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Report: Stranger With My Face Horror Film Fest 2013

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Down under Down Under sits the island of Tasmania; if you go any further south, you’re only likely to encounter Japanese whaling ships before hitting the ice floes of Antarctica. It’s the end of the Earth—or, as director Jennifer Lynch, special international guest of this year’s Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival, optimistically suggests, “It could be the beginning.”

Although the smallest and poorest Australian state has barely registered as a site to produce horror films (you can see it most recently in DYING BREED, VAN DEIMEN’S LAND and the Brian Trenchard-Smith-directed/Tony Ginnane-produced ARCTIC BLAST), it has managed to make its biggest leap into the future with the auspicious second edition of the Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival. A film event unlike anything even contemplated on the mainland, SWMF is modeled very much on Los Angeles’ Viscera Film Festival and borrows its name from a thriller novel for young adults by Lois Duncan.

STRANGERWITHMYFACE13-1SWMF’s two hard-working directors, filmmakers Briony Kidd and Rebecca Thomson, see their female-centric fest as a way to galvanize filmmakers into action as much as to generate discussion on horror cinema—and they simply couldn’t have chosen a better location for the whole shebang than the Peacock Theatre, situated in the middle of Hobart’s Salamanca Place right next to the market space and a deep and busy harbor. The Peacock also has superb sound and a great atmosphere, thanks to the carefully lit sheer rock wall that spends most of its time hidden behind the screen during sessions. (This wall was once was part of a quarry where convicts dug out the material to construct the Peacock and many of the surrounding buildings nearly 200 years ago.)

So, fittingly, on a long weekend in the middle of a record-breaking March heatwave with the hills surrounding Hobart actually on fire (!) as Fango drove from the airport, SWMF began the day before its official opening night with the screening of, and award announcements for, all the entries in the 48-Hour Tasploitation Challenge. There’s nothing like a deadline to provide motivation, and limited time can also pull out abilities you mightn’t even be aware you possessed. This was evidenced by the short films from the dozen or so teams who took up the challenge, one of which was even animated. All were of an exceedingly high standard, very enjoyable and amazingly creative—whether you consider the production time frame or not.

For its opening night, SWMF presented the premiere of Penny Vozniak’s sensational fly-on-the-wall documentary DESPITE THE GODS, which follows Jennifer Lynch’s triumphs and travails (though perhaps the only real example of the former was that both filmmakers survived with their sanity intact) as she attempts to helm the Indian horror flick HISSS. On a daily basis, it seems, Lynch is undermined in every way possible as she toils on what is essentially the tale of a snake that turns into a woman who turns into a snake, with makeup FX designed by Robert Kurtzman. DESPITE THE GODS is a horror film about filmmaking that ranks right alongside Les Blank’s Werner Herzog documentary BURDEN OF DREAMS as a testament to the will and determination all directors should be sure they possess before pointing a lens. It should be just as instructive and seriously entertaining for filmheads of any persuasion—though DESPITE THE GODS won’t stimulate any sort of cultural-exchange trend soon, and don’t ever expect to see a Bollywood version of BOXING HELENA.

STRANGERWITHMYFACE13-2DESPITE THE GODS was very well-received, and the Q&A with both Lynch and Vozniak was highly illuminating. Also screened were Lynch’s SURVEILLANCE and her more recent, truly heavy horror film CHAINED, which should be considered right up there with HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER as a modern classic. Sandwiched in between the Lynch films on Saturday was JOHNNY GHOST (pictured left), a little film that could from Melbourne-based filmmaker Donna McRae. JOHNNY GHOST is a meditation on the horror of memory that has spent the past year traveling the world, picking up awards from a variety of festivals. Shot in black and white and utilizing long takes, along with a Dave Graney/Clare Moore score (including some Birthday Party selections), JOHNNY GHOST is more art-house than fright house, but provides a take on horror that’s stylistically removed from your average gore film and just as chilling as some of the best. AMERICAN MARY, from sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska, provided its own trip into the underground with its lead character’s tragic downward spiral, and remains recommended viewing.

Under the rubric of a Mary Shelley Symposium, SWMF also included a number of presentations on a variety of topics, most of which began each day’s proceedings and several of which were free. A particular personal favorite here was printmaker Ph.D candidate Jazmina Cininas and her Girlie Werewolf Hall Of Fame, which encompassed everything from the GINGER SNAPS series and German woodcarvings to modern artists such as Kiki Wood and obscuro films from the ’80s and ’90s that I’d seen but forgotten. Best of all was Cininas’ own artwork. Another presentation highlight was that of Melbourne animator Isabel Peppard (pictured below with Lynch), who comprehensively and hilariously illustrated the excessive amount of labor that goes into producing her meticulously assembled stop-motion shorts, such as GLOOMY VALENTINE and BUTTERFLIES—both of which are definite must-see items for any Fangorian.

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Steve Boyle, who had been busy on preproduction in Melbourne for the new Spierig Brothers film PREDESTINATION, also took the time to drop in for a retrospective of his own career, before focusing on the kitchen scene from DAYBREAKERS. The Mary Shelley Symposium culminated in a fun and enlightening industry panel discussion involving Kidd, Lynch, McRae and Ursula Dabrowsky, director of FAMILY DEMONS and INNER DEMON.

Closing night wrapped things up with a batch of short films from around the globe, including Jovanka Vuckovic’s THE CAPTURED BIRD, STRANGE FACE by Lynne Vincent McCarthy, THE SHED by Megan Riakos and Rebecca Thomson’s hilarious tale of spontaneous revenge gone wrong, THE JELLY WRESTLER. A live reading by members from a local acting agency of the winning entry from the 10 by 10 Short Script Challenge was a great way to finish SWMF before the closing-night party.

While this writer is still in shock from hearing a representative of the Tasmanian government stating their support for a horror festival (and then sticking around for all of DESPITE THE GODS and responding appropriately throughout) it was also a combination of venue, smart programming and general enthusiasm from the audience, its directors and their small support team and sponsors that made the Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival the success it was this year. And I haven’t even mentioned the partnership it formed with MONA, one of the greatest museums in the world, where the SURVEILLANCE screenings took place. However, in order for it to return, it truly needs fans’ support, so visit the official website and check out and Like the Facebook page to encourage it to reappear in 2014. Now, I’ve got to go check out some werewolf movies…

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Michael Helms
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