First published by Sight & Sound
24 October 2015 | London
Even though October 31 actually falls on a Saturday this year, the FrightFest Halloween All-Nighter took place a week earlier, and was an All-Dayer instead, beginning at 11am and ending round midnight. While this represents a break from tradition, not a single person present was complaining, for it was full house at the Prince Charles Cinema, FrightFest’s original home, and at this more civilised time the audience was actually able to stay awake throughout the six features on offer. These programmed films offered their own breaches of convention, taking the clichés of genre for a little spin. Indeed two of the titles did not even qualify as horror at all.
Matt Hullum’s opener Lazer Team was a science-fiction comedy, imagining what would happen if a high-tech alien combat suit sent down to Milford, Texas to help a carefully selected and highly trained ‘Champion of the Earth’ to defend the planet against an extra-terrestrial aggressor were instead to fall into the hands, feet and (in one case) head of a quartet of local idiots and losers. What ensues is a strange blend of tokusatsu-style Power Rangers action, cheesy CGI effects, small-town tomfoolery and crude gags, as these four misfits must confront their unresolved issues and work as an improbable team (on a football field), even if they are more focused on masturbation and keeping out of harm’s way than on saving the world. It is a smart(ish) film about dumb people (something to which the spelling of the title cunningly alludes), deconstructing – before ultimately revalidating – the ensemble heroics currently so beloved of the Marvel mainstream.
Similarly lacking any connection to horror – unless an interrogation scene qualifies as ‘torture porn’ – was Momentum, the feature debut of Clint Eastwood’s regular camera operator Stephen S. Campanelli. In keeping with its title, this action thriller never stops moving (except when Olga Kurylenko’s kickass heroine Alex has her leg literally caught in a vice), racing through its series of genre routines in the hope that speed alone can cover over any cracks.
When we first meet Alex, she is involved in a high-tech bank heist (her ‘one last job’, inevitably), before she encounters Mr Washington (James Purefoy camping it up with a vengeance) and his crew, who have been sent by a treasonous US senator (Morgan Freeman, cast against type) to retrieve an incriminating file. In a breathless game of cat and mouse, ‘entry specialist’ Alex will outfight, outwit and outclass these “serious fucking cleaners”, while jumping down laundry chutes like Nikita and treading barefoot on glass like Die Hard’s John McClane. Yet while it is commendable to have a strong female protagonist so prominent on the screen – if rather less commendable to have her occasionally shot at low angle in her underwear in case we forget that she is female – there was something a little empty, bland even, about this exercise in pure genre.
What was missing from Momentum was the sort of reason- and physics-defying insanity that someone like Mark Neveldine (Crank) might have brought to the action – but Neveldine was instead here turning his hand to horror, after his dry run at the helm of 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The Vatican Tapes is a po-faced merger of exorcism tropes and found footage, as a young woman’s demonic possession – and perhaps the end of the world – is presented through a collection of CCTV footage and home video collated for a Vatican archive.
“I know sometimes the cameras can be a little off-putting,” the ironically named Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is told by her psychiatrist – and it is true that the constant interruption of the film’s more ‘objective’ camerawork with faddish intra-diegetic recordings (dated and subtitled as ‘Vatican Tapes’) feels obtrusive and not altogether necessary, even if the end leaves the interesting impression that this particular demon wants to be documented, plays to the cameras, and knows exactly how to use modern media to deliver its ancient message. Still, it is not clear that this hodgepodge of exorcism and possession clichés quite merits the apocalyptic sequel it craves – and there are moments in the confrontation between Angela and Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson) that flirt uncomfortably with justifying clerical abuses as just a part of the Church’s endless battle against Satan.
As it happens, The Vatican Tapes was only the first of three films shown over the day that featured a heroine named Angela. In Sheldon Wilson’s The Unspoken (here for its world première), Angela (Jodelle Ferland) is a local teenager in a small town where, 17 years earlier, a family had vanished from its home under mysterious circumstances. Now, for the first time since, that house by the woods has new occupants – a single mother from the city with her young, mute son Arthur (Sunny Suljic) – and Angela, hired to babysit the boy, becomes aware, and increasingly alarmed, by a strange presence that haunts both the house and her dreams.
In one sequence, Angela searches for the hidden Arthur and, faced with noises from the bedroom closet and movement under the bed, must decide in which locus of childhood anxieties to look first. The film too is spoilt for choice in the haunted-house tropes it so gleefully gets to have both ways – and if all these clichés make The Unspoken sound like a product of unremitting (if effective) conventionality, there is a subversive twist in the tail that overturns all expectation, and comes up with a new, if no less incredible, explanation for old hauntings.
Only the most niche of audiences will be excited at the prospect of a second sequel to Steven R. Monroe’s 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman), Meir Zarchi’s notoriously ‘nasty’ rape revenger from 1978 – and yet, with I Spit on Your Grave 3: Vengeance Is Mine, director R.D. Braunstein (new to the franchise) has produced something far richer and more confronting than any of the other entries in this renewed series, finding new edges at which to push the original’s ‘feministsploitation’.
Here the survivor (and ultimate slaughterer) of the first film Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) is living in Los Angeles under the false name ‘Angela’, and struggling through issues of fear, anger and mistrust in an urban jungle where men continue casually to objectify and abuse women. So the film begins, like this year’s Final Girl and Last Girl Standing, as a study of victimhood’s afterlife and the scars of survival, while filtering its events through the distorting lens of Angela’s PTSD and violent fantasies.
At a rape-victims’ support group, Jennifer meets Marla Finch (Jennifer Landon), whose very name alludes to the support group-haunting Marla in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). Soon Angela is drawn by her new friend into acts of vicious vigilantism against rapists – yet as these acts escalate in their brutal sadism, and as Jennifer’s targets become less and less obviously criminal, our sympathies become very complicated, and we are left wondering whether ‘Angela’ is a righteous angel of vengeance or a deluded Lucifer, with the police, the judicial system and even therapy also found conspicuously wanting.
Like the best revenge flicks, I Spit On Your Grave 3: Vengeance Is Mine foregrounds then interrogates its own fantasy, before punishing us with whatever moral conclusion we choose to draw. Picking up where Monroe’s ‘original’ left off, and pretending – as we would all like to – that I Spit On Your Grave 2 never existed, this is without question the best of the series, and a whole lot better than one might imagine.
There were also two short films screened on the day. Damon Rickard’s The Package is a subgenre-splicing two- (or is it three-?) hander that starts in the Reservoir Dogs-style aftermath of a heist gone wrong, quickly devolves into a toolbox torture scenario (as a thief tries to secure the location of the titular package from the captive colleague who has betrayed him), and finally introduces a ferocious sting in its tail.
Meanwhile Nick Denboear and Davy Force’s The Chickening splatters digi-graffiti over pre-existing footage from The Shining (1980) to form a hilariously postmodern reimagining of the Kubrick classic with added aliens, ’tecs and mutant poultry.
My favourite film of the day was Nick Gillespie’s Belly of the Bulldog – aka Tank 432 – here enjoying its world première. Gillespie is a regular collaborator of Ben Wheatley, and this feature too edges from a war zone to something more hallucinatory in a field of England, even if the setting is present-day.
“It doesn’t make any fucking sense,” comments a soldier, faced with a pile of decapitated corpses in a farm complex – and his words will resonate with the combat scenario in which these six mercenaries, their two hooded prisoners and a traumatised, terrified civilian find themselves. With two of their number left behind after their brief stay at the farm ends in “a massive fuckup”, the rest will flee to an abandoned Bulldog tank in which they become trapped, beleaguered by something monstrous outside. Yet as their situation becomes more confused, and their behaviour more erratic, there may be more than just the fog of war at work here.
Playing out its war games like a heady blend of Dog Soldiers and Jacob’s Ladder, Belly of the Bulldog is a highly claustrophobic locked-room mystery set on a battlefield, where the precise source of what has these men and women so rattled remains both signified and obscured by the colour orange (not just the prisoner’s jumpsuits, but also recurrent splashes of the hue in the most unexpected of places). Freely adapting this first feature from an earlier short, Gillespie is a confident enough filmmaker to let viewers read the bulldog’s entrails and make sense of this puzzling narrative – told very much from the inside – for themselves. The results are a bewildering trip through the military machine and mindset.
© Anton Bitel