When I met with Rachael Cotra last year – one of the co-directors of the Hello Darkness Film Festival – she had stars in her eyes, little time and a glass of vodka in her hand. My kind of gal. She was also just a couple of weeks out from her first festival and a favourable reception that left her a little stunned. Scoring the Australian premiere of Paranormal Activity as her opening night film would have been a big contributor to the success, no doubt.
This Thursday 4th November at the Greater Union Cinemas in Melbourne marks the second Hello Darkness and, I must say, a strong program of 11 films beginning with the Aussie premiere of Dominic Perez’s Evil Things. A penny for my thoughts? I haven’t seen all the films on offer (We Are What We Are is on the agenda), but there are some inclusions that are compelling me to put finger to keyboard: Amer, Irreversible, The Ordeal, House of the Devil.
Rachael’s objective was to create a horror/thriller festival that spans the breadth of horror, moving beyond preconceptions of horror movies being just senseless violence and gore. I think she’s right on the money.
Dirs: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani (France/Belgium, 2009)
I was very pleased to see Rachael pick up Amer for Hello Darkness because, as the program notes say, this is a film that deserves to be viewed on the big screen. Acting as an homage to the great Italian giallo traditions of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and co, Amer triumphs where many homages fail – in producing something entirely new.
This is a polarising film, not because of its content, but more because of its style. Whether we like it or not, we’ve all become accustom to accepted film language – the subconscious cues that tell us things (whether spoken or unspoken), the three-act structure and so. Amer works along the rule of three – in fact, a very distinct three-part structure recounting key episodes in a woman’s life in childhood, adolescence and then adulthood – but otherwise, it breaks all conventions. The shot choice is predominantly close-up, dialogue is almost non-existent and the context is very vague. You either like it, or you do not.
Personally, what titillated me about Amer was its visual beauty and intense sensuality created through the slightest of gestures… and not knowing what direction its filmmakers were taking. The soundtrack pillaged from old giallo scores is absolutely superb and cleverly utilised from the dramatic title sequence through to the conclusion. Consider this: It’s the debut film of its co-directors. Wow.
Dir. Gaspar Noé (France, 2002)
My relationship with Irreversible is unlike any other film relationship I’ve experienced. Years of viewing confronting cinema has given me a thick hide and, possibly, made me think I’m more impervious than I actually am. I saw this when it slipped through the censor’s grip and played a short arthouse season in Melbourne. I was not prepared.
Filmmaker Noé grapples with the dubious rape-revenge plot here, but to incredible effect. It’s not because this film is particularly brutal – well, it is violent, but there are far more visually violent films out there – it’s the extremes that make Irreversible feel like a mallet to the brain. On the brutal side, the real-time rape sequence, presented as though a video camera is sitting on the floor in front of them, had my palms sweating and my eyes searching for the exit signs. On the beautiful side, the love scene is a love scene in the truest sense of the term, with the very beautiful Monica Bellucci and handsome Vincent Cassell in the sweetest post-coital playful mode.
Noé also employs the backwards storytelling technique (the ironic ‘irreversible’ of the title) that adds dimensions to the film, rather than serve as superfluous gimmickry. We see the violent revenge first as an isolated act and then work our way back to the motive. In doing so, this violence comes across as just senseless (and possibly misdirected) – does an eye really account for an eye?
Even though Irreversible is one of the masterpieces of modern cinema, I won’t be watching it again – I don’t think I could handle it. Following my one and only viewing, I sobbed on the drive home and then continued to cry for several hours. I had an Irreversible hangover that lasted for days.
Dir: Fabrice Du Welz (Belgium, 2004)
It’s been a few years since I saw this oddball horror at MIFF, but it’s remained seared into my memory – not in vivid imagery, more in overall atmosphere.
The Ordeal has been called a ‘European hillbilly horror’, which I feel is an apt summary of a plot that sees a travelling cabaret singer (a poster boy for the seniors’ set) suffer engine failure in Belgian hicksville and take lodging at a dubious inn. Best leave the narrative description at that because it’s a wild ride and most effective when taken blind. There’s a scene in a café in the village that is just plain WEIRD (capitals warranted). And as it all disintegrates into something even eerier and WEIRDER, you’ll wonder how you ended up sitting here watching this film in the first place.
Filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz knows how to give David Lynch a run for his money.
Dir. Ti West (USA, 2009)
I’m in debt to Guy Davis for supplying me with a copy of Ti West’s great retro horror/thriller, The House of the Devil – thank you. On popping this into the DVD player, I felt like it was a Saturday night and I accidentally stumbled across a forgotten gem that had been randomly plucked from the television station’s dusty back catalogue.
In true ’80s style complete with Jackson Browne tunes, THOD follows a cash-strapped babysitter who takes on a last-minute job coinciding with a full lunar eclipse. The film acts as one big set-up to the final reveal, with a pitch-perfect undercurrent of malevolence that bubbles throughout. It doesn’t set a rollicking pace, but that’s the beauty of it – there’s no need to rush, allowing time to consider the possibilities and wonder where this is all going. The inclusion of Tom Noonan in the cast (a favourite of mine as serial killer Francis Dollarhyde in Michael Mann’s Manhunter) is a stroke of genius adding infinitely to the creepiness. Noonan is just so damn creepy.
The House of the Devil falls a little flat in its conclusion. There is such a defined tone through the whole of the movie that, when things go haywire, it seems to lose its personality. But that grievance aside, this is still an enjoyable horror that will appeal to those preferring the more slow-boil thriller side of the horror spectrum.