First published by Little White Lies
Since its tenth-anniversary move to Leicester Square’s Empire last year, FrightFest has become two festivals in one. This year, there were the 25 features (as well as short film showcases, panel discussions, Q&As, quizzes, special previews, etc.) that made up the Main Programme in Empire 1 – but running in parallel to these were the ten additional features of the Discovery Programme, held in the smaller, more intimate confines of Empire 4. If this sounds marginal, then it should be remembered that it is often precisely those peripheral grey areas of our consciousness that are occupied by the very best horror. My favourite film of last year’s Frightfest, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, screened only in the Discovery Programme – and this year too there was a solid mix of the good, the bad and the ugly to be found in Empire 4 (although I was unable to see John Michael Elfers’ Finale or James Rabbitts’ The Clinic).
As a hurricane rages outside the boarded-up doors and windows, a would-be co-ed (Briana Evigan) is trapped in a house with her younger, profoundly autistic brother (Charlie Tahan) – and with a wild, ‘evil’ Bengal tiger that has not been fed in weeks. It may sound like a bad joke – or like the premise from a certain recent prize-winning novel – but part of what makes the high concept of Carlos Brooks’ Burning Bright work is the time and care taken by Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux’s screenplay to put all the narrative pieces in place in a manner that seems surprisingly plausible at every step, and to bring some serious character-driven moral dilemmas and domestic tragedy into all the generic (big-)cat-and-mouse antics that ensue. There may be a tiger in the house, but this is no Snakes on a Plane – and the feline foe is no CG or animatronic confection, but a living, breathing predator (or three, in fact), brought into proximity with the actors through seamless compositing. There is a cameo in the opening scene from Meat Loaf (seen chewing on beef jerky), no doubt chosen in part because of the carnal resonance to be found in his sobriquet. From there on in, Burning Bright remains a taut thriller with plenty of flesh on the bone, let down only by its mawkish, overcooked ending.
In 1984, before Peter Jackson’s ascendency over the genre, David Blyth made New Zealand’s first ever horror feature Death Warmed Up – and now he is back with Wound, even if this time round he eschews the corporeal damage of splatter for trauma of an altogether more psychological kind.
Following the strict instructions of her sub-dom ‘master’ (Campbell Cooley), disturbed protagonist Susan (Kate O’Rourke) tries to play the role of a ‘housewife, sweet and innocent’ – but she keeps getting distracted by ghosts from her past. First comes a visit from the abusive father whom she must castrate and bury in order to move on, and then from the daughter Tanya (Te Kaea Beri) who she never knew existed. Playing out its hallucinatory scenarios of incest, perversion, loss and revenge in the arrested unconscious of its heroine, Wound is Repulsion for the surveillance age – a disorienting study of madness which gets more and more tragic with each irruption of reality into the nightmare in Susan’s damaged brain.
Opening with images of runes daubed as graffiti on an Edinburgh housing estate’s walls, Colm McCarthy’s feature debut reimagines the alienated, underground existence of the aes sídhe, a mythic Celtic people, in a gritty modern location where everyone seems marginalised and invisible. If this setting (and the presence of actress Kate Dickie) evokes the contemporary social realism of Andrea Arnold, then in it are staged ancient, indeed timeless rites of passage and Oedipal conflicts, as an adolescent boy (Niall Bruton) assumes the bestial legacy of the father (James Nesbitt) who left him at birth.
In a community where dads are conspicuous by their absence, young Fergal seems to fit right in – but it is not often that such naturalism is made to accommodate spells, curses, necromancy and shape-shifting. Yet even if Outcast is ultimately a monster movie, it is also a very human story of dysfunction, betrayal and abandonment in which the sins of each generation are passed on to the next. In all its understated suggestiveness, this was one of the Festival’s highlights.
Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island
Scripted by the same guy (Oishi Tetsuya) who adapted the popular Death Note manga into two live-action films, and itself drawn from a popular manga by Matsumoto Koji, Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island might seem to tie in perfectly with the recent (and already moribund) revival of the adult vampire flick that was kick-started by Let the Right One In and TV’s True Blood. Much, however, as the Twilight saga plays like a prim gossip forum for teenage girls (with occasional monsters), Kim Tae-gyun’s film is aimed squarely at adolescent boys.
When high schooler Akira (Ishiguro Hideo) goes looking for his long lost older brother on an island that is off the map, the high-seas adventures that he and his friends have are like the vampiric equivalent of The Goonies (1985), with only the occasional head crushing or creature effect to link the film superficially to the horror genre. As he had already proved with Volcano High (2001), director Kim Tae-gyun certainly knows his way around CGI – but the flat characters here are even more lifeless than their undead opponents, making this one strictly for the original comicbooks’ more obsessive young fans. Anyone else who sits through this will just be longing for escape to come sooner.
After twenty years writing best-selling psychological thrillers, over-imaginative novelist Christopher Roth (Joaquim de Almeida) – although that is not his real name – decides he wants to change genres to something more romantic and more real – in other words, more him – only to find that the idyllic Umbrian woodlands where he is vacationing with his wife Catherine ((Anna Galiena) are being terrorised by a monstrous serial killer who could have come straight out of one of his own novels.
Written, directed and shot by ‘Max Sender’ (better known as Alexander Aja’s favourite cinematographer Maxime Alexandre), and set in the country that spawned the giallo, Christopher Roth explores the more shadowy, sinister side of the creative process. There is no shortage of suspects put in the whodunnit frame (Christopher himself, his wife, his number one fan on a nearby property, the neighbour’s creepy daughter, someone else entirely), and Sender overtly references other writer’s-block thrillers (like The Dark Half, The Shining and Swimming Pool) to keep knowing viewers on track while (paradoxically) also throwing them off the scent – but in the end, the solution comes gift-wrapped in so many layers of ambiguity that you will be still unpacking it long after the film is over.
What on earth is a 1998-set comedy about a group of twenty-something Star Wars fanatics in search of their lost youth doing on the programme? Well, FrightFest has always been a broad church – but in many ways FanBoys is the perfect reflection of the FrightFest audience itself, in all its geeky, factionalised obsessiveness. The range of references in this film’s pop-culture universe, populated with cameos from Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Ray Park, Kevin Smith and even a hilariously double-dealing William Shatner, may come from an SF galaxy far, far away from the horror genre, but as four childhood friends (Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel) hit the road to the Skywalker Ranch, their quest for a pre-release copy of Star Wars: Episide 1 – The Phantom Menace proves in fact to be no less driven, quixotic or downright ridiculous than the FrightFesters’ sudden, urgently critical need to track down A Serbian Film uncut. So in a manner that is both thoroughly entertaining and slyly confronting, FanBoys ends up being an affectionate lampoon of its own viewers and the lives that they live through the movies that they watch.
“You’re dead, you were in a car accident.”
All mystery thrillers hinge upon ambiguity, but Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s After.Life takes its ambiguities all the way to the grave – and beyond. Already seen leading a loveless, zombie-like existence in the film’s opening scenes, protagonist Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci) will soon wake up on a mortuary slab to be informed by funeral director Eliot Deacon (a creepily nuanced Liam Neeson) that she has in fact died, and that it is his task to help her pass over to the other side.
Anna – and we along with her – will spend the rest of the film trying to work out if he is genuinely a psychopomp cursed with a sixth sense that enables him to see and even talk to the recently deceased, or merely a psychopath who heavily sedates his still-living victims before formally sending them on their way. Not only does the film make it impossible to be certain which of these alternative scenarios is correct, but it also, far more subversively, asks how much difference there is between them in moral terms. Occupying a crepuscular space between the quick and the dead, and haunted by memory, regret and ghosts, the film poses confronting questions about what makes life truly worth living – and then leaves us in limbo. It is a nightmarish journey to the nether world, elevated by artful direction and committed performances.
Relegated to the Discovery Programme not because of any perceived shortcomings, but merely because it had already been shown at another FrightFest event in Glasgow earlier this year, Amer more than merits its second (and third) FrightFest screenings. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have lovingly crafted a surrealist homage to the thematic preoccupations, visual stylings and musical cues of the Seventies giallo. Split into three discrete acts, each presenting a formative episode in the life of hyper-sensitive, sexually repressed protagonist Ana (played variously by Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud and Marie Bos), Amer is an erotic/psychedelic/psychotic triptych – absolutely beautiful, not a little creepy, and unapologetically free of anything resembling a conventional narrative.
Here dialogue is replaced almost entirely by highly tactile imagery, as the sinister bewitchings, primal scenes and masked murders of Italy’s most sensational genre are played out in a liminal borderland between reality and nightmare, life and death. While perhaps not for those who like sweeping storylines and easy answers, taken on its own terms this film is simply perfect – an uneasy mood piece that will leave its target audience both enthralled and not a little puzzled. It is also the most aesthetically pleasing film of the entire long weekend.
Thanks to FrightFest organisers Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy and especially Greg Day for all their help and generosity – and also to Simon Rumley, Howard & Jon Ford and the staff at Empire.