AFFFRAID IN THE DARK : 22nd Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival

THU : Fragile [6/10]
FRI :  Beowulf and Grendel [6/10]
Sheitan [9/10] ……………. KIM CHAPIRON INTERVIEW
Stay Alive [3/10]
SAT : Storm [5/10]
Fetching Cody [7/10]
Next Door [4/10]
Cookers [6/10]

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10.47pm, Thursday 20th April
Landed at Schiphol 17.05, trouble free progress to the city centre and the festival HQ in the Cinerama/Calypso/Filmmuseum cinema (one moviehouse, three names) just off the bustling, tourist-heavy Leidseplein. Problem only arose when I went to get my ticket for the 6.00 screening of US indie sci-fier Puzzlehead: started queueing at 5.40, was still “in line” at 6.15. So, plan B kicked into action. After picking up all my tickets for the next three days (once queuebitten, twice lineshy) I headed off for a pizza with my Dutch host Phil and some of his pals. These turned out to include a couple of blokes behind Worst Case Scenario, a Dutch zombie picture which has apparently already built up a following thanks to two internet trailers; Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth have apparently already expressed enthusiasm. All news to me, but will investigate further when the opportunity arises. Garlic mushrooms / seafood pizza / chianti / cappuccino. All finished by 7.40, at which point we all decamped back to the Cinerama for…

FRAGILE [6/10] : Spain (Spn/UK) 2005 : Jaume BALAUGERO : 100 mins (timed) : seen at Cinerama cinema.
Calista Flockhart stars in moderately suspenseful, somewhat derivative/overwrought hospital-horrors/woman-in-peril chiller, mostly shot in Barcelona and rather unconvincingly set on the Isle of Wight. Tale of haunting and long-buried secrets in cavernous institution (shades of Gothika, Trauma, Session 9 etc etc etc) takes a long while to get going, and never really makes total sense, but clicks belatedly into gear for a suitably histrionic break-down-the-walls climax. Spooked/spooky kids abound; much rifling through dusty files; Richard Roxburgh somewhat wasted as a dishy doc; Gemma Jones glowering from the sidelines; Flockhart faring rather better than Maria Bello did on the Isle of Man in The Dark, the cast (including the tots) doing just enough to keep things interesting. Ropiness of script occasionally troubles (loose ends, nebulous backstories, some ‘lost in translation’ awkwardness), likewise the mildly intrusive score, but pic is very atmospherically shot and boasts sufficient shocks/creeps to make it worth a look.

Now : 11.10pm in a noisy internetcafe/coffeeshop (which doesn’t serve coffee after 9pm; I’m sipping a Wickse Wittebier) just off Leidseplein. My pals are watching First on the Moon (which I saw and liked in Cottbus last Nov) and/or Godzilla Final Wars (which looked unappetising at 125mins); I’ll meet up with them for a beer or two shortly. Don’t want too late a night as (a) I’m cycling back to Phil’s and (b) I’m interviewing Roger Corman at 10am. Corman just turned 80 but is, by all accounts, still as “fit as a lop” as we say in Sunderland: the meaning of ‘lop’ can, by the way, be quite easily deduced from the context…

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15.40pm, Friday 21st April
Twenty minutes till Beowulf and Grendel (new Icelandic live-action version with, inevitably, Stellan Skarsgard); later on I’ve got tickets for Sheitan (French vampire pic, may be ropey, stars Vincent Cassel, cameo from Monica Bellucci as ‘La Belle Vampiresse’), Stay Alive (late replacement for the non-arriving Wolf Creek) and, if I’m still lively after midnight, may take in Starfish Hotel (don’t know much about it except it’s a Japanese film directed by John Williams, who’s either American or British). Bed at 2am last night; Wickse Witte biers in ‘Biblos’ bar near the Melweg arts complex; met two Dutch pals, one of whom had walked out of Godzilla : Final Wars after an hour, the other had seen and liked First on the Moon.

Managed to get up in good time so that I could cycle in (slightly hairy as I’m not used to Dutch bikes) for the Roger Corman interview at 10am. Though 80 (same age as The Queen, who celebrates her birthday today), Corman is still very much “with it”; really good interview, starting with his comment that he reckons current US policy is the worst in history. Full typescript will appear on this site when I get back home and write it up. Mooched round Amsterdam from 10.45 till 13.00, nosing in bookshops, record shops, etc: bright enough for sunglasses, and warm when the sun did poke through the clouds. Met another Dutch friend for canalside lunch, 13.00 to 15.20 – he’s on his way to see Capote at the city centre’s superb 1920s Tuschinski cinema; I told him the film is a should-see rather than a must-see, but he’s a novelist himself so should get quite a lot out of it. Now 15.47; Beowulf beckons.

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11.15am, Saturday 22nd April
Let’s get this out of the way: Sheitan (which I saw last night) is, against all odds and expectations, some kind of demented masterpiece. It’s by some way the best picture I’ve seen since A History of Violence: I was really blown away by its punkish energy, unpredictability and confidence; most of all, I loved the way director Kim Chapiron (who I’d never heard of before) mixes horror and humour. So many movies try that balancing-act and come a cropper: Chapiron makes it look easy. He also puts the wildly overpraised Haut Tension and Calvaire very firmly in their place: Sheitan resembles both pictures in many ways, but is much their superior in terms of ambition, execution and sheer balls-to-the-wall chutzpah. For the record: SHEITAN : [9/10] : France 2006 : Kim CHAPIRON : 90 mins (timed) : seen at Cinerama cinema. More in a moment.

11.25am
OK so, Sheitan. A picture I knew nothing about before arriving in Amsterdam and spotting it in the catalogue: the presence in the cast of Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci caught my eye, but I went in fearing the worst – anticipated a flashily hollow exercise in exploitational style a la Jan Kounen’s dire Dobermann (Kounen is, as it turns out, thanked in the end credits), reckoned I might well exit after 30 minutes if it didn’t grab my attention. Knew after five minutes I was going to be in my seat for the duration: hyperkinetic nightclub opening sets the tone/pace/look (much hand-held camerawork, rapidfire editing, up-close-and-personal shots of the youthful protagonists).

Main characters are three pals of varying degrees of boorishness: Olivier Barthelemy as knucklehead Bart, who rapidly gets into a daft dancefloor fight and is smashed over the head with a wine bottle; Ladj Ly and Nicolas Le Phat Tan as Thai – this latter pair relatively sensible and restrained in comparison with their lecherous, thuggish mate.
When Bart is ejected from the premises, the trio head off (at reckless speed) in Ladj’s car, along with barmaid Yasmine (Leila Bekhti) and another copine, Eve (Roxane Mesquida). After careering through the city streets, the five (accompanied by Bart’s dog Tyson) head for the countryside — and the farmhouse where Eve’s parents supposedly reside. No sign of the folks: instead it’s maniacally grinning farmhand/housekeeper Joseph (a near-unrecognisable Vincent Cassel) who provides an extremely hearty welcome. It doesn’t take too long for all hell to break loose – perhaps literally, ‘Sheitan’ being the Persian word for Satan…

Like most of the best films, the less you know about Sheitan beforehand, the better: and any synopsis can’t really hope to capture what makes the picture so exhilaratingly effective. Best seen in a crowded cinema – ideally after a drink or two – this is a genuinely disturbing, genuinely hilarious rock-the-house crowdpleaser. Too extreme and jittery for some, no doubt — but how terrific it is to stumble across a film bursting with so much wildness and life. A no-holds-barred rural gothic: touches of Jeepers Creepers here and there, a bit of Cabin Fever, with Barthelemy’s Bart a Gallic cousin of James DeBello’s pricelessly doltish Bert from the latter.

And while Chapiron’s direction and script (co-written with Christian Chapiron… his brother?) are, of course, crucial, special mention must be made of Barthelemy, without whom Sheitan might not even work at all. His performance as the hapless Bart – whose sullen idiocy is punished in truly extravagant style – represents astonishing work.
Bart is notably unintelligent, relentlessly unsympathetic: unredeemed and very probably unredeemable – a considerable challenge for any actor, never mind one making his first feature-film. But in Barthelemy’s hands he becomes a compelling, utterly convincing three-dimensional creation – an intrusion of cloddish reality into what is otherwise a mind-bending journey into the surreal and the grotesque.

11.56am
Enough of my Sheitan ramblings: I did actually see two other films yesterday, neither of which made anything like the impression left by Sheitan‘s berserk meisterwerk. pick of the pair was decidedly BEOWULF AND GRENDEL : [6/10] : UK (UK/Iceland/Canada) 2005 : Sturla GUNNARSSON : 103 mins (timed) : seen at Cinerama cinema. Slightly plodding but persuasively sincere version of perhaps the oldest of all stories in the English language (actually Old English, but never mind): Viking-ish tale set in the dark ages on an island in what would now be Denmark. Village community (ruled by Stellan Skarsgard) is plagued by murderous attacks from a giant ‘troll’; warrior-hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler) turns up with his ‘posse’ to sort it out; discovers the troll – named Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurthsson) – isn’t quite the vile monster he’d been led to expect. Picture has slow patches, especially in the early and middle stretches, but is executed with a sombre integrity that eventually wins you over. Leavening presence of myth-deflating humour is also useful. Wind-blown atmosphere of muck, blood and mysticism prevails – a noble, pleasingly unflashy enterprise, though by no means a must-see.

Decidedly a must-miss, however, was the late addition to the schedules STAY ALIVE : [3/10] : US 2006 : William Brent BELL : 83 mins (timed) : seen at Calypso cinema. Lame horror (echoes of Japanese variant St John’s Wort) is explicitly aimed at video-game addicts: gamers meet grisly ends when they try out an experimental new game which turns out to be possessed by the spirit of notorious old-school lady-vampire Countess Elisabeth Bathory – who also popped up (kind of) in Hammer’s Countess Dracula (with Ingrid Pitt) and Harry Kumel’s superb Daughters of Darkness (in which Delphine Seyrig turned in one of the great screen performances of any genre). Stay Alive is decidedly anaemic fare in comparison: Bathory here (who is mostly incarnated as a CGI ‘avatar’) isn’t even a vampire. Picture feels knocked together as if to satisfy a contractual obligation, or for copyright-continuation purposes: dialogue, performances and direction are perfunctory at best; plot makes very little internal sense; suspense, surprise and humour are conspicuous by their absence. Jon Foster, in the lead, fails to build on the promise of his work in Tod Williams’ The Door in the Floor; it’s anybody’s guess what Frankie Muniz (from Malcolm in the Middle and Agent Cody Banks) is doing in this mess – he looks somewhat bewildered himself. Dull fare to round off what was, thanks to Sheitan and Roger Corman (who I interviewed in the morning – see below), a corker of a day. STOP PRESS: as of the time of writing, Stay Alive has been picked up for UK distribution, Sheitan reportedly remains unbought. Distributors keen to cash in the next cult classic are urged to contact sales-agent Wild Bunch, pronto.

12.45pm
Reaction to Sheitan among my fellow critics has been mixed: some very enthusiastic (though not as keen as me), some decidedly lukewarm. An encouraging sign, however, is the fact that at this stage the picture leads the voting for the audience award. Current top ten looks like this:

8,07 Sheitan
7,97
Millennium Actress
7,81 Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
7,64 Fragile
7,47 Aro Tolbukhin: In the Mind of a Killer
7,26 MirrorMask
7,25 Seven Swords
7,20 Godzilla: Final Wars
7,07 Dark Side of the Moon
6,85 King, The
(this list reproduced from the official site).

Been sat here in the back of the tourist-oriented Bulldog Cafe (Leidseplein) for over 90 minutes now; not ideal, but only internet access I could find on this chilly Saturday morning. Coming up today: Storm (Swedish? Matrixy?); Fetching Cody (Canadian, Butterfly Effectish); Cookers (American, zero-budget shocker, supposedly very good); Reeker (US slasher). Latter is showing as the opening picture in the all-nighter, ‘The Night of Terror’, which is notorious for the scrum-like atmosphere beforehand. May or may not be up for that kind of shenanigans, post-midnight. Now: may seek a sandwich, pre-Storm. Getting claustrophobic in here: big noisy bar, seemingly popular with weekending Brits, mucho mirrors and first signs of what may develop into a “party atmosphere”… Speaking of which, festival star-guest Roger Corman is reportedly having fun: sampled the delights of Amsterdam nightlife last nacht, and hopefully will have recovered in time for his scheduled 4pm interview in the Melkweg. Watch this space.

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2.34pm, Sunday 23rd April
Just time for one last update before I head off the airport, which means I have to round up yesterday’s four films in short order. None in the league of Sheitan (head and shoulders pick of the eight films I’ve seen here this weekend), but none quite as poor as the Jigsaw Lounge wooden spoon recipient, Stay Alive.

First up was STORM [5/10] : Sweden 2005 : ‘MARLIND/STEIN’ (Mans MARLIND & Bjorn STEIN) : 113m (timed) : seen at Calypso cinema. In some ways rather different from the usual Scandinavian product: ambitious, head-spinning, effects-heavy sci-fi-ish mini-epic, inspired by (and aimed at audiences familiar with) graphic novels and video games. But suffused with a the gloomy introspection familiar from ‘Nordic’ fare: smart-alec scruffy-handsome journalist finds himself in a secret war between forces of good and evil on the not-so-mean streets of Stockholm. So far, so Night Watch: gimmick here is that it all turns out to be an internal struggle based on his inability to deal with the traumatic events of his childhood and youth. Painful revisiting of long-buried episodes, with a hallucinatory/time-travel angle that’s never really integrated particularly well. No shortage of ideas or style (looks good, especially a foggy, perhaps-imaginary depopulated town), but ultimately a somewhat pretentious exercise in melancholy bombast.

Rather sprightlier fare was on offer in the Canadian time-travel romance / drama / comedy/ scifier FETCHING CODY : [7/10] : Canada 2005 : David RAY : 89 mins (timed) : seen at Cinerama cinema. Executed with a nice, light touch, picture once again proves that time-travel works best when it doesn’t take itself massively seriously (as opposed to, say, Primer). Essentially a variation on The Butterfly Effect: drug-dealer Art (engagingly breezy Jay Baruchel) visits key episodes from the life of his prostitutute girlfriend, who’s in hospital in a coma after OD’ing on heroin. He tries to eliminate the traumas that led to her becoming a ‘working girl’, but his inept meddling fails to produce the desired effect. Film transcends low budget (evident from the ropey digital-video look) with its jaunty, no-nonsense tone and pleasingly untangled handling of the switchback-twisty plotlines. Becomes surprisingly affecting in the latter stages as our hero realises that it’s his influence which has been the main force dragging the girlfriend into the gutter. Plenty of talent on display here, rough edges notwithstanding.

At the other end of the scale: pretentious, over-stylish, phoney, slick-looking Norwegian psychological shocker NEXT DOOR : [4/10] : Naboer : Norway 2005 : Pal SLETAUNE : 74 mins (timed) : seen at Calypso cinema. Debts to Lynch (Blue Velvet) and Polanski (Repulsion) evident from start to finish; claustrophobically grim tale of unassuming thirtysomething (Kristoffer Joner) who’s just broken up with his girlfriend. Is recipient of forceful advances from the two comely young women who live in the apartment next door. Nothing is what it seems, etc etc etc. Short running time, but paceless affair feels draggy: big shock twist in final act is underwhelming – makes picture seem pointless and gratuitous in its exploration of tormented psyche. Hitchcocky score from Goblin veteran Simon Boswell; limpid cinematography by John Andreas Andersen; performances solid enough – but all at service of undeveloped, derivative, old-fashioned script. Pushes the envelope a bit with depiction of violently abusive sex (in which both parties punch other in face, with Fight Club-type messy results), but tries too hard for shock effects. Eminently missable.

Final picture of the weekend for me was COOKERS : [6/10] : USA 2004 : Dan MINTZ : 95 mins (timed) : seen at Calypso cinema. Film was supposedly finished and screened at some festivals before dropping out of circulation, but print shown clearly carries a 2004 copyright-date. Suitably grim, creepy sojourn in the company of a couple whose main occupation is producing crystal meth: hence ‘cooking’. They do so by moving into abandoned, remote houses where they can set up their complex equipment without fear of intrusion or discovery. As well as selling their product, they consume it in large quantities: cue mental instability, rampant paranoia. Director Mintz deploys the jittery camerawork and editing familiar from countless drug-pictures, but adds some new ingredients to the mix: stygian gloom of interior shots, even in daylight (the windows being blacked out to hide the illicit activites within); suggestion that the characters’ scary visions may not be entirely hallucinatory. Focussed three-hander, nicely played, with Brad Hunt a mass of tension and tics, Patrick McGaw contributing a comic-inflected turn as his redneck best pal, Cyia Batten as Hunt’s girlfriend and the closest the picture has to a voice of sanity. Final reel is a bit of a letdown, as script fizzles out rather than building to a satisfying climax, but Ray handles suspense pretty well and generally makes the most of limited materials.

Now 3.05 and Schiphol beckons. Will be posting more on these films when I get back, including a more measured assessment of Sheitan – for my money the only truly ‘fantastic’ film at this ‘Fantastic Film Festival,’ and (along with meeting Corman) more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. Tot ziens.


Neil Young