Halloween has come and gone and in its wake dragged with it a veritable swarm of horror film festivals. As a resident of Nottinghamshire, England, it pleases me that Nottingham’s Mayhem Horror Festival counts itself as one of the best in the world, each year bringing more preview screenings, curios, retrospectives, special guests and fun events than the last.
Stretching over five days, this year’s event was no exception, with no less than two BAFTA preview presentations, six director Q&As, nine short films and a dozen features that often skirt the levels of wrongness that would have the average cinema goer making straight for the exit, not to mention the most ridiculously difficult horror quiz known to man. All this is housed under the single roof of Nottingham’s respected Broadway cinema who assist the organisers in every way they can to make the event a smoothly run and fun success in every conceivable way.
Wednesday 31st October.
8.00pm: Kicking off on Halloween proper the festival began with Live Horror Stories for Halloween, in which The Nottingham Writers Studio, led by novelist Niki Valentine, read original horror fables which was followed by screenings of classic horror readings by such as Christopher Lee, Robert Powell and Tom Baker.
10.30pm: To cap off Halloween was a late night preview screening of Maniac, a remake of the 80s film nasty which now stars Elijah Wood, tarnishing his sparkling reputation by playing an introverted mannequin shop owner who also happens to be a scalp obsessed serial killer.
Thursday 1st November
8.00pm: BAFTA opened the second day of the event with their preview screening of Ben Wheatley’s follow up to his critically acclaimed Kill List, Sightseers. Approaching the film with apprehension, due to the fact that I considered Kill List to be one of the most overrated films in recent history, Sightseers in actuality proved itself to be a refreshing change of pace. Following a boring couple on their boring road trip around the UK, bodies begin to mount up around them in ever more grizzly ways, but despite the film’s potential for darkness and horrific instances of violence, it never fails to retain a light touch and a hilarious mundanity. During Q&As with the director and lead/co-writer, Steve Oram, both of whom coming off as funny and pleasant, it transpired that the two main characters started life as a stand-up routine, so there was never any doubt that Sightseers would lean more to comedy than horror.
10.30pm: Rounding off Thursday was the incredibly well produced, Irish creature feature, Grabbers, a film very much in the spirit of Tremors and Slither that sees a small Irish village attacked by squid like creatures who happen to find the inebriated distasteful, so the residents get drunk and start fighting monsters. The director, Jon Wright, was present to supply an introduction and invited all the viewers to the bar to field any and all questions.
Friday 2nd November
6.00pm: Friday had an increased line-up so started a little earlier with the low-fi English outing The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, in which an old fashioned paranormal investigator is followed around by a documentary crew on a case where, predictably, all goes horribly wrong. Unlike most features of the ‘moc-doc’ style, Eddie Brewer flits between documentary segments, ‘found’ security footage and a regular third person film narrative, and in conversation with the director, Andrew Spencer, producer, Sean Connolly and lead, Ian Brooker afterwards it was explained that these shifts in narrative perspective were present from the script phase and were saw by the makers to be successful in execution. I tend to disagree, the film, though containing eerie moments seemed too scattershot, illustrating why this multiple style generally isn’t used.
8.15pm: More professional in every way was the second English film of the evening, Guinea Pigs. Written to get the most out of a relative low budget it tells the story of a group medical testing volunteers suffering various horrific and homicidal side-effects to an experimental drug. Professionally put together as a claustrophobic ensemble piece, a la The Thing, Guinea Pigs sets its debut director, Ian Clark, up as a definite One To Watch, who afterwards told of the relative ease in which Vertigo picked his script for production, to the envy of many wannabe filmmakers in attendance (present company included)
10.30pm: Breaking the evening up was the now-traditional Mayhem Live Experiment in Fear, during which psychologist set up scenarios to induce and monitor fear in attendee volunteers.
11.30pm: Always a highlight of the event is the late night retrospective screening, and this year’s selection was Ken Russell’s trippy, body-horror, sci-fi-drama, Altered States. William Hurt’s feature debut has him portraying a cutting edge scientist who, seeking the ultimate truth to life that he believes to be contained within our genetic memory; starts a series of psychedelic experiments on himself, that begins a set of bodily reactions that see him devolve into unknowable states. Making much more sense and being far less intimidating than the description would suggest, Altered States was a riot to watch on the big screen.
Saturday 3rd November
12.30pm: Mayhem wouldn’t be Mayhem without a cheap, daft Asian entrée and Dead Sushi certainly ticked all the boxes. From Noboru Iguchi, director of Mutant Girl Squad, the story rotates around a young girl who has to fight for her life in a hotel where the sushi becomes sentient and flies around trying to turn folk into sushi-zombies, and if you think that sounds mad you have absolutely no idea how mad it actually gets or how cheaply it has been produced until you watch it. It still baffles me how the Japanese can get these ridiculous films made and distributed internationally, but I’m glad they’re out there, though, as is often the case with these films, Dead Sushi outstays its welcome by about fifteen minutes.
2.15pm: Probably the most disturbing feature of the event was Chained, by Boxing Helena’s Jennifer Lynch. Cut in one section by the BBFC, Chained is the story of a serial killer that takes a victim’s son under his wing and first using him as a lackey, eventually starts grooming the boy to follow in his footsteps. No point of the film is more harrowing than the killer’s childhood flashbacks, which sent a palpable sense of disgust throughout the audience and left one considering how much more affecting it would have been without the cuts. Unfortunately a tacked on twist ending detracts from the film as a whole, but otherwise a good and horrifying effort.
4.30pm: BAFTA, with their second exclusive presentation, provided a welcome change of pace by screening the first episode of the BBC’s up and coming supernatural drama, The Secret of Crickley Hall, a good, old fashioned ghost story adapted from the novel by James Herbert. A three part series, Crickley Hall was entertaining and spooky and will definitely be added to my watch list. Series creator, Joe Ahearn, was on hand to talk extensively about the series and other points of his career, including directing Doctor Who and creating the underrated Channel 4 series, Ultraviolet.
6.30pm: Billed as Israel’s first horror film, Rabies takes the stalk-and-slash-in-the-forest sub-genre in an interesting new direction. Very original and sporadically ultra-violent, Rabies may not be to everyone’s taste, but you will never be able to predict where it is going and the less you know about it up front the better, so, moving on…
8.30pm: Another Mayhem tradition is Scary Shorts; a collection of short films, with a horror bent, from the world over. This year the quality of the shorts really took a step up, with most being well funded affairs with large crews. It was a varied bunch, presenting comedies, experimental animation and horror fairy tales amongst other things, my personal highlight being Him Indoors, a quirky tale starring The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith.
11.00pm: Finishing Saturday on a high point was the American anthologhy flick, V/H/S, which shakes every last bit of life from the waning ‘found footage’ sub-genre, in a good way. Seven directors bring us six tales of terror to varying success but along the way use just about every permutation of found footage styles. The best stories in the film lure you in to an impression that it’s entirely low-fi then hit you with some incredibly clever integrated FX, the final result being that the film as a whole is actually better than the sum of all its parts.
Sunday 4th November
12.45pm: The final day of the event began with jovial chants of “MANBORG! MANBORG! MANBORG!” preceding the screening of the no-budget, high concept Canadian outing, Manborg, a film that went toe-to-toe with Dead Sushi in the silliness stakes. Made by about five people for around $2,500, Manborg has a bash at everything from digital FX (poor) through stop motion (I’ve seen worse) to physical prosthetics (pretty good), in an over the top story that is a knowingly funny swipe at genres that director, Steven Kostanski, is clearly a fan of, namely gaming adaptations, horror and c-grade-sci-fi-actioners. Over Dead Sushi, Manborg doesn’t over-play its hand, keeping itself to a brisk hour running time.
2.15pm: The second retrospective screening of the event, and one to coincide with many other cinemas around the country, was a presentation of the digitally remastered, extended cut of The Shining. ‘Nuff said.
6.30pm: Currently a darling of the festival circuit, American Mary proved itself almost entirely worthy of the hype. It’s an original story that sees a medical student drawn into the murky world underground body modification. Cleverly writing in rationales for fetishistic imagery, co-directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska revel in showing a surgeon at work wearing such things as corsets with stocking and suspenders, Blood red scrubs with a leather apron, and oh so short skirts, while mixing in story elements as varied as revenge, unlikely friendships and twisting morals. It’s tantalising stuff, but writes itself into a bit of a corner, kind of meandering to an unfocused conclusion, but highly recommended nonetheless for its originality and imagery alone.
8.30: Breaking from the films for the hardest film quiz ever invented, The Flinterrogation was just as perplexing as ever, but its always a fun atmosphere in the Broadway bar, near riotous in fact, and oodles of prizes were given out.
9.30pm: Bringing the festival as a whole to an end was the European premier of HBO Asia’s first original film, Dead Mine, brought to us by director and Mayhem co-organiser, Steve Sheil. A genre mash-up of the highest order, Dead Mine traps an ensemble cast in a disused Indonesian mine, which, it transpires, was the base for Japanese wartime experimentation, so our team must fight to survive against cave creatures, forgotten Japanese soldiers, modern-day pirates and undead samurai. Steve, with two key cast members fielded questions concerning the production in a very open manner, which satisfyingly ended the fest.
It’s always a mark of quality for a film festival, that be the individual films good or bad, the event itself remains nothing short of extraordinarily fun and entertaining throughout. This is most certainly the case, year on year, with Mayhem.
It’s all thanks to organisers Chris Cook, Steve Sheil and Gareth Howell, who beside being huge horror enthusiasts and selectively producing a line-up with an eye to a diverse horror audience, always promising to have a handful of screenings suited to any fan of the genre, also lend a sense of community to the event, personally presenting every feature and mixing with the audience at every opportunity. This sense of togetherness trickles down to the audience who then take as much pleasure in discussing the films with each other as watching them, new and regular punters alike getting along and feeling at home.
Kudos then to all involved in making Mayhem 2012 another seamless, fun and scary success; hopefully next year will bring an even bigger and better event, at which point I recommend you get yourself in to Nottingham and experience it for yourself.