The Twenty Best FrightFest Films Ever (2013)

Originally published by Little White Lies.

There are some embarrassing omissions (how did I forget Kill List?), but here are 20 of my favourite films to have screened at August FrightFests, 2000-2012.

As this year’s Film4FrightFest approaches, LWLies picks twenty of the best, most interesting or just most downright transgressive films to have screened at FrightFests past. So here is 13 August Bank Holiday weekends’ worth of the wicked and the weird, representing the very finest horror of the new millennium.

20. Calvaire


“Those people are not like you and me,” widowed inn-keeper/comedian Paul Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) warns travelling cabaret singer Marc (Laurent Lucas) of the locals in the backwoods Belgian village where Marc’s van has broken down ahead of Christmas – although Paul has his own confusions about his guest’s identity. In Calvaire, Fabrice du Welz weaves from the tropes of Seventies survival flicks like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Deliverance and Straw Dogs a macabre Yuletide fable of passion and performance, with Marc unwittingly cast as a Jesus forced to take upon himself the sins of others, and to suffer oh so very much for his art. Defying categorisation, Calvaire veers from horror to parable, and from comedy to tragedy, leaving us to work out for ourselves what empty space in our lives its art can fill. That’s entertainment!

19. Triangle


FrightFest had previously featured Christopher Smith’s Creep (FF2004) and Severance (FF2006), but his Triangle is something altogether more mature and sophisticated. As Jess (Melissa George), pressured single mother to an autistic boy, takes a break with some friends on the yacht Triangle, they find themselves seeking refuge from a storm aboard the ocean liner the Aeolus, completely abandoned but for a masked killer who starts taking them out one by one. Yet in a seaborne hell of torment and guilt, this highly allusive film limns a brain-bending enigma, trapping us all at once in an unraveling mind, a never-ending twilight zone, and the prison house of cinema itself. The circle of this infuriatingly nightmarish narrative seems impossible to square, making it like Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year In Marienbad (1961), only set on a boat, in colour, and with a whole lot of blood.

18. Detention


Post-postmodern hipster-hopping meta-teen-comedy Detention throws out high concepts, scattergun allusions, curveball subplots and other (sub)cultural detritus at unparalleled speed, defying viewers to keep up or be left in the last decade. It hilariously dissects a new class of adolescents left to sink or swim in a world of rapidly shifting reference points and values, where they must piece together their identity from an infinity of retro-cultural models and obscure Wiki data no further away than a mouse click, and yet still struggle, like all teens before them, to fit in, find themselves (and the guy or girl of their dreams), and get an A – if not save the world. And while there is no genre that the angst and ecstasy of growing pains cannot inhabit, part of the genius of Joseph Kahn’s film (co-written with Mark Palermo) is to mash up all these different genres into a protean plot that simply defies summary, and yet somehow is all made to cohere, impossibly, in the end.

17. A Night of Nightmares


Alt-music vlogger Mark (Marc Senter) and out-there artist Ginger (Elissa Dowling) spend a long dark(ly funny) night of the soul together in Ginger’s desert cabin, beleaguered by intruders both external and internal. Buddy Giovinazzo’s A Night of Nightmares is a modestly budgeted film that keeps its (maybe) supernatural mechanics secondary to strong characterisation and nuanced dialogue. It might be dismissed as a romantic quirkfest were it not so deviously twisty and unfathomably creepy – although, even after the penny has dropped, it never loses any of its immense charm, which is the rarest of commodities in this genre.

16. Rabies


The feature debut of writers/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, and one of the first genre films ever to emerge from Israel, Rabies opens with a scene that promises familiar slasher business, before more or less forgetting all about its rapist/killer-on-the-loose and shifting its focus to a Coens-style ensemble clusterfuck of missteps, misunderstandings and misdemeanours. Apart from the nocturnal prologue, these all take place in broad daylight, in a small strip of woodland that becomes both a Bermuda triangle and a microcosm of Israel’s complex social and political landscape – a veritable minefield where the twinned senses of entitlement and entrapment have produced a treacherous environment best trodden very carefully. Anyone who has seen this will have very high expectations indeed for the same filmmakers’ FF2013 closer Big Bad Wolves.

15. The Neighbour No 13


While probably the least known of all the titles listed here, Inoue Yasuo’s The Neighbour No. 13 certainly earns its place amongst the most striking and uncompromising genre films of the last decade. Based on Inoue Santa’s manga Rinjin 13-gô, it is the Jekyll-and-Hyde story of Juzo (Oguri Shun), a down-trodden construction worker who unleashes his mute, id-like alter ego No. 13 (Nakamura Shido) upon realising that his tenement block neighbour (Hirofumi Arai), now married with a young son, is the same person who once viciously bullied him in school. A delirious mindmelt of avoidable abuse and abject consequence, the film’s psychological intensity and unflinching aggression are delivered in a package of jarringly hallucinatory visuals – including a memorable slamdance between the naked Juzo and No. 13 in an isolated bunker beyond space and time.

14. American Mary


As Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) abandons her medical studies to become an in-demand surgeon for the underground body modification community, she carries out a cool vengeance upon the male medical instructor who abused her. Yet if rape-revenge forms the basic contours of Jen and Sylvia Soska’s dark yet dazzling film, there is far more concern here to contrast America’s economically stratified, misogynistic mainstream with the more accepting margins in which the filmmaking twins themselves have been able to thrive. Caught between these two worlds, Mary becomes a kind of Frankenstein’s monster whose scars and sutures eventually show. The results are a surgical strike against the American dream itself, as well as a Lynchian portrait of a woman in trouble.

13. Dark Water


Nakata Hideo will perhaps always be best known for the foundational J-horror Ringu (1998), but his Dark Water is better. After winning a bitter custody battle, Yoshimi (Kuroki Hitomi) moves into an apartment building with her six-year-old daughter Ikuko (Kanno Rio), and as she slowly unravels before the clashing demands of work and single motherhood, a ghostly girl begins haunting the dank building, bringing Yoshimi’s unhappy memories of her own childhood flooding back. This serious, sombre examination of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and the tradition of abandonment that she has both inherited and will herself pass on, Dark Water is full of aqueous apparitions, allowing its creepy atmospherics to drip with a deep, dark sadness.

12. Let The Right One In


It is October 1981 in icy Stockholm, and the news reports of a Soviet breach of Sweden’s borders form the background of another Cold War in which meek, disturbed young Oskar (Kåre Hedebrandt) fantasises acts of violent vengeance against his bullying tormentors. As if on cue, Eli (Lena Landersson) moves into the nextdoor apartment with an older guardian – and these two lonely children form a friendship even as the neighbourhood is struck with a series of bizarre murders. Adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, Tomas Alfredson’s moody, lyrical chiller came as a welcome antidote to the tween superficialities of Twilight (released in the same year), bringing artful psychological subtlety to its pre-adolescent angst.

11. TimeCrimes


With a tortuously meticulous narrative structure as its only special effect, Nacho Vigalondo‘s low-budget feature debut keeps wrong-footing the viewer with its straight-as-an-arrow journey through events where the normal strictures of chronology simply no longer apply. This immaculate time-travel movie may tie us in knots, but its protagonist’s increasingly desperate attempts to get back to where he started are rooted in a compellingly noirish moral frame, following one man’s errant gaze through to its point of no return. By foregrounding the observer’s paradox within his ingeniously convoluted plotting, Vigalondo presents us with a confronting piece of meta-cinema, drawing our eye with a flash of flesh, only to show us just where our voyeuristic desires can lead.

10. OldBoy


For a brief time, FrightFest became an outlet for ‘Asia extreme’ titles that were not horror in any traditional sense, but that certainly focused on human outrages within shifting genre frames. Miike’s Gozu (FF2003), Oxide Pang Chun’s The Tesseract (FF2004), Kim Ki-duk‘s The Isle (2001), Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (FF2005) all fall under this rubric, but perhaps the most memorable is Park Chan-wook’s OldBoy, a violent Hitchcockian revenger’s tale that blends riotously unhinged black comedy, engagingly twisted thrills and horrific family tragedy in a strikingly mannered package. Park plays the viewer like a master mesmerist, while proving that revenge is a squid dish best served alive.

9. Berberian Sound Studio


Set in the rarefied world of an Italian post-production studio in the 1970s, Peter Strickland’s mannered Lynchian meta-movie conjures an unseen film-within-a-film entirely from the sounds that English acoustic engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) creates with his analogue equipment and a small crew of foley artists. As the misogyny onscreen bleeds into the workspace, Gilderoy’s own complicit part in the film comes into sharp focus, and his English reserve and linguistic isolation are revealed to be mere psychogenic fugue from a crueller, harsher reality. Berberian Sound Studio is less a horror movie than a hermetic investigation of the blood, sweat and moral compromise that go into making one.

8. The Devil’s Backbone


Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone does for the ghost story what his later, equally excellent Pan’s Labyrinth (which opened FF2006) does for the dark fairytale. Both films in this diptych use the popular forms of genre to adumbrate both the particular horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and the more general conflict between the forces of fascism and freedom. As a ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone is impeccable, its watery spectre perhaps the best ever realised on screen and a compelling counterargument to those who automatically dismiss CGI – but it is as historical allegory that the film really distinguishes itself, tying its horrors to something all too real.

7. Martyrs


Born out of writer/director Pascal Laugier’s deep depression, Martyrs hits the ground running with a breathless, bloody mash-up of different horror subgenres (home invasion, ghost story, psychodrama, torture porn) while also thoroughly confounding our sympathies for its two young female leads (Marjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï), before finally setting on a more meditative contemplation of suffering. As such, this most confronting of films is all at once a wrong-footing showcase of extreme horror modes, and an interrogation of our own motives in willingly witnessing such excess. Regardless of whether there was any truth to the rumour that one FrightFester had to retreat to the toilets to vomit, there is no question that this is a very strong film – but it is also reaching towards something intensely transcendent, even spiritual, in all its depravities, even if it positions the voyeuristic filmgoer as excluded from any real enlightenment. There is nothing else quite like it.

6. Red White & Blue


If Simon Rumley’s FrightFest debut The Living and the Dead (FF2006) deployed a crescendo of hallucinatory montage and cross-cutting to tell its story of a mentally ill young man’s tragic descent, then in his follow-up Red White & Blue Rumley once again lets the editing do much of the heavy narrative work, through an impressionistic barrage of images that echoes the disconnection of his three star-crossed characters via a staccato syntax of cinema. In this allegory of Noughties America, an HIV-infected bedhopper (Amanda Fuller), a feckless mother’s boy (Marc Senter) and a drifter with a torturous past (Noah Taylor) each execute acts of asymmetric, misdirected vengeance that ultimately become bound up, however obliquely, in US foreign policy. The horror here is all the more confronting for being utterly human, and entirely evitable.

5. The Signal


David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry each direct their own ‘transmission’ in this tripartite mindmelt that tells a continuous story (in wildly different genres) of a destructive love triangle amidst accelerated social breakdown. As the citizens of Terminus rapidly succumb to a madness induced by a strange television signal (while remaining thoroughly convinced of their own sanity), the ensuing behavioural extremes make it impossible, as in George A Romero’s The Crazies (1973), to tell the sick from the sound. Meanwhile, jarring shifts of perspective and tone leave viewers wondering how this film’s hyperviolent signal might be messing with their own heads. By turns horrifically shocking, blackly funny and tearily transcendent, this is a singular trip though our crazily mediated times.

4. Donnie Darko


FrightFest can be a broad church, admitting all manner of curios and oddities that defy easy categorisation. Richard Kelly’s high-concept Donnie Darko, e.g., crosses genres and travels back in time, pursuing the paranoid schizophrenic teen Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) down a rabbithole/wormhole into an alternative universe, and exposing along the way the darker undercurrents of Reagan’s ’80s. Bold hardly covers the ideological richness and moral complexity of this astonishing debut, where theoretical physics, madness, Messianism and Halloween horror all come crashing down on the Darkos’ suburban home, exploding one of America’s most conservative decades. Its ending is all at once highly moving and mind-bendingly paradoxical, ensuring that multiple replays… repay.

3. Amer


FrightFest has seen several attempts by Italian directors to revive their nation’s giallo subgenre, but the broad pastiche of Dario Argento’s Giallo (FFF2009) and Federico Zampaglione’s Tulpa (FF2012) merely elicited derisive guffaws from audiences knowing enough to see the turkeys beneath all the crystal plumage. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer, however, is the real deal: chronicling three key phases of a woman’s journey into sexual repression and deathly deviancy, this near wordless sensorama distils the sights and sounds of giallo into a headily transcendent quintessence, all set to a score lovingly magpied from various Seventies Italian genre pics. Amer is a beautiful, haunting and perplexing study of eros and thanatos – and few films have been so deliciously tactile in their terror. 

2. Pontypool


Pontypool showed in the first year of FrightFest’s Discovery strand (now a two-screen festival staple), and immediately established Empire 4 as the place where genre could play with its own outer margins. Bruce McDonald’s film smoothtalks its way disorientingly through otherwise overfamiliar zombie tropes, confining its disaster-and-siege plot to a snowbound radio station in rural Canada, and reducing the apocalypse to a semiological breakdown in which the violent severing of signifier from signified becomes all at once linguistic virus and cure. The fierce intelligence and labyrinthine wordplay of Tony Burgess’ screenplay (radically reworked from his own novel), not to mention the mesmerising central performance from Stephen McHattie (as an increasingly addled shockjock), all make this one of the last decade’s most memorable and multivalent horror films.

1. Audition


“Kiri kiri kiri…”

When Audition screened at the very first FrightFest, filmgoers did not quite know what had hit them. Lulled into a false sense of security by the hip Scream-style postmodern irony that had dominated the second half of the Nineties, not to mention by the film’s own slow-burning domestic drama, they were suddenly confronted with a climax so torturously visceral that it left them, like its protagonist, both paralysed to the spot and overstimulated in the senses, so that for some, just hearing or reading the three words above can to this day be enough to provoke Pavlovian squirming and wincing. Audition held a key place of influence upon the decade that would follow, occupying (and varying) the vanguard of J-horror, while anticipating (and also outclassing) the whole ‘torture porn’ subgenre (significantly, director Takashi Miike cameos in Hostel).

Viewed through the retrospective filter of both the US’s ‘Gitmo-ised’ Noughties foreign policy and countless subsequent race-to-excess ‘torture porn’ flicks , Audition‘s last reel might now seem a little tamer in its effect – but this just allows all that precedes it to come into sharper focus, revealing a film of two very distinct (and distinctly colour-coded) halves, carefully divided into theme and (Lynchian) fugue.

With his teenaged son’s encouragement, middle-aged widower Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is trying to move onto a new relationship with the much younger, ideal-seeming Asami (Eihi Shiina), whom he has met while pretending to conduct auditions for a phantom film. Yet as their relationship becomes serious, Shigeharu finds himself racked all at once by the intense loss and grief that still remain raw since his wife’s death seven years earlier, by the sense of marital betrayal that his reawakened sexual interest has engendered, by the guilty feelings that his rather underhanded approach to Asami has created (“I feel like a criminal,” he says), and by his general incomprehension and fear of women.

After Shigeharu finally sleeps with Asami in the film’s midway crux, all these essentially psychological torments are given full physical expression in an unfolding nightmare of erotic paranoia, gynophobia and horrific (self-)punishment. Although this second half, reconstituted from lines and motifs that appeared in the first half, is heavily signposted as a dream (it is modulated by images of Shigeharu sleeping and replete with irrational leaps of locational and personal identity), many viewers have struggled to see past its cruelly bludgeoning impact to the sweeter reality lying alongside, and have therefore confused Shigeharu’s misogyny with the film’s own, assuming sincere, sensitive Asami to be the terrifying figure that Shigeharu imagines. Yet to rewatch Miike’s trauma-inducing (and trauma-preoccupied) film now, in the cold light of day, is to realise the truth of Shigeharu’s words, recurring several times in the film: “It’ll be hard to get over, but you’ll find life is wonderful one day.”

[I can be heard discussing Audition in much greater detail on this podcast for Moving Pictures Film Club]

© Anton Bitel