Gender Wars And Dinosaurs… Misogyny, Paleontology & The Mother Of All Horror Films at MAYHEM 2017

Mayhem 13 (12-15th October), held as usual at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema, proved to be unlucky only for those horror aficionados who had recklessly neglected to secure a ticket… timely, too, in that much of its bill could have been compiled specifically to coincide with the breaking scandal over a certain Hollywood executive’s alleged carnal misdeeds, with a heavy emphasis on feisty females fighting back against patriarchal oppression.

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I’ve already described the Festival opener, Benjamin Barfoot’s home-grown Double Date as “the best Horror Comedy since An American Werewolf In London”… probably should have mentioned The Evil Dead or Re-animator, but there you go. Barfoot’s take on the battle of the sexes contrasts the “on the pull” ritual of two unlikely lads, the worldly wise Alex (Michael Socha) trying to get his clueless ginge mate Jim (Danny Morgan, who actually wrote this picture) laid, with the altogether more arcane and darker rituals of two oddball sisters, Kitty and Lulu (Kelly Wenham and Georgia Groome), the former keen to initiate her sibling in murder as a prerequisite of raising their occultist father from the dead. The film’s most profound statement on the vexed issue of sexual politics is left to a cameoing Dexter Fletcher, to wit: “Women… you can’t live with them, you can’t have a wank without  a photo of one of them!”

David Flint and I agreed that this one is essentially “José Larraz’s Vampyres on E” (it’s a toss-up between Jim’s family birthday party and the numerous clubbing scenes as to which is the more wince inducing) with a spot of Texas Chainsaw Massacre thrown in at the death. I shall reserve comment on my yen for Wenham until reporting on this festival in Dark Side magazine, where I’ll have a word allocation to meet… unless Wenham’s restraining order has been filed by then. Barfoot, Morgan, Groome and Socha (that well-known team of solicitors) introduced the film and fielded questions afterwards. No Kelly W, unfortunately… or perhaps fortunately.

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A rather more sobre treatment of intergender conflict was provided by Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. (above), in which art student Noelle is casually raped at a campus party and – after getting over the inappropriate self-blame – confronts her attacker, who falls over a bannister to his death after they scuffle. Feeling empowered, Noelle goes after an appalling clique of jocks who streamed their gang rape of another student live on the internet. The college authorities (even its rape counsellor) are intent that a little bit of horseplay shouldn’t ruin the promising academic and sporting careers of these guys but Noelle’s attitude is an implacable “I Spit On Your Grades” and, intensely played by one Francesca Eastwood (yep, it’s Clint’s daughter), she’s impeccably qualified to dispense a little vigilante justice. Kudos to Leite, Eastwood and writer Leah McKendrick for the development of Noelle’s character from victim (she really does look like a piece of dead meat during the unpleasantly realistic rape scene) to confident avenger… as an added bonus, her art work improves with every murder! She’s delivering the valedictory address at her academic year’s passing out ceremony when M.F.A. reaches its conclusion. It’s the wrong ending for this film, but I can’t honestly say what the right one would have been. M.F.A. is not a Harvey Weinstein production…

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Trent Haaga’s 68 Kill (2017), as the above still suggests, takes a ruder and rather more exploitive approach to its subject matter. Touted as a “punk rock answer to After Hours”, this one puts the gender oppression boot firmly on the other foot, with the appropriately named “Chip” (Mathew Gray Gubler) undergoing an unlikely descent into a garden of unearthly delights and depravities at the behest of the various Sadean women through whose hands he passes. Is his batshit crazy girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord, above) some kind of icon of feminist emancipation? If so, she’s got some funny ways of showing it, e.g. selling women to her brother, an ogre-like recluse and snuff movie auteur. In fact Chip only gains any measure of self-respect after all the controlling women around him have been killed off. I’m sure Francesca Eastwood would have something to say about that ….

There are plenty of shocks and nervous laughs to be had from 68 Kill (I’m surprised that the Daily Heil hasn’t started belly-aching about it yet) but the abiding impression of this Tarantino / Rob Zombie wannabe (with a smidgen of Russ Meyer thrown in for good measure) is of a film trying just that bit too hard. Most notably, the director’s desire for the “Pop Music” bit to be regarded as “a classic scene” is more painfully palpable than any of the misadventures that befall his characters.

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Ana Asensio, cheek-bones set to stun, in Most Beautiful Island

Most Beautiful Island, directed by and starring Ana Asensio, is best understood as an allegory of how migrants – and in this case women, in particular – are chewed up and spat out by globalisation and the prevailing neoliberal political order. After much of the film has been spent establishing the hard time Asensio’s protagonist (Luciana) has, keeping her head above water in the Big Apple, you’re just beginning to wonder where all this is heading when a “friend” informs her of an intriguing job opportunity. Donning her shop-lifted glad rags, Luciana joins other needy hopefuls in a cellar where they are inspected by a bunch of jet-setting high rollers and await their call to enter a room where, it quickly becomes apparent, something very dodgy is going on. When we finally learn exactly what that is, it turns out to be something… a bit silly, frankly, but the suspenseful section of the film leading up this revelation is effectively nerve-wracking, marking debutant director Asensio as one to watch,

Times are similarly tough on the dole in Manchester, according to Simeon Halligan’s Habit, though everyone in it still gets to go out and the lash and have a good time (“the Wham Rap fallacy”, as it is known here at THOF). Hailed (chiefly by its director) as the harbinger of a “Northern Horror Renaissance”, Habit goes so far as to feature Emmerdale’s resident raving Iranian beauty Roxanne Pallet as one of its massage parlour cannibals. Sorry, I just didn’t buy into the netherworld that Habit was trying to establish and on the evidence of this one, the Northern Horror Renaissance is still on hold. Halligan, star Elliot Langridge and producer Rachel Richardson-Jones subsequently did the Q&A thing.

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Friday and Saturday’s late night screenings each contributed to the “misogynism in Horror” debate, after their respective fashions… Friday The 13th Part 3 (a 35th Anniversary screening!) continued along the “have sex and die” plot line of its predecessors, but most viewers were less concerned with that than with the assorted viscera dumped into their laps by Mr Vorhees via the miracle of stereoscopic screening and the eyestrain / headaches attendant upon that process. In contrast, the classic Suspiria (1977) was presented in a spanky new 4K restoration and features Dario Argento’s favoured cast of victims, i.e. predominantly attractive young women… but the killers are also women and the last character left standing is another of those feisty females, so go figure. Mayhem’s landmark screening of this restoration is covered elsewhere on this site in a posting wherein we consider the contentious claim that Suspiria is actually a giallo (clue: it is!)

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Dick Maas’s Amsterdamned (1988) was a Dutch variation on the giallo theme and Mayhem’s other big Saturday night title, a UK premiere to  boot, was Prey (2016), an effective remake of that film in which the Dutch director replaces his skin-diving assassin with a huge man-eating lion, munching its way through Holland’s capital city. As in its predecessor, the kill spree serves as a back-drop to the problematic romance of its central characters (here played by Julian Looman and Sophie van Vinden) but rattles along like gangbusters in its own right, with satisfyingly suspenseful sequences and action set pieces along the way and a constant comic undercurrent. Mark Frost steals the show as a clapped-out big game hunter. Prey seems to have been somewhat sniffily received by the internet commentariat but the Mayhem crowd gobbled it up with glee and so should you. Lucio Fulci, no less, once told me that Maas was one of his favourite directors… ’nuff said. The Dutchman was in attendance and proved to be a most agreeable and amusing guy.

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The Festival closed on Sunday 15th with an unfeasibly packed program of goodies (I should think so, too… skipped Antiques Road Show for this, you know!) Having contrived to miss the J-Horror and K-Horror components of this year’s Festival (in the shape of Sion Sono’s 2015 effort Tag and Sun-Ho Cho’s A Day, the latter a UK premiere) I was delighted to catch Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce’s Top Knot Detective, a hilarious mockumentary examination of the real life scandal (well, not that real, actually) surrounding a legendary (as in mythical) Japanese swordplay TV series and its troubled star Takeshi Takamoto. Think “Spinal Tap meets Shogun Assassin” and you’re halfway there. Preserving its poker face throughout, this one left some punters debating its status as fact or farce long after it had finished… mission accomplished.

Erlingur Thoroddsen’s The Rift was a little too enigmatic for its own good…. a little too enigmatic for me, anyway. Was the unfolding sequence of spooky events attributable to its gay protagonist’s sexual unease and abused teenage years… the violent predator on the farm next door… a childhood imaginary friend-turned-flesh… all or none of the above? Beats me. Still, due to John Wakayama’s ravishing cinematography, you get to enjoy the awe-inspiring beauty of Greenland from the comfort of your warm cinema seat.

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Bemused by feminist fightbacks? Befuddled by gender fluidity? Alarmed by loose-living libertines? There was a simpler time, when manly men did what manly men had to do and Professor Challenger types took to dirigibles to clear the skies of pesky Pterosaurs… halcyon days, effortlessly evoked by Zeppelin V Pterodactyls, a live stage reading of a script developed by Steve Sheil from a scenario written for Hammer by David Allen back in 1970, subsequently re-emerging in the extensive Hammer archives of DMU’s Cinema And Television History department. As performed by an impressive cast of thesps under the direction of Messrs Sheil and Cooke, ZVP afforded us a welcome opportunity to close our eyes and project a movie in our minds… even if the show’s title was a little misleading (a zeppelin briefly tangles with pterodactyls early on in the proceedings but the narrative’s principle focus is on a saga of undiscovered noble savages under threat from a rather less noble and more savage race of animal men generated by the Dr Moreau-like experiments of invading extraterrestrials… and I’m sure the kitchen sink was in there somewhere). The performance was scored by noted soundscaper Gavin Morrow and Gerallt Ruggiero of the mighty Madeline Rust.

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Joe Lynch’s Mayhem turns on the promising central conceit of a corporate HQ under lockdown because of a viral outbreak that robs people of their moral and social inhibitions. Amid the sexual and violent anarchy unfolding all around them, disgruntled salary man Derek Cho (Steven Yuen) and pissed off client Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving) battle their way up to the executive zone (whose occupants seemed pretty psychotic already) to settle a few scores, content in the knowledge that they won’t be held legally responsible for anything they do before the outbreak subsides.

As a piece of social satire, Mayhem is about as subtle as a flying chainsaw and was arguably the perfect send off for those festival goers contemplating the return to gainful employment the following morning, but Cooke and Sheil had one more trick up their collective sleeve, in the comically horrific shape of Peter Ricq’s Dead Shack.

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This one has been hyped as “The Evil Dead meets The Goonies” but maybe it could be better summarised as “a remake of The People Under The Stairs as directed by Peter Jackson… if he reverted to his directorial style of about 25 years ago” (hm, needs a bit of work, that one…) While I’d rather appreciated that the occult back story of Double Date was hinted at rather than spelled out, in the case of Dead Shack I really would like to have known more about exactly what that woman was doing with all those zombies under her floorboards. Then again, I did doze off a couple of times so perhaps I missed some crucial piece of exposition here or there…. which isn’t to deny that this film is good brainless fun, merely to admit that the closer I get to 60, the harder I find it to keep my eyes open for four straight days of Horror films…

I missed Marianna Palka’s Bitch (another foray into sexual politics, apparently) also this year’s Flinterrogation, thereby preserving my proud 100% record of being on the winning team every time I’ve entered fandom’s toughest quiz (i.e. precisely once). I did manage to sit through this year’s Short Film Showcase, a particularly strong selection which I’ll be covering in more detail for Dark Side.

It was nice, indeed it’s always nice to see Mr Flint (thanks for issue #2 of The Reprobate and the Cannibal Ferox mug), Carl Daft (thanks for the Severin goodies and the Earl Grey lager), Ollie Morris (who introduced me to that indispensable critical tool, The Wrong-O-Meter) and fragrant spice bomb / Madeline Rust front gal Lucy Morrow among countless others, many of whose names I didn’t quite catch.

All hail Creepy Cooke, Shady Sheil and their monstrous bastard offspring, the ever-mortifying Mayhem Film Festival. Who dares imagine what eye-popping delights they’ll be unveiling round about this time next year?

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I’ll be there to find out. How about you?

 

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