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By Jay Slater | April 19, 2006

Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city which is rich in culture, is best known for its port wine, enterprising spirit and local cuisine. The country is a living hell for vegetarians whose civilians devour anything that has four legs; indeed, Porto’s infamous native specialty – the Francesinha – is a crippling sandwich that consists of several meats, sausages and suffocating layers of cheese which is then drowned in a spicy sauce. No doubt it has defeated many people’s appetites, and maybe even taken their lives. And as for another Porto delicacy, the parasitic lamprey, an eel-like creature which is served in its own blood, the less said, the better.

What would surprise many horror fans is that Porto is home to Fantasporto; one of the leading and prestigious horror, fantasy and SF movie festivals in the world showing over one hundred movies and shorts. In its twenty-sixth year, Fantasporto has been celebrating the horror genre in all its cinematic glory, literally splashing the silver screen with buckets of blood and inviting an impressive horde of filmmakers and journalists from all over the globe to attend. And unlike many other festivals dedicated to the genre, the organisers encourage the guests to mingle with the cinemagoers in a trendy jazz bar where many journos lost their minds to Portugal’s strong beers. Make no mistake; Fantasporto means serious business.

2006 proved to be a promising year for the horror movie, but as with any festival, the quality of the entries varied. As expected, there were howlers: Brett Sullivan’s “Ginger Snaps: Unleashed” and Grant Harvey’s “The Beginning” gave no new insights and ideas to an already satisfying film. Philip Adrian Booth’s “Death Tunnel,” Kelsey T Howard’s “Cruel World,” Luis De La Madrid’s “The Nun,” Rolfe Kanefsky’s “Jacqueline Hyde,” Renpei Tsukamoto’s “One Missed Call 2” and David Smith’s “Spirit Trap” (even with the presence of Billie Piper) were plain awful. A pig’s ear of a movie was Ivan Cardoso’s “Um Lobisomem na Amazonia.” A Brazilian production, it took the director twenty years to make his movie where Paul Naschy, who plays the part of a Nazi doctor, conducts human experiments as naked Amazonian female warriors do their thing in the background. Think of an awful Jesus Franco shot for a cent and you get the picture.

Highlights include Hou Chi-Jan’s “Taiwan Black Movies,” a documentary that focuses on the repression and censorship of movies in the country during the 1980s that featured crime, sex and violence. The theatrical print of the Japanese 1980s anime “Battle of the Planets” (“G-Force to the rescue!”) proved to be a drunken hit as did Hiroki Yamaguchi’s “Hellevator – The Bottled Fools” which was an uncompromising and violent rip-off of Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube.” Kim ki Duk’s “Samaritan Girl” – which tells of two young prostitutes with fatal consequences – was baffling and unclear, and a new UK horror slasher, Paolo Sedazzari’s “The Toybox,” proved to be a splatter fans’ delight even though the first half was convoluted. Although technically plush and visually stylish, Roselyne Bosch’s “Animal,” is a meandering imitation of “Silence of the Lambs;” hampered with dreadful acting and preposterous camerawork, it beggars belief why a filmmaker would want to copy a blockbuster without the former budget and talent. Larry Kent’s “The Hamster Cage” is a Woody Allen movie that he’d never dare make regarding a dysfunctional family that indulge in pedophilia, incest and the murders of other family members with a headstrong bloodlust – it’s original, shocking and genuinely funny with one-liners that Mr Allen would have approved of.

South Korea, as expected, delivered a number of stunning if flawed and overlong horrors. Ik-hwan Choe’s “Yeogo Gwidam 4: Moksori” is the fourth entry in the “Whispering Corridors” series, and although beautiful to look at, is remarkably gruesome and disjointed. Chan-wook Park returns after the success of “Old Boy” with “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”: a movie often credited as a must-see masterpiece – wrong, it’s an exploitation film. Admittedly it’s intense with psychological violence and well-choreographed set-pieces, but the movie drags badly and some lengthy scenes serve no purpose to the narrative and should have been cut. Ki-duk Kim – director of the acclaimed “The Isle” – returned with “The Bow/Hwal.” A sixty year-old man, who has raised a baby girl on his remote fishing boat, plans to marry her on her seventeenth birthday, but his plans goes askew when a young man has other ideas. “The Bow” is a beautiful movie to look at with vivid colours and is wonderfully made considering Kim had less than three weeks to shoot the movie on the open seas. That said, the narrative is thin as a waffle, is extremely predictable and goes nowhere fast. Nice try baby, but no cigar.

After the success of “Los Sin Nombre” and “Darkness,” Spanish director Jaume Balagueró returned to the horror genre with “Fragile,” where children from an aging orphanage are convinced that a menacing mechanical child stalks them and a ghost breaks their legs with supernatural powers in order to keep them there. Horror fans have seen it all before – know when to expect the shock sequences – but “Fragile” remains a spooky and well-made chiller. Eli Roth’s “Hostel” packed them in for a midnight screening that tells the subtle tale of two American backpackers who expect to enjoy the delights of a Slovakian brothel but discover to their horror that their stay will be imaginatively brutal. To the delight of gorehounds, “Hostel” is awash with blood, guts and torture, but it’s a shallow and vain guise to compensate for the one-dimensional characters and a terribly written and conceived script. It’s been reported that Roth was influenced by Takashi Miike’s extreme movies (the Japanese powerhouse of over seventy movies has a pointless cameo) but that’s all it is: Hostel pales to his mentor’s classics such as “Audition” who did not rely on hardcore gore to achieve results. The movie reeks of pretentiousness, but undoubtedly, horror fans who want to learn the five easy steps of butchery will froth at the mouth to see it.

Unsurprisingly, the living dead shuffled into Porto with Stacey Case’s “Zombie King” and Conor McMahon’s “Dead Meat.” The former is a Canadian production where a bizarre group of masked Mexican wresters attempt to exterminate zombies from the face of the earth – highly entertaining and camp, it’s a “good” Troma-style movie. “Dead Meat” – one of rural Ireland’s first zombie movies – is a bad taste comedy where people are ripped to bits, but instead of taking its cue from Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the Irish filmmakers set the tone with an ecological theme (mad cow disease) and stomps in the clay footprint set by Jorge Grau’s “The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue.”

Yam Laranas’s “The Echo/Sigaw” is wonderfully effective, a Filipino production that studies the life of a man who moves into an apartment in a rundown building; soon he hears strange noises resonating from rooms and meets odd characters. Ghost stories are a difficult medium to tackle successfully in the sense that they are more challenging to achieve results than a slasher or zombie movie as they rely on well-crafted atmosphere. Laranas knows his craft, and instead of resorting to clichés such as cackling spirits and the expected shocks, he goes for the jugular: the human condition. The star of the movie is the crumbling house itself and not once do we see the complete picture – only dark corridors and moving shadows that heightens the suspense to a cathartic effect. Similar in tone to Jong-chan Yun’s “Sorum” in terms of using a building as a source of terror, “The Echo” is superior to many Asian films of the same cloth – its chills will literally seep into your bone marrow.

Sweden is best known for the zipper, safety match, adjustable spanner, Abba and Ikea – it’s not known for its horror cinema. Director Anders Banke changes that view with “Frostbite,” a black comedy horror with plenty of bloodshed and cheesy gags. “Frostbite” drags from the coattails of “The Lost Boys” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” but it’s a fun movie with great effects despite some lousy acting; besides, when have you seen a movie with a vampire talking Swedish? “The most gratifying experience was the audience reaction to the film at its first major international movie festival,” Banke says. “As ‘Frostbite’ is a horror comedy, and comedy doesn’t always travel well across language and cultural barriers, we had been worried as to whether the film’s humour would make it a local affair, or whether it would work internationally. As it turned out, the Portuguese audience laughed – and screamed! – at exactly the same places as Swedish audiences! It has not been easy to get something as unorthodox as a Swedish vampire horror comedy off the ground: the standard fare back home is Bergmanesque dramas, folksy comedies and cop shows. Fantastic filmmaking isn’t part of Swedish filmmaking tradition. But it seems that things are slowly changing, and ‘Frostbite’ is certainly part of that.”

One of the more promising movies on offer was Sean Hogan’s “Lie Still” that premiered at Fantasporto to a packed house. It’s a genuinely unnerving movie where a man with a troubled background moves into a shared house where nobody asks questions and keeps to themselves. He soon suffers from nightmares, discovers a grave in the garden and “sees” dead people on his television – we’re in Polanski country. Is he losing his sanity or is there something far more sinister about the house and its tenants? Kudos to Hogan for lensing an old-fashioned creepy horror that is familiar in mood to the “Hammer House of Horror” television series of the early 1980s. It is fitting that Hogan worked with Peter Sinclair as his director of photography: Sinclair was Pete Walker’s DOP on “House of Whipcord,” “Frightmare,” “Schizo” and the crumbly “The Monster Club.” “For a low-budget independent film like ours, it’s obviously massively important that we get festival exposure, so it’s a great privilege to be invited to such a notable festival as Fantasporto,” Hogan says. “I think it’s important that any country have an independent film scene where new and interesting work can be done without complete reliance on funding bodies, and I sometimes feel that’s a bit lacking in the UK. I wanted to make an intelligent, frightening British horror movie, because I think there’s few enough of those around these days,” Hogan adds.

Another debut and as equally impressive was Robin Aubert’s “Saints-Martyrs-des-Damnés;” a surreal thriller with horrific undertones and one of the best modern Canadian films in years. It tells of a journalist who is sent by his editor to a remote village in Quebec to investigate a series of strange events. When he arrives he encounters the loopy locals, his photographer disappears, two locals threaten him with violence and he is haunted by the spectre of a bride. What the reporter discovers towards the finale is truly gargantuan in scale in a world gone mad. What makes “Saints-Martyrs-des-Damnés” so refreshing in a film market oversaturated with the living dead is that its narrative is truly original and one cannot predict what will happen next. The film is also graced with sumptuous cinematography rich in colour, a detailed sound mix and off-kilter set-pieces. Comparable to the works of David Lynch and William Castle, Aubert also pays homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and the sharp sense of wit as seen in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink;” truly memorable and utterly disturbing. “It was the best reception audience that I have had for my film, even in my own country,” Aubert says. “I really like Fantasporto: meeting people, walking in the old streets, having inspiration for my next film, drinking wine with new friends, discussing spaghetti westerns and watching South Korean films. It was just great but way too short!”

Due to the high quality of movies on competition, it was a tough year for the juries to present awards. The Grand Prix Fantasporto 2006 Best Film Award went to “Frostbite,” Melies European Award to “Animal,” Best Director to Robin Aubert with “Saints-Martyrs-des-Damnés” and Best Film Award to Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Adam’s Apples.” Jensen’s movie is testament to his talent in lampooning the politically correct with blacker than black comedy and horrific incidents. His previous film, “The Green Butchers,” told of two brothers whose butcher’s shop was loosing custom until they served portions of human flesh to their unsuspecting customers. In “Adam’s Apple,” two antagonists are forced together, Ivan, a Catholic priest, and Adam, a neo-Nazi who is sentenced to community service. When asked as to what activity would suit him best, Adam answers with a request to make an apple pie, its ingredients picked from a tree that grows near the church. The film then gears in motion as Adam waits as the apples ripen and characters clash, including a Muslim activist, and all hell breaks loose in the worst possible taste. The final movie on show at Fantasporto, it was summed up two weeks of non-stop parties and movies; Ivan discovers that he has an incurable brain tumour and swallows the barrel of a gun to put the end to his suffering. On pulling the trigger, the back of his head explodes as does his tumour leaving him fit and healthy but terribly confused. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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