‘Apparently the economy was more important than breathing,” says an astronaut, peering out of her space station window as planet Earth is enveloped by a cloud of lethal gas. This is the absorbing sci-fi chamber piece Rubikon, directed by Austria’s Leni Lauritsch, her first foray into this genre. There was no problem breathing, though, at the 55th edition of the Sitges international fantastic film festival of Catalonia, just south of Barcelona, where the gentle sea breeze never fails to dispel the allergic sneezing that plagues me in cities.
Ecological awareness was in the air, with each film preceded by a “It’s bloody green” public service announcement, reminding us to recycle dismembered body parts and dispose of walking corpses in the organic bin. “We are not afraid of the end of the world. In fact, we like it!” says the announcement. Just as well, because this year there was no shortage of post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as the snowbound dystopia of Kirsten Carthew’s Polaris, starring Viva Lee, or the seed wars and weaponised plant life in Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s Vesper. Nor was there a dearth of pandemic symbolism; in Paolo Strippoli’s Flowing, hallucinogenic sewer gases turn the inhabitants of Rome into the sort of homicidal berserkers we once read about in James Herbert’s The Fog.
Back to nature motifs featured strongly, with every other film venturing, sooner or later, into sinister, mysterious, mystical forests. In some cases this would be for spell-casting purposes, as in Léa Mysius’s The Five Devils, combining time travel, girls’ gymnastics and a romantic triangle set in France’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Or it provided a primal framework for wreaking classical Greek vengeance on a serial killer in Travis Stevens’ A Wounded Fawn, which draws its imagery from the surrealist artists after which its characters are named. Or, in Goran Stolevski’s extraordinary folk-horror fairytale You Won’t Be Alone, it provides bosky cover for a shapeshifting witch to disembowel yet another human vessel unobserved.
There were also recurring elements of made-up languages, authoritarian matriarchs and bullying. It was hard not to empathise with the put-upon plus-size protagonists of Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner, subjected to the strictest of diets by her nutty nutritionist aunt, or of Carlota Pereda’s Piggy, who sees her mean-girl tormentors bundled into the back of a serial killer’s van, but stays mum about it because the kidnapper has shown her a fleeting act of kindness. There were lockdown terrors such as Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger, in which New Yorkers’ dreams are haunted by a figure in a beaked plague-doctor mask, and a less explicit socially distanced vibe in the funny and inventive Something in the Dirt, the latest low-budget indie from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who play mismatched Los Angeles neighbours attempting to parlay a levitating glass ashtray into a Netflix documentary.
Netflix’s logo at the start of The Stranger, this year’s excellent Australian true crime drama, was greeted by atypical booing from the Sitges audience, who normally applaud production company names when they appear on screen. But this was an exception and, as usual, the festival experience was enhanced by everyone yelling approval every time King Kong trashed a plane in the festival’s animated ident, or clapping whenever mighty Don Lee punched a Korean gangster in The Roundup, or cheering at a woodchopper incident in Quentin Dupieux’s delightfully bonkers Smoking Causes Coughing. But this audience (unlike those at some festivals I could mention) also knows when to keep quiet and pay attention during a glacially paced slice of fantastique such as Thomas Salvador’s The Mountain, in which a Parisian engineer (played by the film’s director) climbs the eponymous peak, locates his true self amid spectacular Alpine scenery, and experiences the closest of close encounters up there.
This year’s visitors included Edgar Wright, Eva Green and Dario Argento (presenting Dark Glasses, his first film in a decade). Even more excitingly for exploitation connoisseurs, Brigitte Lahaie was on hand to introduce Jean Rollin’s cult-horror Fascination from 1979, in which she wields a mean but iconic scythe, and Jesús Franco’s trashy but irresistible 1988 film Faceless, where she helps Helmut Berger run a cosmetic clinic on the outskirts of Paris. Franco’s all-star cast also included Stéphane Audran, Telly Savalas (literally phoning in his performance from New York) and Anton Diffring as a Nazi surgeon who goes all Yeux Sans Visage on kidnapped women’s faces in order to transplant them on to Berger’s disfigured sister. “Her flesh is too flexible!” he wails as the first patient’s fizzog dissolves into goo and drips off his scalpel. Never a dull moment, in other words.