Slightly longer version of my piece for Sight & Sound
Hallowe’en has come early this year. It is not just that the FrightFest Hallowe’en All-Nighter took place on 25th October, 6 days before the unholy holiday itself – but also that British fans of the genre most associated with this calendar event have been treated to a steady stream of festival-based horror for months now. Much as Hallowe’en itself was originally a festival to celebrate the end of harvest, the Hallowe’en FrightFest All-Nighter marks the end of a bumper crop of horror produce, from the record-breaking 64 features at FrightFest’s main August event, to the bfi London Film Festival’s relatively new Cult strand, to the genre showcases at Manchester’s Grimm Up North and Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams.
So while horror hounds have recently been very well supplied by festivals, the films stored up to feed this demand are starting to show signs of rot. Not one of the five films that screened at this event was exactly terrible, which is in fact an advance on some previous FrightFest all-nighters where bilge has been plentiful – but maybe only one, Anthony DiBlasi’s Last Shift, was genuinely excellent. What of course these all-nighters do offer is the opportunity to see new horror for the first (and possibly last) time on the big screen, and to enjoy both the cream and the crap in company. And while staying up all night does turn the event into a kind of communal ordeal, it also lowers critical resistance and can induce a magical, dreamlike response in those viewers who are not just sent to sleep.
First up was Extraterrestrial (2014), which opens with an outer-space constellation resolving itself into an abstract image of a prophylactic on a poster ad that reads: “Shoot for the Stars – Galaxy Condoms” Indeed, the feature, from ‘Vicious Brothers’ Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz (who also made Grave Encounters), is a knowing mash-up in which alien invasions and, yes, the inevitable anal probe form a potential barrier to a halting love story. High school sweethearts April (Brittany Allen) and Kyle (Freddie Stroma) must work through how committed they are to each other before they are taken by someone – or something – else, in a well-travelled genre landscape that includes a group of co-eds, a cabin in the woods, a cannabis-growing, conspiracy-spouting Vietnam vet (played by genre favourite Michael Ironside!), sinister government agents, and of course big grey ETs and Fifties-style (though computer-generated) flying saucers. The films that this most resembles are by other ‘brothers’, the Spierigs’ Undead (2003) and the Strauses’ Skyline (2010), with which Extraterrestrial forms a fraternity of self-consciously trashy, trope-happy inanity that is relentlessly entertaining, and rather forgettable – as though the viewer too has been subjected to an alien mind-wipe.
With its new spin on old-school motifs, Extraterrestrial set (and instantly lowered) the tone of an evening that kept going back to revisit past haunts. Not only did the event take place at the Prince Charles’ Cinema, which was FrightFest’s original home, not only did the clocks literally go back around midnight to mark the end of British Summer Time (and to add an hour to sleepless horror consumption) – but the mini-fest also featured films that were all in one way or another backward-looking. Screening last and ushering in the dawn, from the Canadian film collective Astron-6 (Father’s Day, Manborg), was The Editor, which plays like a low-brow comic companion piece to Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Set in an Italian studio plagued by murders that echo the schlocky thriller in production there, and featuring a cavalcade of gratuitous nudity, plodding police procedural, insanely twisty plotting, invented medical conditions, moustaches, spiders, ghosts and a mind-blowing, sense-free twist in its tail, The Editor is a knowing pastiche of the giallo genre, so incoherent and ridiculous that it could almost pass for the genuine article. Still, if ultimately the film erases Adam Brooks’ titular protagonist, it felt at times overstretched, and perhaps could have done after all with the special touch of “the world’s greatest editor”.
The Editor is a film for fans – which is to say that its referential games with many specific Italian titles from the Seventies and Eighties will be a hilarious joy to genre cognoscenti, while those unfamiliar with the tropes of giallo may well find this the most incompetently awful (not to mention casually misogynistic) film that they have ever seen. Something similar could be said for Dallas Richard Hallon and Patrick Horvath’s The Pact II which, with its twisty whodunnit plotting and irrational elements, plays rather like a modern giallo, but which, at least for its first third or so, is likely to prove incomprehensible to anyone who has not seen Nicholas McCarthy’s original, better The Pact (2012). This time around, trauma scene cleaner June Abbott (Camilla Luddington) finds herself at the epicentre of a series of murders that appear to be reviving the modus operandi of the original’s now-dead ‘Judas killer’, and discovers that her own connection to all this is closer to home than she has ever realised. Riffing on the first film’s then fresh blurring of serial killer and supernatural themes, The Pact II manages its suspense well, and does explore some new (for the franchise) psychological crawlspaces – but the film’s placement in the evening’s penultimate slot ensured many a FrightFester was audibly snoring through its slow burn. The promise of a ‘family saga’-style third instalment at the film’s end hardly inspires enthusiasm.
The ABCs of Death 2 also ends with a tongue-in-cheek promise of a second sequel – which no doubt will happen if this one makes enough money. Following exactly the same format as its predecessor, this is 26 short films, each triggered by a different letter of the alphabet and focused on death, from 26 different directors (or director sets, since F, K, T and X have two directors apiece) with complete artistic freedom limited only by an evenly distributed budget and a maximum five-minute running time. Once again, this format proves as much a curse as a blessing for the film. For while death may be the great leveller, not all its manifestations are equal in quality, and while any feature can be carved up into its constituent limbs, this bloody, messy Frankenstein’s monster of a film makes a display of all its connective seams, leading to an inevitable mixed-bag bittiness where the best sections expose the relative poverty of their neighbours in a highly competitive market of the film’s own making. Yet the great variety on offer here that makes the overall collection feel so uneven is also its best asset. Post-film discussions inevitably reduce to coded lists: my favourite letters were, for the record, D, G, K, M, R, U, V, W and Z, but yours will inevitably be different. There may be more coherent horror out there, but this is great in parts and, you know, you only live once.
The night’s absolute standout was the world premiere of Last Shift, directed and co-written (with Scott Poiley) by Anthony DiBlasi (Dread, 2009; Cassadaga, 2011; Missionary, 2013). Rookie policewoman Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is spending her first night on duty working the graveyard shift at a closing station in Sanford, Florida – where, a few years earlier, a group of murderous cultists died in the holding cells after Loren’s own father and another officer were killed arresting them during a Satanic massacre. As furniture moves, as increasingly nightmarish figures appear in the rooms and corridors, and as things generally go bump in the night, it dawns on the isolated Jessica, desperate to prove herself as capable a cop as her father was, that this station’s history may still be very much alive. The result is a knowing and assured spin on established genre materials: an Assault on Precinct 13 by ghosts from a traumatic Manson-esque past. Focusing, typically in close-up, on its conflicted heroine, and leaving its noisy spectres to a blurry periphery – or entirely to the paranoid imagination – Last Shift builds its tension masterfully towards an unexpected yet satisfying release that deepens and ambiguates everything that has preceded, so that fittingly enough, in terms of both the film’s supernatural plotting and realist psychology, this traumatic dénouement is no cop out. It may not be winning any awards – horror films never do – but the pure craft of Last Shift brings paranoid chill enough to keep any viewer nervously vigilant all night long.
© Anton Bitel