First published by Little White Lies
Diary Day 5 – Monday, 27th August
The last day of this year’s FrightFest was supposed to open with Ian Clark’s experimental drug freakout Guinea Pigs, but when it became clear that the film would not quite be ready in time for the end of August, it was replaced with another British world premiere, Richard Parry’s A Night In The Woods. Purporting to be the found footage of three campers gone missing in Dartmoor’s Wistman’s Woods, Parry’s film is a psychological horror in the Blair Witch Project mould – but as it is under strict embargo, it cannot be reviewed here.
DeadHeads (UK premiere)
A man wakes up, confused, in a medical facility in the middle of a zombie outbreak. Meanwhile, a white family in a cabin under siege from both without and within is joined by a no-nonsense black man (Thomas Galasso) looking to kick him some zombie butt. If these sound like barely disguised zombie movie clichés from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later…, then the opening sequence of DeadHeads brings them back to gleeful life by turning them inside out.
The man who has woken is bespectacled Mike Kellerman (Michael McKiddy), a hopeless romantic who just happens to be dead, having received his ‘double tap’ to the forehead three years earlier – and unlike the other braindead flesheaters all around him, he is articulate and, though suffering from considerable bodily wear and tear, is driven less by a desire to eat people (“that’s kind of weird”) than by his abiding love for ex-girlfriend Ellie (Natalie Victoria). So he hooks up with the only other talking zombie in town, Brent Guthrie (Ross Kiddler), who had met his end in an auto-erotic asphyxiation incident (“at least I died doing what I love!”). If this odd couple gets on like chalk and cheese, they have soon adopted as their zombie pet a Bub-like gentle giant (Markus Taylor) whom they nickname Cheese on account of his gaseous odour.
In fact, cheese is something of a motif here. For while this trio of rotten scoundrels and the kindly old Vietnam veteran (Harry Burkey) who agrees to give them a ride may have to evade the armed-and-hazmat-suited employees of shadowy company Genutek, in fact they are also on a gooily sentimental journey to revive Mike’s lost love. The result is a crazy, anything-goes mélange of generic influences – part slacker buddy comedy, part road movie, part high school reunion, part gory actioner, part against-all-odds romance – that ‘half-asses’ its way through the well-worn tropes of the undead from some refreshingly new angles.
While DeadHeads certainly hits the ground running with its savvy spins on other movies, by the end it has somewhat run out of steam – but Mike and Brent make for such amiable company that you will not mind tagging along with them as they limp and shuffle their way to a finish line that is just a little too self-consciously crowd-pleasing (“Gotta give the audience what they want!” is one of the final lines).
Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps (UK premiere)
Michael Steiner’s Sennentuntschi carefully lays out its stall in its opening sequence. As a little girl gathers woodland mushrooms in her basket, she encounters a strange, silent boy who guides her search using a handheld mirror. We might imagine that we are watching an ancient fairytale – an impression that is only enhanced by the hyperreal Alpine backdrop that looks as though it has been painted (or at least photoshopped) – and yet a title caption informs us that this is ‘present day’, and when the girl discovers a bony hand buried in the ground where the boy had pointed, she is soon joined at the scene by police and a forensics team. This is indeed to be a film where timeless myth and contemporary reality are forced into uneasy cohabitation.
Using police pictures, the girl identifies the boy, now vanished, as young Albert (Joel Basman), missing for some 35 years. “That’s not possible,” comments the policeman, prompting the girl’s mother to recall a mysterious tale from her own childhood concerning “another cop up here who didn’t believe in ghosts.” Flash back to 1975, where, shortly after the suicide (by hanging) of the local sacristan, a beautiful young mute woman (Roxane Mesquida) appears in a small Alpine village, clutching a wooden goat carving that everyone instantly recognises as the handiwork of Albert, and that also suggests a devil – or perhaps a scapegoat.
As sympathetic policeman Sebastian Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek) tries to work out who this stranger is, and why her likeness appears in a photograph taken from an incident in 1950 that left three men burnt to death, the rest of the god-fearing community, spurred on by inflammatory sermons from their priest Salis (Ueli Jäggi), becomes convinced that she is a devil sent to bring ruin to the village. Meanwhile, two men (Andrea Azogg, Carlos Leal) lodging together with Albert in a cabin in the mountains above come to believe, after an absinthe-fuelled night of delirium, that they may have conjured up a ‘Sennentuntschi’ – a legendary female creature brought to life from a broom, straw and rags to serve her male creators’ every whim, before killing and skinning them in revenge.
As his own rationalism and decency clash violently with the superstitions of his witch-hunting neighbours, Reusch’s investigations will uncover smalltown prejudice, ingrained misogyny and religious hypocrisy, while perpetuating a myth tragically made flesh and blood. Written by Stefanie Japp, Michael Sauter and Steiner himself, the film’s ingenious narrative winds, twists and doubles back on itself like a treacherous mountain pass, always clinging close to the edge of its own elaborate ambiguities. As this is Switzerland’s very first genre film, calling it the best risks damning it (unintentionally) with faint praise – but there is no other thriller quite like this, blending police procedural, heightened melodrama and the supernatural to hold up a mirror to a nation’s buried skeletons.
Inbred (world premiere)
A group of teen delinquents and their adult carers go on a character-building outing – a set-up from Gregory Dark’s See No Evil. They then fall foul of a community of insane killers determined to kill their visitors in grotesque ways – as in Two Thousand Maniacs!. And when the owner of local pub The Dirty Hole (Seamus O’Neill) decides to put on a barnyard show for the townsfolk, he blacks up – like Papa Lazarou from TV’s The League of Gentlemen. Which is to say that the comic Yorkshire chainsaw massacre of Alex Chandon’s Inbred comprises a series of beats already (over)familiar from other sources, leaving only its comedy to entertain.
That, for me, was entirely the problem. If you find endless amusement and hilarity in seeing tooth-challenged yokels saying ‘ee-yar’ (and singing their trademark ‘ee-by-ee-by-gum’ song) a lot, chewing on maggots, concealing ferrets down their trousers, and torturing ‘outsiders’ with vegetables or even sewage before sending them to the pot, then Inbred is the film for you – and evidently it was a laugh a minute for many in the FrightFest audience (including the very vocal retinues of the film’s cast and crew). If, however, you (like me) find such a broad brand of humour tiresome, embarrassing and altogether mirth-free, then this film has literally nothing to offer. It is, alas, stuck down the very same ‘dirty hole’ of the British horror market where the likes of Lesbian Vampire Killers and Evil Aliens reside, desperate to pump their captive audience full of all the shit it can take and more. Enough, I say – and enough said.
A Lonely Place To Die (UK premiere)
While scaling a rockface in the Scottish Highlands, three climbers stop to photograph the awesome scenery. As a golden eagle circles overhead in search of prey, one of the climbers becomes entangled in the ropes, bringing all three close to a fatal accident. Breathtaking spectacle, predatory nature, the imminence of death – the motifs laid out in the opening scene of this survival thriller will also turn out to be its key ingredients, as cliffhangers of different kinds abound.
The next day these three climbers and two friends chance upon a young foreign girl buried alive in the woods, and as a pair of ruthless kidnappers and the British mercenaries hired by the girl’s war-criminal father all move in for the kill, our hapless trekkers find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, and forced to make life-and-death decisions in the interests of a child that they have only just met.
In a very polished production, DP Ali Asad captures the Highland peaks and troughs in stunning Scope, while helmer Julian Gilbey, splitting the writing and editing duties between himself and his brother William, provides tensely atmospheric direction and some very deftly handled narrative surprises – including one or two guaranteed to elicit collective gasps from the audience.
A Lonely Place To Die raises questions about whether there can remain any room for decency, compassion and nobility in a place suddenly dominated by money and murder. The film may start in a physical and moral wilderness, but even the relative civilisation of a nearby town offers no safe haven from evil intent, leaving Alison (Melissa Triangle George) and her friends to call upon their own instincts and resources to do the right thing for little Anna. While ultimately we may all die alone, here loneliness turns out to be less a property of location than a condition of those – like the kidnappers – cut off from forming attachments or empathising with others.
In a way, this vertiginous morality play ends as it begins, with the fate of several characters hanging in the balance. Here all human agents are pushed right to the edge, and those that do not fall immediately down the Devil’s Drop are left dangling. It is a curious note on which to end a horror festival, but this very openness is in some ways more haunting (and less pat) than any happier – or indeed bleaker – resolution.
© Anton Bitel