Fantastic voyage: Sitges fest revamps lineup

The 37th edition evolves with some changes

Sitges normally seems a picture-postcard seaside resort: Boats bob in the port. A blowzy Tramontana wind blows in from the east. Tourists dawdle in shops. A local train clanks off to Barcelona.

But once a year — this year, it’s Dec. 2-11 — the town hosts Europe’s biggest fantasy film festival, the Sitges Intl. Film Festival of Catalonia.

There’s a historical logic to this. Sitges provided a summer base for a group of Barcelona artists at the turn of the 20th century. Plus, locals love horror and sci-fi: “The X-Files” rated stronger in Catalonia than overall Spain.

When a group of Spanish gore aficionados, some involved in the country’s Hammer-style horror industry, looked to launch a fantasy fest, they plumped for Sitges, just a 30-minute car ride from Barcelona.

In the late ’90s, Sitges added a nonspecialist competition to provide Catalonia’s answer to San Sebastian. The section underwhelmed. Sitges lost “Fantasy” from its title, gained “Catalonia,” but a main fantasy fare competition remained.

Its 37th edition is evolving once more:

  • Fantasy competition titles drop from 26 to 20.

  • An edgier and more experimental New Visions replaces the Gran Angular main sidebar.

  • Sitges has added an Imaginary Europe section, featuring classics and contempo fare, with such Cannes standouts as Belgian Fabrice du Welz’s hip hick horror pic “The Ordeal” and “Innocence,” from France’s Lucile Hadzihalilovic, an unsettling school-set mystery.

  • The fest is ramping up its traditional spread of productions from Catalonia. The Catalan Audiovisual Showcase features a clutch of Salvador Dali docs, and a stronger line-up in features such as world preems of Alfonso Albacete and David Menkes’ frustrated housewife-in-Paris tale, “Living and Dreaming,” starring Carmen Maura, and theater production-themed “Sevigne,” from U.S. indie-style auteur Marta Bellatbo-Coll.

  • Catalan film export board Catalan Films & TV will launch a sales office and video library at Sitges presenting the cream of recent productions.

There’s a larger Euro spread in sections and competish titles, marking the European Union’s enlargement and higher genre production levels in Europe, says Sitges director Angel Sala. “Many young directors have grown up devouring genre pics and they are choosing fantasy films for their industry calling cards. Some are very good, and we’re a European festival,” Sala notes.

The competition front-runner remains Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy.” It will face off against, among others, Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist”; Hayao Miyazaki’s vibrant “Howl’s Moving Castle”; the flesh-crawling “Three … Extremes”; John Simpson’s psycho-thriller debut, “Freeze Frame”; period romp “Arsene Lupin,” from Jean-Paul Salome; and Anders Ronnow Klarlund’s political puppet fairy-tale “Strings.”

Two bows in competition — Eugenio Mira’s Corey Feldman starrer “The Birthday” and Gullem Morales’ “The Uncertain Guest” — are world preems.

Fest also showcases the first showing of admired Basque helmer Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s “Fragil.”

Sitges will host cyber-reality sidebars; a Godzilla focus; a “Star Wars” conference; a toon section; a macrofiesta after “The Phantom of the Opera”; master classes from Guillermo del Toro, Kerry Conran and John Landis; and tributes to Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Lucas, Landis, Joel Schumacher, Spanish thesp-director Paul Naschy and helmer Agustin Villaronga.

Expected fest guests include Jennifer Tilly and Brad Dourif (“Seed of Chucky”), Anderson, Feldman, Sarah Michelle Gellar (“The Grudge”), Lloyd Webber and Schumacher.

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