Over the last week or so I’ve been off at my annual movie pilgrimage at the world’s oldest continually running film fest, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and as always I had a healthy mix of all sorts of film – locally-made, documentary, foreign language, classic retrospective and a pretty interesting brace of horror movies this year, so I thought I’d do a quick round up of some of the horror flicks which I enjoyed at the festival and I think are worth keeping your eyes open for when they get a general release.
The first out the gate for me was Sergio G Sánchez’s (writer of the superbly creepy The Orphanage) directorial debut The Secret of Marrowbone, but since I already filed a full review of that last week and our resident movie fiend Garth also posted his thoughts on it (“Best thriller of the year”, he said), I’ll skip right on to Owen Egerton’s Blood Fest. I mean come on, how could I not go to a horror movie with a title like Blood Fest? Especially when it is an obvious nod to the famous/infamous Herschel Gordon Lewis flick Blood Feast. Blood Fest comes from the Rooster Teeth gang, so you know it is going to be fun and pretty much comes with “cult viewing” built in.
The eponymous Blood Fest is an actual festival, held in the countryside on its own grounds (actually a re-dressed Ren-Fest location in Texas, the guys told the audience afterwards), with themed areas such as the creepy high school with the resident slasher-killer, the circus with killer clowns, a graveyard of zombies and so on. And when the Showman (director Egerton himself) tells the crowd horror has become stale (“we put Freddy on a lunchbox!”) and tells them he wants to make horror scary again, the gates clang closed and the crowd security are all in creepy pig masks, I think most of us who love horror can guess that the theme park horror is going to actually be for real…
The young cast (especially Spider-Man Homecoming’s Jacob Batalon) is really engaging (you root for them, but you know not everyone is going to survive the night), and the film takes a delight in working through all the best horror tropes (in fact their knowledge may be the heroes’ only chance of survival) and multiple references and homages, this is one made by fans for fans, and a whole lot of fun. Egerton and some of the Rooster Teeth did a Q&A afterwards with a very lively festival audience that just made the evening even more fun. We were told Rooster Teeth will announce more general release information fairly soon, so hopefully you won’t have to wait too long for a chance to see it.
French director Franck Ribière was also at the festival with The Most Assassinated Woman in the World, a pretty intriguing title, I think. A period horror-thriller set in the infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the equally infamous Pigalle district of Paris in the 1920s, it mixes real events and characters with a healthy does of fiction. Marie-Thérèse Beau is one of the original Scream Queens, long before the term was coined for horror’s leading ladies. Better known by her stage name Paula Maxa, Paula (Anna Mouglalis) appears on the Grand-Guingol’s tiny stage night after night and is killed in front of an audience (front rows often wearing white bibs to deal with the blood splatter). As she tells the camera she has been hacked, stabbed, sliced, shot, stomped, drowned, boiled, burned, hanged, pulverised, she has died some ten thousand times – and yet, as she shrugs, here she still is…
Into this setting, as the moral minority demand the theatre be closed as indecent (in fact it didn’t close until the 1960s), comes a serial killer, obsessed with Paula. Are the multiple, gruesome deaths on the theatre stage inspiring this killer? Will one of her deaths prove to be for real? The film delights in macabre death scenes – the scenes, being mostly nocturnal in the Parisian demi-monde, are dark and moodily lit, the brightest colour is the dark claret of flowing blood as there is gallons of Kensington Gore on offer here. But as well as OTT deaths there are psychological layers to this film, appropriately enough given experimental psychologist Alfred Binet was a contributor to the real theatre’s antics – those running the Grand-Guignol are as interested in pushing Paula to the edge as the killer in the foggy streets may be.
The film examines the mental trauma of an actor playing out endless death scenes. What does it do to them, why do they do it, what is it in their own past that drives them into this peculiar profession? We glimpse a horrible event in her past that permeates her present, but how much of anything you see here is real, how much is artifice, stage blood, real blood, true, fake? Can you believe anyone here?Along with the psychological and the gore elements there are layers of reality and fakery atop each other here, and seeing is not always believing.
The look is beautifully stylish, and although this is 1920s Paris the misty, cobbled streets of the Pigalle and Montmartre (long before they were tourist destinations), complete with figures in evening capes and top hats and canes, could come straight from a classic Victorian-era Hammer horror, and I suspect many Hammer fans will enjoy this a lot (I certainly did!). It is part Netflix funded, so I imagine it may not be too long before you get a chance to see this, even if it doesn’t get a general cinema release. Ribière himself weighed in on the controversy around Netflix funding films – some directors and critics and festivals (notably Cannes) are not happy with it as they decry films going straight to streaming instead of a cinema run and wait before broadcast as hurting cinema, others like Ribière welcome it as another avenue of funding and for allowing audiences to see films.
Much as I enjoyed those two though, stand-out horror this festival, at least for me, was, rather pleasingly, homegrown. Anna and the Apocalypse is an Indy Scottish movie, an utterly gleeful affair mixing the American high-school teen movie, the zombie apocalypse and musicals, all filtered through a west-coast Scottish mentality. It’s clear the film-makers like those films but also that they are quite happy to parody the hell out of them – musical numbers with lyrics like “not my Hollywood ending” are funny, especially being sung in a cafeteria of wee Scottish school on a wet December, not some sunlit Californian school where all the kids have impossibly white teeth (it even has the classic British dinner ladies dancing and singing in the background).
The cast has the usual suspects of a high school movie – the gorgeous young woman, bright but worried about her future after her final exams and worried about telling her dad (over protective after losing his wife) that she wants to postpone university to travel and see the world, the best friend who is clearly deeply in love with her but can’t tell her, the macho jock-type ex who hides his inner feelings, the ditzy but loveable chum, her geeky but also loveable boyfriend, the intense one, and naturally the nasty, super-strict headmaster (Paul Kaye, whose headmaster wouldn’t look out of place in Sunnydale High, the sort that clearly hates his young students and envies their freedom and lust for life).
As the school prepares for the annual Christmas concert the usual worries are present – what to do after school, which boyfriend or girlfriend will be The One, when does it get better. And then, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse just happens. And at first our young characters don’t actually notice! Anna leaves for school, headphones in, singing and dancing down the wet, winter street of her housing estate oblivious to her neighbours behind her back running screaming from their homes, or the plumes of smoke and crashed cars, and remains clueless until she meets her friend John also dancing his way to school and then a zombie in a festive snowman suit attacks them in a kid’s playground (come on, we’ve all had days like that, right?). After that it becomes the fight for survival as they find other friends and try to make their way across town to the school which authorities have designated the evacuation zone.
This is just sooooo much fun, seriously enjoyable stuff. It manages to play many horror cliches but have fun with with them in a way regular horror fans will appreciate, and parody the American style teen school mmovie (just the fact this kind of sudden dancing and singing happens in a wee Scottish school itself adds to the humour). There’s a fair chunk of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s inspired musical episode Once More With Feeling, and perhaps some of South Park’s delightfully skewed satirical musical episodes too. The very young cast are terrific and you come quite quickly to love most of them, which makes it harder knowing not all of them are going to make it.
It seemed clear that all involved were having a ball making this, and that shows in the film, and I am sure audiences pick up on that vibe. Director John McPhail talked to the late night festival crowd, with a lot of his cast and crew in attendance too, and it was obvious how buzzed they were to be bringing their film to a Scottish audience at such a prestigious festival, their home-crowd screening, as he said. The festival audience didn’t just like it, they were joining in, clapping to the musical numbers, whooping along. In fact after the end of the film we were treated to a special sing-along segment – it was like being at a Rocky Horror screening they way the audience joined in. I believe this is going to get a more general release in the late autumn. It has future cult viewing written all over it and it’s one to really go see with a group of pals.