From Frau Plastic Chicken to Serbian slasher films to Swedish-Portugese science fiction co-productions, Frank Lafond takes us on a whirlwind tour of the BIFFF and its diverse selection of new European horror and fantasy cinema.
This past-March, Belgium hosted the 20th Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF)", one of the most complete events of its kind insofar as it encompasses not only film screenings, but also concerts, make-up workshops, a body painting contest and a collection of fantasy books.
The hundred or so films presented this year were, as usual, projected in two theatres, two very different places that rather adequately summarise the heterogeneousness of Brussels' landscape. At the Passage 44—the bigger, more comfortable and more technically improved of the two—were the Festival's prestigious guests (Christopher Lee, Dario Argento, Mamoru Oshii, etc), the films in competition and the ones intended to please a large audience (Avalon, Rollerball, etc). Meanwhile, at the Nova—a theatre that looks both like a squat and a sex-shop—one could see more demanding pictures as well as a late-night retrospective entitled "Trans Europe Excess: Sex and Horror in European Cinema," focusing primarily on the films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin.
Those attending the BIFFF—at least the major venue—were extremely responsive: the spectators applauded the various guests (Lee was among the favoured ones); clapped during the credits whenever a name they knew appeared (eg, in the case of Nonhosonno [Sleepless, Italy, 2001], they reacted to the name of director Dario Argento of course, but also to that of Sergio Stivaletti, the special-effects designer); playfully warned characters against the potential dangers awaiting them ("Don't go in there!"); and applauded again each time a gory effect filled the screen.
A quick look at the Festival programme leads one to an obvious conclusion: Italy and Spain, followed closely by the United Kingdom, seem nowadays to be the most prolific European countries when one talks about horror or science fiction cinema (the latter a much less represented genre). But, as we will see, other European countries are making interesting contributions as well, even if some of them are located on the fringes of the genres.
Watching the first sequences of Tuno Negro (Black Serenade, aka The Dark Ministrel, Spain, 2001), the viewer may well be concerned that s/he will have to sit through an uninspired Spanish imitation of the American neo-slasher film. The storyline speaks for itself: in the medieval city of Salamanca, a serial killer called the "Tuno Negro" methodically murders the worst students of the university. The film, directed by Pedro L Barbero and Vicente J Martin, differentiates itself from its Scream-like predecessors by mixing in elements of historical context, old tradition (the "tunas" are male student music associations) and that current paragon of modernity, the internet.
Although in many ways much too conventional, Tuno Negro does manage, however, to pervert its subgenre by bringing the characteristic features of the "final girl" (played by Silke Hornillos Kleinto) to their logical conclusion. Her masculine attributes (her name is Alejandra, but she is known as Alex; she lives in the men's dormitory; she has great physical strength), her special link to the murderer (he sends her videos of his killings via the Internet) and her brilliant academic success all serve to make her the perfect suspect. And, in fact, we will finally discover that this final girl really is the masked murderer.
The central character of Alone (UK, 2000), also named Alex, is a mentally-disturbed individual who kills women unwittingly while trying to make friends with them. One feature of this umpteenth variation on the serial killer figure—directed by Philip James Claydon, then a 24-year-old director fresh out of film school—is the extensive use of subjective point-of-view shots in order to hide the killer's identity from the audience. This cinematic technique, taken from the slasher film, is here employed throughout: during the entire film, we see only Alex's forearms.
As in the Italian giallo, this visual trick (as well as the murderer's wearing of gloves) is primarily intended to conceal the protagonist's sexual identity; in point of fact, Alex, as we discover in the last shot of the film, is (once again) a woman. Though quite effective, Alone never manages to be anything more than an exercise in style: the aligning of the spectator with Alex's viewpoint, an alignment which is heightened by the digital surround sound, is central to Alone, but with such an aesthetic bias the physical identification can never reach a psychological level. Nearly 50 years after Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1946), Claydon should have known better.
I won't say much about Nonhosonno, Argento's latest giallo featuring—needless to say—another mad killer, as Reynold Humphries will be tackling this film in a forthcoming issue of Kinoeye. Nevertheless, two things should be noted here. Firstly, when Argento stepped on the stage to introduce Nonhosonno, he told the audience he didn't understand the reason why no one under sixteen was admitted to watch the picture in France; according to him, Nonhosonno is a "nice" film.
It isn't difficult, however, to maintain the opposite stance, and the Brussels spectators would likely agree with me given that they were provided with numerous opportunities to cheer horrible acts of gory violence. But the point to stress here is that they clapped for whoever the perpetrator of violence was. Therefore, it could be said that this particular audience, mostly composed of hardcore fans, identified more with the off-screen master of ceremonies (that is, the director/auteur) than with the on-screen protagonists. This might explain why the Festival host reminded us that it is Argento's hand we see each time there is a close-up of the murderer's hand in his films.
There are a few obvious references to Argento's gialli in Almost Blue (Italy, 2000), but anyone can see that Alex Infascelli wanted to direct an American-style serial killer movie inspired at once by Manhunter (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Se7en (1995). So Infascelli chose a Jodie Foster-like heroine and decided that David Fincher's aesthetics couldn't be avoided. But the final result is far from convincing: the director never manages to find a new approach to the subgenre, nor he is able to do very much with his characters or his story.
Old Europe, old myths, new adaptations
A successful reworking of the famous myth, Fausto 5.0 (Faust 5.0, Spain, 2001), directed by Isidro Ortis, Álex Ollé and Carlos Padrissa—the latter two of whom are members of the theatrical group La Fura dels Baus—offers additional proof of the genre's vitality in contemporary Spain. Haunted by the idea of suicide, Dr Fausto (Miguel Ángel Solá) arrives in an unnamed town in order to attend a medical convention. At the station, he encounters Santos (Eduard Fernández), a former patient whom he condemned eight years ago. Against Fausto's will, Santos begins to act as a cicerone and finally proposes to fulfill the doctor's wishes.
Filmed in lifeless colours and enjoying strong performances from both lead actors, Fausto 5.0 depicts a society that is disintegrating: the façade of the National Hotel where Fausto stays is entirely covered by pale plastic sheets (as if it needs to be repaired or restored); hoodlums smash cars right in the middle of the street; workmen wear masks outside their factory; people clean off dead animals stuck on the front of trains... This feeling of decomposition is enhanced by the physical performances of La Fura dels Baus (a man suspended in the air is cleaning a building in the background, dancers hang by their feet at a clandestine party); these figures seem peripheral, but they introduce a subtle feeling of uncanniness and bring to life a new sense of order. Fausto 5.0 received a well-deserved Silver Raven award, while Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (Japan, 2001) won the second one.
Contrary to what the title might lead one to believe, Zora la vampira (Zora the Vampire, Italy, 2000), directed by Antonio and Marco Manetti, is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Alone in his old Transylvanian castle, Count Dracula (Toni Bertorelli) spends most of his time watching Italian television until the day he decides to immigrate to Italy, where the girls look fresher and the city streets well-lit. Unfortunately, since the Count is Romanian and doesn't have an entry visa, he is forced to travel in the company of illegal workers!
It is precisely in its relocating of the Dracula myth to present-day Italy that Zora la vampira is of interest; certainly not in its comical representation of both the master of vampires and the world of rap music. The Manetti brothers depict their home country as a place that will eventually drive Dracula to commit suicide by exposing himself to the sun, what with its suburban poverty, idle youths, drug traffic, decaying cityscape, fascistic and misogynistic police force, etc. All this in addition to the desperate plight of the illegal migrant workers, who manage to survive only by stealing cars. In Rome, Dracula feels that he is monstrous for two reasons: because he doesn't belong to the human race, and because he is a foreigner. Here, monstrosity is figured as "Other" in every sense of the word.
Outside the classical norms of production
With the recent advances in digital film technology, projects that previously were very unlikely to be brought to completion for various reasons now finally have a chance to exist. This year the BIFFF screened three films in Beta format, and, as we shall see, they were not always debut features.
Previewed at the Passage 44 theatre, Ken Russell's The Fall of the Louse of Usher (UK, 2001) was described by the director as a "home movie" self-produced and shot with the help of family and friends in Russell's own country house during weekends. This extremely loose and crude adaptation of the quasi-eponymous Edgar Allen Poe short story also includes various references to other writings of the American horror master: his poems, for example, are transformed into songs by the protagonist, a rock-star named Roddy Usher (James Johnson), and videotaped by Russell. Chaotic and amazingly amateur (the film is crammed with objects diverted from their basic use: a microwave's door serves as a television, for example), The Fall of the Louse of Usher does manage to produce a special energy. One really has to see Roddie and Madeleine Usher (Lisi Tribble) perish in the destruction of their family mansion—an inflatable plastic castle that goes down—to understand the strange madness that runs through Russell's film.
Making a Killing (UK, 2001) is the second film to fall in this category. The wife of Jake Summers' best friend is killed by a mysterious masked killer. Feeling guilty because he had an affair with her, Jake decides to help his friend who is in a difficult financial situation and is denied insurance since there is no proof of the murder. Jake engages two acquaintances in order to film a fake killing and give the insurance money to his friend, but things get more and more complicated between the three "accomplices." With a strong professional cast and plenty of twists in the storyline, this feature debut by Ryan Lee Driscoll never lets the spectator take a breather and proves, if need be, that you don't necessarily have to imitate Hollywood to make efficient horror-thrillers.
Filmed with a digital camera for a French satellite television station, Mémoire morte (France, 2001) offers a tortuous science-fiction story centred on a young woman, Ania (Delphine Chuillot), who possesses extraordinary physical strength but multiple personalities. In search of her past with the help of a reporter-cameraman, she finally discovers her "real father" in eastern Europe—an old scientist who transplanted the "brain" of her daughter into Ania's dead body. The characters are appropriately portrayed, but Franck Chiche has difficulties handling such a complex narrative. Nevertheless, the ambition displayed here might augur well for the young director's future.
The "other" Europe
Introduced by its director Dejan Zeèeviæ as the "first Serbian slasher film," T T Sindrom (T T Syndrome, Yugoslavia, 2001) was one of the Festival's best surprises. A very effective, gruesome and rather gory film (bodies are cut up on-screen, dismembered, etc), it tells the story of a group of people who are forced to spend the night locked in a timeworn Turkish bath and are decimated by a mysterious killer. Unlike Tuna Negro, Zeèeviæ's third film clearly isn't just an imitation/exploitation of the American neo-slashers: the protagonists are not teenagers, the look of the film is quite murky (this is no tongue-in-cheek horror movie) and, above all, the identity of the "monster" is not a matter of indifference.
The film opens in 1958, when a young woman gives birth in the restroom of the bath and throws her baby in the toilet. In 1982, we see an invisible killer murdering and dismembering a young punk couple in the same place and are led to suppose that the murderer is the baby who managed to survive and grow up against all odds. Teodora (Sonja Damjanovic), the heroine of T T Sindrom, finally discovers that it is the young woman seen at the very beginning—a former nurse raped by a lunatic, now the ladies' toilet attendant—who kills in order to feed her son, believing that he is still alive somewhere down in the gutters (and in fact we often hear baby screams).
Interestingly, we also learn that Teodora, who closely resembles the nurse, had done the same thing two years earlier. So her encounter with the killer (and her little Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like family, consisting of an adopted "child" who deals drug and a crazy professor) seems very much like a return of the repressed. In fact, at the end of the film, she feels compelled to take a look at the "baby" (named Cloaca) instead of running away from the hellish bath. And although T.T. Sindrom has been very demonstrative throughout, at this crucial moment we see nothing save for an unfathomable black well.
Denmark does not seem to be a country which much taste for cinematic horror, since Martin Schmidt is one of the only directors working in the genre there. In his third film, Kat (2001), the grandparents of Isabella (Charlotte Munck), roommate of Maria (Liv Corfixen), perform a seance that goes awry: they inadvertently set free a demon who takes possession of Athena, Maria's female cat. Murders begin to occur wherever Maria goes. Although its heroine doesn't metamorphose, Kat is somewhat reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942), insofar as both films make jealousy the mainspring of the killings. Maria is a law student who wants to take revenge on her cheating boyfriend; forgetting any sense of justice, she "appeals" to Athena, the Greek goddess of war. Schmidt's film remains effective as a horror narrative until Athena the cat turns into a huge feline and Kat itself into a monster movie that lacks all subtlety. Luckily, this double transformation only takes place at the very end.
In Nexxt—Frau Plastic Chicken Show (Frau Plastic Chicken Show, Hungary, 2000), the serial killing phenomena is looked at from an unusual angle, since the whole film—the first feature from director Arpad Schilling—is supposed to be a television show trying to uncover the nature of evil. The show's host, Frau Plastic Chicken, surprises the viewer by presenting the "real" Alex—the inspiration for the main character of Anthony Burgess' novel, A Clockwork Orange. Alex is on the set, and a serial killer will be arrested in front of the cameras and interviewed before being handed over to the law.
One can guess from this brief outline that what is at stake in Nexxt is not so much the true nature of evil, but rather a radical criticism of exploitative reality TV shows. Thus, the now-cured Alex is forced to commit new acts of violence and to undergo more shock treatment, while the serial killer is manipulated for the audience's behalf. Extremely theatrical as a result of the use of televisual conventions, surprisingly funny, Nexxt—Frau Plastic Chicken Show can be considered a trash film only in the sense that it is a film about trash television.
Aparelho voador a baixa altitude (Low-Flying Aircraft, 2001), the third adaptation of J G Ballard's work, is an unusual co-production between Sweden and Portugal. We can certainly pay tribute to its adult and "realist" approach to science fiction; nevertheless, this film by Solveig Nordlund—who is also a documentarist—ultimately has difficulty living up to its initial situation. Finally, 3 Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass (Three Chinamen with a Double Bass, Germany, 2000) is a spirited and macabre comedy that unfortunately did not fit comfortably in the Festival programme.
The BIFFF showed us this year the renewed vivacity of European horror films. One can only assume that France, which is currently producing more than thirty films belonging to the genre, will soon take a place beside Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom as the most prolific creators of Euro-horror cinema.
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