As the genre film festival scene in the UK continues to grow with a welcome number of excellent independent events such as Abertoir and Dead By Dawn being joined by new kindred souls across the UK, Marc Lissenburg takes the plunge and sinks his teeth into The Bram Stoker Film Festival…
CARLSTADT DONT DO FILM FESTIVALS.... BUT IF THEY DID...
The stimulant that transforms 'watching horror movies' into a 'festival experience' is undoubtedly the 'sharing': that inconspicuous yet vibrant energy that exudes from a zealous audience, adding an indescribable new dimension to features old and new as they unfurl on the communal screen. Having been born in 1972 AD, I missed the opportunity of encounters with Hammers Studios' vast array of horrors on the big screen. And while home cinema seems to expand with each passing year, the enchantment of the theatre remains a different realm altogether. So when the sequel to 2009's Bram Stoker Film Festival was announced, (which, incidentally, I missed due to attending the Fantastic Films festival in Manchester) I immediately booked - 4 months in advance. I mention this only because it sets the scene for my own personal journey leading up to, and of course, attending the fest.
After investing in a weekend pass I would sporadically peruse the superb BSFF website which I found fun, original and most importantly, informative, with regular updates. My best friend soon followed suit in ordering a pass and it became a contest between us regarding who could tell the other about the latest update. (I guess he won the day when he excitedly called me informing me about the Wicker Man screening!) But I digress...
In what seemed like an epoch leading up to the festival, I at least had time to procure an item or two with which to embellish myself for the eagerly awaited Vampire Ball to be held at the climax of the festival. (This climax not necessarily being my personal highlight...) With such a lengthy build up, there was always the risk of the dreaded anticlimax. So how did the BSFF fare amidst such anticipation? Dim the lights and read on...
The Venue was, in a word, perfection. For obvious reasons Whitby IS Dracula, but the pavilion was the perfect location for the whole event. The spacious hall allowed the exceptional Hammer Films exhibition generous territory, which the organizers utilized beautifully. The Studio's legendary make-up artist Roy Ashton's original artwork was displayed, along with a timeline that showcased many props and costumes from the institution that is Hammer Films. The stage and signing tables were again roomy yet comfortable - almost homely. This meant celebrating these precious artefacts of British horror folklore with the people who helped make them a more personal experience somehow. A special tip of the ole hat must be aimed at the aforementioned special guests. I have attended events where the guests were, how should I put it, 'a little less enthusiastic' about attending than the fans were. This, however, was definitely NOT the case at the BSFF! The Hammer girls Caroline Munroe, Vera Day and Martine Beswick epitomize 'Hammer Glamour', while Emily Booth always adds a youthful shot of Goth Chic to any event. Martine Beswick's elegant hands, exploited so beautifully in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, gracefully gliding across a colour photo, leaving a personalised trail of black ink was a unique and treasured encounter.
Guest of Honour was the charming Shane Briant. Rumours that Shane brought the absurd October sunshine which illuminated the weekend with him from Australia, where he has resided for the last 25 years, continue to circulate! The guests were always accessible and indulged in fan requests and questions with such zeal that they certainly contributed to the patently friendly atmosphere of the 4 days.
The theatre itself retained the old world character so often lost in today's retail park cinemas that our children are being reared on. I suppose purists could moan that a film festival is cheating if it fails to obtain the reels of the pictures they intend to show as oppose to digital technology. But, make no mistake, this was a cinema experience! I have been to festivals gone by where DVDs were used and you DID feel cheated - more conference suite then cinema. But the charm of the theatre's interior, accentuated by the Victorian upper stalls, along with the quality sound system, was more than worthy of hosting some of the finest moments in British Horror.
Moving onto the movies themselves, the highlights for me were the Hammer presentations. The unique atmosphere and presence that Hammer brings to the screen is enduring. It was privilege indeed to watch the festival's special guests at their respective peaks breathe life into the tales they portrayed. Being honest, I am certainly not averse to enduring the odd serving of today's 'shock and gore' trend. But when 'torture porn' inevitable fades as the questionable sub-genre it is, Hammer's immortal flame will still be burning defiantly against the blowing winds of time.
Viewing these treats in the ambient setting of the pavilions theatre was like visiting old friends. The 'blood on the bell' and the 'refocus cinematography on the noose' in CAPTAIN KRONOS looked grander then ever; the gush and gurgle of blood from Alan's slit throat as it slapped into the PRINCE OF DARKNESS's tomb in was gorgeously hideous. A CGI Freddie Krueger would surely be having nightmares himself at the sight of chilling ageless horror delivered with class and originality.
Final mention regarding Hammer's presence goes to a delightful documentary shown on Saturday morning titled, GREASEPAINT AND GORE. The position of this film on the schedule was masterful whether intended or not. Such was the passion and joy celebrating the films and the film making process, it positively made you WANT to watch films! Different stories and antidotes fondly remembered by legends such as Lee, Shelley, Fisher et al conveyed a real feel of how Roy Ashton's enchanting effects added sparkle to some of Hammers finest moments. Any future documentaries to be shown should definitely be scheduled for an AM showing in my opinion, in order to wet the appetite for the features that were to follow.
Of course it wasn't only Hammer films that made this festival so enjoyable. The organizers must be commended for taking some calculated risks in putting the film schedule together. The unique blend of timeless classics from Hammer and modern features, including some gorgeous shorts, overwhelmingly paid off.
I missed the much talked about AMER unfortunately due to only being able to arrive on Friday. But, being a fan of Norwegian Black Metal, my own personal inauguration to the festival was, appropriately enough, the Norse independent feature MORKE SJELER. Translating as "Dark Souls", it was a perfectly-paced feature with an exquisitely bleak nature. The sprinkling of black humour to accompany the similarly coloured vomit attained a superb balance.
Independent short films always inject a change of pace at festivals and the peppering of these over the 4 days worked a treat. My personal favourite CHARMANTE MIRA, a tale about 'wife swapping' going horribly wrong, was intoxicatingly shot with an air of sinister humour, without ever being cheesy.
DANS TON SOMEIL ("In Their Sleep") was a beautifully depressing piece of filmmaking that surely etched itself in the memory of anyone who saw it. Where as RED VICTORIA gave the proceedings a light-hearted edge, THE COMMUNE's gritty homage to a certain family from 1969 was the perfect hangover cure for anyone who had had one glass of Vampire wine too many at the Vampire Ball the night before (more on that later!)
The highlights came quick and fast. There was not simply something to look forward to on every day - there was something to look forward to every couple of hours, such was the potency of the line up.
If such abundance of quality entertainment can be likened to a rose, then the dilemma of two events clashing is its respective thorn. For example: choose to see the aforementioned COMMUNE UK premier thus missing out on the Hammer Girls Q and A session on Sunday afternoon). While it is easy to draw a negative from this, it should be remembered that at least it allowed for a unique festival experience by giving the attendees the opportunity to choose what forbidden fruits they tasted. As the festival unfolded, I lost count of how many excited conversations were taking place among attendees comparing what they had watched or indulged in.
There was a deviation from the activity of simply watching films on the Saturday night - the option of attending the much anticipated Vampire Ball! Films ran alongside the party night, but for those wanting to let their fangs down, the Ball was the place to be! Creative attire was the order of the night and costumes ranged from the traditional Vampire antiquity to all out demonic indulgence! The flyer advertising the ball gave a hint at what was to come, but left a teasing veil of mystery, delicately draped over what was in store. What we got was nothing short of amazing!
The champagne reception was a touch of class, gracing the entering guests with a glass of bubbly, thus eliminating the need of ordering at the bar the moment you arrive. Where else on the planet would demonically dressed guests mix with black tie traditionalists and together be enthralled by the unusual theatrics of a choir singing the story of Frankenstein? The live music added a shot of energy into proceedings from the exciting new band Bad Pollyanna. But my personal highlight of the night was the remarkable show provided by the burlesque trio the Broken Dolls. The darkly erotic cabaret was subtly choreographed to the perfect soundtrack … Simon, Cheryl and Louis... THIS is Saturday night entertainment…! DJs provided the music for those wishing to dance into the wee hours. All in all, an amazing night that appeared to be thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended.
Sundays highlight was the Directors Cut of Robin Hardy's classic, THE WICKER MAN. This version, showing for the first time in a UK cinema, still retained all of its surreal atmosphere and was utterly absorbing from start to finish. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Hardy at the bar before the showing, and had the absolute honour of being able to buy the director a drink (a shot of whiskey in a tall glass with lots of ice and a little water if you happen to get the chance!) The final superb shot of the film of the 'wicker head' finally succumbing to the raging flames, leaving the camera to idle on that opulent orange sunset, was wholly symbolic that the fest was drawing to its dreaded conclusion. Clips from Robin Hardy's latest project THE WICKER TREE were then premiered and looked intriguing. This was followed by a fine Q and A session with the director, which served as yet another unique privilege served by the organisers.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT was the final film of the fest and missing it would have, under normal circumstances, seemed inconceivable. But meeting Gavin Baddeley at the pavilion bar proved to be too much of an opportunity to pass up, as the occult expert signed my books and graciously conversed with me about his incredible experiences and encyclopaedic knowledge. Fantastic.
I was intending to catch the embers of the Devil riding out but duly bumped into the Fies sisters of COMMUNE notoriety, and was caught up in another conversation (damn that Vampire wine!). Though I was happy to benefit from Brenda and Elizabeth initiating me as the "Stag King" via their inimitable doodling on some of the freely available COMMUNE promotional artwork! Will be treasured forever ladies - and yes I have ordered the special edition DVD from the official website as promised!
It might appear churlish to search for any negatives in such an amazing event and to be fair, there weren't many at all. Cancellations are not necessarily the organizers fault but were disappointing all the same (DRACULA 4D being cancelled and Jus Osborn from Electric Wizard not attending the awards ceremony being two). It also would have been better to publicly announce any time changes. For example DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE being shifted to a slightly earlier slot caused a few people to miss the opening scenes. These minor quibbles aside, the festival was flawless.
The suggestion by one of the organizers that 2010's event was partly a learning exercise in preparation for a bigger event next year was rather modest. But to suggest that next years event will be the last dress rehearsal before 2012's grand Dracula Centenary Festival is.... well, frightening!
I have been attending horror fests all over the country since the early 1990s and have cherished memories of most of them. But I have to end by saying… The Bram Stoker Film Festival in Whitby... Probably the best horror film festival in the world.......
Special thanks to The Bram Stoker Film Festival