When it comes to monster movies, novelty is not the be-all end-all; there is always room for a splashy new death or a witty recontextualization, but there are benefits to sticking to the formula. There are certain rules -- zombies rely on numbers rather than speed, vampires must be staked through the heart, werewolves shift shape during a full moon -- and for fans of the genre, part of the pleasure lies in seeing how a story can be innovative within these familiar constraints, providing meaningful variation without losing the benefit of effective touchstones. The filmmaker might choose to alter a slight detail (the alarmingly fast-moving zombies of 28 Days Later), shift focus to an unexpected element of the story (The Host's marauding river mutant shed's light on one family's dysfunctional dynamic), or use the story as an allegory for some real-world concern (Godzilla is a well-known response to the atomic bombings in Japan).
Jim Mickle's Stake Land, a vampire flick which got some love from the critics at Fantastic Fest this year, fails due to unwise deviation from the norm. Jumping on the apocalyptic bandwagon, the film follows Martin (Gossip Girl's Connor Paolo), an orphaned boy under the protection of a vampire hunter known only as "Mister." Martin comes of age in an America plagued by vampires, cannibals, and dangerous cults that prey on the few pockets of humanity that remain. In this leaden disaster film, which has all of the air-sucking joylessness of The Road but fails to create the poignant familial relationships to hold it up, the vampires are mindless blood-seeking missiles incapable of real thought or speech, frustratingly blurring the line between beasties by veering deep into zombie territory. While this may seem insignificant -- after all a zombie by any other name smells just as rotten -- without an explanation or ostensible reason for his choice, it adds to a sense of confused and aimless filmmaking. While the film has a touch of Mad Max in its best moments, its worst features flat characters and wooden dialogue that could have benefitted from the structure of convention rather than floundering further with a befuddling hybrid.
Mickle might have been better served swapping the watered-down vampire in favor of a fully realized zombie. Marvin Kren's Rammbock, a somewhat overlooked German Fantastic Fest entry, is a satisfying little zombie movie that draws on traditional hallmarks of the genre. Unaware of an impending zombie epidemic, Michi goes to Berlin in search of the lover who spurned him, but must barricade himself in her building for safety before he is able to reach her. Kren runs through the hallmarks of zombie-pocalypse -- we watch as our hero listens to waning radio reports in bewilderment, abandons safety when food runs out, and crafts an ingenious getaway -- but unexpectedly foregrounds the protagonist's troubled romance. The classic zombie crisis highlights the slightly sad-sack Michi's turbulent feelings of loneliness and longing, and his growing confidence as he continues to search this woman. Kren ups the ante with a few other minor but lovely twists; he introduces the idea that zombies are afraid of camera flash, a cute nod to modern technology and the power of 'film.' Even more ingeniously, in a film about love amid zombie takover, he dares to ask the question, "Can zombies fall in love?'
Two of the most buzzed about -- and gruesomely horrific -- films in the festival featured monsters of the human variety. Kidnapped is about three men who take a bourgeois Madrid family hostage; as things start to go awry for the initially somewhat empathetic kidnappers they become more and more cruel, devolving into shocking levels of brutality. This is not a ground-breaking narrative, to be sure, and given the grueling, relentless nature of physical and psychological violence the film has even convincingly been construed by some as torture porn. I might agree were the film not executed with perversely stunning perfection by filmmaker Miguel Ángel Vivas, whose gut-wrenchingly precise timing, effective but not manipulative use of emotional drama, and confident aesthetic risks (including some de Palma-esque split-screens), make for a memorable film that uses small-scale convention to explore a universal idea; man's capacity for both courage and evil.
Like Kidnapped, Bedeviled, by Kim Ki Duk protégé Jang Cheol-so, is uninventive in terms of plot, a straight up female revenge movie in the vein of the recently remade I Spit On Your Grave. Raised on an isolated island harboring dark secrets, Bok-nam is subjected to beating, humiliation, and rape, all with the approval of the backwards old biddies of her village. Like a Lars von Trier heroine she silently accepts the abuse at the hands of these disturbingly believable every-day monsters, until the arrival of a childhood friend sets off a series of events that make her snap like a twig. A fucking crazy, axe-wielding twig. This formula of woman + unending abuse = cold-blooded vengeance machine is nothing new, but Cheol-so uses it to reevaluate gender and tradition in rural Korea, and the contrast of his beautiful landscape and cinematography with the ugly actions therein is poignant bordering on unbearable.
Bedeviled brings up some prickly questions about whether or not convention should be so easily accepted. How has something as disturbing as rape revenge become a "classic" of genre film, and why is rape such a common catalyst for a female character's transformation? Why is it so rare in film to have a man suffer repeated sexual abuse in order to reach certain depths of vengeance, while putting a woman in this situation is not only commonplace but iconic? And yet despite my discomfort with this particular chapter of genre film, I also understand why the story endures. Convention usually becomes such because it taps into some intrinsic human emotion, and just as we want to see our heroes defeat the creatures of the night, so is it deeply, sickly satisfying to watch a downtrodden lady kick some rapist ass.