Even without Europe’s most beloved festival for fantastic films, Sitges would be a great place to be. Located a convenient half hour train ride from Barcelona, the small seaside town offers amazing 15th century buildings as well as numerous bars and night clubs for every cultural and sexual persuasion. Not to mention the beach, the sun and the palm trees. And once a year Sitges is host to the International Film Festival of Catalonia. The title sounds innocent enough, but the giant ape rising from the Mediterranean Sea displayed in the logo, and the bloody hand grabbing a shower curtain on this year’s poster hint at the nature of most films in the festival. While some family-friendly mainstream fare makes its way into the program, most scheduled movies feature deranged killers, angry ghosts, hungry undead, or martial artists on strings. And everybody in Sitges joins in: store owners decorate their windows with horror movie posters, local TV stations air special reports and fantastic films, and people who don’t like to pay for their entertainment can watch older and more obscure films for free in the Brigadoon section of the festival.
Day 1 – Maybe the monkeys. 

The 36th edition of the festival opened on November 27th with Spanish production “Cámara Oscura” by director Pau Freixas. A group of travelers accidentally sink their boat near – but not near enough – the Ivory Coast. They eventually spy a scary looking cargo ship. What’s especially scary looking about it is the horrible murder they witness on the deck, shortly before they climb on board anyway. Needless to say they decide to steer clear of the ship’s crew. Needless to say the crew finds them anyway, and the hunt is on. Those sea men are bad people and have something to hide. What exactly, I can’t say. Unfortunately the film was screened without subtitles, so the finer points of the story elude me. Here’s a short anecdote from last year’s festival to illustrate my grasp of the Spanish language: I went to see a film called “El Robo Más Grande Jamás Cantado,” perfectly convinced that I would get to see a film about a giant robot. But apparently robo means robbery, and I was in for a heist-movie (a good one, though). So maybe the motivation for the bad guys is explained somewhere in the dialogue of “Cámara Oscura.” Maybe it has something to do with the live monkeys that are kept in cages on the ship. I like to think that the monkeys are behind all this, but don’t take my word for it. I’m not sure, however, that the dialogue explains why the main character, supposedly an experienced photographer, never uses a flashlight when taking pictures in complete darkness. Or why she stops while being on the run from the villains to randomly open one of the crates in the ship’s cargo area. Of course something dangerous sneaks out! Duh! Apart from these points, “Cámara Oscura” is a decent thriller, whose many long stretches of intense suspense outweigh the occasionally predictable cheap scares. It helps that the script is quite ruthless in killing off likeable characters. Well acted, well directed and grippingly scored, this was a fine opening film, much better than last year’s lame generic spook drama “Darkness.”

Miguel Ángel Lamata’s “Una de Zombis” (A Film about Zombies) is about two twenty-something losers in need of a life and especially a job. They decide to make their own movie, although they have no script, no actors, no experience and very few ideas. Haven’t we all been there? What they do have, however, is trouble with dueling mob bosses, two femmes fatales, and a satanic priest and his army of undead gangsters. Yes, this film did have subtitles, and no, it still didn’t make much sense for a long time. Not that it mattered. In blending apocalyptic themes with fart jokes, gunplay and heavy metal music, “Una de Zombis” is reminiscent of Alex De La Iglesias’ earlier, funnier movies “Accion Mutante” and “El Dia de la Bestia.” The pacing is fast, the humor is hit-and-miss, and the look is surprisingly polished (although it seems to be shot on digital video instead of film). It’s a big silly mess until the surprise ending reveals that it’s supposed to be a big silly mess. If you think a spike through the head is the new pie in the face, this comedy is for you.

Among the other films shown on the first day were the 40 minute Poe variation “Usher” and the Japanese ghost story “Ju-on: The Grudge 2,” which I had both already seen on earlier occasions. So I used the time to walk along the beach, catch a cold, and ponder my thoughts on those films. “Usher” has been the pet project for decades of veteran director Curtis Harrington, semi-famous for Kenneth Anger-inspired art films and quirky thrillers like “What’s the Matter with Helen?” The highly likeable Harrington was honored with a much-deserved retrospective in Sitges this year, so it doesn’t feel right to say something mean about his latest outing, but the retelling of Poe’s famous story offers little new and suffers from amateurish acting. It is still nicely directed, and the lovingly designed sets betray its small budget.

“Ju-on: The Grudge 2” is the sequel to “Ju-on: The Grudge.” That pretty much sums up the film, which is a typical sequel in giving the viewers more of the stuff that they got in the brilliant first film. The ghost of a murdered child still has a bone to pick with all humanity and especially with the humans who enter the house he used to live in. The scary sound effects the ghost makes when appearing don’t work as well the second time as they did in the first film, when they stayed with you well after leaving the cinema and probably all through the night. The image of the ghostly boy is also a little over-used in part two. You can only show an underage ghost for so long before he becomes just a little boy with white paint on him. “Ju-on: The Grudge 2” still has some fine gross-out moments and a killer ending which makes it better than, say, “Poltergeist 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street pt. 2.”
Festival coverage continues in part two of 10 DAYS IN SITGES>>> 

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