Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2018

Now in its seventy second year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival dominates the capital for two weeks with premieres, retrospectives, red carpets, in person events and outdoor screenings of family favourites, with guests this year including the legendary director Joe Dante alongside The Secret of Marrowbone, Calibre, Blood Fest, Incredibles 2, Possum, In Darkness, Solis, Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back),  Anna and the Apocalypse, Piercing and Zombillenium, but beyond the more obviously genre offerings there are a plethora of other films hovering on the borders of science fiction and horror…

White Chamber – Thursday 21st June – Cineworld

It is the near future. His Majesty’s Government have fallen, declared “unfit to rule,” swept away by the United Kingdom Liberation Army led by Citizen General Daran Zakarian; inevitably, in the immediate aftermath, martial law is declared and there will be recriminations, purges, show trials, grudges settled, while somewhere in a white chamber a woman awakes.

Barefoot, blood on her scalp and her jumpsuit, she is cautious as she considers the metal floor and ceiling, the white Perspex walls illuminated from behind. The only communication comes from a voice disguised by a speech synthesiser; she does not know if it is even one person or many, only that she is a prisoner, but this is no ordinary cell.

A modern torture chamber capable of flipping between extremes of temperature, delivering electric shocks or exuding concentrated acid, the woman is asked about what was going on in the facility which houses the chamber, but she claims not to know, saying she was merely an administrator, but her captor is unconvinced and their patience will not be limitless.

Written and directed by Paul Raschid, the UK premiere of White Chamber was part of the Night Moves strand of the Festival, a low budget technothriller aiming for aspects of The Prisoner, Cube or Infinity Chamber but where the lack of resource is unfortunately all too apparent beyond the walls of that one principal minimalist set.

Largely filmed out of term within what is all too obviously the bland central concourse of a high school, deadly poisons are kept in a steel cabinet apparently borrowed from the chemistry lab with labels designed to establish plot points rather than for authenticity, the flashbacks to the operational project revealing appalling experimental protocol with one subject, no controls, and no consideration taken for the long-term effects of the psychological impact of confinement on their results.

Once Upon a Time’s Oded Fehr and Howl’s Shauna Macdonald valiantly do their best to eke some life and conflict out of their characters but Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Farrell’s underwritten lab workers are denied even that chance while Amrita Acharia’s assistant is inexperienced and ignorant to the point of naïve, any big ideas Raschid may have aimed for trapped within the small box of his budget and his imagination, White Chamber lacking the narrative or visual variety, depth or intelligence required to engage for more than a few minutes.

The Devil Outside – Friday 22nd June – Cineworld

Its world premiere screened as part of the Best of British strand, writer/director Andrew Hulme’s latest feature was described in the programme as “a dark, funny crime horror,” and much of The Devil Outside echoes the ethos of folk horror, particularly the 1974 television play Penda’s Fen, a tale of an adolescent boy alienated from his parents and his peers at school, seeking answers and frustrated in his faltering faith.

Where that earlier production overreached its ambition this is a more orthodox and naturalistic approach, filmed in Nottinghamshire though conspicuously not named as such, conveying the anonymity of any depressed English village, the mist and trees and the blowing fields of wheat speaking of the blessings of summer while the derelict colliery represents the unfulfilled potential and ultimate decay of man, and even as those in church raise their hands in praise of Jesus there are drunks and homeless in the doorways of the closed shops.

Robert (newcomer Noah Carson) prays alongside his family at Sunday School but unlike them he reflects and is left wanting; at school he is taught the differences between fact and fiction, between evidence and imagination, but his devout and unsympathetic mother (Keeley Forsyth) furiously throws his science textbook in the rubbish.

“Life is mysterious. We don’t need to explain it. God doesn’t want us to ask questions.” In her crusade her inspiration is the charismatic new lay preacher David (Mark Stobbart), young, dynamic, a wake up call to the sleepy flock of comfortable middle England village life with his claims that the country has become godless and it is up to them to lead the way to salvation from the wickedness that is all around.

Told through the sheltered eyes of Robert, he is awakened to temptation, sin and corruption in the forms of his new friend Marcus (Daniel Frogson), the girl who catches his eye at church and the discovery of a dead body in the woods which bears a superficial resemblance to the picture of Jesus which hangs on his bedroom wall even as his faith decomposes under the trees.

Laden with religious symbolism, of the four promises made in the description the only one which is accurate is that the tone is dark, an examination of the toxicity of religion as Robert’s mother systematically humiliates him in front of his peers, attempts to control his thoughts through shame, responds to his curiosity with rhetoric and then tries to install him in a cult while his father stands sheepishly by.

Running to an hour and three quarters, The Devil Outside feels as drawn out and painful as adolescence itself, as hollow, aimless and meaningless as the subservient devotion it seeks to expose and critique, the different elements of the narrative left unresolved and open ended, a question asked but left frustratingly unanswered.

Headless Swans – Monday 25th June – Cineworld

A short film from the showcase entitled Spectres, writer/director Jordan Freeman Klaja and lead actor Jason Dowies were on hand to discuss the international premiere of Headless Swans, a moody neo-noir filmed in Louisiana on 16mm celluloid.

Leon Latour is a private investigator specialising in obtaining evidence of infidelity: “If you think your spouse is faithful you might be right, but if you think your spouse is cheating you’re definitely right,” he tells a prospective client.

Latour does not push them towards engaging his services, instead guiding them carefully to make the right decision, an impartial outsider who will record the actions of the suspected party; his attitude professional, there is a stillness about him, a remove, even as he pushes the box of tissues to the near-hysterical wife who has sought him out.

In parking lots he waits at night, his face illuminated by the screen on his digital camera, the only concession in the film to modernity, Klaja’s preference for the mood and grain of celluloid lending Headless Swans a timeless quality as the oldest stories of betrayal play out, but not to expectation.

Is Latour an observer, paid for his discretion, or is he an instigator? Is the cash his reward, or is there something else he has to gain, something he desires and is prepared to push and manipulate his clients until one of them snaps and gives it to him? Is it for his own end he does this, or does he serve another?

With a recurring motif of fire, the inflamed passions of the trailer park set, the characters framed from afar through lit windows and an abstract dream sequence of elusive symbolism, there is much in Klaja’s film that will intrigue and enthrall followers of filmmaker David Lynch and photographer Gregory Crewdson.

Technically immaculate, Klaja stated after the screening that they sometimes waited all day during the shoot for the light to be just the right level for the desired effect, followed by a long week waiting for the returns from the lab before they could check the footage obtained, but the results are worth the efforts of cinematographer Vincenzo Marranghino.

Dowies directed to underplay the part of Latour, he is an enigma even as he captures and preserves the wreckage created by his actions, a southern gentleman of charm and dubious purpose whose character demands further exploration, and Klaja is already planning to expand the premise to feature length.

Headless Swans is currently playing the festival circuit

Souls of Totality – Monday 25th June – Cineworld

One of the rarest and most spectacular of astronomical events, a total solar eclipse is also one of the most profound, deeply affecting those who have witnessed one, an upheaval of the normal order of things as day turns to night and the birds fall silent as the Earth turns suddenly cold.

Thought before the modern age to be a herald of great change or a portent of doom, there are still those around the world who reject conventional scientific rationality and embrace an alternative consciousness and lifestyle, new agers who gather in enclaves of similar disciples.

Often regarded by outsiders as cults, sometimes the label is apt, with all the sinister connotations that implies, of conformity, of control, of conditioning and irrational behaviour, and so it is that the anonymous couple hide their relationship from their brothers and sisters even on the last day before the Souls of Totality prepare to depart this plane.

A short film directed by Richard Raymond from a script by Kate Trefry and Ben Bolea starring The Last Days on Mars‘ Tom Cullen and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, Souls of Totality is shaped from the raw, primal forces of hope and dread, the possibility that something wonderful may be about to happen, something inexplicable and heavenly, while the intellect experienced in the world and its infinitely terrible history knows that tragedy is coming.

Following the methodology of a suicide cult, the preparations and rituals, the empty promises and endless supervision which subdues subversion or individuality, she is chosen to be the one to remain behind to shepherd the next family, and it breaks her; whatever their fate was to be, all that was important to her was that they met it together.

Both devastating and uplifting, at less than twenty minutes Souls of Totality cannot be more than a fragment of two intertwined lives encapsulated in the few hours before the rising of the sun above the mist-veiled mountains and the moment the world turns prematurely black as she struggles to find the remaining light in the world.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival returns from Wednesday 19th to Sunday 30th June 2019

 

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