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Mayhem 2015: Day Four (Part One)

20 October 15 words: Penny Reeve, Harry Wilding, Ash Carter
Deathgasm, German Angst and The Witch were on the menu for Sunday.
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New Zealander Jason Lei Howden’s directorial debut, Deathgasm, stars Milo Cawthorne and James Blake as mismatched heavy metal fans who inadvertently summon a demon, threatening the future of the small Auckland suburb in which they live. 

Following his mother’s imprisonment, social outcast Brodie (Cawthorne) is sent to live with his strict Christian Uncle and Aunt, and their bully son David.  After striking up a friendship with slightly older, slightly cooler Zakk in a local record shop, the pair - along with other social misfits Dion and Giles - form a metal band named Deathgasm.  After Zakk takes Brodie to the secret hideout of their reclusive musical icon Rikki Daggers, the pair discover some sheet music with a hidden power.  After murdering Daggers, a cult that has been searching for the music sheet begin their pursuit of its new owners.  But having played the music and summoned a powerful demon that possesses all that hear the music, Brodie, his crush Medina, and the other members of Deathgasm must find a way to send the demon back whilst avoiding the threat of the pursuing cult. 

With a relentless pace and hugely enjoyable style, Deathgasm is an unremitting joy from beginning to end.  It’s tonally perfect, striking just the right balance of comedy and horror, with an unrelenting energy present from the very first scene that generates an enormous sense of goodwill that forgives its (very few) bum notes.  

There’s a confidence in both Howden’s direction and the performances of the three main characters that confirms that Deathgasm knew exactly what it was.  It never tries to be more highbrow than its plot contrives to be, nor does it sink to the overly simplistic trappings of the genre (even with the presence of a Zombie vs. dildo fight). 

Deathgasm rightfully takes its place in the rich canon of New Zealand horror, alongside the tonally similar vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows (2014) from Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, which was shown at Mayhem last year. It’s refreshing to see such a well-made film understanding exactly what it is, and delivering exactly what it promises. Penny Reeve.

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German Angst is a three film anthology with the themes of love, sex and death in Berlin. Michal Kosakowski produces it and directs the middle film – he was also at Mayhem for an intro and post screening Q & A.

The first film from Jorg Buttgereit, Final Girl, is perhaps the one with the most humour (dark though it is). A teenage girl narrates throughout, mostly about her guinea pigs. A lot of this guinea pig talk relates to the images, in which she appears to be alone in a flat before it reveals a tied up man in another bedroom, who she – to put it mildly -  isn’t very pleasant to. The way the story is told is quite original and it doesn’t spoon feed the audience with its reveal at the end.

Make A Wish next, from Kosakowski. This is a strong but brutal short about a deaf couple who are in love getting attacked by a gang of racist hooligans. Just prior to the attack, there is a flashback to World War II, in which the Polish descended man talks of the talisman he owns that ends up coming to good use in their present day fight. There are a lot of interesting themes explored in this one - about racism, immigration, violence, WWII, magic etc but there wasn’t much room for positivity in it, which made it a somewhat exhausting watch.

The last film, Alraune from Andreas Marschall, follows a man (after meeting a bewitching woman in a nightclub) stumbling upon a secret sex club that promises the ultimate sexual experience. It was an interesting concept, with its themes of love and lust and how they compliment and repel each other. Good overall, but perhaps the weakest of three.

Overall, German Angst is film that shows three German horror directors doing some great work, but there was definitely something missing; perhaps humour, perhaps enough positivity. It just felt draining and not necessarily in a good way. Harry Wilding.

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One of the great things about Mayhem (and there are many) is that, if you ask really nicely for a film that you’d love to see at the festival, they may just put it on for you. So I was more than delighted to hear that the pleas of some of the Mayhem audience had resulted in a screening of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. In fact, Mayhem had pulled a fancy one, as the screening was the first outside the film’s premiere and bodyguards had to be hired for the showing. Fancy.

We are drawn into the film during the hearing of William (Ralph Ineson) and his family, who are accused of being too religious to live in the Puritan settlement they settle in after landing in America from England. Our hapless family decide to move out and start their own settlement right next to a huge, imposing forest. 

The family’s new life doesn’t play out as they'd like and a lack of crops, a heap of family tension (including some sexual overtones) and a little too much religious piety causes questions to be raised as to where the baby has gone, and if the ‘witch’ they’re all so afraid of is closer to home than they originally thought.

New England in the time of the Pilgrims seems to have been left behind as a horror setting, which is a shame, so the return to the period in The Witch is very welcome.  Everything is muted in colour, which evokes the sparse nature of a time where a fancy dress was a plain white smock, and living lavishly would be a mattress made of straw. In fact the whole mood of the film is sparse and barren, which works very well with the time period. 

Instead of focusing too much on the supernatural elements of the story The Witch focuses on family dynamics and historical accuracy, which moves the film past your run-of-the-mill horror story and almost into the realm of a psychological thriller, though this is remedied in the final quarter of the film when things start to get a little more creepy. There's some masterful misdirection too, keeping the audience guessing right until the very end of the story. 

Eggers' directing is stylish and he offers something very polished despite it being his feature-length directorial debut. There is also some fine acting from a relatively unheard of cast - including Anya Taylor-Joy as Tamasin who you may remember from Atlantis - Eggers seems to have drawn good performances out of even the young twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger).

The Witch is definitely a slow burner and those that like their horror scares thick and fast might find the pacing a little too dawdling for their tastes, but for those who like to watch the tension mount will thoroughly enjoy the creeping build up and extremely satisfying ending. Penny Reeve.

Deathgasm, German Angst, and The Witch showed at Broadway Cinema as part of Mayhem Film Festival on Sunday 18 October 2015.


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