Film Editor Matt Taylor gives the low-down on Wales’ biggest horror film festival, hosted annually in the seaside town of Aberystwyth
What a first film to see at the festival. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play young couple Gemma and Tom who find themselves trapped in a suspicious housing estate with seemingly no way out. As a basic synopsis, that doesn’t really do Vivarium justice; what director Lorcan Finnegan has crafted here is a consistently and creepily unsettling horror/thriller that is anchored by perfect performances from its two leads.
Gemma and Tom are instantly both likable and relatable, and when they start to lose their grip on both reality and each other, we realise that we really do care about them. The film’s gorgeous cinematography and water-tight script keep us constantly engaged as things slowly descend into a level of madness that needs to be seen to be truly comprehended. It certainly won’t please everyone, but if you can stick with it, the sickening rewards are well worth reaping.
Death Line (1972):
It isn’t uncommon for horror films to get political, but very few are as vocal as Gary Sherman’s directorial debut Death Line. The film is a damning indictment of capitalism, and feels just as relevant now as it did in 1972. It follows two students who find themselves at the centre of an investigation to find a missing OBE, only to discover that what took him was far more terrifying than they could have imagined.
Sherman’s film is wickedly smart and surprisingly funny, thanks to a career-best performance from Donald Pleasence. His cockney copper, while not quite the film’s beating heart, is certainly at the narrative centre. Inspector Calhoun is a cynical police officer whose every line is hilarious, and who guides us through the film’s ever-weirder events with a smile. The actual heart of the film comes from a completely unexpected place, but ties in perfectly with the metaphor that Sherman is using. For any horror film, let alone a directorial debut, Death Line is about as smart, funny, and unsettling as they come.
Foreign horror is one of the many things in the film industry that sadly never gets enough coverage in the UK. It’s a shame, because without that coverage, gems such as Talal Selhami’s Achoura will largely go unseen – a particularly shame because this is a truly excellent film. The first ‘traditional’ horror I saw at the festival, it follows a group of friends in Morocco who are reunited after decades apart to deal with an evil spirit that haunted them as children.
If that sounds familiar to you, then good: the Moroccan/French co-production calls to mind recent films such as IT or The Babadook in its tone, feel, and themes. It also stands excellently on its own; many of its scenes are genuinely scary, while the dialogue, acting and character work are utterly magnificent. But what really stands out is the creature itself. The Bougatate is brought to life via some beautiful special effects – something of a rarity in a genre that usually relies on practicality. The visualisation of it is stunning, and results in it feeling both real and distinctly ‘other’ when on-screen – the perfect combination for a good creature feature.
The fact that this was billed as a ‘Mystery Screening’ because the film’s distributors wouldn’t let the festival organisers announce that they were showing it tells you all you need to know. Synchronic sees directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson come out with their best film yet, in a sci-fi/horror flick that, like all their other films, is ultimately about the bonds we share as human beings, and how far we’d go for those we consider family.
Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play New Orleans paramedics who discover a new drug on the street that leaves users with unexplainable injuries. To say more would be to take away from the sheer power of the film, because Synchronic is not only the directors’ best film, but it is one of the best, most enthralling genre movies this decade. Mackie gives an astounding lead performance and Dornan backs him up beautifully; the pair breathe effortless life into Benson’s dialogue, while Moorhead’s breathtaking cinematography takes the film to ethereal heights. If you haven’t heard of Moorhead and Benson, dig out their other movies on disc – you will not be disappointed.
Blood Machines (2019):
You know those films that come along, seemingly out of nowhere, and just blow you away with how visceral and sensory they are? Seth Ickerman and Carpenter Brut’s Blood Machines is one of those films. It is also a film that is extremely hard to describe, but as an experience it is both unparalleled and unshakeable. Taking cues from cyberpunk canon, it follows the crew of a ship tasked with retrieving the wreckage of another ship – a task that becomes increasingly difficult when unknown assailants attack them and free the downed ship’s soul from her body.
That synopsis doesn’t at all do Blood Machines justice. The final short film (around 45 minutes long) is a blood-soaked, neon-drenched, operatic fever dream of a movie that simply demands to be seen. Its synth soundtrack works perfectly in tandem with its visual aesthetic to create a sensory experience unlike anything I have ever seen. The pair’s previous short, Turbo Killer, was also screened and is available to stream on YouTube – find it on the biggest screen possible with either some headphones or a killer speaker, and play it loud. I guarantee it’ll stay with you.
Event Horizon (1997):
To be completely honest, I don’t quite understand all the hype around Event Horizon. Somewhere within Paul WS Anderson’s cult classic is a truly fantastic movie – but sadly this isn’t it. Although built on an extremely intriguing premise, the final product reeks of studio interference, with many aspects of it feeling off in some way, as well as it being rather obvious that there are a good deal of scenes missing.
On the plus side, many individual moments in the film are brilliant examples of sci-fi/horror done right, balancing shock and excitement beautifully, and held together by some reasonable performances. But what stitches these moments together is no good – the fact that there is very clearly so much missing (around half an hour, according to Anderson) results in the film feeling half-baked. Its brisk runtime of 96 minutes (including credits) simply isn’t enough to do the film justice, leaving the great parts that survived the studio culling wallowing in nothing, surrounded by an emptiness as vast as that that surrounds the ship Event Horizon. It’s absolutely a film worth seeing, but don’t believe the hype.
Japanese cinema has a reputation for being utterly barmy: after watching Mika Ninagawa’s Diner, it isn’t difficult to see why. Her latest is a neon-soaked, action-packed powerhouse that calls to mind films such as Battle Royale – if Battle Royale was bathed in neon lights. Tina Tamashiro’s Kanako runs into debt, and is commanded to work in a diner for assassins to pay it off. Things quickly turn crazy when we meet some of the regulars, and Ninagawa never even stops to slow things down; in the best possible way, her film doesn’t think, it just does, and it’s all the better for it.
The action, when it arrives, is brutal and frenetic, shot and scored to perfection with a style that’ll make your jaw drop. The only place the film stumbles is in the pacing of its gangster subplot, but even this is only a minor quibble that does admittedly have a fantastic payoff. Combine all of that with superb character work and performances, and we’re left with an utter riot that will leave you flabbergasted.
First Love (2019):
Takashi Miike’s latest is about as bonkers as we’ve come to expect from the cult Japanese director. Following the escapades of various people after a shipment of drugs goes missing from a Yakuza safehouse, First Love is one of the funniest non-comedies of recent years. The dialogue is whip-smart, and when coupled with the film’s superb performances results in that extremely rare film where every joke lands.
Match all of that with Miike’s signature over-the-top action (taken to new, crazier heights here) and we’re onto a true winner; much of the comedy comes from the combat, particularly during a scene towards the end where the film turns into an animation for no other reason than the fact that it can. It goes on for about ten minutes too many, but in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t matter too much; First Love is a total hoot.
Colour Out of Space (2019):
There could not have been a better way to close the festival than with this. Richard Stanley’s latest is based on a short story by HP Lovecraft, and follows the Gardners, a rural family who find themselves at the centre of some chaotic goings-on after a meteorite crash lands in their yard. ‘Chaotic’ is one word to describe the events of the film; another might be ‘crazy’, or ‘insane’.
There are no compromises with Stanley’s film; he simply does. He slowly dials up the weirdness until we can barely take it anymore, and then unleashes everything with some superb moments of both body and psychological horror that takes inspiration from everything that Lovecraft himself inspired, including such icons as The Thing and Annihilation. The film is helped along by Nicolas Cage going full Nicolas Cage, throwing everything he has into his perfect performance, including a bizarre but captivating Donald Trump impression during his moments of madness. Add in beautiful performances from the rest of the family, an earth-shattering score from Colin Stetson, and some truly gorgeous visuals, then combine these with the mood of Annihilation, the colour palette of Mandy, and throw in a dash of Close Encounters for good measure, and we’re left with a true masterpiece of sci-fi/horror.
Q&A: Director Gary Sherman & AD Lewis More O’Ferrall (Death Line, 1972):
Death Line is an unapologetically liberal film. Fittingly, its director is an unapologetically liberal man. Gary Sherman’s Q&A is filled with damning statements about both US and UK politicians, as is the film itself. When Sherman wrote the script he had been living in the UK for four years, and wanted to respond to anti-American sentiments by the British by suggesting that Britain had its own issues.
On a technical level, the work that went into making Death Line is astounding. Sherman and AD Lewis More O’Ferrall made their feature debuts with the film, having previously worked on commercials for television. As a result, their working speed was hitherto unheard of by the financiers. More O’Ferrall tells a comic story of their reaction when he told them that they’d filmed 22 setups in one day (the average at the time was between six and eight). Due to this extremely high number of setups being completed, you can imagine their shock when More O’Ferrall told them one day that they hadn’t filmed a single one – but there was method behind the madness. The crew had spent the whole day setting up a gigantic long-take that serves as an introduction to the people living underground, but because of that hadn’t actually managed to film anything. The financiers were concerned, but this lessened when the crew came in the next day and knocked the shot out in two takes.
Filming nearly a whole movie underground requires a special kind of skill, on several levels. On a technical level, the tunnels underneath London are really dark, so to work around this issue the film in the cameras was flashed before filming began, leaving it pre-exposed and slightly brown, resulting in the dark colours of the tunnels popping more than they would have with artificial lighting. There’s also the issue of getting permission to film, something that wasn’t easy to work around. The tunnels themselves belonged to British Rail, who were apparently ‘great’ to work with, but the sequences on the platforms of the Underground belonged to London Transport, who denied their request for filming based on the script the crew sent in. Their solution to this problem? They sent London Transport a false script, got the approval, and filmed Death Line anyway. As a result, all the tube sequences were completed in one day.
The pair are fantastic stage presences, setting the audience immediately at ease and leaving them chuckling on more than one occasion. This is never better than when Sherman discusses his disillusionment with current politics, both at his home in the UK and his birth country of the US. He feels, more than the rest of us, it seems, that Death Line has become terrifyingly relevant again with the state of international politics, citing reasons such as austerity and a failing NHS for this unfortunate relevance. The highlight of their Q&A is fortunately lighter in tone; Sherman reveals to us the best piece of advice he has ever been given on a film set: ‘stand there and make them think you know what the fuck you’re doing.’ It’s a tactic that clearly works: as is evident from both the film itself and Sherman and More O’Ferrall’s words about it, Death Line is a solid hit.
Director Q&A: Talal Selhami (Achoura, 2019):
It took a long time to get Moroccan/French horror flick Achoura off the ground. Director Talal Selhami and his crew originally shot the movie in 2015, but when one of the production companies went bankrupt shortly after, the film remained unfinished until late 2018. The idea of a creature feature such as this has been an ‘obsession’ of Selhami’s since he was a child, having grown up watching late-night monster movies on television. He is also a self-proclaimed fan of the Gothic, his love of which very clearly shines through in the finished film, as does his love of Stephen King (parts of the film play out like an homage to IT, but do so without ever feeling derivative).
Perhaps the biggest success of Achoura is its phenomenal creature design. Based on a nightmare Selhami had as a child, the Bougatate is brought to life via visual effects rather than practical, for the simple reason that the practical costume they had was too heavy and unwieldy for an actor to wear it comfortable on-set. These visual effects were part of the reason why it has taken so long to get the film into cinemas, but Selhami is extremely grateful to the Moroccan state for providing the funding to get the film finished. Not only that, but the Bougatate looks absolutely gorgeous when it is on screen, and is a true landmark for visual effects in horror movies.
An aim of Achoura was to ‘shine a light’ on legends and stories from parts of the world that don’t get attention. Yom Ashura is a major holiday in Islam, and through the film Selhami wanted to widen awareness of Arabic culture, aiming to show another side to the culture and ‘break the image’ that many people have of both this culture and religion. He does this in several ways; perhaps the most prominent of these is to have the film’s root of evil as ‘the French House,’ spotlighting Morocco’s colonial past that so many people are unaware of. All of the film’s locations, too, are old French colonies rather than built sets, lending Achoura a feeling of authenticity that very few films of its type manage to acquire. The idea behind this, Selhami says, was to ‘tell [this story] without making a political movie’. Like the film itself, this commentary is a resounding success.
Masterclass: Director Gary Sherman on the Practical Effects of Poltergeist III:
Content Warning: This article contains a mention of a child death which some readers may find upsetting.
Poltergeist III is a film tinged with sadness. Its post-production was heavily overshadowed by the sudden and untimely death of 12-year-old star Heather O’Rourke, a tragedy that still weighs heavily on director Gary Sherman. In his masterclass on the film’s practical effects, he stated multiple times that he loved O’Rourke as his own daughter, and as a result of her death he never wanted to finish the film (studio pressure prevailed, and the film was finished with a new ending without Sherman’s presence). Nevertheless, he remains extremely proud of her, of both her performance in the film and her work ethic around it, and she remains one of only two aspects of the film he says he likes.
The other is the film’s unparalleled use of practical effects. In the masterclass he takes us through some of the film’s key scenes, asks us how we think they achieved the effects, then walks us through the scenes again, shot by shot, with his original shooting script as a guide, and explains how they did it. The effects themselves are clearly a passion of Sherman’s; his excitement is palpable, and he is very clearly grateful when one particularly breathtaking scene inspires a round of applause from the audience. He is particularly proud of the fact that every effect he shot was done in-camera, with no tinkering in post-production.
The effects used ranged from mirrors and body doubles to shooting in reverse and attaching glass sheets to the camera lens in order to give the appearance of moving through a window. The number of double sets used in the film is staggering; when Sherman asks the audience how a particular shot was achieved, no one is able to guess. When he reveals that there was, in fact, no mirror, but a double set, gasps and applause ensue.
Sherman’s love for the genre shines brightly through in his lecture, and the effects he and his team achieved left the audience aghast on more than one occasion. While it is a terrible shame that the film was poorly received at the time, those effects deserve all the praise they can get.
Best of the Rest:
Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club:
What’s the one thing better than pointing and laughing at a really bad movie? That’s right, pointing and laughing at a really bad movie with commentary from comedians and Abertoir regulars Nicko and Joe. The only way to make 2000’s Spiders bearable, really.
Silent Shorts, Vol. 5:
Turn-of-the-century silent short films put to original music by composer Paul Shallcross. Some funny, some creepy, but all thoroughly enjoyable.
Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (2019):
Interesting and insightful documentary about 70s B-movie legend Al Adamson: part schlock-doc, part UFO-flick and part true crime mystery that does lose its way a little towards the end, but is still wholly entertaining.
Prince of Darkness (1987):
A John Carpenter horror flick set in an abandoned church, screened in an abandoned chapel? Yes please. A poor script and schlocky performances hold it back from being Carpenter’s best, but his knack for horror is so well tuned by this point that it is still utterly terrifying.
Four of the Apocalypse (1975):
Grisly but straightforward Spaghetti Western that reads almost as a prequel to Sergio Leone’s iconic Man With No Name trilogy. Challenging in mood and themes, but restricted by a slow and meandering plot.
Planet of the Vampires (1965):
Creepy and fascinating 60s horror that served as an inspiration for Ridley Scott’s seminal Alien. Amusing in all the best ways and genuinely unnerving when it needs to be, with a kicker of an ending to boot.
What even needs to be said about Alien that hasn’t been said already? This marks the third time I’ve seen it since March, and it’s still perfect – end of story.
Synchronic image courtesy of XYZ Films.
All other images courtesy of Abertoir Festival. All rights reserved.