.” Since they could not have brought the camera into the school with them, the question becomes, how do the filmmakers resolve the conceit? When the two teenagers arrive at the high school they park their car at a considerable distance and place the video camera on the dashboard, with the video camera rendering a canted view of the high school in the distance. At this point I felt that the film would play out in this manner, with the camera holding still on this open space until the chaos inside the school would spill out into camera view. This would have maintained the ‘video diary’ illusion to the end. This resolution must have been in the mind of filmmaker Coccio, or else he would not have placed the camera that way, teasing the audience to expect this modernist gesture. Instead, Coccio decides to cut from this camera to a third person camera view, two views in fact, of the school’s security cameras positioned high up in the two rooms where most of the killings take place, a classroom and a second open area with a desk and hallway. With this vantage Coccio is able to bring the event to its visual conclusion by showing the murders and the double suicides of the two teens. The images are accompanied by the radio transmitted voice-over of a female police officer who vainly tries to make contact with the teens while relaying the action to the rest of the police officers. It is difficult to say if the alternative possible ending would have been more powerful. Certainly it would have followed through perfectly on the film’s main conceit, but Coccio must have felt the loss of this theoretical point would be offset by the power of seeing the murders (even though the decision is enhanced by the distance of the camera to the actions). I do, however, feel strongly that the final scene adds little to the film. The film ends with another video diary, of three teens who vandalize and set fire to two wooden crucifixes affixed above the gravesites of the infamous teenagers. I imagine the point with this scene was to show that even other teens, their peers, were horrified at the acts and felt an urge to voice that anger; or perhaps the continuation of a video diary by other teens suggests a cycle of violence. In either case, the act felt contrived as we have no idea who these teens are, or what the consequences of their acts are. Even with this minor criticism of the film’s conclusion, Zero Day is an extremely powerful piece of dramatized true crime film which leaves one in a depressing state of helplessness.
The Devil’s Rejects by Rob Zombie is a film which is surely going to ruffle a lot of conservative feathers all over the US. Zombie takes the nastiness of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) clan but strips the horrors of any acceptable social and satirical context. The killers are simply killers, with no moral, sociological or economic reason for why they kill, other than they seem to enjoy it. The film is far more disturbing than, for example Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), because it lacks the latter’s mumbo jumbo spiritual/supernatural context or any ‘blame-the-media’ agenda. The ‘family’ is comprised of the clownish Captain Spaulding (a wonderful Sid Haig); his daughter, Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and son, Otis (Bill Moseley); and their mother (Leslie Easterbrook). While the disturbed brother/sister and father are vicious and sadistic they are also made to be human, at times funny, sweet, and articulate. Zombie even attempts (half-heartedly really) the difficult turn of making characters despicable and then introducing someone even more despicable who places the audience in a position of having to feel some form of remorse or sympathy for the ‘less’ despicable. In this case the film’s other morally rotten core belongs to a self-righteous sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who thinks he is doing the work of the Lord in ridding the world of these murderers. Sheriff Wydell is out to avenge the death of his brother at the family’s hands (in a nice touch of irony, the sheriff’s brother is played in a flashback by Tom Towles, the despicable Otis from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, John McNaughton, 1986). Religion gets slammed from all sides. In one scene Otis ties up and tortures a helpless victim, and before killing him feigns religious piety and ‘asks’ that the Lord come down and strike him for his act of murder. Regardless of how we may feel toward religion, it is impossible to find any solace or empathy in Otis’ mockery of religion. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to find any reason to cheer on the sheriff’s religious crusade. We are left trying to decide between two vile options. And for all those critics who will certainly pan the film, Zombie has a special scene where the sheriff calls in for the help of a famous local film critic to help them decipher the cinematic clues hidden in the murders (the family are named after Groucho Marx characters, Captain Spaulding, Otis P. Driftwood, Rufus T. Firefly, etc.). The snotty, pretentious, and unlikable character of the film critic grates on us as much as the sheriff, and crosses the line of this redneck community when he has the gall to criticize Elvis Presley, in a room full of Elvis fanatics —“No one makes fun of the King!”.
The opening scene, which is an over-the-top shoot-out between the killers and the police is an inchoate mess of quick cuts that makes one wonder what Zombie was attempting with this senseless opening. The ending, inspired by The Wild Bunch, takes a different tack by opting for a slow-motion montage of the family driving straight into an insurmountable police wall (again lacking the reference point’s political edge –the Vietnam war). The opening and closing scenes demonstrate that Zombie is far from a polished or thoughtful director, but the stuff inside demonstrates that he knows how to get under your skin…a quality that would make the FanTasia film programmers very happy.