by Elliot Davies
This is the big one: The plan was to see six films in one day. We manage four. Oh, but what a foursome it was: Trouser Bar; Worst Fears; My Life As A Courgette; and Lilith’s Awakening.
Wearing a salmon suit and talking in a voice that’s rich like chocolate cake, David McGillivray is introducing Trouser Bar. He describes it as “the most scandalous film ever made.” A bold claim, but he might be onto something: The film was only allowed to be released if its screenwriter went uncredited. Said screenwriter was a theatrical giant who, it emerged, was very fond of corduroy and pornography.
So Trouser Bar: Written by “a gentleman”, produced by David McGillivray, and directed by pornography specialist Kristen Bjorn. Beyond the thumping disco soundtrack by Coil’s Stephen Thrower, it’s a silent piece; and all of the action takes place in and around a gentlemen’s outfitters in the 1970s. While a crowd of gawkers gathers outside (including an unimpressed Julian Clary), the action on the inside gets increasingly heated; and in the dressing rooms at the back, increasingly hedonistic.
It’s a charged and sensual 20 minutes that lingers on the tactile qualities of certain surfaces and materials: corduroy, denim, silk, leather and, ultimately, human skin.
This is a double bill of David McGillivray works, so he sticks around to introduce the next film. It’s Worst Fears, a horror portmanteau that’s presented as a tribute to the golden age of Amicus Productions. It collects seven short films, mostly directed by Keith Claxton over a period of 10 years or so, all introduced by a morbid emcee in a decrepit theatre.
So we have a coven of witches in Suffolk; a murderous old racist couple doing their murderous old racist thing; a demon walking the streets of Marrakesh; a trip to Lisbon that leads to an abandoned abattoir; a war photographer on a houseboat; a scarecrow and a boy who swap places; and some kind of satanic ritual in the south of France.
It wouldn’t be a proper horror portmanteau if all the films were of the same quality. So true to form, the seven films that make up Worst Fears are a real mixed bag. Regrettably, they close with the weakest story, so the whole collection leaves a sour taste. And with the poor sound quality and the pristine digital image quality, at times the whole thing looks and feels like a more macabre version of Doctors or Hollyoaks.
But that said, the quality of the writing and the acting is much better than I’m used to seeing in films of this calibre, and there’s some exotic locations and some pretty impressive gore effects. There is much that makes Worst Fears a cut above other low-budget horror films, and mention must be made of its wonderful hand-drawn poster. As a tribute to the word of Amicus Productions it’s right-on. It’s just as campy, grotesque, and uneven as their best work.
After a morning of softcore gay pornography and schlocky horror, a change of pace feels necessary. And the next film, My Life As A Courgette, is worlds apart not just from this morning’s films, but from almost every other film released in the past few years. It’s very, very special.
It’s a pan-European effort that tells the story of Courgette, who’s sent to a children’s home after a shocking accident kills his abusive alcoholic mother. At the children’s home he’s bullied and belittled, and he soon learns that the world can be cold, cruel, and confusing.
But did I mention that My Life As A Courgette is animated in colourful stop motion? While watching, I wondered why. There’s nothing particularly outlandish here. This film didn’t have to be animated. Then it hit me: It’s using animation for the same reason that Hey Arnold used animation. It takes the edge off a brutal story filled with damaged, vulnerable people. It gives it a grounding. It’s consistently bright and playful, perhaps indicating that no matter how dark and scary things get, life always has the potential to be wonderful.
Because in the company of his fellow orphans, Courgette soon learns to love and trust again. And thanks to a kindly police officer (voiced by Nick Offerman at his most gentle in this English dub), he gets another chance at true happiness and safety. It’s just… beautiful. Vibrant, warm, life-affirming. It’ll make you want to hug someone.
And finally, another tonal shift: Lilith’s Awakening, a stylish vampire dreamscape filmed in America’s Transcendental Meditation capital. Its loose and woozy narrative follows the fantasies of Lucy, who lives a restricted life in a dead-end job in a bleak Iowan town. She dreams of Lilith, a beautiful vampire who haunts the woods outside her house, singing seductive songs in gravelly French.
Lilith’s Awakening was a submission to the 2017 Derby Film Festival. Brazilian director Monica Demes and American actor Sophia Woodward, who played Lucy, were in the house to introduce the film and to field questions afterwards. Apparently there’d been a Kickstarter to get them over here. They’d crowdfunded a trip to Derby!
Demes explained her lifelong love of vampire stories. She talked about how she always thought that, as a woman, to become a vampire might offer an escape from a repressive society. She was apparently keen to blur the lines between good and evil in her film. And indeed, for Lucy vampyrism seems like the preferable choice. When you’re surrounded by patronising, predatory and unambitious men, who wouldn’t choose an everlasting life in the woods with a beautiful immortal?
Lilith’s Awakening is shot in stark black and white with occasional splashes of colour (blood red, naturally). Demes hinted that this was to signpost that we’re very much in the realm of fantasy and dreams. But it had the added effect of making the darkness even darker. At times it looked like the entire film had been daubed in several coats of black ink. When Lucy sits on her back porch looking into the woods, she might as well be sat on a diving platform in the middle of the dark ocean. The night is an abyss, but the film’s so ambiguous that the horrors it hides might not necessarily be horrors.
We’re in the midst of a horror renaissance! Lilith’s Awakening is the latest in a welcome line of socially-conscious horror films; and the latest in another welcome line of forward-thinking horror films by female writers and directors. This screening might well have been the UK premiere of Lilith’s Awakening and, I repeat, the writer and director crowdfunded their trip to Derby.
Not that it was ever in doubt, but there’s your confirmation right there: The Derby Film Festival is boss.