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Final Girls Berlin: ‘Women in Horror’ Film Festival

There was no shortage of blood and guts at last weekend’s Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. And this second installment of the festival was dedicated to women filmmakers. On Saturday, the final Shorts Program of the night included a number of fantastic and complex features all dedicated to the theme of “Sweet Revenge.” It was an apropos way to conclude the day, as five of the event’s best horror flicks were on display.

Consommé (US, 2015)

Written and directed by Catherine Fordham.

Story: Kali (Monica West) and her boyfriend quarrel in a heated off-screen argument. Infuriated, Kali leaves the apartment and strolls the streets of Brooklyn at night. She is confronted by a man who intends to rape her, but Kali finds her inner strength and thwarts her attacker’s sexual advances. The next morning Kali dwells on the events of the night before, as she proceeds to purge the memory.

The original idea came when a girlfriend of mine was angry at an ex-boyfriend and about to walk home late at night,” writer and director Catherine Fordham said of the inspiration behind her movie Consommé. “I wanted to make a film that wasn’t about a superhero, or a physically powerful woman, but just an ordinary woman with a fire inside her.

No offense to actor Parker Madison, but Consommé is a one-artist show. Actress Monica West delivers an authentic and believable portrayal of Kali. In fact, she delivers every nuance of this A-list performance without uttering a single word of dialogue.

Monica is a friend of mine and I’ve always loved her work, her look and her presence,” Fordham said. “She appears almost glass-like in some way, very ethereal, but also fierce, strong and powerful. I love this unexpected blend of qualities. Plus, she has mad skills.”

She’s also fantastic to work with,” Fordham continued. “And since this was such a tough role in some ways, I wanted to cast someone I could really communicate with, and trust. I didn’t hold auditions, I just rang her up!

West’s performance is comprised of purposeful movements and simple gestures, which carry the story and delivers her raw emotions directly to the audience. Alexia Moran provides the voice of Kali for the unseen lover’s spat at the beginning of the film, but that is the only dialogue in the movie. “Alexia was the French voice at the beginning, because Monica doesn’t speak French,” Fordham explained.

Minos Papas turns in a top-notch editing performance, as the story is intercut between Kali dwelling on the attack the following day and the dreaded confrontation that occurred the night before. There is also a realistic and gritty backdrop provided by the Director of Photography Lance Kaplan. Kaplan and gaffer Zachary P. McGeehan waltzed a perfect dance between the dreaded shroud of night and the almost winsome brightness reflected in Kali’s home. And an interesting choice is made in the opening of the film: allowing the audience to only hear the lovers’ argument rather than witness it visually.

The film is intended to be very stripped down and immediate, so I didn’t want to include any backstory or strong character clues,” Fordham said. “The fight at the beginning is really just about the emotion behind it, not the content, or the relationship with her boyfriend. Basically, I just needed her to be in the emotional place of ‘don’t F with me’ and I didn’t feel it helped anything to show why—we know what a couple fighting looks like. Plus, the film is about this one woman, so the focus was all on her, even during the attack. I also wanted it to be as short as possible!

In the opening of the movie, after the argument, there are two static scenes in which there are no camera movements at all. These technical choices help add an eerie mood to the film. First, Kali leaves the apartment and crosses the street, which lasts fifteen seconds.

We worked hard on the mix of suspension/mystery and momentum,” Fordham said. “In the first long static shot I wanted the street to feel desolate and lonely. The static camera and long walk from the house felt right for that mood.”

Immediately following that first shot, Kali begins to wake in her bed. Aside from her foot and shoulder moving, this is another motionless shot with a duration of fifteen seconds. This decision continues to cultivate the dark and ominous tone. “The shot of Kali lying in bed is intended to set up the tension,” Fordham explained. “What happened to this woman? I also just loved that shot—so pretty with the white and Monica’s red hair.”

In terms of storytelling and performance, another creative choice is made during the pivotal attack scene. Yes, Kali struggles and puts up a fight, but she never screams out for help. “It was Monica’s actual reaction in the first takes and it felt so right and so creepy so we went with it,” Fordham explained. “I think in those terrible situations when you’re in shock, out of breath, being held or beaten, accessing your voice to make a loud sound can be hard and perhaps seem secondary to fighting to get free…or biting to get free.”

Kali begins to purge her attacker into the toilet bowl the morning after the attack. Startled, she stares into the waters and sees an ear floating amongst her putrid vomit. It’s a wonderfully disgusting bit of imagery.

Originally, I wanted Kali to eat all of him, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that in my budget,” Fordham said. “I wanted to show that she consumed and didn’t just bite. The ear was just practical. It’s identifiable (unlike a cheek etc.). The idea was that she consumes her attacker, then purges him.”

The appendage itself appears quite realistic in the film and it sells the pivotal climax of Fordham’s picture. “The ear was made the first time by Lexan Rosser who is amazing,” Fordham said. “She did all the special effects. But the first shoot I didn’t plan well and the toilet bowl looked silly: just blood and an ear and some yogurt. So, I did a reshoot and this time added pork belly, tuna and other meat to the bowl.”

I also had the ear remade by a young special effects makeup student (because my budget was blown) named Jnana Kou. I had cut up Lexan’s first one trying to make it looked chewed on. She did a fantastic job! The ear had Styrofoam on the back to make it float, but kept flipping upside down. It was a very frustrating gross shot! But I’m so happy with it.”

Right before Kali pukes in the toilet, the camera is cleverly tilted just a touch sideways to suggest that something is wrong. Fordham utilizes an exemplary filmmaking technique here: Dutch Angles. And they are on display again as Kali cleans up at the film’s conclusion.

Consommé is an intense tale of female empowerment in the direst of circumstances. That chunk of the attacker’s ear floating in the toilet is a hideous but beautiful bit of imagery perfectly suited for a horror film. And the song Great White, which is used in the closing moments by the Sharp Ease, was the perfect lifeblood to this thrilling jaunt.

TOTAL: 3 ¾ STARS

Oedipus (UK, 2016)

Written and directed by Roxanne Bordeaux.

Story: A young man named Lily (Jacque Bevon) must live the same day repeatedly, without any hope of it ever ending. Unfortunately, for the youth, he is trapped with his deviant grandfather (Larry Rew).

My fervent goal for making the film was to enter the film industry,” writer and director Roxanne Bordeaux said. “Which I think I’ve achieved in some form or another. My inspiration for Oedipus, on the other hand came from a recurring dream in which I elaborated.”

First, one of the most sublime aspects of this film is the way Bordeaux and the gaffer Kev Black combine their talents to pull off an incredibly rich lighting scheme that is integral to the plot. The sunny gleam presented in the opening scenes of Lily’s day creates a brilliant juxtaposition to the dark and ominous theme of the movie. Outwardly, a portrait of calm and serenity have been painted, but inwardly Lily is in an inescapable hell of sexual abuse.

And the light scheme subtly changes, as the day progresses. A slightly darker tone is introduced in the exterior shots where Lily waves to his grandfather. An amber color takes audiences a shade darker when the boy creates his weapon and shares the screen with the snake. All these technical choices by Bordeaux creates a progressively realistic sense of foreboding.

Second, another conflict of imagery occurs between the outward appearance of the house and how that exterior is intercut with the filthy nature of Lily’s bathroom. It’s a true case of contradictions that is symbolic of what Lily is giving off to the audience. The quintessential stone façade belies the haunting abuse the young man must endure, while the rusted and corrode sink more aptly reflects Lily’s state of being. In short, outwardly Lily may appear fine, but inwardly he is stained with the sexual proclivity of his grandfather.

Thirdly, the snake is a symbol of possibility for Lily. Even though the youth is trapped in the same day, and he must continually relive its horrors, a glimmer of hope is provided via the reptile that slithers into his bedroom. Watch carefully, because the snake changes – it grows. It’s very small the first time Lily puts it in the drawer, but the snake appears much larger when it rests on his desk just prior to the ten-minute mark of the movie. If the snake can change, during this repetitive day, perhaps Lily can change his own destiny.

I think it’s important for people to draw up their own conclusions, that’s half the fun,” Bordeaux said concerning the metaphor of the snake. “Just know the snake had many roles, Lily’s friend foremost. It’s also harder to train a spider. Ahem.

Finally, there’s a fantastic moment of character growth when Lily finally musters the courage to kill his grandfather. The boy constructs a weapon of his own design that is both unique and deliciously apropos.

Lily had aspirations for being a mechanical engineer when he was alive and not in limbo,” Bordeaux explained about the boy’s weapon of choice. “So, Lily utilizes his skills to exact revenge upon Cecil, in a bitter sweet kind of way. In Oedipus, we see their days on repeat, for a period. Imagine how long this must have actually been going on for. Perhaps hundreds of years! Maybe Lily’s already tried to kill Cecil in a pedestrian way.”

The boy’s grief and suffering transforms into a strength that gives him hope of a new future, after he disposes of his grandfather. Sadly, when Lily wakes in the last scene, as the day begins anew, the door knob to his room slowly begins to turn. This signifies that Lily’s heroics were all for nothing, and the day from hell continues.

Lily will have to relegate himself to a more prudent way of disposing of his grandfather, rather than wasting valuable time constructing his phallic instrument of death. Lily should look to a more sensible means of murder, so he can enjoy more of his day unfettered by worry. Perhaps, he can swipe a knife and hide it under the sheets with him. And when granddaddy plants that first good-morning kiss on his forehead, Lily can off him right there. At least, if he still must relive the same day, he can be rid of his grandfather at the very beginning of each new start.

In the end, Bordeaux’s unique combination of storytelling and technical prowess enables her to weave together a thought-provoking horror film that will keep audiences busy contemplating for some time to come. It’s always rewarding to see a filmmaker rise to their A-game and produce quality short films like Oedipus.

TOTAL: 3 ¾ STARS

Rites of Vengeance (US, 2017)

 

Written and directed by Izzy Lee.

Story: A seemingly god-fearing priest (Michael Thurber) has committed an unfathomably crime and now he faces a tribunal of vengeful nuns who are looking to even the score.

Rites of Vengeance was a difficult script for me to write,” said the film’s creator Izzy Lee. “I was raised Catholic and decided very early that I wanted nothing more to do with church or parochial school after grade two. More so, I know several people — including close friends — who were systematically abused by priests as children. This film is for them.

First, Lee utilizes a blue-chip camera technique to help tell the story of the Rites of Vengeance from the opening shot to the picture’s conclusion. At the outset, Lee introduces a high shot, from a low angle, of the church interior which includes the sun beating through the picturesque stained-glass windows. This positioning of the camera suggests the power of God and how we, as human, are all beneath it. It also conveys a sense of dread. The balance of good and evil has tipped toward the darkness, as the camera descends. Things are definitely out of sync, as the framing comes to rest on a priest who calmly studies his bible.

This movie-making technique symbolizes so much in just a matter of seconds. Audiences have already seen the towering might of god at a prodigious camera angle, and now, as the camera moves viewers are introduced to the baddie – clearly a contradiction to the almighty deity.

And in this particular instance, from a historical context, Lee’s process also symbolizes the Judeo-Christian belief of the fall of man. More importantly, to this film, that simple camera movement reveals the good, which is otherworldly, and the evil which is humanity. It is always gratifying to see a filmmaker at the top of their game.

Lee clearly has a firm grasp on how to interweave storytelling with the technical side of movie making, which culminates in one gloriously complex and revealing journey. Lee also brings everything full circle at the end, as the nuns have restored balance. As they exit the building, the camera rises from the depths of the church back to the power of God represented by the light shown through the same stained-glass windows.

Second, Lee lets the subtext carry the movie. The audience is never actually told what sin the priest has committed. Rather, it is tactfully handled. The heinous crimes are alluded to through subtly instead of the filmmaker just coming out and telling us what’s transpired.

The priest goes as far as to look at some photographs secretly stashed in his quarters, but fortunately viewers never get a clear shot of what they are. Even when the nuns toss the photos down on his corpse, the pictures are only shown for a split second. There are no close-ups to reveal his crimes.

“The choice not to show close-ups of the Polaroids would have pushed the film into a more exploitative territory,” Lee said. “And the film didn’t need to go there, because that wasn’t my intention. You get the idea that children are being abused and that the priest is salivating over photos of his victims. You don’t need to see images of naked kids. And I don’t need to get arrested.”

During the scene where the nuns exact their revenge, more subtext can be found in the instruments the nuns bring to bear on the priest. One of the sisters is carrying a baseball bat, another is shown holding a quilt with sports markings and Sister Mercy (Silvia Graziano) actually shoves a pair of briefs in the priest’s mouth. All three of these objects are clearly items that a little boy might own. So, without a word of dialogue to explain it, Lee brilliantly lets this unspoken symbolism reveal that this horrid man has abused children in the past.

After the nuns have murdered the priest, Sister Mercy is startled when she sees a young boy and girl sitting listlessly on one of the church pews. After a few moments, the children vanish. Once again, subtext reveals that the villainous priest had abused youngsters in his sordid past.

Finally, Rites of Vengeance works well because of the nuanced performance given by Mr. Thurber. Thurber has been a stalwart thespian over the years with other horror titles to his credit, including Murder University (2012), Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (2013) and The Sins of Dracula (2014).

Michael Thurber is an excellent actor and a true pro,” Lee said. “I worked with him previously on my first short film, Legitimate, and he’s always up for anything. He’s nothing like any character I cast him as, but he can channel those very evil people simply and add all kinds of flourishes, tics, and movements that truly inhabit the characters he plays. I adore him.

There’s nothing pretentious about Thurber’s acting, and there was never a moment in which he tried to overact his way through the genius undertones driving the story. Rather, his subtle choices – including his movements from studying the bible, to viewing the photos and even when he realizes he’s been trapped – are genuinely authentic and steeped in realism.

He [Thurber] nailed the role of the priest and had no issues playing such a disgusting human being,” Lee said. “I feel like I’ll apologize for the rest of my life for putting him in those roles, but he takes it in stride and is an absolute delight.

The close-up of Thurber’s bashed-in face, courtesy of the baseball-bat beating at the hands of Sister Mercy, is something that Lee should be particularly proud of. There’s an undulating, red carpet of blood oozing down the wall, as the priest succumbs to his wounds. The foggy contact lens in Thurber’s eye is also quite haunting, as is the priest’s broken nose, and the splattering of blood highlighting the head wound is gloriously graphic. This was definitely the money-shot of the film.

Even more disturbing in the end is the fact that the nuns themselves have let their lust for revenge tarnish their relationship with God. Most notably, whether justified or not, the sisters have committed murder. Secondly, they go as far as to partially repeat the priest’s behavior, as they have photographed their own sin. And they leave the priest’s body and the photographs right in front of the pulpit for others to discover.

Rites of Vengeance is an Old-Testament-style/wrath-of-God tale, with subtext that evokes horrible thoughts of child abuse. But in the end the nuns see to it, despite the consequences they may have to face, that the priest gets his just deserts.

TOTAL: 4 STARS

Watch Me (AU, 2017)

Produced by Briony Kidd.

Story: A beguiling actress loves the allure of being seen, in both her professional and personal lives, and she will stop at nothing to stay in the spotlight.

The film holds a three-of-a-kind in aces that sustains the well-crafted script from beginning to end. The music, lighting and the virtuoso performance by actress Astrid Wells Cooper make this thrilling jaunt utterly haunting. It’s impossible not to get sucked into the story with this triumphant triad.

First, composer Miles Brown’s score for the film conjures up memories of Harry Manfredini’s use of music in the Friday the 13th franchise, with its melodic albeit suspenseful charms. The score in any movie is of paramount importance, but Brown’s work also helps to alert audiences of Tamsin’s egotistical moments just as Manfredini’s composition warned moviegoers that Mrs. Voorhees or Jason were near.

During the scene where Tamsin is watched over by Polly (Jazz Yap) in bed, Brown really hits his stride as the gravity of the seemingly safe situation results comes to an explosive head. It’s at that moment that audiences should completely stop sympathizing with Tamsin.

Second, gaffers Lucy Gouldthorpe and Jason James put together a lighting design that virtually creates another character in the film. For Tamsin, the spotlight is the bringer of life, but the dark the shadows threaten to kill the actress. In the film’s climatic scene, Gouldthorpe and James’ creation comes for poor Tamsin.

Listening from the safety of another room, Polly hears Tamsin’s boyfriend (Tosh Greendslade) finally reject and leave her. She knows the actress will die if she doesn’t go to her, as she indecisively twists the doorknob. But Polly has had enough of Tamsin’s deluded antics. Polly lets the darkness do its worst. With no one to “see” her, the shadows finally close in on Tamsin and she vanishes from sight.

This climatic scene works perfectly not only thanks to the combination of lighting and music but because of Cooper’s acting choices. There’s no issue with suspension of disbelief here. You’ll be enthralled with Cooper’s acting chops. Tamsin knows the show’s over, as she struggles for air. The dark finally consumes her. Cooper’s eyes widen to try and see beyond her fate, but to no avail. It’s a wonderful performance by the actress.

TOTAL: 3 ¾ STARS

Willow Garden (US, 2017)

Directed by Kate MacDonald.

Story: The waters are already rough for Mona (Aimee Carver) and Keith (Jon Levenson) when they arrive at their isolated campsite. But just when you think things can’t get any worse, the tide turns deadly. Someone or something is seemingly watching the couple from the woods. And make no mistake, death is on the horizon.

“Willow Garden comes from the empowerment of finding oneself after losing your way,” said producer and writer Kendall Brunson on her inspiration behind penning the script. “While the relationship portrayed in the movie is romantic, finding one’s place and purpose in any abusive or controlling relationship is something that many of us can identify with. Willow Garden is about the edge that finally pushes us to find who we truly are and reclaim our strength.”

First, the dialogue trumps subtext in Willow Garden, but it’s handled in a way that builds tension and gradually reveals what’s happening with this uneasy couple. These creative choices by both Brunson and director Kate MacDonald guide the narrative’s suspenseful side, as audiences wait to discover what has led Mona and Keith down this dark path.

I was so fortunate that Kate wanted to direct it,” Brunson said. “When she and I began discussing Keith and Mona’s relationship, she brought up points I hadn’t realized were present in the script. She really nailed the balance between Keith and Mona, and knew exactly how to work with them to bring their great performances.”

These lines from Keith draw a picture that gives the audience a glimpse of what’s caused the rift: “I want to have a good weekend, okay?” and “Have one [beer], you can drink now.” But it’s the song he later sings that ultimately leads to the revelation about the child they lost, which turns out Keith didn’t want: “I never wanted that fucking baby!

Second, Keith might be the most detestable antagonist ever. There’s nothing redeeming about him from the nonchalant-way he sung that song, to his indifference toward the death of their child. But when Keith smugly serenades Mona, that’s the point of no return. And it leads to the unleashing of Mona’s beast.

The song was the crucial moment in the film, where two characters are seemingly just sitting and looking at one another,” Brunson explained. “But with Kate’s vision, it becomes such a searing scene, maybe my favorite one.

If you have a heart in your chest, you’ll be cheering when the canoe tips over and Keith dies in those cold waters. Kudos to both actor Jon Levenson and writer Kendall Brunson for creating an even more unlikeable character than Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story (1983) – not easy to do.

And in the end, Willow Garden is a story of both female empowerment and hope. “I want audiences to walk away feeling hopeful, which might be a weird thing to say about a horror film, but that’s my intent,” Brunson said. “Even when it feels like it, you’re never truly lost.

TOTAL: 3 ½ STARS

About Steven Thrash

Thrash graduated Cum Laude from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communications, focusing on film studies, journalism and theatre arts. Dubbed a "prolific" writer by Hollywood icon Kenneth Johnson (The Incredible Hulk, V, The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation), Steven has been honored by the Arkansas College Media Association for his story writing prowess. He has also received recognition for his dramatic writing from the Eerie, Shriekfest and Screamfest horror film festivals. Publications include: Carroll County News, Benton Courier, Saline Courier, Forum, Echo, ABC Financial and Moroch.

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