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Entries in Documentary (3)

Friday
Jun012018

BELGIUM'S HORROR MAESTROS FIND LOVE, FINALLY, IN DOCO LOVE-LETTER 

The horror auteurs of Belgium have often found favour with fans outside of their homeland. Director Harry Kümel's 1971 cult classic Daughters of Darkness is revered the world over; Emmanuel Kervyn’s 1988 gross-out shocker Rabid Grannies helped establish the Troma brand in the US. Yet the devoted filmmakers who have forged a dark, disturbing, occasionally brilliant Belgian horror sector are afforded little respect at home. With his documentary Forgotten Scares: An In-Depth Look at Flemish Horror Films, director Steve De Roover hopes to bring long overdue recognition to those whose visions of the macabre are rarely spoken of with the reverence they deserve…

“Horror has always been a genre that got extra piss poured over it,” De Roover delicately informs SCREEN-SPACE from his Skladanowsky Films office in Leuven, 30 kilometres east of Brussels. “You get a sense of absolute rebellion in many of the films and because a lot of them were made without proper funding, there is nothing which couldn't be shown. Typically, Flemish horror cinema has boatloads of nudity and everything nasty one could think up, just to piss off the establishment.” He cites Rob Van Eyck’s wildly successful Afterman trilogy (1985; 2005; 2013) as representative of his homeland’s approach to horror. “This ‘Mad Max from Belgium’ is full of typical Flemish activities of the old days like farming and hunting, but with a side of boobs, impalings, cannibalism and necrophilia.”

This determination to rattle the cages of conformity is central to Forgotten Scares, which takes as its starting point a claim from ill-informed journalists that Jonas Govaerts’ 2014 boy-scout/monster hit Welp (Cub; pictured, right) was “the first Flemish horror film”. De Roover exhaustively researched an industry that as far back as the mid 1970s was exploring cinema’s darkest, most challenging genre; films that existed in defiance of the nation’s cinema-going trends. Says De Roover, “I do think that this struggle [brought] a lot of extra creativity and an ever bigger drive to succeed.” De Roover admits to drawing inspiration from Australian director Mark Hartley's Ozploitation doc Not Quite Hollywood (2008), which covered a similarly undervalued Australian horror movement.

In an interview with The A.V. Club site, Baby Driver director Edgar Wright calls Daughters of Darkness, “a great movie, one [that] bridges the gap between the arty Roman Polanski or Ingmar Bergman horror movies, and the more campy, sexy vampire films of the time”. Its high brow vampiric eroticism is not often spoken of as 'classic' in its homeland, where it rarely screens. Kümel's masterpiece is given its due by De Roover, who calls it “an exercise in grandeur,” admitting, “It was the very first DVD I ordered online from the US.”

Also featured in Forgotten Scares is Kümel’s follow-up film Malpertuis (1971), starring Orson Welles, along with further works from Afterman auteur Van Eyck (Mirliton, 1978) and their contemporaries Guy Lee Thys (The Pencil Murders, 1982), the enigmatic Luc Veldeman (The Antwerp Murders, 1983), and Johan Vandewoestijne (Lucker, 1986).

The VHS boom years proved fertile ground for Flemish horror, says De Roover. “A lot of the popular films were made with the American market in mind, sometimes even as cheap copies of American cinema trends,” he says, citing The Antwerp Killer and Lucker (pictured, right) as Belgian entrants in the 80s ‘slasher pic’ craze. In addition to the insanity of Kervyn’s hilariously nightmarish Rabid Grannies (“I was in awe of the fun, bloody mayhem of that film,” says De Roover), this was also the era of Léon Paul de Bruyn’s tawdry splatter romp Maniac Nurses (1990) and his ultimately unrealized foray into Nazi-sploitation excess, SS Torture Hell. The documentary features previously unreleased footage from the set of the sado-masochistic epic, which ground to a halt when funding dried up.

Many of the sector’s most influential and revered genre personalities responded to the Forgotten Scares project, happy to step before the camera and recall half a century of Flemish horror inventiveness and artistry. In addition to Kümel, De Bruyn, Vandewoestijne, Govaerts and Van Eyck, De Roover secured the insight of actors Eric Feremans (The Antwerp Killer), Evelien Bosmans (Cub; pictured, below, with De Roovers) and Sven De Ridder (The Flemish Vampire, 2007); director Jeroen Dumoulein (short film De Vijver, 2014); and, the opinionated industry figurehead Jan Verheyen, director of Alias (2002).

De Roover acknowledges that in recent years Belgian horror has edged dangerously close to arthouse, even mainstream acceptance. Pieter Van Hees’ 2008 Antwerp-set chiller Linkeroever (Left Bank), starring Eline Kuppens and Matthias Schoenarts, tackled social commentary within its genre parameters; The Hollywood Reporter compared it to Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man and J-horror classic Dark Water. “Left Bank shows the bleakness of some of the lower-class neighbourhoods in Flanders,” says De Roover, who considers the award-winning a step towards the mainstreaming of Belgian genre cinema. “We have only been finding our own identity in cinema over the last couple of years. It took years to earn respect for our complete cinema output and to be taken seriously [by Belgian media],” he says. Veteran horror helmer Johan Vandewoestijne continues to produce quality work, including the black horror/comedy Todeloo (2014) and the serial killer romp Laundry Man (2016).

One of the many unforgettable sequences in Forgotten Scares: An In-Depth Look at Flemish Horror Films concerns the 2013 vision The Miracle of Life from directors Joël Rabijns and Yves Sondermeier, a mother/son drama that US distributor Troma thought would work better under the title The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta. With Steve De Roover flying the tri-coloured flag of his nation’s horror directors, the glorious madness of such flagrant Flemish film excesses as Rabid Grannies and Maniac Nurses will live forever.

FORGOTTEN SCARES: AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT FLEMISH HORROR FILMS is currently playing the film festival circuit. It can be pre-ordered on DVD from Zeno Pictures.

Friday
Sep152017

SITGES BOUND DOC HONOURS CANADA'S HORROR FILM FOREFATHERS

While Carpenter, Romero and Craven were crafting new wave horror works in the U.S., Canada was forging its own bloody and brave breed of genre storytellers. In director Xavier Mendik’s documentary Tax Shelter Terrors, set to screen at the prestigious Sitges Film Festival in October, some of the most influential names in Canadian film culture are finally being given their due; men who recognised that the rebellious counterculture influencers of the day would respond to bold, frightening film visions. Bolstered by healthy production sector tax initiatives (hence the film’s title), they would shape the ‘Canux-ploitation’ horror era that would become synonymous with a golden period in genre cinema….

André Link and John Dunning (Founders of Cinépix Inc.)

Hungarian André Link immigrated to Canada in 1954, joining the sales department for International Film Distribution (IFD). Earning a reputation for his savvy business acumen, he broke from IFD and, with John Dunning founded Cinépix Inc. The fearless pair embraced the movement known as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, releasing a slate of risqué films in defiance of the conservative agenda forged by the Catholic Church and the Duplessis government; Cinépix titles included the works of Denis Heroux’s (Valérie, 1968; L’initiation, 1970; L’amour humain, 1970) and John Sone’s films, Love in a Four Letter Word (1970) and Loving and Laughing (1971). With a young production executive called Ivan Reitman at their side, Link and Dunning executive produced David Cronenberg’s early horror classics Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). While Link worked the books, Dunning found the talent; their collaborations would include Reitman’s hit directorial debut, Meatballs (1979), George Mihalka’s slasher classic My Bloody Valentine (1981), veteran director J. Lee Thompson’s horror entry, Happy Birthday To Me (1981) and Lamont Johnson’s 3D sci-fi adventure Spacehunter: Adventures in The Forbidden Zone (1983). (Pictured, above; Dunning, left, and Link)

Pierre David (Producer)

Pierre David’s early productions spanned genres, from documentary (A Child Like Any Other, 1972) and kitchen sink drama (Les colombes, 1972) to broad comedy (J’ai mon voyage, 1973) and prestige pic (Je t’aime, 1974, with the late Jeanne Moreau). He recognised the young David Cronenberg as a rare talent, backing his breakout hits The Brood (1979; trailer, above), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983). With the home vid sector providing a hunger for genre product, David exhibited a commitment to stylishly executed horror works, including two from director Jean-Claude Lord, the hospital horror cult classic Visiting Hours (1982) and sci-fi/horror of The Vindicator (1986); George Pan Cosmatos’ paranoid infestation thriller Of Unknown Origin (1983), with Peter Weller; Sandor Stern’s body-horror shocker Pin (1988); and, VHS hit The Dentist (1996) and its sequel (1998), from horror icon Brian Yuzna. His two diversions into feature directing were the instinctively commercial B-movie shockers, Scanner Cop (1994) and Serial Killer (1995).

William Fruet (Director)

Born in Alberta, William Fruet (pictured, right) is a writer/director whose first script, director Donald Shebib’s wilderness-set buddy film Goin’ Down the Road won Best Film at the 1970 Canadian Film Awards. He parlayed industry buzz into his directorial debut, Wedding in White (1972), a searing rape drama adapted from his own play that would win Best Picture at the 1973 Canadian Film Awards. He re-examined sexual assault in his follow-up film, the revenge-themed shocker Death Weekend (1976; aka The House by The Lake), starring Brenda Vaccaro as the rape survivor who wreaks vengeance on her attackers; the film would win Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Sitges 1976. Fruet would carve out a career of memorable Canadian genre works, including Search and Destroy (1979), the Genie-nominated Funeral Home (1980, aka Cries in The Night), the hillbilly horror of Baker County USA (1982, with Henry Silva) and the monster-snake creature feature, Spasms (1983, with Peter Fonda and Oliver Reed); one his most popular works was Killer Party (1986), one of the Canadian sector’s better entries in the ‘sorority slasher’ genre of the day.

George Mihalka (Director)

With only one feature credit to his name (the ribald 1980 teen romp, Pick-up Summer), Hungarian-born George Mihalka was 26 when he was offered a derivative ‘Friday the 13th’-style script by first-time feature writer John Beaird called My Bloody Valentine (trailer, below). Genre house Cinepix recognised a keen horror voice in Mihalka, who delivered a lean, mean slasher thriller that became one of the production company's most profitable properties; Paramount picked it up for US distribution and turned it into the sleeper hit in February ‘81. Mihalka followed …Valentine with the adult comedy Scandale (1982), returning to serial killer territory with Eternal Evil (1985) and a stream of commercial pics in both English and French (Hostile Takeover, 1988; Le chemin de Damas, 1988; The Psychic, 1991). His 1993 satire La Florida earned 8 Genie nominations, winning the Golden Reel award for the highest-grossing Canadian film of the year. His most prestigious work to date was as helmer of the 1995 adaptation of the Len Deighton thriller, Bullet to Beijing, an international co-production starring Michael Caine, Michael Gambon and Mia Sara.

Steven Hoban (Producer)

At the forefront of a new generation of Canadian genre talents, producer Steve Hoban learnt his craft on a series of well-received shorts before bursting into features with director John Fawcett’s critical and commercial hit, Ginger Snaps. Starring Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as teenagers coping with the onset of lycanthropy, the film scored three Genie nominations, became a legitimate cult hit (it has spawned two sequels) and has been lauded as a rare and insightful genre work that deals with female-centric issues. His close ties with director Vincenzo Natali were forged on the 1996 short Elevated and led to their collaboration on Nothing (2003), Splice (2009), Haunter (2013) and the 2013 television series, Darknet (produced by Hoban's production shingle, Copperheart Entertainment). Hoban tipped his hat to the great Canadian horror films of the 70s when he produced the 2006 remake of Bob Clark’s landmark shocker, Black Christmas. In 2015, Hoban stepped into the director’s chair, helming a segment of his own horror anthology production, A Christmas Horror Story. (Pictured, above; Hoban, left, on the set of A Christmas Horror Story) 

SCREEN-SPACE acknowledges and thanks producer Deke Richards for his contributions to this article.

Xavier Mendik's TAX SHELTER TERRORS screens October 12 as a work-in-progress at the 2017 SITGES Film Festival, October 5-15. Session and ticketing details can be found at the event's official website.

Sunday
Aug132017

SPOOKERS: THE FLORIAN HABICHT INTERVIEW

Florian Habicht is a truly idiosyncratic, determinedly personal filmmaker. Florian settled into the Auckland art scene after his family immigrated to New Zealand from Germany in the 1980s. His films have run the gamut from magical realism (Woodenhead, 2003) to edgy romance (Love Story, 2011); his documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014) captured the return of the iconic band to their hometown. His latest film is Spookers, an unexpectedly moving (and, yes, occasionally terrifying) study of the folks who provide the frights at the New Zealand ‘scare park’, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

As his film continues its global rollout after festival slots in Sydney, Canada’s Hot Docs and Auckland, Florian Habicht spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his latest walk on the weird side… 

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the Spookers project come to you? How did you determine this was to be your next film?

HABICHT: I was really determined not to make Spookers (laughs). Suzanne (Walker, producer) from Madman Entertainment dreamt up the idea. I got a phone call from them with the pitch, because they wanted to make the film with a New Zealand director. I was in the middle of writing a drama that I was, and am, really passionate about and I was coming off making a lot of docos. So I went to Spookers with a camera to do a few test shots, hoping that I wouldn’t like it and it would be easy to say no. But once there, I just fell in love with the place and especially the performers. I immediately realised that the building where it all takes place was an old psychiatric hospital. When you drive onto the grounds, there is an epic, very intense sensation, a bit like The Shining.

SCREEN-SPACE: Are you a fan of horror, in any form?

HABICHT: Oh God, no. The exact opposite! I’d never been to Spookers, never decided to make that trip, because I knew I’d just be too scared. But I knew it would be a great setting for a film. When I finally did do the tour, I had a video camera in my hand. Now, I went paragliding with a camera in my hand once and everything was totally sweet, but the thought of paragliding without a camera…just, no way. It was the same when I went through Spookers.

SCREEN-SPACE: Given that it is set in Kingseat, an old and abandoned asylum with its own dark past, were you at all conscious of how you depict the link between violence and mental health?

HABICHT: I went to a great café in Auckland called Hallelujah, which no longer exists, and I saw a young woman reading a book on mental health. I decided to talk with her, mostly because the cover of the book looked so cool, and it turned out she was studying to be a nurse and her mental health professor had been at Kingseat. That was Deborah, one of those featured in the film, and we are good friends now. Many of the people who had been at Kinsey were not really into talking about that experience on camera, but Deborah was very open. I don’t believe you could make a film about Spookers and not make it about mental health.  

SCREEN-SPACE: Did the owners Beth and Andy (pictured, right) trust you to represent them and their business positively? Did they have much say in how their story is told?

HABICHT: I had a sense that Andy was a bit suspicious about what we were up to. Beth and I had a nice connection right from the start, which provided a few sparks in our interviews. They were both incredibly generous with their time and understanding, helping the crew over the shoot, which amounted to 30 days over the course of a year. The long shoot allowed the story to evolve as we edited, which is why (editors) Peter O’Donoghue and Veronica Gleeson are credited as writers, because we shaped the doco’s narrative in the editing.  What was funny was that to get the funding we had to pretend that we knew what the film was going to be about. So we wrote a treatment that I knew was definitely not going to be the film. I probably shouldn’t say that (laughs), but that’s what you’ve got to do to complete a funding application. So there was that film, then there was the film that formed by going out there and experiencing the Spookers world.

SCREEN-SPACE: It is an inspired decision to intersperse the real-world narrative with the dream sequences of those at the centre of the Spookers story…

HABICHT: I held workshops with the eight performers. I took my hat off, placed it in the middle of the room, and just kept asking them all sorts of questions that they anonymously supplied answers to by dropping bits of paper in my hat. Questions like, ‘The last thing that broke your heart’ or ‘The last thing that made you cry’ or ‘What you had for breakfast.’ It was just to get to know them more. And a lot of the responses concerned their dreams, which I knew had to make up a part of any film that was going to tell their stories. Which then led to them taking their self-taught acting skills, the skills they use everyday at Spookers, to another level on-screen. That was really cool for them.

SPOOKERS will be released in Australian cinemas on September 14; New Zealand and international release dates to be confirmed.