i've been to the BIFFF (my highlights were meeting Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM director), Ryuhei Kitamura (VERSUS director), and a whole gaggle of gorgeous Spanish actresses!) and have been reviewing the films. Here they are from best to worst:
1. THE INVISIBLE (Simon Sandquist & Joel Bergvall, Sweden) aka DEN OSYNLIGE
What an incredible film. The basic premise may sound a bit like GHOST (guy is apparently beaten to death but is still stuck on earth as a ghost) but its the superb performances, the expert storytelling, and the powerful emotional pull of this cross-genre teen-flick/detective story/supernatural thriller that lifts it head and shoulders above any film in the last few years. If you liked THE SIXTH SENSE, you'll absolutely love this. An unforgettable experience.
2. ARAGAMI (Ryuhei Kitamura, Japan)
The director of VERSUS is back, and this time he gives us an old-school samurai sword-fighting flick. ARAGAMI was apparently made in 7 days as a challenge with a fellow director. Its minimalistic to the extreme: 3 actors, one big room as the only location, a plot structure as simple as it gets: dialogue - fight - dialogue - fight - dialogue - fight. And what fights! They're as hyper-kinetic, exciting and fun as the dialogue is bizarre & funny. ARAGAMI is 100& crowd-pleasing action. This one is gonna be a big international hit.
3. DRIVE (Sabu, Japan)
Funny funny funny! If this one doesn't make you laugh you don't have a funny bone. Three bank robbers jump into the car of a strict by-the-book kind of guy, and tell him to chase their colleague who is getting away with all the cash. But his refusal to drive above the speed limit or ignore red lights means they're soon lost and wandering aimlessly. One ridiculous situation after another ensues, all based around the theme of destiny and fate. It boasts great performances from all concerned (special mention goes to KOU SHIBASAKI, the evil schoolgirl from BATTLE ROYALE) and is simply a joy to watch.
4. SECOND NAME (Paco Plaza, Spain)
Second Name follows the female mystery-investigation storyline that has been used so successfully in recent horror/suspense films like Ring, The Eye etc. This time round our heroine investigates the suicide of her father in strange circumstances, leading her to uncover the secrets of her own past, and the discovery of an ancient religion dedicated to the ritual killing of their first-born. Despite being a Spanish production its set in the UK and is entirely in English. I have not read the novel but judging by the film Ramsay Campbell has crafted a clever, twisting-turning tale with that elusive what-happens-next factor that will keep anyone guessing. Direction and performances are restrained, which thankfully suits the film (none of the gimmicks that damaged the US remake of RING). And the bleak ending really packs a punch. Recommended.
5. KILLING WORDS (Laura Mana, Spain) aka PALABRAS ENCADENADAS
A psychological thriller about a mild-mannered serial killer that is full of twists and turns, always leaving the audience guessing, somewhat in the style of SLEUTH. Laura Mana is a Spanish actress turned director (this is her second film after COMPASSIONATE SEX) with a real flair for keeping the audience hooked. She wrings everything out of the scenario (the killer has his victim tied to a chair in his basement, shows her vidoes of his previous murder confessions, and suggests poking out her eye) and gets a fantasic central performance from Dario Grandinetti, who reminds me of a pre-USUAL SUSPECTS Kevin Spacey.
6. SUICIDE CLUB (Sion Sono, Japan)
This year's BATTLE ROYALE? The opening is easily equal to, if not better than, that other films famous classroom sequence, as fifty happy, smiling schoolgirls join hands and leap in front of a train at a subway station. Buckets of blood fill the screen and the audience is left shocked, giggling and nervous. This somehow leads to a wave of copycat suicides, a whole bunch of red herrings (including a guy apparently impersonating Dr Frank N Furter from THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and a pre-teen J-pop girl band called "Desert" or maybe "Dessert" who sing a really infectious song called "Mail Me"), and finally some kind of muddled message about fads in modern Japan. OK it doesn't hang together at the end, but its the fun of the insane events along the way that make this stand out.
7. TATTOO (Robert Schwentke, Germany)
A SE7EN-style serial killer thriller about a psychopath who collects tattoos. The intriguing idea that "body-art" has a resale value and those bearing the tattoos are worth less than the tattoos themselves is explored very professionally in this stylish, well-made, well-acted German thriller. There is gore, beautiful women, and a killer twist. What more do you want?
8. PHONE (Byung-Ki Ahn, Korea)
One of the many Asian films inspired by the success of Hideo Nakata's RING, this one follows the standard vengeful-ghost story template, and manages to pack in enough chills, thrills and spills to keep everyone happy. A woman gets a new mobile phone but starts getting strange untraceable calls. Meanwhile, her friend's little daughter is behaving in an odd fashion. Is there some connection? She begins to investigate the history of her phone, and uncovers deep secrets from the past. The possessed little girl is absolutely incredible - she looks really malicious and frightening at times. The story is a little confusing with so many flashbacks and flash-forwards, but the big twists in the final act achieve a decent pay-off.
9. THE UNINVITED (Rizal Mantovani & Joese Poernomo, Indonesia) aka JELANGKUNG
A DV horror movie shot in a few days that managed to beat TITANIC at the Indonesian box-office? Let me at it! This is the most cheesy, ham-fisted, and unintentionally hilarious thing I've seen since the Philippino fantasy film THE KILLING OF SATAN. But there are some flashes of brilliance that make you wonder what these guys could do given a decent budget, professional actors, and a script doctor. Some kids (a spooky Mulder type - he even has the "I want to believe" poster on his wall, his whining complaining cute girlfriend, a hard-nosed military type, and a fat comic-relief who whistles SCOOBY-DOO while peeing) go ghost-hunting, leave a magic totem on a weird grave, and go home, unwittingly taking monsters from Indonesian folklore with them. Half-way through, there is an interlude while we get a heavy 15-minute discussion about the nature of experimentation and philosophy ("why do you always have to bring metaphysics into it?"). There is humour: the best joke goes "Hey look there's an elephant. It looks like you!" "Hey look the elephant's ********. The **** looks like you!". Oscar Wilde it ain't. The sub-titler couldn't even be bothered to translate some of them ("(Local indonesian joke)"). But in its favour, the opening is absolutely breathtaking, with its use of smoke, colour, and a pounding rock score, the director's music-video background is clearly visible. And the surprise ending is pretty good. What comes in between may be risible, but at least its not forgettable.
10. CABIN FEVER (Eli Roth, Canada)
A homage to classic Romero, Hooper, Craven and Raimi. A bunch of teenagers go to a cabin in the middle of the woods (sounds familiar?), get harassed by a guy with a flesh-eating disease, and soon start succumbing to the symptons themselves. Throw in a bunch of gun-toting rednecks, a sheriff more interested in partying than law-enforcement, a mad dog, and a kung-fu fighting arm-biting kid, and you've got CABIN FEVER, the debut feature of Eli Roth. The kids are all distinctly unlikable (as they should be), the disease effects are ultra-sick (as they should be), the plot is pretty much thrown together without any rhyme or reason but its clear that everyone had a good time on this production and it shows on-screen. Its not Shakespeare, but its a great late-night-Friday experience.
11. THE INSIDE STORY (Robert Sutherland, Australia)
This fantasy film from a first-time director appears to have the budget of an episode of NEIGHBOURS (with acting to match), but he does wonders with such a small cast and limited number of locations. The central premise (a scientist and his uncle discover a magic book that contains everything they have ever done) is not 100% original (its certainly been seen in short stories and TV shows before) but it is taken in several unexpected directions. Cleverest is the fact that there is no way for the viewer to visually distinguish the "real" world from the fantasy world. The ending is a little anti-climatic but still this is a debut with real promise.
12. SNAKE OF JUNE (Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan)
Tsukamoto is best know for TETSUO and TETSUO 2: BODY HAMMER. If you've seen those films you'll know what to expect in terms of style: black-and-white, wild photography, bizarre imagery etc. What you won't expect is the relatively accessible and easy-to-follow storyline in the first half, as a woman discovers her own desires through the promptings of a blackmailer. If TETSUO was about hating your body, SNAKE OF JUNE is about embracing it. About half-way through the focus is switched to her husband, and here we revert to total obscurity, in the TETSUO mould. Tsukamoto buffs will find it all very interesting, others will be left baffled.
13. BUBBAHOTEP (Don Coscarelli, USA)
Well, I have to say I was expecting more. Bruce Campbell is fantastic, and giving him the chance to portray Elvis seems like perfect casting right? Well, he does perform well, but the surrounding film is not as exciting or interesting as it could be. There is too much pondering self-reflection going on, when what the audience wants (from a film about a reincarnated Mummy killing OAPs in a retirement home at least) is action, comedy and gore in the style of the EVIL DEAD films. Director Coscarelli (PHANTASM) seems to be deliberately holding back to give Campbell a chance to really act, but I don't think this is the film to do that.
14. WHEN THE BELL CHIMED 13 (Xavier Villaverde, Spain/Portugal) aka TRECE CAMPANADAS aka 13 CHIMES
After a slow start, this tale of a young sculptor being haunted by the malicious ghost his dead father picks up steam and becomes a reasonably interesting tale with nice locations to look at and a nice satisfying conclusion. Its all a little low-key but its worth a look. By the way Laura Mana (the direcor of KILLING WORDS, above) has a role in this one.
15. THE MARSH (Kim Nguyen, Canada) aka LE MARAIS
Another debut director, Kim Nguyen has a real visual flair reminiscent of Jeunet & Caro (DELICATESSEN, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN). Story-wise its a little slow-moving (a peasant woman disappears and the superstitious villagers suspect the marsh-dwelling, club-footed puppeteer and his foreign guardian of killing her), but given a decent script this guy could be someone to watch out for.
16. DARKNESS (Jaume Balaguero, USA)
Suffers from all the usual problems when an overseas director who has scored a big hit (LOS SIN NOMBRE) goes Hollywood. Its bloated, cliched, unoriginal, and not in the least bit scary. The opening evokes H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu, but it doesn't deliver on that promise at all. Very disappointing.
17. THE SUNKEN CEMETERY (Mladen Juran, Croatia) aka POTONULO GROBLJE
An Eastern European flick that feels more like a TV drama than a movie. Its as slow, clumsy and boring as you would expect from a country without a long film-making tradition and no real budget for this type of thing. But at least its not embarrassing to watch like the next film on the list...
18. LABYRINTH (Miroslav Lekic, Serbia) aka LAVIRINT
Another Eastern European flick where people tak to each other for 60 minutes, then they get put in a labyrinth that is slowly filling with water and have to escape. The labyrinth part had some promise, but the insanely complex clues that are solved by the professor and the preacher who have to escape will leave the audience baffled. Stick with the Jennifer Connelly film of the same name.
19. WITCHERY DEAL (Javier Ellorietta, Spain) aka PACTO DE BRUJAS aka WITCHES PACT
Totally forgettable film about.... what was it about? I think I slept through most of this one. All I can remember is that the actresses are all very attractive.
20. THREE BLIND MICE (Matthias Ledoux, France/UK/Aus)
Oh dear. What a mess! Edward Furlong must be the most unappealing, uncharismatic, unlikeable leading man EVER. If you found him annoying in TERMINATOR 2, you'll be wanting to see him end up like the victims being murdered live on their own webcam sites in THREE BLIND MICE. Meanwhile Emilia Fox tries her best to swear convincingly but you still can't imagine her using even the mildest profanities in real life. If the performances and dialogue aren't bad enough, we get a central concept that has already been done much better in last year's MY LITTLE EYE, and a plot that whizzes by at 100 miles per hour but is totally uninvolving. Not the best advertisement for UK-France co-productions. Incidentally, Dario Argento's next film is about the internet and a long-distance shooter, just like this one. Let's hope it doesn't end up like this.