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Starburst magazine ran a film festival in late August 2016, which I went to with friends and wrote up on my 'starburstff' tag (LJ / DW). It was badly advertised and organised, but actually the films, the guests and the friends I went with were all great, so we had a brilliant time - something I particularly needed back then, as it was still less than two months after my Mum had died. They attempted to put another one on about a year later, but I guess got even lower take-up than the previous year, so that it ended up being cancelled. This time, though, they hit upon the cunning ruse of giving away the tickets for free, which of course meant people snapped them up and it went ahead this time. (Clearly their business model does not really depend on box-office takings.) Andrew, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy and I went along and enjoyed a mixture of brand new and vintage films and the delights of the local food outlets, while periodically boggling out of the windows at the snow swirling upwards between the towers which make up most of Manchester's Media City area, and wondering nervously how we were going to get home. Thankfully, all trams and trains were running smoothly today in spite of the weather, which is more than I can say for Friday when I travelled over. So I'm now safe and warm on the sofa, and able to write up what I saw:


6. The Gatehouse (2016), dir. Martin Gooch

This is basically the story of a ten-year-old girl called Eternity who likes digging in the woods. Eternity is the kind of girl who, when she digs up what looks like an eighteenth-century lady's pistol buried in a tin box, steals a book on guns from the library by stuffing it under her coat (but does give the girl on the desk a cheese sandwich on the way out), finds out what she needs to restore it to working order, talks her Dad into taking her to the hardware store and tells the man working there that it's none of his business when he queries what on earth she wants all this stuff for anyway. And not only is she the central character, but the motifs and logic of the story are those of an imaginative, strong-minded ten-year-old girl too, involving magical stones, a horned god roving the woods turning people into trees, a secret chamber under her house, people who appear to have been shot dead turning out to be fine after all (possibly the blood that looked like jam really was jam?), and her playing a central role in helping the horned god to sort everything out. In fact, it’s a lot like the sort of story my six-year-old niece Eloise tells me when we play with her story-cubes. And while a film matching that description could be dreadful, this one really wasn’t, because all of the characters were so believably written and played (very much including Scarlett Rayner as Eternity, in what I see was her first film role), the horned god was shot just on the right side of obliquely enough to keep him mysterious and stop him looking too much like a guy in a suit, and actually the whole thing was very impressively framed and edited and shot, making very good use of some nice British countryside.

The trailer is a bit misleading, because both Eternity and her Dad are troubled by post-traumatic bad dreams following the death of her mother (in a highly-implausible boating accident which also comes across like the kind of story dreamt up by a ten-year-old), and a lot of the soft shocks which the trailer chooses to foreground are actually those dreams rather than the ‘real’ (insofar as it tries to be anything of the sort) main story. Meanwhile, it entirely misses delights like local teenagers Poppy and Daisy’s drunken walk home from the pub, Poppy's folk-Gothic Lithuanian-accented tarot-reading friend, or Eternity’s Dad teaching her to call up (imaginary) Roman legionaries to help see off the school bullies. Actually the Romans were bumping about quite a lot in this story, not only as Eternity’s personal bodyguard but also as the people who supposedly first built a structure on the site of the gatehouse which she and her Dad now live in. For a moment at the end, Eternity called up her imaginary legionaries to protect her against the horned god, and it looked like we might actually get a stand-off between the might of ancient Rome and the spirits of the British woodlands, which I would have been very interested in. It was not to be, but a great film nevertheless, and in my view the best of the new productions I saw during the festival.


7. Black Site (2018), dir. Tom Paton

The festival schedule had a different film by the same director lined up in this slot, but as the editing on this one had just been completed this week, he decided to treat us to a test screening of the new piece instead. I was a little bit sad about this, as the scheduled film (Redwood) was about vampires in the woods, but then again this one was very solid and it's always exciting to see something absolutely brand new which hasn't reached the general public yet - so I didn't mind too much in the end.

Black Site draws on Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, but the format of the film is 'trapped in an enclosed space with something bad', as per (for example) The Thing or (as [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya pointed out) Die Hard. The enclosed space in question is the Artemis complex, an underground military facility used to deport Elder Gods who have returned in weakened form to our universe (I think - I'm not sure I fully followed that bit). Once they have been tracked down by field agents and ‘bound’ into human bodies, they are brought to the Artemis complex for deportation back to hell - a complex process which requires a deportation agent to recite a text which he has memorised. Most of the time, though, it’s a quiet place run on a skeleton staff, which only comes into action when a deportation candidate is brought in. As as result, it's not as secure or well-maintained as it should be, so between that and the complexity of the deportation process, there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

Our main character is Ren Reid, who saw her parents killed by the Elder God Erebus as a child, and is now working at the Artemis complex, desperately trying to qualify as a field agent and get out of there, but constantly failing her psych test because of ongoing trauma from her childhood experience. Then one day Erebus himself is brought in for deportation, along with the deportation agent (a rather clueless public-school type) and closely pursued by a group of cultists who want Erebus back so that they can carry on drinking the blood of the succession of human vessels they had been trapping him in before the field agents bust in and took him from them. Chaos ensures, and most of the film then consists of Ren fighting her way through the cultists while protecting the clueless deportation agent, so that she can get him to Erebus at the centre of the complex and complete the deportation.

It was a well-paced, well-crafted story making excellent use of a well-chosen location. I particularly enjoyed the confrontation with Erebus at the end, which proved not to be fighty at all (as he was held safely captive behind an Electronic Light Field - ELF, geddit?), but instead focused on dialogue in which he told the humans just how insignificant they appeared from his out-of-time perspective, and eventually revealed that he had set the whole thing up from the beginning because he wanted to be deported anyway in order to be reunited with his love, Nyx, deported 20 years earlier. (So it was only the cultists getting in the way of the Artemis complex's normal procedures after all.) I am a real sucker for supernatural beings whose power is such that they are simultaneously dangerous to humans and yet also possessed of insight and perspective we can only dream of (it's a lot of what I also like about vampires), so this ticked my boxes in a big way - and all the more so for tagging it onto real-world ancient Greek mythology.

It was also good on female representation. Besides Ren, it also features two other well-defined female characters who are far from constrained by gender roles - her savvy, hard-headed boss and the samurai-trained leader of the cultists. A conversation between Ren and the boss about her career prospects secures a Bechel pass, while we all enjoyed a trope-aware scene at the end in which the deportation agent tried to suggest to Ren that as the 'hero' of the hour, he should get the girl, and she snorted and told him it was never going to happen. It didn't do so well on race, though. It gave Ren a black friend / mentor, but of the four main good human characters (along with Ren, her boss and the deportation agent), he was the only one not to survive the film, and the way this played out was definitely tropey - heroically trying to protect others and then entirely focused on motivating Ren to carry on as he dies. We were also under-whelmed by the American accents which the actually mainly British cast had been asked to adopt. On the whole, though, jolly good and a worthy follow-up to The Gatehouse.


8. The House of Screaming Death (2017), dir. Alex Bourne, Troy Dennison, Rebecca Harris-Smith, David Hastings and Kaushy Patel

This, by contrast, was just terrible! It was meant to be an homage to the great British horror films of the 1950s-'70s, and had adopted in particular the Amicus speciality of the portmanteau format. The framing narrative consisted of Ian McNeice, sitting down to tell an audience whom at first we couldn't see some stories from the bloody history of 'Bray Manor'. You'd think you couldn't go too far wrong with something that had Ian McNeice in it, and the trailer had conveyed a generally promising impression. It's also worth saying that the films of Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the like were all low-budget and contain much which is rough around the edges. What they do offer, though, is decent acting, characters, stories, period settings, direction and dialogue - which this did not.

Would you, for example, enter the pub in a village where you are staying, and, on the back of having been (rather improbably) told earlier by the local priest that several local people had disappeared about a year ago, announce at the top of your voice to the entire assembled company, without any preludes or introductions, that you wished to express your sympathies for their recent losses? No? Well, a character in this film did. He also turned up in the village without a hat, stood at the bar in shirt-sleeves with no cuff-links, said 'OK' and ran past visibly-modern radiators, even though it was all supposed to be set in 1888. Meanwhile, another story featured a character explaining how she had once murdered someone using a stake from a fence in the process of construction while we saw a flash-back of the action, except that in the flash-back she was very clearly wielding a garden fork, not a fence-stake. Plus all of them relied heavily on scenes of people standing still and delivering exposition to one another, while we had got a good twenty minutes into the film before a single woman spoke.

At the very end the framing story offered the chance to excuse the utterly inept period detailing at least, since it turned out that all of the main characters from the stories were gathered together in one time and place as the audience listening to Ian McNeice's narration, after which he proceeded to murder them all. So maybe they had never 'really' inhabited the various time-periods when their stories were supposed to be set at all, and were actually just the modern victims of a modern serial-killer. But that is to cut the film a lot of generosity for something which it gave no convincing sign of having thought through in advance, and I personally didn't have any such generosity left to give after everything we'd sat through for the previous two hours. Not actually the worst film I've ever seen, but very, very disappointing.


9. Tremors (1990), dir. Ron Underwood

Our final two films were oldies, so I won't bother with plot précis. I've only seen Tremors the once before, on TV when baby-sitting around the age of 15 or so. I wasn't expecting much from it, but I remember getting sucked into its silly fun at the time, and can very much see why now. For what is essentially a wild west film (but with worms instead of armed bandits), it's not bad for diversity either. Finn Carter as the geologist, Rhonda, has a purpose and agency of her own, isn’t overtly sexualised, contributes plenty of good ideas throughout and indeed is seen by the two main male cowboy characters as an authoritative source of information. Sure, Kevin Bacon's character does ‘win’ her at the end (in exactly the trope parodied in Black Site), but there's a knowingness about it even here in the way he doesn't do it in self-assured alpha-male fashion, but is clearly pretty nervous and has to be chivvied along by his friend. In the racial diversity stakes, we have a Chinese store owner who dies, but a Mexican character survives, and like everyone else in the cast gets to make his own contribution to the rescue effort by having the idea to set a tractor running to distract the worms, and the bravery and physical skills to do it. All in all, it's one of those films which actually just ends up reminding you how little progress we've generally made on diversity in film almost thirty years later (for all that the past few years have served up some stand-out exceptions). Probably my favourite moment of this viewing was sitting next to [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya, who is a palaeontologist, when Rhonda observed that there are no fossils of anything like the worms threatening the town, and that therefore they must 'pre-date the fossil record'. She head-desked. I also kept thinking Kevin Bacon would end up riding one of the worms, but I guess I was getting that mixed up with Dune. His cliff-face grand finale defeat was great anyway.


10. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), dir. Ed Wood

Another very special genre classic, which I last saw a little more recently that Tremors, but only by about three or four years. As [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya observed, you've had one hell of a film-watching day when (thanks to The House of Screaming Death), this is definitively not the worst film you've seen. But of course the reason everyone loves it is the surreal charm of its particular form of ineptness, underpinned by a sort of cheerful exuberance which somehow carries you along for the ride. We howled with laughter throughout, in a fond and appreciative way. My only real disappointment is how little Vampira really gets to do in it, and I'm now keen to watch some of the other films which Maila Nurmi played in her Vampira persona, so that I can enjoy more of her obvious excellence.


With that, we called it a day, and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy headed off for a terrifying white-out drive along the M62, while Andrew, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya and I merely walked across the square for dinner at Prezzo. Here's hoping we're all back in Manchester before long for more from the Starburst crew - but ideally without the snow!


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