Dario Argento once said, “Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back.” Abertoir, Wales’ International Horror Festival that wrapped this past Sunday, November 10th, has been celebrating horror’s malleability and resilience for eight years.
This year you could find Argento’s operatic giallo style reinvented by French filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears; vampires got a makeover in Kiss of the Damned and Chimeres; ghosts found new life in Ghost Graduation, Forgotten, and Soulmate; found footage was resurrected as Catholic horror in Borderlands; and creature features took a strange turn with The Station and Bad Milo.
Festival director Gaz Bailey had to watch a lot of awful films to find the best the genre had to offer. And he looks for one thing above all else when selecting a film: originality.
“It has to be something different ,” Bailey said, “When people think of horror films, they generally think of some girl in the woods getting chased by whoever. There is an awful lot of that and I absolutely hate it but I think you’ll see by our line-up that there’s none of that. It’s the skill of the filmmaker to play with your emotions and psychology to make you scared or at least to play with your knowledge of other horror films that we respect. In our selection we’ll go from art house horror to crazy Japanese splatter movies to cult classics like the Hammer House of Horror movies, and then we go to the silent films with live piano accompaniment. We mix it up as much as we can do to show people there is a huge market for this, and there is a huge variety in the horror genre.”
The audience awards reflected that diversity as well. In the feature film category, Welsh pride shone through with the homegrown sci-fi horror film The Machine taking third place. In second, Spain’s Painless found horror buried in the secrets of the past, and the first place winner was the crowd pleasing ghost comedy, also from Spain, Ghost Graduation. The best in show award went to the first place short horror comedy Fist of Jesus.
Bailey, who programs films all year long at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Ceredigion, Wales, started Abertoir eight years ago.
“I’m a big horror fan, and frankly eight years ago there were no horror events in Wales. You had to travel all the way to London or Edinburgh to see a decent horror festival. So I thought, ‘Oh I’ll just put on a couple horror films around Halloween,’ and we got carried away.”
This year’s festival included a tribute to Peter Cushing’s Hammer films, filmmaker Q&As, live theater, a literary component, and even its own beer (this year called Crwr Cushing Abertoir Ale) on sale in the pub. Bailey is proud of the festival’s success and of the fact that it now boasts financial support from the prestigious British Film Institute and the Film Agency for Wales. Not bad for a genre that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves from the mainstream arts community.
Getting respect for an oft under-appreciated genre was one reason Bailey started the festival. But he also wanted to keep it small and intimate.
“That’s what we strive to get in our festival is sort of a family atmosphere,” said Bailey.
This is reflected in the way the festival is run. Bailey is always readily available to attendees and he ushers in guests with an informality that breaks down the boundaries audiences can often feel when filmmakers and actors are treated like celebrities. It also means that Bailey can confide in the crowd about having to run one film in order to book another he really wants or that one guest racked up a bar bill that truly terrified him.
Bailey’s co-horts at Abertoir are Nia Edwards-Behi and Rhys Fowler. Although Edwards-Behi denies having any agenda other than finding the best films, she did admit special pride in the fact that this year there are four films, including The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears and Soulmate,, directed by women.
“I’m conscious to not make too big of a deal of it because I don’t want to be, ‘Hey guys, special cases – look at this!’ So it’s about striking a balance of wanting to promote a particular type of filmmaker and a particular type of story with the fact that you are just wanting to show the best possible films. I mean, personally, what I’d also like to see more of is Welsh horror films, particularly Welsh language horror films, but there aren’t that many; and in the same vein when I see a film has been submitted by or has been directed by a woman, I think, ‘Oh god, I have to go watch that.’ But if it’s not of the kind of quality we need, we won’t show it. I’m always kind of keeping an eye out for films directed by women.”
Abertoir has shown American Mary, directed by twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, but rejected Hidden in the Woods, which depicted repeated rape scenes.
“I’m very conscious of this depiction of particular acts and particular scenes involving women, but at the same time I always try to think, ‘Okay, does this bring something to the narrative?,’ and if it does, then fine. It is quite important to horror to show horrific things; horror does have to portray horrific acts and that plays into it, but there is a prevalence of just using, for example, rape scenes as a throwaway plot device. If you don’t explore it properly, if it’s not sort of an integral part of the story, then it does bother me quite a lot,” said Edwards-Behi.
One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Q&A following the screening of Lucio Fukci’s cult film Zombie Flesh Eaters with composer Fabio Frizzi and star Richard Johnson. In a leisurely discussion that ran some 40 minutes, Frizzi recalled how Fulci was a “passionate filmmaker and a good guy, but when he was in a bad moment, it was a bad moment for everybody.”.
Johnson recounted this anecdote: “There was a girl in the film who played the girl who came out of the sea, and she displayed more attributes than her acting, which was just as well because Fulci did admit pretty early on that she couldn’t act at all. But it just drove at his brain every day, and one time after he tried to get her to do something with some sort of vague approximation of human behavior, he got so angry take after take after take with her that he fell on the ground and started eating the grass, beating his fist on the grass, and he said, ‘I eat the grass or I eat you.’”
Welsh filmmaker Caradog James got a warm reception, even though he didn’t speak Welsh. For its small budget, The Machine displayed an impressive visual style and production design, with a Welsh company creating the stellar effects.
In James’ Q&A, he discussed doing research for his film, which concerns a military program that creates a robot that approximates human thinking and even emotions with troubling consequences. But the story didn’t crystalize for him until his producer “managed to organize an off-the-record meeting with a guy at the Ministry of Defense who is actually building artificial intelligence machines for the government, and the kind of progression he’d gone through is that they mapped a slug brain and they mapped a rat brain, and I think they are working on mapping a chimp brain, so it is not a far-reached thing that sometime in the future they will map a human brain, and that kind of provoked me to think if a machine thinks and feels like we do, what kind of questions are we going to have to face in the next 50, 100 years’ time when these machines come to fruition? And that was really the basis for the story.”
James was asked about the robot language used in the film and revealed, “The actress [Pooneh Hajimohammadi] who played Suri, who’s kind of head of the implant soldiers, is from Iran and so she taught all of Suri’s army their dialogue in Farsi. She translated into Farsi and they learned it by rote, and then obviously in post we then heavily digitized it and changed it and manipulated it. But the reason I did that is not any kind of political comment or anything like that; it was purely because I didn’t want the actors making it up. When actors make up dialogue, you can tell and there’s no emotion behind it and I wanted there to be structure to the language so that it felt believable, they had confidence in what they were saying, and also they could just put a performance into it rather than talking jibberish.”
Another filmmaker in attendance was Olivier Beguin. His film Chimeres considers what would happen to a couple if one of them suddenly became a vampire. It combines romance, drama, horror, and revenge. Beguin said one of the things that influenced his themes was the suicide-murders that keep grabbing headlines in which someone shoots up a club or an office and then turns the gun on themselves. The enthusiastic Beguin said that people often question his involvement in the horror genre.
“People ask me, ‘How can you do horror?’ But it’s so cool. There is a shower scene in Chimeres with actress Jasna Kohoutova under a blood shower; it is so much fun to have a naked girl under a shower of blood. It’s a bit like asking a painter what is so much fun with painting? So yes, red is my favorite color.” Then Beguin got more serious, “Not joking, I think mixing the genres is really something that attracts me to horror cinema or fantastic cinema. That you can deal with a real relationship but with a background that is fantasy, like dealing with vampires. But still I deal with a love story with real people with real behaviors but with images that are a bit cooler and more interesting.”
But Beguin also expressed frustration with the genre, “Lately I haven’t been scared in movies. I think recently horror has become a bit less subversive and a bit more mainstream. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Twilight. It is one of the worst things that have happened to the genre. But there are still films that really make me believe in horror. I love The Woman by Lucky McKee. I think he firmly believes in the genre and goes for it, and he makes a movie that can scare me. So there are some filmmakers that are doing films that are worth seeing. I just saw a few days ago We Are What We Are, the remake, and this is great. This is what the horror genre needs, films that are a bit subversive, that show something else, that mix genres. This is the kind of film when you see it that you feel, ‘Yes the genre is still worth it.'”
Abertoir served up many examples of what makes the genre worth it. It made you grateful for Peter Cushing and Vincent Price in Madhouse, a restored print of Zombie Flesh Eaters, the seductive imagery of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, the jaw-dropping ridiculousness of All Cheerleaders Die, the wickedly endearing practical effects of Bad Milo, the death by 45s in Discopath, and the superb performances in Borderlands and Chimeres. The showcase of horror at Abertoir reflected the best the genre has to offer and the passion of the festival directors, who were already planning next year’s festival before this one even ended.
Beth Accomando is author of the blog Cinema Junkie.
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