Abertoir Day 6

There’s always a tinge of sadness in writing the last day of any festival coverage.  Revisiting it now is just making me want to go back and do it all again.  Aside from the first film of the day, which was Starry Eyes, a film I’d heard a lot of hype for going into Celluloid Screams, but didn’t massively love.  I’ll keep my thoughts very brief here and direct you to my full review instead.

shorts

Skipping Starry Eyes meant that my first horror exposure that day was a far more gentle one with Paul Shallcross’ silent horror shorts with live piano accompaniment.  It is no wonder that this event won best event of Abertoir 2014 with Shallcross’ incredible knowledge and keen eye for fine details guiding us all through some early and often rare shorts.  A thoroughly lovely way to kick off the last day.

Given that some appreciation of film had taken place, it was then time for Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club – an event that normally takes place at midnight during one of the weekdays when everyone is considerably well sozzled by a day of drinking in a dark room.  However, the event still worked wonderfully on a Sunday afternoon with Nicko and Joe’s humour holding everyone’s hand through a screening of RatsRats is particularly awful if you’re at all fond of rats, given the amount of them that seemingly get pushed around by terrible actors.  The great thing about Bad Film Club is that it allows everyone to relax and just laugh along with all the terrible goings on on-screen.

An Evening with Ian McCulloch was the last of the events and featured an evening of songs, stories and clips from his earlier work which showed there was much more to an actor who featured in three video nasties altogether.  While the majority of his talk strayed away from his horror work it was still incredibly interesting to hear about his life and career.

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The closing film of Abertoir 2014 was Dead Snow 2: Red or Dead, which, as I covered in my Celluloid Screams coverage, does away with all the build of its predecessor and throws you straight in at the end of the first film into all the zombie carnage and gore.  While I still feel like I favour the first one, Red or Dead is a real crowd-pleaser and definitely a good way to bring a festival to a close.

Given the success and high praise for Abertoir from everyone I spoke to I’m imagining that Abertoir 2015 will be their biggest one yet and will celebrate 10 years of horror in Aberystwyth in exactly the right way.  I’m already counting down the days.

For more information on Abertoir please visit their official site: www.abertoir.co.uk

Abertoir Day Five

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With the partying done on Friday night Day Five kicked off with a far more sober affair in the form of Faults – an economically shot film about a washed-up cult deprogrammer taking on one more case in the form of a young girl whose parents desperately want her to leave the cult she’s joined.  Now, you only have to whisper the word cult to me and I’m there – something about it terrifies me and intrigues me.  Faults may be the strongest of that kind of film in a long time and its hard to compare it to anything else.  For large parts of the film the action is confined to one room and features an emotional game of chess between Mary Elizabeth Winstead (in the kind of performance I never expected) and Leland Orser.  It is so difficult to discuss this one without including important details, so I’ll just leave it with a final thought that it was stunning and the second the credits rolled I wanted to see it again.

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Up next was one of the films I’d really been hoping to see on the festival circuit from the moment I saw the Comic Con trailer – Tusk.  Despite some apprehension after watching Red State (bleh that was awful), I was still excited for a film that had emerged from possibly the strangest GumTree advert in existence.  The casting of Justin Long is really inspired with him able to drift seemingly effortlessly from simple, thoughtful Wallace into mean-spirited podcaster mode.  Again, very little I can say on this without adding spoilers but I laughed myself insensible during at least one point of this film, but that’s not to take away from how disturbing it all is when you consider the logistics later on.

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In order to do justice to remembering the video nasties, it seems only right to show one.  With that said, and Abertoir’s guest of honour being Luigi Cozzi, it stands to reason that Contamination would be the film to show.  In addition, another guest Ian McCullough starred in the film (plus Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie Holocaust) and so another double Q&A would follow the film, just as Fabio Frizzi and Richard Johnson had done last year on Zombie Flesh Eaters.  Watching Contamination now, its hard to imagine it being banned.  It doesn’t contain any of the more objectionable or taboo material from other nasties and its effects are very good, but not overly convincing.  If anything, this screening really summed up how completely ridiculous banning films was and how films with conspicuous names could be plucked from a line up and said to be dangerous.  The Q&A was also packed with somewhat sordid details on how many of these films were funded, on-set fights and other stories of being involved in the nasties.

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Closing off the penultimate night of Abertoir was a very special event and one I’ve not seen attempted by much larger festivals and really showcases Aberystwyth itself as a great place for horror.  First it was onto buses headed for the Vale of Rheidol steam railway, where we then made our way onto an authentic steam train headed for Capel Bangor.  Upon arrival some ghost stories were told outside, although a few hiccups with acoustics meant I missed some of them.  After some hot drinks, it was back to the platform to watch Horror Express in a specially erected screening room, which while very cold, provided a great experience for watching a horror classic.  For me, Horror Express stands up very well to this day with some great effects.  The whole experience was one of the best I’ve seen advertised at any festival and Abertoir’s organisers should really be commended for pulling it off so smoothly.

Abertoir Day Four

Day Four kicked off with a continuation of the video nasty theme, with a talk by Mark McKenna and Johnny Walker, who spoke about collecting the VHS tapes (with some eye-watering figures involved) and also how the nasties have impacted on current genre cinema, particularly on the British scene.  A lively talk with plenty of clips and references kept everyone entertained.  It is always interesting to see how such a potentially damaging scandal actually gave so much life to films that would be otherwise forgotten.

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The second screening of the day was also the second foray into foreign language film – this time a Dutch production – De Poel (or The Pool).  While the synopsis of a family going into the woods and one member’s sanity gradually unravelling is a well-worn path in horror The Pool has a good balance of humour in the early stages and reveals hidden sides of the characters in well-paced fashion rather than prolonging the discoveries past the point of anyone caring.  The Pool brings a more interesting and far less well-travelled mythology that you’re expecting and is an entertaining, if not-overly challenging film.

canalThe Canal followed The Pool, seemingly in some attempt to convince us all that water is evil and half price beer is better (it is and we all know it) and takes the prize as the film to really get under my skin for this year.  The gradual decline in sanity of main character David is compelling, uncomfortable viewing, propped up by a genuinely brilliant child performance (and you won’t hear me say those words very often) and enough spooky action to keep momentum going without ever throwing too much at the screen at once.  The Canal also features Steve Oram in a small role and he was on hand to answer questions about the film afterwards, even though many of the questions centred around his past work on Sightseers.

Now, on our pre-Abertoir podcast myself and Hayley said we would definitely go to the theatre performance and we totally were until just before.  So, yeah I failed on that one I’m afraid in order to prepare myself for perhaps the most uncomfortable viewing experience I would face throughout the whole festival.  Gremlins.  Yes, Gremlins.  I’d never watched the whole thing after being far too upset by one meeting its fate in a blender-type contraption (I was both a strange and sensitive child) so while it was a nostalgic screening for most of the audience, it was pretty much my first exposure to it.  In the end, I was able to make it through this time and thankfully really enjoyed it, although still don’t support the dispatching of Gremlins in blenders.

The light, crowd-pleasing screening was the perfect introduction to the Last Night a DJ Took My Life party that had been gradually assembled throughout the day, including a light-up dance floor and various unnerving doll and VHS displays.  Plus a little ET…ET scared me as a child too – I obviously wasn’t built for 80s children’s films.  The party is another example of how Abertoir really goes the extra mile to provide an experience, rather than just a festival and this was no exception.  Many cocktails were sampled and many dodgy dance moves were showcased.

Abertoir Day Three

Following the late night of Japanese splattery fun on day two I was somewhat grateful I’d already seen the first film on the schedule: Housebound.  The super fun and oft-creepy New Zealand film proved a hit in Sheffield and I thought it would do similarly here too.  Housebound at the moment feels slightly one of a kind in its ability to hit both funny and scary notes, sometimes within seconds of one another.  It really is a triumph and it was only stubborn tiredness that prevented me from taking a second look.

Now Day Three was interesting because it showed that sometimes at film festivals things can go wrong, but it also showed the class and experience of the Abertoir organisers in that even though one film was unable to be shown, they had an option waiting in the wings that I’m sure is better than some programmed at other festivals.  Instead of Fires on the Plain we were treated to Venezuelan ghost story The House at the End of Time, which Abertoir had programmed for Halloween night at Chapter, but happily was seen at Abertoir itself too.

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The House at the End of Time is fantastic. Really it is, even with my slight complaint that it relies a little too much on loud noises.  The concept is well thought-out and executed with its various twists and turns present from the outset so it never feels like events are being pulled out of someone’s arse late into the runtime.  What is wonderful about HATEOT is that it gives you all that information and leaves you to do what you want with it.  What it does conceal is usually for good reason, combining scares with a few incredibly touching moments that hold it up over other mainstream ghost story films.  As a side note, it is also incredibly refreshing to see a horror film where most of the screentime is occupied by an elderly lady.  It is to Abertoir’s credit that a film this strong was a back up plan.

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At this stage it almost feels like I should slate something given how nice I’ve been but while I wasn’t a fan of this next one, I don’t even feel the need to slate it.  However, The Forgotten is the closest thing to a social-realist ghost story we have…and it is possibly for good reason.  Everyone who knows me knows I’m a fan of a slow-burning ghost story, but for me The Forgotten didn’t quite work, largely because I failed to connect with the characters.  At times I felt like a lot had been cut from the film as there seemed to be large chunks of characterisation and events removed or unexplained when they could have been without detracting from the central mystery of the film.  While there are a few creepy moments toward the climax of the film, nothing has really stayed with me.

The Q&A session with director Oliver Frampton and writer James Hall after the screening was actually far more interesting as they covered facts about the locations, the benefit of shooting with mostly handheld equipment and what their collective experience in television had taught them.  What is also interesting about these Q&A sessions is that someone will often bring up an element of the film that you didn’t see, which is always interesting to discuss.

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Martin Barker’s highly anticipated talk was next.  Some of you may know Barker from the Video Nasties documentary by Jake West, who spends a lot of his time almost inadvertantly sticking up for the nasties and becoming embroiled in many public television discussions on the subject.  Hearing about that era from the man himself (and his wife, who was in the audience and had also dealt with her fair share of trouble during the period) was illuminating, particularly in reference to the duelling groups attempting to ban films during this time.  During the talk, Barker maintained that he was now going to study something more ‘safe’ and spoke about his new project – The World Hobbit Project, which if you’ve seen The Hobbit films you can go to http://www.worldhobbitproject.org and fill out a survey to be part of the largest research of its kind.

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The UK Premiere of Takeshi Miike’s new film Over Your Dead Body proved to be a fitting film to follow Barker’s talk, given its emphasis on art imitating life and life imitating art as a danger throughout.  This one did not score as highly with the Abertoir audience as I’d expected, but I think many probably felt slightly off-kilter by not knowing the source material of the play within the film and therefore lost the thread of what was happening.  I have no prior knowledge of the source material either, but was simply absorbed into the film’s stunning visuals and inventive set design so much that I forgot to care that I didn’t really know what was going on….

Last for the night was the pre-cert VHS screening of A Bay of Blood, which I’m ashamed to say I didn’t stay for, instead choosing a slightly earlier night.  I did, however, sneak a peak at the quality of the VHS and was very impressed.

Abertoir 2014 Day One

Abertoir Day One

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The 9th Abertoir Horror Festival kicked off particularly stylishly with a remarkable remaster of Vincent Price’s 1953 classic House of Wax. In full, glorious 3D we were treated to Price’s well-known wit and some great special effects that were sure to delight modern and traditional horror fans alike. Given Abertoir’s special relationship with Price (his daughter Victoria officially named him Abertoir’s Patron Saint a few years back) this seemed an apt start to the festival.

The second film of the night was The Editor and to avoid repeating myself, please go read my review here.

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Next up was more comedy in the form of Danger 5 – an Abertoir crowd-pleaser for the past few years with its farcical team of spies attempting to track down and, as always, Kill Hitler. Thanks to midnight screenings the audience was familiar with all of series one, but the second series is actually a completely different animal, or at the very least a completely different anthropomorphic animal head. If you’ve not seen Danger 5 that will be lost on you, but don’t worry…and go watch it.

Series 2 replaces the single-episode platform of series 1 with a narrative, but without allowing the structure of it to dull the strange antics of the characters and the often even stranger surroundings. If anything this new focus on a continuous story for the group allows for even more non-sequiturs as the mission rolls along and the group are distracted by personal demons and hang ups. As part of Abertoir we were also lucky enough to be joined by one of the creators of the show – Dario Russo for a Q&A following the screening which tackled the difficulties in casting Hitler and working with partly government-funded television channels.

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The final film of the night was the ABCs of Death 2, which if you’ve followed my Celluloid Screams coverage you’ll already know that I’ve seen it and found it a huge improvement over the first instalment. As a result, I didn’t stay for this one, instead opting for a slightly earlier night and extra sleep, which as we all know is essential at festival time.

Celluloid Screams Day Three

The last day of a festival is an emotionally trying time – you’re pretty much exhausted, but have had such a lovely time you don’t want it to end. A difficult balance. Kicking off the final day were two shorts – Canis: a hard-hitting stop-motion shot that while impressive, definitely wasn’t to my taste and Emptied: a ‘based on a true story’ short about a dentist with a grudge. The first feature of the day was Suburban Gothic, from Excision’s Ricky Bates Jr. Now anyone who has heard me speak about Excision knows I’m not a fan of it at all and I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Suburban Gothic either, but it is a marked improvement. Comedy, particularly the type favoured by John Waters is clearly where Bates’ strengths lie and transporting it into a film about a haunting really, almost surprisingly, works.

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Up next was another feature introduced by Brian Yuzna – this time a film he had produced: Dagon. Ahead of the introduction a sea-themed short from the director of last year’s short film winner Angst, Piss and Drid played, which was described as what would be the result of Ingmar Bergman made a straight-up horror film. Dagon itself is an interesting film concerning a town where all the people are changing into…something, based on a HP Lovecraft story. Yuzna’s Q+A afterwards was also intriguing as he was able to discuss his role as a producer and the importance of branding in film distribution.

Following this was the short film shortcase of festival favourites Astron-6. This was downright hilarious – Astron-6 are such an inventive group who really love their subject and are therefore the best people to parody them. My favourite of their shorts has to be Inferno of the Dead, which happily, you can watch for free on their website here. Their short trailers are the kind of things you would happily watch all the way through a festival. Kennedy, Brooks and Sweeny were also on hand to answer more questions.

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The next film was probably the one that I had the most reservations about – The ABCs of Death 2. The first one was problematic due to an overuse of toilets (even though T is for Toilet is genuinely great), Nazis and some incredibly lazy film-making from some big names. The second instalment, I’m pleased to report is a far better film, with a balance of the shocking and funny. At the moment I can’t recall any of the shorts I actively hated – whereas with the first I probably had half an arm full of letters I didn’t care for. A Q+A afterwards, including special guests The Soskas via Skype mentioned that each director had been sent a manifesto warning them off certain subjects. It seems that using the first film as an experiment has resulted in learning lessons and vastly improving the second, so much so that I’m excited for the third.

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The penultimate film was the secret film and while there was a buzz around several fairly high profile films it could have been the film was nothing I’d even heard of. Asmodexia at first, seemed an appealing film, an exorcism story which had yet to feature in the line up. However, it offers very little in terms of a story that is anything different to a million other exorcism films other than a twist in the tale that takes too long to reveal itself, leaving the film generic for far too long. As an aside, the majority of people said they’d guessed the twist before it was revealed, so they didn’t even have that enjoyment out of it…which is unfortunate. Still, great to see how many people were interested in seeing a secret film as the screening was pretty full.

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So we’ve arrived at the final film – the hotly anticipated Dead Snow 2: Red or Dead. From reports before the screening I’d heard that the sequel takes all of those crazy moments from the first film and turns them up to 11 and that is certainly accurate. Backstory and build is pushed aside for more gore and impressive set pieces but it remains well-paced and doesn’t rush to each piece. The cast are engaging, particularly the American group of zombie hunters who are perhaps too keen to journey to save the day – only realising how inept they are upon their arrival. In short, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and does exactly what anyone watching it wants which is all you can ask for.

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There you have it – my complete round up of Celluloid Screams 2014. If you’ve enjoyed this please check out more of my work, follow me on Twitter (@caitlynmdowns) and also check out my joint project with Hayley (of Hayley’s Horror Reviews), Ghostface Girls (moviepilot.com/ghostfacegirls), for podcasts, videos and articles. Thanks for reading!

Celluloid Screams Day Two

CSVSaturday at Celluloid Screams kicked off with a delightful short film by Andy Stewart that displays the effects of a relationship breakdown through a series of boils and other elements of bodily decay, which is, of course exactly what you want to see a short time after breakfast. In all seriousness, Split is a very moving short with some incredible effects that really garnered some groans from a seasoned festival crowd which is pretty impressive. This was followed by Australian character study Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla which is an engaging feature that could benefit from a little more bite throughout but ends on an ultimately tragic note and separates itself from being a straightforward film in which someone in a happy profession (ice cream man in this case) has a dark side unleashed upon the world. Initial descriptions of the film led me to believe that there would be far more in terms of the protagonist taking action against his aggressors, although it is a far better film for going down the longer route of a gradual descent into violent retribution. Glenn Maynard’s performance is a real stand-out and keeps the film ticking.

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Following this were two shorts – The Stomach and Tuck Me In, the latter of which is short film in the truest sense, coming in at around 30 seconds, if that. The Stomach is an unusual, gritty short which ultimately won best short film. It is far from my favourite, but the unique take on spirit mediumship at least marks it as something more interesting than anything more straightforward. Also worth mentioning an appearance of Neil Newbon in this – last seen being kicked under a train in pre-watershed Hollyoaks. Tuck Me In, based on limited sentence horror stories taken from creepypasta is too short to leave anything more of a lasting impression than reading it online and offers nothing new. I’ll leave out Starry Eyes in this overview, as I’ve already reviewed it here.

Next up were two more shorts, Mr Dentonn and Ghost Train ahead of What We Do In The Shadows. The former I would really love to say more about, but unfortunately an influx of latecomers taking their seats for the film prevented me from seeing the film or following any of its story, which is unfortunate. Thankfully by Ghost Train the audience had settled and I was able to enjoy an authentic ghost story about a traumatic childhood event that has led two brothers down very different paths. It is a moody, grey production that has a satisfying conclusion.

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The tone of Ghost Train could not have been more different from what was to follow, with Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s broad, crowd-pleasing vampire mockumentary hitting all the right notes in a dryly funny look at a group of vampires in a flat share. I’m really glad I’m getting to see this again at Abertoir as I’m sure there are jokes I’ve missed the first time around or little details that have slipped through. The film is a genuine joy to watch and proves that along with Housebound, New Zealand could be the home of more enjoyable, funny, horror films.

The last new film of the day was Spring, from the directors of Resolution, but before that there was a short called The Jigsaw, which was simple but effective in telling the story of a seemingly cursed jigsaw puzzle that would likely have legs as a feature. Moving on to Spring though – what a film! Directors Benson and Moorhead have crafted a dreamy, meandering love story with a backdrop steeped in their own original mythology that makes it impossible to see which direction it is heading in. A Q+A following the screening revealed the lengths that had been gone to in casting actors and locations in order to be both beautiful but ambiguous which really pays off in the finished product. I can’t recommend this film enough.

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Last up on Saturday night was a screening of Society – a 1980’s comment on corporate culture and societal hierarchy….or a film about the shunting….whichever way you care to look at it. This was proceeded by another Andy Stewart short – Ink, which for me, lacked the impact of Split, due to not really offering any explanation for what was happening. Still, the effects work is top notch. The Society screening was introduced by director Brian Yuzna, who was also on hand to participate in a Q+A session afterwards. Society is one of the films I’ve always heard about in terms of 80s horror and in many ways it stands up today, particularly with its themes of hierarchy. Hearing about what a potential sequel could contain was an interesting part of the Q+A, and would definitely be something I’d want to see.

There was more fun to be had at the all-nighter starting at midnight, but given a full Sunday was on the cards, it seemed like a better idea to retire to the hotel and take full advantage of the clocks moving back for more precious sleep.

Coherence

coherence

Coherence (2013)

Director: James Ward Byrkit

Writer: James Ward Byrkit

Starring: Emily Baldoni, Nicholas Brendon and Alex Manugian

Despite its completion in 2013, I’ve only recently been able to see Coherence as part of the Abertoir Horror Festival takeover in Chapter Arts Centre for Halloween and honestly, I’m surprised I’d not heard more about it before now. This is a clever, engaging film that succeeds because it doesn’t need to remind you how clever it is at every turn. Instead, it thrusts you into a dinner party situation that begins innocently and descends into secrets, lies and recurring vices.

Married couple Mike (Brendon) and Lee (Lorene Scarfaria) are throwing a dinner party for friends during a night in which a comet is predicted to pass. In addition to the comet, tensions within the group are high, given that one guest is bringing the ex-girlfriend of Kevin (Maury Sterling) as a date, much to the discomfort of Kevin’s current girlfriend Em (Emily Baldoni). As the comet passes however, the night takes a very different turn.

It is hard to qualify Coherence as a horror in a strict sense and it probably belongs more to the sci-fi side of things, but this is not to play down some genuinely unsettling moments within the film. The characters too are introduced initially as average, middle class types and it is only as the film continues that we are introduced to their darker sides, largely through the characters themselves admitting to, or inadvertently revealing them.

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The start of the film positions the viewer within a naturalistic setting – a slightly off-focus camera moving loosely around the kitchen and dining space creates a relaxed yet dynamic feel which really contributes to the believability of the scene. The crafting of these scenes and the way we drop in and out of the action and conversations creates a feeling of a passage of time, meaning we relax into the evening along with the characters, and equally are exposed to the tension when it arises.  The naturalistic setting also contrasts well when events take a turn for the strange.

At the start of this review I mentioned that it succeeds by being a clever film that doesn’t need to remind viewers how clever it is being. Aside from one (genuinely funny) casting in-joke, the film does little to offer a nod and a wink to break the tension along with the fourth wall, choosing instead to immerse its audience within the night. The cast too is wonderfully put together and is a true ensemble, with only one character emerging as a lead in the true sense rather late on in the film.

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Coherence is a very strong entry into either the horror or sci-fi genre, with its ending packing a punch more often seen in the climax of short films and leaves you wanting more, yet ends with the knowledge that it has done enough. There are also enough clever twists and developments that I would happily watch it again and again (if only to pick up on extra potential clues). Coherence is a film that demands your concentration, but rewards you heavily for it.

Find Coherence on twitter: @coherencemovie

Starry Eyes Review

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Starry Eyes (2014)

Directors: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer

Writers: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer

Starring: Alex Essoe

Sometimes the best thing you can do before seeing a film is read as little about it as possible and I’d say that is certainly the case for Starry Eyes, mainly because the film frequently defies an easy classification within any sub-genre. It is also exceptionally difficult to make a comparison such as Famous Film A meets Famous Film B. Instead, Starry Eyes repeatedly switches gears, ideas and often tones, often making it a fairly difficult film to stay on board with.

Sarah (Essoe) is a troubled, struggling actress who copes with her repeated disappointments by tearing chunks out of her hair – a behaviour she keeps private from those around her. However, after yet another failed audition she is found in the bathroom by a casting agent and asked to repeat her audition while incorporating her dark impulses. Further auditions follow, but they seem to be for a far darker role than Sarah first imagined.

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First off, the central performance by Alex Essoe is strong and probably one of the main reasons for sticking with the film to the end. Her initial fragile appearance allows for a powerful transition as the film progresses – she critiques her looks in the mirror and doesn’t really seem comfortable around her ‘friends’ who live around her who seemingly exist just to put her down. Essoe however takes the whole film’s progression into stride with a confident performance for a relative newcomer.

Secondly, the way the film is put together stylistically really works with a great soundtrack and some very effective lighting techniques. Where the film fell down for me is the numerous direction changes, meaning the film ceases to be one thing or another, but without a seamless enough blend to make it completely work as a solid piece. Given a more seamless transition between the different elements the film would be much stronger, but the balance is a difficult one.

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Overall, Starry Eyes is a film with plenty of ideas and ambition that will find an audience with people looking for something with some interesting twists and turns. However, I’d liken it to a patchwork piece in which there are several convincing and impressive pieces that perhaps don’t always work together as intended.

Starry Eyes is showing at the Abertoir Horror Festival on November 16th at 12pm.

Dark Endings

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Quick heads up – this article will be full of spoilers for the novel and both 1989 and 2012 film versions.

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The Woman in Black is probably one of the most famous horror novels out there and has even found its way onto GCSE courses and so is being steadily introduced to more and more people. Helped in no small way of course, by the monumental success of the rebooted Hammer Studio film in 2012 and the continuing legacy of the stage play. A perhaps lesser known, but much loved made-for-TV production was also brought to the screen in 1989, meaning that the story has been taken on in a variety of mediums.

Somewhat shamefully, I’d not read Susan Hill’s novel until…well, yesterday, but I really loved it and after a bit of research concerning the television version I’ve come to a conclusion. Screen just really doesn’t ‘get’ what the story is all about or how to come to a suitable ending for it. Whether the ending of the novel is too dark for producers to want to stick with (given the 2012 Woman in Black was most complained about to the BBFC regarding its 12A rating, this is probably fair) or whether they want a more spectacular climactic set piece there is always a crucial part left out and here is your first spoiler for everything: Jennet is not interested in killing whole families, yet at the end of both screen versions the whole of the Kipps/Kidds family is dead.

imagesThe reason this doesn’t work and loses sight of the core idea of the novel is that Jennet seeks revenge for her son being taken away from her and given to Alice Drabrow to care for, given that she comes from a far more respectable position within society. She is allowed some contact with her son, provided their connection is not revealed, but things take a turn for the worse when an accident occurs, resulting in the death of her son as she watches from the window of Eel Marsh House. Her malevolence is spurred on by this intense grief and she gradually seems to go mad, but also becomes increasingly ill with a condition that turns her face white and gaunt. This condition also ostracises her from the community and contributes to her death, which is somewhat poetically referred to as ‘heart failure’. Jennet does not seek to kill children because she wants children dead – she does it to tear families apart. Within the confines of the book her haunting of Arthur continues long past his departure from the house as she is able to isolate him by killing his wife and young son, leaving him to deal with the same grief that she endured and thus, continuing a cycle of grief and anger.

Now, I get that the ending of the book is pretty damn traumatic considering it concerns the violent death of a baby after it is thrown from a horse carriage, but surely there must be something between the schmaltzy family-reuniting Hammer version and the whole family dies via tree crushing as both remove that essential element of revenge, which is to have someone live within an unbearable situation. Death ends every part of that story until someone else has to go to Eel Marsh House and pretty soon people are going to avoid it completely so Jennet will have no more revenge. The strategic stripping of everything Arthur has is what continues to disturb his sleep even though he has never returned to the house or even seen the woman in person again. It is even highlighted to some degree in Spider’s close call in the marsh – an indication that Jennet is out to hurt anything that Arthur forms a bond with.

wib

I’ll come out in support of the screen versions in some ways though in that they elevate certain moments in the book. Here I’m mostly referencing the TV version where Jennet appears floating over Arthur’s bed during the night – in the book there’s maybe a sentence given over to him seeing the woman above him. On screen, the moment is turned into a genuinely unsettling, if slightly dated memorable moment. Hammer’s 2012 version too has a few good moments but is dragged down by increasingly loud scares as opposed to anything substantially creepy. However, they also shy away from venturing too far into Jennet’s physical illness that changes her appearance, which I’d consider to be a pretty important element of the story.

What I’d say is key here though in the treatment of the ghost story in film is that ghosts are often treated as lighter, softer fare and more suitable for a few generations to see together. As a result, it becomes increasingly unlikely that a genuinely tragic end can play out given that the 12A and even sometimes 15 shy away from downbeat endings. The lack of violence required in the telling of a ghost story tends to keep it at the lower end of the ratings system whereas things like demons, serial killers and other beasts end up being allowed endings where there is no hope and everything is destroyed. I’m not suggesting that every ghost story should have this level of tragedy at its close, but for The Woman in Black, it seems only right to retain the central point of revenge as a damaging and damning entity stronger than any ghost.

Thanks for reading! As always I’m on Twitter @caitlynmdowns