Every year, when the days get shorter and Vienna starts to get even more depressing than usual, there is at least one good reason to leave the house: the Viennale. In contrast to those other international film festivals whose audience is a mixture of chain smoking men in suits buying and selling film rights (the so-called Industry), and those poorly shod experts of the blag who are paid to write about film, the Viennese Film Festival is a festival for the public. That means me, you, and everyone we know are able to buy tickets and attend almost all of the screenings.
Which is what I’ve been doing. Quite excessively in fact. This has had me trying to figure out the quickest way between the different screenings and yes, sometimes falling asleep in the cinema (despite the fact that there’s often more caffeine in my body than there is hemoglobin). I feel like I’ve been living in some parallel dimension, caught up in the world of serial killers, murderers and heinous crimes. This is wholly my own fault, due my decision to focus on this year’s excellent retrospective about Fritz Lang, Austria’s most important and visionary son of cinema on the one hand, and the special program They Wanted to See Something Different, curated by Jörg Buttgereit on the other.
While other people enjoy talking about celebrity guests when referring to the festival’s biannual cycle (Jane Fonda 07, Tilda Swinton 09, Harry Belafone 11), I prefer to concentrate on the weird trash cinema cycle, which began, somewhat hopefully, with the Larry Cohen tribute in 2010. Cohen is the master of B movies who started his career as writer for TV shows like Columbo in the 60s and came back to his original field when he directed the Masters of Horror episode Pick Me Up in 2006. To focus on his oeuvre was a witty decision, for in between those two touchstones were countless celluloid gems like God Told Me To (1976), Q – The Winged Serpent (1982) and Phone Booth (2002), the Joel Schumacher flick for which he penned the script.
After a break in 2011, this year’s Viennale calls once more upon its skills for delving into the abnormal, the weird and the, well, bad (if you were to take the word of most film critics). The motto, “They wanted to see something different” is a line stripped out of the trailer for The Hills Have Eyes, the centerpiece of this year’s special program. But they left out the best bit of the slogan, which continues, “but something different saw them first!” Indeed, its only in its entirety that the slogan can accurately sum up what all of this year’s selected movies were about—the fear of the unknown which is awaiting us at the end of a journey, the metaphorical bogeymen lying in wait for when we leave the beaten path. Jörg Buttgereit’s choice of films is as excellent as you would have expected it from the director of Nekromantik. Whether we as an audience came across terror in outer space (as in Alien or in the weird Italian movie Terrore Nello Spazio) or in the backcountry (which feels about as strange and far away from us city boys as foreign galaxies) the careful curation and mixture of obscure and mainstream made it consistently worth the ticket price.
That some of these films functioned more as contemporary artefacts which are more likely to illuminate gender relations and the political climate of a certain time than they are to provide actual scares, hardly needs to be articulated. However, there are those special few—the best of these movies—that manage to do both. And really, is there anything better than that?