L’Etrange Festival 2011
The 17th edition of the Etrange Festival celebrated psychotronic and gore cinema with two nights devoted respectively to grindhouse and the Sushi Typhoon label. The geeky atmosphere was summed up by the screening of Jun Tsugita’s Horny House of Horror (2010), which must be seen for the sequence in which a penis is prepared sushi-style. The film was presented by the director and special-effects expert Yoshihiro Nishimura, a hilarious pixie who leapt onto the stage and ended his speech with ‘I’m bald because of radioactivity’. The festival lived up to its reputation, with the diversity of the programming remaining one of its strengths, especially thanks to its policy of ‘carte blanche’ (given to Julien Temple and Jean-Pierre Mocky this year) and its unique selection of filmic gems. Nicolas Guichard
The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae, 2011, dir Ryoo Seung-wan)
An honest cop is forced to resort to the worse methods (including joining forces with a criminal) in order to make progress as he investigates a series of children’s murders. This dark crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but despite a script penned by Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil), and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s talent for action scenes, it is not as inspired as its predecessor, nor does it share its sense of the absurd and its delirious ‘realism’. The main idea of the central character’s betrayal (of his principles and of his team) and his voluntary degradation to solve the case (the end justifies the means) is weakened by some longueurs and verbose scenes that tend to water down the dénouement. NG
Meat (2010, dir Victor Nieuwenhuijs & Maartje Seyferth)
Surreal Dutch neo-noir Meat, a film concerned with the flesh in all its forms, owes its existence in part to the generosity of a local butcher with a passion for cinema, and to that of lead actor Titus Muizelaar. A famous TV actor in his native Netherlands, Muizelaar gave up his holiday time for three consecutive summers to play a part that has since won him a lead actor gong at the Deboshir film festival in St Petersburg. The former provided the lamb, beef and pork – as well as the hands that chop it on screen. The latter plays both a lugubrious detective, coping dispassionately with the sudden suicide of his former partner, and a butcher, grunting and rutting amid the hanging carcasses of his own cold storage like a randy bull. In between the two, Nellie Benner plays Roxy, a young girl seduced, abused and abandoned by seemingly every man she meets. But the real star is undoubtedly the meat itself: chops, steaks and cubed beef heart, filmed in loving close-up, as erotic as any living flesh on the screen. The narrative unfolds with the logic of a dream, drifting wantonly and waywardly into abrupt changes of time, pace and style. A carnal film, both literally and viscerally, with its heart not so much on its sleeve, as on its plate. Robert Barry
Salue le diable de ma part (Saluda al diablo de mi parte, 2011, dir Juan Felipe Orozco)
In this thriller that deftly exploits Columbia’s political reality (the amnesty offered by the state to the guerilleros who have put down their weapons), director Juan Felipe Orozco focuses on Angel (nicknamed ‘El Diablo’), a repentant revolutionary who is having difficulty reintegrating into society. He lives with his daughter in a somewhat shabby flat until one day one of his former victims kidnaps his daughter and gives him three days to eliminate the members of his ex-group. The contrast between Angel’s ghostly appearance and the stylised violence of the action scenes is not unoriginal, but the revenge set-up, in which the victim forces their torturer to avenge them, sadly soon loses momentum because of the plot’s strict linear structure. NG
Alone in the Dark (1982, dir Jack Sholder)
Sometimes the border is the best vantage point for viewing territories on either side. Jack Sholder’s 1982 psycho-shocker Alone in the Dark is just such a liminal case, poised at the very moment when the more politicised, sociological horror films of the 1970s (Dawn of the Dead, The Fury, Scanners, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) turn into the supernatural psycho-on-the-loose slashers of the 1980s (typified by the extensive sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th). Alone in the Dark, the first film produced by New Line Cinema (A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) might have begun in the 70s, but from the entrance of Lee Taylor-Ann (in the role of nyctophobe Toni Potter) in her pink and black ra-ra skirt, inviting the other characters to go out and see a really cool band downtown (The Sic Fucks, as themselves), it is clear that we could be in no other decade than the 80s. In one particular scene we can see the crossover quite precisely. In the midst of a blackout, ordinary citizens are spontaneously looting and running amok. The blackout has caused the sophisticated electronic locking system of the psychiatric hospital to break down and release four homicidal lunatics who walk into this chaos, one of them wearing a hockey mask. It is as though Jason from Friday the 13th had wandered onto the set of Dawn of the Dead (Friday the 13th part III, the first of the series in which we see Jason Vorhees in a hockey mask, was released just three months before Alone in the Dark, so we can probably rule out any deliberate reference on either part). ‘Sure, they’re crazy,’ says Donald Pleasance’s pot-smoking shrink (based on R.D. Laing), ‘but isn’t everybody?’ It is perhaps a shame that the rest of the 1980s slasher films would tend to forget this second clause. RB
Viva la muerte (1971, dir Fernando Arrabal)
This film was presented as part of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s ‘carte blanche’. In his introduction to the screening, Mocky enthusiastically congratulated the organisers because he’d realised, after choosing the films, how difficult it would be to find copies (in particular John Ford’s The Last Hurrah).
Viva la muerte is one of the key works of Panic, the ‘movement’ founded nine years earlier by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. This autobiographical evocation of Arrabal’s childhood (based on his novel Baal Babylon) and of his memories of the Spanish Civil War moves between the ‘real’ life of Fando (whose father was denounced to the fascists by his mother) and his fantasies (in sequences filmed in coloured filters). But the boundary gradually becomes blurred and porous, as if the unconscious was pouring into reality. Even though Viva la muerte is not as impressive as Jodorowsky’s work, Arrabal recaptures the freshness of Buñuel’s surrealist imagery (Un chien andalou). Thanks to his sense of the baroque and his interest in confusion (a Panic key word), Arrabal invites us to a sort of orgiastic ritual that conjures the mythological figures of the sacrificial victim (the absent father) and the cruel ‘virgin’, both Eros and Thanatos (the mother, doubling up in the character of the aunt). NG
Super (2010, dir James Gunn)
This, perhaps, is what happens when Troma directors grow up – or rather, fail to: they make films in which grown men cry (and then brutally murder various inconsequential characters and cop off with girls half their age). Gunn broke into movie-making in his mid-20s, taking the director’s chair for Tromeo and Juliet. Following the success of this ‘no holds bard’ Shakespeare adaptation for the low-budget schlock stable (home of The Toxic Avenger), Gunn hit the big league with screenplays for two Scoobie Doo films and a big-budget Dawn of the Dead remake. Now he’s back doing his own thing, shooting his own original screenplay, and clearly having a whale of a time. Super follows the comic book life ‘between the panels’ of the world’s most pathetic super-hero, The Crimson Bolt. The film has all the yucks and irreverence you’d expect from a former Troma man – he even finds room to give his old boss, Lloyd Kaufman, a cameo – and it rattles along at a fine old pace. In truth, there’s little not to like here, as long as you weren’t expecting Tarkovsky – and if you were, then, my god, what were you thinking? Where the film falls down is in the moments where it tries to be a little more grown-up. The sentiment is weak and somewhat tacked on. In the end, it’s the bits where the film ‘exposes its real feelings’ that are the true mask, hiding the gleeful, anarchic face underneath. RB
Piscine sans eau (A Pool without Water/Mizu no nai puuru, 1982, dir Kôji Wakamatsu)
An outwardly dull man (played by the impressive Yûya Uchida) enters the house of young women at night, then chloroforms and rapes them. From this premise Wakamatsu creates a strange, oneiric film, a poetic parable on the relationship to the other in a fossilised society. The originality of the film lies in the manner in which the director uses the conventions of the erotic genre and the references to childhood (games with insects and dolls) to compose an ode to the common man’s quest for freedom. It is a freedom that is negative, just like the waterless swimming pool that gives the film its title, as if the relationships between men and women could only be created through transgression. A true moralist, Wakamatsu paints the picture of a man-child who has found the way to literally touch the object of his desire and liberate himself by giving free rein to his erotic madness. NG
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir Panos Cosmatos)
My pick of the festival by a country mile. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a highly stylised and oppressively atmospheric take on the kind of weird dystopian science fiction the 1970s did so well – Logan’s Run, Scanners, THX-1138, The Andromeda Strain, etc. – from which it picks up and exaggerates elements to the point of parody in a world of coloured lights and modernist set designs. The music is pitched somewhere between the mid-70s synths of John Carpenter and the ‘spectral’ sound of such recent electronic acts as The Focus Group and Boards of Canada. The story is set in a health-resort-cum-religious-community ‘in a beautiful place out in the country’, to quote the BoC track whose mood comes closest to capturing the spirit of this film. Indeed, it could be said that with its coloristic compositions and repetitive scenic plan, the film’s structure is more musical than novelistic, dovetailing neatly with the ‘hauntological’ moment in contemporary music pinpointed by critics such as Mark Fisher, Adam Harper and Simon Reynolds. What is perhaps most intriguing – and indeed most hauntological – about the film is its apt demonstration that, today, in order to present a future that is genuinely ‘other’ one must set one’s narrative not in the world ‘of tomorrow’, but in the recent past. RB
Dementia (1955, dir John Parker)
Dementia is a true oddity, cited in Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. Shot in the mid-50s, it is a black and white film with no dialogue, in fact no synch sound whatsoever (a voice-over was added later for the re-release under a different title), just an eerie, creepy score by one-time ‘bad boy’ of new music George Antheil. Tonight, Antheil’s score has been replaced (although ghostly traces of it remain, as distorted loops, somewhere in the mix) by a live soundtrack performed by Church of Satan councilman and occasional white supremacist pin-up Boyd Rice, along with Dwid Hellion from US hardcore group Integrity. Hellion and Rice make use of a bizarre selection of instruments, from the double bass harmonica (apparently recommended by Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy) and a curious brass-pronged device called a waterphone, whose sound is immediately recognisable from a thousand horror films. These instruments are then sampled and looped, punctuated by occasional bursts of distortion pedal guitar noise, in accompaniment to the oneiric narrative on screen. A woman wakes up, wanders the streets, meets a man, murders him, and runs away from the police – only to wake once more, the waves crashing over her dreams like ill-repressed memories. Dementia is usually credited to producer John Parker, but Wikipedia claims it was actually directed by actor Bruno Ve Sota (who plays the Rich Man, and also directed such classic 50s Bs as The Brain Eaters and Invasion of the Star Creatures). Most famous for being the film showing in the cinema sequence in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958). RB
Take Shelter (2011, dir Jeff Nichols)
In the rural American south, a miner starts having dreams of a terrible storm coming. When the dreams start spilling out into his waking hours he begins obsessively taking precautions against what he is sure is a real storm to come. The second feature from Jeff Nichols makes more than a passing reference to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, though thankfully with the magical-native-folk clichés excised. Instead, we are offered one of the more harrowing cinematic portraits of mental collapse since Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, with which Nichols’s film also shares more than a passing acquaintance. Curiously, the more I found myself nerve-wracked and devastated by the unfolding domestic catastrophe on screen, the more the rest of the audience in Paris started laughing. Actually, now I come to think of it, when I saw Bigger Than Life at the same cinema a few months back, everyone else was laughing too. Maybe Parisians just enjoy watching ordinary Americans lose their mind. Either way, as torment or farce, Take Shelter is stylishly shot and convincingly performed by its two leads, Michael Shannon (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life). RB
Flesh+Blood (1985, dir Paul Verhoeven)
Before Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Trooper, Paul Verhoeven spent his first American film on an extended jaunt around the medieval castles of Spain, bringing along a few old friends from his native Netherlands – Rutger Hauer, Jan De Bont – for the ride. Flesh+Blood is a knights-on-a-quest epic with all the carnage and carnal knowledge one would expect from Verhoeven, playing fast and loose with accents and anachronism, and not a ‘forsooth’ or a ‘hey nonny nonny’ in sight. In a sense, the film is a kind of Once upon a Time in the West for the romance, an elegy for the end of the medieval era. All three of its principal characters represent the rise of a new order against the old feudal ties: Rutger Hauer’s Martin is the ruthless capitalist, who promises his fellows equality only to assume noble airs and graces when the opportunity arises; Tom Burlinson’s Steven could be the contemporary of Francis Bacon, turning science into technology subjugated to the war machine. They are of course one and the same, as Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a scheming opportunist, the very prototype of the modern footballer’s wife) realises only too well. One of the grimiest films about the era, Flesh+Blood is also one of the most insightful. RB
The Hitcher (1986, dir Robert Harmon)
The Hitcher has a great premise, and it knows it, exploiting some very basic fears that have doubtless been felt by any motorist who has ever seen an outstretched thumb on a lonely road at night. With that, the film has a confidence, an assurance that prevents it from taking too many wrong steps. The taut structure keeps the tension high when it needs to be, and always knows when best to diffuse it with a well-timed gag (a severed finger with your chips, sir?). The film’s star Rutger Hauer said in introducing the film at the screening that this is not just a horror film, but also a love story: from the moment his John Ryder thrusts his hand into C. Thomas Howell’s crotch, an erotic power play unfolds with several layers of complexity. One final thought on this film: towards the end, sitting in the back of a police van, Hauer’s hitcher is seen humming to himself the tune to ‘Daisy’, the song Arthur C. Clarke heard a computer sing at Bell Labs and decided to appropriate for Hal in 2001. At this point in the film, we have just discovered that this man has no records on any computer, no place of origin, and is almost impossible to kill. Might he, in fact, be reprising his role from Blade Runner, made four years earlier? RB
The Oregonian (2011, dir Calvin Reeder)
Of course, every festival has to have at least one real stinker, and The Oregonian, sad to say, is really, truly, irredeemably awful in every possible sense. The acting is pathetic, the shooting laughable, the script (there’s a script?!) even worse. The best I can say is that there is nice furniture in one scene. According to writer/director Calvin Reeder’s smug-as-chips IMDB page, he has been named one of Filmmaker magazine’s ’25 new faces of independent film’ – I can only presume they mean faces to run and hide from, faces not to trust with your production money, faces that seriously deserve a good kicking. How this film got accepted into this festival – let alone Sundance earlier in the year – is beyond me. I’d assume the people who made it were taking the piss, that this was some grand spoof on the pseudo-surreal, except this was probably the only film I saw at this festival at which nobody laughed once. I felt pity for the rest of the audience as we grimly endured this useless mess of a motion picture. I sincerely hope that no one involved in this production – from exec producer to set runner – is ever allowed to work in film again. RB
Sudd, a short film by Swede Erik Rosenlund, shows a world of elegant black and white cinematography, gradually being eaten by a disease of animated scribbles. With the rise of high-quality computer animation software packages available off the shelf and capable of turning any laptop into a professional cartoon suite, the narrative of this film could be the narrative of shorts programmes at film festivals the world over, with the increasingly prevalent drawn-not-ray-traced style a kind of compulsory supplement, as much a product of the slick digi-style it seeks to countermand as anything else.
Paths of Glory, shown as part of the fifth shorts package, is little more than a boy’s own adventure dogfight story with some demons and lame-ass heavy metal tacked on the end, etched in the style of the contemporary comic shop. Condamné à vie is more bande dessinée than Marvel Universe and at least raises a few laughs, but still uses the hand-drawn style as a sort of ideological screen to conceal its mode of production. Much better is the somewhat relentless Dutch fantasia Get Real! Here, the scribble is less a self-reflexive imitation pencil than the gleeful mouse-squiggle of a first-time Paint user, a chip-tune-soundtracked story about puppy love and arcade obsessiveness that takes every opportunity to emphasise its own cybernetic provenance.
Elsewhere, big-budget Brit animation A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation starts off like a mournful, cautionary tale in a vaguely Hilaire Belloc sort of way and ends up as a car advert – it does, however, boast a voice-over by Ian McKellen, which is enough to redeem almost anything. Putain Lapin simultaneously satirises Jean Eustache and Donnie Darko, in a surreal take on the grainy 16mm of the nouvelle vague. As the title suggests, a prostitute meets a giant fuzzy bear, mistakes him for a rabbit, they fall in love. It’s all rather sweet.
The other British offering, Endless, steals from Antichrist and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation with a super slo-mo bathroom murder story with a score that sounds suspiciously like the Handel aria used by von Trier (no prizes for guessing what their temp track was). A hint to Matt Bloom, director of this one: if you’re going to subject your images to the in-depth examination that slow motion inevitably induces, you’d better make sure you’ve got a good image, and not a rather clumsily lit home movie out-take.
The best films on the shorts programme I saw were Sudd (already mentioned) and Decapoda Shock, both of which mixed an inventive and articulate use of ‘real’ cinematography with the freedom of expression afforded by occasional intrusions of animation. The latter, a Spanish sci-fi movie with a man with a lobster’s head for a hero, got my vote for the audience prize in the festival’s ‘competition courts-métrages’. RB
Nicolas Guichard and Robert Barry