by Lucius Shepard
July 1, 2008
Once upon a time there was a little boy who dreamed of being on a film-festival jury . . . naw, not really. When I was a kid I dreamed about the usual stuff, looting and pillaging and so on, but once I reached my majority and got into movies, I’d watch the juries at Cannes and think how cool it would be to sit on one. Well, as it happens, this past summer I finally got my chance. The Neuchatel International Festival of Fantastic Films (NIFFF) isn’t Cannes, but it’s a pretty classy event. They put the jury up in a five-star hotel (my room came equipped with a Mite scooter that I occasionally rode around the halls late at night like little Danny in The Shining) and gave us an expensive Swiss watch as a door prize, and Neuchatel is a lovely medieval town on a gorgeous lake with lots of spectacular venues for the cocktail parties (of which there were many), including a castle. The festival was light on actors, but there were a number of interesting directors in attendance: Jamie Balagueros ([REC]); George Romero (you know); Umberto Bava and Jess Franco, both responsible for dozens of Italian giallo, and many more. So that part of the jury experience lived up to expectations. The rest of it, the actual judging part of things . . . not so much.
There were twelve films in competition at the NIFFF, entries from Korea, Japan, Norway, Sweden, France, Macedonia, the USA and elsewhere. Twelve films, you’d think, would be a snap to watch over four days, but it turned out to be fairly arduous, because our schedules were so packed and also because the majority of the movies were horror films and having to sit through munching and bleeding and splattering for approximately seven hours a day took a toll on one’s sensibilities. The jury consisted of myself and three directors: Joe Dante (Gremlins; The Howling), Xavier Gens (Hitman, Frontiers), Jens Lien (The Bothersome Man). Neil Marshall (The Descent) was supposed to participate, but was forced to withdraw due to an emergency. From my perspective, about half the films were eliminated early on, beginning with the crushingly awful slasher film Manhunt, a retelling of Deliverance wherein two young couples are hunted and horribly slaughtered by Norwegian rednecks. This movie received a good deal of hype, mainly because it was the first such picture produced in Norway and the director was only twenty-five . . . doubtless the explanation for the film’s lack of depth and originality.
Also off the list in the early going were George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (too much “been there, done that” for my tastes) and Gregg Bishop’s Dance of the Dead, another zombie film. Though the latter had a few nice touches and a leading lady (Grayson Chadwick) with real star potential, its mix of Romero-esque grue, Prom Night, and cheap yucks ultimately came to nothing. Another easy scratch was Takashi Miike’s Spaghetti western with Japanese gunslingers, Sukiyaki Western Django. Featuring Quentin Tarantino in a minor yet crucial role (always a bad sign), the movie is a parody of a genre that has already parodied itself to better effect, and watching it to the end was a chore. Gunnar B. Gudmundsson’s Astropia, the story of a beautiful blond airhead who finds work at a geek video store when her boyfriend is sent to prison, opens promisingly, but then falls flat when our heroine finds both herself and true love through role-playing—the role-playing scenes (done as live-action fantasy sequences in ridiculous costumed regalia) may remind many of just how dull their lives were in younger years. In-Ho-Yun’s The Devil’s Game, tells of a young man lured into a sucker bet by a dying old billionaire. The stakes? If he loses, he switches bodies with the septuagenarian. The film goes on far too long and has perhaps the most confusing ending in cinematic history. I’m still unclear as to its resolution.
Among the contenders, Milcho Manchevski’s Shadows, a ghost story set in modern-day Macedonia, also was too long (a half-hour at least) and suffered from its director’s apparent obsession with his busty leading lady—he seemed to be looking for opportunities to have her remove her blouse. Depending on your point of view, this tendency either got in the way of the narrative, or else the narrative interfered with the softcore porn. One way or the other, if you took out the extraneous material, there would probably be a decent (or indecent) movie left over. The Cottage is a brisk horror comedy reminiscent of early Peter Jackson by British director Paul Andrew Williams. It relates the misadventures of two bungling kidnappers (Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith), who repair to a rural cottage with their blond victim. The ensuing mayhem is carried out with humor and energy, but the film wasn’t sufficiently different from its many antecedents to win over the jury. Eskalofrio, Isidro Ortiz’s tale about a feral child, beautifully shot amid the gloomy forests of the Spanish Pyrenees, began well and appeared to be going somewhere new, but fell prey to the Hollywood penchant for laying on climax after climax after climax. Tokyo, a trilogy of short films about that city, featured good but slight work in the surrealist vein by Bun Jun Ho and Michel Gondry, and was centered by an amazing piece of film by Leo Carax entitled “Merde.” It tells of an eccentric, Dada-style terrorist, a man named Merde, who lives in the Tokyo sewers, his crimes, his trial, and eventual end. As the title character, Dennis Levant creates a portrait that’s hard to forget.
The winner of the jury prize was Sleep Dealer, a science fiction movie about the effects of globalization, by a young Mexican-American director, Alex Rivera, here making his feature debut. “Five minutes from now,” as Rivera puts it, a militarized barrier has been built along the Mexican border with the United States, effectively stopping all immigration, illegal and otherwise. To satisfy their need for cost-effective labor, US-based companies hire third-worlders to operate machinery in twelve-hour shifts, shipping their consciousnesses across the border via a sort of virtual reality that requires the implantation of nodes in one’s arms, neck, and back. This enables them to work themselves to death without ever entering the States—the nodes drain them of their vital energies and power surges frequently fry their brains. It’s cheap labor with no social responsibility: the American Dream.
Memo (Luis Fernando Pena) is a young hacker trapped on his family’s milpa (corn plantation) near Oaxaca, longing to be anywhere else. Because a US corporation has dammed their river, the family is forced to buy water at exorbitant prices under the scrutiny of armed guards. One night Memo hacks into a security transmission, and is detected and mistakenly identified as an “aqua-terrorist.” A robot plane (operated by a node-wearing American soldier of Mexican descent) is deployed and attacks their house and kills Memo’s father. To support the family, Memo travels to Tijuana, now a sprawling, festering megalopolis, gets a black market node job, and begins working for a sleep dealer, an illegal job shop. Along the way he becomes involved with Luz (Leonor Varela) a young woman who sells her node-transmitted memories online. She begins to use his experiences and their relationship as fodder, selling the story, along with his feelings of culpability and remorse . . . to one very interested customer in particular.
Alex Rivera is going to be a big deal someday, that much is clear. His movie is hugely imaginative, both funny and tragic, and his future is utterly believable. Limited by a miniscule budget; however, his special FX were (to be kind) not up to par, and his ending was much too facile. Sleep Dealer is a very enjoyable picture, one destined for cult status among science fiction fans, and not in the least undeserving of awards; but it was not the best film in the competition at NIFFF. That honor belongs to an elegant Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, directed by Thomas Alfredson and adapted for the screen by John Alvide Lindqvist from his best-selling novel. Set in 1980s Sweden, in and around a drab apartment complex in a mid-size town, the film focuses upon the relationship between a twelve-year-old boy and a girl of approximately the same age who moves into the apartment next door.
Quiet, poetic, sincere, and sweet are not words normally used to describe a vampire picture, but this—as Alfredson’s nuanced and layered direction details—is that rarest of animals, an original vampire picture. It’s also a love story, a coming-of-age-story, and a discourse on marginality and exclusion leavened with touches of black humor. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is neglected by his single mom and bullied at school. He keeps a notebook of the things he’d like to do to his tormentors and is obsessed with newspaper articles on violent crimes. In the first scene, we see him—a blond, almost albino child standing in his bedroom in his underwear, thrusting a knife at the air and saying, “Squeal like a pig!” He keeps bumping into Eli (Lina Leandersson) outside their building at night and eventually she befriends him, urging him to strike back hard at the bullies. Eli is, of course, the vampire of the piece, “parented” by the bumbling Hakan, a middle-aged man who spends his nights collecting the blood that sustains her (though it is unstated, it becomes apparent that he does this in order to prevent the creation of new vampires). He poisons his victims with halthion, hangs them upside down in a snowy park, slashes their throats, and drains the blood into a jerry can. It’s a testament to Alfredson’s skill that he manages to make this all seem like drudgery, not Grand Guignol, and thus sustains our sympathy for the killer and his ward.
More typical cinematic violence occurs, to be sure, when Eli is forced to seek blood on her own; but these sequences are inventive and wonderfully staged, and contrast so greatly with the film’s icy cinematography and deliberate, moody pacing, that when they arrive they impact the audience with a dreamlike intensity. The violence is further ameliorated by the trust and sweetness of the developing relationship between Oskar and Eli. They become each other’s fantasy—I’m not speaking of vampire and potential victim, but of the soul mate one improbably finds next door. The two leads give stunning performances. The slow unspooling of the movie allows them to render their characters with a bright specificity—the sultry, watchful Lina and the slyly optimistic Oskar—and this in turn lends their unconsummated, almost otherworldy love a poignant reality. They’re creepy and violent, yet compelling in their vulnerability. That’s why I was flabbergasted when one member of our jury said he found the children “inexpressive,” and another said there was something wrong with the pacing. I was so taken aback, I don’t think I managed a suitable response and I blame myself for not being more on the ball and putting up a better fight. I’m not sure what they wanted to see—perhaps they missed the jump cuts and histrionics that certainly will attend the American remake, due out in 2010.
The title, Let the Right One In, is lifted from a Morissey song and refers to the myth that vampires can only enter a home into which they have been invited. It presages a key scene in the picture, and it might also be seen as an admonition to those who sat in judgment: Let the right one win. Yet I don’t suppose I should feel too badly for Alfredson and Lindqvist. Let the Right One In has already won the award for best narrative feature at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, a remarkable achievement for a genre film, and been awarded major prizes at festivals in Denmark, Sweden, and Edinburgh. Its failure to win at the NIFFF stands less as a comment on the filmmakers and their brilliant movie than on the shabby performance of the jury.