Last year Cardiff got a new genre festival to add to its growing collection of annual film gatherings. 2018’s Fractured Visions was a small, scrappy affair, built on a glut of great programming that rewarded audiences who love their gore and horror. Returning this year in 2019, the festival takes a step up in ambition, without losing the excellent quality programming.
As with the previous year, each feature film is preceded by a short. Horror shorts can be a hit-and-miss game – a lot of filmmakers seem to use them as practice runs for bigger things, or a pitch to future producers to show what they can do. Whilst there were a few guilty of this, others rose above to hew out their own identities very quickly. Creaker (Norway, Vidar T. Aune) is only maybe five minutes, but is fully formed with a bleakly hilarious punchline. Atomic Ed (France, Nicolas Hugo) is effortlessly stylish, with plenty of influence derived from John Carpenter, as we follow a teenager preparing to fight both bullies and a burgeoning zombie-esque pandemic. Perhaps it’s a little bit too much, ending up a bit of a derivative mishmash of parts, but it is enjoyable and enticing.
The best though of the shorts though, was The Den (Spain, Iago De Soto), set in Franco-era Spain. It’s a siege movie in miniature, as a driver comes across an injured woman in rural Spain, taking her to the nearest bar for help. The residents are initially receptive until a policeman arrives with grim news and events turn from bad to worse. It’s a confident interrogation of class, privilege, police state authoritarianism and collective secrecy and memory – that it manages to do this all very completely in short film form is staggering. It is reminiscent of last year’s feature A Gentle Animal (Brazil, Gabriel Amaral Almeida), a standout from 2018’s Fractured Visions and of the decade. Both use the siege genre to dissect class relations, with the violence ugly and unsettling.
The features at Fractured Visions run the gamut from cheap and cheerful to grim and grimy. Many are clearly made with low budgets, but that doesn’t stop their filmmakers exercising imagination and verve. Here Comes Hell (UK, Jack McHenry) and Puppet Killer (Canada, Lisa Ovies) make hay out of their respective low budgets, leaning into their schlocky origins with love and passion. Here Comes Hell locks into your standard haunted house setting in an old English manor, clearly riffing on the camp of Hammer. The physical effects are squelchy and yucky, as you want them to be, and whilst there are no surprises it’s an enjoyable and quick romp. You can even see how cold the actors evidently were on set – through their breath onscreen and even a few stifled shivers. A small reminder of the unglamorous trappings of low-budget movie work.
Puppet Killer, however, is utterly goofy and stupid in all the right ways. It stars Aleks Paunovic as Jamie, a teenager who goes on a cabin-in-the-woods trip with his friends, where he finds an old puppet he had as a child who may or may not have killed his stepmother. Except it should be said that Paunovic is 50 years old and about twice the size of any of the other actors, whilst the actor playing his father actually looks younger. In fact, none of the ‘teen’ actors look below 30. Instead of trying to cover up this fact, Puppet Killer just leans into the sheer ridiculousness of this, with Paunovic somehow managing to find a way to make his role work – he’s endearingly sweet and funny and you just want to give him a hug. The killer puppet itself is also preposterous, making no secret of its debt to the Chucky or Puppet Master franchises, but ramping the stupidity up to 11. The script arguably could have used a couple of go-overs to smooth some of the entirely redundant dialogue, but this is a satisfyingly goofy film.
On the nastier end of the spectrum lies Artik (USA, Tom Botchii). It’s the tale of a serial-killer father who trains his son in the ways of serial killing, as you do. The son though, temporarily finds ways to escape, eventually making contact with a nearby mechanic and recovering alcoholic. The milieu is very much Texas Chain Saw Massacre but it lacks definition – a repetitive script doesn’t delve nearly enough into this particularly screwed-up paternal relationship. Jerry G. Angelo as the eponymous character and father does bring a great, hefty physicality to the role, owning and intimidating the screen, and there are some superbly directed sequences, but it ultimately doesn’t hang together nearly as strongly as it should.
Also delving into paternal relationships is Tumbbad (India, Rahi Anil Barve and Anand Gandhi). Considering how many films India produces every year, it’s a staggering shame how few make it to any sort of critical consideration here. Side-note: this writer recognises that Bollywood films regularly get released in UK multiplexes as a way of capturing the significant diasporic/Indian-British audiences here, and genuinely can’t speak as to the quality of those films, but it’s still disappointing that so few even attempt to bring these films to a wider audience.
Tumbbad is perfect for that wider audience. It looks gorgeous, and strikes a great balance between commercial pleasures, genre kicks, and genuine drama. It’s a mythological tale about a man, Vinayak, whose family is tasked with ensuring that an ancient malicious god is kept imprisoned – the story goes that if he touches you, you’ll go hungry forever (the god’s victims turn into zombie-style creatures), but the same god also hoards gold. As a young boy, Vinayak is terrified of the god, but with his family in poverty, he devises a way of safely extracting the gold (relatively) safely. As an older man with a family, he finds himself caught between the security of his family and his increasing age limiting his ability to outwit the god. Electing to teach his son the same method, the two eventually go together, as he attempts to pass on his knowledge, despite the dangers.
On its most basic level, Tumbbad is a parable of greed – the father desiring a richer life without heed to the consequences – but the film gradually introduces layer upon layer of depth. Starting in the early 20th century, the film finishes at the time of India’s independence: the backdrop of a country struggling to define its own identity, with one generation trying to pass on their knowledge to the next. The father-son relationship here is much more richlydrawn than in Artik, with moral quandaries aplenty. Tumbbad is also stunningly beautiful; the production values on this are stupendously great, with the fortress in which the god is housed an elegant, dusty husk of a construction. The CGI sections don’t look to bad either – there is a gruesome weight to the action scenes.
One element that is a great improvement on last year’s Fractured Visions is the introduction of talks – a smattering of Q+As were featured last year with legendary UK horror director Norman J. Warren, but there was a greater sense of programming and curatorial nous around these this year. One of the talks, on Italian Giallo’s influence on Canadian slasher movies might sound like a niche link, the connections between the two are fascinating, delving not just into the actual filmic text, but into the film industry behind these genres that produced the films – the thriving Italian genre industry of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and the Canadian B-movie explosion propagated by the country’s use of tax credits for film production (which of course, helped give the young David Cronenberg a leg up, even though his early Canadian films were predominantly ignored). Led by the engaging Mikel Koven, the talk was made all the more impactful by the smart programming either side of it: the Italian Giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (Massimo Dallamano, 1972) beforehand and the Canadian slasher classic My Bloody Valentine (George Mihalka, 1981) after.
Koven’s talk illuminated both films. Both films are rooted firmly in the tropes of their genre, but both offer telling elements about the world in which they were produced. Solange, set in London, reveals anxieties over abortion and women’s reproductive rights – although in the end it comes to a somewhat confused conclusion – it is a suitably murky film for what would have been at the time a very contentious question for traditionally Catholic Italian audiences. My Bloody Valentine, set in a desolate Canadian mining village, brilliantly captures the working-class milieu in which it is set. Unions, male camaraderie and corporate malfeasance are all key elements of the film’s tight plotting, woven into slasher strucutre. It’s a brilliant example of the potential of film genre to take familiar chess pieces and re-arrange them by adding different flavours and notes. The festival’s success lies in its small but impactful curating – there’s a real sense of love and care going into why each film gets chosen at Fractured Visions, the sort of passion that will hopefully sustain the festival for years to come.