Sex, Thugs, and Thanatos
The mad, bad bounty of Fantastic Fest 2009
Let me put this plain and true, and then make of me what you will: Like all good people across our lovely and peaceable planet, I love Dame Julie Andrews. As a boy growing up in the Seventies, my heart simply raced with wondrous grace as Andrews, in the guise of Maria, the postulant Von Trapp family savior of Robert Wise's haunting The Sound of Music, invaded my uncritical, preteen psyche. Such wholesome Nazi-inflected adventures and maddeningly irretractable and mellifluous songsmithery are the stuff of childhood moviegoing legend.
Time passed, and as it did, I grew into a marginally taller version of my 8-year-old self and quickly, blessedly, veered from the Von trap into all manner of fantastic and morally questionable (albeit vastly more entertaining) cinema and art. In my mad dash from cinematic puberty to youthful psychopathia sexualis, I trod an inexorably crooked path from Poppins to Poe, from the lovely hills of Austria to the Lovecraftian Mountains of Madness, and from a morally specific Judeo-Christian religious background to deliciously vile nunsploitation cinema and worse (proof, if need be, that there is a god; she just has a wicked sense of humor).
Barbara Steele and Soledad Miranda, Diana Rigg and Jamie Lee Curtis: voluptuaries all, and as I strayed further afield from yesterday's cinematic Europe to the erotic and exotic new, pre-EU, they came to represent to me a more powerful, playful, and pleasingly perverse version of womanhood in all their exquisite, 24-frames-per-second erotic glory. Now, as an adult (of a kind), I am excited most of all by Dame Andrews' revelatory nude scene in Blake Edwards' S.O.B. But when, late at night and in the privacy of my own home, I channel-surf across Maria declaiming a few of her favorite things, the scene brings to mind not "raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens" but, in the spirit of Fantastic Fest 2009 and with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, a somewhat more intoxicatingly adult enumeration of my own.
These are a few of my – and soon to be yours as well, you lucky, lucky people – favorite things:
"Bullets and bloodshed and centipede peoples/Bare-breasted Counti and Jess Franco neeples/Houses of Satan, Ukrainian whores/Nightmares that die and then come back for more.
"Day-waking revenants and hell-raising Dread/Knives crossing gullets, shotguns to the head/Nipponese punks and dim Swedish starfighters/Lovers and killers and feeders and biters.
"When this life ends, when the night sings, when I'm going mad/I simply remember Fantastic Fest freak shows, and then I don't feel so bad."
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that Eros and Thanatos are where you find them, particularly in the films of Fantastic Fest 2009 guest of honor Jess Franco, the jazziest, most lushly femme-centric director of outré and deliriously sexualized art films since G.W. Pabst created Louise Brooks, the feminine icon. Some would argue that Franco's fellow countryman Pedro Almodóvar has given the godfather of exotic erotica a run for his dinero, but no, not really. Franco is in a class by himself, and no one will ever be able to replicate the carnal frisson of first seeing Eugenie ... The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, much less the infinite joys of 99 Women.
Sexuality sells, to be sure, but from Franco's fleshly oeuvre to Toronto's Andrew Hunt, whose microbudgeted debut feature Sweet Karma enters into the real underworld of human sex-trafficking and comes out rivaling Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and Bo Vibenius' Thriller: A Cruel Picture (aka Thriller: They Call Her One Eye) for sheer retributive vaginality, this year's fest is awash in estrogen in all its forms.
Welcome to Fantastic Fest 2009. Have fun, try not to pull the whiskers off any kittens without first breaking out your Flip Mino HD for the 100 Best Kills Party, and always, always bear in mind the reassuring words of my other favorite cinematic wet nurse, small-business owner, and, um, motherfucker, Mr. Norman Bates: "We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"
Fantastic Fest badges sold out a long time ago, but same-day tickets will be made available to select shows. All screenings are held at the Alamo South Lamar unless otherwise noted. Find out more at www.fantasticfest.com.
Want more? See our Screens blog, Picture in Picture, at austinchronicle.com/pip for more festival film previews and ongoing festival coverage.
The Man Who Loved Women: Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Jess Franco
Fantastic Fest guest of honor and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Jess Franco is, quite simply, a legend in his own time and one of the great masters of fantastic cinema. Originally trained as a jazz musician in his native Madrid, he has at this point directed some 200 genre-defying films, nearly all of which bear the immediately recognizable stamp of his jazz-inflected visual and tonal aesthetic. His work is highly sensual and sexualized, but never misogynistic or exploitive in a crude sense. Video Watchdog Editor Tim Lucas dubbed the Franco style "horrotica," a perfect description of the filmmaker's feverishly erotic, frequently dreamlike, and utterly unique vision toward life, love, and art.
Austin Chronicle: What is Jess Franco's philosophy as regards filmmaking?
Jess Franco: I have no special philosophy. I just make films like a jazz musician – you know what I mean? And then I follow my feelings and my hopes and all the things that are surrounding me. But it's not something complete or something I was looking for, not a philosophy.
AC: You began your career as a musician, sí?
JF: Sí! I started my life in the school of music. I was a composer and a trumpet player and a piano player. And then, very slowly, at a certain moment in my life, I had to make the decision between cinema and music, because it's impossible to do both. So I decided to let down the music, not completely, but the music had to follow my career in cinema. Personally, I love both. I need both.
AC: Who were your musical, and by extension, cinematic, influences early in your career?
JF: Oh, my God! First, the boppers, you know? Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, this kind. And then I discovered another world, what you would call the West Coast jazz. I started to follow the West Coast music mainly because the quality of the arrangements and the sound were so beautiful. I think also Shorty Rogers was a man who wanted to recover the real, classical sound of the instruments played in jazz music. A lot of people had decided to kind of make just noises with their instruments, but the West Coast jazz musicians wanted to play this music but with the same feelings and conditions as though it was classical music. Its time has passed now, but I still love it.
AC: Your masterpiece, Venus in Furs, features a character loosely based on Chet Baker. He also gave you the idea for the film, right?
JF: Yes, my God, yes! I met him in Paris. I was living in Paris in the same district as many of the jazz clubs, which I would go to often. I met him when he was playing in one of my favorite clubs. After the music was over, I saw him sitting at the bar alone, appropriately, and walked over and asked him, "May I sit here?" He didn't answer, but he made a movement with his hands to say, "Go ahead," and I ended up going back to see him many times. He was very [quiet], but he admitted my presence, you know? The only question he ever asked me that first night, though, was, "Are you happy with this music?" I said, "Yes, I love it," and he said, "Me too."
AC: Women and the erotic portrayal of a very sensual, almost ethereal type of femininity is one of the defining hallmarks of your filmmaking. Your wife, Lina Romay (The Bare Breasted Countess); Soledad Miranda (Eugénie de Sade); and Janine Reynaud (Succubus) have been, obviously, muses to your art. Can you talk about the "Jess Franco feminine mystique"?
JF: I think that sexuality and women are at the center of our lives, you know? I cannot understand the life of a man or a person without sexuality, without the intercourse with the other sex. It is the most important thing of our lives. I tell you honestly, for me, a man, women are more important than anything else in the world. When I made my first successful sexual film, which was Necronomicon [aka Succubus], it was successful all over the whole world, unlike my earlier films which were more successful locally. And so after that, I made sure that women were present and very important [in my films], not as a kind of element of decoration but as a sensual, important part. I love women! I never try to make the woman an object, but instead I make them with personality, and they drive the action of the film. When I was a child, I had a sister who was three years older than me – she was a genius and wrote many important books on philosophy – and I loved her very much. Ever since then, I have decided to be a kind of woman-addict. It's true!
AC: From your perspective, as one of the great cinematic visionaries, what do you believe the role of cinema is in contemporary society? Is it still the mirror image of our dreams and our nightmares?
JF: I think it's life; cinema is life. When we move, when we say hello, when we do anything at all, the cinema changes our lives completely. We are conditioned by cinema. The world of these images has become more and more important to us, because people need to see something different from their normal lives in order to keep living. The cinema is not the way to escape our lives; it is the way to complete our lives.
Eugenie ... The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion screens Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 11:55pm (at the Alamo Ritz); Venus in Furs screens Monday, Sept. 28, at 7:15pm; Succubus screens Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7pm; and The Bare Breasted Countess screens Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 6:45pm.
Bogeyman, Everyman: 'Cropsey'
True horror lies beyond the boundaries of the silver screen, a grim and unsettling fact that director/writer/producer Joshua Zeman and his wife and co-director Barbara Brancaccio discovered when they decided to collaborate on Cropsey. A documentary about their mutual childhood bogeyman, a child-snatching Staten Island, N.Y., predator known by children as Cropsey and to the world at large as Andre Rand, this is a genuinely disturbing examination of the real monsters from the id and mankind's unshakable need to distinguish good from evil, us from them.
Austin Chronicle: Why did you and your co-director, Barbara Brancaccio, decide to make your first feature a documentary about a Staten Island bogeyman and the urban myths that have congealed around him?
Joshua Zeman: The story of the disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger and Andre Rand was a defining element of both Barb's and my childhood. When we met, one of the first conversations we had was about Andre Rand and Cropsey. It was like a "Hey, do you remember ..." kind of thing that the both of us remembered and were still fascinated by. We could never contextualize it as kids, but meeting as adults in New York City – she worked in the criminal justice system, and I was a journalist/filmmaker – and so it became a kind of collective consciousness between us about going back home and putting that story to bed. I'd always been interested in stories like In Cold Blood and the Son of Sam, but this was our story.
AC: It's not a true-crime story that rests easily, is it? Cropsey is as much about society's collective need for a dark "other" to help differentiate us from the monsters in the dark, whether they're in our heads or in our neighborhoods.
JZ: That's just right. We went into this thinking it was our story, but the more people we spoke to, the more we realized that every person has their own variation on Cropsey. It's amazing how much this bogeyman story has permeated not only our culture but the entire world. Why do we all have this? When you start to pull back the layers, you begin to understand a lot of who we are as a people, and you realize that, oh my god, we've been creating this same bogeyman over and over since the beginning of time.
AC: And then we give it a hockey mask and a knife and sit in the dark of the theatre and watch versions of ourselves kill it, over and over, together. But it never really dies.
JZ: Absolutely. It never goes away; it just takes on new forms. It's an innate thing that we need, something to differentiate our good selves from the evil outside. As long as humans are afraid, we're going to have that bogeyman.
AC: Now that you've explored and examined your own personal beneath-the-bed monster, do you rest easier at night?
JZ: No. Not at all. We've debunked certain myths, and we've managed to vanquish the ideology of good versus evil [in Cropsey], but what's underneath that is the reality of man. And sometimes that reality is a lot more disturbing than any movie.
Cropsey screens Saturday, Sept. 26, at 4:45pm, and Monday, Sept. 28, at 2pm.
The Family Business: 'Down Terrace'
Down Terrace is knives-out, guns-drawn, the most powerful British gangster picture you've never seen. (This will change soon; the film was just nominated for Best UK Feature at the Raindance Film Festival.)
One-half of the viral video and production team known as Mr. & Mrs. Wheatley Ltd. (the other half is wife Amy Jump), Ben Wheatley has, until now, been perhaps best known for a series of ridiculously brilliant, Web-based viral videos (you can find them here: www.mrandmrswheatley.co.uk) and a lengthy career in BBC TV. With Down Terrace, Wheatley portrays a longtime criminal family in its fading, final, paranoid and doom-laden days, but does so in an utterly different and infinitely more emotionally devastating way than, say, the daft comic chaos of Guy Ritchie. Bolstered by British Academy of Film and Television Arts-caliber performances (including those by Julia Deakin and Michael Smiley of Shaun of the Dead and Spaced fame) and his own sheer bloody brilliant talent, Wheatley's film is, all hyperbole aside, the shite, guv.
Austin Chronicle: Down Terrace is a bit like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh meets The Sopranos but simultaneously funnier and profoundly more sorrowful. Was it your plan from the beginning to reboot the UK gangster drama in this way?
Ben Wheatley: I'm a fan of the Guy Ritchie movies, but it seemed like the genre had been quite played out. It's kind of down to Tarantino mainly, I think. All this stuff is like the long hangover from Reservoir Dogs, you know? All those British crime films after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels came about, and they were all awful. I love crime films, but I was thinking, "Geez, how can you write something new into something that's so overpopulated?" Looking at America, it seems natural to have all these big crime families and stuff, but in the UK we don't really have that, and the Cockney crime films really seemed to be quite forced.
AC: You do have a fairly major crime problem in the UK, though, right? I mean, look at the Happy Mondays, yeah? They're touring again, and that's got to be of some interest to Interpol.
BW: [Laughing] Yeah, all sorts of things are happening in UK crime, but I think the subgenre of football hooligan movies is probably closer to the reality of the situation. There are whole family trees that have been doing this crime stuff for going back over a century, but it doesn't look or feel anything like the American version. It's much more downbeat and small-scale. I also think that most British crime movies have too much exposition and characters talking about all the crimes they're going to do. It's like horror films, really: The less you explain it, the more credible it is. It's the relationship between the characters that's more interesting than this kind of petty crime syndicate they're involved in.
AC: Your cast is, to a one, perfect.
BW: Thanks. I knew several of them from my television work, a lot of which is comedy, like Modern Toss, which I think you get on IFC in the states, yeah? That's where I met Julia Deakins, and also, I was a huge fan of Spaced. David Schaal was in The Office. I basically wrote the characters to fit the actors, including Robert Hill and [co-writer/star] Robin Hill, who really are father and son in real life as well as in the film. Half the cast are professionals and the other half are all nonactors, and the mix worked out really great, I think.
Down Terrace screens Sunday, Sept. 27, at 6:20pm, and Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 9:15pm.
Liverpool's Living Dead: 'Salvage'
Welcome to UK horror in the age of Big Brother, terrorist anxiety, and an overall distrust of those in power and their ability to safeguard the citizenry. Lawrence Gough's "monster in a box" (literally) film Salvage is a tight, compact slice of post-7/7 paranoia – that would be London's bus-bombing equivalent of 9/11 – a short, sharp shock that echoes George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead and the more recent Los Angeles-based Right at Your Door while still managing to be utterly British in its depiction of suburban Liverpool life turned upside down.
What's even more amazing is the fact that Gough's film was produced as one of three films celebrating Liverpool's title of the EU City of Culture 2008. John Lennon, one surmises, is spinning in his grave.
Austin Chronicle: How did a monster movie like Salvage come to represent Liverpool: City of Culture? And how did Liverpool react to that?
Lawrence Gough: Well, filmmakers from all over the UK have to pitch ideas to the UK Film Council, the BBC, and the City of Culture people. I think there were 700 entries.
AC: What were the other two winners like?
LG: Yeah, we were definitely the only horror film. One was a documentary made by a very famous filmmaker named Terrance Davies, who directed Distant Voices, Still Lives, which won awards at Cannes and the International Critics Award at the 1988 TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival], among many others. The other film was a film called Kick, which was a drama about two teenage girls who'd become obsessed with football.
As far as the reaction to Salvage, I think they loved it. They liked the tone of the horror film because it wasn't about being chopped in half – it had a more contemporary theme to it. And the fact that we shot it on the set of [famous British soap opera] Brookside – which was essentially a cul-de-sac that had been lying dormant since the show went off the air in 2003 – worked in our favor as well. We embraced a sort of Liverpool iconography. Brookside was as famous as Coronation Street in its day.
AC: Was Salvage intended from the outset to be a commentary on the war on terror and the ongoing disintegration of civil liberties in the UK?
LG: It certainly was meant to tap into the psyche of the elements of the way we perceive certain situations. We perceive things one way and then we act in another way, and, of course, the irony is that the situation turns out not to be what you originally thought it was. So, yeah, it's a contemporary film based in contemporary horror and contemporary issues.
AC: Were you a fan of this type of genre filmmaking prior to doing Salvage? I ask because it has much in common with Romero's original Night of the Living Dead.
LG: I'm certainly into horror films. I like those horror films that do what horror films should do. Good horror films really have shown and have embraced contemporary things that are going on within society at the time that they were made, like Romero did. I don't like Hostel and Saw and all that kind of stuff.
AC: How do you describe Salvage then, to people who may have read a capsule review and think it's similar to just another zombie film? Because it's much more than that, obviously.
LG: Well, I suppose I'm using certain conventions of horror films but trying to tap into something that's more poignant and really has strong characters. It delivers a certain zombie element, I guess, but when you listen to the film and watch the film, you see that it's not that at all. I probably shouldn't admit this, but it's ironic really, because there's been quite a few references to Romero films and I must admit I've never seen even one Romero film in my life. I don't know what that is. My real influences have been Polanski. All the films that I've made, especially the shorts, have thriller elements that come from Polanski. I've always liked the idea of exploring characters in horror films and exploring that fine line between ordinary people waking up one day and finding themselves in extraordinary situations. There's a thin line between everything being fine in our lives and our homes and our roads, but it can very easily and very quickly turn into a nightmare.
Salvage screens Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 1pm, and Thursday, Oct. 1, at 9:30pm.
Gross Anatomy: 'The Human Centipede (First Sequence)'
Tom Six (yes, it's his real name) has been described online as an avant-garde filmmaker and artist, but Human Centipede (First Sequence) travels so far beyond the boundaries of conventional good taste and filmic experimentalism as to be close kin to the most profoundly warped visions of the surrealists and the dadaists. It makes the eye-slitting scene in Un Chien Andalou seem no more upsetting than a simple Lasik procedure. It also addresses, in a skewed, roundabout, and heavily stylized manner, why the EU is a bad place for vain and plastic-surgery-obsessed young Yanks to venture. That said, it's about as far from Eli Roth's Hostel films as you can get, tonally, and yet it has a quietly mad beauty all its own, nearly all of which is supplied by a chilling performance from an unforgettable German actor by the name of Dieter Laser (who seems to have inherited Udo Kier's piercing panache minus the self-effacing humor). Calling the film "Cronenbergian" makes David Cronenberg come off like Charles Schulz.
One caveat: Human Centipede (First Sequence) is, to put it bluntly, a mind-raper of a film. The less you suspect about it going in, the more damage it may do to you. You have been forewarned, but you'll never be forearmed.
Austin Chronicle: Your film is madness personified, and I mean that in the very best possible sense. At the risk of losing what little sanity you've left me, how did you conceive this terrible (although, admittedly, at times very funny) film?
Tom Six: It started very simple. I always make a joke to friends when some person was being annoying or nasty, I would say that they should stitch that person's mouth to the ass of a fat truck driver. Everybody would laugh and think, "Oh, that's horrible," and that is a horrible thought, to do that to somebody. But when it came time to make my first horror film, my first international film, I wanted it to be something really horrific and something that hasn't been done before, and so I started from that concept and then wrote the script for Human Centipede.
AC: Your film has a very unique feel to it, sort of a cross between the body horror of David Cronenberg and Rube Goldberg by way of Josef Mengele. And that's a compliment.
TS: Yes, thank you. I love the fact that the human centipede created in my film can actually be done in the real world now, too!
AC: You're kidding, right?
TS: No, no, it's true! Everything you see in my film is surgically possible. Before I went into writing the script, I spoke to a surgeon in Holland. He helped me to create that kind of surgery, and the finished film is 100 percent medically accurate. One hundred percent! I like that idea, very much, that you can do this horrible thing and it could be real.
AC: You must be a lot of fun at cocktail parties, Tom.
TS: Oh, yes, I suppose I am. But I like that kind of thing. In Holland I also made many controversial films, and I like it when an idea is new and a little disturbing so that people talk about it. My favorite thing is to hear the audiences coming out of the theatre talking about the film, arguing about it, and knowing that they will be remembering it for a long, long time.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) screens Saturday, Sept. 26, at 12mid, and Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 11:55pm.
Vengeance Is Hers: 'Sweet Karma'
Toronto-based filmmaker Andrew Hunt gambled his own money on this, his first feature, and ended up making one of the most gritty and harrowing tales of international criminal activity since the Russian mob took over the Ukraine and most of the Balkans. Starring newcomer Shera Bechard as a mute Russian beauty who goes in search of her missing sister in the sex-trade underground of cosmopolitan Toronto, it takes the old-school tropes of the female revenge fantasy (Switchblade Sisters, Ms. 45) and contemporizes them within the context of the largely unexplored (cinematically, that is) but highly lucrative business of selling Eastern European women into strip-club slavery in the West, a grim undercurrent to both the collapse of the former Soviet Union and rampant globalization.
Sweet Karma's lack of major funding only adds to the stark, gritty realism of the film, and Bechard, a former model with zero prior acting experience, explodes off the screen in a silent, sexy dance of death and white-hot vengeance. It's one thing to see this sort of feminine vendetta maelstrom coming from Tarantino and his progeny, but Sweet Karma goes them all one better by looking, feeling, and – perhaps most important of all – sounding just like the real deal, even while its protagonist remains as vocal as death's shadow throughout.
Austin Chronicle: How did you discover Shera Bechard? She just comes out of nowhere and totally owns this film.
Andrew Hunt: I was dabbling in photography, and she was a model I just happened to meet. She was from a small town in northern Ontario – actually the same hometown as James Cameron – and we met via my photography. She had a presence in front of the camera, and when the camera was on her, she could convey so many different emotions with such subtlety, you know? Just the look in her eyes or the stance of her body. When I was coming up with the idea for what would become Sweet Karma, she was the first person I thought of even though I had no idea whether she could act or not.
AC: Was the character of Karma originally conceived as a mute?
AH: Well, yeah, the fact that she had not acted before led me to make the character a mute. It was one less hurdle that she'd have to cross, and like I said, her mastery of her own body language and her physicality was already very evident.
AC: It also does away with the potential for too much expository dialogue. That's genius!
AH: Right, right, we never had to worry about those typical, clichéd lines that one might utter in a film like this: "You killed my sister, and now I'm gonna kill you!" It really freed us up in that sense. But Shera, man, she was unbelievable, and she carries the film. And what a relief!
AC: How have audiences reacted to the film? And to Shera Bechard?
AH: We actually had our first screening at Fantasia Fest in Toronto recently, and the print that we screened didn't have a finished sound mix, and we hadn't done a final, proper color-correction on it, so, really, the Fantastic Fest screening is going to be the official first screening of the film.
AC: Wow. Color us lucky.
AH: Yeah, well our first screening [of two] is up against Zombieland and Lars Van Trier's Antichrist, so hopefully there'll be some people there who'll come root for the underdog.
Sweet Karma screens Friday, Sept. 25, at 7:15pm, and Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 1:15pm.