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Friday
Jun082012

FREAK ME OUT AT SFF 2012

The Sydney Film Festival’s resident ghoul Richard Kuipers, curator of this year’s Freak Me Out horror movie strand, has programmed six cutting-edge works from diverse corners of the globe – the US, UK, France and Japan (as well as shorts from Australia and Spain). We take a look at what to expect from the world’s most warped visionaries.

HAROLD’S GOING STIFF

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Wed 6 Jun 8.30pm; Wed 13 Jun 8.15pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Fashioned in the style of a BBC regional documentary about a sensitive local health issue, Keith Wright's very funny and surprisingly touching tale investigates 'Onset Rigors Disease', a mystery illness turning men in the north of England into something resembling bloodthirsty ghouls. Complete with a hilariously inept vigilante squad of gormless gits whose members are more brain-dead than the monsters they're hunting, Harold's Going Stiff is a truly original horror gem.
What the critics say.... – “Harold’s Going Stiff plays out the anxiety surrounding ageing in a bittersweet, engaging story, as embodied by professional actors and non-actors who really make you care about their characters.” Keri O’Shea, Brutal as Hell.

KILLER JOE

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Thur 7 Jun 9.00pm; Thur 14 Jun 9.10pm.

What the SFF Program says....- Veteran director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) gets down and very dirty with this juicy crime noir. Sleazy, salacious, darkly comic and with jaw-dropping scenes of conduct unbecoming even the low-lifes depicted here, Killer Joe is killer stuff.
What the critics say.... – “The William Friedkin of The French Connection and The Exorcist may be but a distant memory, but Killer Joe proves that at 76 the Academy Award-winning director is certainly no back number.” Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter.

LIVID

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Fri 8 Jun, 8.45pm; Fri 15 Jun 8.30pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Vampire ballerinas and some particularly nasty ghosts run amok in this scary and visually stylish slice of gothic horror. Filmmaking duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo weave a tingly atmosphere of dread around Lucie, a young homecare nurse whose decrepit and apparently comatose patient is said to have hidden a fortune somewhere in her creepy old mansion. Evoking the classy Euro horrors of past masters Mario Bava and Jean Rollin while dishing up a very modern helping of carnage,  Livid is primed to please gorehounds and arthouse buffs alike.
What the critics say....- “LIVID feels poetic and entirely drenched in the nightmare logic of more stylistically-concerned foreign horror. It’s exciting and enthralling, and showcases some of the best imagery, production design and art direction you’re likely to see this year.” Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria.

OK, GOOD

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Sat 9 Jun 9.00pm; Sat 16 Jun 9.15pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Director and co-writer Daniel Martinico constructs a riveting and suspenseful portrait of a performer whose growing inability to communicate in situations where there's no script is turning him into a ticking time bomb of inner rage. With a powerhouse central performance from actor and co-writer Hugo Armstrong, this slow-burn portrait of isolation and alienation achieves maximum results from its minimalist structure.
What the critics say....- “Through the slow, steady accumulation of seemingly random but increasingly portentous details, helmer Daniel Martinico fashions a riveting portrait of an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown -- or, quite possibly, something worse.” Joe Leydon, Variety.

EXCISION (pictured, above)

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Sun 10 Jun 9.00pm; Tue 12 Jun 8.30pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Psychodrama, melodrama and surreal shock-horror collide memorably in the story of Pauline, a very bright and very disturbed high school student who isn't kidding when she says, "I have borderline personality disorder." AnnaLynne McCord (pictured, left) is a knockout in the lead, and Traci Lords proves yet again she's the finest actress ever to emerge from adult films with her spot-on performance as Pauline's stitched-up mother. Look for Malcolm McDowell as a teacher and cult film kingpin John Waters as a church minister (!) on a hopeless mission to help this most difficult of young parishioners.
What the critics say....- “Ms. McCord's consistently unhinged performance...makes Excision so much offbeat, creepy, challenging fun.” Scott Weinberg, FEAR.net.

THE WARPED FOREST

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Mon 11 Jun 9.00pm; Sun 17 Jun 9.30pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Dreamt up by Japanese cult figure Shunichiro Miki (Funky Forest: The First Contact) this beautifully designed and photographed exercise in unrestrained imagination is frequently hilarious, sometimes grotesque and constantly compelling in the very strangest and most delightful of ways. Highly unlikely to ever pop up in multiplexes, but is sure to linger long in the memory of anyone willing to approach its wonderfully eccentric charms.
What the critics say....- “This one-of-a-kind pic makes no apparent sense, but is compelling in the strangest of ways.” Richard Kuipers, Variety.

Tuesday
May222012

CANNES CRITICS MAUL DARIO'S DRACULA

The Croisette ran red with the blood of Argento's Bram Stoker redux, so cutting were the critics reactions.

The latest opus from horror legend Dario Argento was met with jeers and walkouts at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Revered for his horror classics Suspiria, Deep Red, Inferno, Phenomena and Tenebrae, the Italian ‘Maestro of the Macabre’ has spent the last 36 hours on the media merry-go-round, fielding questions regarding the dismal response to his latest work, Dracula 3D.

A lurid adaptation of Bram Stoker’s literary classic shot in the rich reds and blacks for which the director is famous, Argento corralled a cast that includes Rutger Hauer as vampire-hunter Van Helsing, the director’s daughter, screen siren Asia Argento (left, with her father at the Cannes premiere), as Lucy and respected German actor Thomas Kretschmann (Below, clowning with his director) as The Count. Shot in ‘Stereoscopic 3D’, the grand production is a French/Spanish/Italian co-production budgeted at Euro5,000,000.

In the film’s festival press-kit, Argento somewhat abstractly states “I was very faithful to the story, but not to the character of Dracula as we’ve come to know him all these years. In fact, I added many aspects to his personality from my imaginary world.”

The internet was buzzing with negative feedback to the trailer, but any work from the Giallo master is keenly anticipated and the film had been afforded the first Midnight Screening slot at the 2012 event – a prestige placement reserved for significant genre works.

But it was soon clear that Argento’s latest was far from his best. In one of the first reviews published, David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter called it “risible gothic trash.” Observing that Argento was “a director stuck in stylistic gridlock for well over a decade now”, Rooney went on to observe that Kretschmann “heads an old-school Europudding cast – an orgy of different acting styles, poorly post-synched into stiff English” and that “the 3D serves mainly to make the whole sad, cadaverous enterprise more ludicrous.”

Soon, the wave of negative opinion in the wake of the screening surfaced. The horror-friendly site Film School Rejects was gentler than some, saying “In short, it’s shit, but that doesn’t mean people won’t still love it;” Chris Haydon of Filmoria.com said it was one of “the most boneheaded, preposterous and inane versions of the story I’ve ever seen;”

Movie.com’s Eric D. Snider was amused, suggesting the film would be “laughable if it were the first film by a Hollywood producer's nephew.” But he soon sharpened his critical claws, stating “As the twenty-first feature by a 71-year-old genre veteran, it's embarrassing.”

Dracula 3D’s theatrical fate remains uncertain. So fiercely underwhelming was the response from the Cannes media, it is unlikely the film will travel into foreign cinemas. That is an pricey predicament for the producers of the relatively expensive film and particularly dire given the full effect of the 3D technology will be lost as a home video item.  

Tuesday
May082012

DIRECTOR JAMES ISAAC PASSES AWAY

At age 51, director and renowned special effects technician James Isaac has passed away, finally succumbing to corporeal cancer.

(Pictured, Isaac, left in red, with Pig Hunt producer Robert Mailer Anderson)

Only 20 when hired by the Return of the Jedi production team as creature technician (he was integral to the scenes aboard Jabba the Hutt’s barge), Isaac quickly established a reputation as one of the most talented visual effects men in the business, especially in the pre-CGI realm of creature design. Under the mentorship of the great Chris Walas, Isaac’s talent would be utilised on such films as Gremlins, Enemy Mine, Deepstar Six, House II and Virtuosity.

Isaac would work closely with the man he credits as his inspiration, David Cronenberg, on The Fly, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. Overnight, Cronenberg told genre bible Fangoria magazine, “Jim and I became very close friends collaborating on my movies, starting with THE FLY in 1985 and ending with his directing me in JASON X in 2000. He was funny, friendly, insightful, inventive and a great comrade-in-arms. It’s hard to believe we won’t get to play together again.”

Isaac was thrust into directing when he replaced David Blyth on the troubled production The Horror Show (aka House III), but it would be 12 more years before he would take full duties on his best known work, Jason X. Staying within the horror genre, he would helm only two more films - the cult werewolf tale Skinwalkers and what would be his final film, the wild-boar thriller Pig Hunt (“Fans tired of rote remakes and ripoffs will appreciate the pic's idiosyncrasy,” said Variety).

Isaac is survived by a wife and young family. Due to ongoing treatment for his disease, no projects were listed as in-development.   

Sunday
May062012

BRAZIL'S DENIZENS OF THE DARK IN GORY HEAVEN.

Australia’s latest genre sensation, Paul China’s Crawl, continues its Festival-conquering run with a prized slot in Fantaspoa 2012, currently unfolding in Porto Alegre in the country's south and running until May 20.


This 8th edition of the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantastico will feature 5 international premieres amongst the 87 full-length works programmed for horror and fantasy fans. A total of 150 films will screen over the 17 days of the Festival, with opening night honours going to Paulo Biscaia Filho’s Nervo Craniano Zero; closing the event will be Todd E Freeman’s Cell Count.

Career achievement honours will be bestowed upon two of horror cinema’s most iconic filmmakers - Stuart Gordon, who will introduce a vast retrospective of his films, including the Australian-shot 1992 sci-fier Fortress and such classics as Re-Animator, Dolls, Dagon, Castle Freak, The Pit and The Pendulum, Robot Jox and From Beyond; and, David Schmoeller, whose cult-favourites Tourist Trap, Netherworld, Crawlspace, Space Truckers and Catacombs will screen in advance of his first work in 14 years, the already controversial Little Monsters.

Sidebar events will feature the cinema of the undead in the appropriately-titled Zombie Apocalypse, a competitive strand with eight films including Bing Bailey’s Irish entrant Portrait of a Zombie, genre favourite Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) in Casey Walker’s zom-com A Little Bit Zombies and Brandon Relucio & Ivan Zaldarriaga’s Phillipino-set Di Ingon ‘Nato. Also highlighted are the works of women directors in the horror and fantasy field, with a screening of Donna Davies documentary Pretty Bloody, Faye Jackson’s vampire-drama Strigoi and shorts by Bobbie Peers, Elisa Maria Dantas, Alicia Conway and Helge Balze.

Some titles have already screened for Australian audiences, amongst them Tom Six’s Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), John Geddes’ Exit Humanity (pictured, above) and Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Israeli thriller Rabies. SCREEN-SPACE has cast an eye over the rest of the 2012 feature line-up and profile five films that immediately grabbed our attention. Also, follow the links to our reviews of two of the Festival's most anticipated titles - The Manetti Brother's sci-fi drama The Arrival of Wang and Evan Kelly's claustrophibic thriller The Corridor.

1. THALE (Dir: Aleksander Nordaas / Norway)
The Norwegian film industry follows its 2010 horror hit The Troll Hunter with another reworking of its folkloric past. In Thale, the legend of the Huldra – a woodland siren who lures travellers to their death with her seductive song – is explored in a contemporary context. “Thale is a rare thing, at times haunting, atmospheric, hilarious, violent and wholly beautiful,” said Badass Digest after the film’s recent SXSW showing


2. MASKS (Dir: Andreas Marschall / Germany)
Already drawing comparisons to the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Marschall’s creepy-old-estate horror film offers countless nods to the Euro-horror/Giallo classics of the genres heyday. “Masks knows what makes a giallo tick and gets the look, sound and overall feel of the genre spot on.” – Blue Print Reviews after the film’s UK premiere at Celluloid Screams, October 2011. 


3. 22nd OF MAY (Dir: Koen Mortier / Belgium)
A dreamlike study of the guilt one man experiences after having survived a shopping mall bomb attack. Has divided critics and audiences (Twitch’s Todd Brown called it, “A sort of dark cousin to Wings of Desire era Wim Wenders, a film in which the line between the physical and the spiritual are blurred to the point that they become meaningless.” Mortier last directed the ultra-confronting Ex Drummer, so his follow-up is a must-see.


4. HAPPILY NEVER AFTER (Dir: Jamie Heinrich / USA)
Led by Jason Carrougher’s edgy, ‘what’s he-up-to?’ performance, this lean (78 minutes), slightly mean, ultra-black comedy-of-sorts gives nothing away in its trailer but builds tension and intrigue. Heinrich’s barely-seen debut I Like You was raw, funny and truthful; Happily Never After looks same.


5. INVASION OF ALIEN BIKINI (Dir: Young-doo Oh / Korea)
Well, there’s the title for starters. Young-doo Oh’s warped sci-fi/skin-flick/comedy has found (some might say, surprising) favour amongst festival programmers. Described as ‘appealingly wacky’ and ‘nonsensically charming’, it may just be what the blood-splattered hordes at Fantasporia need to unwind.


Saturday
Apr212012

HERZOG'S SHORT FEATURE A TALL, TWISTED TALE

Thirty-five years since it premiered, the German auteur's most challenging work continues to cause debate.

 

Filmed in 1968 by 26 year-old Werner Herzog, Even Dwarfs Started Small remained unreleased for two years. Over that period, rumours circulated as to the nature of Herzog’s bizarre project – was it a political allegory, borne out of the decade’s anti-establishment movement? A statement condemning the futility of counter-culture angst? Or, as many feared, an exploitative ‘freak-show’, masquerading as intellectualism?

By the time it premiered at Cannes in May 1970, the German auteur was prepared for the criticism – having shot an all-dwarf cast and utilised an impenetrably abstract narrative to tell the story of a patient revolt within a mental-health sanitarium, the opinions of the world’s film community must not have seemed particularly daunting. To this day, its merits and worthiness are hotly-debated (in his column dated September 17, 1970, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “meaningless” and the work of a “perverse, uninvolved intelligence”; more recently, Box Office Magazine’s Wade Major said, “Truly one of the most bizarre and hilariously disturbing freakshows ever executed by a major director.”) 

In his homeland, the nihilistic bleakness was too much for many critics who denounced the film, stating any work that suggests a futility in revolutionary fervour must be the work of a fascist sympathiser. In Paul Cronin’s 2003 book, Herzog on Herzog, the director counters with, “I told these agitators that the film had absolutely nothing to do with the 1968 movements, that they were blinded by zealousness.” The film was banned in Germany for being “anarchistic and blasphemous”, according to Herzog; it is often compared to Tod Browning’s 1932 circus-sideshow melodrama, Freaks, which utilised real-life sufferers of profound physical deformities and which also found no favour upon release (Herzog considers Browning’s landmark work "one of the greatest films ever made.")

Herzog conceived and wrote the story after a vivid dream he had whilst touring Africa; his vision was of an island uprising, led by the smallest dwarf against the rulers of the tribe. Herzog had suffered through an arduous shoot for the documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa and struggled to capture exteriors for his feature Fata Morgana; upon arriving in the Canary Islands to commence production of Even Dwarfs Started Small, he was already a spent force. “I was full of bitterness, affected by sickness,” Herzog recalls, ”and the film became a more radical film than I had originally planned.”

Of the many aspects of the film that appear ‘radical’ to modern audiences, the unsympathetic portrayal of dwarves will be the most confronting. Having been victimised during their incarceration at the hospital, their revolt and subsequent freedom is fuelled by rage – at the Director of the institution and the tools he has used to contain them; at Mother Nature’s cruelty (other creations of nature, such as animals and plants, become the targets of their rampage); and, finally, at each other. Their anarchy descends into self-destruction and madness - blind dwarves are taunted and attacked; female inmates are coerced into a forced sex act; one dwarf tumbles from the roof of a moving vehicle; a group cackle through the mock crucifixion of a monkey. "Dreams and nightmares do not follow the rules of political correctness," says Herzog. 

Adhering to the merest of narrative conventions (the film is framed as a flashback, but that is about as linear as the storytelling gets), much speculation has arisen as to the meaning of the increasingly sad series of disturbing images that comprise Herzog’s film. In a detailed dissection of Even Dwarfs Started Small on the Cinemania website, one scholar flippantly describes the film’s visual style as that of a “Ringling Brothers-on-bad-acid production of Lord Of The Flies” and grandly states, “This is a nightmare from the depths of the unconscious, a too-vivid vision...complete with absurdist normalcy based on the sheer recurring presence of otherwise freakishness (sic).” Counter claims by some analysts suggest the film is structured as and reflective of absurdist comedy; that comparisons to the dark-hearted classics of Kafka and Beckett often ignore the fact that their most famous works (respectively, Metamorphosis and Waiting for Godot) were comedies. Herzog himself may be hinting towards that interpretation with his now-famous final image – the film’s central character, Hombre (Helmut Döring), erupting into a fit of maniacal laughter, then coughing uncontrollably, then laughing some more, as a lame camel defecates.

Most importantly, one feels compelled to ask whether Herzog exploited the dwarf actors in any way. "The dwarves in the film are not freaks, but well proportioned, charming, and beautiful people," Herzog states, speaking specifically to his use and portrayal of their physicality. But author David Church, in his 2005 study ‘Examining the Role of Disability in Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small’ suggests that exploitation takes many forms. “Filmmakers who use disability as a metaphor are not actually portraying the lives of disabled people; the film was not made for a short-statured audience,” opines Church. “The common use of disabled bodies as a vehicle for speaking specifically to the concerns of an able-bodied audience serves to deny the individual concerns and struggles of persons with disabilities.”

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