Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2012

Lovely MollyThe month of June may fail to bring summer to Scotland’s capital, but more reliable is the Edinburgh International Film Festival, now in its 66th consecutive year. Under the guidance of new artistic director Chris Fujiwara, major premieres have included Killer Joe from director William Friedkin, who also hosted a screening of his classic The French Connection and spoke of that film and The Exorcist, the new Pixar film Brave and talks from Hollywood legend Elliott Gould and British stalwart Jim Broadbent. While there was an absence of science fiction programming on the festival this year, a generous serving of modern horror has been served up under the strand Night Moves.

[WARNING! SPOILERS beyond this point! ^KG]

Thursday 21st June – Lovely Molly – Cineworld

Introduced by director Eduardo Sánchez, one of the forces behind the global phenomenon The Blair Witch Project, his latest work utilises the “found footage” motif that marked his debut, but only to frame the story. Co-written by Sánchez and Jamie Nash, some of the hallmarks of that earlier film are present in the sense of isolation, the unexplainable noises in the night and the inevitable descent into the basement, but while this haunting does feature a walk through the darkened woods, it is more urban.

Following the death of her father, recently married Molly and Tom Reynolds move into her now empty childhood home. Molly and her sister Hannah work as cleaners in an oppressive shopping mall, Tom is a long distance driver. They are not wealthy, they are not educated or upwardly mobile, but they are good people who work hard to get by. Molly in particular struggles, both with a previous drug addiction, and the memories of her childhood, and a turbulent relationship with her father is indicated.

It starts with bangings in the night, locked doors opening, then as Tom is forced to leave Molly alone on her birthday, it escalates to a physical presence, not only in the house but tracking Molly, following her to her work. Rather than seeking help or escape, Molly retreats within herself and back to her drugs, all the time jealously watching her neighbour and her happy children.

For all that is said, good and bad, about The Blair Witch Project, it cannot be denied that the performances were both extraordinary and convincing, and here Sánchez has shown his skill with performers. As Molly, Gretchen Lodge gives a brave and raw performance in her debut film, strongly supported by Alexandra Holden as her frustrated sister, while Johnny Lewis’ Tim is more distant, drifting from his wife as she becomes a stranger to him.

There are images and moments in the film that are very effective, specifically the recurring motif of horses, and like Blair Witch, the film is about what is unseen, what we carry with us, but it falls into generic modern haunting genre: while well executed, it is just an extended premise that never develops into a full story. Early scenes are not so much foreshadowing as a total eclipse of subtlety, yet in the quieter moments it excels, such as Molly’s investigation of the attic, every box a memory, with no control over what will be revealed when they are opened. It’s an observation rather than an analysis of Molly’s breakdown: we see the symptoms, but we never enter her head, never grow to know her.

Lovely Molly is the equivalent of an “experiential” birthday present – it is not to be understood but to be felt. The narrative is sparse, Molly’s conversations with her husband and her sister increasingly superficial, and the questions loom in the background, unanswered, of whether and how badly Molly and Hannah were neglected or abused by their father, whether their mother was complicit, powerless or equally a victim herself, how strongly her childhood pushed her towards the substance abuse she displays as an adult, even whether the phenomena she is now subjected to are wholly induced by her drugs.

Instead, all we can do is watch Molly’s descent as she unravels, pushing away those who may have tried to help her. It’s a terrible thing to watch helplessly as a loved one disintegrates, and they audience are forced to be silent witnesses as she pulls those around her into the darkness, yet the final moments when Molly confronts the shadows are the most satisfying of the film. If the intention of Sánchez was to create an experience that was deeply unsettling for the viewer, in that he has succeeded.

Lovely Molly will be released nationwide on 29th June

During his time in Edinburgh, Eduardo Sánchez was kind enough to sit down for a conversation with Geek Chocolate

Grabbers – Friday 22nd June – Filmhouse

GrabbersIn his introduction, director Jim Wright told the audience that writer Kevin Lehane’s inspiration for the film came from being “bitten to death in the Cook Islands,” but as that memory was transplanted to his homeland, those mosquitoes mutated and grew somewhat. Filmed in the stunning coastal scenery of Inishowen, County Donegal, with the support of the Irish Film Council and the now disbanded UK Film Council, Grabbers is a genre mashup with aspects of science fiction, horror and comedy.

In a beautifully rendered opening sequence that highlights the ability of a skilled effects team to create illusion without benefit of substantial budget, a fireball passes over the Earth at night, eerie in its silence, before plunging into the waters near the fishing vessel Sea Harvester whose small crew are swiftly pulled beneath the waves. The next day, a pod of pilot whales is washed up on the beach, and the investigation falls to functioning alcoholic Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) and his visiting colleague Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) with the support of marine biologist Dr Smith (Russell Tovey).

The early scenes have the atmosphere of Pertwee era Doctor Who, with the slow setup punctuated by mysterious occurrences and the developing sense of quiet panic of a community under siege, but the tone is very different, and the colourful locals make it more akin to Quatermass with added drinking and swearing. The biggest disappointment is that the film is not as funny as it thinks it is; profanity is not funny in and of itself, only when used creatively, yet often here it substitutes for rather than punctuates jokes.

More satisfying is spotting the references to other science fiction classics within the film, from Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes through specific visual references to Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many others, with Christian Henson’s soundtrack carrying a flavour of Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien, and the creature itself, another excellent creation of the effects team, is a Lovecraftian nightmare, a mouth with tentacles and a terrifying swift motion.

Of the cast, Bradley is the most appealing and is disturbingly convincing as a drunk, and while all around her perform convincingly and some have their moments, few characters are more than functional sketches. In its favour, the film could never be accused of taking itself seriously; only a British science fict
ion would feature a screaming housewife running around her bungalow in her robe and slippers, pursued by a blood drinking squid.

The target audience for this film, however, is very specific, and if the blood alcohol levels of viewers approaches that of the characters, they will likely be more appreciative of the humour, but watching the film sober makes it apparent how slight it is. A strong influence on the film is Tremors, which found its greatest success on home video, and in many ways Grabbers is likely to succeed on disc rather than the cinema, where participation with the onscreen inebriation will be easier.

Grabbers is currently finalising distribution arrangements for release later in the year.

After the screening, Geek Chocolate caught up with Jon Wright in the Filmhouse bar for a few words

Guinea Pigs/The Facility – Sunday 24th June – Cineworld

Guinea PigsClinical trials are a vital tool by which the pharmaceuticals companies of the world refine their products before they are considered safe and effective for use; the profit margins of successful drugs which are licensed worldwide can be vast, so the pressure to succeed in these trials is considerable.

Unfortunately, for the test subjects in the audience at the world premiere of writer/director Ian Clark’s debut feature, there is little evidence of sinister and skilled manipulation from either the medical staff of the Limebrook Medical Clinic who are handling the final trials of the experimental Pro9 on behalf of Prostyntrax Pharmaceuticals or behind the camera; instead the presentation indicated poor experimental design and flawed execution. By his own admission in the question and answer session after the screening, Clark “didn’t set out to make a statement about the pharmaceutical industry in any way,” instead explaining that “it was about these people who were handing over authority of their lives and expecting to be taken care of.”

The problem with Guinea Pigs is that by immediately denying any larger importance for the events, confining instead solely to what unfolds within the facility, that the characters and story must be sufficiently compelling in and of themselves, and the tenuous thread of narrative is insufficient. While the initial idea is not one that is often featured in film, medical horror usually focusing on the ridiculous premise of organ harvesting of random strangers, blissfully ignorant of tissue matching, it is a jumping off point rather than a destination. Instead, it remains an undeveloped premise populated with stock characters who argue amongst themselves and run down darkened corridors, and while Clark’s direction is competent, it is not sufficient to overcome the radical suspension of disbelief that his inadequate script necessitates.

Filmed like a fly-on-the-wall documentary gone wrong, an impression enhanced by the absence of soundtrack, there is barely any attempt to give the subjects personalities (it cannot be due to the effects of the drugs, as they are all self absorbed and unlikeable upon arrival), and with no investment in them there is no reason for the audience to care about their fates. Similarly, the isolation is contrived – all the subjects willingly give up their mobile phones simply for the asking, and none of the phones in the building have an outside line, disregarding the fact that all hospitals have payphones for the patients; that the scene establishing their inability to summon outside help is shot with a prominent fire alarm on the back wall, activation of which would bring an immediate response, demonstrates the level of contrivance. No explanation is given why the hospital is in darkness, nor do any of the characters attempt to isolate themselves, even by as simple an act as locking themselves in a toilet.

The cast do their best with the limited demands, as well they should given their collective experience – Aneurin Barnard (Casualty/Doctors), Chris Larkin (Casualty/Holby City), Steve Evets (Casualty), Oliver Coleman (Casualty), Nia Roberts (Holby City/Casualty), Amit Shah (Casualty), Emily Butterfield (Doctors/Holby City) – but the interesting questions of who these people are, what the pressures on the doctor and researchers are, the ethics of the situation, are ignored in favour of copious amounts of fake blood. The impression is that Clark has either done no research on his subject or rather than taking that research and twisting it to suit his purposes has ignored it in favour of creating a lowest common denominator shocker for undemanding viewers who are likely to be unsatisfied with the generic bottom shelf straight-to-DVD result.

There is one brief moment in the film that is effective, as a character looks out of his window and sees a nurse running into the night, a simple and incongruous image that is chilling in the betrayal of trust it signifies, but a later scene of groping through darkness illuminated by camera flash was done better in Julia’s Eyes, and no film wishing to be taken seriously should ever feature a strobe lit screaming naked blonde girl.

Guinea Pigs was eventually released on DVD under the title The Facility

Eddie – Friday 29th June – Filmhouse

Hosting the screening of his debut feature Eddie, subtitled The Sleepwalking Cannibal in the programme though not on screen, director Boris Rodriguez informed the audience that his original concept had been quite different, of a struggling novelist who finds inspiration in the actions of a retarded werewolf, and that the setting had been desolate sand dunes rather than the snows of Canada.

Taking up a position at the Koda Lake Art School, acclaimed painted Lars Olaffson wishes to downplay his success and simply be treated as another member of the faculty, concealing the fact that he has been suffering from a creative block that has left him unable to paint for a decade.

In his class is Eddie, clumsy, awkward and silent, but his wealthy aunt is a patron of the school, so he is allowed to attend class. Lars learns of Eddie’s background from fellow teacher Lesley – “Eddie’s father shot himself when he was five after accidentally running over his mother in a lawnmower. That was when the sleepwalking started. And the eating small animals.”

When his aunt dies, it is a provision of her will that the estate will go to the school if Eddie is taken care of, and Lars is volunteered, and the diet of small
animals resumes. It’s a tale worthy of Poe, the artist who finds his muse in murder and becomes complicit to feed his needs. When not sleepwalking, Eddie is gentle and childlike, and in his own way Lars is just as damaged, but his actions are in many ways noble, directing Eddie only towards those who detract from the small community, and he uses his revived fortunes to support the school.

As the local radio station plays opera and offers commentary on murdered lovers in Mozart and children thrown in fires in Verdi, the escalating violence is contrasted by the serene tone of the film, Lars’ detachment from events as remote as the setting. “We paint to put into images what we can’t put into words. That’s why we shouldn’t think too much, we should feel.”

Rodriguez explained that inspirations for the film were Fargo, An American Werewolf in London and Let the Right One In, and all are evident. The film is sparse, in a brittle, frosty wilderness where the nights are long and dark and cold, perfect for ghastly tales, but the shock of the blood upon the snow is leavened with gallows humour and the good nature of the participants. The relationship between Lars and Eddie certainly reflects that of Oskar and Eli, their domestic arrangement sealed in blood and mutually co-dependence, and both Thure Lindhardt and Dylan Smith are excellent, as are Georgina Reilly as Lesley, and the dependable Stephen McHattie, star of previous EIFF hit Pontypool, as art dealer Ronny.

Eddie is currently seeking distribution

V/H/S – Saturday 30th June – Filmhouse

V/H/STouted in the Film Festival catalogue as “a genre highlight enthusiastically crafted by current experts in the field [that] easily lives up to the high expectations,” it would be more accurate to describe this as an amateur, overlong abomination that appears to have been conceived by teenage boys suffering from attention deficit disorder who have been given free rein to indulge their offensively misogynist beliefs onscreen for a target audience similarly inclined.

The framing story, Tape 56 (d. Adam Wingard, w. Simon Barrett), on paper, has interest – hired to break into a house and steal a specific videotape, instead the gang find a dead body propped in front of a bank of flickering televisions and a library of tapes inside the darkened house. This intriuging premise is squandered on found footage so shaky and poorly lit it seems to have been filmed in an earthquake, with no attempt to establish character or motive for the gang other than that they are idiots, who film themselves as they break into houses wearing neither gloves nor masks and perform acts of vandalism and destruction.

In a recurring theme throughout the film, their first act is to attack a random woman, stripping her and exposing her breasts to the camera, a moment that has no bearing on the immediate story or the larger film, and serves only to emphasise that in this film women will be portrayed as objects and victims, and it demonstrates from the outset why children shouldn’t be allowed expensive electronic equipment.

The first tape to be viewed is the distasteful Amateur Night (d. David Bruckner, w. Nicholas Tecosky), where a group of three young men, one of them wearing a pair of spectacles with a concealed camera, go drinking in an attempt to lure women back to their apartment in order to film them without their knowledge. They succeed, and two women, one drunk, one strangely silent, do return with them; when the first passes out, it is only at the urging of his friends that one of the men elects not to rape her but to turns his attention to the quiet girl, who is promptly stripped naked, exposing her breasts for the viewers, before transforming into a vengeful she-beast who kills all three men.

The whole episode is sordid and unpleasant, the only defence that could possibly leaven the rampant misogyny that the men are as stereotyped as the women and that there is the briefest flash of male nudity, though not on a par with the lingering female shots, and the only humour present is the unintentional hilarity the final transformation into a flying bat creature who swoops from the sky to pluck her final victim from the ground.

Similarly focused on men exploiting women’s vulnerability is Second Honeymoon (written and directed by Ti West), though at least here when the husband requests his wife reveal her breasts for the camera, she refuses. Pandering to the vacuous need of those with no lives to document every moment of their day (“Look, I’m shopping, look, I’m filling up the gas tank”), a notion explored far better in Bobcat Goldthwait’s scathing God Bless America, screening at the festival the same day, here the primary weakness of the found footage is writ large, as there is no possible warmth between the supposedly married characters, as there is always a camera between them, dividing them.

Dialogue is stilted, and no attempt is made to explore the characters or their relationship, they are as much strangers to each other as they are to the audience, and even when they arrive at the Grand Canyon, the sole moment when the screen brightens in the magnificence, there is no commentary to impart the effect this has on the characters who should be our window into what passes for a storyline; they go on a road trip, they have a stalker who kills the husband; the twist is not a devlopment of the narrative so much as another inclusion of stereotype for the titillation of the audience, for the wife has betrayed him for her lesbian lover, and bloody kisses ensue.

Continuing the road theme, Tuesday the 17th (written and directed by Glenn McQuaid) opens with a close up of a cheerleader in a low cut tight fitting top so the audience can get a good look at her breasts. Having fulfilled his obligation for inclusion in the anthology, this homage to Friday the 13th does have the saving grace of not taking itself entirely seriously, with the outrageous deaths and the assailant who can only be captured on video, and at last a woman who is able to stand up for herself, with the caveat that she betrays every one of her friends, using them as bait to lure the killer. Even in emancipation, women are not to be trusted.

Tuesday the 17th is not without flaws; it is a premise rather than a developed story, and there are inconsistencies, the most obvious being how the booby traps were set in the woods without triggering the manifestation of the killer, but it is superior to the offerings that surround it, the next of which, director Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, in found footage for the Skype generation. Managing not only to open with a character digitally revealing her breasts to her boyfriend and the audience, but bookending it with the same as the story repeats with another character doing the same at the close, what transpires between contains possibly the most preposterous dialogue ever in a horror film as the woman carriers her laptop through her flat, asking her boyfriend to monitor for spooky goings-on: “I’m going to close my eyes so it doesn’t scare me.” Again, women are objects, and men are not to be trusted.

The final tape, 10/31/98 from the Los Angeles based quartet Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella & Justin Martinez) is by far the best in the film,
though this in itself is not a grand achievement, as a group of young men dress up for their Hallowe’en night out. Despite immediately falling into the apparent requirement of all found footage films that no character development is needed save to establish that all taking part are stupid, here emphasised by their inability to follow directions or read a map. Arriving at their supposed destination, they find the house empty, but continue to explore upwards into the attic.

The success of this segment relies on the visuals rather than the originality in writing; though it does boast a better twist than the others, while they had minimal effects other than copious fake blood and organs, the sudden inclusion of modern digital methods here, any limitations concealed behind the videotape quality of the final presentation (a glaring error throughout Paranormal Activity 3), is inventive and daring, even if the inspirations – George Romero’s Day of the Dead, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Fear, Itself – are obvious. Also obvious by omission are a thankful lack of breasts.

Regrettably, from here we return to the disappointment of the framing story, where any opportunity is lost; there is no exploration of the meaning of the tapes or why they were asked to steal one. Instead, the gang are slaughtered in the house with no explanation with no attempt to tie up the narrative requirement recognised in anthologies from Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man to Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, even Amicus productions such as Vault of Horror and The Monster Club.

Similarly, no attempt is made to examine the nature of the horror film or how different people relate to it, an obvious theme in a modern film of this nature, nor is there any nostalgia for the days before downloads and You Tube, when the only way underground horror could be obtained was with the physical trading of copied tapes, each precious film a secret treasure

The found footage movie within the found footage movie does not raise the genre to a level, it simply reinforces that it is the first port of call of the technically incompetent and creatively bereft director, and with the exception of Glenn McQuaid and Radio Silence, on the evidence of these particular tapes none of the parties involved in this should ever be allowed near a film camera again without a serious re-education in the skills of filmmaking.

Taken as a whole, V/H/S seems to have no function other than to confirm the belief that male American youth is boorish, bullying, violent, drunken, intellectually void and disposable, vacuous cannon fodder where the only mercy to the audience is that they may be eliminated swiftly, and that women are objects to be used and discarded and never to be trusted, and in doing so it sets the horror movement, which has long fought to be regarded as a legitimate movie form, back to the days of video nasty hysteria.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues until 1st July


Follow the links for our reports on the Film Festival in 2010 and 2011