CELLULOID SCREAMS DAY TWO: THE WITCH, THE SECRET FILM AND THE ALL NIGHTER
Saturday saw our Ambassador Craig Furniss at Celluloid Screams in Sheffield. It seems that Day Two was a busy one…
Saturday at Celluloid Screams was absolutely chock-a-block with activity for me. Six films back to back, including Robert Eggert’s The Witch (astounding, more on that later), the secret film (Mickey Keating’s Darling), the classic horror all-nighter (thrust into Sunday’s blinding 8am sunshine), and a fantastic array of shorts in accompaniment.
I’d like to start, if I may at the end, with the All Nighter. Fristly, it was an exhausting experience and I have only managed about 3 hours sleep since I had early an early afternoon screening to attend. Apologies if I go off on a tangent or if this piece is littered with typos. [FF – we’ve tried to catch as many as we can, but you’re pretty solid in sentences despite the crazy night Craig!]
Preceding first feature of the night (Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street) were two shorts, the first of which was Shant Hamassian’s Night of the Slasher, an incredibly funny horror comedy playing with some typical conventions of the slasher sub-genre to comedic effect, one visual joke in particular really had me in stiches. The film is now being developed into a feature so I’m hopeful we’ll get to see catch up with that in the next couple of years.
Next up was Fool’s Day – another comedic short that really stood out because it’s light and airy tone, playing something like a cross between an Apatow feature and Napoleon Dynamite. Created by Cody Blue Snider, son of Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, it follows a class of children as they play an April Fool’s day prank on their teacher with disastrous results. Expert timing a great performance from Micthell Jarvis as Officer O’Donnell helped to make this one of the best shorts I have seen thus far.
On to the first feature of the night. I’m not sure there is a person of my generation who hasn’t seen or isn’t at least aware of Freddie Kruger. In truth beyond the nostalgia I feel for it Nightmare isn’t a great movie, more comedy that true horror and suffering for giving you the face of its big bad in its opening sequence. However, I’ve never been more scared by anything than when I was cowered behind the sofa, up past my bedtime at seven years old, watching Freddie loom over Nancy, a spectre stretching from the surface of her bedroom wall. For that I’ll always love A Nightmare on Elm Street. Slight side note, and something I mentioned on or twitter feed – I’d completely forgotten how Home Alone it all gets towards the end.
Two more shorts followed Nightmare. Point of View is a clever little tale with a memorable and quite terrifying central conceit that crops up in 1 sentence horror story ideas again and again. Nice to see a visual representation of it, though. Bad Guy #2 was another comedic short. Not really horror but certainly graphic it plays with gangster movie tropes and offers some funny ideas on what goes on behind the scenes at a cinematic Bad Guy organisation. Crudely amusing stuff.
Second feature of the evening was Phantasm – I’d not seen it before and I have to say, I wasn’t a fan. Incredibly dated, especially compared to some its contemporaries and suffering from a far too loud and relentlessly repeated theme, there are far better examples of the supernatural from the period.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre pt 2 was preceded by The Shutterbug Man and Polaroid. As huge fan of stop motion animation The Shutterbug Man instantly had me on board, such is my admiration for the skill and the dedication involved in such a time consuming process. What really surprised me was the deftness of the story, a neat little concept that had its own inherent scares. Polaroid was a much more prosaic haunted house style short, executed well but not offering much else.
TCM2 is another I hadn’t seen and was pleasantly surprised by – at least for three quarters of its run time. Tobe Hooper eschews the dust-bowl terror of the original for over the top comedic aggression but it largely works. Perhaps as a result it being about 4am and the fifth of a six film back-to-back marathon Dennis Hopper’s screaming and the relentless buzz of the chainsaw grated a little towards the end. At one point my mind drifted and I found myself thinking about vegetarianism. Odd.
Two more shorts before the final feature – Stuart Gordon’s H. P. Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator. First up was Hush, which promised much as it set itself up by discussing all of the frequencies we take in but don’t hear, in the end delivering a simple creature-under-the-bed story. They Will All Die in Space wears its spoilers on its sleeve and is a cracking little short that although derivative of Duncan Jones’ Moon is nonetheless an enjoyable watch.
Re-Animator. The ideal way to cap off the All Nighter. Fun, silly, platter-fest that it is. I suspect all horror fans love practical effects and makeup and that is why the likes of Brain Dead, Bad Taste, The Evil Dead and Re-Animator have the following they do. Somehow it retains a weird air of innocence even in the face of its seedy, gross-out sensibilities. Perhaps because we’re to such graphic realism these days.
After that slog I crept out into the morning sun and taxied home to bed.
The even had actually begun much earlier Robert Eggert’s The Witch at 7.45pm followed by the secret film at 9.40pm. Which is what I’d like to discuss next.
Mickey Keating’s Darling is a frustrating film – equal parts brilliant and underwhelming. Shot in gorgeous black and white and benefitting from a really quite exceptional turn from Lauren Ashley Carter as the eponymous Darling, the film brings to mind both Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and more strikingly Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion. The Darling of the title is house sitting for a wealthy lady while she is away and slowly descends into madness and murder. The parallels are clear.
Despite the derivative concept (it is close to being a remake of Repulsion in places) the film is executed fantastically. Its strength lies in three main areas. The editing is sharp and angular, using quick cuts of just a few frames to convey emotional turmoil, and undercurrent of burgeoning anger barely controlled. This is allied to the excellent sound design and sound tracking. Rarely is sound design used so well, offering as much in terms of character development as the acting and editing. In fact, the film is entirely subjective, viewed through the eyes of our protagonist, the fourth wall broken throughout to make us more than just witness but implicit in her crimes. Everything is there to describe her emotional state.
As good as the editing and sound design are, though, this film could not succeed without the daring, dauntless performance of star Lauren Ashley Carter. She is exceptional. Utterly so. Tasked with acting in nearly every scene in the film, often on her own and with very little dialogue in the first few chapters (the film is broken down into chapter headings) she gives an unnerving and bristling performance that erupts into violent rage that is utterly convincing. Well done.
The Witch by Robert Eggert was the film I was most excited to see in the build up to Celluloid Screams and I am very happy to say that it didn’t disappoint. Based on a number of folk and fairy tales linked to the collective paranoia of New England’s puritan settlers in the 1600s, and bound with a creeping, otherworldly evil The Witch is a fantastic achievement in horror cinema. I don’t feel that I’m overdoing it to say that over time this will be recognised as a classic on the genre. It is patient but viscious, slow-burning yet urgent; its characters harassed by the immediacy of the danger they face in their cloistered existence yet unable to identify its source.
Deeply atmospheric and sewn with a dread heightened by the reclusive setting, the muted colour-grading of a miserable winter barely seen in candle light, and pulled along, as if by an undercurrent, by the malevolent folk and swelling strings of Mark Korven’s score, the film draws you in from its opening moments and doesn’t let your attention waver for one moment. It is a remarkable achievement that a film that creeps through the majority of its run time can be as utterly riveting and unnerving as it is.
Every technical aspect of The Witch is executed to perfection; cinematographer Jarin Blaschke finds rich detail in the sombre tones and desaturated colour palette, creating a character from the landscape which, until the film’s denouement, acts as the tale’s prime antagonist. The script is sparing and vital, not a moment or word wasted, little exposition given or needed; it is delivered with a combination of restraint and power by a uniformly superlative ensemble, echoing the fantastic work completed by all of the production staff, in particular Eggert himself. As a writer director delivering his first feature he really has excelled, bringing a singular and complete vision to the screen, exercising the kind of restraint rarely seen in horror, and even less often in first time directors. Drawing easily career best performances from Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, and no less impressive work from Anya Taylor-Joy and youngster Lucas Dawson also suggests a director of some considerable talent.
The word I keep coming back to when thinking about The Witch is restraint. It’s such a rare commodity not only in horror but in filmmaking as a whole and it is wonderful to see it even attempted, let alone executed with such bravura as is seen here. The trend in mainstream horror (read: mainstream cinema as a whole) is for reproduction rather than reinvention. Over the last decade or so we have seen remakes and reboots of The Amityville Horror, April Fool’s Day, The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, Carrie, Prom Night, Poltergeist, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Evil Dead, The Hitcher, House of Wax, and I Spit on Your Grave, among many others. There is barely a horror film from the seventies or eighties that hasn’t been rebooted or remade.
The only alternative option the studios offer is paint-by-numbers franchise output every couple of years (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Saw), or tired rehashing of the haunted house trope (The Conjuring, Annabelle, Mama). Creatively the mainstream modus operandi seems to be either cheap, jump scares or gore porn. With very little focus given to the psychology of fear we as a global audience are treated as though children, an indulgent parent hiding their facing before shouting “boo” to entertain us. The same can be said for the conveyor belt of non-descript summer blockbusters and their children’s mobile of flashing colours dangling over our cot.
As the age of instant global communication has homogenised so much of pop culture it is ever more vital that we applaud refreshing, fascinating and exciting talent when we see it. Such rare restraint allied with such confidence in a young filmmaker, Eggert’s work calls to mind Kubrick and Polanksi, and Lynch – dread built steadily through atmosphere and punctuated with striking visual moments, sewing the seeds of an idea that has the viewer questioning as do his characters. He asks but doesn’t show, shows but doesn’t tell, tells but doesn’t explain, instead asking again.
Craig Furniss – October 2015
Craig Furniss is based in Sheffield and can often be seen eyeing up cinema screening times for *all* of the films.