First published by Little White Lies
Includes reviews of: Rogue River; The Holding; Urban Explorers; The Glass Man; Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil; Vile
Diary Day 2 – Friday, 26th August
This was FrightFest’s fullest day. Seven features running in the parallel Discovery Programme (covered in a separate Diary), six features in the Main Programme, and also an excellent on-stage interview and panel discussion hosted by Total Film’s Jamie Graham. Given that this live event addressed the challenges to the horror industry in general, it is the natural place to start today’s Diary.
The guest of honour was Larry Fessenden, a prolific actor and independent producer, and also, as Graham was quick to point out, a criminally underrated director, of whose four features – No Telling, Habit, Wendigo and The Last Winter – only the last two have received (straight-to-video) distribution on these shores. He was an engaging interviewee, both more articulate and more forthcoming than last year’s guest Tobe Hooper, and he had compelling tales to tell about the difficulties of getting an individual voice heard in a homogenised and corporatised industry. He discussed his aim as a producer “to protect the director’s agenda and fight against the executives who normally have pea-sized brains”; he regaled us with stories of how he almost directed a remake of The Orphanage (and did a dead-on impression of Guillermo del Toro); and he revealed that the secret inspiration behind the creature design in his films is “pot.” The only pity here is that none of Fessenden’s back catalogue could be included in this year’s FrightFest line-up – but at least Ti West’s The Innkeepers (which Fessenden produced) will screen on Sunday.
Then Fessenden was joined on stage by directors West, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Lucky McKee, and McKee’s producer on The Woman Adam van den Houten, for candid conversation about the current state of Hollywood horror, summarised from the outset by West as “kind of grim right now”, and needing to fail even though “it’s given us all careers.” Green pinpointed the fact that “there are no horror fans in Hollywood” as the problem, suggesting that all the mainstream decisions about the genre were guided by money rather than by the sort of passion that creates great cinema (or that turns a thankless project like Wrong Turn 2 into an unexpected labour of love in Lynch’s hands). McKee suggested that a far better alternative to the current obsession with remakes and sequels would be re-releases of classics (“people would be so much more enlightened”). There were nightmare stories about the cluelessness of the executives behind Cabin Fever 2 (from which both Green and West withdrew at different stages of production). West concluded that we should all, as viewers, use the resources of the Internet to send a frank message to the studios about what is good and what is not, and to spread the word about a genre that can truly be great.
Rogue River (European premiere)
Things are going to end badly.
We know this because Jourdan McClure’s feature debut opens at (or at least near) its end, with distraught, bloody Mara (Michelle Page) donning a distinctive crucifix necklace by the titular river, before raising a gun to her own head – its loud report heard as the screen fades to black. Then, as the rest of the film flashes back to the events that led to this moment, we see Mara leaving the Oregon home of her brother Andrew (Chris Coy) – the ‘Pro-Choice’ sticker on her car contrasting with the crucifix (that crucifix) round his neck – for a long drive back to LA, and stopping off to scatter the ashes of their recently deceased father in the river.
There she runs into chatty local man Jon who courteously invites her back to his home “to meet the wife” – yet the fact that he is played by Bill Moseley, the man behind such iconic psycho-villains as ‘Chop-Top’ from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Otis Driftwood from House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, is enough to set off alarm bells that there may be a more sinister agenda underlying his apparent parental solicitude and rustic hospitality.
In giving us an idea of where things are headed right from the outset while leaving the details unclear and raising certain questions (e.g. why, in the opening scene, is Mara wearing a wedding dress? What exactly has led her to suicide? And how does she come to have Andrew’s cross?), McClure toys with our expectations of horror, using the scenes when Mara first arrives at the cosy middle-class country home of nice couple Jon and Lea (Lucinda Jenney) to generate enormous tension, before releasing it in an ordeal of agony, incest and out-and-out insanity that, for all its familiarity in genre terms, unfolds with such speed that viewers, like Mara, are left with little time to catch their breath.
In this twisted tale of the (family) ties that bind, if Andrew’s crucifix, and later the stigmata-like injuries sustained by characters on palms or sides, suggest a Christian theme, then Christianity makes for a pleasingly strange and unnatural bedfellow with all the shocking psychosexual taboos that, in their sheer perversity, take Rogue River some way beyond the merely physical anguish that is usually found in ‘torture porn’. In keeping with that sticker glimpsed on Mara’s car, everything here comes down to Mara’s choice – whether to live or die, whether to spare or kill, whether to keep or abort. And in such extreme circumstances, asking what Jesus would do brings neither help nor comfort – for McClure has crafted a dénouement which, though happier than expected, still leaves us with the definite sense that things can only end badly.
The Holding (world premiere)
After discovering that her husband Dean has been sexually abusing their teenaged daughter Hannah (Skye Lourie), Cassie Naylor (Kierston Wareing) murders and buries him one night with the help of old farmhand Cooper (David Bradley), not realising that younger daughter Amy (Maisie Lloyd) has witnessed the violence from her window. Eight months later, as Cassie struggles to pay the bills for her small, debt-ridden cattle holding and to fend off the unwanted attentions of neighbour Karsten (Terry Stone) and his son Noah (Jake Curran), a stranger named Aden (Vincent Regan) shows up on the property, claiming to be an old friend of Dean’s, and quickly insinuating himself into Cassie’s farm and family life. Yet Aden harbours a few secrets of his own, and as the skeletons gradually emerge from the family closet, murder and madness come home to roost.
Even if Susan Jacobson’s feature debut succumbs in its third act to the ‘bunny-boiling’ (or in this case stud-slaughtering) excess of other ‘interloper’ films, the newbie director gets us there with an assured building of tension that is rooted in believable characterisation – and she also brings a welcome feminist slant to a subgenre more typically associated with the demonisation of its female characters. Cassie must repeatedly fight off the unwelcome encroachments of men, whether the abuses of Dean, the land-grabbing threats of Karsten, or the errant patriarchy of Aden.
Played with quietly brooding menace by Regan, Aden may come to parody the conduct of Dean (whose name he anagrammatises with his own) – but he also holds up a distorted mirror to Cassie in his determination to keep the family together at any cost, even murder, so that in confronting him, Cassie is also confronting the most questionable part of herself. Yet The Holding eventually allows the sisters (and their mother) to do it for themselves, undoing the casual misogyny of otherwise similar films (Play Misty For Me, Fatal Attraction, Poison Ivy, Single White Female, The Temp and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle).
The Holding is no genre gamechanger, but subtle psychology, excellent performances and a restrained build-up ensure this is a film that holds its own, as the sparse, if beautifully shot, rural settings of this thriller become the stage for a clash of genders.
Urban Explorers (UK premiere)
“Welcome to the dark side of Berlin!”
With these words, earnest local boy Kris (Max Reimelt), using the significant pseudonym Dante, introduces foreign urban explorers Dennis (Nick Eversman), Lucia (Nathalie Kelley), Marie (Catherine de Léan) and Juna (Brenda Koo) to an illicit tour of the labyrinthine system of tunnels beneath the German metropolis. As they make their way to a bricked-up bunker once belonging to Hitler’s chauffeurs and festooned with unusual Third Reich murals, Kris entertains his clients with an urban myth about a secret Nazi space programme and a medically mutated SS elite said still to haunt the underground passageways in search of lost foreigners to enslave. When Kris is severely injured in an accident, the group is forced to split up, and Denis and Lucia are brought face to face with the horrors of more recent Berlin history in the person of Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier), a former East German Border Guard who has evidently never strayed far from his subterranean sentry post.
Its slow-building first half documents outsiders traveling with a local boy who is fond of tall tales, and its second half shows their struggles to survive a marginalised maniac who has learnt a torturous trick or two from his military past – which is to say that Urban Explorer, directed, edited and shot by Andy Fetscher (Bukarest Fleisch), shamelessly lifts all the beats of its plot from Wolf Creek, right down to the detail of who gets out alive – and it also pilfers an idea or three from The Descent, Creep and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Yet what sets Fetscher’s film apart from these others is its distinctive German identity, emerging gradually from a script (by Martin Thau) whose dialogue drifts further and further away from the English with which it begins, while increasingly decentering and disorienting those thrillseekers who lack any fluency in the local tongue. The location, too, is uniquely German, as is the hidden history that these intruding Ausländer unearth at their own cost – and towards the end the stereotypically German tendency to submit to regulation and authority also comes in for some darkly satirical swipes.
Of course, the troglodytic cat-and-mouse and frenzied blood-letting, though hardly new, work in any language.
The Glass Man (world premiere)
The first image we see in The Glass Man is a close-up of Martin Pyrite (Andy Nyman) sleeping and, to judge by the movement of his lips and the rapid flickering of his eyelids, also dreaming.
Then his eyes open, but even when awake, Martin is something of a fantasist, as capable of deception as the fool’s gold that his surname references. “I know when I’m being lied to, and something feels very wrong here,” his wife Julie (Neve Campbell) declares, convinced that her husband is concealing from her an affair with a female co-worker. “Your imagination”, Martin replies, “is trying to turn one thing into another” – and indeed his lie is of a different kind and magnitude. For Martin has recently been laid off from his white-collar job and effectively locked out of the premises, with nothing to show for his years of service beyond a very negative reference from the boss – but, like the protagonists of Laurent Cantet’s Time Out and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Tokyo Sonata, rather than admit any of this to his wife, Martin just keeps on pretending to go to work.
With the bills piling up and his bank accounts emptied out, the pressure of keeping up appearances is beginning to push the sheepish Martin to breaking point. Then late one evening, as Julie sleeps upstairs, an imposing debt collector named Pecco (James Cosmo) – the Latin for ‘I sin’ – comes a-knocking, offering to rub out what Martin owes so long as Martin is willing to help him over the next few hours with an unspecified task (“something needs doing” is Pecco’s phrase). It is clearly a Faustian pact, not dissimilar to the kind seen in Philip Ridley’s Heartless, but with little apparent choice, Martin agrees – and so begins his long dark night of the soul.
Written and directed by actor Cristian Solimeno (Footballers’ Wives, Mother of Tears), who also appears in it as Martin’s movie-star friend Toby Huxley, The Glass Man is a disorienting blend of bleak recessionary satire, road trip, buddy flick, and tragic psychodrama, where the narrative twists and turns, though deftly handled to produce a near Lynchian befuddlement in the viewer, are imbued with the sort of desperate sadness that will in no way be diminished for anyone who is ahead of the game.
Meanwhile, appearing in every scene and nailing Martin in all his craven, self-deluding hopelessness, Nyman puts in a riveting performance that carries the film’s considerable emotive weight. With a subtext that takes in the recent self-destructive deception of the banking system, as well as the sort of wish-fulfilment escapism furnished by cinema itself, this is a very assured feature debut that allows all its cracks to show.
Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (preview)
America’s ‘white trash’ perhaps represents the last ethnic grouping in this era of increasing political correctness that cinema can (and does) still openly mock, malign and demonise, and its Appalachian subspecies the hillbilly has continued to be vilified in films as recent as White Lightnin’, Winter’s Bone and the Wrong Turn franchise. So if it is high time for these supposedly inbred, backward hicks to fight back and recuperate their battered reputations, then Tucker & Dale vs Evil allows them to do just that, turning the tables on all those pesky co-ed campers who keep disturbing the peace of their woodland homes.
Eli Crag’s feature debut is a savvy inversion of hillbilly horror, where bad luck and extreme urban prejudice are the only killers, despite the presence of the titular, tool-wielding good ole boys. While out enjoying a weekend of fishing, drinking and holiday home improvements, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) save pretty psych major Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning and take her back to their old ‘fixer upper’ cabin to recover – but her college friends, led by the preppily unhinged Chad (Jesse Moss), are convinced that Allison has been abducted by rape-happy, murderous rednecks, and so launch a rescue party that quickly turns into a bloodbath, even as Allison starts falling for sweet-natured, girl-shy Dale.
Co-writing with Morgan Jurgenson, Craig has crafted a hilarious comedy of errors, and a savvy inside-out reconstruction of the all-too-familiar subgenre. The gory set-pieces and high body count of any backwoods slasher are all present and correct – but here it is urban, privileged, educated Chad who becomes the unstoppable embodiment of evil, while Dale, despite his big beard and beer belly, is definitely the ‘final girl’. In a way this is a one-joke movie, but Labine and Tudyk enact it with perfect timing, considerable rapport and a great deal of charm, while leaving viewers to wonder whether perhaps all hinterland massacres have been rooted in mere cultural misunderstanding. If only Sally Hardesty and Leatherface could have settled their differences with beer and bowling…
Vile (UK premiere)
“This is gonna hurt,” warns Tony (Akeem Smith), tasked with the job of breaking several people’s collar bones. “Let’s hope so,” is the reply of his best friend Nick (Eric Jay Beck, who also co-wrote the script). This brief exchange conveys all the twisted contours of ‘torture porn’, a much-maligned subgenre which plays on its viewers’ conflicting fear of and desire for on-screen torment.
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the cinematic presentation of pain, and indeed it is a motif that finds its natural home in horror. However, over the last half decade or so, the market has been throughly saturated with this kind of material (much as it has with zombies), and audiences have, like the drugged-up Nick in one sequence here, become rather desensitised to the impact of corporeal anguish. So while Taylor Sheridan’s feature debut Vile means to shock us out of our comfort zones with its scenes of human agony, the film’s derivativeness, not to mention its daftness, will leave most viewers yawning, in full agreement with the character who says: “We just have to focus on it being over. The pain will pass.”
The high-concept plot of Vile appears to have been reverse-engineered to maximise the possibility for scenes of torment, with elements like characterisation or coherence roughly tacked on as an afterthought. Tricked by a seductive woman on a lonely highway at night, Nick, his pregnant girlfriend Tayler (April Matson), their two best friends and five others wake up locked in a tool-strewn house. A video instructs them to work together filling vials (cue punning title) plugged into the back of their heads with a fluid that the brain releases only when under extreme duress. The gathered fluid will be used to produce an illegal drug with a very high street value. In other words, this is the grown-up version of Monsters, Inc., with adult pain replacing childish fear as the new collectible commodity.
As the group begins to tear itself, both metaphorically and literally, apart in a desperate bid to come out alive and relatively intact, we are apparently to be so swept up by their dumb-assed dilemmas and predictable game-theory squabbles (with none of the moral resonance that these carried in, say, WΔZ) that we will not notice the idiocy of a premise that makes no real sense. Wouldn’t it be more economic and effective for the abductors to do the torturing themselves in a controlled surgical environment (as happens in the film’s surprise-ruining prologue), rather than leave it to the captives? Why must all the fluid be collected within a 22-hour time limit? What exactly motivates the mole in this group? Why is the liquid in each victim’s second vial a slow-working poison (something that even the characters question)?
The scenes near the film’s beginning where Nick and his friends enjoy a languid pre-abduction picnic allow Sheridan to display a genuine talent for lyricism that unfortunately can find no place in the rest of the film, with its plot described (accurately) by one character as “just some sick fuck’s joke.” It is annoying, ugly films like this that give ‘torture porn’ a bad name, even for those inclined to defend the subgenre. Watch Vile through to the end, and you’ll suffer alright.
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