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Festival Dispatch | Germany’s Genre-Defying Fantasy FilmFest Challenges, Stumps

Festival Dispatch | Germany's Genre-Defying Fantasy FilmFest Challenges, Stumps

Founded in Berlin, but now extending across all of Germany, with screenings in five other cities from Hamburg to Munich, the Fantasy FilmFest has outgrown not only its geographic origins, but also the inbuilt limits of its own title. Far from the typical fanboy event its name suggests, the selection actually detours into a number of interesting by-ways: Euro policiers (“Sphinx”, “Dossier K”), HK martial arts flicks (“Gallants”, “Ip Man 2”), satires (“Four Lions”), and so on. As a result, it has for the past few years been by some margin the best-programmed festival in Berlin – and yes, that includes the Berlinale. It’s adventurous, playful: where else, after all, would you find both ‘The Human Centipede” alongside Jac Schaeffer’s winsome rom-com, “TiMER”?

Still, one does get tired, rather quickly, of the knowing, seen-it-all-before chuckle of the horror cognoscenti (“Ah, yes. Decapitation by antique Persian serving platter . . . very droll.”). And their standards are a little skewed: I still remember, in Edinburgh, a woman urgently recommending I see a slasher flick, because it was “just so unbelievably cruel” – a quality that seemed, for some reason, to delight her. It gave me pause then, and still does. Wasn’t the world cruel enough? Not for us, perhaps, in our sharp suits and nice, First World homes, fitting in a cruel movie between dinner and the pub – but for most of its inhabitants? Was cruelty really a virtue sufficient unto itself?

“Backyard,” then, represented a particular challenge. How would a festival audience that had for days been applauding random acts of malice, respond to a sober procedural about a real-life atrocity: the torture and murder of over 400 women in Mexico’s infamous Ciudad Juárez? Serial killers are thrilling figures, at least until the reality sets in – the torn genitals, the teeth punched out, the blood-blistered, putrefying flesh – and to director Carlos Carerra’s credit, he didn’t flinch from showing us the human cost of our pleasures and did so matter-of-factly and without sensationalism.

The film was over-long, and a little flabby in its final act; there was a sense that the urgency was leaking away, as its makers flailed for the kind of just conclusion that has, to date, eluded the actual authorities. But its sense of outrage was strong, and the audience filed out more quietly than at most screenings. Reminded, perhaps, that our appetite for destruction made us complicit – even at a distance, even without necessarily wanting to be, or thinking we were – in something larger than ourselves, events that we elect mostly to ignore.

I have a friend who adores gialli, though he admits that they’re mostly rubbish. For every “Bird With Crystal Plumage” (Argento, 1970), or “Short Night of the Glass Dolls” (Lado, 1971), or “Footsteps on the Moon” (Bazzoni, 1975 – and a real treat, if you can find it), there are dozens of perfunctory blood-and-tits shockers, ranging from unremarkable to actively bad. But at their best, they evoked something – not least, the sense of a profoundly conservative nation coming to terms with its own darkest impulses, the corruption that would soon consume both its government, its business community, and its clergy. Which is to say: they were Italian films, made in and of Italy in the 1960s and 70s.

So what to make of “Amer,” a Franco-Belgian homage arriving some thirty years after the fact? Its first fifteen minutes was basically just rapid cuts of doors opening and closing, and extreme close-ups of eyes staring – through keyholes, in mirrors, or simply vacantly, into space. Affected to an almost cherishable degree, it was the kind of film where a woman walking a five-meter length of hallway took up about a full minute of screen time, since we were shown it from every conceivable angle; where every lit cigarette sounded like a whole barn-full of hay catching fire, and the opening of every drawer was accompanied by a long, thin sigh, like a kettle hissing. Say what you like about the quality of the film, Foley artist Olivier Thys certainly earned his paycheck.

Split-screens, whip-pans, freeze-frames, Dutch-tilts – there was barely a single filmic device that wasn’t pressed into service. To call “Amer” a triumph of style over substance was to state the glaringly obvious, yet therein lay much of its problem, since even when they were bad – as they often were – the traditional giallo was undeniably about something. There was a plot, however ludicrous or illogical. This one just showed a woman, at three stages of her life, being menaced by something nasty in a very lavish mansion – first a pile of moldering black lace that looked like a demonic Miss Haversham, then a silhouette made of noisily creaking black leather. (How did he/she/it manage to creep up on her, anyway?) Polite, curiously sexless, it was less a proper giallo than an experimental short, like “Meshes of the Afternoon,” stretched out, somewhat unwisely, to feature length.

A number of selections from this year’s excellent Cannes Quinzaine made the cut. On second viewing, Jorge Michel Grau’s “We Are What We Are” seemed even more impressive: a richly atmospheric, almost dreamlike film, whose vivid characterizations, and subordination of horror to social dynamics, have rightly earned it comparisons to “Let The Right One In”. It had a few structural problems, admittedly – its second story, following a cop on the cannibals’ trail, is never integrated entirely successfully into the first – but it’s mostly a triumph, thanks to Alejandro García’s extraordinary production design, Santiago Sanchez’s ravishing cinematography, and Grau’s elegant, classically-inclined direction.

But I couldn’t bring myself to watch Gustavo Hernandez’s “The Silent House” again, given that it had broken my heart the first time around: generating real fear via the most minimal and resolutely old-school of means (some offscreen noises, deep black wells of darkness) – only to blow it completely in the final ten minutes, with a twist, supposedly clever but actually ludicrous, that undermined everything you’d watched to that point. I’ve rarely seen a film so comprehensively squander its own potential; months later, I’m still furious about it.

Sadly, I came to feel much the same about “The Last Exorcism”, a mockumentary (I know, I know – stay with me, here) which saw a documentary crew follow a lapsed preacher on a case, supposedly to expose the fraudulence behind the Get Thee Out! trade. This rather less-than-promising set-up was soon transcended by a level of acting unusual in a genre flick: Caleb Landry Jones (soon to star, I see, as Banshee in “X-Men: First Class”) projected a spooky equanimity that was instantly unnerving, and Ashley Bell, as the possessed girl, was terrifying and magnetic – like some Satanic Amy Adams.

For me, however, the big revelation was Patrick Fabien, better known for his work on TV’s “Veronica Mars” and “Big Love”, who proved here that he should be a fully-fledged movie star – he has the looks, a sardonic sort of humor, and a natural ease that belies just how much craft he commands, in order to make it all appear so effortless. (In this respect, he’s the exact opposite, let’s say, of someone like Greta Gerwig, whose entire career to date has been predicated on her ability to appear perfectly natural in front of a camera. But naturalism is not acting; it’s simply a state of being: willed unselfconsciousness. And a performance –­ an actual performance, of emotional peaks and troughs, and behavioral nuances – requires more than simple verisimilitude.)

Yet in the end, and despite all its virtues, “The Last Exorcism” was a let-down, simply a patchwork of plundered parts: “Blair Witch”, “The Exorcist”, and “Rosemary’s Baby” – the last of which, arriving late in the story, served to badly over-egg the pudding. For a moment it seemed determined to explode its boundaries; then, unable to come up with anything truly novel, it conformed strictly to type.

As such, it begged the question: just how little actual invention can one get away with? Is it enough simply to revisit the old themes, run through the usual motifs, and hope to dazzle by dint of technical excellence (in acting, in effects, in direction)? Genre cinema must, by definition, hew fairly closely to conventions: part of the pleasure, after all, is having our expectations met and (ideally) exceeded. But when does genre become generic?

Exhibit A: “Hidden”, by the Norwegian filmmaker Pal Øie. Which dutifully dusted off every tired trope of the post-“Shining” horror flick – the creepy, abandoned house that no one seems willing to explore at any other time but the middle of the night; the face glimpsed, like one of Bacon’s screaming Popes, in the bathroom mirror; the hotel suspiciously devoid of other guests; the child’s ball bouncing out of the darkness – to absolutely zero effect. Watching, it was hard not to stifle a yawn. Hadn’t we seen this film before? Hadn’t we watched it, like, yesterday? And: shouldn’t I walk out?

I walked out.

The festival has a strong tradition of anime: it was here that I saw Mamoru Hosoda’s terrific “Summer Wars”, one of last summer’s more satisfying viewing experiences. So it was with high hopes that I went to “Redline”, Takeshi Koike’s long-delayed, long-awaited debut feature.

The result was one of the most resolutely miserable viewing experiences of my life, an endless, incomprehensible, one-note cacophony of visual and aural noise, “Wacky Races” on Mescaline, with names (Commander Volton, Planet Supergrass, Frisbee) that sounded like the filmmaker had just picked some western pop-culture references out of a hat, and a graphic style poised somewhere between Jack Kirby’s “Eternals,” Ted McKeever’s “Metropol,” and “Dragon Ball Z”. Plus a topless scene, which is more we ever got from Penelope Pitstop. And … I don’t know, tentacle porn. (It might have been in there somewhere. Who could tell?)

This time, however, I did not walk. I stayed for the whole thing – hating every single minute, yet grimly determined not to let it defeat me. Afterwards, gobbling Tylenol like M&Ms, I tried to recall just what exactly it reminded me of. It took a few hours to come to me: last Christmas, I’d been playing with my six-year-old nephew. He had Marvel action figures, and took not-inconsiderable time, before the game began, explaining to me precisely which superhero had which power and which weakness, and so on. I listened, and made the kind of neutral, vaguely encouraging noises adults make when in fact they’re not listening at all; I remember them well from my own father. But as soon as we started to play, I found that all the rules had changed. Suddenly Thor could not only fly – he could become invisible, too. And Spider-man had a force-field that no adversary could penetrate . . . All to ensure that my nephew – and presumably, the forces of Truth and Justice – emerged triumphant.

“Redline” was like that: constantly upending rules you’d only just begun to grasp, introducing new threats (a giant glowing monster called – what else? – “Funky Boy”; an all-powerful planet-wrecking cannon) to a cup already filled to the brim. Its final 45 minutes was basically just one uninterrupted string of screen-filling explosions, so intensely colored and jarringly edited that it made the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” look like Benning’s “13 Lakes.” I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like it. And I never, ever want to again.

I didn’t mind “Corridor” (Johan Lundborg & Johan Storm, Sweden 2009), though I preferred it when it was called “Next Door” (Pål Sletaune, Norway 2005). And it says something of the ferocity of Kim Chapiron’s 2006 debut, “Sheitan”, that his sophomore effort – “Dog Pound”, a US-made prison drama – seemed almost good-natured by comparison. Again, its inclusion rather stretched the festival’s remit – though I don’t for a moment doubt that a group of buff male adolescents beating and raping each other in prison constitutes someone’s fantasy, just not mine.

Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters” has been written about sufficiently, both here and elsewhere, to make further analysis unnecessary (The film screened at Taormina, where I’d worked this year, but I hadn’t programmed it, and had no opportunity to see it there.). Suffice it to say it’s an extraordinary piece of work – one which, like “We Are What We Are,” took care to subordinate its genre elements to the more traditional virtues of characterization and setting; as such, it offered another example of superior storytelling arising from financial constraints.

Similarly modest in its resources, “Tucker And Dale Vs Evil” ranks as the funniest big-screen comedy I’ve seen in a long while: a laugh-out-loud blend of slapstick and verbal invention. Whereas Neil Marshall’s “Centurion” had no end of clunkers in its dialogue (“Leave’s cancelled!” announces a Roman soldier to his troops. “Leave”? What, were they planning to spend a weekend in Bangkok banging hookers?); and also hinted, for the first time, that there might be a limit to Michael Fassbender’s ability to spin gold out of straw. Far better, despite a murky projection, was Gerard Johnson’s “Tony”, a short (75-minute), weirdly lyrical study of an alienated serial killer, eager for company in his dismal council flat. For all the prosthetic gore on offer – and there were some extremely convincing-looking severed limbs – nothing, for me, was quite as horrific, as compellingly awful, as the dirt visible along the edges of Tony’s shirt-collar, the kind of small detail that makes the skin go cold.

In the Q&A afterwards, Johnson described it not as a horror flick, but as a socio-realist study of class alienation in his homeland. “Why are British films so depressing?” asked one of the audience, who’d clearly never gone to visit. I’d felt a surge of patriotic pride two days earlier, at the Australian horror film “The Loved Ones.” It never quite felt like a whole film, a single, integrated story – more a series of excellent vignettes, strung together for maximum effect; nevertheless, writer-director Sean Byrne deserves credit, not only for his grisly imagination, but for his outstanding taste in music. You’d think that any film which opens with a track by the Little River Band (“Lonesome Loser,” if you’re curious) had shot its ironic wad in the first moments. But Byrne manages to go further still, drawing out the full, bilious ghastliness out of Kacey Chambers’ “Not Pretty Enough.”

There’s much to be said for the vitality of genre cinema, particularly when compared to the increasingly meager rewards of International Arthouse, which increasingly is a genre of its own, with own conventions and strategies. At least it’s interested in telling a story, in engaging with a broader audience, in communicating something beside its own smug sense of entitlement. But the question of the new still troubles me. It shouldn’t, necessarily: “Redline” was something new, I suppose – and it was bloody awful. Still, I wonder: how long has it been since the last real paradigm shift, since things were really shaken up? With “Ring”? Maybe with “District 9.” Is this too little, or too late? Or is genre cinema by definition opposed to real innovation? Like the gialli, endlessly recycling the same set-ups, the same threats, the same women in danger, screaming…

I thought about this until I got a headache, one that was relieved, in part, by more Tylenol – and by something else: the memory of a line from “TiMER,” a cute little movie which raised similar sorts of epistemological questions, only to wave them away airily, in a single line: “Chicken, egg…really, it’s all one big clusterfuck.”

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