Just finishing its 35th year, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has become the largest and most highly attended film festival in the United States. It just grows and grows. You’d hope that among 392 films, including 203 feature films from 62 countries, stretched out over 25 days, there’d be enough horror, thriller and science fiction fodder to keep fans of those genres happy.
Having suffered through over 20 SIFFs, I’ve become an expert at mining the horror and thriller gold from SIFF’s high drama rock face—and I can happily report that it again delivered some 24-karat nuggets of gore and mayhem. The Midnight Adrenaline series, held at midnight in the atmospheric Egyptian Theater, sponsored by Scarecrow Video (Seattle’s epicenter for these genres), provided most of the weird shockers and chillers, but surprisingly, a few were shown as standard features at other times. The usual mix of slashers (The Hills Run Red), gothic horrors (Krabat, Kaifek Murder, Hansel and Gretel), and modern chillers (Grace) kept the program interesting.
The Hills Run Red (U.S.A) borrowed elements from every slasher/horror movie you can think of, from chainsaws to deformed backwoods incest-mutants, yet still manages to wring out a few unexpected twists and scenes to put it into the worth watching category. Tyler, a film student, is obsessed with finding an infamous slasher film, The Hills Run Red, of which no known copies exist. Only a grainy trailer remains. Tyler tracks down the director’s traumatized daughter, Alexa, the only surviving actor from the film. After talking her into taking him and his crew of 2 girls and a buddy, into the back woods to the house where the movie was filmed, things take a nasty turn for the worse.
Tyler turns out to be a deranged maniac, the Jason look-alike who’s busy slaughtering all and sundry in the woods, is her incestuously conceived son, and her father, it turns out, is still making the film. No wonder so many people have disappeared in those woods over the years! In a great ending scene, Tyler finally gets his wish of watching the original Hills Run Red movie, amid a barnful of cadavers in various states of mutilation. You’ll have fun watching this piece with horror aficionados, as you identify clips from iconic horror movies in every scene.
Director Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Krabat (Germany) made my top three list because of its dark, realistic, gothic horror story, and some good acting by a dozen young men who are doomed to work until they die in a flourmill under the influence of The Master, a Satanist par excellence. Based on Otfried Preussler’s classic novel, it’s kind of an anti- Harry Potter story that gives new meaning to the phrase ”dark satanic mills”. This film, with a strong sinister medieval backdrop of mud, the mill, the plague, and wretched, slaving young men seduced by the dark one’s powers, really hits home with strong imagery.
Set during 17th-century Germany’s Thirty Years’ War, our hero Krabat, is lured to the mill by a dream that promises him food and shelter. However, once in, you can never get out as Krabat soon learns—and anyone not pulling his weight in the mill is punished severely. The midnight scenes where a hooded minion of evil brings in a cartload of human bones for crushing to powder in the mill is particularly threatening. The Master training the boys in the dark arts, sends them flying off as crows to scout the countryside for other boys who can replace them as they are sacrificed or killed for disobeying his satanic orders. Krabat takes a final stand along with some of the other boys, and the excellent final show down keeps you guessing for a while.
Another atmospheric German thriller/fantasy, Kaifek Murder, directed by Esther Gronenborn, loosely follows the Wicker Man story, as photographer Marc Barenberg and son Tyll, stumble across the small isolated Bavarian town of Kaifeck, where a shocking, unsolved mass murder took place decades before. Marc becomes intrigued by the murders, but of course the locals won’t talk about it. As the plot unfolds, Marc figures out why he’s so irresistibly drawn to the town, and has bizarre dreams about the murders, learning things that no one could know unless they were there. It all comes to a head when he must fight the townspeople during their annual pagan festival, where they dress up in frightening masks to re-enact the bloody events of the past.
Director Paul Solet’s Grace (USA) will put you off childbirth and breastfeeding forever. Madeline and husband Michael desperately want a child after a previous miscarriage. After Madeline becomes pregnant, Michael is killed in a car crash. Baby Grace, although stillborn, miraculously comes to life (always an ominous sign) after a harrowing birth scene. The real trouble begins soon after Grace is born, when she develops a taste for blood, and squadrons of flies emerge from her mouth—and it all goes downhill from there. Madeline feeds the baby blood from supermarket meat (of course!), although rats will do in a pinch. The mother-in-law, thinking Grace isn’t up to the demands of motherhood, plots to gain custody of the baby, and the final confrontation blood bath wraps things up splendidly. If you are contemplating parenthood anytime soon, this is a movie you’ll definitely want to miss.
Zombie movies lurched into a big comeback at this year’s SIFF, with 3.5 of them splattering the screen with blood, intestines, and exploding heads. Who can resist titles like Zombies of Mass Destruction, Dead Girl, Dead Snow, and Sexykiller (that turned into a Zombie story in its last 25 minutes).
Zombies of Mass Destruction (U.S.A) was a hit with the Northwest crowd, with local director, Kevin Hamedani making his first full length feature. Set during the early years of the Bush administration, with paranoia running rampant about terrorist plots, the small, isolated island town of Port Gamble, Washington, finds itself infested with zombies. Human interest stories unfold, as we experience the zombie invasion as it affects Frida, a Princeton student of Iranian descent who’s returned home for a break from college; a newly out-of-the-closet gay Tom, returning to Port gamble with his partner Lance, to break the news to his mother; the Reverend Haggis who preaches fire and brimstone to a dwindling audience of believers, doing a good take on televangelists; and an unscrupulous mayor running for reelection.
As the zombies proliferate, and things start to look grim, our characters must find ways to overcome their conflicts and prejudices to work together against the rampant zombies. But, with human nature being what it is, it’s just darn hard to put them aside and work together to survive. Hamedani does a first rate job of cynically highlighting our ignorance and inability to change our beliefs, even when threatened by killer zombies. Who will survive the night?
Co-directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s Dead Girl (U.S.A.) provides a raw story about two teenage high school screw ups who discover an undead girl, shackled to a gurney in the basement of (where else?) an abandoned mental asylum. As the circle of teenage boys in the know about the captive sex slave grows, things start to go horribly wrong. There are no prizes for guessing what happens to anyone unfortunate enough to be bitten by the undead girl.
Two of the less brain-endowed lads decide to create their own fresh high school teen girl sex slave because the original is starting to decompose. After kidnapping an old flame and bringing her to the lab for the zombie to bite, the zombie gets loose in the claustrophobic cellar. The finale has it all: amputation by machete and mauling by rabid, sharp pointy zombie teeth give you a taste of the ensuing chaos. This is a good lesson for teenagers about not getting into a situation over your head, and letting sleeping zombies lie.
Tommy Wirkola’s Norwegian Zombie flick, Dead Snow, was another of my top three picks of SIFF ’09, featuring an irresistible combination of 8 horny Norwegian med students vacationing in an isolated lodge, deep in Norway’s mountainous snowfields, surrounded by a regiment of Nazi zombies. Well, the students couldn’t say they weren’t warned, after a somewhat unbalanced night visitor tells them about Colonel Herzog’s murderous Nazi zombie hordes lurking in the valley. Then the unsettled students discover gold coins under a trapdoor in the cabin, which apparently the Nazis consider their property. And they want it back, now! Various misadventures (why do they always split up?) whittle down the student’s numbers drastically in all sorts of creative ways, despite their spirited, panic-fuelled defense. Just when you think they’ve destroyed all the zombies, another couple dozen of riled up Nazi zombies pop up from the snow. Now, the surviving students must flee the slopes while fending off the evil Nazis. Who survives? Watch this fun zombie movie to find out.
Spanish Sexykiller proved a hit with the rambunctious SIFF midnight fans, largely due to its ridiculous plot and over the top sociopathic murderer, and hotty med student, Barbara. She’s relating her recent homicides to a terrified young guy who’s stupid enough to annoy her while she’s out on her evening walk with her dog, looking for somewhere to dump that bothersome head of her most recent victim. Besides, the macho Spaniard can’t move because his hand is knifed to the hood of his sports car. Barbara, it turns out has always wanted to be a top fashion model like Cindy Superstar and will kill anyone who gets in her way. Or anyone who generally gets on her wrong side. Victims include her lecherous professor, fellow students, policemen, or just anyone else—I stopped counting them after a while.
Barbara takes a liking to a fellow med student, Tomas, who happens to work in the morgue, and is obviously kept very busy processing the rapidly growing stack of bodies that Barbara is sending their way. But Tomas has developed a device that can decode brainwaves of recently dead people that, if combined with a liberal dose of Ecstasy injected into the deceased’s brain, reveals their final sights on a computer screen. What a great way to find the serial killer stalking the campus! At least until Barbara finds out about it.
After Tomas injects Ecstasy into the body of his best buddy, to try to find the identity of the killer, it returns to life, or rather undead life. Soon, things turn from absurd to ridiculous when a whole army of zombies is reanimated in the morgue, all thirsting for revenge on their killer. Barbara and Tomas are at a party when the rapidly spiraling out of control pack of zombies turns up, and havoc ensues. Sexykiller is a fun film, the sort that you can watch with broad-minded friends the night before Halloween.
(U.S.A) is a lighthearted horror comedy romp through the careers of a pair of body snatchers in pre Victorian times. This entertaining tale starts with the guillotine execution of Willie Grimes, one of the grave robbers, when justice has finally caught up with him. His understudy, Arthur Blake, (Dominic Monaghan—Merry the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings) while awaiting his end in prison, is interviewed by Father Duffy (Ron Perlman), a gallows chronicler and father confessor.
As Blake’s story of occupational misdeeds unfolds, encouraged by a rather un-priestly bottle of whisky provided by Father Duffy, flashback tales of undead creatures of the night (Vampires, that fetch a good price on the market) other ghouls, and run ins with their Irish competitors, the lethal Murphy gang, emerge. While not taking itself too seriously, almost a parody in parts, this film is highly watchable and well worth the rental. There’s a fun surprise at the end, when Father Duffy turns out not to be a priest waiting for Blake’s confession, but someone far more sinister. This film also made my top three for sheer light entertainment value.
Also Mention: Korean director Yim Phil-Sung’s Hansel and Gretel is a feverish, Tim Burtonesque fantasy tale that develops into a full blown horror show as three little brats entice adults to their perfect house in the woods. But the newly adopted parents can never leave. Well worth a look.