Film Festivals

SITGES 2002: The 35th Annual International Film Festival of Catalonia

By • Oct 26th, 2002 • Pages: 1 2 3

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Inaugurated in 1968 as the International Fantasy and Horror Film Week, the Sitges Festival has transformed itself over the past thirty-odd years into a fortnight-long celebration of world cinema, as well as a center for Spain’s cinema producers and distributors to meet and display their latest works to a large audience. Fantastic cinema aficionados in particular have flocked in droves to the beautiful Mediterranean seaside town of Sitges, about 20 minutes south of Barcelona, for the latest in horror, science fiction and fantasy film – as well as the fun, sun and parties that go hand-in-hand with such an event.

Sitges this year was host to 250 feature films from around the globe (plus another 350 short films), all greedily consumed by over 140,000 spectators and an astonishing 750 accredited journalists, most of them seemingly from domestic Spanish TV, web, print media. This author happily boarded a plane to Barcelona in early October to provide Films in Review with an up-close Sitges Festival report – a first both for the publication and for the author.

Day 1: Thursday, October 3rd

Arriving in the small town of Sitges in the early morning, my traveling companion Jennifer and I (along with our always-present chihuahua Scooter) locate the Hotel Romantic, the quaintly-named establishment where we’ll be living for the next ten days. Since it’s too early to check in, we freshen up and explore the town, which is something right out of a movie itself. Tiny streets curve around centuries-old apartment blocks with iron balconies stretching out over the street itself, and tall palm trees line the Mediterranean beachfront area, providing perfect shade from the sun for a seaside tapas lunch. The center of the town is a hilly promenade extending out into the sea that doubles as both the main marina and, higher up, the Eglésia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla, an old stone church that I find the town’s most picturesque photo opportunity. It seems that others have agreed with me, since I learn later in my trip that the same church provided the location for the final shot of the 1962 British horror film The Day of the Triffids. I already feel at home here.

After our brief tour we walk over to the Mélia Gran Sitges, the large hotel that serves as home base for the festival. Constructed for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the hotel had a state-of-the-art cinema installed at the same time for the Sitges Film Festival, which had already long been a national institution. The festival staff – headed by director Angel Sala – are very accommodating and help me to pick up my press credentials and decipher the many Spanish-only schedules and notices. Despite some later confusion and miscommunications (like about which films don’t have English subtitles), the staff members were always friendly and helpful during my entire stay.

In fact, it’s a festival volunteer that hurries me along to the first press screening of Sitges 2002, for the new Spanish-produced, English language horror film Darkness, directed by Jaume Balaguero. Co-produced by Fantastic Factory (a collaboration between Spain’s Filmax and American producer Brian Yuzna) and Miramax-owned Dimension Films, Darkness is Balaguero’s eagerly-anticipated second feature, after the admirable Los Sin Nombre (The Nameless), a 1999 Spanish-language adaptation of a Ramsey Campbell novel. Balaguero’s early short films were gritty, disturbing slices of horror that lingered long in the mind and promised an outstanding feature career. Los Sin Nombre mostly delivered on that promise, with the film’s few weaknesses blamed on the slow, deliberate vagueness of the source novel. Unfortunately, all the blame for Darkness has to be directed at Balaguero and his collaborators. Anna Paquin stars as Regina, the daughter of a troubled family that moves into a spooky “fixer-upper” mansion in the countryside. With her parents (Lena Olin and Iain Glen) feuding, Regina has to look after her younger brother herself and when the two children begin to sense that something unwholesome lingers in the house, her parents refuse to believe her. She eventually learns that a ritual involving child sacrifice was begun forty years ago, but left unfinished – a ritual that, of course, can only be completed in total darkness. Will her younger brother become its final victim? Despite the credentials of the cast and crew, and the intriguing premise, Darkness never gels as a horror film and left most of the audience stunned in disappointment. One of its primary faults is that the Catalonian director was forced to make it in English, and the miscommunication shows in the film’s wildly uneven performances. A muddled, clichéd script – part The Shining, part The Haunting – and a series of over-used visual effects consign the film to “nice try” territory.

However, one of the best things about a festival like Sitges is that, despite a disappointing opening screening, you can take comfort in the fact that you’ll be seeing another 20 to 30 more films over the next few days and that, with any luck, at least half of them will be better than the one you’ve just suffered through. Another pleasure can be found in the people you meet at such an event. After Darkness we commiserated with two friends we knew from successive visits to Montreal’s Fant-Asia Film Festival, which unfortunately had to be postponed this past summer due to the reconstruction of its regular theatre. Jennifer & I wound up in Sitges partially because of the absence of Fant-Asia this year, and the same holds true for Kier-la Janisse, who runs Vancouver’s Cinemuerte Film Festival. Anthony Timpson, on the other hand, first visited Sitges in 2001, but his ongoing job is overseeing the massive New Zealand-based Incredible Film Festival (formerly the Incredibly Strange Film Festival). Kier-la and Ant would become regular companions during our stay in Sitges, sharing meals, drinks and movies with us and forming the heart of a small English-speaking enclave that would endure for the duration of the festival. After expressing our various disappointments with the film we’d just seen to each other, Jennifer, Scooter and I went back to our hotel to recover from our jet lag.

Day 2: Friday, October 4th

The first full day of the festival opened with a 9am press screening of Paco Plaza’s new film Second Name. Another Spanish-produced, English-language horror film, Second Name is also another disappointment, although not one as crushing as Darkness. Like Balaguero, Plaza started with short horror films and his “Abuelitos” was one of the more impressive, most disturbing things I saw at Fant-Asia 2000. Second Name is yet another Spanish horror based on a work by Ramsey Campbell, this time around his novel Pact of the Fathers, and is about a young woman’s investigation into her father’s seemingly unwarranted suicide. Rather than discovering anything supernatural, she uncovers the existence of an ancient cult and strange truths regarding her own birth and identity. Even though its acting is better overall than that in Darkness, Second Name still clearly suffers from a language barrier in its making. The cast all seem to be going through the motions and the movie’s final revelations are neither shocking nor unexpected, having been telegraphed much earlier in the film, and not nearly as transgressive as the screenplay make them out to be.

Second Name was followed by a press screening of a Mexican/Spanish co-production called Asesino in Serio (Serial Killer). This comedy/thriller is about a serial murderer on the loose in Mexico City who is killing women by giving them “mega orgasms,” leaving them smiling, naked and face down in their beds, in a position of extreme pleasure. A macho cop (Mexican actor Jesus Ochoa) investigates the murders and comes across a priest (Spanish star Santiago Segura, who also co-produced) who may be linked to them in a bizarre way. A dark comedy that turns the conventions of the police procedural on their head, Asesino in Serio is modestly entertaining, but neither as perverse or hilarious as its premise would lead you to believe, the best part being a lengthy flashback that details how Segura’s character became associated with the case that provides the innovative actor with his funniest moments.

Segura himself was present – and hilarious – at the next event on our schedule, a press conference and short preview of the upcoming film Beyond Re-Animator, the second sequel to the 1985 horror classic which was currently being shot in the Barcelona area by Fantastic Factory. The preview turned out to be a long trailer that promised the usual gore, laughs and craziness one would expect, and the press conference was held almost entirely in Spanish, with director Brian Yuzna more than holding his own in the language. Segura has a prominent cameo in the film as “Speedball,” a grungy thief who makes the mistake of coming into contact with Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). Combs, Yuzna, Segura and the other actors and producers posed for photos and answered questions for about half an hour before we had to move on.

Our next film was a Japanese character piece called Chicken Heart, and it was the first film we saw at Sitges with a paying audience and in a location other than the auditorium at the Mélia Hotel. The Cinema el Retiro is a smaller venue in the heart of town that was the original facility where the festival was held until 1992. Neither Jennifer nor I could imagine how they’d have been able to fit the hordes of moviegoers we’d seen lining up to buy tickets at the Mélia into the el Retiro, which at most sat 600 people (the Mélia Auditori seats nearly 1400), but somehow they must have managed it for the first 25 years of the festival. Nevertheless, the el Retiro was a charming, comfortable theatre that we’d visit many times during our stay. Chicken Heart also turned out to be a charming little movie, about three quirky men who have all avoided any sort of responsibility in their adult lives. One makes a living as a “human punching bag,” giving frustrated salarymen two minutes to try to hit him for 2000 Yen. Another is a misanthrope who hands out sales flyers on the street to passers-by in the most aggressive way imaginable. Over the course of the film, we follow the three men as they’re confronted by adult responsibilities like work and relationships and must somehow learn to integrate them into their lives. Touching and even elegaic in parts, Chicken Heart was a modest, but satisfying discovery.

In addition to all its premieres, the Sitges Festival also hosts a variety of retrospective screenings. One entire sidebar was devoted to the European Western, for example, but most of the films were shown in their original Italian or Spanish language without English subtitles. In addition, two entire venues (the Brigadoon area near the waterfront and the Mercat Vell screening room) are devoted to video projected mini-festivals, such as an homage to writer Richard Matheson or action director Albert Pyun – or even a series called “Cinema Viril,” featuring a dozen “manly” movies by the likes of Robert Aldrich and Charles Bronson.

Our last film of the day was a 1am retrospective screening of a beautiful, restored 35mm print of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), the 1958 Hammer version starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. This was in yet another Sitges venue, the Casino Cinema Prado, a small theatre that seats 450 people and was right around the corner from our Hotel Romantic. I’ve seen the film so many times it’s like an old friend, so it was a pleasant way to end a very busy day, and thankfully a very short distance from our bed when it let out at 2:30 in the morning.

Day 3: Saturday, October 5th

Another day, and Jennifer & I finally know our way around the town and the festival. A big help to us came in the one-of-a-kind, head-shaven form of Alan Jones, the British journalist who most American horror fans are familiar with as a correspondent for Fangoria and Cinefantastique magazines, as well as the author of Mondo Argento. Alan has been coming to Sitges since its inception and proved to be an invaluable source of information for not only how to negotiate the festival itself but also on what were the best (and sometimes cheapest) restaurants in town. Alan became another frequent companion and we found ourselves having café con leche in the Mélia bar with him on many occasions.

Early in the morning, Jennifer and I caught the new Thai anthology horror film Bangkok Haunted at the el Retiro. A fairly conventional Asian horror film, it’s a portmanteau assembly of three stories, the first a traditional tale of the spirit of a long-ago wronged lover haunting a modern-day girl, the second about a deadly love potion and the third about a cop’s investigation into the suicide of a young woman whose spirit he believes is seeking revenge. Counting myself as an in-the-know fan of Asian horror from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and elsewhere, I didn’t find much new or inspiring in Bangkok Haunted, though it delivered the goods in typical fashion and was consistently entertaining for its 2-hour running time, with the second story standing out as the most surprising and shocking.

After Bangkok Haunted and a failed attempt to see the Eurowestern And God Said to Cain…, which as I mentioned earlier turned out to be in Italian without English subtitles, Jennifer and I spent the evening in Barcelona, walking around on the pedestrian causeway called La Rambla and eating at a restaurant in the Gothic Quarter that had been operating since 1768. I also managed to do some Spanish DVD shopping, picking up Santiago Segura’s first Torrente film and a new comedy called Obra Maestra, which looks like a Spanish take on celebrity-snatching similar to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.

Day 4: Sunday, October 6th

The first film of a busy day is again a disappointment, this time a Japanese drama from director Takeshi Kitano (Hana-Bi, Sonatine, Brother) called Dolls. Dolls is different from much of Kitano’s other work both in that he doesn’t star in the film and that it isn’t a gangster saga, but rather based on a bunraku puppet play about a lover’s devotion to his mate leading to extraordinary and tragic consequences. Several stories are intertwined into the tale of a young man who leaves his prosperous job and family when his jilted girlfriend tries to commit suicide on the day of his marriage to a more “appropriate” woman. Literally tying himself to the now-mute, mentally handicapped girlfriend, the two roam the countryside aimlessly in an obvious demonstration of their dependence on one another. Despite its gorgeous cinematography, I found Dolls a dull, empty piece of cinema that is so exaggerated it sometimes plays like an absurdist comedy. Kitano’s yakuza films are always very slow, but in comparison with Dolls they feel like Jerry Bruckheimer movies. His production company seems to have had better luck recently with lighter fare – they produced Chicken Heart, which was also directed by one of Kitano’s proteges.

After lunch, I left Jennifer and Scooter at the hotel to get some rest and went to see director Michael J. Bassett’s WWI horror tale Deathwatch at the Mélia Auditori. The British film stars Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot as a young soldier in the trenches whose unit overtakes a German command post only to find most of its inhabitants already dead from unknown causes. They dig in to spend the night and keep hold of this forward, strategic position without realizing that a supernatural force exists under the earth that slowly begins to decimate their ranks once darkness arrives. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t get much past the vagueness of a “supernatural force,” refusing to identify or even display what it is that’s killing off the soldiers. Instead, it takes the form of barbed wire tendrils that ensnare and drag the men under the mud. This uncertainty doesn’t work to the film’s advantage, particularly when all the actors look the same in their dirty uniforms and grime-smeared faces and the locations consist of fog-filled trenches. I later learned that the film’s original, scripted ending was much more elaborate and explicit in its depiction of the evil, but had to be scrapped due to budget limitations. Slightly moody but a letdown in the end, Deathwatch was a decent idea that lacked the talent and financial support to be fully realized.

But immediately after Deathwatch came one of the real surprises of the festival, an American independent horror film called May, which was billed as a reworking of the Frankenstein story with a young girl as its protagonist and ostensible “mad scientist.” Angela Bettis (who recently appeared as the title character in the television remake of Stephen King’s Carrie) stars as May, a shy, lonely young girl whose best friend is a doll her mother gave her as a child. While working at a veterinarian’s office, May befriends an office mate and quietly longs after a hunky, but sensitive young man who works at a garage down the street. Even though she and Adam (Jeremy Sisto) eventually begin dating, May’s misunderstanding that he “likes weird girls” leads her to estrange Adam from herself and drive her deeper into disturbed loneliness, where she decides to build herself a friend who won’t betray her – with bloody consequences. Successfully straddling the line between quirky comedy and disturbing horror, May was an extremely impressive debut for writer/director Lucky McKee – so much so that Lions Gate has picked up the film for 2003 release in the U.S. Bettis is stunning as the lonely, but likable young girl who steps over the line into madness when everyone around her either uses her for their own amusement or cuts her off completely from their lives. Truly horrific yet containing a surprising amount of truth about twenty-something isolation and jealousy, May turned out to be one of our best discoveries of the trip.

The last film of the day was also a great discovery, but one from a veteran writer/filmmaker whose contributions to the genre are impossible to count. David Cronenberg’s Spider is a self-confessed “labor of love,” and despite not being a true horror film, not particularly Cronenbergian, managed to crawl under the skin of most of the people who saw it. Adapted from the Patrick McGrath novel, Ralph Fiennes stars as “Spider,” a mentally disturbed individual who’s released from the hospital into a halfway house where he lives with a strict head mistress (Lynn Redgrave) and a dozen other inmates. The film presents all its events from the schizophrenic point of view of Fiennes’ character, with many flashbacks to his childhood and the events that fractured his mind. Miranda Richardson is astonishing in two roles as Spider’s mother and as a hooker who takes up with his father (Gabriel Byrne) and eventually comes to replace his mother, finally popping up in a third role that sheds much light on Spider’s mental disturbance. Almost entirely an interior piece, Spider eschews any special effects or major setpieces on the way to its inevitable conclusion, but its performances dazzle and it slowly draws the viewer into the grimy, very askew world of its protagonist. Spider opens late in 2002 in the U.S. and will undoubtedly receive some award mentions and best-of list placements. Cronenberg briefly introduced the film and was presented with a “Time Machine” award by the Sitges staff and Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade 2), who was not only a self-confessed fan but had also produced Asesino in Serio, which showed at the Mélia on Friday.

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