A Beach Town That Adores Horror - My Trip to the Sitges Film Festival
by Alex Billington
October 25, 2017
There's an adorable little beach town, about a half hour south of Barcelona, called Sitges. Every year, this town hosts a film festival in October called, of course, the Sitges Film Festival. Officially it's known as the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya (website here). Sitges is a "genre" festival, in the same vein as Fantastic Fest, screening horror, action, sci-fi, thrillers, and any other wacky, weird little features they find around the world. This year Sitges celebrated its 50th year, and for that reason I decided to finally attend this festival that I've been hearing about for a while. Oh my goodness, it's amazing. One of the best festivals in the world, almost so good that I don't want to tell you about it, because part of it what makes it perfect is that it isn't overrun with people (yet). But, it is my job, so I will reveal a little bit about it.
The town of Sitges reminds me a lot of Cannes. They're both tiny, cute towns right on the beach, a little ways down from a bigger city. Both towns host world class film festivals, bringing in the best films from different countries. Sitges is a bit quieter, a bit more charming, plus the food is to die for (tapas and montados and pintxos all day). The main tourist season ends in September, so by the time the festival kicks off in October the town is fairly quiet. But on the festival's first weekend, buses from Barcelona bring in horror fans by the thousands and it fills up. The pinnacle event of the festival every year takes place on Saturday night - the annual Sitges Zombie Walk. This year the Zombie Walk was in honor of filmmaking legend George A. Romero, who was actually scheduled to attend the festival before he sadly passed away a few months ago.
Here's a few photos from the Zombie Walk and some of the costumes (including a zombie George Romero):
Early preview of Sitges zombie walk includes undead George Romero, zombie Luigi with 50th Sitges birthday cake, and zombie cheerleaders. pic.twitter.com/KEeLr44OvT
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) October 7, 2017
Sitges zombie walk, this year in honor of George Romero, was amazing. Thousands lined the streets for a mile watching zombies of all kinds. pic.twitter.com/MMyhsoAoHL
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) October 7, 2017
Even though Halloween is just a few weeks away, the entire town of Sitges dresses up in costumes and goes all out for the Zombie Walk. Thousands of spectators line the streets, awaiting the hordes of zombies who slowly parade along the beach and through the center of the town. Like every other genre festival (Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, etc) there's a deep love for horror and a festive spirit of celebrating this love of scary things and gore and undead creatures and ghosts and everything. Even a local jewelry shop put gory decorations in their window, with severed body parts strewn alongside diamonds and necklaces. The decorations at some of the cinemas are also just as amusing, including hand-made paper vampires and blood bags hanging from trees. It's very cool to see how much the town gets into this fest and embraces the gnarly, horrific side of it.
I've been to many film festivals all over the world, but few can fully compare to Sitges, which makes me happy. The way the enthusiastic audience roars with applause every single time the Sitges logo plays before each screening gave me the chills (in a good way). Sitges' logo is an iconic image of King Kong with one arm in the air, and it can be seen everywhere around town. The opening title card shows Kong wading into the water near Sitges then swiping down planes that come flying by, and this when the audience always erupts into cheers. The people who go to this fest really love genre films, they really love good cinema in general, and that love is almost tangible. It's a vibe that takes over the entire town, and makes the experience of this festival even better. Everyone who's there is just there to discover great genre films and have a great time.
So what about the films? Well, at Sitges this year I saw a total of 10 films over the 4 days I was there (I split my time between Sitges and the London Film Festival - also the same week). This being the 50th Sitges Film Festival, word is that they tried very hard to program the best films. A regular attendee that I spoke to told me that it's usually 50/50 - hit or miss, which is pretty common for genre film festivals (some genre stuff turns out pretty bad or is it too wacky or too aimless or whatever). Pretty much everything I saw at Stiges was great, except for a zombie film from Ireland called The Cured which I hated and a straight-TV-quality drama called Gloves Off. The Cured has an interesting concept with awful execution, a terrible mix of tones, that was so annoying at times I came very close to walking out. But those are the only two I really didn't like.
I already wrote reviews for some of the films I loved at Sitges - Joe Lynch's Mayhem, Shane Abbess' The Osiris Child, John McPhail's musical Anna and the Apocalypse, and Joachim Trier's stellar Thelma. I also saw Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead's The Endless, which Jeremy reviewed from Fantastic Fest, and it's as brilliant as he says it is. I started the festival with a screening of Alexandre O. Philippe's documentary 78/52, about the shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho, and it's a compelling examination of one specific scene and its influence on cinema. I also caught a classic screening of Tod Browning's Dracula from 1931, starring Bela Lugosi, which was fun. And I saw Brian Taylor's film Mom and Dad starring Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair, which is a totally nuts action-horror about parents who go crazy and start killing their kids.
Sitges is the only film festival I've ever been to that has all-night screenings that begin at 1AM. Seriously. There are no press screenings, so everyone has to get tickets to the regular shows. (Their press ticket system kind of sucks, but they know this, and they were nice enough to help me get what I needed anyway.) Every night during the festival they host themed all-night screenings at every cinema that start at 1AM and include multiple films - sometimes two features and a few shorts, sometimes four features and no shorts, etc. I went to one on Saturday night after the zombie walk which was, of course, zombie themed, which is when I saw the zombie Christmas musical Anna and the Apocalypse and a few shorts before ditching for my bed. The crowds at these screenings are still as lively as ever, if not moreso, cheering at every kill and crazy moment.
I also want to mention a short film I saw before one of my screenings. It is titled Laboratory Conditions, directed by newcomer (and apparently an actual doctor) named Jocelyn Stamat (this is the first film she has directed). The short stars Marisa Tomei and Minnie Driver, and it's about a doctor whose elderly, near-death patient is suddenly taken away from her care. She goes chasing after him, only to discover he's going to be used for a secret experiment where they're trying to scientifically prove the existence of a "soul" by measuring any kind of "activity" after a person's death. I won't spoil anything else, because this short film was awesome. It's crazy fascinating to watch, with a touch of horror that makes it even more thrilling. One of the best short films I've randomly encountered, and I can't wait to see what Jocelyn Stamat directs next.
If you love horror, sci-fi, any kind of genre movies, then Sitges is the place for you. This wonderful little festival has earned a spot on my annual festival rotation, and I'll definitely be back next year. Not only to enjoy great films, but to enjoy the beach, and the delicious food, and to soak up the good vibes with good people. It's exhilarating to attend a festival you've heard so much about and it actually lives up to the hype, because not all film festivals do. But as I said at the start, I almost don't want to let the secret out. This is one of those amazing festivals you tell your friends about and convince them to come to, but you don't want it to get too popular. It's only for the people who really love these kind of movies. Then again, that is what cinema is all about - sharing the glorious experience of the big screen with the best people. Saludos, Sitges.