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Mayhem 2015 – Festival Overview (Part Two)

Tom Watchorn continues to review the Mayhem Film Festival for Impact Film & Television.

Day Three

After the surprise disappointment of Day Two’s final film Stung, it was something of a reassurance that Day Three – the first of the two true marathon sessions and in hindsight prime for the title ‘Body Horror Day’ – opened with such a contrast. Distinct, refreshing and character filled, Japan’s Parasyte: Part 1 was everything Stung needed and missed.

As one would expect from a Japanese genre piece, Parasyte had a kitchen sink approach to story and character – by which I mean there was everything and the sink. Detailing an impending apocalypse through the eponymous creatures’ mutational possession of the human race, the film followed one teenager as he attempts to prevent this. Of course he’s aided by a parasite that only half succeeded and so now has control of his right arm, because what this madcap sci-fi coming-of-age thriller needed was some buddy comedy on top of everything else.

It’s a film where anything that can and does happen, can and does with astonishing resonance. The comedy is there, natural and un-ironic, and the pathos certainly is, with a middle segment of stakes-raising proving surprisingly effective. And while the predatory and cannibalistic impulses of the parasites are the (admittedly unsubtle) analogy for humanity’s anti-environmental concerns, this never reduces the film to an awkward clunky message movie, in many ways treading similar terrain to South Korea’s Save the Green Planet. It’s always nothing less than entertaining; roll on Part Two.

Following Parasyte was the Henry Rollins-starring He Never Died, a deadpan morbid comedy with spurts of crippling violence and supernatural overtones; like A History of Violence if Viggo Mortenson was immortal and full of accidental quips. With much of the delight in the unfolding of the story and how Rollins reacts, I will limit what I say here. Suffice to say the former Black Flag frontman and now cult icon plays both to and against his persona to great effect, and what could just be an entertaining ride in the high concept vein ends up unearthing a rich empathy for its characters akin to cult favourite Bubba Ho-Tep.

One of the highlights of the Saturday line-up is always the collection of ‘scary shorts’. As the origins of the Mayhem festival, the shorts still occupy an integral spot at the heart of the schedule. Despite a real dearth of genuine scares (a slightly disappointing trend across the festival entire this year and one only The Witch has the potential to dissipate) there was still a number of standout gems; for me the two most interesting were the muted ‘stalked nun’ haunter Solitudo and unnerving body horror Heir, which merged real and fictional ‘monsters’ and illnesses into a queasily effective stew (preparing us somewhat for metaphorical fleshfest Society later that day). The fact the two shorts are such polar opposites in form and tenor says a great deal for how genre cinema can speak to real world issues in such distinct tones and with such articulate voices.

The voice, this time literal, became centre stage for Mayhem’s most untraditional and uncourageous event yet – The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, a classic Hammer film. At least, it would be had it been released. Or filmed. A live staging of an unrealised screenplay, Unquenchable worked like an audiobook with all the electricity of a live theatre piece. Any production that can garner much humour, intrigue and two effective jump scares from a handful of people, a sitar and a giant image of eyes is definitely an experience worth experiencing.

“Sweaty, fleshy and completely deserving of the grainy aesthetic 35mm provides”

Equally worth experiencing: any time something’s projected in 35mm and screened around midnight. As previously mentioned, this year’s cult classic (previously occupied by such delights as owl-themed slasher Stage Fright and vampires-from-space Lifeforce) was 1989’s Society, and it was everything to be expected from the combination of late 80s moral metaphors and Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna. It was sweaty, fleshy and completely deserving of the grainy aesthetic 35mm provides. You don’t often get to experience a cannibalistic orgy – not on film at least – so grab the opportunity whenever you can…

Day Four

Deathgasm continues the New Zealand Renaissance of comedy-horrors – other examples in this ever-entertaining trend include What We Do in the Shadows and Housebound, both of which screened at last year’s Mayhem. While perhaps not as entertaining (or definitely not quite as intelligent) as those minor cult masterpieces, Deathgasm is certainly the most influenced by Peter Jackson’s early works. Jackson is clearly the most obvious template for all of these Renaissance films, and the manic splatter and adolescent, DIY ethos permeating every frame of Deathgasm serves as both loving tribute and madcap ring-thrown hat of its own.

Far less manic, adolescent or even loving, the German Angst triptych anthology proved at times a grim watch, as three of Germany’s genre icons (Jörg Buttgereit, Michal Kosakowski, Andreas Marschall) presented a sort of State of the Nation address with (un)healthy doses of fantasy mixing with painful reality. Castration (a running theme of the day, with 60% of the films featuring the always leg-crossing procedure), a pleasantly morally complex take on racism and a decidedly-late-90s tale of ‘goth’, fetishism and sex clubs – the opening of this felt very The Matrix, which was probably not desired – provided a bitter antidote to the hedonism of Deathgasm.

The Witch was, a little bewilderingly, the surprise smash of the festival, drawing a What We Do in the Shadows sized crowd to an austere tale of New England oppressiveness. As nature threatens to dash their tiny clan into the winds, a family of seven tries to start their life anew away from the religious restrictions of England on the outskirts of a choking forest. Composed principally of period writings, The Witch felt spartan, earthy and profane for every minute, with the harrowing score and haunting imagery sticking unpleasantly in the mind like splinters under the fingernails.

Aaaaaaaah! then couldn’t have served as a greater juxtaposition. A low budget, kitchen sink domestic drama of gendered oppression and alpha maleness, it’s a story that could have snugly fitted into any week of Eastenders were it not for the jarring fact that the entire cast are portraying dialogueless, grunt-heavy primate versions of humans. Mercifully short, Aaaaaaaah! never outstayed its welcome for those who agreed with its premise (there were a couple of walkouts, such is the ever-divisive nature of a lot of genre cinema), and there was enough of a satirical bent that it was more than just a Mighty Boosh-esque sketch. That said, I’d probably never have the desire to watch it again.

“All in all then Mayhem continues to provide a varied line-up – albeit one which for this writer at least was disheartening in its major lack of real tension”

The Invitation is one of those awkward films for critics, the kind where it is impossible to praise specifically without revealing crucial elements and where encouragement to view is dependent on knowing more than a vague “it was really very interesting”. Concerning a mysterious party among a well-to-do group of (mostly white) friends, The Invitation bears more than a passing resemblance on first glance to last year’s exceptional brain teaser Coherence, another film in the better-off-knowing-little camp. Taking place in a house in the Hollywood Hills (that blasted Mulholland Drive is at it again!), The Invitation neatly milks the dread of disconnecting affluence, where the perceived wealth and status of these people engenders the sense that ‘anything could be happening here and it wouldn’t surprise me’. Dealing with very specific themes (the story is intrinsically tied to its Californian, LA setting) it nonetheless has a universal resonance, proving surprisingly affecting in its detailing of grief considering its mostly mystery-drama focus.

All in all then Mayhem continues to provide a varied line-up – albeit one which for this writer at least was disheartening in its major lack of real tension. While horror is of course a many-headed beast, it’s always nice when that beast isn’t just comically puking up its intestines but also sinisterly stalking you down to get snatch at your imagination when you least expect it. Still, considering this is one of the few venues where genre films can get a fair show before being murdered dead in their straight-to-DVD hell and bargain basement artwork treatment (honestly, do not judge these films by their inevitable covers – especially Stung, which almost looks passably interesting with its cover art). The respect and even handed reverence they bring to these films alone is worth supporting Mayhem for, and they do, and are deserving of, so much more.

Tom Watchorn

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