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Reality Swept Away: Hellions at Sydney Underground Film Festival 2015

HellionsWith a blood moon last month and Halloween impending, it’s an opportune time to discuss Bruce McDonald’s 2015 feature Hellions, which combines the two events to atmospheric effect.

The film begins in familiar enough horror territory, with a late-teens protagonist, Dora (Chloe Rose), canoodling with her boyfriend as they plan that night’s Halloween festivities. Following the unexpected results of a routine doctor’s appointment, however, the heroine’s evening begins to unravel in surreal fashion, pushing the film away from a standard Halloween narrative; the titular hellions might be expected, but the bizarre new reality they usher in is not.

With overtones of The Wizard of Oz, including a particularly disconcerting hurricane heralding a lurid new colour scheme, McDonald whisks away any objective sense of reality until neither Dora nor the viewer can differentiate between actuality, waking nightmare and hallucination. It’s a frightening evocation of Halloween, that truly liminal time of year when the barriers between living and dead; human and supernatural, become permeable.

In shedding realism, McDonald uses various experimental techniques, including rapid-fire sequences of still images; superimposition so that Dora appears multiplied as her sanity disintegrates; and that uncanny blood rose palette, a result of shooting in infrared. These abstract passages are interspersed with more traditional jump-scares, which though initially effective lose their potency with repetition.

In a September 8 interview with Dread Central, McDonald underlined the Wizard of Oz connection by referring to Dora’s tormentors, the hellions, as a perverse version of Dorothy’s Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. The hellions’ childlike appearance, however, makes them more reminiscent of various characters in Michael Dougherty’s horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat – particularly that film’s emblematic central figure, Sam. While Hellions‘ concerns are ultimately very different from those of Trick ‘r Treat, the distinct resemblance of its supernatural characters to those in such a masterful Halloween film is distracting.

On the other hand, if you can look past the Trick ‘r Treat resemblance, the hellions’ childlike aspect might be seen as Dora’s fear of her newly revealed pregnancy made manifest: the terror of being consumed by a small intruder voracious for your blood. It’s tempting to try to weave together some sort of cohesive narrative explanation from enticing symbolic fragments like this, but of course coherence isn’t at all the point in this film that so effectively rips away any absolute sense of reality.

And yet, the ending seeks to reassert a form of reality (perhaps a nod to Dorothy’s awakening from Oz) which fails to cast any light on what’s happened before and so seems a little pointless. Unlike the ambiguity at play in, say, Mulholland Drive (2001) or Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the uncertainty in Hellions feels unfinished, dissatisfying.

McDonald’s willingness to embrace experimentalism and to push beyond the boundaries of certainty makes for a singular, transportive experience, but as with many a dream upon waking, its internal logic remains elusive.

 

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The Invitation

TheInvitationShowing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, The Invitation (2015) was, according to Richard Kuipers, programmer of the festival’s horror-themed Freak Me Out collection, the fastest of his film sessions to sell out. This latest feature from director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, 2000; Jennifer’s Body, 2009) relies upon ambiguity and the element of surprise. I’ll try not to give away too much here.

The film opens on a couple, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), driving to a dinner party. We gather it’s to be a reunion of sorts following a separation caused by an unspecified, traumatic event. The camera gives us a blurry, moving view of the treetops above the road as the opening credits roll, presenting an atypically sombre view of LA. From the outset, there’s an edge of uncertainty, the sense of a world slightly askew.

As Will and Kira arrive at their destination, an opulent house in the Hollywood Hills, we’re like another, invisible guest at this weird gathering, trying to ascertain who everyone is and what precisely is going on. No character seems entirely open. The cast in Kusama’s ensemble piece create an excruciating sense of the sort of forced bonhomie that descends upon a group of people reestablishing connections and trying to ignore certain dissonant elements at play. As the evening progresses, the party guests seem caught in a spider web presided over by their attentive, yet cloying and vaguely obnoxious hosts, who radiantly claim to have discovered a mysterious form of spiritual enlightenment. Tension is built through a mastery of those little wrong notes, those slips in the social norms – a slap, a personal anecdote that turns unexpectedly sinister – whose combined effect makes us suspect that something’s off.

Will is the only one prepared to point out a possible sinister undercurrent beneath the convivial buzz – and his interpretation may be clouded by mental illness and recent personal tragedy. There’s a parallel here with Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic (2013), whose protagonist’s reliability is also called into question. How important is it to follow your gut feeling, The Invitation asks, when to do so means flouting social etiquette and risking public embarrassment?

Viewed from another angle, the film presents an interesting critique of intransigent systems of belief. Given California’s history as home in the West of alternative movements both benign and sinister, Los Angeles forms the perfect location for the miasma of New Age spirituality and self-help that hangs over The Invitation: something that’s magnificently emphasised in the film’s final twist.

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Profound Alienation: Brendan Muldowney’s Love Eternal

LoveEternal

Robert de Hoog, Amanda Ryan; Love Eternal (2013)

I saw Irish writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s Love Eternal at last year’s Sydney Film Festival and intended to blog about it months ago. But while another SFF is almost upon us, this film is so unusual I don’t want pass up the opportunity to talk about it here, if a little belatedly.

Love Eternal is a difficult film to pin down: one that raises more questions than it answers. It revolves around the enigmatic Ian (Robert de Hoog), a young man who feels himself to be an imposter in human skin. This intrinsic discomfort and dislocation from humanity draws Ian to online suicide groups whose members offer support and encouragement in the meticulous planning of each others’ deaths. When the day comes for Ian to enact his own suicide, however, his plans are thwarted. Driving into the local forest, he happens upon a group of people doing exactly the same thing – more effectively – in a van nearby.

Ian is transfixed by one of the participants, a teenage girl, and takes her body back to his house, where he ‘cares’ for it with awkward reverence. Any future suicide plans are put on the back burner. It’s pertinent to note here that Love Eternal is based on a Japanese novel, “In Love With the Dead,” by Kei Oishi, something that, given the differing culture around suicide in Japan, perhaps brings a bit of context to Love Eternal‘s communal suicide scene, which doesn’t seem to quite belong in this European setting, instead suggesting Mount Fuji’s infamous ‘Suicide Forest.’ Ian’s discovery of necrophilia is certainly confronting, but the film is careful not to play it for grossness and shock value. While Ian is now drawn to the dead, finding a semblance of intimacy with his lifeless ‘companions,’ we sense he finds this deeply troubling on some level – and not just because they ‘leave’ him by decomposing.

Somewhat dissonantly, considering the subject matter, Love Eternal is a superficially beautiful film, with a leaning towards the picturesque that sometimes resembles a tourism advert. Ian, who lives in a white mansion overlooking the sea, so secluded we never even glimpse neighbours, makes forays down to the water, walking along a promenade where the attractively prosperous enjoy their leisure time. Shot in lush Cork and elegant Luxembourg, the film consciously avoids attaching its events to any real place. This lack of belonging to anywhere lends the scenario a symbolic or mythic quality that reminds me of Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013), another film about an outsider who cannot relate to humanity.

In both Love Eternal and Stoker, the protagonist forms a pivotal relationship that leads to a personal epiphany and change of direction. Interestingly, given the initial similarities between protagonists, these epiphanies are markedly different. While Stoker‘s heroine embraces her true, dark nature, Ian’s revelation is redemptive. This humanistic conclusion is a little surprising given the darkness of preceding events. Did he really just need a friend in order to step back from death? We can never know the exact nature of Ian’s profound alienation, but in this sensitive examination of one of humankind’s more questionable fetishes, that’s not really a flaw.

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A Night of Horror 2014: Julia

Ashley C. Williams with prey in Julia (2014)

Ashley C. Williams with prey in Julia (2014)

Unfortunately, due to other commitments, I only made it to one film on the promising program at this year’s A Night of Horror Film Festival in Sydney (20-30 November 2014). This was Matthew A. Brown’s hyper-stylised rape-revenge thriller Julia, a film which takes us into a netherworld of transgressive violence as it charts the dark blossoming of its protagonist.

Very early on we learn that Julia‘s titular heroine is the survivor of a particularly calculated gang rape and attempted murder. She returns to her job without reporting the crime and in its aftermath negotiates life with furtive, almost wordless anxiety, until a chance encounter with a group of mysterious women offers the prospect of help through unconventional therapy. Julia (Ashley C. Williams) begins sessions with the charismatic Dr Sgundud (Jack Noseworthy) and guided by the doctor’s beautiful accolyte Sadie (Tahyna Tozzi) is propelled through a series of increasingly bloody rituals with dreamlike inevitability.

On an aesthetic level, Julia is beautifully constructed, its glossy-lipped femmes fatales illuminated by lurid splashes of colour as they move through murky bars to the beat of a pulsing, trancelike soundtrack. Rape sequence aside, the emphasis is on the sensual and erotic. What the film lacks, despite strong performances from Williams and Tozzi, is depth of characterisation or much insight into sexual violence. In fact, Julia is not so much a film about rape as it is a dark fantasy that deploys rape as a narrative foil for its heroine’s fetishised violence.

It’s not unique in this regard, of course; the rape-revenge genre is not renowned for nuanced portrayals. However, recent female-directed features like the Soska Sisters’ American Mary (2012) and Karen Lam’s Evangeline (2013) demonstrate that it is possible to make horror movies that engage with these issues in much more complex and thoughtful ways. Crucially, the Soskas and Lam are at pains to develop their protagonists as individuals. Brown’s Julia, in contrast, can be reduced to the polar archetypes of cowed victim and vengeful siren. The supporting characters, including Sadie and Dr Sgundud, are even sketchier.

That’s not to imply Brown’s intentions for Julia were the same as the Soskas’ and Lam’s for their respective films. I think Brown wanted to make something slick and heightened and stylish, inspired by the Korean and Japanese revenge thrillers he cited during the post-film Q & A – and in this he and his team succeeded. But more attention to the psychology and relationships underpinning the spectacle would have deepened Julia‘s impact significantly.

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Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival: Interview With Briony Kidd

Australian filmmaker Briony Kidd, co-founder and programmer of Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival

Australian filmmaker Briony Kidd, co-founder and programmer of Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival. Image used with permission.

In August this year I was lucky enough to travel to Hobart for the third annual Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival on behalf of RealTime magazine. An intimate festival with a growing international profile, Stranger With My Face was started in 2012 by Hobart-based filmmakers Rebecca Thomson and Briony Kidd as a showcase and forum for horror directed by women. My coverage of the festival can be found on the RealTime Arts website, but I’ve decided to post my full interview with Briony Kidd here so that her insightful views on women in horror and the Australian film industry can be shared.

There’s a great sense of community at Stranger With My Face. What outcomes does the networking at the festival foster for women’s filmmaking, do you think?

 “Horror” has been (and continues to be for some) a dirty word in the Australian film industry, so you can feel a bit isolated if that’s what you’re into. Add to that being female in a very male-dominated genre, and the effect is compounded. On the most basic level, it’s just nice to hang out with like-minded people. There’s also an opportunity to support each other’s work and develop relationships. A number of creative collaborations have developed out of the festival, which tells us we’re on the right track.

For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with Women in Horror Month and the activities which spring from it, could you give us a bit of background on what motivated you and Rebecca to launch the festival?

 Women in Horror Month is every February and was started in 2010 by Hannah Neurotica, who also writes a feminist zine called Ax Wound. I became aware of it when a short film of mine was selected to be part of the Viscera Film Festival, which was a festival based in Los Angeles run by Heidi Honeycutt and Shannon Lark. The two events worked very closely together. I think Viscera was the first fest to focus specifically on women-directed horror and it was great because, apart from just screening films, they would tour their program by allowing other festivals, or anyone who wanted to actually, to look at their catalogue of films online and curate their own selection.

That’s all I wanted to do initially in 2012, just screen some of the Viscera shorts as a Women in Horror Month event in Hobart. But there were other films that I wanted to include as well, and then we wanted to have talks and a script comp, and it very quickly became its own thing. So we ran with it and called it Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival (after the Lois Duncan YA novel) because the kind of horror I’m most interested in as the programmer of the festival concerns the ‘horror within’ rather than your more straightforward external threat.

SWMF2014_archway_Salarts

Stranger With My Face 2014 continues on into the night at Salamanca Arts Centre

What are you looking for when you search for films for Stranger With My Face?

 I’m looking for films that have something to say. There’s an assumption that genre is mainly escapism but, to me, there’s so much scope in horror to be provocative or extreme or personal or original, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? The films should also be well made, of course.

What (apart from all of it!) were some highlights of this year’s festival for you?

It was a big deal to me to get Ann Turner and Rebecca Smart down for the screening of Celia because I think it’s an extraordinary film. I was happy that the audience seemed to agree. There was a moment afterwards at the Brisbane, listening to The Night Terrors with Ann and Rebecca next to me nattering away having a catch-up, that struck me as being quite surreal. In the best possible way.

 Another highlight was seeing what the Tasploitation Challenge filmmakers came up with this year, particularly some of the women-directed films where the directors were also performers and threw themselves into it fearlessly. The film that won was made by a team of a father and his two young daughters. It’s inspiring to see what people come up with when they have ‘permission’ to cut loose.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas talks women in horror at the Mary Shelley Symposium

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas talks women in horror at the Mary Shelley Symposium

 Was this year’s Mary Shelley Symposium [the festival’s series of talks on genre and gender] programmed after the films were selected? If so, was its content tailored to complement the films on offer?

 The two are programmed side by side, but I wanted it to feel like they were riffing off each other in various ways. For example, Emily Bullock talked about Tasmanian Gothic and The Tale of Ruby Rose and we screened the short film Little Lamb, which is a new example of Tasmanian Gothic and the director’s mentor in making it was Roger Scholes, the director of Ruby Rose. I also realised there was a fairytale element to a lot of the films I was considering for the program, so adopted that as an informal theme across the program.

Are there any aspects of this year that will affect the way you approach next year’s festival program (if it’s not too early to make that kind of call)?

Next year will consolidate the focus on bringing in guest filmmakers. I’d like to give them even more opportunities to interact, both with each other and with artists from other disciplines who are in the audience or who are also part of the program. Perhaps we could instigate some kind of creative lab or a joint project.

In contrast to last year, there seemed to be a shift in 2014 towards feature films from Australasia. Is this something you’re interested in building on?

 We have made, and continue to make, outstanding genre films in this country… and I think that point gets a bit lost in all the doom and gloom about distribution. The Australian component of the festival has certainly grown from the first year of the festival and it actually seems like there’s a lot more to choose from now, which is encouraging. We haven’t really had any New Zealand filmmakers involved with the festival and that’s something I’d love to rectify for next year.

Briony Kidd in conversation with Australian short filmmakers Heidi Lee Douglas (Little Lamb) and Caitlin Koller (Maid of Horror)

Briony Kidd in conversation with Australian short filmmakers Heidi Lee Douglas (Little Lamb, 2014) and Caitlin Koller (Maid of Horror, 2013)

Finally, the question I always pose, just out of my own interest, to Australian horror filmmakers: do you think it’s difficult to get horror films funded, distributed and seen in this country?

 It’s very difficult to get any kind of films funded, distributed and seen in this country, but horror in particular has a troubled reputation. It’s been said that it “doesn’t work” at the local box office, but I’d argue most Australian films don’t work at the local box office and it’s for reasons that are complicated and are not a straightforward measure of quality or of audience’s actual interest in the content or genre.

The up side is that it’s a time of transition and some clever genre filmmaker is probably just about to solve the problem of how to get their content to a local audience quickly and efficiently and in a way that will be exciting for everyone and even (gasp) modestly profitable. And of course, there’s a whole world out there that’s hungry for new ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with looking to the international market if that’s where your audience is. We probably need the funding agencies to recognise that more, that box office in Australia is no longer the only way to have a successful or reputable career.

My RealTime Arts article on the 2014 Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival is here.

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Welcome to my Creepshow and Other Horror News

Katerina Sakkas, A Small Dark Painting, 2012

Katerina Sakkas, A Small Dark Painting, 2012

It’s been rather a long time between drinks over in this small corner of the horror blog world. My love of the genre has not in the least abated, but the first few months of this year were spent organising a solo painting exhibition which showed in April at Sydney’s Sheffer Gallery (images here). While the exhibition was, unsurprisingly, horror-themed, I struggled (and ultimately failed) to steer away from outright horror cliché… When not frantically preparing for this event, I reviewed Wolf Creek 2 for RealTime magazine’s Art, Empathy and Action feature in an article which considers empathy in relation to the viewers, makers and characters of slasher films. Though I’m a Greg McClean fan, this much anticipated sequel came as something of a disappointment after the masterly and brutal spareness of the first film. The full article can be found here.

The Babadook, Jennifer Kent, 2014

The Babadook, Jennifer Kent, 2014

More recently, I interviewed Australian director Jennifer Kent on her debut feature The Babadook. A dark fable about a mother and son tormented by a sinister picture book monster, The Babadook uses horror to probe the special madness that can accompany motherhood and bereavement. It’s a striking film, very considered aesthetically with its nods to Expressionist and Gothic cinema, and with forceful lead performances. As the beleaguered protagonist Amelia, Essie Davis negates the need for hammy special effects through a powerful versatility (both vocal and physical) which allows her to transform from meek to ferocious in an utterly convincing way. The monster reveals are not quite as frightening as they could be, but perhaps that’s because the rawness of the performances overshadows them. It’s so satisfying to see an actor of Davis’ calibre fronting a horror film. (Read the interview with Jennifer Kent here.) With the larger tasks of the first half of this year out of the way, I’m really looking forward to jumping back into more personal reviews on this blog, with a focus on Australian and off-beat horror – amongst all the other stuff that takes my fancy.

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Weighing up the Light and the Shade

LJPeters_Long_Eddy_exhibA brief introduction to my fantastic friend L.J. Peters’ upcoming exhibition, which opens on Thursday at Sydney’s Sheffer Gallery:

The cabin in the woods is a recurring theme in American horror cinema, spectacularly encapsulated in Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s 2012 parody of the same name.

Artist L.J. Peters was travelling in New York at the same time this film was showing in American theatres. Not long before attending a screening, she and her partner took a road trip to the house of friends in Long Eddy, Upstate New York, and found themselves in a setting straight out of American backwoods horror. The starkness of this unpopulated landscape with its derelict shacks, pinewoods and austere churches left a strong impression on the artist. The resulting drawings and paintings with their reduced, often monochrome palette, explore an environment devoid of humans and stripped to its essentials: earth, woods, mountainous horizon.

There’s nothing explicitly horrific about these scenes, yet they are imbued with a sense of the uncanny for those aware of their Gothic associations. Eeriness arises from the fact that each scene is a fragment, a section of a greater whole from which something is hidden. L.J. Peters weighs up the light and the shade, leaving us to imagine whether what’s implied is sinister or benign.