BIFFF: fear and loathing in Brussels
At the age of 33, Jesus of Nazareth let himself be crowned with thorns and crucified; other people reckon it’s time for a midlife crisis. The Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, however, hasn’t got carried away: it’s sticking to its formula for success: drowning its many merry fans in a pool of malignant thrillers, screamingly funny or nauseating horror, hair-rising monster films, and audacious science fiction. Ten must-sees (if you dare).
The burly guy next to me in a New York art house was terrified. For reassurance, he stretched his arm out towards his friend. But the friend saw nothing: rigid with fear, he was staring straight ahead. Were they two grade-A scaredy-cats? Nope: that’s the effect The Babadook has on people. Every four or five years, a horror film makes it into the same league as The Shining or The Exorcist.
And this Australian horror film by Jennifer Kent is one of those. A single mother can’t cope with looking after her little son, a hyperactive, aggressive loner who is terrified that the Babadook is out to get him. The scary effects are good, but not overpowering and they are certainly not the reason why you want to crawl under your seat. The Babadook is extremely frightening because the situation is credible, because monster and prey are brilliantly interchangeable, and because the film cynically capitalises on a number of our deepest fears. Terror of the monster under our bed is the simplest of those; somewhat more complex is the fear of a diabolical child and we won’t talk about the unthinkable. The Babadook is being released directly on DVD, so the BIFFF offers a unique opportunity to see this horror classic-in-the-making on the big screen.
In Order of Disappearance
The Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland isn’t the first film director to show us the beauty of drops of blood on a carpet of snow. It’s impossible not to think of Fargo by the Coen brothers and we are also reminded of films in which Quentin Tarantino has gangsters bullshit about everything under the sun. Is that a problem? No, as, even though the level of those models is not achieved, In Order of Disappearance is cool, perfectly done, and quite a bit more amusing than the average black comedy.
Stellan Skarsgård, the Swede who alternates Lars von Trier with Pirates of the Caribbean, contributes his charisma and imperturbability as the guy who clears the snow in a Norwegian village. A decent man, he doesn’t believe that his son’s death was an accident: he starts to investigate and, before you know it, he is eliminating, one after another, the drugs gangs and murderers responsible, without leaving a trace. The villains are stupid, reckless, and wild; the unexpected avenging angel is coldblooded, meticulous, and organised. In this film from the far north, too, the actors, sets, and camerawork are superb. And the vulgar humour, colourful characters, absurd situations, and cartoonish violence are all very well done.
Burying the Ex
Max (Anton Yelchin of Star Trek) is delighted that his girlfriend has been run over by a bus. Free of the beautiful but manipulative and nasty Evelyn (Ashley Greene from Twilight), he begins a relationship with his dream woman, Olivia (Alexandra Daddario from Percy Jackson). What he wasn’t expecting was that Evelyn would crawl out of her grave – and that in her zombie version she would be an even bigger bitch. At the Venice Festival, the press wasn’t wild about this zombie rom-com.
“A strained, sexist schlock which raises zero jolts and only fitful chuckles,” wrote The Daily Telegraph. But we still don’t want to miss the BIFFF’s opening film. The director, Joe Dante, will be there in person to introduce it – and the man is an idol for anyone who grew up in the 1980s and had to persuade parents to let them go and see Piranha for the first time and Gremlins for the hundredth. But nostalgia isn’t the only motivation: Joe Dante is no ghost from the past. A satirically-minded lover of monster films, in 2009 he brought out The Hole, a well-made horror film that terrified kids without doing any harm to their sensitive souls. You can never have enough Dante.
These Final Hours
Strange people, the Aussies. Plenty of sun, beer, and space to keep them happy, but in their films they like to fantasise about the end of the world. Think of Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, for example, or Mel Gibson in Mad Max, or David Michôd’s ultra-dark The Rover. These Final Hours doesn’t copy any of those three films. The concept is not particularly original, but what the screenwriter and director Zak Hilditch has done with it is clever and not too far-fetched.
The macho James leaves his pregnant girlfriend in the lurch. The apocalypse has begun: another half-day and a sea of fire is due to swallow up Australia and he wants to fill his last hours with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. On his way to an orgy, however, his conscience begins to trouble him and he starts to feel a sense of responsibility. James rescues 12-year-old Rose from the clutches of rapists. Slaloming between the suicides and the maniacs, a bond grows between the two of them. That may be sentimental, but it’s not fake sentimentality. Thanks to intense performances, it comes across as authentic. Outstanding camerawork and the successful evocation of the blistering heat raise These Final Hours comfortably above the level of the assembly line.
A Hard Day
Credit where credit is due. The BIFFF was very quick to realise that Korean cinema had a lot to offer film-lovers all over the world; at a time when they were still unknown, it screened the work of Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring), and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). This year, the festival is showing both the new Kim Ki-duk film (One on One) and a thriller by Seong-hun Kim that critics were wildly enthusiastic about at last year’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes.
A police detective under pressure from internal affairs hides the body of a victim of a traffic accident in his mother’s coffin and then goes on to commit one crime after another to avoid being exposed. That plot summary doesn’t tell you much, as that’s only the beginning of an extraordinarily intense trip that contains enough inventive complications and surprises to fill two or three thrillers. The fights, chases, and action scenes are breathtaking. We look forward to the day when top entertainment from the land of Hyundai, Kia, and Samsung fills the cinemas of Belgium. In the meantime, thank God for the BIFFF.
Jaws taught us to be afraid of big fish, Piranha of little fish, Arachnophobia of spiders, Indiana Jones and Snakes on a Plane of snakes, Black Sheep of sheep, and Cujo of St Bernard dogs.
This German-US film demonises wasps. According to the BIFFF, it pays tribute to VHS cult classics such as Tremors and Critters with a combination of dirt and humour. The director, Benni Diez, provided the special effects for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Lance Henriksen, who plays the lead role, was excellent in the TV series Millennium.
It is one of the characteristics of the BIFFF that a number of directors remain ever-faithful. Hideo Nakata is one of them. The Japanese director won the Golden Raven in 1999 with Ringu, the film that taught us to associate ghosts with girls with long, black hair hanging in front of their eyes.
In his latest film, the grandmaster of J-horror presents a duel between a man who controls thoughts with his eyes and someone who turns out to be immune to his powers. The Z in the title lets us know that there is more than one monster around.
La isla mínima
For some years now, Spanish genre cinema has been a regular purveyor of films to the BIFFF. This year, all eyes are focused on a film that won no fewer than ten Goyas, Spain’s most important film award.
La isla mínima is about the murder of two girls in 1980 in a little southern Spanish village near the marshes of the Guadalquivir. The two detectives responsible for trying to find the murderer can’t stand each other. One is an extravert old hand; the other prefers to do everything by the book. The screenplay dates from before the success of the TV series True Detective.
The BIFFF wouldn’t be the BIFFF without a few films on its programme for people with strong stomachs. German Angst, in particular, sounds scary. Michal Kosakowski, Andreas Marschall, and Jörg Buttgereit boast of being Germany’s most controversial and disturbing film-makers.
We believe them. Buttgereit is the German whose notorious Nekromantik distilled cinematic poetry out of necrophilia. German Angst, we hear, consists of three crazy, wild, and rather sadistic short films.
Austria seems to have the patent on provocative, depressing, stylised auteur films. As in Michael Haneke’s oeuvre, the horrifying portrayal of paedophilia in Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, and Ulrich Seidl’s hard-as-nails tableaux.
One of Seidl’s screenwriters, Veronika Franz, has joined forces with Severin Fiala to keep this bizarre Austrian tradition alive. In Goodnight Mommy, twins find their mother unrecognisable on her return from hospital. She avoids sunlight, demands total silence, forbids any contact, and only gives food to one of the two. Brrrr.
BRUSSELS INTERNATIONAL FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL
7 > 19/4, Bozar, www.bifff.net