There’re few better ways to ease into a crisp wintry morning than some old school Italian horror and no better knowledge to introduce it than Alan Jones and boy has he picked a doozy as Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology Black Sabbath (*****) is every bit the classic it’s made out to be with a wild-eyed Boris Karloff presenting each segment and starring in the last of the three stories as a particularly colourful and feathery vampire. Before we get to Karloff’s ghoulishly fun predatory turn (“Can i not fondle my own grandchild? Give him to me!”), Bava offers up two tales of women in peril (it is Italian after all) that stand with the best featuring Jacqueline Pierreux and Michèle Mercier being menaced by a wronged corpse and mystery caller respectively.
From prime Argento to 2009’s extraordinary Amer, almost every euro-horror you care to mention has taken a cue from these masterclasses in style and tension. Absolutely essential cinema.
Chilean bullet bonanza Bring Me The Head Of The Machine Gun Woman (***) is a well-meaning mix of grindhouse and video game and the title tells you everything about the audience in its crosshairs.
This cheap, cheerful and charmingly dumb bit of adolescent male fantasy sees every-slacker Santiago (likeable Matías Oviedo) forced by a crime lord to deliver the eponymous noggin of the eponymous assassin. Writer / Director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza’s overuse of a Grand Theft Auto homage / narrative device wears thin fast and Fernanda Urrejola makes for a more teachery and less graceful Machine Gun Woman than one might expect but like most of the flick she’s too darn likeable to write-off.
With lots of gory gunplay and a killer soundtrack (essentially just three tracks but they’re damned fine ones) this is destined to become a late night favourite in smoke-filled living rooms. It also features a Say Anything reference that involves handcuffs and no ghetto-blaster in sight so that must be a first.
The Bay (***) is Barry Levinson’s second go at genre after the big budget folly Sphere fifteen years ago and while he’s brave to tackle water horror again and finds a new groove in multimedia found footage, this eco-terror tale of a deadly outbreak in a small coastal town pulls a few too many punches in the grasp for realism to really satisfy.
Kether Donohue’s rookie reporter is our convincingly annoying narrator compiling footage to blow the lid off the cover-up of events which escalate from a rash of bad skin cases to almost full-on creature feature. The final 20 minutes just about make the leap into horror the preceding hour teases us with and you have to admire the restraint the veteran director shows in giving us a serious warning about the way our planet and its governing bodies are headed even though by the time the credits roll you’ll be left wanting for a bit more monster and a bit less message.
Through virtue of a fantastic but risky concept and one hell of a range of talent, The ABCs Of Death (****) was probably the highest profile production of the weekend. 26 directors from all over the globe are allocated a letter of the alphabet around which to create a short film about the highly varied art of popping off (“G is for Gravity” is one uninspiring example i don’t mind spoiling here) and this ambitious anthology works much much better than it should. This is partly down to the canny decision to save the title and filmmaker credit for the end of each piece – a double edged sword as it can be distracting sometimes but makes for an excellent guessing game – and the high success rate of the shorts.
Naturally there are a good few clunkers with Ti West and Xavier Gens among those going for insultingly lazy shock value and Yoshihiro Nishimura falling on the wrong side of obnoxious, but luckily audacious, elegant offerings from Marcel Sarmiento and Srdjan Spasojevic (yes, the A Serbian Film guy’s come good) and the delightful dark comedy brought by Noboru Iguchi, Lee Hardcastle and Anders Morgenthaler more than make up for it.
Molasses-black humour is the overpowering component, which is to be expected but the odd bit of soul seeps through (Nacho Vigalondo manages to do both – because he’s awesome). ABCs is never going to please everybody all the time but as a one-off experience this is a must-see.
Misogynist and classist are just two of the criticisms lobbed at Nicolás López’s Chilean earthquake disaster horror hybrid Aftershock (**1/2) and while the female characters do receive the harshest treatment and the focus of the chaos is narrowly middle-class, the whole thing is too slick and straightforward to either upset or resonate. Producer/co-writer/co-lead Eli Roth is no Tarantino behind the camera but at least he’s not quite a Tarantino in front of it either and he shows a fair amount of charisma and comic timing as one of a bunch of tourists who following the quake find themselves on the run from locals who have turned inexplicably rapey.
The multicultural cast do their best with thin characters (Roth saves the best lines for himself) and Andrea Osvárt in particular impresses but despite a few truly tense and effectively nasty moments López’s debut ends up being a fairly unmemorable Hostel retread with an above average ending. And just what all the references to abortion and anti-Semitism are about is anybody’s guess.
The addition of the entire seven episode run of Norwegian dark comedy Hellfjord (*****) raised more than a few eyebrows and concerns. What about those who couldn’t make the whole weekend and most importantly what if those that could didn’t like it? That first issue went heartlessly unaddressed (film festivals are cruel mistresses after all) but the second was washed away immediately with the first episode playing absolute gangbusters introducing Asian Nordic copper Salmander (co-creator Zahid Ali) forced to messily mercy-kill his beloved horse in the middle of a parade and packed off to while away his notice in the titular backwards fishing village to police the bizarre and not-unracist community.
What follows is the funniest and most twisted bit of telly since The League Of Gentlemen shut up local-shop over a decade ago as the none-more-hapless Salmander uncovers a conspiracy, evades constant sexual advances from his elderly neighbours and goes incognito as the world’s least convincing Neo-Nazi all whilst trying to stick to the nicotine gum.
The supporting cast is superb including Cold Prey’s Ingrid Bolsø Berdal sporting an unflattering but strangely cute perm and Dead Snow’s Stig Stig Frode Henriksen (who also writes along with Ali and Snow’s Tommy Wirkola) just about running away with the whole thing as the town’s only other bobby and incorrigible old perv, Kobba - a brilliant comedy creation and what the kids these days would call a “total lej”.
But it’s Ali’s Salmander who is the real star of the show proving like Kyle McLachlan before him that just because you’re the straight man in a bent town doesn’t mean you have to be dull and even though he grounds the broad comedy and makes you care (by the final two episodes which finished off this year’s fest the audience were genuinely concerned about how things might turn out for him) he shows an amazing flair for physical comedy and here’s hoping we’ll see more of this terrific talent in the future. Mixing the aforementioned League’s grotesque comedy of horrors with Twin Peaks eeriness plus more than a little Police Squad zaniness and giving it all a unique cloudy flavour entirely its own, if Hellfjord proves too heady a brew for mainstream success, its status as a cult classic is assured.
Lessons learned from the weekend:
Eli Roth can charm the socks off a room full of even the most disappointed and cynical horror fans.
Dumb movies are a lot easier to have fun with when they drop the rape.
Rob Zombie likes to show his wife naked. A lot.
Saoirse Ronan can do a terrifyingly convincing Scottish accent.
Mario Bava would have us believe Anton Chekhov wrote the first ever giallo. The scamp.
Mattie and Richard Brodeur need their own reality show. Stat!
The director of Rain Man, Diner and Disclosure takes his horror seriously. And doesn’t trust the government.
Boabby the Barman out of Still Game would make a good Sheriff Brackett if the Scottish Halloween ever gets greenlit. Also does a good Nick Cave.
Frying pan violence is rife (three excellent shouts) proving conclusively that the legacy of that Bottom episode where they “kill” the gasman is alive and well. Thank god.