Imagine, if you will, a veritable phantasmagoria of some of cinema’s most terrifying and gloriously nerdy minds, set against one of Spain’s most beautiful beach towns. Picturing it? Good, then you’re maybe thirty percent of the way there. Add in one massive hotel theater, two beautiful older cinemas nestled in idyllic, gorgeous coastal architecture and cobblestone streets, a beachside market brimming with comics, posters, and festival paraphernalia, and you’ve got a decent understanding of Sitges 2014. However, this tableau is only the beginning.
The International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia is a unique phenomenon in the cinematic universe, a Mediterranean meeting point for the most surreal, horrific, trippy, and brutal filmmakers and movie aficionados around. Films shown here range from torture porn indie shorts to well-known features from this year and las, such as Kevin Smith’s wildly disturbing Tusk and Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s enigmatic picture about Scarlett Johansson consuming people. Basically, anyone who enjoys fantastic cinema, whether it be about flesh-eating monsters or schizophrenic madness, can find a weird home here.
I arrive the first day, Friday October 3, to a barely populated Sitges. The festival hasn’t quite kicked off yet, and it’s Spanish lunchtime, so the town is peaceful. According to volunteers working at various venues around Sitges, it’s the calm before the storm. After chatting with a pair of older Spanish folks working at the SD Toys booth on the waterfront–they draw me close and emphatically remind me that, in the spirit of the fourth Rec film opening the festival, the epic Zombie Walk is the next evening–I stroll to the Meliá hotel, the festival’s base of operations. The hotel is buzzing with journalists and photographers prepping themselves for the nine days of intense activity, all of them trying to look out for famous faces, mostly from Spanish cinema.
Press pass retrieved, I exit the hotel and try to get my bearings. Sitges is a small town, but its small, picturesque streets are difficult to navigate, and lend the festival an enigmatic air, as if the perfect early Halloween for die-hards. Navigating the noticeably touristic labyrinth, I arrive at the Brigadoon, one of the smaller venues, mostly featuring slasher films. There, I run into a colleague who’s volunteering, who agrees to help me gather strange and memorable testimonies from the volunteer and paid staff members. But more on this later.
As the afternoon creeps on, I settle in for my first film. It’s at the Prado, a beautiful, old cinema, and is unfortunately not jam-packed with press nor eager viewers. The film is Tante Hilda!, or Aunt Hilda!, a 2013 French animated film about the dangers of genetically-modified crops, family tension, and true love, mostly between the titular character and her magical talking plants. Reminiscent of early Hayao Miyazaki, the impressionistically animated feature follows Hilda, an intrepid woman who’s able to communicate with plants and lives in a surreal, massive greenhouse overlooking a world Monsanto would be proud of. Her romantic interest happens upon the formula for a fast-growing superplant, and the design is swiftly stolen by Dolorés, a megalomaniacal woman living in a futuristic beehive under the headquarters of DOLO, a chemical company that produces GMOs. Her two assistants, wearing jumpsuits and forced to buzz in her presence, feed her a constant stream of honey while she hides away and watches the super plant demolish the world’s ecosystem from Big Brother-esque screens. Brilliantly stylistic and not afraid to show us exactly where this planet is headed if we remain greedy, directors Jacques-Rémy Girerd and Benoît Chieux have found the perfect niche at Sitges 2014.
Once the film is over, all eyes turn to the hotel, where the red carpet gala and inaugural events are poised to occur. This year, the opening film is Rec 4, directed by festival legend Jaume Balagueró and starring Manuela Velasco, the most desired of all the stars to photograph this hallowed evening. Outside the hotel, lines begin to form, and photographers eagerly stand on top of every object imaginable to snap photos of the stars, directors, and producers, some even hoping to glimpse Roland Emmerich or Franco Nero, both present at the inauguration gala.
As I wait for the gala to begin, I speak with excited fans, who requested anonymity, waiting in line. “For us it’s a big plan, just after the summer,” states one grinning individual, “coming to Sitges and spending some days here. I recommend it to everyone.”
“For me for example, I have been coming to Sitges for seven years and here I have seen Rec one, two, and three, and now it’s supposed to be the last movie of the story, so I’m really excited and impatient to see it and how it is,” says another.
“Sitges is cool,” shouts a small group of fans fidgeting to get the line movie.
Seeing that the lines are inexorably long, I again join the festival volunteers, who tell me to enter the auditorium where the presentation of the film is taking place a little after it’s begun to avoid crowds. One volunteer excitedly remarks that there is a contest being held during the week to see which group of volunteers can take the most creative photograph, suggesting there is more to the underground world of Sitges 2014 than I expected; the volunteer staff sees to be the best way to experience certain aspects of the festival.
“There’s national police around so you know there’s famous people near,” jokes one very friendly festival volunteer.
After waiting for the crowds to thin, I follow a few volunteers into the hotel auditorium to watch the film that precedes Rec 4, the brilliant short 1:58, a darkly satirical thriller directed by Rodrigo Cortés, and produced by Gas Natural Fenosa in its third year as the main sponsor of the film festival. The short, a spine-tingling inaugural piece that opens for Rec 4 rather fittingly, focuses on a woman who runs out of gas on the side of the road and is subsequently attacked by a series of shadowy figures while her radio reminds her of the importance of taking public transit. Ina truly chilling final shot, a bus passes unaware by as the woman is torn from her car. It’s a beautiful mix of twisted sociology and skin-whitening terror.
Then it’s time for Rec 4, and the crowd tucks in for their final zombie thrill ride of the series. Not much to be said about the awaited flick, beyond the thrilling intimacy of how director Balaguero stages horror; on the broader scale, the smaller films at huge festival are more engaging. however, a colleague who fervently stated previously that she’d not watch the film is glued to the spot she’s found on the cinema floor.
“The movie was better than I thought it would be,” admits one of my volunteer friends.
Although the first day still has a few more films left on the roster, the epic Zombie Walk promises much adventure and exhaustion in the coming days, and I decide to be whisked away from fantastical Sitges until the terrific nightmare beckons me back. Before leaving, though, I have my most disturbing moment of the evening, in which a very impolite jerk sternly fulminates in line waiting for some end of the night noodles. Looks like someone’s brains have already been devoured; save it for the Zombie Walk, you enthusiastic bastard.