Diary of a Geek Week at the Glasgow Film Festival 2014

Now in its tenth year, the Glasgow Film Festival continues to expand with major premieres including Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem starring Christoph Waltz and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin starring Scarlett Johansson, exciting offerings from European and Scandinavian cinema and it has also become the second home of FrightFest, which dominates the last weekend of the festival, with many of the screenings attended by directors and stars. With only twenty four hours in a day, Geek Chocolate crammed in as much of the packed programme as possible.

Saturday 22nd February – LFO – Cineworld

2014_GFF_lfo 1This Swedish/Danish co-production from writer/director Antonio Tublén is compared in the programme to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio but that description is misleading. While both are concerned with the effect of sound on an individual, they are radically different in style, content and execution, and that is where the resemblance ends other than to say both are rewarding works of innovative, entertaining and highly original filmmaking.

Where in Strickland’s film Toby Jones played a foley artist who becomes unhinged in the hostile atmosphere of the sinister Italian film studio who have engaged his services, the title refers to the low frequency oscillations which Robert Nord (Patrik Karlson) is investigating, discussing frequency, amplitude, pattern collisions and transients in the octaves with an online group of similar interests in hopes of finding a cure to his “sound allergy.”

2014_GFF_lfo 3Listening to a radio chat show where a tinnitus sufferer describes the relief offered by death metal which blocks out the symptoms, Robert attempts to modify the sounds he creates in his basement laboratory to see if they are able to offer any therapeutic benefit, and promptly passes out for five hours.

Convinced that there are certain frequencies which can act as “a portal, a means to exert influence,” he continues with his experiments, first on himself, issuing a command that he will no longer enjoy cookies or sugar, then on new neighbours Linn and Simon (Izabella Johanna Tschig and Per Löfberg), inviting them over for coffee and donning headphones to protect himself from influence as he sees how far he can push his persuasion.

2014_GFF_lfo 2Filmed entirely in one house with only four principal characters including Robert’s disapproving wife Clara (Ahnna Rasch), the single location is in no way an impediment when the excellent cast are so well served by the inventive and surprisingly funny script, the situation evolving into a modernist take on the door slamming farce without sacrificing integrity or interest.

With Linn and Simon soon reduced to puppets which Robert is playing for his amusement, the escalating game of manipulation and questionable morality is played in a minimalist Scandinavian way as Robert’s later efforts to extricate himself from the tangle he has created spectacularly backfire and he finds he has to reinvent his relationship with his neighbours in order to prevent exposure.

As would be expected of a film whose narrative is a less lethal version of Kate Bush’s Experiment IV, the soundscape is a key component, and also crafted by Tublén it is an ambience of pulsing electronica which recalls the seventies bleeps of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to Logan’s Run. As Simon says, “I get Mike Oldfield vibes – if he were from outer space!”

Saturday 22nd February – Witching and Bitching – Cineworld

That the work of director Álex de la Iglesia is not better known beyond the Spanish speaking world is a mystery, with only 1997’s Perdita Durango having crossed into mainstream awareness, but his new work Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (literally translated as The Witches of Zugarramurdi but retitled Witching and Bitching as a concession to those unfamiliar with the historical associations the town has with witchcraft) may yet boost his profile, for it is a wickedly ebullient film which demands attention.

Given scant access to his son following an acrimonious divorce, José (El Cuerpo’s Hugo Silva) is determined that on the days he is permitted they should spend as much time together. Unfortunately, this particular day this requires José to bring young Sergio along when he is participating in the armed robbery of a Madrid pawn shop; naturally, since his presence is unavoidable, the logical approach is to include Sergio in the heist.

2014_GFF_witching_and_bitching 3Arranged anonymously and with each member of the gang identifying each other only by the disguises they wear, José is dressed as Jesus with his iPhone tucked in his loincloth and his shotgun concealed in the cross he bears, but as Minnie Mouse and Spongebob Squarepants die on the street in a bloody hail of bullets, José, Sergio and the Toy Soldier (Mario Casas) are the only ones to escape with the haul of pawned gold wedding bands.

Commandeering a taxi and with the police in hot pursuit, a tense call from Sergio’s highly strung mother Silvia (Macarena Gómez) leads the men to share their anxieties and disappointments about the women in their lives, prompting driver Manuel (Jaime Ordóñez) to throw his lot in with José and the Toy Soldier, who introduces himself as Tony, putting his foot hard on the accelerator as they race north to French border. En route they briefly stop at a hamlet for soup at a sinister tavern run by a fearsome old woman; making a hasty exit they run her down, but while they argue over what to do, the body vanishes.

2014_GFF_witching_and_bitching 2Continuing on their way, another woman, Graciana (Spanish cinema legend Carmen Maura, still as powerful a screen presence in her late sixties as in her heyday) flags them down, asking if they have seen her elderly mother and insisting that they give her a lift home, guiding them to a dark and decaying chateau where their eagerness to leave dissipates with the arrival of the vivacious Eva (Carolina Bang), clad in biker leathers and catching Tony’s eye, but more eager to flirt with José – until they realise that Sergio has gone missing…

Any film which opens with a montage of witchcraft through historical woodcuts, Renaissance paintings and primitive photography leading up to a conjunction of images of Myra Hindley and Margaret Thatcher cannot be considered anything other than audacious, and for the man who began his career with a disabled terrorist group targeting the oppression of the physically perfect majority in Acción mutante it is apparent that the word convencional is not found in the dictionary of Álex de la Iglesia, though he is familiar with the concepts of manic, brash and raucous, but never at the expense of character.

2014_GFF_witching_and_bitching 1Interesting and rounded adults unlike the demographically specific teenage cannon fodder of major studio horror, they exist within the increasingly outrageous events with even the initially superficial caricature of Silvia becoming more sympathetic as she hunts for her missing son, pursued by inspectors Alfonso Calvo and Jaime Pacheco (Pepón Nieto and Secun de la Rosa) who also have more to them than first appears.

Slightly overlong, the final scenes in the Cuevas de las Brujas reveals a vast production of fire, drumming, costume and chanting before an unfortunate sidestep into CGI monstrosity. Fortunately for the bulk of the film the judiciously deployed effects are achieved practically with only minimal reliance on digital trickery, and overall it still displays more wit and verve than a comparative Hollywood narrative and crucially does not show its hand in the first reel then fall back on clichés.

Sunday 2nd February – Video Nasties: Draconian Days – Cineworld

With the majority of FrightFest taking place over the Friday and Saturday of the Film Festival, Sunday was the catch up day for the handful of encore screenings, opening with a documentary from Jake West, a director experienced in both feature and documentary, both short and long form. Subtitled Draconian Days, this is the second volume of his examination of Video Nasties following 2010’s Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape.

Introduced by West, producer Mark Morris and former BBFC examiner David Hyman, himself one of the plethora of interview subjects, there are many directions this film could have chosen: an obsessive compulsive directory of every film and every cut, a tirade against the tyranny of the nanny state, a parade of previously censored clips of unrestrained violence strung together with frothing delight under the flimsy excuse that packaged as a documentary it qualifies as “educational.”

2014_GFF_nasty mailInstead, composed of interviews with a broad selection of individuals from the horror film field, directors and collectors, from film experts, media professors and critics, to those involved with the access of audiences to film, film examiners and a representative of the British Video Association, it is a fascinating and well-rounded recollection of the circumstances, attitudes, hopes, aims, actions and subversive counter actions of an informed, entertaining and enthusiastic group of speakers united by a common interest.

The focus is the tenure of the late James Ferman as director of the British Board of Film Classification, lasting from 1975 to 1999, specifically the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984 and the effect it had on future releases and the full back catalogue of film which required re-examination. Ferman himself is well represented through archive footage and the words of his colleagues, and while there is frank discussion of his failings, personal and professional, similarly there is recognition that the gargantuan task he faced, to shape a set of modern guidelines to be applied universally and without prejudice to all filmed material submitted for certification and apply cuts deemed necessary, was well handled for the most part.

2014_GFF_nasty sunWhile easy to describe, consistently implementing the guidelines on diverse works of creativity while remaining answerable to a number of outside parties, all of them with their own vested interests, is far from simple in execution. There is the expected appearance of Mrs Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of the nation’s moral rectitude, countering Michael Winner’s evidential approach on a television debate with rhetoric (“There is no correlation between violence on screen and real violence,” he points out, to which she responds “Well you’re starting with violence on the truth!”).

The already volatile situation was ignited by conservative voices in the wake of the understandable public indignation in response to the real world tragedies of the Hungerford massacre in 1987 and the murder of James Bulger in 1993, both of which had no clear evidence linking the perpetrators with “exposure” to the supposedly corrupting influence of specific films, yet in the aftermath of both incidents led to action against those titles as though they were undisputed identified causal agents (“For the sake of ALL our kids… BURN YOUR VIDEO NASTY”).

2014_GFF_nasty lastBeyond the shrill hysteria of a press whose trade requires packaging and selling outrage to the nation, paradoxically depending on the supposition that their readers are as easily influenced by words as they are by graphic images, calmer heads prevail, and in retrospect, Ferman comes across as intelligent, discursive, open-minded and far less dogmatic than many of those who campaigned for censorship to be considerably stricter.

While many took exception to Ferman’s decision to re-edit Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in order to reduce audience identification with the protagonists, it was adaptive rather than censorious decision; similarly his stance over violence towards women could be considered forward thinking. “We had a lot of films which treated rape as entertainment for men; rape isn’t entertainment, it’s violence,” he categorically states, his guidelines specifying that films should never be seen to trivialise or endorse rape.

2014_GFF_nasty ripperOne of the most interesting speakers is former BBFC examiner Carol Topolski, who describes Lucio Fulci’s 1992 New York Ripper as the “singularly most damaging film I have seen in my life… feasting on what women’s bodies look like when they have been cut up.” Articulate, well-balanced and reasonable, she nevertheless recalls how after viewing the film he had to retreat to Ferman’s office to recover from the experience, explaining that the most disturbing aspect of the film was “that there was an audience for it.” Conversely, film editor Martin Barker discusses how horror takes “current scare topics and deals with them directly,” pointing a camera at misogyny, while film lecturer Doctor Sian Barber says the once notorious I Spit On Your Grave is now a training tool.

With Barker recalling how children viewed higher certificated films as a challenge with a desire to reach the next level, Topolski agrees that while nobody takes issue with the protection of children, but that “censorship for adults is more difficult,” external events forced the BBFC to respond with certain automatic cuts, often related to “imitable techniques,” with particular attention paid to chainsaws, knives, Ninja stars and nun chucks. Professor of Screen Media at Brunel University Julian Petley observes that while higher rated films often had more cuts than those aimed at younger audiences, that obligation also required that a scene featuring a link of sausages be removed from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.

2014_GFF_nasty texasWith censorship installed, director David Flint questions whether sometimes films were “not being cut because they were dangerous but because they were [perceived as] offensive,” with Chandon singling out Re-Animator as one where “the BBFC didn’t get the joke,” with Nigel Wingrove echoing these thoughts as he discusses protesting the warning that his film Visions of Ecstasy “might be blasphemous and subject to prosecution” even though Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ dealt with a similar subject but was released.

While critic Kim Newman and director Neil Marshall reminisce about hunting down black market videotapes to enhance their collections, others tell stories of their efforts to circumvent customs to bring illicit films into the country, with guerrilla cinephiles hiring cut versions of films from rental stores to tape the uncensored versions over them before returning them.

2014_GFF_nast i spitOne of the key arguments of the pro-censorship lobby was that home video would potentially allow young viewers to see material above their age group, with scenes viewed multiple times and out of context, compounding the damage, a charge which director Alex Chandon counters by explaining it allowed viewers not to relish the gore but to work out how the effect was created, to deconstruct it and recreate it, with his own films inspired by the BBFC checklist of automatic cuts (“blood on tits, erect penis, chainsaw up the arse…”) as tastelessly as possible.

Ironically, it was not violence but sex that brought an end to Ferman’s term at the BBFC; making a unilateral decision to relax restrictions on pornography without Parliamentary discussion or public debate, it was felt he had had overstepped the BBFC’s remit and was obliged to resign, although the change was enacted. Within months of his departure, many of the films he had refused to consider – The Exorcist, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, Straw Dogs – were released; in the following years, society has not collapsed.

Both volumes of Video Nasties will be released in a box set in July

For more information on the work of the BBFC, click here for our interview with their head of education, Lucy Brett

Sunday 2nd February – Almost Human – Cineworld

Introduced by writer/director Joe Begos and his partner in crime Josh Ethier who by his own admission held around ten department positions in the production including acting, sound, editing and producing, the budget of only $50,000 did not dim the enthusiasm of this alien abduction/returnee horror, recounting the events that began October 13th 1987 in Patton, Maine, the night Mark (Ethier) arrived at the house of his friend Seth (Graham Skipper), pounding on the door and hysterically begging to be let in before being caught in a beam of blue light and vanishing.

Two years have passed, and despite suspicions that Seth was involved in the disappearance of Mark which were not dispelled by the unlikely story he told, with no body or evidence the police could not charge him, but still Seth suffers nightmares and health problems which affect his work, and when lights are seen in the sky again Seth has a premonition that strange things are about to happen.

Visiting the diner where Mark’s former girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) works, he receives an understandably cold welcome, but times are hard in the town for everyone, and despite the lack of answers they all want to move on, but deep in the woods trouble has already arrived when two hunters find the semiconscious body of Mark, returned to Earth and traumatised, unable to communicate and desperate to find Jen.

Proficiently directed and compact, the film moves swiftly enough that any narrative shortcomings are forgivable; Almost Human does not aim to be high art, it intends to be entertaining, and other than a repetitious final quarter hour for the most part succeeds. With the woods filmed like an unknown and possibly dangerous territory, the alien abduction plot cannot help but remind of The X-Files, but two specific episodes are brought to mind, Travelers and Roadrunners, and less well known but a strong influence is the 1987 science fiction horror The Hidden where Kyle MacClachlan’s detective tracked an alien parasite which concealed itself in human bodies, driving them to violent and destructive crimes.

While the budget may not extend to any speeding sportscar/wheelchair interfaces, the varieties of mayhem are only limited by the range of implements to hand, with gunshot wounds (rifle and shotgun), knife wounds (stabbing, throwing, slashing), neck snapping, chainsaws, axes and even skull crushing rocks on offer, all enhanced by the excellent squelches and crunches of the foley team.

Aware that sound can be manipulated more economically and to better effect than visuals can be created, it is through sound that the film creates most of its atmosphere, the horrific cries of the returned Mark reminding of the screams of the pod people of Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an impression reinforced when the bodies of earlier victims are found in podlike husks.

Set in an era of cathode ray televisions with static between the channels and no mobile phones, it also harks back to the horror filmmaking ethic of that time, when the violence was gory but brief, not the sole purpose of the film. Unfortunately of the leads Skipper is the weakest link even though he carries the bulk of the film, acting as though he is a romantic comedy with his overly ironic detachment from his scenes, but with many of the supporting roles filled by friends of the creative team, the variable performances are for the most part competent, certainly sufficient for the requirement, and looking like real people rather than movie stars works to the advantage of the film.

Sunday 2nd February – Wolf Creek 2 – Cineworld

Like its 2005 predecessor, writer/director Greg McLean’s second visit to the horror of the Australian outback in the company of John Jarratt’s rampaging serial killer Mick Taylor reminds that “the following is based on actual events” before the credits have even rolled. With the first film released at the same time as the highly publicised trial of Bradley John Murdoch for the murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio in July 2001 that became the focus of the publicity, though the roots of the story were actually another string of incidents a decade earlier, the killings known as the backpacker murders which took place in New South Wales between 1989 and 1993 for which Ivan Milat is serving seven consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole.

2014_GFF_wolf 2“30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year,” the film intones, and while then offering the reassurance that 90% of those are found within a month, it doesn’t state whether they are alive or dead, and that still leaves 3,000 unaccounted for, an average of eight people a day. While Mick Taylor does not shirk his contribution to that count, the film makes it clear that while beautiful and majestic, Australia is not a tame country which can be taken lightly, the vast and hostile desert only too eager to swallow those who attempt to cross it unprepared. “It used to be 1.5km deeper,” a character says of Wolf Creek Crater, “How long do you think it will take the desert to swallow it whole?”

While the first Wolf Creek did not introduce Taylor until after it had established the characters who would eventually become his victims, the tourists he waylaid at the Wolf Creek National Park, sabotaging their car while they were climbing the crater then offering them a lift, here Taylor is the focus from the outset, bloody, angry, patriotic and proud. Where before he was almost an embodiment of the danger of the outback to the unwary, here he is a more proactive antagonist, seeking out victims and targeting them for his own twisted agenda.

2014_GFF_wolf 3Opening with his encounter with two bored police officers on a lonely road, heavy handed and enjoying their power as they falsely accuse Taylor of speeding and issue him a ticket, the stereotyping of the police grants Taylor a distasteful air of false righteousness as he executes them, his portrayal as quipping anti-hero a distinct elevation from the villain of the first film which sets an unpleasant change of tone.

Switching to a kinetic montage of sunshine and good times which would make the Australian tourist board proud, the narrative switches to young German couple Rutger Enqvist and Katarina Schmidt (Phillipe Klaus and Shannon Ashlyn) as they camp out and cool themselves in a billabong, hitch-hiking their way across the great southern land before they arrive at their unintended final destination of Wolf Creek where they too encounter Taylor, who comes across them late at night, harassing them before setting upon Rutger with his hunting knife.

2014_GFF_wolf 4Fleeing into the night, the hysterical Katarina is rescued by passing British tourist Paul Hammersmith (Ryan Corr), and Taylor switches his attentions to the young man, pursuing him across the wilderness for a personal confrontation to discuss the lack of manners he displayed in depriving him of his rightful prey.

Laying in the dirt and crying when her injured boyfriend tries to defend her rather than aiding him, it’s difficult to have sympathy for Katarina, though Paul at least shows character and defiance, as do the elderly couple who rescue him when he stumbles across their isolated farm, though he is guilty of other acts of idiocy, setting out on his journey with insufficient fuel, goading Taylor from the foot of a cliff when he has survived being run off the road, then standing and watching as a juggernaut thunders down the rock face towards him in what is admittedly a spectacular moment.

2014_GFF_wolf 5A vengeful hunter prowling, the jangle of the chains on his truck like the barrels rising to the surface in Jaws, Taylor is undeniably terrifying in his relentless viciousness, but there is too little story beyond the repetitive series of violations, the resurrection of the torture porn genre as unnecessary as the tedious immortal killer subgenre it supplanted for a while, and it is never clear whether Taylor’s jingoistic rants are intended to be genuine or a critique of the modern Antipodean mentality.

With a career stretching back to Peter Weir’s 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock and a stint as the host of the lifestyle show Better Homes and Gardens, Jarratt is an adaptable and capable performer, and McLean’s ability to generate tension is without question, but even when the pace of the film finally changes in the final act with a singalong drinking and bonding session in the lion’s den as Paul bargains for his life, it is too late to save the film, nothing more than a variation on the recurring theme of a gratuitously unpleasant film.

Sunday 2nd February – The Sacrament – Cineworld

Introduced by Ti West, who had been spoken at length about his career the previous Thursday evening at the Glasgow Film Theatre, the writer/director said his latest film was “very different” to his previous work, and while it did fall into the catch-all known as found footage, he emphasised that it was more akin to a fake documentary, though recognising that calling it a “mockumentary” would be insensitive, referring to the writer of This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind when making the valid converse point that “you wouldn’t call a Christopher Guest film found footage.”

2014_GFF_sacrament 1After years of struggle, New York fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) is travelling to see his sister Caroline (Upstream Colour’s Amy Seimetz) who has finally found peace at the Eden Parish, a remote commune where she has been residing since completing her drug rehabilitation programme. Accompanying Patrick are his friends Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (frequent West collaborator Joe Swanberg who recently directed him in You’re Next), but having followed the cryptic instructions and travelled by helicopter, the welcome they receive borders on hostile.

Met by armed guards and told to turn their cameras off, they are expected to hand over their passports and make “a donation” before they are permitted entry to the compound, but Caroline, healthy and happy, is delighted to see them; when Patrick says “so far this is nothing like the hippie commune we were expecting,” she reassures him that she will explain it all, telling him that “Father is the reason I’m alive,” referring to the elusive leader of the retreat.

2014_GFF_sacrament 4Given permission to interview those members of the commune who are willing to talk to them, they find the same story of optimism and serenity, but beneath the warm words the men find cause for concern, the “naturally cynical” Jake pointing out the common theme “that they sold all their worldly possessions throws up a red flag.” While they all agree that as a retreat for a month or so it is ideal, they have doubts that it is a sustainable lifestyle, and with many young children and elderly residents they have misgivings that anything beyond basic care needs could be met by the rudimentary medical facilities.

As sundown approaches and the festivities begin, they are permitted to interview Father in front of the crowd who greet him like Elvis on his comeback tour, but he deflects their questions like a politician, using the opportunity to put forward his belief in the commune and the people rather than addressing the concerns of their visitors, though the truths he speaks about their homeland – “poverty, greed, racism, foundations of a cancerous society… America is coming apart at the seams because of the way it is being run” – are undeniable. But when a child passes a note with the words “please help us” written on it, their fears that Eden Parish may be holding people against their will come to the fore.

2014_GFF_sacrament 3While West effectively creates an idyllic atmosphere with an undercurrent of escalating tension, the only surprise to anyone who is familiar with the events of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978, where over 900 people were compelled to take their own lives, is that so little happens in the 92 minutes and that West has done nothing to expand all the raw possibility of that bare premise into a dramatic narrative. There is a compelling story in that tragedy, but this is not it, a single example being Armistead Maupin who used the background to better effect in his Further Tales of the City in 1982.

Compared with the standard behaviour of those who find themselves compelled to document their every action on videotape and certainly those of the previous project West and Swanberg contributed to, V/H/S, the characters are less asinine, and while it is a more mature film about the responsibilities and conflicts of different ways of life with excellent performances from all, particularly Seimetz, having drunk from the same poisoned Flavor Aid chalice as all other found footage films, it inevitably ends up in the same place, lost and running through the trees with a camera, directionless.

The 2014 Glasgow Film Festival continues until Sunday 2nd March

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