The IFI Horrorthon | A Review of Dublin’s Annual Halloween Film Festival
IFI’s Horrorthon – the annual film festival that takes place over Halloween week in the Irish Film Institute – is good for cinema. It gives devoted moviegoers the opportunity to see established or upcoming filmmakers speak openly about their work, while also showcasing a diverse array of content, ranging from older to new, from Hollywood to independent, from foreign to home-grown. Many of the movies they screen are ones which typically wouldn’t achieve a traditional cinema release. Thus, Horrorthon generates buzz for them through word of mouth, as well as getting them seen by their target demographic.
The opening late-night film was Don’t You Recognise Me?, the latest from Irish auteur Jason Figgis (Urban Traffik, The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann). Shot in the found-footage style, the incredibly meta premise focuses upon a documentary filmmaker, Tony (Matthew Toman), shooting a new project entitled “A Day in the Life” – where he interviews different types of people. His latest subject, K (Jason Sherlock), appears at first to be just a wannabe gangster, introducing Tony to his various girlfriends. However, when K’s brother Daz (Darren Travers) shows up with his own loyal documentary crew (one of whom is played by filmmaker Zoe Kavanagh, whose own film Demon Hunter played at Horrorthon this year), things go south fast.
The film completely capitalises on its found-footage aspect, getting the absolute most it can out of its premise. For instance, at one stage, the viewer is watching a documentary while the people in it record others watching another documentary. The movie also takes time to explain why each character is filming each other and why the footage has been spliced together, already elevating it above the plethora of found-footage horrors which never quite earn their shooting style. Meanwhile, Figgis, who also wrote the script, has fun playing with viewer expectation. Audiences automatically tend to presume in these types of “hoodie horrors” that the lower-class criminal characters are vicious thugs who enjoy violence just for the sake of it. This makes the mid-way twist in Don’t You Recognise Me? all the more refreshing.
While Matthew Toman is unable to convey the shifts in tone his multi-faceted character needs, the performances by Jason Sherlock and Darren Travers are excellent. The former possesses this natural, cocky bravado while the latter, in a dual-role, completely commands the screen at all time. Despite moments where the shaky-camera and lack of conventional scenes (although these aspects are probably intentional as Daz is not a filmmaker) grows tiring, there is enough ingenuity in Figgis’ latest to warrant seeking it out.
Next there was The Chamber, the feature length debut of director Ben Parker, centring upon a submarine captain forced to escort a special ops unit to the bottom of The Yellow Sea. The team’s goal is to retrieve a mysterious but vitally important object in North Korean territory. The film’s direction is very assured. Despite it being his first film, Parker confidently navigates his potentially tricky tight setting and under-water scenes, maintaining a consistently tense and claustrophobic atmosphere. However, aside from the timely geopolitical angle, the movie brings little to the submarine sub-genre that viewers haven’t seen before. This is an extra shame considering that just last year saw the release of both Black Sea and Pressure, films which The Chamber does little to differentiate itself from. Overall, Parker’s effort is solid but unremarkable.
This year the festival really belonged to the female directors. Firstly, there was Egomaniac, a micro-budget comedy horror from writer-director Kate Shenton that manages to transcend its shoe-string roots. Similar to All That Jazz, in the sense that it incorporates autobiographical material and inventive fantasy sequences, it centres upon Catherine Sweeney (a charming Nic Lamont), a female horror director struggling to get her latest feature – Zombie Apocalypse: A Love Story – off the ground. Strong armed into making various compromises – like being forced to cast the star of the film within a film, Tits on Hooks (Laurence R. Harvey) as the lead – and playing up her femininity – even though, as Catherine notes, Tim Burton gets to look like “a hedge” – she is driven to the brink of madness.
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Shenton, who introduced the screening, stated that at least eighty per cent of the film is based on fact and that Egomaniac itself was the result of her real-life zombie pet-project being stalled. She mines great humour out of the challenges she faced, exaggerating them to absurdist levels e.g. being forced to add a talking dog to her apocalyptic film because “they sell well” or being expected by everyone to have sex with her male financier to get funding. Although certain sequences do run on a little long, Shenton does a terrific job eliciting chuckles from the viewer while also raising an awareness to the sexism women face in the film industry.
The true stand out of the festival, however, was Raw – the debut feature from Belgian director Julia Ducournau. It stars Garance Marillier as Justine, a vegetarian college freshman studying veterinary in her parents’ alma mater. She, along with her fellow first years, are forced to undergo hazing rituals by the older students, one of whom is Justine’s sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). After being coerced into eating raw rabbit liver, Justine develops an insatiable craving for meat – including that of humans.
Possessing the gore, style and humour of this year’s The Neon Demon, as well as the unusual approach to presenting a monster mythology a la Cronos, Raw is a remarkably confident debut feature. The film features an over-abundance of astonishingly inventive gore. Following one hilarious but stomach churning sequence, the next scene sees a man laughing maniacally onscreen – probably a stand-in for Ducournau herself grinning at the audience for making them endure what they just witnessed. However, despite its overt violence and comedy, the movie still manages to possess this consistently unsettling art-horror vibe, where one knows that at any moment something terrible could happen. This quality may have something to do with how Ducournau manages to always keep one foot in reality – with the hazing sequences and themes of body shame and blossoming sexuality in today’s world feeling viscerally real and relevant.
It’s also incredibly directed. One sequence in particular, which appears to be a three-minute unbroken tracking shot, might be my favourite film scene all year. Beginning with the creepy image of freshmen being forced to crawl into a darkened room and ending in a chaotic and lively college party, with the camera trailing Justine looking for her sister – it’s a technical tour de force. It’s great to see festivals like Horrorthon enabling true genre fans to see terrific but under-the-radar works like Raw on the big screen, where they belong.
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