Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fantasia 2011 (Day 11)


Sunday the 24th was a particularly great day. I woke up late and managed to grab lunch (and a socially acceptable drink) at my parents', with enough time to make my way to the Norris building to attend the lecture given prior to the screening of Frankenstein Created Woman, my first ever Hammer film. I was happy to be present, as the combined lecture and screening helped fill a gaping hole in my education.

I was mildly surprised by the fact that no one other than myself had brought a notepad to the lecture. But I guess that the concept of "Film Studies" remains alien to the majority of people, even though it is now a common field of study in most major universities around the world. Then again, maybe Sunday isn't meant to cultivate one's spirit. As the Lord dictates, it is a day meant to contemplate His creation, and not to indulge in the frivolous pursuit of knowledge, itself an evil forced upon unsuspecting Adam and Eve by the wicked serpent.

For me, gaining some knowledge is a rather righteous way of compensating for all the lazy hours spent in bed on Sunday mornings... and for the lazy Sunday afternoons spent playing video games. So, it was with great joy that I learned a thing or two about Christopher Lee and the hardships he endured prior to his casting as the creature in Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein. Then, I learned about the meaning of blood and sex in the Hammer mythology. And while the following film didn't feel like a Frankenstein film in earnest (I remain partial to Whale's pair of classics produced at Universal), the lecture made it better, part of a wonderful adventure devised by one revolutionary production company. This was a truly illuminating session and a nice change of pace from the dumb introductory monologues usually carried out by excessively shy, or Japanese-speaking film directors

My exploration of world cinema continued with the first of three Adam Wingard films lined-up at this year's festival: Pop Skull. I discovered many things thanks to this intimate venture into the mind of a melancholy junkie. First, I discovered beautiful Hannah Hughes, a little known, unprofessional actress with a face to die for. Personally, I much prefer the girl next door types to any made-up Hollywood star. And so I was smitten with Hughes, and with the prospect of seeing her again, and again and again, in the many further Wingard films I had scheduled for myself.

I also discovered an emerging style of filmmaking, or at least I was made aware of a term meant to describe it. "Mumblecore" is a recent neologism, coined to connote a new DIY tradition embodied by the advent of digitally-shot, gritty love stories crafted by emerging American authors to better express the feelings derived from their amorous failures. While the tradition imposes huge limits on itself, notably by eschewing the classic filmmaking notion of framing, it manages to exacerbate the intimacy of its characters by using an immediate, amateurish style akin to that of home videos.

After brushing off the shock derived from the pathetic fate of Pop Skull's protagonist, I resumed my journey into the unknown reaches of the world with the following film, a somewhat unoriginal torture porn film entitled Urban Explorer, which scored big points not for its ruthless violence but for its unique setting. Surprisingly, while this film could've benefited from the "Mumblecore" esthetics, it chooses instead to take a classic technical approach to its material, distancing itself from its protagonists, rather than getting involved directly with them. Seeing how the film chronicles the adventures of some urban explorers taking on the Berlin underground, it could've been shot using a subjective camera. But that would've cranked up the difficulty factor of the project, which was already high due to the unlawfulness of the crew's venture into restricted territory. For a casual horror film, Urban Explorer is surprisingly gutsy in its search for realism and exoticism, which automatically places it well above other films of its ilk.

The last film of the day, Wake in Fright, was the cherry on top of the sundae. The gorgeously restored print of this lost Ted Kotcheff film was a sight to behold, with nary a scratch to be seen on the screen. And it was an unexpected treat too, for I knew nothing about this film prior to reading the program. But then, I've always been a fan of Kotcheff's First Blood, a very powerful but underrated film sadly obscured by two mediocre sequels. So when I booked the screening, I was confident that I would get my money's worth, knowing Kotcheff's background and holding on dearly to the judgment of the programmers at the Cannes festival, who selected the film for their 1971 line-up. Suffice it to say that I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I was happily surprised with this rather irreverent cult classic, and with Donald Pleasance's commanding performance, doing an unrestrained, super-macho take on the outback recluse, and a crowning achievement for the man recognized mostly for his role as one-note psychiatrist Sam Loomis. Unfortunately for Kotcheff, who was present and in great shape, very few people turned up for the screening (there was at best 100 people attending the screening in the 750-seat venue). Still, the film was a treat for all the people who did come, and I thank Fantasia warmly for it, hoping that the lack of people attending this kind of events will not discourage them from programming others in the future.

Awesome programming job for this, the eleventh day of the festival. Koodos!


Frankenstein Created Woman
Yet another treat for genre fans provided by the good people at Fantasia, this fine, if somewhat classical Peter Cushing vehicle was preceded by an extremely interesting, illuminating lecture by Nicolas Stanzick (author of Dans les griffes de la Hammer), who made sure to stimulate our appetite for the main event. While the film itself branches away from the Frankensteinian mythos per se, opting instead for a take on Renard's Les mains d'Orlac (adapted for the screen as Mad Love), it does boast solid performances by Cushing as the extravagant baron and Derek Fowldz as the treacherous antagonist, as well as an undeniable flair for set design. That said, I wish to say that, contrary to what bona fide film genius Martin Scorsese has argued when he selected the film as one of his favorites, the metaphysical implications of the Baron's experiments were merely subservient to a fairly overdetermined and predictable plot, the ramifications of which only graze the surface of the 'soul' dilemma. Still, Fisher's mastery of all things esthetics and a perfect turn by stunning pin-up Susan Denberg as the cold but beautiful creature more than compensate for any qualm anybody might have with the narrative.


Pop Skull
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature at the 2008 Boston Underground Film Festival, this cheap but earnest film uses a clingy hand-held camera to penetrate the solitary hallucinogenic world of pill-popping protagonist Daniel. Played with a certain sensibility by screenwriter Lane Hughes, Daniel is a man broken by the defection of his former girlfriend, who found happiness in the arms of a better-looking, more successful man. Hopelessly stuck in his parents' basement, deep into the depressing heart of suburbia, he starts delving deeper and deeper into the world of drugs as a remedy to his current angst, not realizing that wallowing in self-pity will only bring him further down. With the help of aggressive stroboscopic effects, jump scares (borrowed almost directly from the supernatural horror genre), and a rare sensibility, director Wingard manages to perfectly delineate the protagonist's inner drama while simultaneously managing to sensuously depict the monstrous parallel world where he has taken shelter.  The result is a particularly evocative account of an intimate, yet universal story about love and loss, appealing to the far too many who have endured such torments...


Urban Explorer
While entirely unoriginal, this superior torture porn entry scores points for its creepy, foul-mouthed, perfectly-cast psycho and its unique setting (the Berlin underground). Personally, I was very curious to know whether or not the underground complex, and most importantly, the Nazi graffiti on the walls were real remnants of a bygone era, or simple sets crafted or tweaked by the filmmakers. But seeing how the publicity for the film emphasizes the guerrilla aspect of the production, one can safely assume that it's all authentic, which is a treat for the viewers who care for that kind of stuff. After all, not many horror filmmakers have the necessary conviction to risk arrest in order to deliver a film, but the makers of Urban Explorer certainly did, and so they should've. Be sure to watch this film if you want to catch a glimpse at sights truly unseen and if you want to know what "lifting one's shirt" means, although I'm sure you can make an educated guess...

In a nutshell, I believe that casual horror fans will surely dig the film's nastier gore bits, its claustrophobic atmosphere and the mundane insults delivered by the foul-mouthed antagonist, but they will be turned off by the the slight narrative shortcuts and implausibilities, which are too few in number to effectively counter the good bits. Recommended for those who like torture porn, but feel that the Saw films are too preachy and needlessly intricate.


Wake in Fright
While most festival-goers missed the opportunity to see this long-lost, painstakingly restored Cannes favorite, the ones who did come were in for a rare treat. Irreverent and unapologetic, Wake in Fright involves authentic kangaroo-hunting and a whole lot of male-bonding under the sign of drunkenness. This is a film that perfectly captures the feeling of being lost among friends, entangled in a downward spiral of mindless fun that subtracts one from the more tangible, more important aspects of life. It is a film about the pointlessness of fun for its own sake and the absurdity of its endless pursuit. It also demonstrates, with flying punches and screeching jeep tires, that booze quickly likens men to beasts. Finally, it is a film about camaraderie, an all-too overblown word that connotes little more than collective boredom. That said, the Australian outback constitutes a perfect backdrop for the story and rarely has it been captured with such stylistic flair or peopled with such eccentric types, including legendary Donald Pleasance, who delivers one of his greatest, unsung performances as a decrepit doctor living in a bug-ridden shack. All in all, the film constitutes a triumphant return to the scene for under-appreciated director Ted Kotcheff, who delivered an almost hypnotic foreword, and a shocking jolt to the balls to anybody who thought that wasting time amongst friends is a civilized activity. Truly, this is a crucial cautionary tale about the illusory comfort provided by escapism in all of its forms. See it if you get the chance!