Wednesday 12 April 2017

IHSFFF 2017 - Day Six

I'll be posting daily coverage of the Phoenix Film Festival at Apocalypse Later Now! again this year. Here's Tuesday 11th, which is Day 6.

While the weekdays at PFF are a great opportunity to catch award winners or other notable films being given extra slots, the highlight for us is always the IHSFFF showcase features, which continue on at the rate of two per night.

I got to see those two tonight. Here are some rough notes to help guide whether you want to look out for them after they're released. None of them will be screening again during the festival.

Note 1: I'll eventually review all the films that played as part of the IHSFFF part of the event (and some PFF films too) in detail over at my main review site, Apocalypse Later, but that sure ain't gonna be this week!

Note 2: I have indexes up at Apocalypse Later that detail every film, whether feature or short, that's playing this event. Here's the PFF index and here's the IHSFFF index.

All photos are courtesy of Dee Astell.

Block 22: A Dark Song (2016)
Last night, we saw an impromptu black magic ritual performed in Tonight She Comes. It was fast and bloody and agreeably icky, driven by a wild but knowledgeable lady. Tonight, we see another black magic ritual, but in an emphatically different way.

For a start, it isn't fast. In fact, the preparation for the ritual takes a long time all on its own and the ritual itself takes much longer. Let's just say that the two characters we watch lose track of which month it is. Is it March or May? We have no idea either. This is a serious ritual and it takes months of meticulous work to get right. Which means two thirds of the movie.

It's also not bloody. It consists of a lot of study (of languages as much as rituals), purification and increasingly intricate circles. You can be sure that it's going to get somewhere much darker when we reach the third act, but that's an hour away when we begin.

And it's hardly icky. When that third act arrives, there's some madness, some tension and some scares, not to mention some revelations, but this is not about icky. There's a little blood drinking but it couldn't be further away from what we saw in Tonight She Comes if it tried.

However, it's still refreshing. I read a lot of horror novels back in the eighties about characters who delved into ritual magic, astral travel and all that jazz. Some were good and some were bad, but I've never seen the equivalent on screen. The magic rituals I've seen in movies tend to result in demons that play like zombies with horns, aching to eat everyone around them. That's not what we get here.

What's more, ritual magicians tend to be well groomed gentlemen in black with goatees and piercing eyes. Steve Oram plays Joseph Solomon like a guy you'd meet down the pub, a balding man with a common as muck accent and a shouty and abrasive personality. Catherine Walker is a higher class lady, a teacher of religious education, who is driven to make this ritual happen, even if she finds it abhorrent. Those are refreshing characters.

I have no idea if the ritual we're watching is remotely accurate or not, but to a fascinated non-expert, the detail rings incredibly true and I'm happy I've finally been able to see this attempted on film. I also saw a lot of the others factors that rarely get touched on, like the sheer dedication needed to do something like this, the risks that come with it and the costs that it takes.

The catch, of course, is that filmgoers wanting something with jump scares and sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are going to be sadly disappointed. This feature from across the pond, set in Wales and shot in Ireland, is for the more discerning fan who prefers a good location, good acting and a good if slow build. The twists are far from surprising but they're right, just like this movie.

Block 23: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)
A few features this year have left me scratching my head while the credits rolled but I was able to figure them out, or at least I think I was. This one, however still has me thoroughly confused.

Initially, it seems straightforward enough. A young lady named Adele moves into a dusty Victorian mansion to take care of her crazy aunt Dora, a cranky old agarophobic who communicates with her mostly through notes. Plain and naive, she finds herself drawn to Beth, apparently the only other young lady in town.

It's quite obvious that the two are opposites. Beth is a mild goth with a smouldering beauty, an impulsive spirit and a taste for the darker side. Adele, on the other hand, is plain, restrained and apparently without any hobbies except writing in her diary. If we didn't grasp it, Beth is mostly dressed in black and red, with Adele entirely in white or pale colours. Opposites, of course, attract and the two begin a tentative relationship, during which Beth's corrupting influence rubs off on Adele, and she starts to do things that she wouldn't have done previously.

Clearly influenced by seventies genre movies (and not grindhouse ones for a change), this is well shot, well situated and well grown. It's another slow build but it's a really good one until, well, the film ends. Just as I was ready for the second act to escalate into the third, it escalated into the end credits instead. The third act is basically one scene and one image and that feels like a real cheat.

And I sat there wondering what I'd missed. I saw two thirds of a story that still had the potential to move in a few different directions. Who is Beth? Is this a ghost story? If it is, who's the ghost? Why is Aunt Dora the way she is? What's with the ring? And the necklace? I was eager to find out how writer/director A. D. Calvo was going to wrap things up and then he didn't. Instead, I'm puzzling as to what that image means and what the final scene means. And three hours later, I'm no further, so I invite your theories.

For now, though, it feels like two thirds of a great film that could well have been made forty years ago, and a couple of missing reels.

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