Wednesday 9 October 2019

Portuguese Short Films at MotelX

(That's me at the closing ceremony with Raquel Freire.)
In September 2019, I was asked to represent Kier-La Janisse and the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies at the 13th MotelX Horror Film Festival. There, I met a load of great people, and got to interview Hereditary/Midsommar director Ari Aster about folk horror on the big stage at Lisbon's Cinema São Jorge. I was also asked to take on the responsibility of being part of the jury for this year's short horror film competition. MotelX is part of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation, and each year awards two Méliès d'Argent prizes, named for Europe's father of fantastic film, George Méliès. One is for short Portuguese film, one for features. Aside from a cash prize and a trophy, the winner gets to compete for the Méliès d'Or, alongside the winners of other festivals across Europe. It's a big deal, and it was a highlight of my career so far to be part of the team entrusted with the decision.

It's to my shame that I am not really as familiar with the genre film of mainland Europe as I'd like to be, and MotelX gave me a lot of pointers as to where to look. I hugely enjoyed watching the short films before the event, and made a point of attending their screenings while I was there.

My fellow jurors were Portuguese singer-songwriter Samuel Úria and director Raquel Freire (whose now-classic debut feature Rasganço, about which I am going to write about some time soon, was being celebrated at the festival). Although I'd been awake 36 hours by the time I had the jury meeting, it was the most fun I've had talking about the relative merits of films, and the decisions we made were both easier and harder than expected.

I won’t go through all the films on the list. I have things to say about all of them. Some I liked, some I really didn’t. But every one of them had something: an idea, or good production design and costumes, or nicely framed homages to classic films, or a moment of beautifully presented dramatic economy.

The harder decision we had was which of the films we would award special mention to. Personally, I had four or five films I would have happily been OK with having the second place. In the end, we narrowed it down to two.

Feliz Natal, Sr. Monstro.
In Feliz Natal, Sr. Monstro (Merry Christmas, Mr. Monster), João Paiz de Silva and André Rodrigues created an enjoyable little festive vignette. We liked it because it was fun, and funny: a little girl (Luana Lima) lives alone in a deserted and ruined shopping mall. She realises it’s Christmas Day. A gone-to-seed man (Fernando Rodrigues) in a ragged Santa suit arrives. They meet, and the girl thinks he’s Santa. She follows him around as he looks for a specific item in the ruins. We gather from hints in the dialogue that some sort of apocalypse has happened. An amusingly nasty twist comes at the end. Luana Lima is especially delightful, and the twist is, while not entirely unforeseeable, pretty satisfying and serves the piece’s tone as grisly horror-comic fun. It very nearly got that second place award. It didn’t, but at least I had the chance to tell writer Tiago Laranjo how close it was after the award presentation, which was a bit of consolation for the guy, I hope.

Häuschen - A Herança.
Sr. Monstro just got pipped to the post for the special mention by Häuschen - A Herança. Here, Paulo Oliveira and Pedro Martins produced a charming piece of folk horror, with a fairly standard setup: a young couple (Fernando Pires and Adriana Moniz) are lost in the woods – he’s wiped out his phone battery failing to get GPS, she’s lost patience with him – and they turn up at a lonely cottage, inhabited by a grotesque and obviously sinister old guy (José Raposo). Everything in the film’s brief running time led us along a trail of breadcrumbs – I mean, there’s a literal trail of breadcrumbs right at the start – to a twist that is grim (and also Grimm). It is a short film that rewards rewatching, which happens less than you think, and it feels like a horror film of the old school while still being very contemporary.

It may have taken some discussion to choose the runner-up, but we settled on the winner of the Méliès d'Argent within seconds. All of us came to the meeting knowing that Guilherme Daniel’s Erva Daninha (Bad Seed) was the film we wanted to win.

Erva Daninha.
Daniel had already won the Méliès d'Argent last year with A Estranha Casa na Bruma, an atmospheric adaptation of Lovecraft’s lesser-known story “The Strange High House in the Mist”. In the short film, which eschews Lovecraft’s New England setting, a pilgrim (Daniel Viana) finds his way to a lonely clifftop house with a door that opens onto the abyss. It’s a creepy little mood piece with a couple of explicit references for the Lovecraft nerds, and it maintains an atmosphere of creeping dread through some very simple, very straightforward developments, and some nicely claustrophobic camera work.

Since Daniel freed himself from the shadow of the author who I like to call “the other Howard”, Erva Daninha is a much better film, frankly, than either Estranha Casa or indeed anything else in this year's selection. I adored it. A farmer and his wife (Viana again, Isabel Costa) living in Portugal at some time that could be anywhere in the last couple of hundred years find that their land has gone sour. Little is growing, and what does grow is bad inside. While digging in the field one day, the man finds a huge, alien seed. It germinates, and it has a terrible, supernatural effect on the lonely couple and their land.

Erva Daninha.
None of the films in the competition surprised any of us quite as much as Erva Daninha, nor were any quite as memorable or haunting. Of all the films, it was the one that had a real wealth of memorable images (and in going back and getting screenshots, this has borne out, frankly). It forced us to defy language: Raquel used a word with no English translation to describe the film’s quality of being uniquely and authentically Portuguese, a characteristic that she felt none of the other films really had. I for my part felt that the film was the one entry in the competition that effectively communicated a sense of the uncanny (and after having written up the speech for the award ceremony, I was interested to find out that Portuguese has no word for “uncanny”). Seriously: Daniel managed to make a sequence where two people don't do anything other than eat potatoes absolutely mesmerising. Performances from the two principals were affecting and powerful, and every aspect of the production, from costumes and location choices to editing, to sound design, were great. The only criticism I could find was that there’s an effects shot at the end that looks a little cheap, but that’s so minor and so brief that it hardly detracts. In all, Erva Daninha richly deserved the award. I am keeping an eye on Guilherme Daniel’s work in future.