The Best (and not-so-Best) of the Rest Of FrightFest 2014

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

Horror has a new home. Those who have questioned this year’s move from Empire to VUE fall into a long tradition of horror nostalgists who have hankered for FrightFests past in previous digs the Odeon West End, or before that the Prince Charles’ Cinema. Yet horror, like cinema itself, must always be forward- as well as backward-looking – and despite some major hiccups initially in the ticketing system, excellent organisation ensured that a potentially very complicated set-up over five separate screens at VUE in fact ran very smoothly, enabling FrightFest to expand its genre showcase to an astonishing 64 titles over four and a half days. We already have full reviews of 32 of these – but here is a round-up of the rest of the fest, including several of my festival favourites (Creep, R100, Another, Alleluia), as well as some true shockers (in every sense).

Adam (You’re Next) Wingard’s festival opener The Guest (written by his usual filmmaking partner Simon Barrett) set the perfect mood for the weekend to come. A John Carpenter-esque 80s action/bunny-boiler flick set in post-9/11 smalltown America, it stars Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens, thoroughly reinventing himself as a charismatic war hero/villain made, rather than born, to be the super-efficient psychokiller that he is. Gleefully mashing up multiple oldschool genres while still importing contemporary anxieties about the homeland’s recent conduct in foreign wars, The Guest is slyly smart, without ever forgetting to be fun.

Overall, this year’s FrightFest was a very solid selection, but there was inevitably some rough alongside the smooth. Jordan Rubin’s Zombeavers is a one-joke film – and the joke is in the title. Thereafter, even the oft repeated gags about ‘beavers’ overliteralise their own innuendo to less than amusing effect. Meanwhile Jessica Cameron’s debut Truth or Dare, in which a popular group of YouTubers is infiltrated by their ‘number one fan’ for a night of live(ish)-streamed horror, sets out to expose the excess, amorality, and insta-fame obsession of the online video-posting community, but is neutered by the endless melodrama of its revelations (truth!) and the taboo-busting extremity of its depraved acts (dare!). Every ‘character’ is ridiculous, the performances are porn-shoot broad, the dialogue is shrill and repetitive, and the excess is a pointless litany of torture (from which the players tend to recover with cartoonish resilience) – and so a film whose satire depends upon a careful distinction between the real and the fake is never convincingly able to escape its own icky artifice.

Even films by well-known genre directors were not always successful. Among The Living is a strange, nasty mash-up of (mostly) Stand By Me (1986) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), as a trio of delinquent boys accidentally witness the abduction of a woman by a freakish family who live in an abandoned movie studio. Yet while this overt genre playground may accommodate all manner of film references and cliches, co-directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo quickly lose their way, remembering all the by-numbers slash and dash but forgetting any point that they might have been trying to make. In the end Among The Living feels more like an exercise than a feature – and is a considerable step down from the filmmaking duo’s previous works Inside (2007) and Livid (2011).

The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s homage to Cannibal Holocaust (1980), is thematically of a piece with the director’s influential Hostel (2005) in its focus on the experience of clueless, meddling Americans abroad. Unfortunately it also shares with Hostel Roth’s inability to settle on a consistent or compelling tone. If it is a biting satire of homegrown liberal do-gooder-ism and social-media activism, then it is also decidedly xenophobic. If Roth positively relishes calling out co-ed idiocy, he also cannot resist inserting his own insensitive fratboy gags, so that fart jokes and stoner humour are made to sit awkwardly alongside all the gruesome butchery. And it wants to horrify viewers with the grim details of anthropophagy and female genital mutilation, even as it tries to adopt an attitude of cultural relativism. I cannot recall ever having seen any other film set out so clearly the step-by-step process of preparing a human body for consumption – but when they have the munchies, these cannibal gourmands seem equally content to forgo all culinary niceties and just eat their victims live and raw. Some may find the film’s ideological contradictions a little harder to swallow.

One big genre name who did deliver was Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire, Vinyan). Taking the cause célèbre of late 40s ‘Honeymoon killers’ Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, updating it to the present day and relocating it to Belgium’s Ardennes region, his Alleluia is a sweeping, swooning tale of amour fou. The attempts by lonely single mother Gloria (Lola Dueñas) and seductive con artist Michel (Laurent Lucas) to fashion themselves as protagonists in a romantic comedy – or even a musical – are constantly subverted by the shabbily brutal reality of their deeds, so that Du Welz can reflect on the psychopathy not just of his characters, but of the ideals of cinema itself. The results are all at once funny, intense and rather strange, with a fetishistic fixation on shoes and feet that hardly ground all the flights of madness.

Speaking of the strange (and the metacinematic), in Matsumoto Hitoshi’s R100 a middle-aged single father (Ichi the Killer‘s Omori Nao) pursues a rarefied form of guilty pleasure via a secretive S&M club, only to find both his professional and domestic life being turned upside down by his own errant desires. All of which is accompanied by disco interludes, monstrous dominatrices, vox pops from minor characters, and a chorus of classifiers left bewildered by the film that they (and we) are watching. R100 is insanely inventive and riotously reflexive, but for all its wild excursions it always stays true to the conflicted psychology of its protagonist, forced all at once to play father, mother and breadwinner while seeking his furtive thrills on the side. Matsumoto’s film is not for everyone (something which its very title semi-cryptically reflects), but it was definitely one of my festival highlights.

Similarly weird is Jason Bognacki’s Another, a massively mannered, hyperaesthetic fever dream concerned with a young woman (Audrey Hepburn lookalike Ana Paula Redding) coming of age and shouldering her absent mother’s legacy. Part trippy riff on the cultish coven of Suspiria (1977), part modern retelling of Snow White, Another more than makes up for occasional shortcomings in its script with a disorienting barrage of lysergically edited, disjointedly beautiful imagery. If giallo-esque freakouts are your bag, if you worship at the altar of Amer (2009) and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013), you will not want to miss this oneiric oddity. Put simply, Another was another weekend favourite.

Also modernising fairytale motifs is The Harvest, a twisted tale of maternity, medicine, mortality and madness from John McNaughton (Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer). This classically crafted thriller boasts stunning performances from Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon as a married couple turned into all-too-human monsters by their love for an ailing son, and exposes the unimaginable dysfunction concealed within a tragedy-afflicted family. Very different, but equally focused on the desire to reintegrate the American dream of home and family, Nicolas (The Pact) McCarthy’s Home juggles Satanism and socioeconomic commentary, not to mention different timelines, as more than one of its characters seeks a place to take up permanent residence in a recessionary nation. It is subtle and rather unusual, but also resonant and rewarding in retrospect.

FrightFest is always, like the genres that it celebrates, playing host to sequels. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For offers more of the old cartoonish hyper-hardboiled noir, with the introduction of 3D making this (mostly) monochrome CG world seem even more stylised and artificial. Often nude and always hyper-sexual, Eva Green is both divine seductress within the story, and overtly cast as the film’s main attraction to the paying punter. Her character is advertised (and objectified) by the film’s title, while her image is the controversial come-on of the poster – and this most fatale of femmes becomes the focal point for an exploration of women, representation, manipulation and misogyny. Yet despite all the chronological leaps and intersecting storylines, there is something a little shapeless about these four episodes from Miller’s graphic novels, with the closing credits suddenly rolling at what seems an entirely arbitrary point.

I was not exactly looking forward to seeing Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead, but was quickly won over by the wickedly savvy genre pastiche it disinters from the original, and by its gleefully taboo-busting bad taste. Children, people in wheelchairs, mothers pushing prams – they are all there to be dispatched in spectacularly bloody fashion as age-old conflicts between Nazis and Soviet forces are resurrected, with only a trio of nerdy American zombie fanatics, a closeted war museum attendant, and the first film’s hero Martin (Stig Frode Henriksen), here rearmed and hybridised, to save contemporary Norway from its undead past. Heeding no rules of zombie tradition, let alone of decorum, this zom-com sequel fully justifies itself simply for being very funny – and somehow, despite all the splatter, it is too amiable ever to seem mean-spirited.

The three instalments comprising V/H/S Viral themselves represent the third instalment in an ongoing franchise that showcases the talents of cutting-edge indie horror filmmakers while confining them to a first-person, found footage format. Anthology films are always bitty and uneven, but little links placed in each of these stories convey at least the illusion of overall coherent shape – and where every episode of V/H/S 2 followed the same basic structure, the stories here all differ wildly from each other in style and substance, despite sharing a common Satanic theme. The whole package is a fast and furious barrage of in-your-face mayhem and digital trickery, perhaps no better than its predecessors, but certainly more varied and more constantly arresting.

Found footage (not to mention viral marketing, and the whole current economic model for independent horror) was more or less invented by Eduardo Sánchez with The Blair Witch Project (1999), and radically reinvented in the psychological mix of his Lovely Molly (2011). Yet this great innovator in ‘subjective’ camerawork has, with his wild and hairy bigfoot revenge slasher Exists, produced something unexpectedly ordinary. It does not even adhere consistently to its own found footage format (there is occasional ‘objective’, extradiegetic camerawork here, infrequent enough to stand out like a sasquatch, and the unnecessary addition of a score also undermines the ‘reality effect’). The practical creature effects are convincing, though, even if the scale of the beast changes from scene to scene – but this feels as though it is merely following in the bigger, better footprints of Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek (2013).

In Edward Boase’s The Mirror, three friends try to document the paranormal for a cash prize, not quite realising that the mirror which they purchased from eBay really is cursed. The set-up follows the usual found-footage trajectory, with quotidian normality and interpersonal banter gradually admitting something altogether more otherworldly and irrational – but Boase modulates these tropes expertly, finding charming and funny dysfunction in the characters, and eventually bringing a genuine creepiness to his claustrophobic footage – almost entirely confined to the interior of a modern London flat. Most interestingly of all, he has one character constantly editing and deleting key sections of film (or just switching off the cameras) so that, besides the footage found, there remains much unseen and left to the imagination – as befits a film that in the end really goes for the eyes.

Creep, directed by and starring Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass, follows Aaron (Brice), a nice guy (his niceness being his greatest flaw) who has answered an ad online to shoot a video diary of Josef (Duplass, never better). Josef claims that he has a brain tumour and wishes, before dying, to make a personalised film for his unborn son – but as the day goes on, and Josef plays alarming pranks, tells weird personal stories and doesn’t seem to want Aaron to leave, the cameraman starts wondering if his host might have a less salubrious agenda. Finely scripted so that each meandering anecdote introduces its own insidious tension, and boasting note-perfect performances of schlubby, amiable super-duper-creepiness, Creep is all at once hilarious and jump-out-of-your-seat terrifying, and so so wrong that it is oh so very right. Less found than stored footage, and misleading the viewer every step of the way, this is, along with Coherence, my clear favourite of the weekend, and really needs to be snapped up fast by a canny distributor.

In fact the bait-and-trap plotting of Zachary Donohue’s The Den is not so very different from that of Creep, except that Donohue’s antagonist, far from being a weirdo loner, is organised and online. The Den innovatively restricts (and opens up) its footage almost entirely to intradiegetic images viewed on characters’ computer or phone screens, and taps into contemporary anxieties about both the very public nature – and anonymity – of the lives that we lead online, building towards a sadistic, cynical ending reminiscent of My Little Eye and Demonlover (both 2002). Playing a similar game of restricting its view to a computer screen, Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows (get it) stars Sasha Grey, an actress whose work in hardcore porn has allowed viewers to get to know her inside out without ever really knowing her at all – and so she becomes the film’s perfect avatar for constructed celebrity, appearing on multiple screens in ever more manipulated and fragmented forms, with seemingly everyone wanting a piece of her. By the end the narrative manipulations of Vigalondo’s films become too convoluted for their own good, but it is a fun ride through our new virtual existences.

There was also a solid selection of documentaries this year. Besides Doc of the Dead, there was Eric Sharkey’s Drew: The Man Behind The Poster which celebrates the extraordinary career of Drew Struzan. This artist has created some of the most iconic poster art of the Eighties and Nineties, including the imagery for The Thing, E.T. -The Extraterrestrial, and the Back to the Future, Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. His great influence in shaping the way we receive films can be seen in the incredible array of Hollywood luminaries (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Frank Darabont, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, etc.) lining up to sing his praises – but the documentary is also a sly elegy for a changing Hollywood where real hands-on artistry is being replaced by the rush to digital homogeneity.

Even better is David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau, which joins the ranks of Lost in La Mancha (2002), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009) and Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) as a making-of for a film that never got made – or at least never as intended. Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) embarked upon a very transgressive-sounding adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, only to be undone by unsupportive producers, an egomaniacal lead, a hurricane, and quite possibly personal shortcomings. Then, after being fired from his own movie and replaced by John Frankenheimer (who radically rewrote the script), Stanley returned to the set disguised as a dog-man extra. There is probably no foundation to the rumours that Stanley intended to sabotage the production – but in any case, leads Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando proved more than capable of doing this themselves. Famously, Frankenheimer’s final product, released in 1996, is a travesty. The anecdotes here are frank and fascinating, and there are few raconteurs more mesmerising than Stanley.

Adam Green’s Digging Up The Marrow excavates the murkier terrain of the mockumentary. Green (as himself) interviews various (real) artists and filmmakers about the nature, symbology and psychology of monsters, before attempting to capture (maybe) real monsters by a cemetery in a national park where William Dekker (overtly ‘played’ by genre favourite Ray Wise) claims to have discovered a gateway to a Midian-like underground world (dubbed ‘the Marrow’). The results, less ‘found footage’ than – as Green calls it – ‘footage footage’, are a very funny, self-reflexive mash-up of documentary and fiction which focuses precisely on issues of belief, make believe, and the biting nature of reality. This was FrightFest’s own good-humoured F is for Fake.

We already have full reviews of The Babadook, Housebound, The Canal, The Sleeping Room and Dead Within, all of which are, to varying degrees, ghost stories. The unrestful dead also haunted David Campbell’s Lemon Tree Passage and Chad Archibald’s The Drownsman, both of which concerned vengeful spirits reaching out from beyond watery graves, and neither of which could quite escape a certain generic leadenness. Far more enjoyable was Tedi Sarafian’s Altergeist, which fully exploits its unusual vineyard setting, makes fun of its own hackneyed tropes (asking who exactly makes those creepy-looking dolls you always see in horror movies), and finds novel ways to reverse-engineer an apparent ghost story into something with a rather different genre frame.

If Altergeist was a horror-SF crossover, there were other science fiction offerings this year that avoided horror altogether. Set in a future of desperately depleted resources and murderously clashing faiths (sound familiar?), and matching big ideas to its small budget, Jay Weisman’s Shockwave Darkside wraps its discourse on theology and eschatology in lunar SF adventure. You can’t fault its heady ambition, or its way of orbiting around real world issues via FPS-style genre; but you might easily object to its confusing overabundance of voiceovers, computer readouts and (at first) near indistinguishable characters, its meandering, altogether too talky narrative, and its frankly terrible 3D that never allows the eyes to focus on anything. Also, the moon does not have a (permanent) dark side. Still, I would much rather see, flaws and all, a film like this that tries to boldly say what no film has said before than, say, just another bland genre rehash.

“They’re fake and hollow and empty inside”, says Bea (Rose Leslie) of the ornamental ducks in the lakeside cabin where she is honeymooning with Paul (Harry Treadaway). In Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, this young couple is still in the full bloom of love, but during their woodland sojourn old identities will be challenged by the prospect of a new shared life and the pressures of reproducing. There is body horror here too, and a recognisable seam of 1950s paranoid SF, but at heart this is a slow-burning allegory of the radical change that comes with marital commitment, as ‘Honey Bea’ finds herself joining the hive of marital partners out there, even as her husband’s personality is submerged.

Criminally unreleased for years in the UK, Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial (2011) may only have been included in this weekend’s lineup to complement the director’s Open Windows and his brilliant contribution to V/H/S Viral, but it certainly merits its place. At the film’s centre (or at least on its periphery) is a giant UFO hovering mysteriously over the city, but the two main characters (who have just had a drunken one night stand) sleep through its arrival, take their time even to notice it, and quickly lose sight of it as their own interpersonal dramas keep coming to the fore. All but forgotten by the end, the giant extraterrestrial ship comes to symbolise the gross fictions and (self-)delusions that humans accommodate in pursuit of their desires, as well as the blinkered view we sometimes have on reality. Few alien invasion films are this charming, this witty, and this free of aliens.

In festival-closer The Signal, smart, competitive MIT computer student Nic (Brenton Thwaites) – whose sky-high ambitions are impeded by debilitating disease – takes a detour from a cross-country trip with his two best friends to pursue a mysterious hacker known as Nomad – only to find something more unexpected out there in the desert. In another director’s hands, The Signal would probably have ended up an action SF along the lines of The Terminator or Future World, full of whizzbang machismo and special effects. Director/co-writer William (Love) Eubank, however, keeps his focus on character and abstraction, and the results come with a beauty all their own. It is as if someone had decided to turn high-concept SF into a lyrical indie poem, where ideas and feelings trump noisy genre gestures – which makes the film stand out, quietly, from the crowd, even as it confronts the bounds of infinity.

Many thanks to FrightFest organisers Greg Day, Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray, and to Helen Nicholson and other personnel at the FrightFest desk.

© Anton Bitel