The Very Essence Of MAYHEM… 2019 Festival Report.

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Oh sweet mystery of Mayhem… how does the grooviest Horror Film Fest in Heaven, Hell or Hockley manage to outdo itself, year after year? Never formulaic, it must nevertheless be compiled with some sort of formula in mind. So what’s the secret? Well, I’m just back from four mind boggling, bum numbing (less so now that plush new seats – not to mention a state of the art 7.1 sound system – have been installed in Theatre 1 of Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema) days of Mayhem 2019 (10-13th October) and I was taking notes. Pay attention now, ‘coz here’s what I’ve managed to divine about the method in Mayhem’s madness…

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Some Horror Film Festivals are just more equal than others…

1) The “lure ’em in and settle ’em down with a Horror Comedy” film. Mike Ahern & Enda Loughman’s Extra Ordinary (2019) stars likeable stand up Maeve Higgins as Rose Dooley, a driving instructor in a sleepy Irish town, living in denial of her “talents” since the death of her father, who became a minor celebrity by popularising the paranormal. The werewolf she’s called on to investigate turns out to be a fox and although Rose gets to exorcise the odd wheely bin, she wants nothing more than to lead an ordinary life… all of which goes right out the window when one hit wonder Christian Winter (a hysterically foppy Will Forte) attempts to revive his flagging pop career by ritually sacrificing virgin schoolgirl Sarah Martin (Emma Coleman) and her widowed father Martin (Barry Ward) seeks Rose’s assistance. Romance blossoms, but the intermittently intruding shade of Martin’s jealous wife (herself apparently channeling Lily Savage) considerably complicates an already complicated situation. When Winter summons a demon to claim it’s virginal prize, there are awkward revelations about just who is and isn’t virgo intacto… with hilarious consequences (no really, it’s a hoot!)

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Co-director Mike Ahern introduced the film, subsequently discussed it with Chris Cooke and fielded audience questions, explaining how some genuinely impressive effects sequences (for such a low budget effort) were achieved and insisting more than once that the character of Christian Winter was absolutely NOT based on Chris de Burgh, OK? He and Loughman are currently writing stuff for Aardman Animations and hoping to develop Rose Dooley’s extra ordinary adventures into a TV spin off. Fingers crossed for that… or knock on wood… whatever superstition takes your fancy.

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2) The “is it all in the disturbed protagonist’s mind or is there really a monster?” film. Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) invokes the perennial Horror Film concern (think Dead Of Night, 1945… Psycho, 1960) about how to integrate (and usually the failure to integrate) undesirable / antisocial personality traits. Young Luke attributes his childhood attempt to poison his schizophrenic mother to an imaginary friend named Daniel, whom he locked up on a dollhouse after that regrettable little incident. The post pubertal and clueless in love Luke (Miles Robbins) releases Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) to act as his wingman but after initial successes as a lady killer he starts looking and acting increasingly like… well, a lady killer! Is Luke succumbing to hereditary mental illness or are his “demons” the manifestation of an actual demon? Mortimer plays his cards craftily until the denouement, when things get a bit too “David Lynch” (with “good” Luke confronting a nightmarish figure from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights) for my liking. No prizes for guessing Patrick Schwarzenegger’s parentage (I’m still trying to work out if he gave a good performance or whether playing a sneering son-of-a-bitch just comes naturally to such a Hollywood Prince) but Miles Robbins is Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s son… how cool must it be to have Susan Sarandon as your Mum?

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3) The disinterred Eurohorror Classic. What better way to kick start a rainy Friday afternoon in Nottingham than with Konstantin Ershov & Georgi Kropachyov’s 1967 adaptation of the Russian witchy classic Viy? Mario Bava’s seminal Black Sunday / Mask Of The Demon (1960) was, of course,  nominally an adaptation of the same Gogol story but really an opportunity for Bava to indulge his exquisite monochrome visual sense and explore the disturbing dichotomy of beautiful and evil potentials in the incredible face of Barbara Steele. Viy retains the satirical bent of its literary inspiration. Its ethnic sense of humour and pacing take a bit of getting used to but neither its colour palette nor the visual effects work during its pandemoniacal climax would have disgraced Bava himself. Watch out for this one on Severin Blu-ray.

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4) “It’s not exactly Horror, but it’s pretty intense stuff, all the same”. The programme lingered East of the ol’ Iron Curtain for the UK Premiere of Polish director Bartosz Konopka’s Sword Of God (2019, formerly known as The Mute). Christian missionaries Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski) and his unnamed companion (Karol Bernacki) arrive on a small island to convert its pagan population before the arrival of their liege lord and his all-conquering army. Willibrord sets about his mission with personal bravery but inflexibility that ultimately crosses the border into fanaticism. The other guy goes native and becomes a saintly martyr figure, then the king arrives and (SPOLER ALERT!) kills everybody anyway! It’s a powerful portrayal of religious hypocrisy, man’s inhumanity to man and the betrayal of idealism. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that the issue of historical intolerance still casts a long shadow over Poland…

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5) The Haunted House flick. Girl On The Third Floor (2019) plays out as though the ghost of Brooke Shields’ character in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978) is causing problems on the set of Tim Allen’s old sit com Home Improvement. Travis Stevens is clearly attempting to make some kind of statement about toxic masculinity but like the unquiet spirits in the house / former bordello that CM Punk (you heard me) is renovating, there’s an effective, affecting film struggling to get out of this one but never quite making it and in lieu of any dramatic resolution, matters are concluded with a tiresome torrent of gimmicky special effects. It didn’t exactly help that Mr Punk and his silly tattoos really irritated me. This kind of stuff must be the reason why I keep accumulating rejection slips from Les Cahiers Du Cinéma…

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6) “The Friday Night Psychedelic Apocalypse, preferably featuring Nic Cage going batshit crazy”… SpectreVision (also the company behind Daniel Isn’t Real) stole the show last time round with Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy so another film from them offering the opportunity to watch Nic Cage go barking mad in pulsating purple obviously made Color Out Of Space (2019) one of the most eagerly anticipated items in this year’s lineup. It’s other main selling point, of course, was the return of Richard Stanley, directing his first completed feature in 27(!) years. Stanley’s loose (aren’t they always?) adaptation of the hoary H.P. Lovecraft yarn examines the effect on an ordinary family of a meteorite hit that releases alien entities keen to make Earth over in the image of their home planet. Well, when I say “ordinary family”, I mean llama-farming Daddy Gardner (Cage), his stockbroker wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), his sexy daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) who spends much of her time getting witchy in the woods, stoner older son Benny (Brendan Meyer) and youngest sibling Jack (Julian Hilliard), a Milky Bar Kid type whose main plot purpose is to work on the maternal feelings of female audience members before they’re hit with the seriously bad shit that befalls him. I found the film overlong and questionably paced. The reality warp and Cage’s personal psychotic embolism (surely no spoiler, there) kick in too early and there’s nothing for the narrative to do after that than accumulate ever more rococo refinements of weirdness. COOS ultimately emerges as rather less than the sum of its parts, though many of those parts (e.g. Lavinia’s climactic trippy rhapsody) are very impressive indeed. I’m glad I saw it and hey, if you crave Andean mammal satisfaction, this one is packed with enough alpaca action to put your ass in traction (we thought it would be a good idea to ask the guy who wrote the voice overs for all those Dolemite trailers to contribute a guest sentence to this posting… obviously we were wrong!)

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7) The Creature Feature. Ping Lumpraploeng’s The Pool (2019… another Mayhem UK Premiere) is nicely shot and scored, with great visual FX, its mechanical suspense unfolds with admirable efficiency and all the actors do a good job but 99% of the work on this one obviously went into writing it. Having hit on a boldly minimalist premise (Theeradej Wongpuapan and his girlfriend Ratnamon Ratchiratham are trapped for seven days in an empty deep sided swimming pool with a pregnant, pissed-off crocodile), Lumpraploeng then adorned it with a succession of fiendish embellishments such that every time you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the protagonists, they promptly do. Endlessly involving and inventive (I’ll leave it to you to discover how a Dulux dog’s suicide fits into the mix), The Pool could be taken as a metaphor for the unremitting toughness of life in Thailand and it was nice to see the characters taking time out between crocodile attacks to debate the ethics of abortion. One of the investors in this one was Pizza Hut and you don’t have to wait long for the expected product placement, though the delivery dude arrives too late to render any significant assistance. Perhaps they should have told him to make it snappy…

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8) The “the protagonist is a monster but the guys she’s fighting are even worse!” film… Audrey Cummings Canadian effort She Never Died (2019) is apparently some sort of sequel to Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died, a Henry Rollins Vehicle from 2015. I haven’t see that one but you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that protagonist Lacey (Olunike Adeliyi) is some kind of dewinged angel / demon figure, cursed with immortality and an insatiable appetite for human flesh and blood. Luckily she tends to dine on humanity’s worst elements. In this film that’s a seriously dodgy brother / sister team running a leisure empire whose business model is equal parts Hostel (2005) and Videodrome (1983), so you get to cheer Lacey on through all the splattery kill scenes and still believe yourself to be on the side of the angels. Or demons.

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9) The “is it all in the disturbed protagonist’s mind or is there really a monster?” film… slight return. The first real surprise package of this year’s festival, Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s Something Else (2019, previously known as After Midnight) was this year’s equivalent of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead from the previous Fest, a slowburn of a movie patiently received by an audience whose patience reaped rich rewards. Gardner stars as Hank, holed up in a one horse town wondering why his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant) left him (well, she’s fed up living in a one horse town, mate), drinking beer with his goony friend Wade (an endearing performance from Henry Zebrowski) and becoming increasingly convinced that some kind of malevolent nocturnal presence is lurking around , looking to effect entrance. This is Thirtysomething for soulful rednecks, with a little something else thrown in… effectively a film in the service of a looming punchline, en route to which the viewer is similarly well served and entertained.

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10) The Short Film Showcase Interlude (the beating heart of the festival, as Chris and Steve characterise it) proved, as ever, to be a pretty mixed bag of fare, much of it receiving its UK / European / World Premiere. Sheil’s own Unmade, in which a  scorned woman deploys black arts to take the ultimate revenge on her dead ex was among the better entries. Victor Català’s A Little Taste (Spain) turned out to be a nicely twisted (if not exactly unpredictable) vignette, sharing its woodland setting with Sekander Sharifi’s neatly executed little gag Limbus (Germany) and the multi-director French animation Wild Love, which plays out as a Disney Pixar effort gone bad. Canadian Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Procedure 2 proceeded, for all of its 3 minutes, along the frankly flatulent lines laid out in its predecessor, a big crowd pleaser here three years ago. “Brown comedy”, indeed… and  Kate McCoid’s It’s Not Custard (UK) did for acne what Reeder seems determined to do for farts.

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11) The Kick Ass Oriental Actioner (and another UK Premiere). In Lee Won-tae’s South Korean effort The Gangster, The Kop, The Devil (2019), ruthless crime lord Dong-Seok Ma (from Train To Busan, 2016) is so amazed that a serial killer known as ‘K’ (Kim Sungkyu) has had the temerity to try and off him that he teams up with reluctant cop Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo Yul) to catch the guy. Predictable buddy bonding and violent spectacle ensue. I’ve seen better in this genre but y’know, Ringo Lam is no longer with us and John Woo is otherwise occupied so what you gonna do? Sylvester Stallone is credited as one of the producers and is apparently going to remake this one, Hollywood style. Hm….

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12) The “What The Fuck?!?” film…  indeed, introduced by Steve Sheil as “the what-the-fuckiest-what-the-fuck film ever”, Valeri Milev’s Bullets Of Justice (2019) emerged from nowhere (well, from Russia / Kazakhstan / Argentina, actually) to become one of this festivals’s most gob-smacking talking points. In a post-Apocalyptic scenario, the last remnants of humanity wage a life-and-death struggle with man-eating mutant pigs. An endless succession of ultraviolent action scenes? Check. Bizarre, self-consciously mannered directorial flourishes? Present and correct. Some of the most perfectly formed backsides ever captured on film? Affirmative. A cameo appearance by Cristiano Ronaldo? Yep. An ending which suggests that either a) macho post-Apocalyptic guerrillas harbour secret gay fantasies, or b) gay fashion models on acid fantasise about post-Apocalyptic guerrilla wars? You get that, too. Like the man said… what the fuck?!?

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13) The Suspenseful Tale Of Urban Paranoia. Yet another UK Premiere, Kwon Lee’s Door Lock (2018) pits its serial killer (South Korea must be crawling with them) against vulnerable office worker Kyung-min (Kong Hyo-jin) rather than a brutal crime baron. The flesh creeping extent of his night crawling activities are revealed to us but she only has the vaguest, increasingly worrying sense that something weird is going on. The police don’t take her complaints seriously and Lee relentlessly turns the suspenseful screws en route to a nail-biting finale. Seasoned viewers of these things (in fact most viewers) will have little trouble sorting the red herrings from the real murderous McCoy but this one is still worthier of a Hollywood remake (if, indeed, that would be doing it any favours) than The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil.

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Oh, those Russians

14) The Post-Tarantino Hipster Bloodbath. There’s definitely something going on in Russia, genre film wise. Chris Cooke introduced Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die! (2019) as “a Spaghetti Western that takes place in one room” and yeah, he’s pretty much nailed it (Morricone fans will find all sorts of interesting things going on throughout this one’s OST). A boy named Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) visits his girlfriend’s father (tough former copper Andrey, played by Vitaliy Khaev), intending to kill him with a concealed (but not for long) hammer. After a gruelling physical confrontation, Andrey calls in his former cop colleague Yevgenich (Mikhail Gorevoy) to dispose of the intruder. But what’s the secret he’s trying to conceal from Yevgenich? And why was daughter Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde) putting Matvey up to murder in the first place? The back stories are separately introduced and intertwined in Tarantino-esque fashion, that is to say in the fashion that Tarantino pinched from Akira Kurosawa. It’s possible to construe the whole thing as an arch comment on post-Soviet Russian mores but a lot of people are going to enjoy WDYJD! purely on the strength of its black comedy and relentlessly brutal imagery.

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15) The Brilliantly Bleak Allegory Whose Co-Writer Insists It’s Not An Allegory. In Lorcan Finnegan’s rivetting Vivarium (UK / US 2019), a couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) move into a house in the suburbs and bring up a baby, whose demands gradually take over their lives. Mum resents never getting any time to herself, Dad throws himself into his work. The kid (played by Senan Jennings then Eanna Hardwicke) won’t go to bed and spends all his time watching TV. Dad comes to resent the alliance Mum and the kid seem to be forming against him. Dad works himself to death. Mum follows. The kid buries them and blithely gets on with his own pointless life. Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a fantasy move?!? It is, of course and one that resonates troublingly thanks to the respective contributions of director Finnegan, production designer Philip Murphy and co-writer Garret Shanley. The latter introduced the film, subsequently chatting with Chris Cooke and fielding audience questions… hey Garret, of course it’s a fucking allegory!

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16) The “blissfully complacent character obliged to undergo a blackly comic odyssey through unguessed at low life vistas” film. Two years ago it was 68 Kill. This time it’s Ant Timpson’s New Zealand effort Come To Daddy (2019). Former kiwi fanzine editor Timpson produced The Greasy Strangler, which rocked and shocked Mayhem attendees back in 2016 (just the words “hootie tootie disco cutie” still bring me out in a cold sweat). This significantly more “realistic” effort sees Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) attempting to reconnect with the dad who abandoned him in infancy, an intrinsically delicate exercise which turns into something infinitely more challenging for our boy when the big plot twist kicks in and turns his world upside down. I don’t feel like I should say too much more than that but believe me, this one is well worth catching.

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So these are just some of the ingredients that, when combined in exactly the right proportions and sprinkled with secret Mayhem spices, bring Festival ecstasy to The Broadway on an annual basis. Only Chris Cooke, Steve Sheil (above) and Meli Gueneau know the exact recipe. And they’re not saying anything.

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You probably also wanted to hear about those legendary inter-film quizzes and “mystery poster” giveaways, about the pulse pounding, nerve wracking test of man and mettle that is The Flinterrogation, about the general hobbing and indeed nobbing (OK, we’ll restrict it to the hobbing) with old friends, new friends and cyberfriends suddenly made flesh… all of this will be duly revealed in another, Darker place. Patience, my pretties.

(For the record I skipped the Friday and Saturday night revivals of – respectively – The Hidden and Vampire’s Kiss. We old codgers have got to sleep sometime, you know…)

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