In aniticpation of this years stunning Sitges Film Festival Lars Erik Holmquist reminisces of last years event…
For the serious fan of what the French call film fantastique - somewhat awkwardly translated as fantastic film - the Sitges International Film Festival of Catalonia is the place to be. Taking place near Barcelona, it is easy to get to on a cheap air fare and boasts the most packed program of any of the European film festival specializing in horror, fantasy, science fiction and related genres. The festival is particularly strong on new European genre films, and the Asian section is also famous. It also often has a great line-up of guests with everyone from Takashi Miike to Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon making appearances in recent years. It is a big festival, but not big enough to be intimidating - hang out in the lobby of the festival hotel Melia a few hours and you're bound to see writer Harry Knowles, actor Ken Foree or someone else pass by and maybe spare some time for a chat. You can feel the festival is run by fans, for fans and that is what makes it a pleasure to visit.
Still, the festival has been struggling with its identity for a few years and seemed to be getting further and further away from the genre films that were always the core. But for the 2004 edition, festival boss Ŕngel Sala returned the focus to what he and we like best: horror, fantasy, sci-fi, splatter, Asian action and anime…! The festival has also had some hard years economically. In an attempt to get the financial side in order, it was decided to move it to December, when the facilities are much cheaper. Fortunately, the scheme worked and the festival made enough money to save its hide. For 2005 it will be back in its much more pleasant mid-October time slot.
This was my third visit so I guess I could almost be considered a veteran! Unfortunately, I only had a few days free time to spare this time, and my stay was made even less effective by the fact that I was first given the wrong type of press pass and it took me some time to get one which would actually let me in to see the movies! But once that was sorted I spent the remaining time cramming as many movies as humanly possible…
All the expected high-profile genre movies of the season make an appearance at Sitges, and among those I caught this year were the American re-make of JU-ON, THE GRUDGE; the inventive serial killer film SAW; philosophical anime epic GHOST IN THE SHELL 2, and UK-produced CREEP, starring Franka Potente. Most of you have probably already seen or at least read more than enough about these, so I'll concentrate on a few less well-known pictures. With a thriving genre production in many European countries, festivals like Sitges are still the only way to see some of the more obscure home-grown productions, at least if you want English subtitles.
Unfortunately, somebody forgot about the subtitles for EL HABITANTE INCIERTO (Guillem Morales, Spain 2004), a Spanish-language production that still turned out to be a highlight. It is an interesting variation on the home-invasion theme where a man lets a stranger into his house to make a phone-call, but realizes the man has suddenly disappeared - without leaving the house! Is he still hiding in there somewhere? Neither the protagonist nor the audience is sure but the film is both creepy and funny and has some very surprising twists. Mónica López (seen in another notable Spanish thriller, INTACTO) was given the award for best actress and it was also nominated for best film. Hopefully some DVD company will release it with English subtitles so that I can figure out what the twist-ending really meant!
Another unusual European production was LES REVENTANTS (aka THEY CAME BACK, Robin Campillo, France 2004), a sort of DAWN OF THE DEAD on valium! The dead are returning to life, but they're not out for your flesh; in fact, they are almost their old self, only a little slower and somehow in a dream-like state. As people try to welcome the dead back into their families and their old jobs, things develop awkwardly but without really posing or answering any big questions. This film is interesting and worth a look as an unusual take on the "living dead" theme, but in the end not particularly satisfying.
A film that I really loved, and would hope gets a much wider audience is INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS (Zak Penn, USA 2004). This mockumentary comes on like a mix between SPINAL TAP and BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - starring none less than legendary German film director Werner Herzog! Herzog is interested in filming a documentary on the myth of the Loch Ness monster, but his producer - played by Zak Penn, who also directed - wants something more, shall we say, "Hollywood"! Given a crew more used to working on productions like DROPZONE and X-MEN 2, things quickly get out of hand as the producer tries to make the proceedings more exciting by involving bikini models and blow-up monsters. There are some incredibly funny moments when the commercial professionalism of Hollywood meets the personal vision of Herzog, who is surprisingly good in his alternately deadpan and furious reactions. He also makes fun of himself - as in a play on the famed story where he supposedly directed Klaus Kinski at gunpoint. Penn tries the same stunt and is significantly less effective... At one point Herzog say that "This is by far the WORST shoot I have ever been on!", and when it's coming from the man who hauled a ship through the Brazilian rainforest for FITZACARRALDO that's really saying something! The film is out on DVD now so what are you waiting for?
As a Swede, I would love to say that DROWNING GHOST (STRANDVASKAREN, Mikael Hĺfström, Sweden 2004) was a great horror film, but unfortunately it's just so-so. Director Hĺfström had some international success with EVIL (ONDSKAN, 2003), a boarding-school drama that even received an Oscar nomination for best foreign picture. Here, they are using the same environment but set out to make a pure horror film. A number of strange murders occur at a remote school, possibly tied to a man who was drowned many years earlier. Unfortunately, the premise is not at all original, and worse, the film never delivers. It's not so much that the scares and shocks are contrived - that can be OK - but they are simply not very competently pulled off. I get the feeling the filmmakers were almost ashamed of making a horror film and the end result is just mildly entertaining.
Finally, festivals are also a great place to meet other film fans and film makers from all over the world. I had a chance to chat with such diverse directors as John Landis (BLUES BROTHERS) and Nacho Cerdŕ (AFTERMATH). I also met some of the people who run other festivals around the world as part of the international network called the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation, including Magnus Paulsson (Fantastisk Film Festival, Lund, Sweden), Adele Hartley (Dead By Dawn, Edinburgh, UK) and Mitch Davis (Fantasia International Film Festival, Montreal, Canada - not strictly in Europe but federation members anyway!) Apart from the big festivals like Sitges and Brussels there are also many smaller events in places like Espoo, Finland; Ravenna, Italy; and even Riga, Latvia. In fact, fright fans can keep themselves busy all year, all over Europe! The organization coordinates the different events and also gives out the yearly Golden Melies for best European Fantastic Film. To find out more about the nearest festival, visit the federation's homepage here.
Festivals like Sitges are a great way to experience the latest genre films, and I recommend anyone to book a cheap flight to the nearest festival - it won't cost more than a couple of DVDs but give a much more "fantastic" experience! Next Sitges takes place on October 9th to 18th - if they give me a proper press pass this time, maybe I'll see some SGM readers there!
What is a festival without prizes? Here are the main awards given out by the festival jury; for the other winners, including those for animations, Asian films, debut directors, the audience awards, etc., click here
OLD BOY, by Park Chan-Wook (South Korea)
JOHNNIE TO, for BREAKING NEWS (Hong Kong)
CHRISTIAN BALE , for THE MACHINIST , by Brad Anderson (Spain)
MŇNICA LOPEZ for EL HABITANTE INCIERTO, by Guillem Morales (Spain)
FRANK COTTRELL BOYCE, for CODE 46, by Michael Winterbottom (UK)
XAVI GIMÉNEZ, for THE MACHINIST, by Brad Anderson (Spain)
Best Original Soundtrack
JOSHUA HYAMS and MARK REVEL (The Free Association) for CODE 46, by Michael Winterbottom (UK)
IZO, by Takashi Miike (Japan)
Best Make Up
THREE...EXTREMES, by Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook (Japan, Hong-Kong, South Corea)
Best Art Direction
JAVIER ALVARIŃO and DANIEL IZAR for THE BIRTHDAY , by Eugenio Mira (Spain)
Best Short Film
THE TEN STEPS, by Brendan Muldowney (Ireland)
THE JURY HAS DECIDED TO GIVE A SPECIAL AWARD TO THE COMPLETE WORK OF HAYAO MIYAZAKI.