After the experiencing last year’s Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF), I delayed my return to the US this year just to see the 25th Edition. This is the mother lode for fans of horror, sci-fi and thriller. No frilly romance or feel good movies here: just an undiluted, hard-core extravanganza of gore, terror and thrills. The BIFFF committee of eleven enthusiastic Belgians spends a whole year previewing 800 movies, to select the final 80 movies. This year’s program included 4 world premiers and 6 international premiers from 27 countries.
The BIFFF moved its festival to a new site, the Tour et Taxis, a large convention site a couple of metro stops from downtown Brussels, to accommodate a temporary new 1200 seat theatre- 300 more seats than its previous site at Passage 44. The committee brought the seats from the old theatre plus several hundred more from a theatre in Paris, and set them up in 3 days! One of the festival organizers, Georges Delmote, explains the big challenge was transplanting the past festival ambience into a much larger setting. “I think we have accomplished this. We were outgrowing Passage 44 and so far, half way through this festival, figures are looking good”.
The BIFFF program includes more than fantastic film. There is a Vampire’s Ball, exhibition booths, a risqué body-painting contest (which leaves nothing to the imagination), an unusual fashion show, and other impromptu entertainment provided by volunteer actors and fans in costume. The BIFFF continues to attract some first class celebrities including Jean Claude Van Damme, who appeared on the opening night, and notable directors such as Dario Argento, Uwe Boll, Chris Graham, William Lustig, Brian Yuzna, and actor Christopher Lloyd. The friendly atmosphere prevails, where fans can attend post-screening interviews with directors and actors, then have a few beers with them in the bar.
I had reservations about attempting more than the 35 movies I saw last year due to the demented psyche I suffered afterwards, but made the most of my press pass and eventually saw 42, spread out over the 15-day festival. This included two all-nighters for which I do a sort of quasi-religious purification ritual of sleeping most of the day before to stay conscious through the ordeal.
As usual the movies were of a high standard, almost all being memorable. The second season of the cable TV Masters of Horror series was screened at one of the all-nighters, and well received judging by the crowd’s reaction. As I emerged from the all-nighters into daylight, I glanced around at my fellow movie goers, and I swear it looked like a scene from a bad zombie movie: people quietly shuffling out of the theater along the street, red-eyed.
Summaries of some of the best-received movies follow. Hot Fuzz, Day Watch, Disturbia, The Kovak Box and The Invisible were shown at BIFFF, but are not reviewed as they have been recently released in the USA.
The opening film was Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (UK), a combination of 2001 and every other long-haul-through-outer-space-to-save-the-earth sci-fi film. A crew of 8 astronauts (including Michelle Yeoh) has been sent to nuke the dying sun to kick start it back to life, in the Icarus II. The previous mission in Icarus I went missing, 8 years before. The tension is ratcheted up as things start to go wrong and people start dying. There’s drama, romance, conflict and heroism, as the mission tries to stay on track. They encounter the dusty Icarus I floating near Mercury. One of the Icarus I crewmen has survived, now insane, and sneaks across to Icarus II, sabotaging its mission. The suspense gets real tight at the end.
Scott Thomas’s Plane Dead (USA), was actually filmed before Snakes in a Plane, providing a new twist on Zombie action films. American Scientists are fleeing the CIA with a smuggled Zombie on ice, in the hold of a 747 to France. A mixed bag of passengers including a nun, a con man prisoner being extradited, (handcuffed to a cop), an air marshall, a pilot on his last flight before retirement, a pro golfer, all provide solid interactions when the Zombie is freed by some turbulence from a bad storm.
Said Zombie proceeds to attack and infect the guard in the hold plus the two scientists who have been sent down to check up on the Zombie. Then the fun begins as the fast moving Zombies break out into the cabin and wreak havoc amongst the passengers, infecting them at a rapidly multiplying rate. Meanwhile back in the Pentagon, the generals have figured out what is going on in the plane and dispatch a fighter plane to shoot the airliner down. The plane eventually crash-lands and all is ok for the few survivors; or is it? This was a satisfying non-stop campy movie, and the Belgian crowd went nuts during the intense carnage scenes.
Another popular new release was Martin Weisz’s The Hills Have Eyes 2 (USA), the latest sequel to the remake that proved so popular at last year’s BIFFF. Scriptwriters/Co-Producers Wes and Jonathan Craven successfully shifted their emphasis from teenage “horror lite”, proving they’ve still got it with this gore in the desert follow-on. A group of inept national reservists are assigned the job of taking some equipment to scientists working in the desert. Our murderous mutants have done their usual fine work of slaughtering the unsuspecting scientists by the time the soldiers arrive at the camp. The guardsmen soon realize something’s amiss, and split up, with one party lured up into the hills by a flashing mirror, leaving 2 of their number behind to guard the camp, who are promptly attacked the moment the others are out of sight.
With mutilated scientist’s bodies appearing and their own ranks thinning out, the clumsy warriors attempt a rescue operation, following one of their abducted female soldiers into a cave, picking off a few of the mutants. Although the pace of the movie never really lets up, the last 20 minutes are especially brutal, as the surviving 3 soldiers fight for their lives against vengeful mutants.
Michael Katleman’s Primeval (USA) was the sleeper hit of the BIFFF, and brought the house down! Despite the glut of rampaging monster crocodile movies on the shelves, this well paced thriller shows that it’s still possible to put together cliched material if constructed well, with solid characters. Supposedly based on a true story, two reporters and their cameraman (wisecracking Orlando Jones in one of his best performances) are assigned to film and capture the mother of all crocodiles, named Gustave, in civil-war torn Burundi. Twenty foot long Gustave has been using the local villages as his personal supermarket, gobbling up over 300 of the inhabitants, who seem to regard his incursions as part of daily life. The TV crew meets up with their guide (Jurgen Prochnow) and cruise up the river to the croc’s lair. To complicate matters, their two guards are treacherous soldiers in the pay of the local warlord, who calls himself Little Gustave!
Gustave the croc turns out to be very smart, playing his supposed hunters, while whittling their numbers down to a select few. Simultaneously, the TV crew is placed on the endangered species list when their roaming cameraman captures Little Gustave on film, executing some of his opponents. The crew spends their time dodging Little Gustave’s henchmen’s bullets, and the 9-meter croc’s jaws. The final show down between the two surviving TV crew, the croc, and Little Gustav and his thugs, races along in a relentless finale, where you’re never sure where the croc is going to spring from. This action thriller had the Belgian crowd on the edge of their seats, yelling and screaming in French and Flemish. Gustave was elevated to the status of the BIFFF’s official monster for the rest of the festival with cries of “C’est Gustave” ringing out from this viewing on.
Canada had a few BIFFF entries including Sheldon Wilson’s Kaw, with a similar theme to Hitchcock’s The Birds, but with a lot less finesse. The flesh-eating Ravens have been infected with Mad Cow Disease, giving them superior intelligence and evident teamwork, to dispatch several of the local townspeople while the bewildered sheriff tries to hold things together. The local Mennonites have known about the disease and the lethal ravens for a couple of weeks, because their cattle were infected. They chose to remain silent about it, taking it as a sign from god, and conveniently covered up the evidence of their infected cattle.
The ravens attack relentlessly all over town and the body count grows. People are attacked in their cars, on the streets, in barns, and the finale takes place in the local diner as a group of besieged townspeople desperately try to keep the ravens out.
One of several Turkish entries, Mustafa Altioklar’s Shattered Soul is a murder mystery/thriller that starts with a young man being drowned, then strung up by one leg. The leg turns up in a fisherman’s net, setting off an investigation by detectives. Beyza, the female centerpiece of the film is having memory blackouts and flashbacks, and seemingly multiple personalities, one of whom is some kind of female muslim prophet, another may be the slicer and dicer.
As more legs start popping up all over Istanbul, Beyza’s past is tracked back to an orphanage where she was abused. Things get close to home when her husband, a psychologist, is employed by the police to help with the case, and soon realizes that she may be the killer. The police interview her and although she changes personalities in front of them, she denies any of her personalities are the murderer, despite Beyza’s connections with the murdered people. The final twist-her husband is more psycho than psychiatrist and has integrated all her personalities into one, causing her to kill child abusers.
Troma rears its ugly head with Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist. The basic plot features a fried chicken franchise built over an old tromahawk burial ground. The film goes downhill from here. I don’t see much point in describing this film-all I’ll say is if you have a burning desire to watch exploding butts, quasi-college co-ed lesbians, atrocious musical comedy, special chicken preparations that only the Troma could dream up, guranteed to put you off fast food forever, a food server through a food processor grinder, sex with unthawed chickens, mass vomiting, green chicken monsters hatched from humans, re-animated chicken zombies, etc, then by all means please see this film. Or not.
New Zealand seems to have a new crop of talented directors emerging with Jonathan King’s Black Sheep and Chris Graham’s The Ferryman. The former film may cause New Zealand’s farmers to never look at their sheep the same way again. A genetic experiment to produce a new improved breed of sheep goes badly wrong, resulting in cannibal sheep, causing infected humans to mutate into rather nasty flesh-eating were-sheep. It is easy to spot the influence of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead in this; the characters play it straight despite the absurdity of the situations they find themselves in. My favorite scene involved the hero of the film throwing mint sauce into the face of an attacking were-sheep, resulting in a reaction similar to holy water on a vampire!
In contrast, Chris Graham’s The Ferryman is a straight out supernatural nautical chiller thriller, featuring John Rhys-Davies and a talented backing cast. The characters are developed well: an American couple consisting of a blond bimbo and her all-American boy friend, a quiet New Zealand Maori guy and his nurse girlfriend, and the British captain and his Australian wife.
A hired yacht is on its way to Fiji on a 6-day cruise, when things quickly start to turn sour. They catch a shark which when opened up, reveals a swallowed human hand. Then a distress signal is received from a fishing boat, surrounded by a mysterious fog. John Rhys-Davies is the only survivor of a massacre, but there is more to him than meets the eye. He is possessed by a nasty spirit that has been hopping from body to body, after killing the person it wants to invade, then resurrecting them, thus cheating the Ferryman who is supposed to claim the dead (get it?).
With an ancient dagger, he kills first the Maori guy, and then the carnage begins, as the spirit rampages murderously through the yacht. The acting is worth a mention here: each character turning very nasty as they are possessed, with unrelenting blunt, in your face action, once Rhys-Davies is transferred to the yacht. Chris Graham is an emerging movie making talent, already proving versatile with some short films and a comedy to his credit.
One of the most disturbing films shown at BIFFF is Simon Boyes and Adam Mason’s Broken (UK). In this survivor horror indie, single mother Hope wakes up in a coffin-shaped wooden box after a date, and manages to force her way out. She’s knocked out and wakes up tied around her neck to a tree, balancing on some loose pieces of wood. She must break some stitches and poke around a deep wound in her abdomen to extract a razor blade to cut herself free. She succeeds but is knocked out again to wake up as a chained slave in a remote camp site in a Cambridgeshire forest.
Her captor has obviously done this before judging from the bodies piling up in the forest. Her job is to maintain a vegetable garden. If any of the vegetables die, she will be killed. She cooperates with her captor, waiting for an opportunity to incapacitate him and escape. After seducing him one night, she finds the key to her chains and escapes but is captured again. This time to ensure she will not escape again, he breaks one of her legs. Their relationship develops into a stand-off, as she waits for another opportunity to escape after her leg has healed. Her captor brings in a schoolgirl who is eventually killed as she tries to escape. The final scene brings more heartbreak for Hope, as she tries to rescue her 6-year old daughter. This film had the audience squirming in their seats, with lots of uncomfortable silences, as the woodsman performs his sick cruelty on the defenceless women. Another movie that proves a big budget is not necessary to produce a good film if the acting is solid and scenery well chosen.
Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s Special (USA) had enough weirdness and off-beat humor to make it very watchable. Les, our naïve, none-too-bright parking enforcement officer takes part in a medical study to evaluate the effects of a certain pill. He starts to develop special powers including telepathy, the ability to jump through walls, and levitation, or so he thinks. Maybe he is just losing his sanity. Les decides he can better serve mankind as a superhero and quits his job. Never has the phrase “don’t leave your day job” applied more than here, as Les sets about fighting crime in his own bumbling way. As Les publicly screws up his law enforcement efforts, you get the feeling that Les’ powers may be imaginary anyway.
The Doctor and two brothers heading the corporation behind the pills first deny all to him when he seeks answers, then try to kill him. By this time Les is so miserable he takes the antidote, which appears to be working. However, when the brothers run Les over several times in their car, he keeps getting up-have his powers become permanent?
Si-myung Lee’s Vampire Cop Ricky (South Korea) is a comedy/horror feature, with an on-the-take cop, Ricky, who is bitten by a vampire mosquito that hitch-hikes by plane from Romania, after biting count Dracula! If this doesn’t stretch the story’s credibility, then try this: Ricky only turns into a vampire when he has an erection!
Ricky’s life gets complicated as he turns against the evil crime lord he has been informing of police raids. His newly acquired vampire powers prove useful as he battles the gangsters. These powers wax and wane of course, depending on Ricky’s state of umm. . arousal, so he vacillates between kicking the gansters butts and vice versa. Then the villain kidnaps Ricky’s girlfriend to lure him into a warehouse for a final showdown.
The film is creative and has some very amusing moments, most notably when he is being chased by a horde of gangsters, looking at porn pictures on his cell phone to conjure up his vampire powers. Ricky is assisted in his rather unorthodox approach to fighting crime by a local priest. Fast action moves this film along quickly, with scenes varying from romantic to vampire martial arts, to drama and confrontation between Ricky and his detective boss.
Another South Korean film, Joon-ho Bong’s creature feature The Host was a favorite at the BIFFF, and is definitely worth a look. A mutant river creature wreaks havoc with the local populace who see it emerging from a chrysalis-like sac, suspended under a bridge. After running amok along the riverbank devouring the less fortunate gawkers, it takes Hun-seo, the daughter of Gyang-du, the owner of a local mobile snack bar, back to its riverside lair for a midnight snack. Gyang and family take up arms to rescue Hun-seo after receiving a cell phone call from her, telling them she is in a deep sewer nearby.
After escaping from a paranoid Korean CDC who are afraid that the river monster may be spreading a deadly virus, they have several scrapes with the monster, leading to a showdown on the riverbank where a crowd of demonstrators has gathered to protest the use of “agent yellow” which is about to be deployed to kill the beast. It’s here that the kidnapped girls sister, a national championship medal archer gets to show her stuff, as the family try everything from shooting the monster to Molotov cocktails, to a steel spear made from a street sign.
Crispin Glover does his seriously unbalanced but ingeniously lethal mass murderer twins in the woods act, in William Dear’s Simon Says (USA). Five obnoxious college students provide the axe fodder as they are systematically picked off in the woods with psycho twins Simon and Stanley. The brothers barely pause to catch their breath while slaughtering another group of paintball enthusiasts who happen to stumble across them.
You’ve seen it all before: scantily clad bickering college co-eds, a stoner, a macho jock; but this film does manage to demonstrate creativity in the ways the students are killed. Particularly impressive is the multiple flying axes released from catapults.
Other films that made an impression at the 2007 BIFFF that are worth the rental are The Abandoned (Spain), The Dark Hour (Spain), Dead in 3 Days (Austria), The Messengers (USA), Shadow Puppets (USA), and Unknown (USA). After 15 days of sleep deprivation and seeing so many movies, the images and sounds have merged into one kaleidoscope of vivid horror. It will probably take a year to recover, just in time for the 2008 BIFFF.