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March/April 2018
Charles de Lint
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Michelle West
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
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David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
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Jerry Oltion
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by David J. Skal

The Shape of Things Coming Soon

I recently had the chance to go to heaven, then live to tell you about it.

It was an unexpected and flattering honor when I was asked to serve as a juror at the fiftieth Sitges Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantastic, an annual October event on the Catalonian seaside just outside Barcelona. The festival's leitmotif for 2017 happened to be Dracula, which may have had something to do with my invitation. I arrived a day early and was treated to the sight of workmen with ropes and pulleys installing a four-story silhouette of the thirsty count on the window of the hotel atrium. In the elevator, a video travel infomercial was suddenly interrupted by a flashed moment of Gary Oldman licking blood off a straight razor. In the room I was greeted with a welcome basket containing a transfusion bag filled with cranberry juice and equipped with a sippy straw.

The Sitges competition began as a small-scale event in the late 1960s, devoted primarily to the horror genre, but over the decades has expanded its reach into fantasy, science fiction, and other imaginative forms. Sitges does not have the recognition factor of other European festivals like Cannes, Venice, or San Sebastian, but rest assured it is a world-class event, with real paparazzi, and unusually accessible industry professionals mingling generously with mere mortals. Where else are you likely to experience a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Susan Sarandon in attendance? Or a rare theatrical screening of John Badham's 1979 Dracula, personally introduced by Frank Langella? And how about watching a stunning restoration of Suspiria in all its lurid glory in the company of Dario Argento himself? There was a full-fledged zombie walk from the beach into the historic town center, and the concluding outdoor awards ceremony was accompanied by a life-sized marionette of King Kong (with a little help from a towering construction crane) strolling along a seaside promenade to loom over the proceedings.

Like I said: heaven.

Two hundred and fifty-five films were screened in ten days, with thirty-four features officially competing. By the time you read this in early 2018, several of the pictures I discuss will have finished their theatrical runs, with home video releases pending. Others will have still not have secured American distribution, but will be coming soon to your cineplex, art house, or favorite streaming service.

My fellow jurors included Nick Antosca, creator of the SyFy series Channel Zero; writer/producer/director Alberto Marini (Summer Camp); director Gary Sherman (Dead and Buried); and independent producer Hattie Yu (Reborn and Dragon Girls). For the next time you run a grueling ten-day marathon, I couldn't recommend more congenial company.

Any number of films could have swept award categories had they been in formal competition, foremost among them Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, which opened the festival to a rapturous audience reception. Del Toro was once attached to a planned remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, which never happened, but I couldn't shake the feeling that The Shape of Water is more than an homage to the Universal classic, and is, in fact, almost exactly what the director would have done with Creature had the studio actually let him.

The Shape of Water is a high-wire act that could have snapped disastrously at almost any point, plummeting into the quicksand of camp. Just watch the reaction of anyone to whom you try to give a bare-bones description: "It's about a woman who, um, falls in love, well, with the Creature from the Black Lagoon and hides it at home in her bathtub...." But it will ultimately be old-fashioned word of mouth—Just trust me and go see it—that makes this film an over-the-top success.

Set in the early 1960s, the story quickly engages our sympathies by centering on marginalized and put-upon outsiders, primary among them Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman at a government facility where a captured human-amphibian hybrid (Doug Jones) is being held and studied, and at the same time being pursued by Soviet intelligence. Security measures are surprisingly lax, and Elisa begins communicating with the creature through sign language and feeding it hard-boiled eggs. In short order it becomes her best friend, and, soon after, her love object. When Elisa realizes that a government meanie, Strickland (Michael Shannon), intends to kill and dissect the focus of her desire, she enlists her overworked and underappreciated co-worker (Octavia Spencer, wonderful as usual) and an unemployed and aging gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins) to abduct and conceal the creature, ailing from captivity and abuse, in her apartment/aerie perched atop an old movie palace.

Del Toro's immersive love of cinema is reflected everywhere, often in ways many viewers will miss. Not so for genre freaks like me and you. There's an extraordinary shot of the creature standing in an empty movie theatre regarding the screen, as if beholding the real source of his existence. Or take the subtle homage to William Castle's The Tingler, produced roughly at the same time The Shape takes place, featuring a mute woman dwelling above a movie theatre with something strange in her bathtub. There are more distinct echoes of E.T., and you can fully expect discussions of the film to regularly include the adjective "Spielbergian." Ray Bradbury should also be evoked, since del Toro gives us exactly the kind of actors—adults whose inner children are fully accessible—who, for some reason, have never graced an actual Bradbury adaptation. Might something wicked be coming your way, Mr. del Toro? Sometime? Please?

By the time you read this, I fully expect that Sally Hawkins will have walked away with a best actress Oscar, or Golden Globe, or at least be nominated in both contests. I wouldn't be surprised to see Spencer and Jenkins collect any number of supporting actress/actor nominations and awards, along with the director and several technical categories. Mike Hill, a sculptor legendary for his renditions of classic movie monsters (several recently included in del Toro's touring art museum installation), is responsible for the creature, and manages to pull off an impossible assignment, paying loving tribute to Bud Westmore's 1954 gill-thing while deftly avoiding trademark infringement.

For best picture in the official competition, we chose Jupiter's Moon by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, whose previous work includes White God (2014), a tour de force notable for the largest canine cast ever to appear on film. Jupiter's Moon is an affecting story of corruption and redemption set in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. If the meaning of the title is somewhat obscure, it may be useful to know that the moon of Jupiter most likely to sustain life is Europa; in Jupiter's Moon there hangs a tacit question about Europe's continued ability to sustain civilized life in a time of mass dislocation and political upheaval.

Aryan Dashni (Zsombor Jéger) is a refugee attempting to enter Hungary, when he is ambushed and shot. But instead of dying, he suddenly develops the power of levitation, which he cannot comprehend, and for which we are never given an explanation. Does human flight, perhaps, provide a paradoxical metaphor for the grittier, earthbound flight of refugees?

Central to the film is the odyssey of a disgraced doctor, Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze) working in a camp outside of Budapest and lining his pockets with bribes from desperate migrants. When he examines Aryan and discovers his uncanny power, he immediately sets about finding a way to exploit the young man for quick money. But the doctor is not the only party with plans for Aryan, and in the violent conflict that follows, Stern's cynicism finally gives way to redeeming self-sacrifice.

The fluid 35mm camerawork by Marcell Rév can be downright thrilling, all the more so when it's composited into some of the most evocative depictions of weightlessness I have ever seen. Following the awards ceremony, I personally congratulated Mundruczó and asked him specifically about the flying effects. Certainly, the jaw-dropping, almost balletic aerial sequence in which the camera vertiginously floats up into the clouds along with the actor, sharing his disorientation, required a zero-gravity plane dive, at the very least. No, Mundruczó told me, it was all done on a stage with wires—a revelation almost as jaw-dropping as watching the scene for the first time (and all the more reason we also gave Jupiter's Moon the prize for best special effects).

As best director we chose Coralie Fargeat for Revenge, a visceral rape and revenge horror movie shot like a glamorous spread from Architecture Digest or Vogue, art directed within an inch of its life. When you start worrying about how a beautiful desert showplace home and its expensive furnishings are going to survive a rolling bloodbath, the director effectively makes a point about misplaced priorities. The film pushes the Grand Guignol glamorization of sexual violence to the point of cartoonish absurdity—clearing the way, we can hope, for a long overdue reality-based discussion of rape culture away from its media-fueled distortions.

We gave the runner-up special jury award, as well as a best screenplay nod, to Joachim Trier's Thelma, a thoroughly engrossing effort evoking films as disparate as Carrie and Bergman's Persona. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a university student in Oslo just coming to terms with her lesbianism, while also dealing with ultra-controlling, ultra-religious parents. Or so it seems. The script, by Trier and Eskil Vogt, is cunningly constructed to gradually let you know that first impressions aren't necessarily true, and that it isn't Thelma's sexuality the parents need to suppress. Like Jupiter's Moon, the story deals with a paranormal power—this one less a gift than a curse.

Our best actor winner was Rafe Spall in The Ritual. Spall is the enormously talented son of British character actor Timothy Spall, and you may remember him as the doltish William Shakespeare in Anonymous several years back. When Spall's character, Luke, accompanies one of his drinking buddies to a convenience store, the friend is murdered in a robbery while Luke reflexively hides. Although it is clear there is very little he could have done except be killed himself, survivor guilt begins eating him alive. Luke and his pals make a hiking expedition to Sweden, intending to memorialize the fallen friend. But the trip soon becomes a resentment-fueled nightmare, complicated by a deadly monster in the woods who stalks the men the same way Luke's guilt stalks him. Spall plays Luke's ordeal as an archetypal hero's journey; as in Jupiter's Moon, there is a classically satisfying story arc as the protagonist progresses from disgrace to ordeal to deliverance. Director David Bruckner wisely keeps his lurking monster from Scandinavian folklore mostly sequestered in the shadows, letting the actors provide the real effects.

Best actress was Marsha Timothy in Mouly Surya's Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, another rape/vengeance story, here presented as—hold on—a radical feminist Indonesian spaghetti western. Timothy projects an almost preternatural calm, but under the seeming stoicism is volcanic rage equal to anything in Revenge. Another lead actress I greatly admired was Itziar Castro in the dark Catalonian comedy Matar a Dios (To Kill God), about a dysfunctional family's Christmas gathering interrupted by a bearded dwarf claiming to be God, with an apocalyptic warning and edict. Castro's performance as the long suffering wife of a pathologically jealous man is a technical tour de force, mining every possible emotional note, from hilarity to horror.

Other highlights included Salyut-7, a Russian entry directed by Klim Shipenko. A riveting recreation of the 1985 Soviet space station near-disaster, Salyut-7 holds its own against films like Apollo 13 and Gravity. And finally, a non-competing film from Estonia that blew me away was November, directed by Rainer Sarnet, about a medieval village that strikes a deal with the devil. The ravishing black and white cinematography of Mart Taniel, with striking compositions in every frame, brings to mind masterpieces like Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

Sitges 2017 took place at the height of the Catalonian secession crisis, and, while the event itself was free of controversy or incident, the festival's primary funding has always been governmental. We can only hope the newly installed leadership will continue to recognize the importance of this cultural treasure trove. Long may it thrive.

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