One day of horror and sleaze!
For the uninitiated (which included me) Eurofest is a one-day smorgasbord of European horror and sleaze that has included over its four-year life-span zombie mayhem, giallo madness and action-adventure. The festival is the brainchild of the affable Trevor Barley, who is also a co-publisher of Media Publications, one of the most important literary-critical promoters of the horror genre anywhere. This was my first Eurofest, but much was made by regulars of the swanky new site, L’Institute Francais, noting the incongruity of viewing a Eurofest line-up in such a classy environment. Some half-kiddingly lamenting the less gentrified locations of past festivals. It didn’t take long for the crowd to adjust. By the evening fest goers were comfortably wearing out a path between the downstairs café/bar and the upstairs cinema. By the late screenings even partaking a pint with their film (now that’s what I called civilized!).
As a cultural tourist I wondered about the classic British reserve (not counting football fans of course), and whether it would hold true during the screenings. Of all genres, horror is the one that seems to illicit the greatest degree of audience participation, and the atmosphere surrounding festivals tends to multiply that affect. Relative to my other experiences, the Eurofest crowd did appear far less emotive during and immediately after the screenings. Especially if I compare the reactions to those of fans at Montreal’s FantAsia (a mix of Asian action/horror and Euro-horror), who cheered, jeered, and laughed themselves silly. Maybe the broad cultural mix of Montreal’s audience demographics accounts for some of the difference (anglophone, francophone, Chinese, Japanese, etc.). However, it’s still quite clear by the smiles on people’s faces and post-screen bantering that Brits love their horror! An added treat at the festival was the enticing (and always crowded) table of merchandise goodies (magazines, books, cd’s, posters, etc.), hard to get at but worth the squeeze.
Guests at last year’s Eurofest included Jess Franco, Lina Romay and William Lustig. This year’s festival invites were José Larraz and Marianne Morris, an appropriate complement to the screening of Larraz’s lesbo-vamp classic Vampyres (1974, whose famous still of the two femme vamps pacing an underground corridor graced the cover of the fest program booklet). Before getting to the films, kudos to Barley and co. for securing excellent quality prints of nearly every film. There’s nothing more rewarding and reaffirming of the theatre experience than watching near pristine (and uncut) prints of films (especially older ones). The festival got underway with the screening of Andrea Bianchi’s zombie funfest Burial Ground (1980). Burial Ground is a Night of the Living Dead (1968) clone, minus the character development and social import. The skeleton plot begins with a scientist whose research into necronomics (not to be confused with economics) unleashes the living dead. Characters, who we know and learn nothing at all about, arrive at a nearby retreat to simply serve as narrative fodder for the zombie attacks. Nothing more is really needed for a chomping good zombie film, but where this fails is that most of the set-pieces, the film’s raison d’etre, are uninspired. In a great set-piece a la Bava, Argento or Fulci), the actual death is only icing on the cake. The build-up is equally important. Bianchi gets lazy by relying exclusively on the blood and entrails to achieve a sense of climax. The one exception – and the film’s best moment – is the killing of the maid. Bianchi for once stretches the scene out with moments that anticipate the violence. A group of zombies roost below a bedroom window. A maid opens the shutters to investigate the noise. A zombie tosses a stake that pins the maid’s hand up against the wooden shutter, with her torso conveniently bent over the windowsill. Slowly, the zombies make their way directly below and decapitate her with a scythe (don’t ask why she doesn’t just close the shutter). A cut to an overhead angle of the headless, blood-splattering maid reveals the zombies further below using her head as a blood cauldron. From today’s vantage, the film’s most entertaining aspect is the Oedipal relationship between a boy, Michael, (whose features look strangely old) and his “Mamma.” In a perverse twist on Night of the Living Dead, Michael returns as a zombie and encouraged by his mother to suckle her breasts (and we all know that junior won’t keep his death in his mouth for long). Like the Romero classic, Burial Ground contains that Italian sense of fatalism, where nobody gets out alive.
Second up was Antonio Margheriti’s Apocalypse Now (1979) look-a-like, The Last Hunter (1980), programmed to commemorate the recent death of Euro-horror fave David Warbeck. Just as Burial Ground is a shell of Night of the Living Dead , The Last Hunter sheds Apocalypse‘s pretenses at philosophy and politics. Which is to be expected, this is Italian exploitation, not high art. Unfortunately, Hunter also subtracts the crazed surreality and moments of stylistic excesses that made Apocalypse such an apt metaphor for the Vietnam war, as well as a fascinating head trip film. As in Apocalypse , Warbeck is the Willard (Martin Sheen) character with an important mission to accomplish. Only here it is far less interesting and dynamic; there’s no crazed Kurtz to hunt down, only a radio tower used by the North Vietnamese to send out propaganda messages (somehow we’re supposed to believe that these messages that have been bringing down the morale of the American GI’s is why Vietnam is winning the war!). It’s also hard to take the majority Philippino cast as being Vietnamese. Good fun, but ultimately disappointing.
Right from the opening shot I knew I would be in for a treat with the wonderful print quality of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971). It’s been a long while since I’ve seen such sumptuous Bavaesque colors. Even though Bava goes for a more realist lighting style in this film, there is enough striking use of color in the mise-en-scene (clothing, furniture, blood, etc.) to qualify it as a minor giallo classic. Much credit (or blame!) goes to this film for inspiring the Friday the 13th series. The bay resort location (which becomes Camp Crystal), stylish murders (15 of them), and whodunit (though no one really cares) plot can be seen as a template for Friday the 13th Pts 1 & 2. As if to laugh in the face of proper narrative etiquette, Bava stages one of the wackiest, deus-ex-machina endings. After securing ownership of the bayside resort by murdering everyone connected to it, Renata and Albert return home seemingly unscathed. Can such sin go unpunished or will moral justice prevail? As the couple remove bags from the car trunk, Bava cuts to an ominously sweet two-shot of a boy and girl playfully holding a shotgun. Before you can say Hail Mary the children “mistakenly” blow away Renata and Albert.
This bizarre ending would have been an appropriate segue into Narcisco Ibanez Serrador’s creepy child flick, Would You Kill a Child (aka Island of Death )? Instead, Bava was followed by director José Larraz and star Marianne Morris introducing Vampyres (1974) . Seeing this again on a big screen and in an excellent print made me realize just how great a film its is. Fresh in mind, it surely ranks as one of my top 10 vampire films (*if you are curious check the end of the essay for the other 9). The statuesque Morris and her lithe, angelic counterpart (played by Anulka), form an alluring pair of femme fatale lesbian vampires, seducing men into their lair like spiders into a web. The men, all of whom seem middle or upper class, are seduced back to their mansion in anticipation of sex. Most of the victims are one-night meals; fed, wined, sexed, drugged, sucked dry, and then tossed dead into their own crashed car on the highway. Morris takes a liking to her latest “fly” and keeps him around like an aged wine. After sex she waits until the drugs take effect and then feeds through the wound on his arm. The combination of repeated drugging and bloodletting keeps the once secure man weak and muddled. In fact, throughout the film the male characters are dis-empowered. In one scene the male victim slowly senses that something is amiss, and begins to assert his male authority, only to be squelched by the vamp-duo. In such scenes the audience senses their confidence and superiority. The languid, mist-filled shots of the surrounding landscape underscores this sense of male entrapment (mansion-as-lair). One could easily conclude a feminist reading of Vampyres . If not, it still remains an atmospheric, seductive vampire tale.
Having seen Wax Mask this past summer at Montreal’s FantAsia, in the company of special-effects artist turned director Sergio Stivaletti, I skipped the screening to catch a meal, pint, and some socializing. In Montreal, Stivaletti seemed apprehensive about his screening, largely because his film is not as extreme as many that he’d seen in the festival. Happily for Stivaletti and the fest organisers, the crowd seemed to enjoy Stivaletti’s throw-back to a pre-modern, classical style of horror (CGI effects notwithstanding!). As any Euro-horror fan will know, Wax Mask was to see the long-awaited teaming of Argento (producer) and Fulci (as director), but Stivaletti was chosen by Argento to take over the directing reins after Fulci’s unexpected death. Which could explain the more laid back, classical approach Stivaletti chose to a script written by Fulci. There is no visible authorial style to the film and nothing that could be mistaken as Fulciesque. In fact, the film feels more like a Hammer or Universal film than an Italian horror film (and in his introduction to the screening Stivaletti did acknowledge this debt). Still, it does deliver a respectable (though predictable), narrative-driven horror yarn.
Eurofest concluded with the rare screening of the Spanish horror film, Would You Kill a Child? A good way to describe this film is think of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), but with children replacing birds. A newly wed couple take a vacation on a remote island resort. Once there they are surprised to learn that, outside of a few groups of children, the resort town is deserted. However, the children are eerily sullen and withdrawn. The couple’s attempts to communicate with them are greeted with strange, anti-social behaviour. Before long the children’s presence turns from odd to ominous. Director Serrador opts for a slow-paced, restraint style rather than explicit action, violence (or explanations). Serrador places the audience on the narrative level as the couple, and together we come to the realization that the children have murdered most of the town’s adult population. The film is interesting especially in light of the usual representation of children in Spanish and Italian (especially Italian) films as victims or barometers of social-economic malaise. Like in The Birds , Serrador offers no rational (or irrational) explanation for why the children behave the way they do. In fact Serrador (I believe) includes a direct reference to Hitchcock in a scene staged identically to the final scene of The Birds . In the scene the couple walk slowly, hand-in-hand past a group of menacing children towards their car in an attempt to escape the island. The scene, as in The Birds , plays on the expectation that the children will attack (as they have in the past). And the expectation is thwarted because they manage to drive off unharmed (though they don’t get off the island).
A few minutes into the film I realized that I had already seen this in a French video version entitled Revolt in the Year (2000). However, the French version included an additional scene that adds enormously to the film’s possible meaning. The French version contains a longish (around 3-5 minutes if my memory serves me right) pre-credit sequence of mondo footage with voice-over narration depicting the history of child exploitation throughout the world. My impression was that the film would have been better served if the mondo footage appeared at the end. Coming in the beginning, it ruined any possibility at suspense or surrealism. We read those first sullen expressions on the faces of the children considerably different after viewing all the injustice children have been subjected to! On the other hand, seeing the mondo footage gives the audience a social context that at least alludes to a possible (if metaphorical) explanation for the children’s strange behaviour. At the end of the screening most people rushed to catch the last tube. All in all the one-day festival was an enjoyable treat for horror fans. The organizers promise three such days in 1998 (the first perhaps in February, March or April). I should still be in the UK then, so I look forward to a repeat performance and will keep you posted.