Pulling into the train stop of Sitges, one immediately feels the warm crispness in the air. It’s lulling and even a tad more intense (if that’s even possible) than Barcelona in October. There is also more than a tonne of people clamouring for first digs out of the tight station and into the small, quaint seaside town. It goes without saying that Sitges is most definitely the Barcelona province's foremost beachside town for a getaway and many people and expats eventually seek refuge within its realm.
The beauty of the beach town has also promoted a lot of cultural relevance and whenever it comes to socio-cultural progress, art, galleries and for 48 years now, esoteric cinema, it certainly stands a cut above the rest. The Sitges Film Fest began as an upstart festival in 1968 as very little in reference to cinema was promoted during the Franco regime within the Spanish borders. However, it quickly became known for the macabre and fantastical and today the Sitges Film Festival is the leader in International Film Fests dealing with the horror/fantasy/general esoteric genres of cinema. But the setting of Sitges is a mind trip and that's what makes thisone a tad different from the rest.
Friday October 9th marked the start of this year's 10-day fest of macabre and horror and the always lauded Zombie Walk which occurs every first Saturday of the fest. More on that later.
First, the energy of the place. Sitges is a foremost place in the Barcelona region for the perfect day trip to a seaside village, only 25-35 minutes by train or car depending which direction you take from the city, so it's easy to get lost in her charm. Now when you arrive during the 10 days of festival, it's quite the different scene from normal. People everywhere are dressed in the nerdiest of throwback shirts (I have not seen so many black T-shirts and doc martens since high school in the 90s, I swear to G-d), industry and press are seen loitering about with black press kit bags wearing faux, all-knowing grimaces. And then there are the actors blending in with tourists, surfers, the artsy-fartsy, the infamous queenz of oh so happy Sitges. With all the buzz going on during mid-October, it's easy to forget that this is still a small town of only 28,000 people throughout the standard (read:non-summer) year.
The festival itself is spread out throughout the entire village and even includes a makeshift open air cinema on the beach, though the main hub and red carpet events take place in The Auditori within the Hotel Meliá. It's here where passersby can spot everyone in front of and behind the scenes and screens of all the films represented. Behind the hotel, the press can find designed meals on wheels kiosks and cava flowing...for a small price, of course. Other venues of the festival are held mostly in old, sometimes reconstructed/ sometimes not reconstructed cinemas that are rarely open or used throughout the year.
The aforementioned Auditori is where the big releases, red carpet screening and events take place. The city centre hosts the El Prado and El Retiro cinemas which truly harken back to a time gone by. The still hanging posters of films from years ago call forth the ghosts of festivals and pleasures past. Along with those two, the Brigadoon (a smaller, newer space) and the Tramuntana, also a newer space, bring a smaller and more intimate feel to experience the cinematic love. Everywhere you go, there is action popping, art galleries staying open later, babes and kids wide awake roaming the street with hipster parents at two in the morning, people chewing down on whatever grub may be available past midnight and a general feel that something a little left of the norm is taking place.
Come the first Saturday, the city turns into a monster-laden, zombie fest and all those nerdy, Star Wars-T-Shirt wearing nerf herders become zombies for the annual Zombie Walk through the city. Honestly, and yes I watch The Walking Dead, but the Zombie Walk can be a bit intense and one wonders why parents let the little ones stand around watching the spectacle until eventually freaking out. The makeup is expert in many cases and when the cast of zombie characters, local and foreign, line the city centre, they also act it the heck out, running at you and even nuzzling on your neck, wielding all sorts of knives and weapons! It’s all rather creepy and incredibly surreal. What is it about masks and makeup and costumes that bring out the inner, crazed actor in mankind?
I fortunately had myself armed with a press pass, (my twin brother incidentally also got a pass with my face on it as the folks in the office made a convenient boo-boo and gave me a 2x1 passes!), a girlfriend and, later that weekend, an actor friend of mine who was premiering his creepy and new art-house, Spanish thriller there. I can also add I've slept nary a wink the last four days so you must bear with me. Cinema is always available, it would seem, over these 10 days and it was greatly taken advantage of, as well.
So…let's talk, shall we? Movie critique time. With well over 300 movies and shorts screening, there is no human way to watch them all and being the controlling, workaholic that I am, I made sure (and will continue to do so for your benefit over the next couple of weeks!) to attempt to catch as many big names and indie creepshows as possible.
The Witch was one of opening night's big draws and it was not without reason. I first saw Argentinan actress Anya Taylor-Joy in last year's silly Vampire Academy in a minor role. Here however, she plays a lead in director Robert Egger's debut, the well-made, haunting The Witch. The story revolves around a puritan 18th-century family who must confront the forces of evil when their young son disappears. Historically, adding the creepiness of the time with so many people obsessed with witchcraft and denouncing so many (mostly) women to burn at the stake. When their elder daughter is accused of said witchcraft, all hell breaks loose and the family is faced with demonic attacks forthwith. The film actually won an award at Sundance for its director and as the film has already received distribution rights, you can expect this one to have a cult following, if anything. Good stuff.
One of the interesting things about these types of festivals are the midnight and post-midnight screenings, some of which are sessions of three or four, back-to-back movies all premiering on the big screen at the fest. I'm proud to say that I was able to experience this with my twin brother Matthew, a writer and teacher in his own right, and we were happily tipsy but certainly not drunk. We'd also slammed a cwafee before the sessions screening, but when you’re starting a session of movies from 1am to sunrise, It’s full-on real, folks.
First up was Bite, a film by Italo-Barcelonan director Alberto Sciammo, creator of camp, horror classics like Jericho Mansions and Killer Tongue. It was some nonsense for real but enjoyable trash…you know the kind. After a while though, the camp factor winds itself out and when Vinnie Jones is killed off too early in the film, and all we're left with is Costas Mandylor (goodbye Friar F$!k!) and faux Irish humour, it quickly falls flat. Some interesting shots though!
And then came the last film touched and produced (though not directed) by Wes Craven, before his untimely passing last month...dammit! The Girl in the Photographs is directed by Nick Simon, he being the writer of last year's mediocre hit The Pyramid. Here, Simon takes so much note from Craven’s style and presents a well-acted if over-the-top spin on the atypical for a young generation of horror lovers. The film draws on the strict Mid-Western surroundings of the setting and the viewer actually has a fun time guessing why the murders are happening. The only thing is, it’s never fully revealed. A well-done, directorial effort by Simon who’s slowly building up on his marksmanship. Surely having Wes Craven backing your film must have been a big success for Simon, and it’s easy and intense to enjoy this one, for the most part.
Next that night came Bloodsucking Bastards, a comedic horror film that is in one part somewhat silly slapstick and one part horror/comedy genius. The premise reminded me of an old X-Files episode where a corporate boss is literally sucking the life out of his subordinates. This is the plot of Bastards, but the dynamic instance of it lies in the seriously well-written comedy fare that Ryan Mitts and a one Dr. God wrote. When Evan (Fran Kranz of Donnie Darko and Golden State fame) realises that the new head of corporate sales is a soul-sucking vampire/monster, he is convinced that he must lead the crusade in revealing the true identity behind Pedro Pascal’s perfect performance as Max. Simply put, this makes being awake at 4 in the morning worth it! A really, fun comedy.
And that was just Day 1. Next up is the rest of weekend fare, which really kicked off with a bang Saturday evening. Tune in for those reviews very soon!