Jennifer’s Bodies is a roving annual festival of female-helmed horror movies and part of Women In Horror Recognition Month, an international assortment of affiliated events organised partly to highlight just how much women can and do contribute to the genre outwith the typically accepted factors of tits, ass and mezzosoprano screaming.
It took place this year on the 21st and 22nd of February in Edinburgh’s Banshee Labyrinth, which prides itself as “Scotland’s most haunted pub” and is an aptly named maze of hidden rooms, multiplying corridors and twisted staircases, created from an upper class South Bridge townhouse knocked through to the slums of the Vaults. An eldritch ambience that comes from more than its shadow-throwing lighting setup, it’s the perfect place to host a horror festival.
The event was hosted by Jennifer Cooper, a genre fanatic and tireless promoter of indie horror. Opinionated, verbose and engaging, she has the all the nerdy enthusiasm of Felicia Day, the encyclopaedic knowledge of Quentin Tarantino, the effortless charisma of Jennifer Lawrence and the warped humour of Eli Roth. Or to put it another way, she’s basically an amalgamation of Jen and Sylvia Soska. She also possesses an amazing ability to link anyone and everything to The X-Files along with an unabashed fixation with Jeremy Renner, both of which were frequently demonstrated.
The festival kicked off with Jessica Cameron’s Truth or Dare, a visceral and unflinching gorefest where a group of stunt-pulling YouTube superstars are held hostage by a fan who’s gone full-on Annie Wilkes and forces them to play a twisted version of the titular game. It soon becomes apparent that the truths spawned of the secrets they each harbour could be just as damaging as the increasingly depraved dares their demented captor demands of them.
Unapologetically twisted, delightfully evil and utterly mesmerising, it speaks volumes of the film’s grisliness that a guy being forced to eat broken glass is one of the least gruesome things that occurs. As horrifically inventive as any Hostel in the torture it puts its characters through, the single repetitive sequence serves as set up for a shocking but morbidly hilarious about-turn in one captive’s priorities, while the squick-inducing sound effects are on occasion worse that what you actually see. A few choppy edits actually add to relentless intensity of the film, while its circular structure inhibits the signposting of any developments, preventing you from second-guessing exactly how it will end.
Next up were two shorts from 23-year-old Mexican prodigy Gigi Saul Guerrero. Both had a distinctive style highly reminiscent of early Robert Rodriguez, in particular Dia de los Muertos, where “Life is a bitch and you gotta be a bigger bitch than her.” With its grindhouse aesthetic, pounding guitars, dive bar sleaze, gorgeous girls, greasy guys and a metric fuckton of condensed badassery, it could easily be a deleted scene from Desperado.
Such is the strength of Dia de los Muertos, it has been included in Mexican anthology México Bárbaro after Guerrero’s previous short (and next in the line up) M Is For Matador got her noticed. Entered in the open contest for The ABCs of Death 2, its absence of dialogue, grisly close ups and story of a murderous bullfighter told in the confines of a brief running time made it perfect for the anthology sequel. While not the overall winning entry, it was however selected for The ABCs of Death 1.5, a compilation of 26 runner-up entries (to give some perspective, there were 541 submissions).
Another pair of shorts were next, introducing us to “what makes Karen Lam the crazy little Asian that she is” before the evening’s final film, the UK premiere of Lam’s sophomore feature Evangeline. The Meeting gave us a clandestine gathering of SKA (Serial Killers Anonymous), whose discussions of their addiction to murdering women are hijacked by the appearance of a demure housewife whose wholesome demeanour hides a dark and brutally realised secret. Stalled, meanwhile, shows that something as straightforward as an underground car park confrontation can have unforeseen repercussions if people leap to conclusions based on their own prejudices without taking in all the details of the situation.
Evangeline itself, an expansion of Lam’s short Doll Parts, sees a dangerously innocent girl begin college only to find herself abused in a series of nasty encounters and left so close to death she briefly passes over. Subsequently becoming possessed by a violent forest spirit fed by the blood of sacrificed children, she begins hunting down those who wronged her.
As the eponymous protagonist, Kat de Lieva (Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn) embraces the dual roles of naïve debutante and demonic avenger, her cherubic ethereal beauty amplifying both extremes of the supernatural dyad. Like Ben Foster with self-control, Richard Harmon excels as the sadistic villain, and with similarly chilling and/or emotionless turns in the likes of sci-fi show Continuum, crime remake The Killing, horror prequel Bates Motel and steampunk web series Riese: Kingdom Falling, he’s well to the way to becoming the first choice of directors looking for a twentysomething sociopath.
Unusually, Saturday began rather than ended with the evening’s main event, Marcy Boyle and Rachel Holzman’s thriller Nobody Can Cool (a reference to William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, in case you were wondering), where an arguing couple take a trip to a friend’s remote cabin, only to find another couple already there. The latter soon turn out to be the criminals they were suspected to be and unforeseen factors make navigating the intense situation too problematic for any of them to adequately handle.
Reverberating echoes of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry and Dominik Moll’s Harry, He’s Here To Help abound throughout as the deceptively simple situation soon spirals far beyond anyone’s ability to contain it. The tension crescendos without relent as the balance of power continually shifts from individuals to pair permutations and back again with such frequency that there’s no way of deducing who’ll come out on top. Also, let it never be said that a girl in a onesie with tear-streaked makeup cannot look like a total badass.
Collectively known as Dpyx (an abbreviation of Digital Pictures and spoken like The Pics pronounced in a New York accent) Boyle and Holzman were also in attendance for the screening, giving an insightful Q&A about the film. Amidst tales of the tribulations of low-budget filmmaking, it was revealed that one direct intention was to create a situation where a particular action that standard morality would consider indefensible could be justified. To reveal it would unfortunately be a spoiler relating to the climax, but such is the dark grey area of everyone’s motives, Boyle and Holzman get away with it.
It was shorts the rest of the way, beginning with Jennifer Campbell’s Bruised, which could very easily be used as an anti-privatisation film. Bitch as much as you like about the NHS, but at least with nationalised health care there’s no danger of an injured knee being too expensive to get a doctor to look at, and over time the bruise grows, swells, darkens, bleeds and oozes septic pus, while choking down painkillers with a hip flask offers dwindling relief and botched amateur home surgery compounds infection and agony until both have fused into a miasma of unendurable suffering. Just for example.
5 Ways 2 Die is a blackly comic tale of a man’s varied and continually thwarted efforts to kill himself, while also meticulously planning the funeral he knows is coming. Limited perspective can cast a wide illusion, and while the credits rolled key moments of the film were retold with slight additions, thus ingeniously altering the significance of everything you think you’ve just seen.
José Pedro Lopes’ M Is For Macho was another prospective entry into The ABCs of Death 2, and although not making as far as Matador, was nevertheless a highly humorous observation that a zombie apocalypse might not be the best time to reassert your masculinity after being shown up on a basketball court by a mere girl.
Macho was the sole film screened directed by a man, which under ordinary circumstances would go against the manifesto of the festival, but with the female-focused concepts of Lopes’ work combined his regular partner in crime Ana Almeida frequently co-directing while in possession of the requisite lady parts, he was considered an “honorary woman.” Feel honoured, José.
After Mai Nakanishi’s No Place Like Home – a macabre reimagining of the final scene of The Wizard of Oz that suggested the Emerald City may well have been Dorothy’s gateway to survival instead of a simple dreamscape adventure – a couple of lighter toned films from Elisabeth and Brenda Fies gave a slight antidote to the death and dark humour of the weekend. Better Than Bullies was a sweet and unaffected tale about a high school misfit winning over a pair of pubescent Mean Girls by way of horror effects make up, and Golf Rage featured frustration over repeated putting failures leading to some ninja gymnastics before the ball finally made it down the hole.
Rounding things off was Melanie Light’s Escape, a gloriously old-school cycle of kidnap, imprisonment, abuse and torture leading to a violent and satisfying fight back that provided the desert vultures with an ultra-fresh, ready-marinated and still-twitching meal.
When most people are asked to name any female film directors (let alone their favourites or those who specifically produce horror) the response is usually something along the lines of “Um … Sofia Coppola … and … that chick who did The Hurt Locker?” Events like this, showcasing the true breadth of female talent that exists largely ignored in genre filmmaking, hope to change such a limited view.
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