We were somewhere around the abattoir at the edge of the Kalasatama district when the beetroot cocktails began to take hold... Welcome back to Night Visions, Helsinki's vibrant genre film festival, celebrating its sixteenth year with record attendances and a full-on programme of international big-hitters and oddities. Even more than last year, it was a mad experience. Empire got off the plane on Wednesday evening and was shipped straight to the American embassy where a jetlagged Simon Barrett was attempting - with impressive élan - interview coherence under the baleful gaze of Udo Kier and occasional interruptions from the ambassador's enormous dog. After which we were off to the Maxim theatre for Finnish Christmas nibbles (what else on Hallowe'en?) before a screening of the 1996 Finnish Christmas comedy Joulubileet, which would possibly have been less baffling without the wine and the day of travelling and the bizarre English subtitles. But possibly not.
With a number of cannibal movies (recent and "classic") among this year's selections, the following night saw us in a former slaughterhouse attending the festival's first ever themed gala dinner: a cannibal-inspired feast of "bloody tartare" and "fleshy meat stew". Even the bloody marys had meat in them (this is also where the wine/beetroot cocktails come in). Nightsatan played on Friday (more on them later), and I should also mention Friday's spoken-word performance by Pertti Kurikka (of Pertti Kurikan Nimpäivät, the band at the centre of the brilliant documentary The Punk Syndrome), in which he dresses like King Diamond and barks about Hell and Satan while a hooded man in the background makes terrifying soundscapes on a moog. I saw him do this last year too, with Lobos de Arga director Juan Martinez Moreno delightedly yelling "David Lynch shit!" in my ear the whole way through. Oh, and the hotel we stayed in is a converted prison. Damn, this festival is good. Put it in your diary.
But enough of the what-I-did-on-my-holidays business. The films are the thing, and since we were on the subject, let's start with the cannibals. First up were the Scots, with director Ricky Wood and actor Samuel Feeney on hand to make the introductions for Sawney: Flesh of Man. This hit DVD in the UK a month ago (not to mention playing FrightFest in 2012) and has already graced Kim's Video Dungeon, but it was a new one on me and it's good enough to be worth a mention. A low-budget indie production, it gets impressive scale from its use of spectacular highland locations, from where David Hayman's scenery-chewing Sawney Bean runs his visceral operation. Much of what transpires is repetitively generic - Feeney is a journalist investigating disappearances, both helping and hindering the Aberdeen police; whimpering girls are tied up and violently messed with; there's a boring and unlikely climactic shoot-out - but it has a likeably off-kilter humour to it, and some of its choices are simply hilariously strange. I think I was most fascinated by Sawney's mute inbred twin sons, who for absolutely no reason at all are hoody-wearing parkour ninjas. I also liked the monstrous Mother, frequently talked about and occasionally heard, but not seen until late-on. Principal kudos though has to go to Hayman, whose cackling, Bible-toting Sawney is supposed to be a descendent of the original legend. It's a character actor gleefully seizing a starring role with both hands, and he clearly doesn't mind getting them dirty.
"Cannibals are the new vampires," says Wood, quoting his American distributors (who boringly re-titled Sawney to Lord of Darkness). It's a good explanation of why The Colony is so much like 30 Days of Night, with a small community in a snowy environment on the wrong end of a hunt led by a bald guy with pointy teeth. The set-up here is a post-apocalypse world where weather manipulation towers have failed to prevent global catastrophe in the form of a snow that never stopped. A lucky few scratch an existence in bunker outposts, where they listen to old-time jazz, presumably because it's out of copyright and costs nothing to put on a soundtrack. We focus on Outpost 7, and when they get a distress call from Outpost 5, our guys mount an expedition above ground, and are crestfallen to find feral people-eaters at their destination. Cue chases and fights and explosions. It's efficient and entertaining enough, if daft, but is bloody fortunate to have Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton propping it up. Without them it'd be nothing, even though they're phoning in characters (gruffly charismatic leader, whiney untrustworthy bastard) they've played a dozen times before.
I'll get to We Are What We Are in a subesquent blog, and you don't need me to tell you to watch Umberto Lenzi's ridiculous Eaten Alive! (although, at 5.30am, I bailed out of it myself on this occasion). Which brings us to Fresh Meat: not the British student sit-com, but an all-over-the-place cannibal-horror-home-invasion comedy by Danny Mulheron. It stars Temuera Morrison as a suburban Maori academic who has adopted the culinary proclivities of the subject of his research - and taken his family (celebrity chef wife, schoolboy athlete son) with him on his religious odyssey. Some criminals on the lam (ridiculous fetish lesbian hottie, comedy fattie, camp dumbass, dork) then rock up to hide out and hold the family captive, but face turning tables when they find themselves disrespected as aggressors and regarded a useful addition to the larder. Complaining about a lack of depth in such an obviously cartoonish enterprise - Mulheron is a Peter Jackson alumnus who worked on Meet the Feebles - is kind of missing the point, so let's just call it "uneven". The performances are variable, with anyone under 20 generally shocking, but the adults faring slightly better despite characters written in a total of one dimension. Morrison is amped to Tex Avery levels; Kate Elliot actually feels quite charismatic and dangerous; and Leand Macadaan is genuinely amusing as a hapless, much-mutilated, cross-dressing gangsta. People behave inexplicably, which is sometimes funny and sometimes irritating. And Mulheron clearly likes the ending to Carrie so much that he uses it twice. It's not without its moments, but it's a long ninety minutes.