One of the more interesting strands to Empire’s Big Screen programming for film fans who are a little longer in the tooth was the ‘classics’ strand, where movies that have proved enduringly popular with the magazines readership over the past twenty years were awarded a rare big screen outing. Inevitably the main buzz of activity for the festival centred around the o2 Indigo and Superscreen spaces where new trailers, previews and clips drew the larger, debut hunting crowds, for the slightly more venerable members of the audience a chance to catch some slightly more left-field material was a refreshing antidote to the studio’s unrelenting marketing efforts. As a long time disciple of John Carpenter, it was a treat therefore to catch a very public screening of his first film Dark Star, his initial foray into SF with college friend Dan O’Bannon (the writer of Alien four years later) when they managed to expand their USC graduation piece to full feature length despite the confines of a minuscule $60,000 budget. The premise of a group of turned-off, tuned out, enlisted pilots traversing the outer reaches of the cosmos with a cargo of planet extinguishing Armageddon weapons remains fresh to this day, and the approach of having the crew as a bunch of unkempt, unshaven, bored and listless post-hippies is not often seen and you could argue that its vision of a lived-in, slightly worn future prefigured Star Wars by three years. I just love the films unique sense of humor, its an obvious riposte to the pompous solemnity of 2001: A Space Odyssey and this screening of the soon to be released Blu-Ray transfer of the film was a world first, although the sound quality still ebbs and the focus alignments are not as impressive as other transfers I suspect the scientists behind the up-grade were working from a rather decrepitcamera negative. The shoestring aesthetics may provoke laughter (the spray-painted beach ball as the ships alien mascot being the prime offender) but it’s laughter of a good natured sort, not sneering scorn, and Dark Star still has a fantastic moment where one of the crew engage a malfunctioning AI weapon in philosophical debate around the concept of phenomenology – ‘this is fun‘ indeed.
Moving into the main auditorium for the Optimum studio showcase, the highly anticipated British horror/thriller Kill List got an introduction by director Ben Shepherd and a brief Q&A with two of his stars Neil Maskill and MyAnna Buring. Along with the ominous trailer, three scenes were previewed which suggest a very gloomy, menacing and realistically violent tale of two assassins whose latest assignment turns particularly ugly. The film has garnered itself a lead article in this month’s Sight & Sound (no mean feat for a small-budget horror film) and first reactions are of an uncomfortable experience, in all the best ways for the aficionado of such cinema – one fragment provoked some nervous laughter from the viewers, myself included. Keeping in the realm of the unsettled a few brief snippets of the del Toro produced and co-written Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1970’s made for TV ghost house yarn were unearthed and it looks professionally creepy (perhaps a little too ‘professionally’ for my taste) although the whispering goblins (or whatever they are) sound particularly effective – ‘turn the lights off…we want to be friends’…
A total change of tone was provided by the apperance of the orchestrator of Armageddon, Roland Emmerich, who has arrived in town to publicize his imminent film Anonymous, a film with the controversial premise that Shakespeare did not write any of the plays credited to him and he was a willing stooge of a financially challenged nobleman (Rhys Ifans) who was actually behind many of the greatest tomes in the English language. The extended footage (we must have seen about 20, 25 minutes) had that cluttered and baroque sheen that Hollywood period pieces tend to produce these days, with evident green screen back-drops of 16th century London – not quite convincing to a questioning eye. It’s not my sort of film and the footage left me cold, more contemporary was the trailer and another full scene from 30 Seconds or Less, the Jesse Eisenberg’s follow-up to The Social Network where he seems to have shrugged off his nervous facade in favour of being a slightly arrogant and annoying pizza delivery guy who is hoodwinked into robbing banks for a bunch of criminals who have encased him in a explosive suicide vest. The bank robbery scene that was showcased was berefit of laughs for me but again your mileage may vary. In keeping with some of the shambolic nature of the weekend a proclaimed world exclusive of a new trailer of The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo turned out to be the red-band trailer that hit the web six weeks ago (c’mon Empire, this clearly wasn’t a ‘world exclusive’ so why proclaim it as one?) but the subsequent showcasing of Arthur Christmas, a winter release from the well loved Aardman studios obtained a much more tangible reaction from the crowd. Written and co-produced by Peter Baynham (he’s something of a cult comedy figure here in the UK given his involvement in the likes of TV favourites Alan Partridge, The Day Today and Brass Eye), the audience lapped up the preview scenes that were lavishly animated with a Pixar patina to humor and action; it looks like it will be smarter and funnier than the usual kiddie fare.
Finally for day two I managed to snare a viewing of Troll Hunter, the Norwegian entry to the found-footage genre, wherein a group of inquisitive students unearth a conspiracy to suppress knowledge of an all too real species of carnivorous giant that roam the frigid western steppes of their country. Opening with the usual ‘this material was found and is believed to be real’ video disclaimer the troupe shadow an alleged bear hunter and soon discover his prey is slightly more fantastical and dangerous, The physiology that is gradually revealed by the poacher turned trapper – a Nordic Quint if you will – is nicely pitched and the film plays to its strengths, particularly in the rumbling and guttural sound design and travelogue vistas of the beautiful Norwegian countryside, I was a little suprised at the film being pitched at slightly more serious level than its jaunty trailer suggests. Still, it was a relatively fun ride although a little too long, monster movie fans should roar with approval as the film contains some effective creature designs and SFX considering its presumably modest budget.