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The Strange Things Boutique




October 31 - November 4

Once again, it’s that time of year again, and the horror festival season is in full swing. My own personal favourite, and rapidly becoming one of the most popular in the country, Mayhem returned to its usual home of Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema for five days, starting out on Halloween and continuing until the end of the weekend.

Maniac Mayhem isn’t the biggest festival in terms of film numbers, though that is no bad thing – it restricts its screenings to non-working hours (for most people at least), meaning fewer titles than some festivals but with less likelihood of being forced to miss films due to daytime commitments, and this seems sensible to me. Some festivals seem to operate on an overkill level, and there’s room for that certainly, but a bit of breathing space is also good.

This year started the way last year ended – with live Ghost Story readings in the bar, a free event to ease into the festival proper. I think this worked better as a wind-down event after the festival to be honest, as putting it upfront meant that the event didn’t have a clear start (many people would not turn up until the next night), and as I commented last year, the ability to write a good story doesn’t always translate into the ability to read it aloud. The result was a mixed bag – some excellent readings, some lacklustre.

However, the night concluded with an extra film screening – the frankly astonishing remake (though that hardly sees a fair description) of Maniac. This film has been splitting audiences at festival screenings, with its first-person perspective, brutality and grim atmosphere being too much for some viewers. I was pretty much blown away by it. Light years ahead of the seedy original, the film is intense, overwhelming and its fairly unique production style does a great job of dragging the viewer in, making them a part of the crimes committed by Frank (Elijah Wood, giving a twitchy and convincing performance that involves him rarely being seen on screen). Willing to pull out of the production style when it needs to, Maniac is a remarkable work and a great festival opener.

SightseersDay two was the ‘official’ festival opening, with a pair of British horror comedies. This was actually a brave move on the part of Mayhem, as genre spoofs can easily backfire, but thankfully both films tonight were successful. The much-vaunted Sightseers came from Ben Wheatley, director of the equally lauded but ultimately rotten Kill List, but this time the hype was justified. It’s a broad, almost slapstick comedy about a couple of misfits on a caravan holiday who deal with people who ‘spoil’ their vacation by murdering them. The central performances were sharp, the dialogue witty (and sometimes crude enough to make your eyebrows raise at the 15 certificate) and the murders suitably brutal. Wheatley and co-writer/star Steve Oram were on hand after the film to do a Q&A (complete with tradition ‘eccentric’ audience members) and provide a sort of comedy double act.

Jon Wright’s Grabbers followed, and proved to be a fun, if lightweight, monster movie with a neat twist – set in a small Irish town invaded by aliens, it turns out that the only way to avoid being eaten is to remain drunk! With a cast of familiar TV names, decent monster effects and a good sense of fun, this was like a boozy Deadly Spawn, and hugely enjoyable. Director Wright was on hand to take question in the bar later, where the film’s theme of drinking was enthusiastically continued.

Friday opened with The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, a low budget British film that had much promise. I’d met star Ian Brooker in the bar a couple of days earlier and joked that if I didn’t like the movie, we’d never speak again. Sadly, we never did. I came into the film straight from a conversation bemoaning the rash of found-footage movies about paranormal investigators, and so was immediately distressed to see that format used here – admittedly more in the form of a fake documentary about ghost hunter Brewer as his carries out his investigations. But the film jumps from style to style – leaving the documentary look to suddenly take on a more conventional narrative before returning – and it just doesn’t work. Worse still, it’s dull – very dull. It’s a nice try, but goes nowhere very slowly.In the interests of full disclosure (after some criticism) I admit to leaving the cinema about 45 minutes into the film and not returning. Trusted colleagues who stuck it out assure me it didn't get better.

ChainedConsiderably better was Guinea Pigs, yet another Brit shocker, in which a collection of people signed up for drug trials find themselves having very adverse reactions. As some of the group become violent psychos, the rest try to escape the locked, isolated building and figure out what exactly is happening. Ian Clark’s film is slick, tense and impressively dark, making this one to definitely look out for.

Friday ended with a showing of Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States, allowing either for late night hallucinations or a chance to get an early night, depending on your taste. The next couple of days promised to be long.

Saturday opened with the traditional Mayhem slice of Japanese insanity, this time in the form of the demented Dead Sushi – just the sort of thing to deal with early morning hangovers. Things got considerably grimmer with Jennifer Lynch’s Chained, a quite brilliant trip into the heart of darkness as a young boy is kidnapped and brought up by serial killing psycho Vincent D’Onofrio. A festival highlight, this very dark, very disturbing film seemed to be traumatising someone in the audience behind me, who gasped and whimpered at every violent moment – which are brief but savage. Definitely one of the films of the festival.

A prior engagement forced me to miss the BAFTA Master class for forthcoming James Herbert TV series The Secret of Crickley Hall with writer/director Joe Ahearne. Audiences came out gushing about the first episode that was screened, so this looks like one to watch for (why it wasn’t shown over Halloween is something only BBC executives can explain).

RabiesRabies, billed as the first Israeli horror film (I guess Lemon Popsicle doesn’t count), was an interesting variation on the backwoods slasher film that is hard to describe without giving away various twists. Suffice to say that this is the story of several different people having a very bad time that’s to assorted misunderstandings and mistakes, and the title presumably refers to a collective madness that seems to infect everyone. There’s even a hint of the supernatural – that the place itself might be the cause of all this. It doesn’t entirely work – none of the characters are believable, and neither are the situations. But it’s done very stylishly, is often witty and has a nastily cynical streak running throughout. Why it is struggling for distribution is anyone’s guess.

The traditional Saturday evening collection of Scary Shorts came next, and were the usual mixed bag. For me, the highlights were Familiar, the deranged Ethereal Chrysalis, the gorgeous Loom and the short, sharp joke of The Line.

The night ended with V/H/S, a film I’d been eagerly anticipating. It turned out to be the most disappointing experience of the weekend, a horrible collection of headache inducing found footage and awful, awful jocks who don’t meet their end nearly soon enough. I hated the long set-up and the opening story so much that I was forced to flee the cinema. I was later assured that the first story was ‘one of the better ones’, so it sounds like I made the right choice. Maybe it works better on video.

ManborgSunday offered a more relaxed day, and opened with Manborg – a wise choice, as this turned out, unexpectedly, the be the festival highlight. Barely an hour long, Steven Kostanski’s film is a deranged 1980s video throwback that works where films like Hobo with a Shotgun failed, capturing the look, feel and fun of the trashier straight-to-video science fiction films of the era. Shot on a tiny budget, the film is witty, knowing and gleefully trashy, allowing its limitations to become strengths, and it has astonishing dialogue – including one of the best closing lines you’ll ever hear. Just the film to blow away the Saturday night cobwebs, it was greeting riotously by the audience. The perfect festival film (it’ll be interesting to see how it works when watched at home alone).

The afternoon was taken up wit the longer US cut of The Shining, an event much anticipated (and long sold out in advance). The Broadway and Mayhem had certainly gone to town on promoting this, with Shining-themed beer mats, Shelly Duv-Ale on tap at the bar, the number 237 on the toilet doors and other Shining-related décor throughout. Lots of people were very excited about this, but I wasn’t one of them. I’ve never loved The Shining the way some people began to in the late 1990s (I think initial critical assessments of the film were more accurate) and tended to agree with Kubrick that the shorter cut was the better one (this longer version is not as unseen in the UK as you might think – it’s the cut regularly shown by ITV). So the near-three hour movie gave a chance for myself and the chaps from FAB Press to slip out for a meal and a chat.

American Mary has been subject to some gushing hype since Frightfest, none of it related to the fact that it’s made by twin sisters who appear on stage wearing latex dresses and are apparently very hug-happy with primarily male bloggers I’m sure. I’d hated the Soska Sisters’ Dead Hooker in a Trunk with a vengeance, but was assured this was a massive improvement, and so it turned out to be – technically. The film looks slick and has an excellent central performance from Katherine Isabelle. It’s also a work from the same mindset - an insult to people into body modification and alternative sexuality, rape victims and sex workers. Had it been made by a man, it would be condemned as misogynistic, rather than being drooled over by the same people who complained about this year’s Frightfest being rape-centric. I hated the cynical attitude of the film, the fact that it runs out of what little story it has about 40 minutes in, the one-dimensional characters and the sheer vanity project nature of it (at one point, the directors turn up as characters who we are clearly supposed to think are the height of decadent sexual beauty). It was just horrible. But in the interests of fairness, I should say that my opinion of this film was very much a minority one.

Dead MineThankfully, there was more to come. After an hour long break for yours truly’s fiendishly difficult quiz - though not so difficult that the winning team couldn’t get a perfect score – the festival ended, appropriately, with Dead Mine, the new film from Mum and Dad director and Mayhem organiser Steven Sheil. A great way to close the event, the film is as far away from Sheil’s grim debut as you could imagine, being an action-packed tale of treasure hunters, war time experiments and undead Samurai warriors in Indonesia that proved to be a lively romp.

As ever, Mayhem wasn’t simply about the films. A festival succeeds on the audience, and the Mayhem audience is a great one. There was plenty of room for passionate debate and discussion over a few beers, where people could argue their case for or against the films (and of course, I reserve the right to change my mind about any of these films as they make their way to DVD). A grand few days out – roll on next year!




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