FrightFest 2010 Diary: Day 1

First published by Little White Lies

fa4bd784119571e8116f00056f110a06FrightFest 2010 Diary – Day 1 – Thursday, 26th August 

This year’s FrightFest opened on a nostalgic note. A reel of hilariously hoary trailers for exploitation movies – and accompanying oldschool ads for furniture outlet stores – took us all back to the glory days of trashy genre pics shown in local fleapits. The contrast with the FrightFest programme itself, projected on a massive 20-metre screen within the plush environs of Empire 1, could not be greater – and yet, as the voice-over boomed ominously “That’s just a sample of the films to come,” the state-of-the-art digital equipment on which all these trailers were being played malfunctioned, skipping and freezing the images as the soundtrack ran on. The new, it turns out, is still quite a bit like the old, and as we all laughed at the amateurishness of these lost treasures, we were only laughing at ourselves and at the deviant tastes that just keep coming back from the dead.

Hatchet II

The opening film was all about nostalgia too. In 2006, Hatchet introduced FrightFest to the writer/director who would fast become the Festival’s favourite son. Since then, Adam Green’s subsequent features – Spiral and Frozen – have premiered at FrightFest events to great fanfare. The affectionately self-parodying ‘Road To FrightFest’ shorts that he makes each year with his friend Joe Lynch have become a permanent fixture (and highlight) of the annual event. He is a charismatic, energetic and sometimes sentimental raconteur with an infectiously unapologetic enthusiasm for both the genre and for FrightFest itself. We all love the guy.

So it was a no-brainer to open this year’s FrightFest with the world premiere of the sequel to the film that started it all. This time, Marybeth (Danielle Harris) returns to Honey Island Swamp to recover the bodies of her father and brother, and to take revenge on the deformed, deranged ghost known as Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder) – but her guide the Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd) has other plans, and will sacrifice any number of lives to reclaim the bayou for his illicit boat tours. If that seems one crazy motivation, mayhem, madness and massacre will certainly follow.

Where the original Hatchet was way ahead of the retrospective curve, gloriously resurrecting the splatter, latex and fun of Eighties horror at a time when everybody else seemed fixated on bleak Seventies remakes, now even Reagan-era slashers have been done to death, making Hatchet II seem as tired and shopworn as any of the endless Friday the 13th sequels that it pastiches. Hatchet II plays a numbers game – there is more blood (supposedly 136 gallons of the fake stuff were used), more hackings, gougings and slicings, more over-the-top deaths – and yet the plotting and characterisation too are entirely by numbers. Certainly the production values here are better than on the no-budget original, but it is hard to escape the feeling that all the fanboy nostalgia that fuelled Hatchet has degraded over the four intervening years into something more like flogging a dead horse.

Onstage after the film with stars (and genre legends) Harris, Todd and Hodder, Green hinted at the possibility of another Hatchet sequel. Let’s hope not. The bayou-set gorefest that is Hatchet II has become well and truly lost in the swamp – even if criticising anything of Green’s imparts the sort of guilt more normally associated with breaking a brother’s beloved toy.      

Primal

Back in 1978, Colin Eggleston’s extraordinary Long Weekend gave nature’s revenge an Australian accent, and now the late director’s son Josh Reed explores the same subgenre with his feature debut Primal. After a brief and bloody prologue set 12,000 years ago, we cut to the present day, as a group of six twentysomethings drive to the outback in search of an ancient Aboriginal wall painting, and find that they have reawakened something even more ancient in its vicinity. Soon one of the hapless urbanites is infected, reverting to her basest impulses of hunger and desire (with a new set of razor-sharp teeth to match) – and as the other five try to work out what to do about her, they must call upon their own primal instincts of survival.

“It’s about context”, declares Anja (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith) in her opening scene in Primal, as she argues with the altogether less reserved Mel (Krew Boylan) about the proper and timely use of the word ‘cunt’. “What context would you be cool with it in?”, replies Mel. It is a sociolinguistic debate that takes in gender politics, notions of dignity and civilisation, not to mention anatomy – but by the end, damaged, victimised Anja, coming with far more baggage than just the pack on her back, will have found her ideal context for the taboo word, as she faces her demons in a deep, dark, damp cave that comes with a decidedly vulval entrance. There we will bear witness to the most abject perversion of impregnation and parturition seen since Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – with plenty of bite, fight and flight in the bush to get us there. Falling somewhere between Cabin Fever and The Descent, Reed’s film is a gory, grotesque trip to the savagery within – and yet another in the new wave of Ozploitation films (Wolf Creek, Black Water, Storm Warning, Rogue, Road Train) that seem designed to repel as much as attract any tourists curious about the nation’s picturesque outback. “Fucking nature!” complains group clown Warren (Damien Freeleagus) – and he is right in more ways than one…

Dead Cert

East End vs. Eastern Europe. The underworld vs. the undead. While Steve Lawson’s Dead Cert might sound attractively high concept, in fact its blend of London gangsterism and Hammer-style bloodsuckers is a tired old English appropriation of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), serving primarily to revive a FrightFest tradition long thought dead: the inclusion of a crap British film on opening night.

Here no-nonsense ex-crim Freddy Frankham (Craig Fairbrass, the guy you call on when Vinnie Jones is unavailable) faces off against a group of Romanian drugdealers who are looking to muscle in on Heaven, or at least on the gentlemen’s club called ‘Heaven’ that Freddy has just opened. To make matters worse, the newcomers are in fact a clan of ancient vampires, led by one Dante Livienko (Billy Murray, no relation to the Ghostbuster), and they intend no less than “to take over the whole fuckin’ city.” Mayhem ensues, as Freddy and friends set out to teach the unwelcome outsiders “who’s the fucking guvnor now”.

Nothing here really works. The bare-fisted boxing matches, the mockney cameraderie and the flashes of Krays-like violence are all just going through the BritBrat motions, witlessly failing to qualify even as sub-Ritchie. The film’s bloody conflict between ‘honourable’ oldschool diamond geezers and new sleazy ‘foreign’ entrepreneurs brings with it an overstated allegory (on the City’s increasingly globalised economy) that reeks of ugly xenophobia. Cameos by ‘big names’ like Jason Flemyng and Danny Dyer are pointlessly gratuitous, contributing exactly nothing to the plot. And while the ambition to rewrite the book on vampiric lore is commendable, Lawson just seems to be making it up as he goes along, so that we are never sure whether ‘turned’ humans will retain their former interests and allegiances, or go all bestial (in fact they do both, without rhyme or reason). Nor do we ever much care. For the similarities are more striking than the differences between Freddy’s Heaven and Dante’s revamped club Inferno (geddit?), and you wouldn’t want to spend much time in either – certainly not as long as the film’s plodding 92-minute duration requires of its viewers.

Anton Bitel