Nightmare Cinema: The Field Guide To MAYHEM 2018, As It Happened…

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The 14th annual instalment of The World’s Greatest Horror Film Festival, Mayhem, got off to an all-singing, all-dancing, all-intestine munching start at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema on the evening of Thursday, 11th October with John McPhail’s Anna And The Apocalypse (2017), in which schoolgirl Anna (Ella Hunt) and her school friends / adversaries deal with their commonplace hopes, dreams and fears, in song, against the back drop of an unfolding zombie apocalypse… well, zombie apocalypses are becoming pretty commonplace themselves these days (we’ll encounter one or two more before the end of this report). AATA doesn’t maintain its horror comic momentum quite as well as, e.g. last year’s opener, Double Date (why no proper release for that one yet?!?) and the musical numbers are as variable as some of the accents (Paul Kaye’s big show stopper has already been dropped after initial screenings) but this was an ambitious and rather jolly way to ease our way into the proceedings and Ms Hunt is one to keep your eye on, positively lighting up the screen every time she appears. Think “Michelle Keegan… with talent”.

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In his Q&A session director McPhail thanked the fans for turning out and expressed his concern that Netflix is killing Cinema. Our survey of the Horror Film’s current state of  health continued with Nightmare Cinema, an anthology picture that’s equal parts Amicus, Son Of Celluloid and Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell. Five protagonists find themselves in an unearthly grind house, watching themselves fight for their lives in a succession of hazardous scenarios. Alejandro Brugués’ The Thing In The Woods starts like an ’80s slasher movie, complete with unstoppable psycho, before gleefully flipping our expectations with an excursion into 1950s alien invasion tropes. Joe Dante’s Mirare predictably emerges as the most satirical of the vignettes, building up a palpable sense of dread as a suspicious plastic surgery patient prepares to unwrap the face that Richard Chamberlain has given her, only to blow it with a smart ass ending that only registers a massive “so what?” At the conclusion of this meditation on the follies of cosmetic surgery we are introduced with admirably, er, straight face, to Mickey Rourke’s The Projectionist, the crypto Crypt Keeper in this celluloid vault of horrors.

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Dr. Kildare, is that you?!?

Ryûhei Kitamura’s Mashit is an incomprehensible yarn about demonic possession in a Mexican orphanage, the climax of which plays out like Who Can Kill A Child? meets Shogun Assassin, as lopped off limbs and heads fly through the air in all directions. A spot of gratuitous priest-on-nun rumpo-pumpo confirms the impression that Kitamura’s prime objective here was to rubbish the Catholic Church, for which I can only commend him. David Slade’s This Way To Egress features a female character sinking into psychosis and / or an entropic Lovecraftian parallel dimension. Real laugh-a-minutes stuff… not! Finally, Mick Garris’s Dead turns out to be yet another tweak on the ol’ Occurrence At Owl Creak Bridge chestnut which maintains audience engagement marginally more consistently than Lucio Fulci’s comparable Doors To Silence (1991), though that’s virtually a dictionary definition of “damning with faint praise”.

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Friday afternoon’s session opened with a retrospective screening of The White Reindeer, Erik Blomberg’s 1952 screen adaptation of the Lapland myth that also informed John Landis’ 2005 contribution to the Masters Of Horrors TV series, Deer Woman. Amid scenic snowy splendour (beautifully rendered in b/w by Blomberg, doing his own cinematography), beautiful Pirita (Mirjamo Kuosmanen) worries about maintaining her grip on her husband’s affections during long his long days away, herding. She visits a shaman, whose spells turn her into some kind of were deer, a scenario that’s never going to end well… particularly as it’s taking place in a part of Finland apparently known as “Evil Valley”! With whom exactly did Pirita fear that hubby was going to be unfaithful? I’m reminded of an off colour joke about a Derby County fan and an Eskimo RAC employee… and speaking of sheep shaggers, it was, as ever, a pleasure  to run into Darrell Buxton (rocking an Anthrophagous T-shirt), who’d made the trip specifically to catch this film. Glad he wasn’t sticking around for the quiz, though… give somebody else a chance eh, DB?

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Of all the films scheduled by Mayhem honchoes Chris Cooke and Steve Sheil this year, I suspect Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing will occasion the most hand wringing and knicker wetting over at the Daily Heil. Wannabe serial killer Reed (Christopher Abbott) checks into a hotel room with the intention of hiring and murdering a prostitute. Apparently his libido was hopelessly warped in childhood by the spectacle of a little girl stabbing a rabbit. He has a girlfriend who supports his murderous ambitions (what childhood trauma was she subjected to?) They have a talking baby… yeah, whatever. When Jackie the call girl (Mia Wasikowska) turns up she forestalls Reed’s attempt on her life by going straight into a messy self-harming session. After he’s taken her to hospital to be bandaged up, she invites him back to her place, where she spikes his soup and starts torturing him… oh, there’s a completely pointless nipple piercing sequence too. This one’s your basic fusion of American Psycho, Matador, Basic Instinct and Audition… in fact like Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), it’s adapted from a novel by Ryû Murakami, but while Miike took the time to make us care about that film’s protagonist before the psycho shit started hitting the fan, here you honestly couldn’t give an actual rat’s ass about what happens to Abbott’s character and the film’s makers prove that, ultimately, they couldn’t either by ringing down the curtain with a flip and fatuous gag. I’m increasingly irritated by hipster directors pinching giallo themes for their soundtracks, too. Profondo Rosso, Tenebrae and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, among others, suffer that particular ignominy here. Next, please.

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Marc Price introduced and later fielded questions on his Nightshooters, in which the long-suffering cast and crew of a low-budget zombie flick are locked by their tyrannical director into a tower block that’s due to be demolished at dawn, before which everybody’s hoping to get that last bit of footage in the can. This cut price Otto Preminger didn’t bother to get permission or notify anybody, everybody’s cell phones have been stashed (after a conspicuous bit of script contrivance) God-knows-where and just to put the tin hat on it, our rag-bag of protagonists find themselves witnessing a gangland rub out and must fight their way through a posse of mean ass gangstas to escape the block before everybody gets a real bang for their buck, relying mainly on the pyrotechnic skills of their FX girl Ellie (Rosanna Hoult) and the kung fu prowess of leading man Donnie (the amazing Jean-Paul Ly). Simple minded stuff, but Nightshooters successfully kicked Mayhem 2018 back on track after the pretensions of Piercing.

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Bearing in mind that Ken Livingstone recently got labelled an anti-semite for saying Hitler originally planned to deport European Jews to Palestine (i.e. for stating an easily verifiable historical fact), this is a particularly, er, interesting time for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich to hit the UK. Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s reboot of the endless Charles Band franchise proceeds from the not exactly PC premise that “fans” are visiting a convention “celebrating” the 30th anniversary of the Toulon murders and rapidly escalates to stratospheric levels of bad taste as Udo Kier (unrecognisable beneath heavy burns make up) unleashes his Nazi puppets on the minority groups he despises, in an orgy of clever but stomach churning make up effects… so a torso pisses on the head that’s just been severed from it… a puppet tunnels up a pregnant woman’s vagina and exits, dragging her unborn foetus and placenta behind it… I spotted Ollie Morris frantically recalibrating his Wrong-o-meter when a Jewish character pushed a “baby Hitler” puppet into an oven with the words: “See how you like it!” Fulci’s go-to OST man Fabio Frizzi scored this abomination and it was nice, as ever, to see Barbara Crampton in a small role.

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Nic Cage channels Marilyn Burns, circa 1974…

Anyone whose jaw hit the floor during PM:TLR was wasting their time in retrieving it, given that Friday night concluded with Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy. Everything you’ve heard about this much-touted, overblown oddity is true… and then some. When Steve Sheil suggested to me that I was about to see “a Prog Rock Horror Film” he was pushing at an open door and as the opening shots of rolling US timberland unfurled to the surround sound accompaniment of King Crimson’s monumental Starless (love King Crimson though, like Jeremiah Sand, I’m partial to a bit of Carpenters as well), my goosebumps and the erection of hairs on the back of my neck suggested that I could be about to watch The Greatest Film Of All Time… well, Mandy isn’t quite that but it is magnificently, recklessly unlike any film you’ve seen or are ever likely to see.

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Red (Nic Cage) is a lumberjack, but he’s not OK. He works all night then his home is invaded by the followers of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a charismatic cult leader who’s pissed off about the world’s failure to recognise his musical talents and who refers to straight people as “pigs” (hmm, to whom could Cosmatos possibly be alluding?) When Red’s girl Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) proves singularly unimpressed by either Jeremiah’s music or his penis dimensions, he has his followers bag her up and burn her in front of Red’s horrified eyes. What follows is an odyssey of revenge… nay, a quest (Red even forges a sacred axe for it), during which our increasingly unhinged hero must overcome a band of outlaw bikers who subsist on acid so powerful that it has apparently transformed them into Cenobites (!) Chemical elevation is probably not the ideal consition under which to fight a chainsaw duel but there’s one of those, as well…

Mandy is, at heart,  a simplistic revenge drama but its rococo plot embellishments and the lysergic emulsion of Benjamin Loeb’s candy coated cinematography make it something that you really need to experience rather than read about.

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Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead (2017) kicked off the Saturday session in audacious high risk style, its first half playing out like a shonky “zombie movie location interrupted by actual zombie outbreak” zero-budgeter, shot in one take… kind of “nice gimmick, shame about everything else”. I’m surprised that the audience stayed with it but for doing so, they were rewarded with a second half introducing the participants, their various backgrounds and motivations for taking part in this live TV production, then “making of” footage via which a lot of shonky things start making sense, to gratifyingly comic effect. A bravely / kamikaze structured movie… it’ll be interesting to see how it does outside the rarified Festival milieu.

I’d like to be able to tell you about the UK Premiere of Chris Caldwell and Zeke Earl’s sci-fi effort Prospect, but at this point I was whisked away to the Broadway’s Green Room by Carl Daft and Dave Flint to be filmed waffling about gialli for a proposed featurette that will hopefully accompany Severin’s upcoming BD release of Sergio Martino’s All The Colours Of The Dark (1972). The Green Room is defiantly and flamboyantly not green, as you’ll certainly appreciate when / if  this featurette sees the light of day…

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Number 37 (another UK Premiere for the men and women of Mayhem) is a South African variation on Rear Window (1954), with wheelchair bound small time crook Randal Hendricks (Irshaad Ally) making rather more interventionist use of his omniscient viewing position in the Capetown Projects than Jimmy Stewart did in the Hitchcock flick. Desperately in need of money to pay off a loan shark, Randal jumps from frying pan to fire when he persuades a friend to pinch a sack of it from the rude boys he’s been keeping under observation. Director Nosipho Dumisa sure-handedly ramps up the plot complications and suspense en route to a satisfying, if not exactly happy, ending.

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This year’s Short Film Showcase, curated by Meli Gueneau and always introduced as “the Heart of Mayhem”, included paraphrases of Poe (Kevin Sluder’s Heartless, USA) and Homer (Jorge Malpica’s Ulisis, Mexico) also, just in case things were getting too highbrow, Chris McInroy’s amusing American effort We Summoned A Demon, in which two drooling stoners… well, I guess I don’t need me to draw you a diagram. There were also two clever and – in their different ways – distinctly macabre animations. From Switzerland came Lorenz Wunderle’s Coyote (psychedelic enough to turn you into a Cenobite) and from the UK, Dick And Stewart: I Spy With My Little Eye, a “Watch With Mother goes to Hell” affair directed by one Richard Littler (the 88 Films guy?)

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Much has been made, in the promotion of Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway, of the Magdalene Laundries scandal and the wider back story of her native Ireland’s emergence from the rancid grip of 2000 years of hypocritical superstition. Ostensibly culled from film shot by priests investigating supernatural goings on in a nun-run home for fallen women, TDD demonstrates Clarke’s familiarity and facility with the incessant “found footage” and “paranormal activities” traditions, effectively delivering its quota of genuine jump shocks. You don’t have to be Thomas Aquinas, though, to detect its doctrinal confusions, indulging as it does the very dogmas that justified those Irish gulags in the first place. Maybe Ms Clarke addressed such concerns in her Q&A session after the screening but I didn’t stick around for that, opting instead for a relatively early and cheap journey home, plus enough sleep to see me through Sunday. For this reason I also, regretfully, missed the late, late screening of Lamberto Bava’s Demons, 1985 (tailor-made for such a festival slot, I would have thought) and – I subsequently learned – a “mystery short”, too. That’s what you get for being a lightweight.

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I’ve been to enough Mayhems now to recognise the patented Cooke And Sheil play of waking up their Sunday morning audience and setting them up for the final day with a spot of manga madness. In Shinsuke Sato’s Inuyashiki (getting its UK Premiere) an alien visitation bestows super powers onto two random citizens of Tokyo, a hip albeit alienated young dude and an underachieving old geezer who gets no respect from his family or society in general… guess with which of those I most identified. Hip young dude turns his anger on his fellow citizens, bumping a bunch of them off through their beloved PC, phone and tablet screens, before his more philanthropically-inclined counter part engages him in an apocalyptic battle for the future of the city (half of which is demolished in the process) and indeed, the whole of Japan. The clash of personal and societal imperatives in this one recalls some of the themes from Anna And The Apocalypse, though something like ten times that film’s total budget must have spent on Inuyashiki’s CGI alone.

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Another multi-director portmanteau effort, The Field Guide To Evil (out of the same stable as ABCs Of Death) concerns itself with folklore horrors from around the globe, explored by the likes of Can “Baskin” Evrenol and Peter Strickland (whose erotic fairytale evidences a familiar foot fixation). (Just about) all of the vignettes are beautifully constructed and shot, if sometimes overly cryptic and open-ended. Neither charge, however, could reasonably be levelled at The Melon Heads, Calvin Reeder’s slice of American backwoods gothic being so on-the-nose that it reduced FAB Press main man Harvey Fenton to hysterical convulsions, from which he emerged to declare it “the worst film I’ve ever seen”. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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Andy Mitton’s The Witch In The Window is an effective haunted house effort that sees Simon (Alex Draper) and his son Finn (Charlie Tacker) renovating a lakeside des res which, local legend has it, was previously occupied by… well, just read that title again. I hope that if I’m ever confronted by malign supernatural presences, I manage to retain my philosophical cool as well as the principal characters in this one. Having said that, when the really witchy shit does kick in and everybody starts seriously panicking, it’s all the more effective for that. I think the moral we’re supposed to draw from this film’s unexpected conclusion is something to do with self-abnegation being a necessary part of the maturing process…

… jump cut to the annual Flinterrogation, where self-negation was in short demand as the alpha anal retentives battled it out in most gruelling genre cinema quiz on this or any other planet. Having been part of the winning team on the only occasion I’ve ever taken part and rather liking the idea of retiring as undefeated Quiz Champ, I heeded the promptings of my stomach at this point and set out in search of some cheap food. On my return I learned that the team based around Messrs Daft and Fenton had taken the laurels for 2018. Yep, Harvey Fenton knows what he’s talking about when it comes to genre cinema… sorry to rub it in, Calvin Reeder.

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Flint, Fenton and Daft, pictured at the Broadway bar…

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Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter starts promisingly enough, with Sāo Paulo mortuary worker Stènio (Daniel De Oliveira, a dead ringer for David Warbeck in his scrubs) talking to and hearing back from the corpses on his slab. He’s always had this ability and thinks nothing of it. That changes when his workaday conversational diet progresses from the customary exchange of small-talk and homespun philosophies to the revelation of his wife’s infidelity with the local baker. Stènio vengefully implicates the latter, falsely, in the death of a criminal warlord’s brother, as a result of which both of the lovers are executed in the street. You might have thought that any half decent director couldn’t fail to build on such strong foundations but unfortunately Ramalho hereafter squanders his hand with a relentless succession of demonic possession clichés… ho-hum.

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Mayhem 2018 concluded with Colin Minihan’s Canucksploitation killfest What Keeps You Alive, in which lesbian lovers Jacky (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) get it together in another of those lakeside country getaways, until Jules rubs Jacky up the wrong way (by prying unwisely into her murky past) and unleashes her inner Count Zaroff. What follows is yet another a variation on Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, with a soupçon of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and the world’s most awkward dinner party (“awkward” as in “all the guests get killed”) thrown in for good measure. WKYA is another one that squanders its strong premise and early promise with a few too many plot improbabilities and “WTF did she do that for?!?” moments. Anderson’s psycho is also just a little too self-aware for my liking (c.f. Ksenia Solo’s character Carles Torrens’ Pet, from a couple of Mayhems back). Will Minihan cop heat, in the current PC climate, for being unable to depict lesbian lovers without revealing one of them as a ruthless killer?

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Buggered if I know… I’ve just sat through four straight days of horror films, I’ve got rectangular eyes and pressure sores on my bum. I need fresh air, some decent food and a lie-in. Thank you Chris Cooke, Steve Sheil and Meli Gueneau for reducing me to this state. Will I be back in 2019? Yeah, if they’ll have me…

All titles ©2018, unless otherwise stated.

Oh, just in case…

 

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