SITGES 2003 Film Festival Report

DAY ONE (November 27)

SitgesOff the plane and on the train to Sitges, I instantly notice that the weather is quite a bit colder this year, and very windy. The reasons to move the festival from its traditional October slot to November/December was mainly economical, but for someone used to the Swedish climate it still feels almost like summer. I book into the downtown Hotel Subur and make the traditional run (the first of many) to the festival hotel, the Melia at the outskirts of town. This year I'm determined to make it to the opening ceremony! The language of the festival is, of course, Catalan mixed with some Spanish, and therefore doesn't make much sense to me, but is still fun to watch the celebrities parade on stage. I get to see this year's retrospective guest Curtis Harrington accept an honorary award from festival director Ángel Sala, and the cast of the opening movie parade up on stage. Then the festival proper starts, with the first film...

Before the main feature, we are treated to a short, EL TREN DE LA BRUJA (Koldo Serra, Spain 2003). A man has volunteered to a strange experiment: He will sit in a chair in the middle of a dark room, and the experimenters (represented by an off-screen voice) will try to scare him enough to leave the chair, supposedly simply by talking to him. If he does not stay in the chair for the duration, he will not get any money! At first both the man and the audience are sceptic and flippant, but the film gradually tightens the screws, going from silly to very scary in 17 minutes, as the disembodied voice plays with the man's (and the audience's) imagination. This was an excellent way to open the festival, and even though the twist ending was something of a disappointment this short is worth seeking out. My guess is that the director already has a deal with FANTASTIC DISCOVERY or some other Spanish film producer to direct his first feature, and then perhaps we can look forward to seeing this short as an extra on a DVD down the line!

The opening film is CAMARA OSCURA (Pau Freixas, Spain 2003), having its world premiere at the festival. It's a slick Euro-thriller of the kind the Spanish companies seem increasingly competent at producing, but more in the action vein than recent horror-oriented successes like THE OTHERS and THE NAMELESS. There are no subtitles (darn!) but the story is fairly easy to follow. A group of young divers in Senegal find a dead man floating in the sea while far from land. After a mishap costs them their boat, they are forced to stay floating many harrowing hours in the water, until a potential rescue ship is sighted. However, something is seriously fishy on the ship - in fact, the dead man was probably dumped from it! As they sneak on, they discover that the crew is engaged in slave trade, smuggling illegal animals, and other criminal activity. There ensues a game of hide-and-seek with the vicious and quite scary crew members, and the final third of the films is pretty tense with at least one genuinely shocking event. Ultimately, while well made, this piece of entertainment is easy to digest but forgotten almost immediately. Considering that European thrillers of similar quality, like ANATOMY and L'ARTE MORIR (THE ART OF DYING) receive cinema and DVD releases, I would expect this to pop up internationally too.

Curtis HarringtonNext we have USHER (USA 2002), Curtis Harrington's first theatrical film for almost 30 years, after quirky shockers such as WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? and WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (both 1971, and both shown separately at the festival). The 40 minute short is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, but unlike another recent version (Ken Russell's THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER) it's not a glorified home movie. USHER is an interesting and personal film that will form part of a projected Poe anthology with two other shorts by other directors. Here, we find Poe transplanted to a contemporary Los Angeles mansion, with Harrington playing both Roderick and Madeleine Usher, twins who share a very intense relationship. A young(ish) writer comes to visit the household, to sit at the feet of the famous poet Roderick. Madeleine is not feeling well, and when she unexpectedly dies during a lively birthday party it's easy to figure out what happens after she is buried… This small-scale but well-made film echoes Corman's Poe epics in tone and pace, and the performance of Harrington in the dual role is excellent. Even more interesting than taking it as s straight horror film, might be to relate it to Harrington's well-documented relationship with FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale during the latter's old age. It's easy to see how the film could be a variation of that experience. In all, an interesting and very personal film which will hopefully see a wider release.

the red carpetTime for some Asian terror in the form of JUON: THE GRUDE 2 (Takashi Shimizu, Japan 2003). The first film was based on a successful TV series (which I have not seen) and had an interesting structure, with short sequences building up to moments of extreme terror. This instalment follows a similar pattern, with a new group of people who have visited the cursed house of the original and become victims of various grisly haunting. The first movie had moments that were so scary they felt like actual black magic - at times when watching it I felt like evil would literally ooze out of the TV screen and grab me at the throat (to mix in another Japanese horror image). This one tries to repeat the trick, and largely succeeds; however the thrill of the original is not quite there and the structure is a bit more predictable this time. Still, there were enough genuine scares to make me and the rest of the audience jump several times! The ending takes place in a hospital, and is more hysterical than spooky and reminded me of the birth scene in Lars von Trier's THE KINGDOM (we don't get Udo Kier peeking out this time, though!) However, after this fairly satisfactory ending, the director COMPLETELY blows the movie by including an unnecessary coda which is, quite frankly, crap! Too bad that a movie that had at least 90% of the power of the original would chose to throw it all away in the last minute.

Still on the first night of the festival, more Euro horror: DÉDALES (René Manzor, France 2003) has a seriously wild-eyed (we're talking Rasputin-level here) psychic detective chasing a serial killer, using some kind of psychic bond. The serial killer is revealed to be a young girl with a very serious case of multiple personalities, who is taken in for treatment by a less-than-eager psychoanalyst. There are three story strands that run in parallel: the serial killer's "work", the simultaneous chase by the police (and Mr. Rasputin), and the psychoanalysis sessions taking place after the arrests. The complex and completely un-typical killer, Claude (excellently played by Sylvie Testaud) has built a labyrinth of different personalities as protection from a childhood trauma, and it all comes together in a really surprising twist. This is a movie where you can go back and see how every detail in the plot (especially the ones that annoyed you the first time around!) in fact point towards the final revelation. Compared to other recent "killer twists" like IDENTITY and the Sitges-shown HAUTE TENSION (below), DÉDALES, while more sedate, is actually the best of the bunch. It is unfortunate that the film is just a little too pretentious and serious for its own good, and could therefore not provide Testaud with the kind of breakout attention received by Angela Bettis (best actress, Sitges 2002, for MAY) and Cécile de France (best actress, Sitges 2003, for HAUTE TENSION), even though her performance is in a similar league. The film will probably not play much outside film festivals, but hopefully a subtitled DVD is forthcoming.

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