Saturday, 7 May 2011

6. Haapsalu Õudus- ja Fantaasiafilmide Festival

To widen my yearly film festival experiences, I should look out for foreign festivals. Now, I can say that this first time I visited a festival in Estonia, was by no means the last time. Estonia, and its capital Tallin, is merely a 1,5 hour ferry trip away from Helsinki. The town of Haapsalu in turn is about a 2 hour bus drive away from the harbor city of Tallinn. So it's easy as pie to visit. I had a swell packet trip to the 6th Haapsalu's Festival for Horror- ja Fantasiafilms (hereon referred as HÕFF) with a group of fellow film aficionados. The quiet country town of Haapsalu, which is built around a medieval castle, is also a suitable scene for a horror film festival. The only downside was that the culture centre which held the screenings wasn't entirely finished and thus for example the sound quality of the films was poor. Unlike in Night Visions, the films at HÕFF didn't run through all night, but left some time to party out in the city's sole night club.

Off to Leipzig (Leipzigisse)
Director: Hardi Keerutaja (Estonia 2011)

I always try to see at least one of the native country's films in each foreign festival I attend to. This time it only included this short film. It's a historical story about a student looking to be a doctor. He goes to a remote farm to treat a patient who acts violent and has a supernatural aura around her. He turns to protect her from her family to take her to the University city of Leipzig.

The film looks and feels like a student film and the twists are pretty obvious for anyone who knows their horror films. Yet the director Hardi Kaarutaja manages to create an athmosphere of threat throughout the film. He utilizes the Estonian forest as a transitional scene to a supernatural world pretty well. Also the scenes of violence are pretty inventive and fun. It was nice enough to see this film from an inflatable screen on the castle courtyard, yet the creeping coldness and hunger sadly prevented me from seeing Brian Yuzna's latest horror-comedy Amphibious, which seemed silly enough and an apt parody judging from the first couple of minutes. Here's hoping someone brings it to a finnish horror film festival.

Red, White & Blue
Director: Simon Rumley (USA/UK 2010)

The theme series of Midnight America was kicked off by my account very well with this pitch-black tragedy. The film follows three people whose paths are about to get tangled to each other. First, we have the young Erica (Amanda Fuller) who feels her life is hollow and meaningless. She spends most her nights picking up strangers in bars and having wild sex with them. Yet nothing seems enough for her. One of her multiple partners is Franki (Marc Senter) who learns that he has gotten the HI-virus from her. As Franki's life has been crumbling around him anyway, he seeks revenge. But meanwhile Erica has met Nate (Noah Taylor), an ominous-seeming character who is probably the only person who's not interested in Erica purely for the sexual pleasure. But Nate surely doesn't have everything home, either and he starts to develop a very a strong feeling of possession over Erica.

Red White & Blue is a character piece more than it is a horror film, and it takes its time to delve into its the main character's minds, emotions and the baggage they carry. At the outside most of them just seem emotionless and cold but beyond the surface might lurk a disturbing truth. As one can deduct from the title, the film also carries a subtext about the whole American culture, which is after all based on violence. The film does look cheap and the camerawork leaves something to improve. But nevertheless if Rumley gets a little better resouces for his next film, I believe it is well worth waiting for.

★★★ 1/2
Beyond the Black Rainbow
Director: Panos Cosmatos (Canada 2011)

Those that think that Moon was a ponderous and arty sci-fi movie should try this on for size. BtBR moves at a glacier pace with barely a plot at all. It relies more on the images and the athmosphere. The film involves a young girl (Eva Allan) who seems to have some PSI-abilities. She is being held in a mental hospital where a sadistic doctor (Michael Rogers) keeps taunting and experimenting on her. Eventually, she sets off to escape, the doctor in her tail. Reportedly the director Cosmatos based this film on old VHS covers of Canadian horror and exploitation films such as the works of David Cronenberg.

I honestly have difficulties reviewing this film properly as I was tired as this was shown and it requires almost hypnotic concentration. Comparing this to Tarkovsky isn't too far off, at least in the field of flow, athmosphere and storytelling styles. But the result is even more surprising, and is not afraid to drop the style used to make a scene with something completely different. The images are striking and memorable. I would say I'd need to see this again. I think it is an exceptional piece by all means and thus ample material for finnish festivals too.


House of the Devil
Director: Ti West (USA 2009)

I had heard good rumblings about Ti West's tribute to the moodier horror films of yesteryear, yet had wondered why the film hadn't been brought to Night Visions or other festivals. Well, HÕFF's guest of honor, Twitch Film's Todd Brown hailed this to be one of the best films of the last five years, so I was willing to give it a benefit of a doubt. And indeed, in some ways this was the best film of the festival. At least in the "horror" category.

House of the Devil is about the college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), about to move to her first own apartement. Yet she lacks the monetary funds and thus opts to become a babysitter to an odd family living in the middle of nowhere. She and her feisty friend Greta Gerwig (Megan) are no fools and the girls take off to the house together to avoid any psychopath shenanigans. Yet as it turns out, there is foul play going on and the girls are soon separated and scared. The film is based on the wide-spred scare of the 80's that Satanic cults thirsting on innocent blood may hide in any neighbourhood without a trace to the outside.

West's film works great as a tribute. Unlike many other nostalgic horror directors, he hasn't chosen the campiest and silliest aspects of the 70's and 80's to replicate. The setting, the music and clothing do bring back those times, but not in an in-you-face or over-the-top style. Instead, the film is a welcome return of the kind of horror films that play on having a disturbing mood to them and are constantly one-upping the feeling of paranoia shared by the main characters as well as the audience. The film is created with seemingly small resources, as you don't really need more than a small scratch or a moving shadow to scare the audience if played right. So good is the first part of the film that the ending is a clear let-down of panicky running around. It's not that bad per se, as the most obvious clichés are avoided, yet still feels too conventional for a movie that started this good. I'll have to reflect this on the film's score, but for a really chilling old-school horror film, it's certainly one of the best of the last decade.

★★★ 1/2

Stake Land
Director: Jim Mickle (USA 2010)

Stake Land is a modern survivalist story set in a postapocalyptic world. That means gloom and doom in the same vein as The Road or I Am Legend. This time (again) the world is plagued by vampires, who are zombie-like lunatic running corpses in this one.  Trying to survive on their way from town to town are the tough-as-nails Mister (Nick Damici, the film's co-writer) and the young, inexperienced Martin (Connor Paolo). The world they live in is divided to armed fortresses, where life goes on pretty normally, and to the dangerous wasteland. Yet nowhere is the pair safe so they must keep on travelling. On their way a group of other misfits join their group and start to form a new, blended family.

Essentially this plays like Zombieland without the jokes. It's not entirely a good thing, as the film is pretty dark yet at the same time a bit ridiculous. A couple of times some pitch-black humour shines through, yet I still don't appreciate the film's seriousness. For the film also attempts to bring a subtext of the state of the American Bible-belt. As is often the case, dangerous uninfected people are much more of a threat than the lurking monsters. In this film they include the fundementalists trying to run their own show in a world gone to hell. If this is meant to satirize, then the edge of the parody is far too blunt, because the religious types here actually seem a lot more reasonable and rational than the actual tele-evangelists that plague intelligent Americans to this day. The film's villains are also annoyingly gloating and indestructible.

The best (and the most ridiculous) scene of the movie shows fundementalists drop vampires from a helicopter to a carnival. If only the same kind of bright gallows-humour  ideas were used in the film more often. Or even if the scene was a little more clearly edited.


Hobo with a Shotgun
Director: Jason Eisener (Canada 2011)

Ah, my most awaited film of the festival and it didn't let me down.  Hobo is based on a fake trailer by Jason Eisener that won a competition to be included in prints of Grindhouse in the US. Eisener's fake trailer had such an outstanding and off-the-wall idea that it actually surpassed in quality the professional trailers of Eli Roth, Edgar Wright et al. It was a godsent gift that Eisener was able to create his vision into a full-length movie and starring Rutger Hauer himself, no less.

Hauer is just as perfect for the lead of this sleaze-fest as they come. He plays a poor hobo that comes to Scum City (formerly Hope City) on a freight train. He starts to look for a job but soon finds out the town is being terrorized by a family of gangsters who don't hold any particular appreciation for the integrity of human life. In particular he starts to protect the hooker Abby (Molly Dunsworth) but this leads him at odds with the bad guys and the corrupt police force of the City. Ultimately he has no option but to not buy his desired lawnmover and rather opt for an equally cheap shotgun. The hobo stops begging and demands for change!

Hobo is a trash film through and through. There are excessive amounts of gore, the film is shot in cartoony coloured lights and it has a wild punk rock feel where anything can happen. Thus children get torched by a flamethrower, people get kicked in the back with ice skates and someone gets their gentitals blown away. It's certainly not for everyone, and that includes anyone who doesn't find poor taste and showers of gore hilarious. Of course that certainly doesn't include me. The closest comparison for the film might be the best Troma films from back at the VHS era. They had the same air of mixing totally bonkers ideas with parodying clichéd conventions. This does so too and goes along the same rails as your regular vigilantist story or even western where a stranger shows up to bring order to a chaotic small town. But how many westerns have you seen where the main character suddenly fights indestructible biker robots that have an octopus in their cellar prison? Thought so. Highly recommended for gore-hounds. Oh, and I love the synth-score of the film!


Karate-Robo Zabogar (Denjin Zaborgar: Gekjio-ban)
Director: Noboru Iguchi (Japan 2011)

The Japanese production company Sushi Typhoon is known for genre films that usually are heavy in gore but light in sense. Now they've extended their filmmaking to superhero films as well, with an adaptation of a popular TV-series from the '70s. It concerns the heroic duo of Yutaka Daimon (Yasuhisa Furuhara / Itsuji Itao) and his trusty transforming motorcycle/robot companion Zaborgar taking on the evil organization Sigma. The leader of Sigma, Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto) had killed his father years ago while collecting DNA from the world's leading scientists and politicians to create an ultimate super-cyborg. Things get complicated when Daimon falls for Akunomiya's hench-woman Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki), much to the distaste of Zaborgar.

Sushi Typhoon's films tend to often be hit-and-miss and Zaborgar only enhanches this view. The opening of the film has plenty of goofy villains, trampoline jumps, monsters with diarrhea and best of all, American football-playing schoolgirl cyborgs who have dinosaurs come out of their boobs. (This prompts one person to hilariously shout out "DINOSAUR ARMY!?") But the problem with all this is the flimsy plot which can't be covered by any number of surreal jokes. In the middle the film does a big twist, which is a joke in the expense of the viewer that has watched the original series. Sadly, western audiences who don't know the series are left cold by this change and the rest of the film doesn't stand up to the standards of the beginning. The end credits also reveal that many of the films greatest bits were actually reproduced shot-by-shot from the original series. So if it weren't for the dinosaur-tits, this would've been a complete waste of time.


Norwegian Ninja (Kommandør Treholt & ninjatroppen)
Director: Thomas Cappelen Malling (Norway 2010)

Norway has recently built a reputation for its film industry, that has made an impressive amount of fun genre-films. I hope Rare Exports isn't a fluke and us Finns can manage the same in the upcoming years. Norwegian Ninja completes the festival's set of films that are a tribute to the genre cinema of yesteryears. But instead of treading on the same paths as already ridiculous Mats Helge's scandinavian ninja flicks, director Malling builds a sort of GI Joe universe for his ninjas.

It's 1984 and the Norwegian government has a top secret island where they train ninjas to carry on missions concerning the state security. The ninjas live peacefully, feeding cute animals among their training and looking for enlightenment. But at the same time another secret organization has more sinister plans. A rival intelligence agency plans to do terrorist attacks in Norway and blame the Soviet Union from them, in order to get Norway's foreign politics closer to the USA. Only Commender Arne Treholt and his group of ninjas can stop this diabloical plan. But which ninjas can he trust and which not?

The film has a big amount of fun ideas and the feeling of 80's after-school action shows and Thunderbirds is accurately recreated. Particularly the underwater espionage scenes are cool. Sadly, the film's editing looks for an ultra-slick style (seen, for example, in Edgar Wright's films), but ends up being sloppy. It doesn't help that the plot is utterly confusing. The film doesn't concentrate enough on its main characters and thus some of their actions seem odd and unexplained. But since this is the filmic equivelent of a director playing with his action figures, I suppose one can forgive this.


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