Five Reasons Helsinki’s Night Visions Needs to be on Your Festival Calendar
Helsinki is probably best known to cult film fans for the Kaurismäki brothers, or perhaps from the final (and best) segment of Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 anthology NIGHT ON EARTH. Indeed, Finnish cult films are few and far between, although a recent surge in the form of AJ Annila’s SAUNA (2008), Jalmari Helander’s RARE EXPORTS (2010) and Timo Vuorensola’s IRON SKY (2012)[i] has provided the impetus for more genre film production in the region—for fans seeking older examples, check out the original classic THE WHITE REINDEER (1952), Olli Soinio’s MOONLIGHT SONATA (1988), and a double bill of Auli Mantila with THE COLLECTOR (1997) and THE GEOGRAPHY OF FEAR (2000). Central to this burgeoning film scene is Helsinki’s Night Visions Festival, founded in 1997 originally as a single all-night event, but since expanded to four days in October with a mirroring event in the spring. For many festival vets, this marathon is the backbone of the event—it’s where the bulk of the retro titles feature in the lineup—but all screenings are well-attended, if not playing to sold-out houses.
The world is full of film festivals, and the sheer number of them grows each year. But where Night Visions shows its colors is not just in the great programming—which this year included Finnish premieres of BIG BAD WOLVES, KISS OF THE DAMNED, BORGMAN, THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS and more, alongside a restoration of MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, regional classics THE CHRISTMAS PARTY and SAMPO and a retrospective in honor of festival guest Udo Kier featuring DR. JECKYLL AND HIS WOMEN, THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL and Paul Morrissey’s BLOOD FOR DRACULA and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN—but also in the extracurricular activities surrounding the films. The fest wrapped up in the early hours of Sunday morning, and below are some of the highlights of my Night Visions experience this year (Oct 30-Nov 3):
1. SLEEPING IN A PRISON – Helsinki is full of gorgeous hotels, but the festival’s official partner THE HOTEL KATAJANOKKA is extra fun for festival visitors as it was an operating prison until 2002! Opened in 1837, with a large multi-wing addition in 1888, the building was converted to a Best Western hotel in 2007, restoring and preserving the building to maintain its heritage status. The interior hallways still evoke the building’s past (they even kept one cell as it was, and cheerfully sell prison uniforms and related accoutrements in the gift shop). The décor is typical Nordic minimalism, with alcove windows that look out onto the walled-in former prison grounds, while the Jailbird Restaurant in the basement looks excitingly medieval. The hotel is a picturesque 10-minute walk around the city’s South Harbor from the festival’s main hub, the Maxim theatre (itself over a hundred years old). When I immediately ran into Simon Barrett and Udo Kier in the lobby, I knew I was in for a good weekend.
2. CANNIBAL FEASTS IN A SLAUGHTERHOUSE – This year’s programming included the festival’s first-ever Culinary Cinema sidebar, featuring cannibal films WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Jim Mickle’s remake), Ricky Wood’s SAWNEY: FLESH OF MAN (generically retitled LORD OF DARKNESS), Danny Mulheron’s FRESH MEAT and Umberto Lenzi’s trash classic EATEN ALIVE, accompanied by a pair of ‘cannibal dinners’ that were made available to a select number of screening/dinner combo ticket-holders for 49 euros. This fine dining experience of three courses and cocktail pairings came courtesy of Helsinki’s A21 Flavour Studio, a group that offers cooking classes, puts on community BBQs and has their own backyard garden in addition to operating out of the former city abattoir! The slaughterhouse opened in 1933 and was in operation until 1992; the original tiles remain in the dining room, where you can see the remnants of bloodstains on the wall. I confess the steak tartare appetizer didn’t really do it for me, since it is essentially just uncooked hamburger meat (even the Bloody Mary that accompanied it had meat in it), but the main course of “Bloody Beef Stew” and beetroot risotto was quite good even though it was hard to look at, since it did resemble some kind of raw viscera. The wine-based beetroot cocktail that accompanied it tasted sweet but smelled like dirt, which of course is the inherent problem with all vegetables. For dessert: a chocolate and cherry brownie paired with a cherry milkshake, clearly the winner of all the specially-concocted drinks. All through the dinner, wine flowed freely, conversation bounced around from one niche cult topic to the next, and Udo Kier glided around the room enthralling the adventurous diners with his touchy-feely candour. A fantastic participatory tribute to the cannibal films showcased at the festival.
3. SAUNA – It isn’t just a horror film, it’s a way of life! No trip to Finland would be complete without a visit to the sauna. While North Americans tend to look at the sauna as an indulgent luxury, the Finns see it as a purification ritual that is necessary at least once a week. Originally the sauna was a means of cleansing one’s sins (stay tuned for our interview with SAUNA director AJ Annila for more on this history), and most apartments have individual saunas, or at least communal ones, although public bath houses like the YRJÖNKATU SWIMMING HALL & SPA also serve the social side of the tradition. Built in 1928 and named one of the top five bath houses in the world, this art deco building has two floors with private dressing/resting rooms (think Jerzy Skolimowsky’s DEEP END), a row of mini-balconies overlooking the pool where patrons can enjoy drinks and snacks, and three types of sauna: the ultra-steamy Turkish sauna, traditional wood-heated Finnish sauna and the electric sauna. Bathing suits are optional, but frankly everyone looks at you funny if you wear one. YRJÖNKATU is a 10-minute walk from the Maxim theatre, so the two-hour timeslots make it perfect for a detour between screenings.
4. THEMED PARTIES – Earlier this year I went to the TIFF afterparty for Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, and the DJ was playing a non-stop short-attention-span medley of milquetoast wedding hits—everything from ‘the Macarena’ to ‘Twist and Shout’—that was appallingly out of place, especially considering the impressive musical repertoire of Jarmusch’s films. This is the case at too many festival parties, where the party planners have no understanding of music, why it exists, or how it might be a good idea to match the music to the aesthetic of the event. That night, Jarmusch slunk out of the party, and I don’t blame him. But thankfully the Night Visions crew have musical taste to match their cinematic palettes; at the aforementioned Cannibal Feast, Scott Walker, Fabio Frizzi and Aphrodite’s Child could all be heard in the background, while the opening party featured a horror host-style spoken word performance by none other than Pertti Kurikka of developmentally-disabled Finnish punk band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (recently given the doc treatment in THE PUNK SYNDROME), complete with magician’s cape, top hat and corpse paint, shouting about demons and ending with a crescendo of “Helvetti! Helvetti! Helvetti!” (as Finnish is a fairly impenetrable language, I was proud that I instantly recognized the pan-Scandinavian uttering as “Hell! Hell! Hell!”– I blame Euronymous). Meanwhile the post-Halloween party featured a set by laser-metal trio NIGHTSATAN, following the World Premiere of CHRZU’s film NIGHTSATAN AND THE LOOPS OF DOOM, a 25-minute synth-fueled throwback to the 80s Italian post-apocalypse films (complete with the entirely Finnish cast dubbed in Italian!). NIGHTSATAN finished their set with a great rendition of the ASSAULT ON PREINCT 13 theme song. This is how you do it, people
5. THE NIGHT VISIONS TEAM – Maybe this is something only other festival programmers can really appreciate, but of all the genre festivals I’ve attended this year, Night Visions was the most organized. Sure, as a four day event with 30+ films they don’t have a lot of the challenges of a huge festival like Sitges, Fantasia or Fantastic Fest, but even small festivals can easily fall apart without a dedicated staff befitting its size and an attention to detail that leaves audiences and guests alike feeling that the festival has really gone out of their way to make it a robustly enjoyable experience. My first hint at how the weekend would go was that they sent me a suggested daily itinerary and assigned me a festival ‘buddy’ – Kati Nuora of the Finnish Film Foundation – who always made sure I had a ride, that I never felt lost or ignored, and even went traipsing through the woods with me and fellow Film Foundation staffer Riina Liukkonen looking for filming locations from Auli Mantila’s THE GEOGRAPHY OF FEAR (I’m guessing it’s not very often you get cultural officials willing to trespass on private biker property to indulge one’s compulsion to find obscure film locations!). Festival director Mikko Aromaa, COO Maria Pirkkalainen, programmers Petri “Jose” Mauranen, Antti Suonio and Lauri Lehtinen, staffers Antti Purhonen, Antti Näyhä, photographer Mikko Pihkoluoma and publicist Tapio Reinekoski constantly made me feel welcome, and were always around to take care of things while maintaining a personal rapport with their audience.
Also of note is that there was also no stratification between audiences and guests, no ropes or red carpets; the festival has figured out how to make their visiting celebrities feel appreciated and important without resorting to such indulgent tinsel town rituals. Past festival guests have included Paul Verhoeven, Buddy Giovinazzo and John Waters, and this year’s guest of honor Udo Kier was readily on hand for the full four days, making friends with audience members between films and conducting raucous Q+As that had patrons rolling in the aisles (Question: “What advice do you have for young filmmakers?” Answer: “Buy a gun and shoot yourself.”) Most impressive of all was Udo’s unwavering ability to delivery such high-energy Q+As after spending the wee hours (i.e. until 9am) drinking excessively in the hotel room of SAWNEY: FLESH OF MAN actor Sam Feeney, with about 15 of us— staffers, festival guests and IRON SKY director Timo Vuorensola —crammed into the former prison cell with a million cases of beer and an iPad that somehow only played Led Zeppelin.
It was certainly a festival to remember, and highly recommended to anyone who likes to mix their vacation time with their love of genre cinema.
Night Visions website: http://www.nightvisions.info/
Night Visions facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nightvisionsfestival
[i] Stay tuned for interviews with AJ Annila and Timo Vuorensola later this week.