2008 was a year of innovations for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Not only did it move from its usual August date to an earlier June slot, but it also unveiled a brand new section entitled ‘Under the Radar’, described by the festival organisers as ‘celebrating the true spirit of Ã¢â‚¬Å“cultÃ¢â‚¬Â film’. Oddly, ‘cult’ seems to have become the buzz word of the moment in the film world and everyone wants a piece of it. Equally bizarrely, cult seems to have become a genre in itself. But if it means getting more oddball, unconventional and challenging films on the screen, all this excitable bandying about of the word might be worthwhile.
One of the most pleasurable entries in the Under the Radar selection was Blood Car, a black comedy satirising America’s insatiable need for oil and its readiness to do whatever it takes to carry on running its gas-guzzlers. With fuel prices having shot through the roof, a mild-mannered green-minded vegan primary school teacher (complete with elbow patches on his cord jacket) accidentally invents an engine that runs on human blood. Although initially appalled by his discovery, he abandons his principles to keep his car running so he can obtain sexual favours from naughty carnivorous sexpot Denise, all the time while being watched by the FBI.
Bigga Than Ben: A Russians’ Guide to Ripping Off London was another satire, this time of the various absurdities and Catch-22 situations that await immigrants trying to get a job, open a bank account and find a place to live in the British capital. Gleefully rude and offensive to all, it follows the tribulations of two naive, albeit unscrupulous, Russian thugs, Cobakka and Spiker, recently arrived in the UK. Key to the success of the film is Cobakka’s strongly-accented, authentic-sounding narration, which fully immerses the audience in their skewed worldview and makes us see London from a new perspective.
Strange Girls was quite a nice little oddity that centred on two disturbing-looking red-haired twins, Giorgia and Virginia, who refuse to communicate with the outside world and have spent most of their lives in a psychiatric hospital. In private, however, they reveal literary ambitions, wit and a natural penchant for cruelty and murder. When Virginia falls for Oyo, a boy from the neighbourhood they have just moved into after their – clearly misguided – release from hospital, the sisters’ dysfunctional relationship is stretched to breaking point and the hate and jealousy underlying their exclusive relationship is revealed. Although none of this is exactly original, the film was enjoyably bizarre and created a convincingly strange world.
We weren’t able to see the sixth film in the section, Crack Willow, but the remaining two were serious let-downs. With its Beauty and the Beast storyline and laboured literary tone, not to mention the seriously limited plot, Spike was nothing more than a high school kid’s clichéd Goth fantasy. The Third Pint, from Argentina, revolved around a man who becomes invisible after drinking three pints. This was the pretext for a lengthy, self-indulgent disquisition on anything and everything as the narrator travels around the world. Moving at a lethargic pace, the film had very little to say and its trite ‘insights’ into modern life certainly don’t justify its existence.
All in all, while some of the Under the Radar films were enjoyable, none of them were as audacious, original or subversive as could have been hoped for and the whole exercise felt quite safe and tame. We also checked out the Night Moves section of the festival for more late-night type thrills (the distinction between Night Moves and Under the Radar is not entirely clear to us). But that section contained some even poorer works, which seemed to have been included solely on the basis of their ability to deliver some very cheap shocks, whether it was the nasty, pointless torture of Mum and Dad, set among a sort of psychotic Royle Family, or the autopsy horror of the predictable, generic Cadaver from South Korea. The Spanish thriller Shiver was another major disappointment; marred by an incoherent, muddled script that felt like a first draft, that film had no place at an international festival. It wasn’t all bad though and the section was rescued by two remarkable films. Time Crimes was a labyrinthine Spanish thriller revolving around brilliantly confusing temporal paradoxes while Just Another Love Story was a sleek, modern noir thriller from Denmark that combined an intense, brutal character study with a brilliantly vicious diagnosis of the country’s moral state.
While it is great to see more unconventional, low-budget types of filmmaking given some space at a major festival, it is a real shame that some of the works seemed to have been selected simply because they superficially ticked the boxes of what has become associated with midnight movies/cult films – rude humour, grossly funny gore, bizarre-looking actors, pointy-headed aliens, body horror and/or monsters. The real night-time thrills were to be found elsewhere this year, with the speculative futuristic thriller Sleep Dealer from Mexico and a superb, moving take on the vampire from Sweden in Let the Right One In. Both films used fantastical elements intelligently to explore, respectively, Mexico’s exploitation by US corporations, and tender and dangerous love between two outsider children. For lovers of the dark stuff (and for the general critics too), Let the Right One In was the true star of the festival.
For more Edinburgh Festival coverage see: EIFF 08: Best of the Fest, Standard Operating Procedureand Interview with Olly Blackburn, Jay Taylor and Rob Boulter (Donkey Punch).