Body swaps, timewarps and other fresh hell – the Sitges film festival 2023


At this year’s film festival in Catalonia, I experienced numerous mosquito bites due to the unusually hot weather on Spain’s Costa del Garraf. This made me feel a connection to the characters in the body horror films featured in the festival, many of which were from the streaming service Shudder. One of these films, When Evil Lurks directed by Demián Rugna from Argentina, made history as the first Latin American movie to win the Sitges award for best feature film in the festival’s 56-year history.

Demián Rugna at the Sitges film festival 2023.

The local movie theater attracted large crowds with popular releases like Yorgos Lanthimos’s captivating “Poor Things” and Stéphan Castang’s thrilling and frightening “Vincent Must Die”. However, for fans of the genre, the real excitement was happening in the historic auditorium down the hill in the old town. In “Appendage” by Anna Zlocovic, a fashion designer can’t stop scratching her itchy birthmark on her stomach until it transforms into an independent twin that eventually becomes an evil doppelganger resembling a character from “Basket Case”. This made my own mosquito bites seem insignificant. I managed to resist scratching myself like the protagonist in Robert Morgan’s “Stopmotion”. Aisling Franciosi (known for her role in “The Nightingale”) plays Ella, a woman who is slowly falling apart, joining the ranks of other deteriorating female characters in recent films such as “Censor”, “Saint Maud”, and “Relic”. Ella becomes so consumed with completing her animated film that she turns to disturbing methods of puppetry, causing one unlucky viewer to faint with a loud thump behind me.

In his latest film Blackout, independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden adds a werewolf story to his unique takes on vampires (Habit) and Frankenstein (Depraved). However, his standout performance this year was as an actor in Ted Geoghegan’s tense film Brooklyn 45. In it, Fessenden plays a character who convinces his fellow survivors of World War II to hold a seance in order to contact his deceased wife – with horrifying consequences! For those who may feel that werewolves are overdone, they can refresh their taste with the weretiger in Tiger Stripes, a promising debut from Malaysian director Amanda Nell Eu. In this film, an 11-year-old girl’s coming-of-age and bullying at school lead to her newfound ability to climb trees and grow sharp fingernails capable of decapitating humans.

Heather Graham in Suitable Flesh

Poor Things blazes a trail in the realm of explicit sexual content and abundant nudity, filling a void that has been lacking in mainstream cinema. However, Joe Lynch’s Suitable Flesh also boasts a refreshing lack of prudishness. With screenwriter Dennis Paoli, known for Re-Animator and From Beyond, at the helm, there are hints of Lovecraftian influence in this tale of body swapping where a centuries-old entity inhabits the body of the attractive therapist Heather Graham (who still looks as youthful as she did in Boogie Nights), resulting in a delightfully fluid exploration of gender. Another film in the program, Best Regards to All, blends body horror with bizarre family dynamics as a young woman uncovers a horrifying secret from her childhood while visiting her grandparents. While some may compare it to the works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Yûta Shimotsu’s directorial debut carves out its own eerie territory. The program also includes a story of an unnatural pregnancy, taken to disturbing new heights in Paul Duane’s All You Need Is Death, a hallucinatory journey into Irish folk-horror. While searching for rare ballads in Ireland, a young couple stumbles upon an ancient song with deadly properties, triggering a surreal outbreak of body horror and non-binary transformation. Duane, already established as a documentarian, makes a haunting fiction debut that will linger in your nightmares.

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A unique pregnancy is featured in the film Embryo Larva Butterfly, a poetic science fiction masterpiece from Kyros Papavassiliou, a director of the New Greek Wave. The story takes place in a world where time is not linear, causing the characters to wake up each day unsure of which time period they are in. To help them keep track, there is a Ministry of Lost Time available. However, for comical time-related antics, River, written by Makoto Ueda and directed by Junta Yamaguchi, is the ultimate choice. The duo gained recognition in 2021 with their low-budget mind-boggling film, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. River has a more polished feel but follows a similar concept, as the staff and guests at a traditional Japanese inn try to break free from a two-minute time loop. The film, at 86 minutes, is the perfect length and even takes moments to pause for beautiful visual moments.


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