Big things, we are told, have small beginnings. When FrightFest first began in 2000, it was very much a niche festival, held in the Prince Charles Cinema on the margins, both literal and metaphorical, of London’s central cinema strip on Leicester Square. Over that August Bank holiday weekend there were just 17 films screened, including a Dario Argento feature (The Phantom of the Opera) and documentary (Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror) to reflect co-organiser Alan Jones’ own predilection for the giallo subgenre and its crowned king. It was a personal, intimate showcase for a small, specialist audience.
Since then, as horror has re-entered the mainstream with a vengeance and the Noughties have proved a third Golden Age for the genre, FrightFest itself has steadily expanded and metamorphosd into a much larger beast. In 2005 it moved to Screen One of Leicester Squares’s Odeon West End, and then in 2006 it moved again to that cinema’s bigger Screen Two, and started for the first time screening films on Thursday evening and all of Friday. Now receiving corporate sponsorship and renamed accordingly, in 2009 the Film4 FrightFest moved to Leicester Square’s mighty Empire (where it remains today), splitting itself between a Main Programme on the massive Screen One, and a Discovery Programme (for more outré titles) in the cosier confines of Screen Four.
This year’s FrightFest was bigger than ever, with an unprecedented 46 (!) feature titles – plus sundry shorts and trailers – spread over a Main, Discovery and new ReDiscovery Screen. Size, however, is not everything, and what FrightFest has gained in scale has come with a decided dilution of quality. This is, of course, a reflection of the unprecedented amounts of horror that are currently being produced, and affords viewers the kind of customised choice associated with our age of multiple digi-channels, online streaming and LOVEFiLM – but given that it is now physically impossible for any individual (even a full weekend pass holder) to see more than half the films on offer, perhaps the time has come to embrace the recessionary spirit and introduce some belt-tightening quality control.
There were, of course, some real standout films (Berberian Sound Studio, American Mary, A Night of Nightmares, Errors of the Human Body, Eurocrime!, Sleep Tight and Sinister) – but they stood out in part because they were set against much, indeed too much, mediocrity. That at least five of my seven favourites (the last two being the exceptions) occupied spaces on the outermost limits of horror tells its own story about the relatively unhealthy state of the genre’s mainstream.
Thanks to its associations with both bad luck and a certain Crystal Lake-set Eighties slasher franchise, thirteen is a significant number in horror – and so FrightFest the Thirteenth has itself been a crystallisation of sorts, giving festivalgoers an opportunity to take stock and celebrate how far horror has come since the turn of the millennium, and perhaps also to lament what has been lost along the way. Coming full circle, this FrightFest returned to the first FrightFest’s focus on giallo, with Argento himself appearing as this year’s ‘Total Film Icon’ for an onstage tribute, interview and Q&A, and with a strand of Italian neo-gialli.
The latter, however, were something of a disappointment. While the Manetti brothers’ Paura 3D expressly referenced the influence of ‘giallo granddaddy’ Mario Bava, its drab colours and cheap video look failed to live up to Bava’s grand visual aesthetic. Much like the Manettis’ previous The Arrival of Wang (which showed on the ReDiscovery Screen), Paura felt like a decent short film tortuously stretched into feature format, with far too much irksome padding. Meanwhile, the much-anticipated world premiere of Federico (Shadow) Zampaglione’s Tulpa turned into an awkward travesty, reducing the audience to howls of laughter with its pastiche of the very worst aspects of the giallo genre (awful dialogue, bad dubbing, silly plotting, wooden performances) – only for it to become painfully apparent that the cast and crew, present on stage after the screening, had never intended their film to be a joke.
It is not that giallo is dead – for at FrightFest 2010, Belgian filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzanis’ Amer elevated the visual and thematic viscera of giallo to something deliriously sublime – and this year, in different ways, Peter Strickland’s wonderfully Lynchian Berberian Sound Studio (about an English sound engineer doing post-production on a Seventies giallo while suffering a conflict of identity) and Franck Khalfoun’s hallucinatory first-person Maniac remake both paid loving homage to all that is great about the subgenre, as did Ryan Haysom’s Discovery Screen short Yellow. Rather, it just seems that, for the time being, the subgenre is best left out of the hands of its inventors’ natural successors. To judge from this year’s titles, the Italian horror renaissance is something of a stillbirth.
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A degree of repetition was ensured by the sheer number of generically limited films on offer, with the poverty of some inevitably highlighted by the relative superiority of others. The ‘found footage’ format inevitably made several appearances, although what is most interesting is the way in which every shakicam practitioner seemed keen to move the subgenre forward from the now done-to-death tropes of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. This departure from established norms was signaled most succinctly 28 minutes into Paco Plaza’s [REC]3: Génesis, when the character’s camera recording a zombie outbreak at a wedding is suddenly, and symbolically, smashed – even if, once Plaza has bid farewell to intradiegetic camerawork and reverted to more conventional ‘objective’ filmmaking, he seems unable to come up with anything original to replace what made the previous [REC] films so distinctive. Eoin Mackens’ satanic slasher The Inside – for me the most inept film of the weekend – also tries for something new by incorporating a frame story in which the digicam footage is shown being found and watched, although these sections of the film are so badly shot as to be almost indistinguishable visually from all the unfocused running about in the dark that they contain.
Although also held artificially together by an unnecessary and unengaging frame story, the anthology film V/H/S overcomes the potential pitfalls of perspective-driven narrative through the diversity both of its episodes and of the audiovisual devices through which they were mediated (from camcorders to digicams to state-of-the-art cam-concealing glasses to Skype). Stuart Urban’s May I Kill U? (one of the few titles I missed) concocts a comic vigilante plot from a deranged policeman’s helmet-cam – and, best of all, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister weaves found footage, in the form of some old film cans, into a conventional ‘haunted house’ scenario to creepily reflexive effect. It is a sophisticated spin on the dangerous attractions of spectatorship, where first-person POV comes of age, adding uncanny texture rather than simply, drearily dominating everything.
With similar inevitability, zombies also shuffled their way into the programme, struggling to retain a degree of freshness in what has become, through overkill, an increasingly rotten subgenre. The creatures in both [REC]3: Génesis and Steve Barker’s Outpost II: Black Sun are not strictly zombies, even if they exhibit much the same behavioural patterns – but any originality to their undead identity (whether the demonically infected or revenant Nazis) is undermined by their sequel-bound status. Matthias Hoene’s Cockneys Vs Zombies and Martjin Smits & Erwin van den Eshof’s Kill Zombie! both use more conventional walking dead for localised horror comedy with a mild political subtext (social exclusion of the English underclass in the former, Dutch multiculturalism in the latter, bankers’ rapacity in both). Meanwhile, for more unhinged – if similarly forgettable – fun, Iguchi Noboru’s Dead Sushi deployed an entirely unconventional kind of zombie (chemically revived seafood). Only the most old-fashioned of the zombie films, Dominic Brunt’s Before Dawn, made much of an impression, not least for its focus on a genuinely human drama of disconnection, with which the undead merged seamlessly as (semi-)vivid metaphor.
In other subgenres, much as (spoiler alert) the Butcher brothers’ The Hamiltons (2006) concealed its characters’ vampirism until the final sequence, their sequel The Thompsons dresses it up in a Tarantino-esque kind of criss-cross plotting, before ending in a silly trans-Atlantic clash of teeth that perhaps justifies the filmmakers’ initial shyness over undead pantomime. Better was Dennis Gansel’s We Are The Night which (along with one of the episodes of V/H/S) gives a neat feminist spin to its vampish themes. There were cannibals aplenty too at this year’s FrightFest, naturally cannibalising previous films. Ricky Wood Jr’s Sawney: Flesh of Man brings The Hills Have Eyes back to the source of its mythos in the Scottish highlands, without throwing much new into the pot. Jason Ford’s Community recombines familiar ‘hoodie horror’ tropes to examine the self-perpetuating addictions and predations of a rural sink estate. Declan O’Brien’s Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings shifts its anthropophagous antics from the franchise’s clichéd ‘cabin in the woods’ to the new (but no less clichéd) setting of an abandoned psychiatric institution.
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Perhaps the most divisive film of the weekend, however, was Patricio Valladares’ Hidden In The Woods, billed as based on real events, yet managing to cram into its 97 minutes not just cannibalism, but also rape, murder, hillbillies, incest, chainsaws, mutants, prison breaks, roadside fellatio (in jaw-dropping suck-and-spit montage), and other atrocities against taste, all wrapped in the rough-and-ready handheld sensibilities of Seventies grindhouse. The Chilean shocker caused many FrightFesters to recoil in disgust from the abject misogyny that it depicted; and while it is not as though this were the only or indeed worst of its crimes against common decency, the misogyny and ‘rapeyness’ of the overall weekend became constant, anxious talking points in the FrightFest foyer, perhaps (as critic Stuart Barr suggested) prompted by Republican Senator Todd Akins’ recent controversial comments on the topic. Yet Hidden In The Woods was also, for me at least, the festival’s most impenetrable offering (despite featuring ample penetration) – a disorientingly wild trip into tonal inscrutability, converting deeply serious issues into genre-bound absurdities, and therefore leaving viewers with the equally uncomfortable options of comedy and horror. Compared to this unapologetically heady delirium, the only other grindhouse-aping flick of the weekend, Michael Biehn’s directorial debut The Victim, was all too transparent in its meandering incompetence.
Besides Hidden In The Woods and Paura 3D, there were several other films that examined the effects on children of exposure to adult monstrosity: FX guru Paul Hyett’s Balkan brothel thriller The Seasoning House (awkwardly hedging its bets between grim realism and genre fantasy); and Jennifer Lynch’s harrowing psychodrama of nature and nurture, Chained – even if Lynch herself seemed not altogether happy with its final, unnecessary and rushed twist. Other human monsters included: the sociopathic stalker in Jaume Balagueró’s creepily Hitchcockian Sleep Tight (a weekend highlight!); the drugged-up ids unleashed one-by-one in Ian Clark’s by-numbers Guinea Pigs; the post-apocalyptic walking wounded of Peter Engert’s surprisingly soulful Remnants; the lone sniper taking out a disengaged, dispossessed estate (non-)community in James Nunn & Ronnie Thompson’s festival closer Tower Block; and the higher-ups and lower-downs clashing for space and escape in Stig Svendsen’s claustrophobic Elevator.
On a different note, Eeron Sheean’s extraordinary Errors of the Human Body is a sombre tragedy (and understated body horror) wherein a unique genetic mutation is the conflicted hero’s salvation and undoing all at once. Best of all, though, was the title character of the Soska twins’ gloriously refreshing American Mary – a Frankenstein’s monster carving up and stitching back together an identity for herself in distorted reflection of an America whose dream of self-realisation has long since gone awry. A surgical strike against the mainstream – and as deeply intelligent as it is entertaining – for me, American Mary represented, along with Berberian Sound Studio, the very best that the weekend had to offer. Reassuringly, both are getting a theatrical release.
There were also less straightforwardly human monsters on offer: the revenant, vengeful clown in Conor McMahon’s impressively gory (if not especially funny) Stitches; the squiddy teetotal invaders of Jon Wright’s utterly endearing Irish comedy Grabbers; the creature in Steven C. Miller’s Under The Bed that, despite its psychosexual trappings, turns out to be disappointingly literal; and the toothy hunter that is most certainly a construct of the mind in Ryan Smith’s Serling-esque romance (with a twist) After. The practical effects and modeling work behind all these on-screen monsters were celebrated in Donna Davies’ Nightmare Factory, a documentary on gore guru Greg Nicotero and his effects shop KNB. Another documentary, Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime!, easily earned its place amongst the best of the fest through its imitative, thoroughly researched and utterly ballsy presentation of an obscure crime subgenre – the Italian poliziotteschi of the 1970s – that will never again be overlooked.
Russell Cherrington’s expanded Cabal Cut of Clive Barker’s compromised Nightbreed (1990) still felt like a turkey, only with almost an hour of extra stuffing – and Empire’s biggest screen did no favours to the new “porno quality” footage, sourced from VHS (!) workprints. Surely its rightful place ought to have been the smaller ReDiscovery Screen, alongside the (frankly much better looking) digital restorations of James Whale classic The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Hammer films The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1967).
Speaking of the different programmes, it is indeed a telling sign of the current horror landscape that Buddy Giovinazzi’s idiosyncratic, charming and utterly original possession freakout A Night of Nightmares was relegated to the Discovery Screen and forced to compete quixotically for attention with the buzzy V/H/S and Chained on the Main Screen, while Ole Bornedal’s entirely derivative and slickly bland studio ‘product’ The Possession won (without in any way earning) its place on the Main Screen, and is now on general release in cinemas. Big things may have small beginnings, but sometimes smaller is better.
Many thanks to FrightFest organisers Greg Day, Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray – and all the staff and volunteers at Empire – for making this weekend possible.