Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Horror

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 3 – Midnight in the Garden of SIFF (Week Two)

Is Amer (Belgium, dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) a giallo—that deliriously stylish brand of Italian horror that (at its best) swirled overripe color and perverse violence with visceral imagery, voyeuristic tendencies and flamboyant camerawork—or a portrait of life imagined as a giallo? The story (such as it is) of Amer comes down to three apparently defining moments in the life of a highly imaginative (perhaps borderline mad) heroine: as a young girl trying to take in the charged emotional atmosphere surrounding her grandfather’s death (including incantations cast by a superstitious old servant and the acid-flashback imagery triggered when she spies her parents having sex), as a teenager whose shopping trip with mom explodes in sexual awareness when she comes across a motorcycle gang (are the objectifying shots of the wind wrapping her skirt around her legs, her breasts, her pouty, overripe lips their POV or her fantasy of their desire?), as a grown woman revisiting the family estate, a neglected place filled with overgrown vegetation, unresolved issues and a knife-wielding stalker (whose “reality” is as questionable as anything else seen through the mind’s eye of this woman). It’s a film seen through keyholes and ajar doors, down hallways and staircases, through windows and under doors, but mostly through the overheated mind’s eye of Ana as she transforms family drama and every day encounters into hothouse moments of sexual desire and repression, voyeurism, conspiracy, witchcraft, stalking and murder (or sees the lurid and dangerous reality under the surface that no one else notices).

Any objective understanding of the narrative is tangled up in the subjective experience of Ana (played by three different actress) and the expressionist delirium served up by Cattet and Forzani. But this isn’t mere tribute to the genre, it’s a celebration of the style, the texture, the psycho-sexual atmosphere of the best films, recreated in a triptych that could be a horror film, a coming-of-age story or a twisted Walter Mitty adventure from a Dario Argento fanatic. It isn’t necessary to know the genre to enjoy the film. While it borrows from more films than I can identify (not simply visually but its choice selection of soundtrack themes as well), it’s not commenting on any individual film so much as appropriating the style and sensibility for its own purposes. It doesn’t merely acknowledge the expressionist possibilities in a genre beloved horror fans but unknown to most people, it condenses it into a concentrated extract: a 90-minute hit of the essence of giallo as a surreal subjective journey, part sexual awakening, part repressed fear, part rarified death dream. And while the cinematic phantasmagoria is more interesting than any psychological reading or narrative understanding, it’s like mainlining decades of giallo highlights in a single screening. Quite a trip indeed.

Amer: the texture of giallo
Amer: the texture of giallo

Splice (Canada/France, dir: Vincenzo Natali) – Professional partners and happily unmarried couple Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) don’t need children. They procreate with genetic experiments—splicing DNA from a dozen animals into a lab-created life-form they hope to harvest for pharmaceutical properties—and their masterpiece is a pirate side-project involving human DNA spliced into their zoological genetic cocktail. She calls it Dren (that’s nerd backwards) and goes all maternal. He is resistant (“It’s a mistake!”) but slowly gets attached as the lizard-looking creature becomes more humanoid. The metaphors in Vincenzo Natali’s bio-horror aren’t exactly subtle: their experiment becomes their child, which they whisk away from the lab and into the (broken) home of Elsa’s troubled childhood, and the would-be parents get a rollercoaster trip through family issues and growing pains. It’s a time lapse crash course in parenting, with a side of unresolved mommy issues and paternal resistance (Daddy Clive tries to kill the unauthorized experiment at least once, maybe twice), and a little girl whose genetic zoo of abilities manifest as she grows at an alarming rate, adding even more unpredictable wrinkles to the Freudian hothouse of issues churning through this post-nuclear family.

The biggest weakness of this decidedly intelligent horror is the way it seems to check off each issue it twists through this warped family drama, but with smart actors like Brody and Polley investing themselves in the emotional storm of their challenged allegiances, Natali and company pull it off. They use digital effects sparingly, creating Dren largely through performance (Delphine Chanéac as the grown Dren, Abigail Chu as the pup) with CGI enhancements, and keep the spectacle to a minimum. It works best while navigating the territory between emotion and instinct and primal drive, which lead these smart people to make some very stupid decisions. Splice is set for release—the ads have been all over the airwaves—so it’s the one film you can easily catch up with it in the multiplexes, but the atmosphere of a midnight screening is strong incentive to see it at SIFF.

K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces (Japan, dir: Shimako Sato) isn’t a midnight movie but it has all the elements to make it one: a mix of Japanese manga, forties adventure pulp and silent movie serial surrealism, set in an alternate reality where World War II was averted and Japan transformed into an authoritarian society of polarized class division. The masked supervillain K-20 (the fiend with twenty faces—why not a hundred, or a thousand, or does Lon Chaney have the corner of that one?) is reminiscent of Fantomas and Judex and Batman, dropped into a post-steampunk (vacuum tubepunk?) reimagining of Tokyo with echoes of Metropolis and 1984. When this brazen villain frames an innocent acrobat (the eternally boyish Takeshi Kaneshiro) for his crimes, however, he creates a rival prepared to take him on at his own game, with the help of the thieves underworld and a how-to manual that turns him into a master of urban combat and Japan’s answer to parkour.

It’s pure pulp adventure with colorful set pieces, ridiculous over-the-top action scenes and naïve melodrama. Sato manages a good balance of straight-forward adventure and self-awareness, with a dash of star-crossed romance and touch of whimsy where appropriate, and he fills it with wonderfully offbeat images, like a mechanical, gear-operated computer with a manual typewriter interface and dial readouts. The inventions of Nicola Tesla play a big part here as well, and the class struggle is given a public face in the form of an arrogant police detective (Tôru Nakamura) and privileged Baron who is a media hero despite the fact that K-20 continues to elude him.

K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces – Saturday, May 29, 9pm at Neptune; Friday, June 4, 9:30pm at Kirkland
Amer – Saturday, May 29, Midnight at Egyptian; Sunday, May 30, 9:30pm at Egyptian
Splice – Sunday, May 30, Midnight at Egyptian; Monday, May 31, 9pm at Egyptian

Also see capsules of SIFF 2010 week two reviews at:
Queen Anne News (Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy)
Seattle Weekly (Brian Miller and others)
And don’t forget Parallax View’s guide to SIFF resources (with even more links to pages regularly updated with reviews, capsules and other notes)