Zombie-fied is one way of describing how I feel after attending six long yet enjoyable days at the Abertoir Horror Festival, located in my hometown of Aberystwyth last week. Abertoir celebrated its eighth successful year which saw regulars return as well as some welcome new faces. 2013 was a special year as the festival celebrated the centennial of the truly wonderful Peter Cushing and presented a broad showcase of his career and his contribution to the genre as a whole. This included a Hammer film The Mummy (1959), two poignant talks by Peter Hutchings, Madhouse (1974) in which he co-starred with horror icon Vincent Price and a television episode Silent Scream (#1.7) from The Hammer House of Horror series (1980).
The special guests in attendance this year were British actor Richard Johnson and Italian composer Fabio Frizzi, who both took part in individual and a joint Q&A on the Saturday evening which was a doubly exciting treat for fans. Mr Johnson and Mr Frizzi had both worked with Lucio Fulci on his 1979 cult, gore-fest Zombie Flesh Eaters, yet had never met in person until the festival which is something Abertoir can be very proud of. A screening of Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting (1963) followed, in celebration of its 50th anniversary. This demonstrates Abertoir’s versatility in reminding audiences why we love horror films in terms of going back to its roots as well as nurturing new and upcoming independent films. Abertoir also doesn’t just stop at the films, festival-goers are also treated to a pub-quiz, a theatre performance and live music events.
Another exciting aspect of Abertoir is getting the opportunity to see the latest and best in genre movies from all over the world. This year provided an eclectic selection which saw spine-chilling hauntings, sex-crazed vampires, intelligent science-fiction, misfit ghosts and supernatural cheerleaders to name a few. Abertoir screened Discopath, Chimeres, and Painless, three of my favorite offerings of 2013, however as they’re part of my recent Celluloid Screams coverage I won’t be including them in this list of top features.
Once again, these are my views and do not reflect the overall audience vote on what films won in the best features category.
6. All Cheerleaders Die (2013)
- Directed By Lucky McGee and Chris Sivertson
All Cheerleaders Die is a self-remake from directors Lucky McGee (May, The Woman) and Chris Sivertson (The Lost, I Know who Killed Me). Judging by the names involved, it certainly had a lot of promise. Originally McGee and Sivertson shot a non-budget movie of the same name back in 2001 therefore it could be argued that their 2013 remake is an example of improving on their own work following a more recognizable career path and a bigger budget. Their original All Cheerleaders Die is an incredibly hard find however the 2013 reboot will hopefully generate fan interest if nothing else.
The film is a revenge flick and a teen movie with supernatural elements that come across as slightly surprising. All Cheerleaders Die incorporates an infectiously funny yet shocking opening sequence that goes right for the jugular, bringing in a great deal of promise in terms of setting up the events to come. That sequence is the main moment that wreaks of Lucky McGee’s brutal, indie style. If anything, the film is reminiscent of mid-to-late 90’s teen flicks such as The Craft (1996) and Jawbreaker (1999) but also stands out in its own right.
Maddy Killian (Caitlin Stasey) sets out to destroy the high school cheerleader squad and the Captain of the football team. Its fair to say that it shouldn’t be assumed what is going to happen as Maddy’s revenge takes a turn for the unexpected which spirals out of her control. A typical way of describing All Cheerleaders Die would be “The Craft meets Bring it on!” but then again its so much more than that. Its an interesting film however feels conflicted in terms of its tone, but that does seem intended. Its a blood-curdling, thrill ride that’s definitely worth-watching! It concludes just as it opens, with a huge, slap in the face of a surprise! Check it out for something different from Lucky McGee. ★★★
5. Kiss of the Damned (2012)
- Directed By Xan Cassavetes
Kiss of the Damned is a throwback to the euro-sleaze movies that emerged from the 1960’s and 70’s. With a lavish production design and plenty of melodrama thrown in, Kiss of the Damned is what vampire movies should be all about. With the right blend of comedy and goriness, the film proves an enjoyable watch.
With the makings of a supernatural soap opera, the film tells the tale of a beautiful vampire named Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) who becomes attracted to a charming, young human screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia). She attempts to resist his advances but soon they give into passion and Djuna turns Paolo into a creature of the night like herself. Living in undead bliss, a spanner is quickly thrown into the works when Djuna’s seductive, unhinged younger sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) arrives, threatening to sabotage Djuna and Paolo’s relationship as well as the entire vampire community.
Once Mimi’s presence is made, it comes across as pretty obvious of what direction the film’s heading in but still plays out as thrilling and suspenseful. The characters are easy to engage with especially Djuna as she fights to stay strong for all she stands for within the vampire community. The dialogue and performances in general aren’t played straight, there’s plenty of entertaining and hammy one-liners which work well. On the whole, its beautifully shot and shows off its gothic locations. In the hands of a female director, the sex scenes are tastefully done without being exploitative, shot in a way that are appealing to both women and men. Another welcome element of the film was having the female turn the male into a vampire, subverting the usual vampire-human romance that’s been popular in mainstream, teenage-fiction in recent years. Campy, sexy, sleazy and bloody, Kiss of the Damned is a film worth taking a bite out of! ★★★
4. The Machine (2013)
- Directed By Caradog James
A visually intoxicating science-fiction/horror hybrid. The Machine is one of the main reasons Abertoir provides support for films with a Welsh connection. Much thought and care has been put into creating a film that really gets under the skin, questioning the future of humanity itself. Whereas the majority of science-fiction films focus on giant threats to the world as we know it, The Machine gives the genre a sense of intimacy. Its surprising to discover the film was made on a small-budget due to its mesmerizing visuals.
Echoing back to the conflicts of the cold war, the UK and China are locked in a futuristic, technological battle. Scientist Vincent is in the process of creating machinery which will improve the UK’s weaponry. At the same time he is determined to discover a cure for his gravely ill daughter. His prayers seem to be answered when he begins to attempt to replicate the brain-patterns found in his lab-partner Ava’s mind leading to the two of them creating the first piece of sophisticated and self-aware artificial intelligence. But nothing remains straight-forward when the MOD get their hands on Vincent’s creation and begin to use it as a deadly weapon against their Chinese opponents.
The Machine tells a compelling story of what would happen if we were able to create artificial versions of ourselves and what would that mean for our future. Inspired by the classic Blade-Runner (1982), The Machine evokes some interesting ideas and imagery, with strong performances. Its no surprise that its a Bafta, award-winning Welsh film. Profound, dark and occasionally funny, The Machine holds a lot of promise for the future of Welsh cinema. ★★★★
3. Chanthaly (2013)
- Directed By Mattie Do
Chanthaly is a groundbreaking film for two reasons. Its the first Horror film ever made in the country Laos and also the first female directed film.As Laos is a communist country, director Mattie Do faced restrictions when making her first feature which meant she was unable to include any gore and on the whole had to be careful on how she approached the project. It was the first genre film approved by the Laotian government however her original cut faced several issues due to it featuring elements such as suicide and disrespect towards parental figures which are not accepted within their culture.
Chanthaly is a haunting, ghost-story that focuses on a young woman who lives a sheltered life with her strict father. She suffers from a life-threatening heart condition that she monitors daily with pills. Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) never knew her mother as she passed away during childbirth due to the same heart-condition. She soon begins to see the spirit of her deceased mother as well as memories of her from childhood. Dark secrets threaten to blow apart Chanthaly and her father’s already fragile family life as she searches for the truth surrounding her mother’s death.
The film is a slow-burner, allowing the audience to really empathize with the characters. The performances are very naturalistic as they pull the viewer deep into the story. I respect Chanthaly a great deal for providing something different to a sub-genre in horror that is reliant on loud noises and frequent jump scares in order to frighten the audience. Chanthaly doesn’t do this, instead it brings in some subtle scares that get under the skin and are long-lasting in the mind. Mattie Do has created a beautiful, chilling ghost story as well as a character study and an examination of her culture which is a strong achievement. On the whole Chanthaly is Asian, supernatural horror at its best and I am eagerly anticipating seeing much more of Do’s work. ★★★★
2. Forgotten (Aka. Du Hast Es Versprochen)
- Directed By Alex Schmidt
Du Hast Es Versprochen became an unexpected festival favorite that leaves the viewer astonished and thought-provoked. Part ghost story, part fairy tale, part psychological thriller, part drama and part mystery, Du Hast Es Versprochen is a chilling, genre-bending rollercoaster ride that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats until the credits roll.
Du Hast Es Versprochen is a tale about childhood friendship and how the past can literally come back to haunt us. Reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s The Witches (1990) in tone and setting and sharing similarities with Ingmar Bergman’s skin-crawling Persona (1966), Du Hast Es Versprochen tells the dark story about regret, the innocence of children and a horrific tragedy. As children, Hanna and Clarissa were inseparable and spent every holiday together in a summer house on a small, isolated fishing island. By chance, they are re-connected in later life as adults, Hanna’s marriage is in trouble and Clarissa has also suffered a trauma of her own, the two set off on a journey down memory lane along with Hanna’s young daughter to the the place they shared happier times. They become reminded of a third friend named Maria which evokes unexpected terror and truths they did not wish to uncover.
With the sense of no escape and a claustrophobic setting, the film pulls the audience in one direction and pushes them in another, it takes the concept of twist and turns to a whole different level. By the end its difficult to decipher which character to empathize with. Well-acted, directed and shot, Mina Tander as Hanna has a startling screen-presence, while Laura De Boer’s Clarissa is reminiscent of a young Winona Ryder. The child actors in the film are phenomenal in terms of bringing in the creep factor. With some startling scares, Du Hast Es Versprochen is one of the best psychological/supernatural thrillers to emerge in a long time. ★★★★★
1. Ghost Graduation
- Directed By Javier Ruiz Caldera
Ghost Graduation is one of those unexpected gems that ended up being the ultimate festival film of Abertoir 2013, and rightly deserved. Ghost Graduation is the kind of genre film that holds a commercial appeal outside of Horror audiences. It could be fair to argue that it isn’t strictly a horror film but more of a heart-warming comedy that happens to feature supernatural elements. The film opens with a perfectly choreographed dance sequence at a high school prom to non other than Whigfield’s huge 90’s hit Saturday Night, on that alone I think the audience was sold! Changing to the slower number of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, we meet our protagonist Modesto (Raul Arevalo) who is treated as a misfit due to his ability to communicate with ghosts, which paints him as a bit crazy to us normal folk! Fast forward to the present day and Modesto struggles to hold down a teaching job due to his special gift.
Modesto’s luck changes when he is offered a position at a failing, prestigious school by harassed headteacher Tina (Alexandra Jimenez) who has the school board constantly on her back. When he accidentally stumbles on an old abandoned library, he meets five spirits of former high school students who were tragically killed in a fire in 1986. With unfinished business on earth, Modesto makes it his incentive to help the teens cross over by helping them finally graduate! There’s also an entertaining sub-plot where Modesto frequently visits a hapless psychiatrist who is under the watch of his disappointed father creating plenty of comedy.
It’s so easy to misjudge this film based on its marketing which makes it appear like a standard American Pie-style sequel and won’t initially come across as the most conventional choice for a horror audience as it doesn’t have a scary bone in it’s skeletal body! Ghost Graduation is filled with John Hughes shaped nostalgia and pop-culture references. It’s endearing, funny and is guaranteed to place a massive smile on your face. The ultimate feel-good semi-horror movie. ★★★★★
So that’s Abertoir done for another year and what a fantastic festival it proved to be once again. A huge thank you to Gaz Bailey, Nia Edwards-Behi, Rhys Fowler and Rebekah Smith for programming a brilliant selection of films for genre fans to enjoy. Caitlyn Downs and I have been working on video coverage which can be found here with more on the way!
Hayley Alice Roberts.