SITGES 2003 Film Festival Report


Kevin O'Neill and Omar Ali KhanIn the line for the next film I meet FANTASTIC jury member and artist Kevin O'Neill, who has been working with script writer Alan Moore on the comic book series THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. We start by agreeing that the LEAGUE movie adaptation is not nearly as bad as its reputation. Since I once wrote my thesis in literature science on Alan Moore's WATCHMEN, I feel a need to pump Kevin on more info on the writer! Apparently, Moore is not happy with the loss of creative control he has experienced with movie versions of his work (he only bothered to see a few minutes of FROM HELL) and does not intend to sell any more comics to film. Also, it seems the rumours are true that after recently turning 50, Moore intends to stop writing his successful super-hero comics in favour of more personal work. But before that happens we can at least look forward to another volume of THE LEAGUE, the third in the series which O'Neill is currently working on.

THE SINGING DETECTIVE (Keith Gordon, USA 2003) is based on one of the best dramas ever made for television, and shot from a script completed by writer Dennis Potter shortly before his death. Robert Downey jr. plays an author of detective stories who is bedridden in a hospital, suffering from a severe skin condition. He hallucinates stories out of his novels, and intermingles them with memories from his childhood. A psychiatrist (producer Mel Gibson in a convincing bald cap) eventually manages to have him confront the memories that are eating him up from inside. While based on Potter's script, the film has been transplanted from UK to the US, and the time period of the flashbacks has changed from the mid-1940's to the late 50's. Unfortunately, this has also changed the music from 40's crooners to rock'n'roll and do-wop. It's much less interesting to see the detective singing 50's songs - the image one gets is more that of a rockabilly revival band than a suave Bogart-style private eye! It's hard to know just how much the script was changed, but I have a feeling Potter would be spinning in his grave if he knew what music was used in this version, since it changes the flavour of the (originally autobiographical) story dramatically. But while it's hard for me to shake the impression of the original since I just saw the entire series on DVD, the film still catches most of the essence of the show.

What am I doing in this line?I follow this with something as unlikely as Chinese science fiction. ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES (Yu Lik Wai, China 2003) is set in the mid 21st century, and may or may not be an allegory over Mao's cultural revolution. It is set in a no-mans land on the border between China and Korea, where we follow some stranded refugees, who try to avoid being put into "re-education centres". The people in the film don't have much fun and actually don't really do very much at all. The whole thing looks drab and is very dreary and depressing, without being particularly moving. The only interesting aspect is the influence of Western avant garde rock and post-punk music, such as the title (picked from a song by The Velvet Underground) and a scene scored with a loud Joy Division number.

DANCING (Patrick-Mario Bernard, Xavier Brillad and Pierre Trividic, France 2002) is, simply put, French bollocks, and I'm not just saying that because of the instances of rather graphic gay sex on display! A scriptwriter lives in an old dance hall together with an artist who does installations and photos featuring teddy bears. The artist becomes obsessed with a photo of a pair of Vaudeville comedians in little-girl drag. Eventually, one of them starts appearing to him in the flesh, living in the basement of the house and acting as a sort of doppelganger. Things go from weird to worse and end on a suitably pretentious note, with dozens of identical copies of a visiting art gallery owner sneaking out in the night to perform low-impact aerobics on the floor! Huh? There are flashes of interest and actually one or two moments that are strangely compelling, such as the doppelganger's first eerie appearance, but on the whole this just a curio that won't be seen outside film festivals.

This was really one bad French film too many, but fortunately, before I start forming my own S.W.A.T. team together with some of the other disgruntled festival goers, there's DEAD END (Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, France-USA 2003). The film is competently shot in English with mainly American actors. A family (led by "Laura Palmer's dad" Ray Wise) is en route to their Christmas holidays when they have a near-accident on the highway. Before you can say CARNIVAL OF SOULS, everything start going wrong: the road seems to go on forever, a mysterious woman carrying a dead baby starts haunting them, all clocks have stopped on 7:30, and the family members become abducted one by one by a hearse-like car, only to return dead and horribly mutilated. The films works pretty well for what it is, and while there's not much gore there's a spooky atmosphere and some good scares. The story becomes really interesting when the surviving family members start going crazy and turn towards each other, with the wife being the worst nutcase! The whole thing is not unlike the horror film equivalent of a McDonald's hamburger: junk food that could have been made anywhere in the world, but quite acceptable as long as your expectations are set at the right level.

Andy Starke, festival chief, Screaming Next is DOPPELGANGER (Kiyoshi Kuorsawa, Japan 2003), the most recent outing from this interesting director, whose earlier CURE is showing in the Japanese retrospective. "Indescribable" is probably the only possible description of this excellent grab-bag of a film! A scientist is working on a kind of super-wheelchair, with mechanical arms that can be controlled by mental force alone. Simultaneously, a man who is the scientist's exact double start mysteriously appearing - and is soon doing some of the things that the scientist does not want to or cannot do, like using morally questionable methods to increase funding for the project. The scientist seeks out another person who has had a similar doppelganger experience, but his own double soon turns from being annoying to really dangerous. The story is totally wacky but does have its own sense of logic, and is filled with odd characters and strange turns. Fortunately, it never becomes too odd for its own good but is constantly entertaining. It a real change of pace from the typical horror/action fare from Asia, and I liked it a lot, as did the Sitges audience who gave it a long ovation!

HAUTE TENSIONS (Alexander Aja, France 2003) is a slasher entry from an up-and-coming new director, who made his full-length debut with the fantasy movie FURIA in 2000, aged only 22! The film is shot in French and set in a generic countryside. Two young girls are visiting a family farmhouse, but a psychotic killer soon appears and starts murdering everyone, with the outsider girl the only line of defence. The film follows all the conventions of the serial-killer-on-the-loose genre, and is vicious, gory and sometimes quite scary, with a great turn from CÚcile de France as the heroine-in-peril well deserving of her Best Actress award. However, there is a stupid twist at the end that effectively negates a lot of what has gone before. This is particularly annoying since it is the kind of twist that should have provided a good opportunity to re-watch the film to see how everything falls into place (like with DEDALES, above) - but instead, there are so many inconsistencies that nothing really makes sense after the final reveal. In any case, Aja is a name to watch and has the mechanics of fright films down to a pat - with the right material he will be able to make a really good horror film which works on other levels than just the visceral.

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