Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2019

Now in its seventy-third year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year welcomes Richard Dreyfuss to the city for the world premiere of Astronaut, while elsewhere there is science fiction drama in Aniara, Jim Jarmusch’s zombie slapstick The Dead Don’t Die, adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the weird west horror of The Wind and the retro-oddity of The Vast of Night, and feature documentaries Memory: The Origins of Alien and 2040, while here we round up a few of the other titles of interest to genre fans.

The Furies – Saturday 22nd June – Vue Omni

The Night Moves strand a long established late-night feature of the festival showcasing the fringes of horror and science fiction, Australian writer/director Tony D’Aquino’s feature debut The Furies makes its UK premiere, an outback-set slasher thriller pitting beauty against the beasts.

It’s a typical night out for best friends Kayla and Maddie (Airlie Dodds and Ebony Vagulans) until they say goodnight and go their separate ways, and moments later Kayla hears what might be a scream; running to find Maddie, she sees her friend being carried away but then she too is jumped.

Awakening in a sealed box, it opens to deposit Kayla in a desiccated forest of trees bleached to bone white, without her medication and with fragmented memories of an operating room. The side of the crate stencilled “BEAUTY 6,” she soon finds that there are other girls in the forest as scared as she, and that they have good reason to be.

The opening scenes of Kayla and Maddie together showing them to be honest, kind, vulnerable and likeable, The Furies then separates them for the majority of the runtime, pairing Kayla instead with a procession of other “beauties” who serve as little more than cannon fodder.

Sheena, Alice, Sally and Rose (Taylor Ferguson, Kaitlyn Boyé, Harriet Davies and Linda Ngo) are between them conniving, expendable, new age and frustratingly needy as they are pursued by their masked hunters to the rules of a game which Kayla attempts to piece together.

An exercise in bargain basement nastiness with a variety of rusted implements, it’s largely a boys’ only affair, with the girls for the most part failing to even pick up a rock or a stick to defend themselves even when hiding in a tool shed, then when they do obtain a decent axe leaving it behind just when it might be useful.

Never reaching beyond the audience which enjoys seeing women hunted and butchered, the late attempt to turn The Furies into an avenging techno-thriller falls flat with an incongruous coda, The Belko Experiment as run on a home chemistry set.

Gwen – Sunday 23rd June – Odeon Lothian Road

The wind blows, damp and cold, as mist crawls over the top of the mountain range and into the valley, half the rock face torn away, strip-mined as the children play in the shadow of what once was, stumbling over paths strewn with shattered slate on their way to church, summoned by the bells which offer no comfort.

There is cholera in the village, a whole family dead before the doctor in the employ of the mining company could even attend them, but there is something worse in the night, seventeen-year-old Gwen waking from her sleep, venturing into the night with her lamp dressed only in her nightgown, convinced she has heard something outside the homestead.

Her father away at the war, Gwen lives with her sister Mari and their mother Elen, the only family remaining in the valley, but something wants them gone, something more insidious than the unforgiving weather, which leaves warnings nailed to their door and slaughters their whole flock of sheep in the night.

With its UK premiere in the Best of British strand, Gwen is the feature debut of writer/director William McGregor but he is no stranger to period drama having worked on the first season of Poldark, nor the frustrations of teens caught in circumstances beyond their control having directed a trio of episodes of the final season of Misfits.

The trappings of folk horror veiling the social drama of the industrial revolution and the human cost it inflicted, Peterloo‘s Maxine Peake is Elen, struggling against overwhelming forces as she tries to protect her daughters, while The Enfield Haunting‘s Eleanor Worthington-Cox is Gwen, trying to make sense of the strange happenings and the aberrant behaviour of her mother.

The unforgiving landscape of remote Wales as much a character as the cast, Gwen offers little comfort against the cold and the inevitable march of progress as it rolls over those deemed to be an obstacle: “Steal a sheep and they’ll take your hand; steal a mountain and they’ll make you a lord.”

Ever After (Endzeit) – Friday 28th June – Odeon Lothian Road

It is two years since the Earth was ravaged by plague; in Europe, it is believed only two cities have survived behind barricades of metal and wire mesh, Weimar, in central Germany, and Jena only twenty kilometres distant, the two connected by an automated railway line which ferries supplies between the two.

So traumatised she has been since her rescue, Vivi (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) has not ventured out of the hospital, but assigned to a work detail on the border fence she is immediately confronted by her fears and decides to make her way to Jena, unexpectedly accompanied by the abrasive Eva (Maja Lehrer).

In Weimar, the infected are shot on sight whereas in Jena it is believed that there is a search ongoing for a cure, and with Eva scratched in the attack which killed a friend and now slowly succumbing to infection it is her only hope, but when the train breaks down in no man’s land the pair must continue on foot.

Based on the graphic novel by Olivia Vieweg and directed by Carolina Hellsgård and with its UK premiere in the Night Moves strand of the Festival, Endzeit, more correctly translated as “end times,” may be written and directed by women who also occupy key creative roles and lead the cast, but beyond this admirable effort it is just another post-apocalyptic zombie movie.

The scenery and the architecture may be different, fields of green and gold, mountain villages, rivers and pathways through the rich forests, nature having reasserted itself in flocks of butterflies and zoo animals escaped to roam the fields, but two sullen girls wandering the countryside does not reinvent a genre.

What little Endzeit does have to offer that is unusual – a bride zombie, a blind zombie – is too sparse, with the only true shock moment having been done before in Juan de los muertos, while the biology of the zombies and their ecological niche is never explored sufficiently, ultimately another mundane addition to an overloaded genre.

Body at Brighton Rock – Friday 28th June – Vue Omni

The feature debut of writer/director Roxanne Benjamin, previously behind segments of Southbound and XX, the opening scenes of Body at Brighton Rock are promising as rookie guide Wendy (Karina Fontes) arrives late for the morning briefing at the Brighton Rock State Park and Recreation Area.

Offering to swap her gift shop duty for the outdoor assignment to Hitchback Ridge given to her friend Maya (Emily Althaus), Wendy shrugs it off; “It’s just a walk in the woods, how hard can it be?” For an experienced guide, perhaps it would not be a problem, but taking a wrong turn, losing her map and then stumbling upon a decomposing body just as her phone runs out of charge, Wendy makes even the most straight forward tasks a challenge.

Filmed in the wilderness of California, the location is the star of Body at Brighton Rock, rocks and golden leaves and green pine needles, a survival thriller of woman against nature, Wendy obliged to stay with the body until help can arrive, but uncertain of her location and with the sun setting that will not be until well after dawn.

Despite having spent her day posting cautionary notices warning of snakebites, fire hazards and to never hike alone, Wendy is ill-prepared physically and psychologically, her lack of ability neither inspiring nor interesting, her inability to do the job she insisted on taking on despite the hesitance of her more experienced colleagues tiresome rather than endearing.

Perhaps better titled When Stupid People Get Lost in the Woods: the Motion Picture, the comedic vibe and banter of the titles and opening scenes are abandoned in favour of endless scenes of Fontes looking perplexed, upset, forlorn, distressed and anxious, a thriller composed principally of filler.

Through nightmares and noises in the wood and the arrival of another hiker (Casey Adams) who may have a connection with the body, the minimal event of Benjamin’s script is insufficient to support a feature even with the distraction of the glorious scenery, simply marking time until it arrives at a conclusion both ridiculous and disappointing.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019 continues until Sunday 30th June




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