Mayhem is now in its thirteenth year. Lucky for some (including this writer), as this year, co-directors Chris Cooke and Steven Shiel have put together an outstanding schedule of features, shorts and another superb Hammer live reading. Primarily horror, but with a widened remit to include cult and sci-fi, Mayhem continues to boast some of the finest programming around. Although eschewing specific themes, Mayhem amply captures the zeitgeist in the world of horror, sci-fi and cult cinema. This year, as Shiel observed in his festival introduction, gender relationships are in the air, and many of the films on show reflected this. Thursday night opened with Double-Date, Benjamin Barfoot’s Britflick comedy-horror on male/female relations. Some found the humour a bit blokeish; others simply enjoyed the carnage. M.F.A. went into more serious territory, and challenged genre conventions in doing so.
Friday’s programme started out with an interesting take on gender relations in Bitch, written and directed by Marianna Palka. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, desperate housewife Jill (Palka) has no alternative but to take on the personality of a dog. Her selfish, neglectful husband, played by Jason Ritter, attempts to pull himself and his family together while hiding mom in the cellar. It’s only after losing it all that that Ritter starts to value his wife. But is her mind gone forever? Bitch is really the husband’s call to change, and it’s his story we follow. As a film, it’s a bit of a mongrel. There’s some Jim Carrey-type comedy in there, traces of A Woman Under the Influence, and shades of Wolf in the anthropomorphism theme. As a family film, it’s a bit dark; as a horror/satire, it’s a tad tame. Ritter should have had his balls bitten off – he deserved it.
If Rob Zombie directed a neo-noir, it might have looked like 68 Kill. As it is we have something that owes equal amounts to Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, albeit twenty years too late. Trent Haaga’s film follows the misfortunes of small-town loser Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) as he embarks on a heist with his girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) only to discover that she’s a killcrazy sociopath. Much double-and-triple crossing ensues, leading Chip into the paths of even bigger psychos than Liza. Making the poor white trash into sadistic killers seems a little formulaic and lazy, and 68 Kill lacks dimension. It’s gory fun in parts, but hard to believe in such inane characters, especially when the women involved ultimately turn into male fantasy figures.
You know you’re up north when everyone’s on the dole and the pub landlords are friendly. Habit, written and directed by Simeon Halligan (based on the novel by Stephen McGeagh) starts out as a slice of TV social realism, then morphs into something else. Elliot Langridge (excellent in Northern Soul) plays the dole-ite in question, Michael, whose sister has to organize his life for him until he meets young Lee (Jessica Barden) outside Manchester’s Job Centre Plus; it is Lee who gets him a job in a brothel called Cloud 9 (we know it’s a brothel because there are red neon lights in the windows and the women walk about in their underwear, wiping their hands with tissues). Gradually, Michael becomes one of the family. “We look after our own”, everyone keeps telling him. When psychotic punter Grant (Robert Beck) roughs up Lee, the girls exact a bloody revenge, and Michael is left wondering if he wants to be part of the family after all. Habit suffers its fair share of clichés in its portrayal of the north. Everyone says “fuck” a lot, including the taxi drivers (as in: “Where the fuck do you want to go?”) who are apt to give you a good kicking if you try to dodge the fare. Ok, we get it - it’s grim up north. This aside, it’s an intriguing film that tries for something different in presenting the dark underbelly of a city feeding on itself, even though the central metaphor is partly lost in translation from novel to screen.
So Friday’s films were good if perhaps not great; Saturday’s programme, on the other hand, stepped things up considerably, starting with Tag, Sion Sono’s weird and wonderful tale of fate, surrealism and identity. Mitsuko (Reina Triendle) is the Japanese schoolgirl whose coach trip is literally cut short by a mysterious, deadly wind that seems to pursue her across multiple narratives and identities, leaving carnage in its wake. A heady mix of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Inception, Tag is at heart a sweet study of friendship between two girls struggling with strange events beyond their control. Soon to be released by Eureka, this gem is well worth seeking out.
As is the South Korean A Day, directed by Sun-ho Cho and starring Myung-min Kim as a hapless doctor who discovers time keeps literally repeating itself as he tries in vain to save the life of his young daughter. Every time he tries to come to her aid, something prevents him from saving her. There’s more than a little Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run in the concept, but A Day deepens and enriches the idea, adding surprises and emotion into the mix. There’s a horrible inevitability to it all, as the futility of trying to change fate becomes clear. This brings with it great sympathy for the characters, including the nominal villain. A Day ends up becoming a very moving and involving film, but emotionally exhausting too.
A Most Beautiful Island wins my best film of the festival. It’s fresh, unbearably tense and keeps you guessing throughout. Ana Asensio (who also wrote, produced and directed) plays Luciana, a Spanish immigrant in New York City whose dire economic circumstances drive her to accept a mysterious and sinister job offer. Shot on the streets with a mix of amateur and professional actors, Asensio’s stripped down, hand-held camera adds a genuine sense of verité to the proceedings. Asensio deftly side-steps horror clichés to bring what is essentially a very simple but effective story to a chilling, believable climax.
Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas, on the other hand, revels in the formula he’s been following for much of his career, with another movie which he freely admits is (like his 1983 The Lift) based on Jaws. His latest creature feature, Prey, is also Jaws -- with paws. When a man-eating lion takes to the streets of Amsterdam, it’s up to zoo veterinarian Lizzy (Sophie Van Winden) and intrepid wheelchair-bound big game hunter Jack (Mark Frost) to track down the beast and kill it, before it eats its way through Dutch society. Maas brings his trademark humour and social satire into the mix, and gives us a highly enjoyable, characteristically stylish urban adventure movie that doesn’t shy away from the gore, even as it leaves you with a wry smile on your face. Maas’s films are the very definition of ‘cult’ and Prey is no different. Kudos to Mayhem for giving Dick Maas his UK premiere, with Maas on hand for an entertaining Q&A afterwards.
With a late showing of Suspiria to round off Saturday, this was a day to beat. Happily, Sunday amply lived up to expectations, kicking off with Top Knot Detective, a highly enjoyable ‘documentary’ about Japanese TV star Takashi Takamoto who shot to fame in the ‘90s with Samurai series "Ronin Suirei Tentai" before the drugs, booze and hubris took hold and Takamoto ended up in an Aussie prison on suspicion of murder. Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce hilariously lampoon Japanese TV in all its wild weirdness to present a story that is unexpectedly tragic and completely true (or maybe not).
Rift provided a complete change of pace but was in its own way just as unconventional. Erlingur Thoroddsen’s enigmatic and moody ghost story sees Björn Stefánsson travelling to a secluded cabin in the Icelandic countryside to come to the aid of his ex-lover, Einar, who seems to be suffering a breakdown. As the couple attempt to repair their relationship, mysterious goings-on outside the cabin alert them to the possibility that they may not be alone in the cabin after all. Stefánsson directs with a strong sense of atmosphere and breathtaking visual detail. Not a lot happens, to be fair, but Rift hypnotizes the viewer all the same. Shooting on a low budget, Stefánsson shows real promise: he’s definitely a filmmaker to watch out for.
A couple of years ago the Mayhem team delighted us with a live reading of The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, this year they dusted another unmade script from the Hammer vault to give us Zeppelin V. Pterodactyls! It’s the early 1920s and the zeppelin Helios heads across arctic wastes searching for signs of life from an expedition lost ten years before. Instead, the crew is forced to confront creatures from a world that time forgot, including a flock of flying predators. Very much in the vein of earlier Hammer prehistoric classics like One Million Years B.C. (with maybe just a bit of borrowing from rival studio Amicus), Zeppelin V. Pterodactyls started life as an outline by David Allen, written in 1970. Festival co-director Steven Shiel developed this into a full-length script especially for the Mayhem live reading, and together with co-director Chris Cooke, did a fantastic job of bringing the production to life. Ably performed by a cast that included Jonny Phillips, Olivia Newton, Rob Goll, Melvyn Rawlinson, Sylvia Robson and Thomas Farthing, Zeppelin V. Pterodactyls proved to be exciting and charming in equal measures, a delightful glimpse of another Hammer project that sadly never was.
Any film that shares its name with the festival in which it’s showing has to be good, right? Mayhem, directed by Joe Lynch, was no letdown. Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun (who also exec produced) plays the disgruntled corporate employee who is quarantined in his office block when a virus that strips people of all inhibitions finds its way into the air conditioning. Mayhem does indeed ensue in this hilarious and often brutal satire of the corporate business world. Someone described it to me as 28 Days Later meets The Office; throw in Network and that just about sums it up nicely. The film’s terrific energy and wryly observed characterisations make for one of the best and sharpest comedy-horrors of the year.
All good things have to end, and this year’s Mayhem ended on a high with Peter Ricq’s crowd-pleasing family film horror comedy kids vs. zombies-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods flick Dead Shack. The premise might sound a bit duff – a camping trip of young teenagers and their stoner Dad stumble across a house of animated corpses kept alive by their strange neighbour – but the script and performances are so fresh and witty, Dead Shack is bound to become a cult hit. And like all the films showing at Mayhem this year, it is well worth seeing.
Until next year.