FrightFest 2011 Diary: Day 3

First published by Little White Lies

Diary Day 3 – Saturday, 27th August 

Trollhunter (preview)

“Fairytales don’t normally match reality,” Hans (Otto Jespersen) tells the three Volda College students (played by Glenn Erland Toskrud, Johanna Møck, Thomas Alf Larsen) whom he has allowed to accompany him on his latest nocturnal hunt so that it can be captured on film and exposed to the public – and it is precisely this mismatch, and the comedy of incongruity that it forges, which lies at the heart of André Øvredal’s impressive feature debut Trollhunter (or Trolljegeren).

Shot in a handheld documentary style, largely improvised by its cast (many of whom are stand-up comics) and presented as found footage that we are told authorities think could be either ‘fake or authentic’, the film follows Hans, a veteran, if disgruntled, employee of the undercover Troll Security Service, as he tries to bring both errant trolls (apparently Norway’s best kept secret) and his own organisation out of the shadows. What ensues is a hilarious collision of ancient and modern, fantasy and naturalism, as these mythical beasts are portrayed (and dispatched) in a banally realist manner that belies their impossibly monstrous form. For when Hans is not donning medieval armour and reenacting the story of the three billy goats gruff, he is kvetching about the bureaucracy of his business and reeling off the mundane minutiae of his working practices.

Trollhunter is hardly the first film to lend authenticity to the utterly implausible by mimicking the modalities of reportage (see, for example, The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield), but it is distinguished by both a deep seam of deadpan humour and a strong sense of place. The mythology, locations and characters here are all strongly Norwegian, as are the concerns with specific environmental and ecological issues, so that Hans is a decidedly local hero, or as one character puts it, “a superhero here in Norway”. Unlike the Spanish shakicam horor of [REC], which quickly spawned the English-language retread Quarantine, Trollhunter will not translate so easily into an American remake (although inevitably one is already being planned). This uniqueness of setting is, of course, the real source of the film’s authenticity, and crucial to its appeal – while the trolls themselves, from three-headed Tosserlad to ferocious Ringlefinch, from flatulent Mountain Kings (think Wild Things with penises for noses) to colossal Jotnar, are beautifully realised.

“This is one real bad joke!”, declares one of the students – but it will still have you chuckling to the final punchline (an improbable appropriation of an actual speech made by Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, in 2010).

The Wicker Tree (European premiere)

It may be hard to believe now, but back in 1973, two of the greatest British horror films ever made – Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man – were released together as a double bill. Good times, however, are not always so easily recreated. Hollywood’s 2006 reimagining of The Wicker Man is generally regarded with scorn, and Hardy’s own belated sort-of sequel The Wicker Tree, based on his 2006 novel Cowboys For Christ, comes ready inscribed with anxieties about the drying up of (pro)creative juices and the difficulties of resurrecting older tropes.

In fact, The Wicker Tree could almost have been made in the Seventies. It is a deeply old-fashioned film, with loosely sketched stereotypes for characters, and an approach to sexuality and nudity that, for all its openness, still brings a certain ‘oo-er’ attitude that would not be out of place in a Carry On film. Indeed, the subtle undercurrents of black comedy from the original film have here drifted much closer to broad, not particularly successful farce. There is also considerably less mystery or tension, as we know (and Hardy knows that we know) where the plot is headed from the start. So while the sly syncretism, and ultimately the violent clash, of different belief systems remain dominant themes in this sequel, while there is still the occasional folk sing-a-long included, and while even Christopher Lee (who memorably played Lord Summerisle in the first film) returns for a significant albeit brief cameo, really The Wicker Tree feels like a considerable dilution of Hardy’s original vision.

Gospel pop singer Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her cowboy fiancé Steve (Henry Garrett) are born-again Texan Christians who come as missionaries to the village of Tressock in the Scottish borderlands, hoping to redeem the local ‘heathens’. Welcomed by Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), the naïve Americans are invited to play key rôles in the coming May Day festivities, only to realise, too late, that while the community certainly does wish to be born again, it requires as its price a horrific sacrifice.

American-style fundamentalism is a pretty wide target, but Hardy just makes it too easy for himself, creating a pair of Bible bashers so utterly idiotic and so lacking in character nuance that they are unable to hold their end of the film’s dialectic between Christian faith and an older form of Celtic paganism (contrast Edward Woodward’s far more interesting Catholic from the original, who can be taken seriously from beginning to bitter end). If the (literally) isolated setting of the first film – a private Scottish island some way from the mainland – made it plausible that an ancient rite of human sacrifice could have been revived and maintained within the local community, here the location on the border between Scotland and England makes this just seem an unconvincing fiction all along.

Meanwhile, the directorial decision to shift every so often to the distorted point of view of a character’s pet raven is weirdly unmotivated within the story itself, and smacks of desperation on Hardy’s part, as though bringing an unusual (if irrelevant) perspective to these retrodden materials will somehow make them seem less familiar and bland. It does not – and when, in the post-screening Q&A, Hardy announced that he is currently working on The Wrath of the Gods, which is to be the final film in an envisaged Wicker Man trilogy, this hardly inspired the excitement and interest that it might have done. With The Wicker Tree, Hardy may have sired a long-awaited second film – but it only leaves the impression that The Wicker Man had better remained a single child whose brilliance could be untainted by the presence of inferior siblings.

Panic Button (world premiere)

Having won an all-expenses-paid trip to New York from popular social networking site, four strangers board a luxury private jet and settle down for some ‘exclusive inflight entertainment’ – but as they are guided through a series of increasingly personal and cruel games and tasks, it becomes clear that their unseen master of ceremonies knows every intimate detail about their online activity, has access to their friends and family on the ground, and harbours a murderous grudge. Trapped in the air and unsure who their tormentor is or why he has singled them out for punishment, the four contestants are forced to stake the lives of their loved ones on each round of the game, even as they race through the skies ever closer to their final destination.

It’s Red Eye meets My Little Eye! It’s Saw on a plane! The pitch practically writes itself for Chris Crow’s high-concept, high-altitude thriller, where airborne dilemma-driven drama is set on a collision course with all the anxieties of the internet age. The first class seats here may go to such web-focused themes as social networking, illegal data trawling, cyber bullying, online anonymity and imposture, identity theft, detached voyeurism and computer hacking, but other post-millennial tensions are also brought along for the ride, including 9/11 terrorism, cellphone dependency, celebrity obsession and Big Brother-style reality entertainment. This is a film designed to push every button of the moment, flying so close to the zeitgest that it even references mass murder in Norway (no matter that the production was in fact completed some time before Anders Behring Breivik committed his outrage). So if at times the story resembles a cliched (if claustrophobic) potboiler, it is nonetheless remarkable that any plot could take on board so many issues at once while remaining relatively airtight.

“Don’t all look at me like you haven’t watched stuff like that,” says single mother and recovering alcoholic Jo (Scarlett Alice Johnson) when her penchant for watching (and swapping) ultraviolent reality clips online is exposed, “Everybody does it.” Later, when Dave (Michael Jibson) is revealed to be a devotee of extreme internet porn, he will similarly complain, “We’ve all looked at shit we shouldn’t have, in the past – anyone who says he hasn’t is a fucking liar.” It is moments like these that represent the film at its most confronting and accusatory, as the blithely irresponsible online conduct for which these characters must now pay is shown to be not so very different from our own. So when, later, the unseen antagonist taunts, “I’m just holding up a mirror – you may want to take a good look at yourself,” his words are addressed as much to the viewer as to protagonist Jo. For whenever we log in and behave online in ways we never would ITRW, we are all, Panic Button suggests, riding a passenger vehicle that, for all its frills and distractions, is rapidly bringing us down.

Fright Night 3D (preview)

Living with his divorced but still ‘ripe’ mother Jane (Toni Collette) in a new housing community outside Las Vegas, teenager Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a bundle of nerves, still not quite able to believe that beautiful Amy (Imogen Poots) is actually, willingly, his girlfriend. In the absence of a father, our virginal hero has long put behind him his boyhood friendship with the geeky ‘Evil’ Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but now finds himself caught between two rather different models of masculinity – new alpha-male neighbour Jerry who just happens to be a vampire (Colin Farrell in feral form), and Vegas showman and would-be lothario Peter Vincent (David Tennant, channeling Russell Brand). As the stakes get high, Charlie will find his own, ‘different’ way to break hearts with a long, hard stick.

If this somewhat tendentious summary of Fright Night privileges the boy-to-man subtext (in a film that, after all, ends in a long-delayed act of sexual consummation), then all the usual thrills and spills that are the vampire genre’s lifeblood are here too, rendered in a 3D that is not afraid to forgo subtlety for more crowd-pleasingly gimmicky in-your-face splatter. This new Fright Night neither is, nor pretends to be, any kind of masterpiece, but it is, for what it is worth, better than Tom Holland’s original 1985 Fright Night, and better than the Twilight series that it pointedly mocks in one scene – and beneath its vampiric surface there are plenty of rites-of-passage motifs into which viewers (especially male adolescent viewers) can sink their teeth.

That said, other subtexts, for good or ill, have disappeared. Holland’s original cornfest (a film that only the most devoted Eighties nostalgists could love) cast Jerry as a predatory, if rather camp, homosexual (complete with a live-in male partner) who was all too happy to ‘turn’ Ed (Stephen Geoffreys, in one of the most irritating roles of the entire Eighties), and who had clear designs on virginal Charlie. You would be very hard-pressed to discern any of this in Marti Noxon’s rejigged screenplay, with Ed now just an infantilised nerd rather than a closet gay, and Jerry a hot-blooded ladykiller.

Instead we get some proficiently handled, gory set-pieces, the odd genuinely surprising plot innovation, and dialogue peppered with up-to-date cultural references and amiable, vaguely racy wit – but while there is much here to enjoy, it is hard not to be disappointed to see so conventional a product coming from the director who debuted with the superior eccentric indie Lars and the Real Girl. If you want a slick, determinedly mainstream Saturday night’s entertainment, Fright Night will certainly provide it – but Craig Gillespie is capable of much odder fodder than this derivative multiplex filler.

The Woman (UK premiere)

Regular FrightFesters who have caught The Lost (2006) and The Girl Next Door (2007) at earlier festivals will know that adaptations from horror novelist Jack Ketchum offer a particularly uncompromising view of human nature at its darkest – and The Woman, directed and co-written by Lucky McKee (who had previously collaborated worked with Ketchum on Red) certainly does not disappoint, with its incendiary examination of the deep-seated misogyny that underlies patriarchal notions of civilisation. Like Offspring, the previous novel/screenplay penned by Ketchum, The Woman forms part of the Dead River series that began with his controversial debut novel Off Season (1981) – but the film’s extreme archetypes and stark polarities speak for themselves, requiring no prior knowledge of Ketchum’s work.

The woman of the title is a wounded feral loner, living in the woods like a predatory animal and dreaming, in the opening sequence, of a troglodytic family unit that comprises herself, a baby and a wolf (actually, it is more premonition than dream). Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) – pillar of the community, officer of the court, proud family man – is out hunting by himself when he first glimpses the woman bathing in a creek, and we get a pretty good idea of what is on his mind from the fist-pumping rock and roll that starts up on the soundtrack, and from the way that Chris undresses her with his eyes. His first gestures towards her are to capture her in a net, to knock her unconscious with his rifle butt, and to chain her up in the barn cellar. Upon waking, her first gesture towards him is to bite his ring finger clean off, and then defiantly to spit out that symbol of female bondage, his wedding band. And so begins a clash of values and wills, from which no-one emerges entirely unscathed.

Chris informs his long-suffering wife Belle (Angela Bettis, who also starred in McKee’s excellent May) that his plan for the woman is to “train her, civilise her, free her from herself and her baser instincts”. Indeed Chris’ own family set-up reflects his particular brand of repressive male authority, where “because your daddy asked you to” is the only explanation required for his various questionable demands, where Belle’s occasional acts of resistance are met immediately with violence, where teenage daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) lives in terror of her father and his inevitable reaction to news of her pregnancy, and where son Brian (Zach Rand) is learning fast that his own explorations of  sexuality and sadism will always be condoned by Chris’ belief that “boys will be boys.”

Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen) alone may be too young to have yet submitted fully to daddy’s rule, but she takes in her stride the presence of this strange woman tied up in the cellar, as though recognising, for all her naïveté, that the woman’s appalling treatment by Chris is nothing unusual in this dysfunctional, abusive male fiefdom. “Do you think that animal lady will eat a little man?”, Darlin’ innocently asks her cookie-baking mother. The answer, of course, will eventually be yes – but the woman’s final acts of bestial transgression do not so much trump as balance out all the atrocities to which she and other women have been subjected in the film, leaving Peggy (and the viewer) to decide how far in the end they are willing to follow her back into her atavistic mode of man-eating feminism.

As the mostly mute woman, Pollyanna McIntosh offers an extraordinary performance of pre-articulate grunts, unselfconscious postures and watchful, accusatory glares. Her bloody triumph recalls that other classic of female revenge, I Spit On Your Grave (originally entitled Day of the Woman) – and McKee’s film is likely to prove no less divisive, leaving little room for middle ground between its extremes. In this genre, that is high praise indeed. One of the Best of the Fest.

   Chillerama (UK premiere) 

Ever since Adam Green and Joe Lynch premiered their respective horror debuts – Hatchet and Wrong Turn 2 – at FrightFest, they have become staple figures at the festival, wowing audiences with their regular (and hilarious) ‘Road To FrightFest’ shorts, as well as their amiable on-stage antics and anecdotes. So when they came up to introduce their latest, the four(ish)-part anthology Chillerama which they have co-directed with Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City) and Tim Sullivan (2001 Maniacs), the crowd was pumped and expectations were high – not least because Green had hyped this production to the heavens at last year’s FrightFest.

The episodes of Chillerama, like those of Creepshow, come with a framing narrative. On the closing night of a drive-in cinema, owner Cecil B. Kaufman decides to screen a marathon of four lost films encapsulating the spirit and history of exploitation schlock. Wadzilla is a Fifties-style monster movie where the monster just happens to be a spermatazoon enlarged (by medical science) to gargantuan proportions and hungry for human flesh. I Was A Teenage WereBear is a Sixties beach party musical about a young man coming out of the closet – as a leatherclad, man-hungry WereBear. The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, from the Forties, is a melodramatic black-and-white gorefest pitting a reborn rabbinical golem against a mock-German-talking Adolf Hitler (in fact this instalment was premiered at last year’s FrightFest – and though the best part of the film, it still hardly warrants a second viewing). And Deathication is a Seventies-style freakout involving a whole lot of pooh – although it is interrupted as the viewers at the drive-in are sent into a sex-crazed frenzy by an infection from the grave, transforming the frame story into Zom-B-Movie.

On paper, this might all sound like an affectionately comic elegy to the bygone era of the drive-in, but on screen it plays as four directors’ inability to grow up and let go of the very worst aspects of male adolescence (including a strong streak of homophobia). Any subtlety or wry nostalgia is almost literally drowned in gallons of spunk, blood and faecal matter, and the seemingly endless stream of toilet humour and grossout material, though evidently intended to be shocking and transgressive, is just plain old boring to anyone beyond their teens. That each instalment is about 15 minutes longer than it needs to be does not help – and the stench of shit so celebrated in one of the episodes ends up pervading the entire production in a far less ironic way than was presumably intended.

If Chillerama is really, as Lynch and Green keep on asserting, a labour of love made for the fans, then perhaps it is time that they stop so wildly underestimating us. As it is, this embarrassing, excremental offering was one of the worst films of the entire festival, and yawn-inducing filler for a midnight slot that would, in retrospect, better have been spent in bed.

Anton Bitel