First published by Grolsch FilmWorks
While FrightFest started out in 2000 (and continues) as a long August weekend of horror and fantasy off Leicester Square, it has long since spread its wicked wings to a regular Halloween all-nighter (now in multiple UK cities), while also establishing a second weekend camp at the genre end of the Glasgow Film Festival. Far from being a dumping ground for films rejected from the ‘main event’, the Glasgow FrightFest accommodates a selection of titles whose release just happens not to coincide with the late Summer – and reminds viewers that horror is not mysteriously confined to the second half of the year. You need only look at some of the past films showcased at Glasgow – e.g. [REC] (plus, later, its sequel), Reeker, DeadGirl, Amer, Splice, Rubber, The Raid – to dispel any doubts as to the quality and eclecticism to be found in the programme.
This year’s Glasgow FrightFest is the biggest yet, opening to a Q&A with longtime FrightFest friend Ti West (The Roost, House of the Devil, The Innkeepers). The programme includes West’s latest, The Sacrament – something of a departure from the writer/director’s usual flirtation with the supernatural, but with his trademark handling of slow-build tension fully present and correct. As a photographer (Kentucker Audley) travels to the remote Eden Parish in search of his ex-junkie sister (Amy Seimetz), he is accompanied by two journalist colleagues from VICE (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) who smell a story. Filming everything, they meet the commune’s charismatic leader Father (Gene Jones), and are unsure whether they are being co-opted as PRs for heaven on Earth, or for something far more sinister. West’s choice of a ‘found footage’ format brings immediacy to this riff on Jonestown, while also slyly insinuating that the very presence of the cameras might well play a leading part in the film’s tragic dénouement.
Also featuring the fine-tuned acting talents of sometime director Joe Swanberg, Zack Parker’s Proxy is easily the best of the FrightFest titles that we’ve been able to see in advance. The film opens in a clinical setting, with heavily pregnant Esther (Alexis Rasmussen) looking nervous and distracted during an ob/gyn checkup – and clinical also aptly describes Parker’s distanced, disconnected approach to everything that follows. As Esther crosses the street from her appointment, without warning she is knocked unconscious by a mysterious assailant, who proceeds, repeatedly and brutally, to pound her gravid belly with a brick. This violent assault on Esther, as well as the subsequent death of her unborn baby, is only the first of many jolting surprises in a film that, with Hitchcockian precision (and accompanying Hermann-esque score by the Newton Brothers), keeps reconfiguring our perspective on its events and characters through a series of shocking narrative twists. Suffice it to say that Proxy is a very tautly constructed psychodrama of loneliness, desperation and deepest, darkest fantasy that will confound, upset and provoke viewers like a punch to the gut. If harrowing, human horror is your obsession, this is a film crying out for your attention.
Proxy overcomes the limitations of its low budget with the aspects of filmmaking that, though priceless, can come relatively cheap: an intelligent script (which Parker co-wrote with newcomer Kevin Donner) and committed performances, as well as deft editing that enables Parker to play peekaboo as much with what he cuts as with what he actually puts on screen. Joe Begos’ feature debut Almost Human does pretty much the exact opposite, with a disposable alien abduction story, entirely perfunctory (and repetitive) dialogue, and blank-eyed acting. Yet from the instantly recognisable opening sound of a VHS being inserted into a player, to the titles styled with the typography of John Carpenter’s The Thing, to the ickily ‘probing’ body horror and the 1989 setting, Begos’ film drips and oozes with straight-to-video nostalgia, while pleasingly adopting a more low-rent, hunting-jacket-and-beards version of the 80s in opposition to the sort of lacquered hair, big shoulders and box phones that Hollywood seems to prefer for its Reaganite visions. And in keeping with the age that it celebrates, the effects here are all practical, and agreeably disgusting. It is just a pity that Begos could not cut away from much of the aimless talking the way he does from the body impact shots – but there is more than enough po-faced oldschool inanity here to keep FrightFesters grinning from ear to ear.
Although it does share with Almost Human those classic signifiers of genre cinema, a chainsaw and an axe, Michael S. Ojeda’s Savaged could not be more different, going for outright maximalism where Begos’ film is determinedly minimalist – and although Ojeda’s labour of love (which he wrote, directed, shot and edited himself) is also low-budget, he goes all out to make it look like a million bucks. Driving across New Mexico to be with her black fiancé Dane (March Anthony Samuel), deaf white girl Zoe (Amanda Adrienne) falls foul of a redneck family who have been lynching native Americans for generations, and is shot, violated, stabbed and left for dead – until the ghost of a long-dead Apache chief enters her broken body to wreak a vengeance common to both of them. As overdetermined as it sounds, Savaged is a mixed breed of torture porn, supernatural action and beyond-the-grave romance. Though played entirely straight and often unnervingly nasty, it is also undeniably silly, leaping freely from gut-stretching gore to cornball pathos to close-contact mêlées on moving pickup trucks without once bothering to find any tonal consistency. Its conflicts of race, class and sex are presented in such black-and-white terms (the rednecks are nuance-free repositories of irredeemable evil, whereas wronged Zoe is an avenging ‘angel’) that they offer no kind of meaningful dialectic – while the dialogue itself is never quite as sharp as the chieftain’s war hatchet. It does, however, make very good use of its desert locations, has a number of memorably bananas set-pieces – and of course its sheer balls-to-the-wall messiness is precisely what might make it go down a treat with the right audience.
Last a guest at FrightFest in 2006 with supernatural mystery The Marsh, Jordan Baker returns, this time brandishing backwoods home invasion thriller Torment. Sarah (Katharine Isabelle) has recently married widower Cory Morgan (Robin Dunne), but is struggling to win the affections of Cory’s seven-year-old son Liam (Pete DaCunha),who regards her as an unwelcome intruder and maternal pretender – so when a clan of genuine intruders emerges from the woodwork of the Morgans’ holiday house, the stage is set for a battle between one dysfunctional family and its monstrous reverse, with Liam as the prize. This is a genre film through and through, and Baker knows it, prominently casting horror stalwarts Isabelle (Ginger Snaps, American Mary) and even Stephen McHattie (Pontypool, Summer’s Moon), and throwing in visual references to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the swing outside the house) and The Shining (the axe through the door) to underline the theme of perverted family. The killers in their grotesquely childish masks (fashioned from the heads of stuffed animal toys) recall The Strangers (2008) and You’re Next (2011), while also giving the film’s cat-and-mouse a literal face. It is all very derivative – but masked children will always have a creepy uncanniness which Baker certainly know how to exploit. It is just a pity, though, that the script is so pedestrian, especially when the leader of the killer clan starts to speak.
Adapted by Dan Schaffer from his own graphic novel, and suitably cartoonish in its distorted, hyperstylised CG vision, John Suits’ The Scribbler focuses blurrily on Suki (Katie Cassidy), a patient with dissociative identity disorder. She is trying to explain to a detective (Michael Imperioli) and a psychiatrist (Eliza Dushku) how and why, in the several days since she moved into Juniper Towers, a dripping, brutalist, high-gothic ‘halfway house for the mentally and socially inept’, so many other residents (Sasha Grey, Ashlyn Yennie, Gina Gershon) have ended up a bloody mess on the forecourt – whether because they jumped or were pushed. Suki relates the story of her experimental ‘Siamese burn therapy’, (self-)administered via a prototype machine that has been gradually killing off her alternate personalities one by one, leaving till last the mysterious ‘Scribbler’, who might be a psychotic homicide, or even a superheroine. If the detective becomes confused as to where delusion ends and truth begins in Suki’s tale, then so does the viewer, as Suits mixes motifs from Identity (2003), Donnie Darko (2001) and Sucker Punch (2011) while craftily confounding the vehicle and tenor of his manic metaphor. The result is not so much a locked-room as a locked-mind mystery, sympathetically unravelling its tale of mental illness from an unreliable insider’s perspective, and building a concrete yet highly unstable edifice of ambiguity that only true madness could fully resolve.
Other films in this year’s line-up that we have yet to see are Greg McLean’s sicko-slasher sequel Wolf Creek 2, Cliff Prowse and Derek Lee’s buzzworthy found footage flick Afflicted, Jake West’s follow-up documentary on UK censorship Video Nasties: Draconian Days, Jorge Dorado’s mental detective story Mindscape, and – most anticipated of all – serial killer vs. vigilante psychodrama Killers from the Mo brothers (Macabre).
FrightFest Glasgow opens on 27 February. For the full weekend programme, head over here.