Last Friday evening I attended a special event at Melbourne’s iconic Westgarth Cinemas hosted by Cult Vault. Every Friday Cult Vault plays late night screenings (11:30pm) of hard to find cult films. They usually screen one a week but last Friday I sat down to consecutively watch eight — yes, eight — for the inaugural Cult Vault horror movie marathon. Adults, particularly those in my family, have since asked me “why?” and to that I have no rational explanation; at least, none that those who aren’t film nerds are likely to understand. Below is my account of this memorable evening. Cult Vault can be followed on Facebook and is a must-visit for Melbourne-based cinephiles.

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I knew walking in there, after a busy week of work and play, my head damp from the rain, my mind fuzzy like the bum end of a chewed up lollipop stick, my belly warmed by wine and gin, that the real challenge would boil down to a simple task: keeping those eyelids open.

Entering the foyer of Melbourne’s Westgarth Cinemas, I was about partake in something harmlessly crazy, a sort of non-chemical narcotic; eight horror films, recent and old, back to back, from midnight to midday, the slimmest of breaks in between.

Twelve hours of it, with breakfast thrown in two thirds of the way through when the bleary-eyed crowd would have devolved into husk-like half-humans bearing more than a passing resemblance to the creatures they’d been watching.

A batch of loud young’ins whizzed by on a party bus outside us, and I assumed they were on their way to the city for bad conversations, loud music and liver damage, the kinds of evenings that too regularly end — when booze has dulled the shame receptors — with awkward dancing to words like “you’re the voice try and understand it…”

But what I was walking into was something very different and John Farnham would not make the guest list for this kind of experience (unless he made a late career move into horror cinema, and that kind of chutzpah would, strangely, be welcomed) — a prolonged stay in a darkened auditorium scattered with the kind of people who remember Malcolm McDowell getting his eyes propped open and forced to watch film footage in A Clockwork Organge and thought “hey, I kinda dig that…”

This was the line-up:

1:30pm El Monstro Del Mar! (2010) + Special Q&A Event
1:00am The Monster Squad (1987)
2:30am The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
4:00am Blacula (1972)
5:30am They Call Her one Eye (1974)
7:00am Easter Bunny Kill! Kill! (2006)
8:30am F (2010)
9:45am Dracula A.D 1972 (1972)

One punter had gotten into the spirit of things and looked like he stumbled, moaning for brains, off track from a Zombie Shuffle: ripped shirt, fake blood streaked across his face, a lethargic half-crazy grin, like the Joker after a hard day at the…wherever he works. A representative from the Melbourne horror film society was also present.

Prior to the first screening, elbows hanging on the candy bar counter, the kind of chatter took place that, if absorbed by ‘straight’ ears, would likely be interpreted as gross and incomprehensible banter from sick freaks. We talked about a Cronenberg scene in which a man retrieves a gun by yanking it out of his own stomach and Hepburn ruefully explained why the eight film line-up did not include Dead Hooker in a Trunk.

Between me, my two companions and the girl behind the counter there was some angst about the ordering of the Westgarth Cinema’s homemade choc-tops. Two fig and honey and one cookies and cream, or two cookies and cream and one fig and honey? Once the situation resolved the girl responded by grabbing the receipt and eating it, or more precisely, chewing it twice then throwing it away. As good an indication as any that the evening ahead of us would have more than a whiff of nonsense about it.

Prior to the first screening Hepburn stood in front of the screen and carefully outlined the liquor licenses requirements, last drinks, when the bar would be shut, etcetera — but the motley crew in front of him were not a populace driven by the drink; at least not from my seat; our thirst was for inebriation of the audio visual variety. And we got it in spades.

Writer/director Stuart Simpson’s preposterously titled El Monstro Del Mar (shot in Werribee, Victoria) kicked off the evening. The film is a shonky seaside horror that follows three lesbian psycho killers who take up residence by a shack next to the shore. A crazy sounding crippled old crank repeatedly warns them to stay out of the water but alas — they strip off and frolic and a horrible thing emerges from the ocean with innumerable tentacles and a hunger for attaching itself to flesh, generally causing havoc and taking a dint into rental property condition reports.

Willing audiences will giggle along with the film’s wastoid wink-wink trashiness, and it doesn’t matter that the performances are awful, though awful they are. The acting by the crazy old codger (who, naturally, was right all along) is astonishingly bad, beyond self-parody into something resembling self-harm, or at least self-inflicted humiliation. It was incomprehensible that this old boy had performed in anything — film, TV, community theatre, a bus stop begging for change — before. There was a quick Q & A after the screening with Simpson, who spoke of his artistic vision while cradling a beer, and I asked the following question:

“The crazy old man often steals the scene with his hilariously awful acting. He has a great ability to balance the dramatic weight of his performance on his bottom lip. He really has the lip tremble down pat. Where did you find this guy? Is, he, like, your uncle?”

A young woman seated directly behind me yelled out “that’s Norman Yemm! From The Sullivans!” as if I was some fool for not making the connection. “Excuse me for not remembering the cast of the freakin’ Sullivans,” I snapped back, and after the Q and A she leant forward and whispered to me: “I only knew that because he (Simpson) told me.” She was a friend of the director.

Next up: The Monster Squad (1am), a fun, silly 80’s cross between The Goonies, BMX Bandits and Fright Night in which a group of kids thwart the return of old school villains such as Dracula and the Mummy. It’s a movie about the under-appreciated wisdom of children; that sometimes there is a monster in the closet (humorously illustrated in one scene) — but not the kind adults are capable of, or willing, to observe. Monster Squad has the faintest whiff of postmodernism before the term took on real meaning in popular culture. Frankstein’s monster, for example, cringes at the idea of trying on his own party mask.

At 2:30am it’s time for The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Wes Craven’s old work still packs a punch in a genre which tends to house films that date much quicker than most. First House on the Left, Craven’s first feature (1972) is still thoroughly disquieting, despite an ending that now amusingly resembles a movie that arrived many moons later: Home AloneThe Hills Have Eyes is nevertheless a slow, plodding film, with carefully and skilfully directed scenes that go nowhere. There isn’t enough story or pay-off to justify the slow burn, and — thank you Johnny C — it burns burns burns, and it bores bores bores.

Craven, perhaps inevitably, became a great deal snappier and faster to his directorial feet as years rolled on. The Scream series is stocked to the gills with smugness and inter-textuality, and Craven is a great example of a genre director who changed with the genre — while playing a significant role in how it evolved.

So far no sleep, and those eyelids are staying open. Excited for Blacula (1972), which started at 4am. The film has great opening credits consisting of animation of a black bat flying between rock crevices seeking red things, i.e. humans.

The premise is simple — Blacula this time around is (gasp!) an African American given powers by the traditional Anglo Saxon brand Dracula — and it’s executed with funk and verve. The soundtrack is jazzed up by 70s porn music and the inherently allegorical premise is intriguing. It’s the reversal of slavery: the black man, not the white man, now takes blood and revenge. On the other hand black attacks black so yes, yes, it’s a complicated world, even if Blacula isn’t much interested in nuance. The film is fun — it’s got a sassy ebb and flow but a here-n-there rhythm, patchy and inconsistent — and in the third act, well, full disclosure: I fell asleep for about 15 minutes. Given that was my only forty winks for the marathon, it’s something I’m not ashamed to admit.

Before the next film, They Call Her One Eye, which began at around half five, a goofy lookin’ borderline-obese man who came by himself reminisced to me about the good old days at the Westgarth, when they screened 24 hour movie marathons. None of this measly 12 hours and ya done business. Weak. Weak. Weak.

I made two of those marathons myself, back in the day, and recall feeling terrifically gakked when Jack Nicholson pashed the disgusting old lady next to the bathtub in The Shining, roughly half way through my first 24 hour fest. I remember leaving the building feeling a little jittery.

They Call Her One Eye (1974) was a highlight of the night and a pertinent example of what Tarantino meant — or what excuse he was laying the foundation for — when he said “good artists copy, great artists steal.” An argument could be made that Kill Bill is a remake of this seminal woman-on-the-revenge-path thriller. Innumerable other films have taken inspiration, i.e. I Spit on Your Grave.

The cute young protagonist is kidnapped, fed heroin and forced into a life of sex slavery. She never utters a single word. After her first encounter with a customer, in which she claws into her face, her pimp responds by taking decisive disciplinary measures: he cuts out one of her eyes. She escapes and inflicts revenge on every man who slept with her. The sound and slow-mo effects are inspired, gloriously contrived, and reek of Tarantino through and through.

After the film Hepburn pops his head in front of the screen and apologies for errors in the sound projection. The hard drive playing the film became corrupted, he said, though the damage was minimal and truth be told audiences tend to be less picky at 6am in the morning, five films in, ‘specially when what they’ve just watched is known for aesthetic weirdness, with trippy boings and warbles bouncing around the soundtrack.

Throughout the evening Hepburn returned between films, keeping the audience updated like an extremely considerate tram driver who makes sure you know where you’re getting off, what landmarks and businesses are nearby, a decent place for a spot of nosh….

A festival like the Melbourne International Festival, hampered by a blend of incompetence, largesse and apathy towards audiences — the festival know they know will continue to arrive for years no matter how bad the event is ran — would benefit from taking note of Hepburn’s professional approach. Making the audience feel appreciated, dishing out awards, extensively monitoring the quality of the projection — for 12 hours! — and making a call on what could and couldn’t do be improved. Yes, the largesse of a big festival makes all that more difficult, but the same broad principles apply.

After breakfast — danishes, muffins, tea and coffee — came Easter Bunny Kill! Kill! at 7am, a good example of Hepburn’s determination to surprise already knowledgeable audiences with interesting genre films likely to have fallen outside their radar.

In it a young African American protagonist has MRCP (described as Mental Retardation Cerebral Palsy) and is greeted early on by a beggar asking him for cans and bottles. The boy hands him a bag of them and in return the beggar gives him an Easter bunny — a real rabbit in a cage. His mother is dating an obnoxious prick who treats the kid with disdain. This horrible man — and the pedophile he invites over to abuse the boy — will soon cop it sweet.

The film is shot with home vid style production values, extreme close-ups aplenty, and its dodgy DIY elements give it a Paranormal Activity-esque feel, which actually add to the realism despite less then excellent performances. The DVD was a shade out of sync, slightly lagging, which weirdly added a disturbing imperfection and a different kind of verisimilitude — like watching a Youtube video struggling to buffer.

When the film ended — two remaining, now — I realised that the possibility of my shutters involuntarily closing had gone for good, or at least for a long while, much longer than the marathon would last. My companion drifted off two films in a row, and I was proud that being tired no longer registered: my eyes were now hardwired in, retinas magnetically drawn to the screen, and I felt like I could sit through a dozen more, semi-zombified, but content.

Writer/director Johannes Roberts’s F (2010), which played at 8:30am, is a classy, shrewdly contained thriller/slasher set after hours in a high school where the faculty are chopped up by hooded ninja-esque figures who come and go as they please, slinking off frame and into shadows.

The protag Robert (David Schofield), a beleaguered teacher, is a deeply flawed character: he drinks a bottle of vodka before class, gives his daughter detention just to see her, smacks her on the face when she strikes a raw nerve about his ex-wife. He’s such a down and out loser that nobody believes him when he raises the alarm that potential killers are on the loose. Shot with a lens dipped in eerie mustard yellowish hue, the film is creepy and convincing and sports a bold, unconventional ending that reinforces the central character’s pathetic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t lot in life.

Dracula AD 1972, the final hurrah, and the third film of the marathon to feature ol’ two fangs in a contemporary setting, was a perfect closer. Alan Gibson directs a super fun 70s Dracula reawakening which, framed in the context of one part bad yoof folly and two part murder mystery, balances the tricky combo of being both faithful and revisionist. It’s got funky tunes, beautiful women and about the right amount of kitsch. Easy work for Christopher Lee as Dracula in phone-it-in mode; minions fetch him bodies, so he doesn’t even have to hunt for victims, thus his running time is minimal but teasingly high impact.

And then….

The credits end, we stumble outside and something resembling reality returns. The sun is out and it’s hard not to hiss and recoil like vampires harangued by dawn’s early rays.

“See you at the next one,” I said to strange lookin’ big man who — incredibly — claimed to be a Norman Yemm fan.

“There better be another one!” he replied instantaneously, with a little too much gusto. It was too early — or too late — for that kind of energy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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