STRASBOURG

Alan Jones returns to the Festival Europeen du Film Fantastique de Strasbourg for the second year in a row, this year not on the prize jury this year his instant blog opinions of all the movies in competition won’t be so controversial.

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  • DAY ONE  | IT'S GREAT TO BE BACK

     

    DAY ONE  -  IT'S GREAT TO BE BACK

    Great to be back at the Festival Europeen du Film Fantastique de Strasbourg. This time we came from London via Eurostar because last year the wait between connecting flights from Paris was nearly 4 hours and that’s nearly how long the entire train journey takes from A to B. Always happy to support directors Daniel Cohen and Consuelo Holzer in their endeavour to make this boutique event one for the more discerning fantasy lover. So I was more than happy to take them up on their offer of being a Fest Guest for the second year in a row. And because I’m not on the prize jury this year my instant blog opinions of all the movies in competition won’t be so controversial.

    On the 2013 jury are old friends Lucky McKee, here anyway to show ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, his co-directed movie with film school pal Chris (THE LOST) Sivertson. Joining him is one of every festival’s favourites, CHEAP THRILLS, BIG ASS SPIDER, JODOROWSKY’S DUNE producer Travis Stevens. He’d heard from Evan Katz about how well CHEAP THRILLS had played at FrightFest, and how much he loved the crowd, so within minutes of meeting up again he’d pitched me his latest production STARRY EYES, a Hollywood rags-to-bitches horror, that he says is right up our street for next year.

    Other jury members include Spanish comedian Carlos Areces who starred in Alex de la Iglesia’s THE LAST CIRCUS and WITCHING & BITCHING and Pedro Almodovar’s I’M SO EXCITED. I’d met him before because of his superb turn in Nacho Vigalondo’s hilarious EXTRATERRESTRIAL. Rounding out the Jury line-up is actor Tomas Lemarquis, so good in both PAINLESS and ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY, and Paris-based ‘Liberation’ newspaper film critic Julien Gester.

    The opening night gala kicked off with Jim Mickle’s WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, which got a decidedly mixed reaction here than the more skewed positive FrightFest one. I love it, and feel it takes everything mediocre about the Mexican original, making it more coherent and believable.  At the cocktail party afterwards, opinion was really divided, but I did my bit for one of my movies of the year. Jim you really owe me!

    The first of the morning press shows was the McKee and Sivertson High School meta-zombie movie that I absolutely loved. A real unexpected swerve after the backwoods horror of McKee’s THE WOMAN, both directors take their 2001 short of the same name, extend, upgrade and hip it up into the style stratosphere for what’s best described as a punk TWILIGHT. This mash-up of teen horror, sex comedy, rune stone witchery and lesbian fantasy begins with a cheerleader tragically dying at Blackfoot High, rebellious outsider Maddy (an amazing Caitlin Stasey) planning to pay back the high-achieving Pom Pom brigade and football team vaguely responsible, and Wiccan student Leena (a terrific Sianoa Smit-McPhee) who revives the cheerleaders via dark arts when they die in a car crash entirely due to jealous quarterback Terry (the completely hissable villain of the piece Tom Williamson). With the stellar ensemble cast sent on a supernatural rollercoaster ride of gory blood-sucking death and unusual destruction, ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE is both thrilling and chilling and easily modishly directional as Joseph Kahn’s DETENTION. McKee and Sivertson, both exceptional artists in their own right, perfectly dovetail their talents to avoid any mothballed creepiness and as a result give the usual generic elements a major lift into something remarkably different that amiably jangles the nerves while always remaining blackly amusing and hugely entertaining.

    The on screen title of the movie has the addendum ‘Part One’ and Lucky told me that he and Chris will continue their engrossing CHEERLEADERS saga if there’s an audience for this particular episode. He said there’s plenty of spin-off material in their back pockets and he’s happy to return to Blackfoot High once he’s written a rom com for one of his other filmmaker buddies. Strasbourg landed the European Premiere of ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, a major feather in their cap, and it will be showing at the London Film Festival where Lucky will hand over the introduction duties to Sivertson. All in all a terrific start to the festival this year.

    Next time… A HISTORY OF LOVE AND FURY, meting up with my old friend Zack Parker of PROXY fame and a JOURNEY TO PLANET X.

    Until next time.

    Alan.

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  • DAY TWO  |  MUNCHAUSEN SYNDROME BY PROXY

     

    DAY TWO  -  MUNCHAUSEN SYNDROME BY PROXY

    Last year in Strasbourg I had the good fortune to meet Indiana-based director Zack Parker who had his interesting third feature SCALENE showcased in the eclectic line-up. He told me all about his latest movie PROXY back then, we swapped contact details, became firm twitter/email pals and the moment his film was ready he made sure I was one of the first to see it. I knew after watching it that Toronto would go for it in a big way, and indeed they did, the reason why we didn’t include it in the August line-up as much as I would have liked to. It was important to Zack to have the world premiere at that banner Canadian festival, which can do so much commercially for a well-received title. But now the Toronto kudos are in and Strasbourg has staged the European premiere of the movie I can finally let loose and tell you all how absolutely fantastic and boldly different PROXY Is.

    A very difficult movie to discuss because it works on constant surprise shifts and left-field twists – incredibly one idiot Toronto reviewer complained it should have been more predictable (to him I say go see INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2) – Parker’s intensely chilling two-hour delve into perverse psychosis is part Brian de Palma, part Lars Von Trier, yet all astonishing, disturbing and thought-provoking original. Here’s one movie you really do have to see twice to pick up on all the subtle nuance you missed the first time around being too busy trying to get a handle on the weird behavioural issues at its unique centre.

    Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy is what lies beneath the ambitious narrative trajectory – look it up – and it basically tells the story of nine months pregnant Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) who loses her baby after a vicious mugging. Attending a church support group seeking closure she meets Melanie (Alexa Havins) who has lost her son in a tragic accident. But nothing is as it appears in Parker’s deceptively alluring chiller because It turns out one of these damaged women is a psychodrama queen and the other seriously deranged. However, which one is which and where does one draw the line? Friendship and empathy between the two turns dangerous for them both as moral and psychological problems blur leading to the most startlingly transgressive climax seen since MARTYRS.

    Halfway through Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner’s engrossing scenario comes an incredibly bloody double murder sequence shot in crystal-clear, thrilling slow-motion and scored by Parker favourites The Newton Brothers in the best De Palma/Pino Donnagio tradition. Comparisons to PSYCHO have to be made of course, and indeed two peripheral characters – Esther’s butch lesbian lover (Kristina Klebe) and Melanie’s puzzled husband (Joe Swanberg) - then take a more centre stage as demented events wend their way inexorably to exposing Esther and Melanie’s innermost cores. PROXY is a daring and provocative exploration of a fine madness, which like the controversial medical condition it takes its name from deliberately exaggerates and fabricates incidents and emotions for the ultimate shock pay-off. I was reminded watching it for the third time of Roy Boulting’s TWISTED NERVE (1968) that attempted something similar but failed bravely. Except PROXY doesn’t fail in any area, it is superbly acted (Rasmussen will send shivers down your spine due to her cool detachment), wonderfully scripted and precision directed, courageous in its single-minded audacity and it is one of my favourite films of this year. FrightFesters, watch this space.

    Until next time

    Ian

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  • DAY THREE | PLANET X

     

    DAY THREE - PLANET X

    One of the many delights of the Strasbourg Fantasy Festival is the specially organised meals for all visiting guests. Daniel Cohen, Consuelo Holzer and their legion of volunteers make sure that every lunch and dinner takes place at a great restaurant selected to show off the local Alsatian cuisine (choucoutre, meat salads, spaetzele etc). Sometimes it’s 20 people all getting to know each other in convivial surroundings, other times the group splits into two to ring the changes and ensure the ice is broken with everyone. Last night I ended up in the group with Travis Stevens (Audiences still haven’t gotten over his $20 strip on stage after CHEAP THRILLS), ALL CHEELEADERS DIE producer Andrew van den Houten (whose going away present to the organisers was a live rabbit smuggled in from Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (an absolute sweetheart, nothing like his PAINLESS or ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY villains) and Brooklyn Underground filmmakers Josh Koury and Trisha Barkman.

    The latter were in town to present their beguiling documentary JOURNEY TO PLANET X about Florida amateur filmmakers Troy and Eric who make cheap-as-chips sci-fi movies in their weekend spare time. Koury, with co-director Myles Kane, follow the two budding Ed Woods as they put together their latest action adventure ‘Planet X’ in complete ignorance of technique, skill or basic filmmaking know-how. At first the reaction is one of laughter because the casting process is hilarious and the movies are so god-awful, then of pity because they are so delusional over their clear lack of talent. But then you get to see that these guys are completely sincere, tenacious, driven by their boundless love of genre and the hope that they might one day make the grade. In this case it’s to get ‘Planet X’ - shot on airport dumpsites, in meat factory freezers and using a homemade green screen – into the local Geek Film Festival. Sure it’s camp, but it’s also quite a sobering insight into what two men will do to fill their boring downtime with some kind of meaning. Talking to Josh and producer Trisha, apparently what’s on screen is only the half of the true story, yet the part they do show the world is highly engaging and very entertaining. They told me their next film, in conjunction with noted writer Gay Talese, is the true-life story of a peeping tom who took his voyeuristic tendencies to extremes.

    Jury member Carlos Areces is staying true to Spanish form and keeping Madrid hours, meaning his timetable is five hours later than anyone else. I caught up with him at I AM DIVINE, the fabulous documentary about the life and times of the John Waters’ star of PINK FLAMINGOES and HAIRSPRAY. I took the picture you see here in the cinema just before it began. Although I’m sure he’s sick to death of doing it I asked him to sing ‘I’m So Excited’ with me because, although I hated the Almodovar film, he was terrific in it. Once he leaves Strasbourg, Areces starts filming Santiago Segura’s TORRENTE 5. The other two Spaniards in town are Manuel Carballo and Sandra Fernandez, director and producer of THE RETURNED. While nothing whatsoever to do with the recent Channel 4 series, THE RETURNED does contain a few similar plot points as it relates the story of a viral outbreak that turns people into the Living Dead. The virus can be controlled through prescribed medicine, but world supplies are dwindling and those infected are waiting for a synthetic equivalent. Anti-Returned Groups are against any attempt to keep these animated corpses living among humanity and the focus is on Kate (Emily Hampshire), a doctor who is compassionately treating the Returned mainly because her husband is one in secret. It’s when anarchy erupts and society looks like breaking down completely that Carballo’s movie begins proper. While adding little to zombie mythology, and with many of the twists well telegraphed, THE RETURNED is an acceptable enough pot-boiler that moves at a fair clip with the occasional moment of gore thrown in to keep things lively. It’s a million times better than Carballo’s last movie, the dire EXORCISMUS, that’s for sure. Carballo told me his next movie will probably be a remake of the 1962 classic Russian fantasy AMPHIBIAN MAN.

    Another movie in competition here is BAD MILO!, the Duplass Brothers’ presentation of a Jacob Vaughn monster farce. Starring top US TV celebrity Ken Marino, this is the one about the stressed-out office worker who has a demon living in his arsehole that he farts out on occasion to kill the people who’ve done him wrong. Can he tame the creature he calls Milo or will it forever live up his butt, like his dad’s one Ralph before him. Vaughn’s shocker satire is funny for five minutes before running its one joke into the ground through poor editing and over-the-top performances. Milo looks like a more evil version of ET, with THE ARRIVAL OF WANG black blinking eyes, and is just too Muppety to be scary. OK, I know that’s not the point – gassy bum gravy gags are – but with a few more frights this might have scared the shit out of you instead of just out of Marino on screen.

    Until next time.

    Ian

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  • DAY FOUR | MASTER CLASS

     

    DAY FIVE - MASTER CLASS

    Strasbourg does some of the best Master Classes on the fantasy festival circuit. Two this year deserve a special mention. One was a fascinating study of screen credits by university lecturer Laurence Moinereau – how they evolved from simple title cards, how filmmakers use them in subversive ways, with Jean-Luc Godard examples, and an insight into graphic design impacting on the style of movie, in particular the three TERMINATORs. It was standing room only at this brilliant analysis. The other class had a special attraction for me personally. Ever since I obtained the French posters for Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT nearly 20 years ago, they have been framed and put in pride of place in my bathroom. They are amazing works of pop art so I was thrilled to meet the painter himself, Michel Landi, here to discuss the lost art of poster design. These days it’s usually just a picture of the star of the movie, no vision at all. But when Landi started out on John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Ingmar Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES, he redefined the now defunct skill. Other posters I possess of his are for John Carpenter’s THE FOG, showing no fog at all because he hadn’t seen the film at the time of painting, and his extraordinary poster for Spielberg’s DUEL, a haunting classic.

    One event I missed because it took place four days before the official opening of the festival was the Cine Concert performed by The B Movie Orchestra and The Cinematic Fever Girls. This group of 15 musicians and singers hail from Belgium and play authentic versions of Stelvio Cipriani/Morricone/Teo Usuelli/Riz Ortolani soundtracks from such Italian thrillers as ITALIA A MANA ARMATA, HOT BED OF SEX and LA POLIZIA HA LE MANI LEGATE, with the odd BULLITT thrown in. Everyone who attended said they were amazing  - check out their ‘I Want It All’ on YouTube – and I hope I can see them live somewhere soon.

    As for movies my last day in the cinema before the closing ceremony tonight meant I watched one of the worst of the year and easily one of the best. The worst was Brendan Muldowney’s LOVE ETERNAL, a Dutch/Irish hodgepodge based on Keo Oishi’s novel ‘Loving the Dead’ about a lonely poor little twentysomething rich kid who can’t connect emotionally to anyone, except when they are deceased. First he moves bodies of suicide cases into his mansion, then he starts combing websites to find those wanting to exit and helping them, lastly he focuses on a suicidal mother – THE WOMAN’s Pollyanna Mackintosh – who has lost a child. Through her he finds a way back to humanity in a very queasy jumble of necrophilia, grief, black humour and clunky visuals. Dreadful. Halfway through I was longing for WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S!

    BORGMAN on the other hand got the mix of social satire, strangeness and allegory exactly right, the reason why it was shown in competition in Cannes last May, the first to do so in 38 years. In Alex van Warmerdam’s surrealistic thriller, part FUNNY GAMES, part MAN BITES DOG, a vagrant appears in the smart streets of an upscale Netherlands suburb wanting a bath and is violently turned away by the bullying man of the house. But the wife takes pity on him and moves him into the garden shed without her husband’s knowledge. Little by little this mysterious tenant will exert a hold on the family that includes murder, indoctrination and sinister surgery. Is Borgman (the enigmatic Jan Bijvoet) the Devil in disguise, an incarnation of universal fears, or an illusion? A clue could be in the very first quote you read on the subtitles - “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks”.  Very beguiling, engrossing and funny, no wonder the Dutch have put this up for Foreign Film Oscar contention.

    And so my time in Strasbourg is coming to an end. I will not be seeing the closing attraction, MACHETE KILLS, as I saw it in London a few weeks ago. As I signed an embargo I can’t give you my opinion over Robert Rodriguez’ Eurospy-style sequel. Apart from the weather not being as good as last year, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself in the city of the Court of Human Rights with my friends from the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation, terrific guests like Lucky McKee, Travis Stevens, Zack Parker and the one and only Carlos Areces who has now started singing Burt Bacharach songs at me.

    Hope I can be back soon.

    Alan

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