Mark Stafford, Thomas Grimshaw and Virginie Sélavy report on the hits and misses at this year’s Raindance Film Festival.
Months after being jilted at the altar, Rachel (Jennifer June Ross) has become a reclusive slob, surrounded by mounds of takeaway pizza boxes and unopened wedding gifts in her isolated home. An intervention by her mother shakes her up, but she decides that the only way to truly get over this hump is to get laid, pronto. She invites a likely candidate to come over but nothing runs to plan, the wrong people keep turning up at her door, a pizza delivery guy, an over-protective friend, her ex, a weird girl and, eventually, a horde of would-be vampires…
Andy Viner’s debut is an object lesson in making the most of limited resources (a house in the desert, a committed cast, a vehicle or two). It’s oddly constructed, being about 80% sex farce to 20% horror movie, pretty rough around the edges, and Viner doesn’t seem especially committed to having everything wrap up and make sense, but for the most part it works. It’s pretty funny and breezes along on ramshackle charm, as Rachel’s would-be seductions continually turn into discussions of her marital woes, and the vampires are motivated by a desire to join Team Edward in the Twilight franchise. What can I say? It’s fun! MS
War Games is the latest addition to the sub-genre of the survival horror film. Whereas films such as the classic Deliverance or the recent Eden Lake utilised the genre to throw up politically charged issues, War Games can make no such claim and exists purely as an exercise in cheap thrills. However, there is also a lot of fun to be had in this tale of young paintballers entering into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a trio of deranged military types. With little justification for their actions, except that shooting dogs just ain’t no fun anymore, the antagonists are painted in very broad strokes, delivering portentous monologues in a mixture of disparate European accents. The heightened display of tropes and stereotypes actually plays to the film’s advantage and creates a slightly innocent 1980s feel, eons away from the torture porn of Eli Roth and co. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t offer up its fair share of blood and guts, but it tastefully opts out of any sadistic voyeurism. The weakest links are undoubtedly the film’s young, peppy protagonists, who blur into one singular unit with slight gender variation. Despite the flaws in the plot and characterisation, War Games has a sly cheekiness that paradoxically wins you over to its way of thinking. Directed thick and fast by Italian music video director Cosimo Alemà, it makes great use of limited locations; the forest is a wonderfully labyrinthine nest that helps to compound the palpable sense of danger. War Games is by no means a defining horror film, but it does exude a perverse frivolity and has a lot of fun with its genre stylings. TG
The Box approaches the Yugoslav conflict from a seemingly quirky, tangential angle that makes the film all the more powerful. Serbian director Andrijana Stojkovic observes the beginning of the Bosnian war in 1992 through the lives of three young men who work in removals, packing the possessions of one ambassador after another as all diplomatic staff leave Belgrade. Billy is a football fan, Cvrle a musician with ambitions to be an international rock star, Vladan a gifted student trying to leave the city to study in the Netherlands. Shot in beautifully stark black and white with austerely composed images, the film cuts between their lives and documentary-style interviews with them and the various diplomats they work for. This device helps build a part humorous, part-poignant picture of the different, sometimes highly contrasting ways in which the conflict affects the lives of the young men and their foreign clients, shaping a subtle critique of Western powers. Strikingly original, intelligently written and visually accomplished, it was a definite highlight of the festival. VS
Serbia offered another interesting take on the conflict with The Enemy, a horror-tinged thriller set a week after the end of the Bosnian war. The film opens with a brilliant credits sequence that starts in total darkness; sounds are heard, then light shines through, revealing that a wall is being broken down, and a man appears, smoking calmly, inside the dark cavity. He is rescued and taken back to the Bosnian soldiers’ isolated headquarters in an abandoned house. Naming himself only as Daba (a nickname connected to the fact that he limps), he is an odd character who smiles enigmatically at everything, smokes and never seems to eat, unnerving some of the most unstable soldiers, who start to believe he may be a malign, supernatural being. As the soldiers wait impatiently for the order to go home, paranoia, distrust and superstition fuel a dangerously rising tension. Filming in muted, almost monochrome colours, director Dejan Zečević creates a convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere, although the unnecessary, overly verbose literary and religious references weaken the narrative. The film is most successful in the way it uses horror elements to comment on the absurdity of war; the narrow perspective of the soldier, who only sees his corner of the war and not the bigger picture; and the idea that the enemy is inside, which is particularly powerful in the context of the Bosnian war. Remaining ambiguous to the end, The Enemy offers a great take on the figure of the interloper, whose mere presence reveals hidden feelings in the other characters and changes the dynamics of the group. VS
An isolated Bauhaus-style home deep within a maze of lakes and grasslands somewhere in Hungary: some local children have gone missing, and a creepy video has been posted on the web that appears to show their pursuit and sadistic murder. This is probably not the best time for two couples to enjoy a few days of wine and socialising, a short walk away from the possible crime scene. As the police helicopters circle, tensions within the house mount and suspicions form. Could one of them be responsible for the horrendous crime? Robert A. Pejo’s film is essentially a four-hander play, albeit one with a well-used location. While the shifting allegiances and antagonisms within the group are well handled and performed, I was never especially surprised by any developments in the story. None of the characters are particularly engaging. And anybody expecting a film with this title to do much with the camera, or play with point of view, will be disappointed. Meh. MS
Kingdom of Survival
In his latest documentary, director M.A. Littler sets out to uncover the multiple strands of dissidence still alive in the United States today, seeking out interviewees as diverse as Professor Noam Chomsky, outlaw historian Dr Mark Mirabello and gonzo journalist Joe Bageant. While the individual interviews are genuinely compelling, presenting a roster of passionate and articulate speakers, with Chomsky and Mirabello offering the most insightful critique of the United States entrenched capitalist system, the lack of narrative provides few key links between its commentators, and as a result the film feels episodic and unfocused. Littler himself supplies the only bond between these disparate elements. Driving from subject to subject, Littler, in regular interludes, mythologises and eulogises those who live outside the system and laments the scarcity of people keeping the outlaw ideology alive. However righteous his attempts might be though, his beat-poet, cowboy persona often threatens to derail the admirable attempts of his subjects, making him appear self-conscious and smug. That said, the film does offer a genuine attempt to present a complex subject matter in layman’s terms without losing the potency and complexity of its inherent ideology. TG
State of Emergency
There’s been an explosion somewhere outside a small town in Middle America, and something is in the air that’s turning normal people into crazed killers. We follow Jim as he loses his fiancée and tries to survive, first on his own, and then after hooking up with three other survivors as they hole up in a warehouse and try and stay sane, uninfected and breathing.
The early sequences of State of Emergency where Jim, in some abandoned stables, tries to make sense of what has happened, attempts to summon help and deals with an unwelcome intruder, clearly show that Turner Clay can assemble a suspenseful scene and create an atmosphere of eerie desperation. His creeps are pretty creepy, standing like scarecrows until they burst into snarling life, and, in an intriguing moment, one of them even talks (‘I’m looking for my daughter…’) But, for Christ’s sake, Mr Clay, you simply cannot make a zombie movie this straightforward and simplistic this late in the day, in this saturated sub-genre. Surely any filmmaker paying attention and raising money should realise that they have to ring a few changes, twist a few clichés, do something strange or difficult or alarming to lift themselves out of the shambling horde. State of Emergency‘s characters are dull, the dialogue is flat and perfunctory, and there is none of the subversive socio-political business that makes the key living dead films interesting. What’s the point? MS
Best seen as a piece of shameless exploitation, X is an Australian thriller set in the seedy, dangerous world of sex workers, corrupt cops and junkies in King’s Cross, Sydney. We have Holly, a high-class whore, pulling off one last job before she flees to Paris. We have Shay, a teenage runaway trying to survive her first night as a hooker on the mean streets. And we have a suitcase full of something that various nasty bastards are willing to kill for. Go!
X is gritty, glossy and grim, there’s plentiful use of split-screen, constant ambient noise and a general feeling of audio-visual overload, as Jon Hewitt takes us up and down the social scales of prostitution from a sex show for Chardonnay-sipping suburbanites to smack-addled wretches cowering in love motels, waiting to be raped by the owners. There’s an ever present sense of the vulnerability of tough women. It’s exhilarating and shocking in places, moves like a freight train, and has nothing especially original to say about its sordid little world. Still, the old ‘torn-from-today’s-headlines’ sensation-seeking aesthetic means that you’re unlikely to be bored. It fits a lot into 85 minutes, and ends on an ambiguous note that doesn’t leave you feeling cheated. MS