First published by Little White Lies
The Film4 FrightFest 2011 Discovery Programme
Featuring: The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry, A Horrible Way To Die, Midnight Son, Rabies, Blood Runs Cold, Kidnapped (Secuestrados), Stormhouse, The Dead (live commentary), Atrocious, My Sucky Teen Romance, The Caller, The Devil’s Business
While the Main Programme of FrightFest unspools in Empire 1, there is another place where the more committed fans of the genre (or at least those unable to get tickets for the bigger event) can gather for a showcase of extra films. This is the so-called Discovery Programme, in the altogether cosier confines of Empire 4, where additional titles play in rotation throughout the weekend.
No doubt for simplicity’s sake, many FrightFesters just stick to Empire’s biggest theatre, but horror has always been a genre that not only tolerates, but positively devours the marginal, the low-budget and the outré – and amongst these twelve films (and a live audio commentary) were some real gems, including A Horrible Way To Die, Rabies and The Devil’s Business.
The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry (UK premiere)
Born Jacinto Molina, Paul Naschy was an actor, writer, director and producer whose filmography spanned five decades and spawned over one hundred films. Best known for playing the sympathetic Polish wolfman Waldemar Daninsky in a string of titles, the one-time prize-winning weightlifter also portrayed Dracula, the Mummy, Jack the Ripper, Mr Hyde, Quasimodo, Rasputin, Frankenstein’s monster, Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera and the Devil, earning with such versatility a reputation as Spain’s answer to Lon Chaney. So it is high time that this icon of Iberian horror, who died in 2009 while still active in the industry, should be celebrated with a documentary – and no venue could be more appropriate for its UK premiere than FrightFest.
The problem is that Ángel Agudo’s The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry is just not very good. Naschy’s life story, from his childhood spent under the shadow of the Spanish Civil War to his prolific career in exploitation filmmaking, is inherently fascinating, and need only be told to keep the viewer engaged – and Agudo has certainly amassed an impressive body of archival footage and film clips to back up his biography, as well as talking heads to sing Naschy’s praises, from filmmakers John Landis, Joe Dante, Nacho Cerdà and Jorge Grau, through various actors and producers who worked with Naschy, to members of the Molina family. Yet where Naschy always occupied the shifting margins of the Spanish mainstream, Agudo’s approach is both utterly conventional and irksomely sentimental – the latter only exacerbated by Enrique Garcia’s over-mawkish score. One should not, of course, speak ill of the recently departed – but even Naschy, one suspects, would admit to the godawfulness of several of the low-budget titles in his long career, and a less hagiographic, more humorous style might perhaps have done greater justice to both the man and his inevitably varied output.
Last of all, while the title The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry is undeniably attractive, its explanation (an anecdote about a not-quite encounter between Naschy and his own icon Boris Karloff in the late Sixties) is too anticlimactic to warrant its place, shoe-horned in text form at the very end of the film, and thus comes to encapsulate the overall sense of disappointment that this documentary leaves.
A Horrible Way To Die (preview)
“You’re gonna be fine, just relax,” Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) reassures his female passenger at the beginning of A Horrible Way To Die, and we can immediately perceive a conflict within him. On the one hand, Garrick is softly spoken, solicitous, reassuring, polite – but on the other, he has just taken this woman, bound and gagged, from the boot of his car, and his next move will be to strangle her to death. As the film goes on, we shall see this notorious serial killer, just violently escaped from prison, murder several others along the road. To Garrick, after all, killing is a compulsion – but we are also aware of his weariness, perhaps even his decency, as he tries, however unsuccessfully, to keep his inner demons down.
In a parallel narrative, Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is also conflicted, also caught in a struggle with demons of her own. A heavy drinker with serious trust issues, she is now more or less three months sober, and tentatively entering a new relationship with fellow recovering alcoholic Kevin (Joe Swanberg). It was Sarah’s nightly drunken stupors that had prevented her from seeing what her previous boyfriend, Garrick, had been getting up to behind her back, and ever since his capture and imprisonment, she has been trying to start a new life in a small town – but Garrick, now free once more, is headed straight back to her, leaving a trail of corpses along the road.
A Horrible Way To Die offers a visual restraint, and a mood of melancholic lyricism, that make it quite unlike anything else in the otherwise overcrowded serial killer genre. Shot by its two DPs (Chris Hilleke and Mark Shelhorse) in a calmly impressionistic handheld style more normally associated with the ‘mumblecore’ movement (of which Swanberg is a principal), edited by director Adam Wingard (Home Sick, Pop Skull) in time-leaping ellipses that merge Garrick’s past and present trajectories into a single compelling continuum, superbly scored by Jasper Justice Leigh with ominous horns and synths, and boasting three performances of astonishing subtlety and conviction, this is a story of love and death, addiction and self-control, the wages of sin and the long road to redemption. A Horrible Way to Die follows the apparently inevitable drive of its narrative logic, and yet ends up somewhere unexpected, if still hauntingly satisfying. So just relax, safe in the knowledge that the talented Wingard is taking you to strange, sad and surprising places on America’s (and genre’s) backroads. This is one of FrightFest’s finest offerings.
Midnight Son (UK premiere)
Themes of addiction and abstinence also feature in Scott Leberecht’s indie Midnight Son, which gives the tropes of the undead a moodily modern revamp.
Crippled by an extreme form of photosensitivity that makes his skin burn on contact with the sun’s rays, anaemic loner Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is condemned to spending daylight hours buried away in his bunker-like LA basement apartment, obsessively painting the sunsets that he can no longer watch with his own eyes. One night, this isolated artist meets lost soul Mary (Maya Parish) outside a club, and seems to have found a kindred spirit – but as she battles her dependency on cocaine, he struggles to find a safe way to feed his emergent cravings for blood, and is soon turning to Marcus (Jo D. Jonz), a venal hospital worker, for a semi-regular supply. And then a policeman (Larry Cedar) comes, asking questions about the bizarre murder of a woman from the office building where Jacob works as a night guard – and the confused Jacob must decide whether to give himself up, or give in to his newfound passion…
Shot in cool nocturnal blues and greys to a subdued soundtrack (by Kays Al-Atrakchi), Midnight Son immediately sets itself apart from other recent vampire flicks (with the possible exception of Let The Right One In) by eschewing the camp elements so often associated with the genre. The first half of the film recalls the psychological realism of Martin (1977) or Vampire’s Kiss (1988), as we are made to share Jacob’s own uncertainty as to whether he is just a sensitive outsider with physical and mental problems or a genuine bloodsucker – which means that when, in the second half, the question of Jacob’s status has been unequivocally resolved, his character has been sufficiently well established that the film can remain a credible drama in which moral choices are taken seriously.
Midnight Son ends as it begins, with sunset reds painted on a wall – but the distance traveled in between makes this a resonant tale of alienation, exploitation, eros, appetite and, ultimately, acceptance. “Everyone”, as Marcus put it, “got their thing” – and as Jacob and Mary learn to embrace theirs, we are all invited to join them (and this film) on the midnight margins.
“What kind of psychopath builds a trap you can’t open?” asks Ofer (Henry David) at the beginning of Rabies (or Kalevet), after Tali (Liat Harley) has stumbled into a lockless chamber dug into the earth. There are woods, young lovers a-camping, nocturnal darkness, and a mantrap – but just when all the familiar pieces seem to be in place for Israel’s first slasher film, debuting writer/directors Arahon Keshales and Navot Papusha subvert our every expectation of the genre. From now on, the action will take place in unforgiving daylight, and the killer on the loose will become all but forgotten as Ofer and Tali, a park ranger and his girlfriend, a quartet of young tennis players and a pair of misbehaving cops all cross paths and generate their own, no less deadly kind of psychosis.
The original title, Kalevet, is the Hebrew term not only for the disease rabies, but also more colloquially for anything bad – and this is indeed a film where very bad things happen, whether as a result of gross misunderstanding, ingrained attitudes or just a chaotic chain of cause and effect. It is the sort of clusterfuck that you might find in a Coen brothers’ caper, except that here the location – a nature reserve which occupies no more than an inch on the map, and yet in whose combination of recreation areas and literal minefields all the characters become very lost – admits all manner of allegorical observations about the state of contemporary Israel.
For in this forest of the damned we see the different players tragically undone by their incestuous passions, jealous hatreds, disproportionate revenge, blinkered scapegoating and machismo-driven misogyny – as well as by guns, explosives, sledgehammers, even rocks. “Country full of shits” is the film’s concluding line (although it would be a spoiler too far to reveal just who utters it). Rabies is, in the end, a very dark (if brightly lit) comedy of errors and madness, full of tensions that, though certainly thrilling in themselves, also reflect a nation’s complex social and political landscape, where the twinned senses of entitlement and entrapment have produced a treacherous environment best trodden very carefully.
Do not be put off by this film’s relegation to the Discovery Programme (presumably explained by the fact that it has already screened earlier in 2011 at Edinburgh International Film Festival) – Rabies is without question one of the top picks of this year’s FrightFest, and such was the popular demand for it that an unprecedented third screening was arranged for the Festival’s final day.
Blood Runs Cold (world premiere)
Johnny Laguna’s Blood Runs Cold was made for US$5000, and shot over 35 days in a Swedish winter where the temperature was constantly 15-20 degrees below zero Celsius. It is the sort of against-all-odds production story that alone can suffice to sell a film – which is probably just as well, given that there is little else to commend this by-numbers slasher where a group of randy young things find themselves pitted against the murderous monster on whose home they have inadvertently trespassed.
Films like Colin, The Collingswood Story, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project (to which Blood Runs Cold openly alludes when one character gives in to full snot-dripping terror) prove that an ultra-low budget need be no barrier to good horror, just so long as there are original ideas and a decent story in place. Unfortunately Laguna’s film compounds clichés (a wrong turn, an utterly gratuitous sex scene or two, an unstoppable masked killing machine, lots of panicked to-ing and fro-ing, an axed door à la The Shining) at the expense of narrative coherence. It is reasonable that, driving in heavy snow, protagonist Winona (Hanna Oldenburg) might end up at the wrong holiday cabin, but there is no attempt to explain how a death-defying, carnivorous creature has come to reside there, let alone what it is or where it has come from.
Why does Winona’s boyfriend Rick (Patrick Saxe), having spotted this figure at the house’s upstairs window, fail to tell the others or react in any way? Why, when Winona wakes up to find a large pool of (her missing friends’) blood downstairs, does she simply mop it up as though this were no big deal? The only answer to these questions that might just about make sense is that the inhuman butcher is in fact Winona’s subjective projection of her own monstrous impulses, and that she is in fact the masked killer – but if true, this is merely another cliché, and too unmotivated to satisfy in any way. So flat is the characterisation of Winona and her friends that it is just impossible to believe, let alone care, that there might be another dimension to one of them.
The filmmakers appear to assume (perhaps correctly) that the principal audience for this kind of rote bilge resides in the US, and so have given Blood Runs Cold a Stateside setting. The result is a jarringly inauthentic experience, as perfunctory dialogue obviously written by non-native speakers of English is delivered in thick Swedish accents by characters who are supposedly born and bred in North Carolina. Perhaps it is all meant to be an exposé of the artifices of the slasher – but in showing the very worst aspects of this genre, it is all too successful.
A man regains consciousness in a park, gasping, his hands bound, his head in a bloodied plastic bag. He staggers to the road where, after being winged by a passing car, he manages to get onto the driver’s mobile phone and desperately call his home, only to hear the voice on the line say, “Dad, they’re here – they shot mum!”
With this arresting opening, shot in a single queasy take, first-time feature director Miguel Ángel Vivas certainly grabs our attention, letting us know from the outset that the as yet unseen antagonists of Kidnapped (aka Secuestrados) mean business and take no prisoners – or at least do not keep them. So when Vivas cuts to a different family – father Jaime (Fernando Cayo), mother Marta (Ana Wagener) and 18-year-old daughter Isa (Manuela Vellés) – bickering as they move into their luxury new home in a Madrid gated community, these otherwise banal scenes of mild domestic dysfunction are infused with tension as we await the inevitable irruption of the kidnappers.
Once the three men in balaclavas (Guillermo Barrientos, Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper) have violently entered the scene, intent on fleecing as much money from the family as they can, and happy to indulge in some extra-curricular ‘entertainment’ with Marta and Isa while Jaime is out getting the cash, we find ourselves in home invasion territory already made familiar by Panic Room, Cherry Tree Lane and Mother’s Day (2010), and so shrewdly deconstructed by Funny Games. Vivas, however, deploys a stylistic frame that lends his film an unprecedented, agonising immediacy. For here the action unfolds in just 12 single long takes, shot by Pedro J. Márquez in sinuous handheld movements (and shown, on two occasions, in frenetic split screen). These sequences convey a documentary realism while playing peekaboo with our perspective and havoc with our imagination, especially when Jaime is literally ‘sequestered’ from his wife and daughter, leaving us unsure at any given moment what is happening to whoever happens to be off screen.
If the use of episodic long takes is a trick borrowed from Irréversible (albeit without that film’s backwards chronology), Vivas openly acknowledges the debt with an homage scene in which one character’s skull is caved in with a large blunt object. For while the strongest weapons in Vivas’ arsenal are his steady control of suspense and his nerve-shredding restraint, he does not flinch from allowing all his carefully built-up tensions to explode in an orgy of shocking violence. Make no mistake, this is the horror of hopelessness and nihilism made thrillingly visceral, without any of the distancing buffers of monsters or the supernatural. Kidnapped is certainly not for everyone, and not even trying to be pleasant – but if you fancy a short, sharp stab of depravity and despair, Vivas’ calling card will not even leave you feeling comfortable about going home to your loved ones when it is all over.
It is November 2002, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the British military has captured and imprisoned a supernatural entity on a subterranean level of the Stormhouse Military Base. Against the wishes of the base’s commander Major Anthony Lester (Grant Masters), chirpy psychic Hayley Sands (Katherine Flynn) is brought into this rarefied male environment to make contact with the ghostly subject. Alienated from the base’s tight-lipped English soldiers by her American provenance, her female gender and her civilian status, Hayley tries instead to reach out to the ‘asset’ being held in a ‘reverse electromagnetic field’ – only to discover that this entity is very keen to come out and ‘play’ cruel and deadly games that it has learnt from its own treatment.
“This film was inspired by real events”, reads the text that opens Dan Turner’s Stormhouse. As the entity, struggling to find a way out of its isolated confines, possesses, manipulates and ravages the body of one living host after another, viewers may well be reminded more of John Carpenter’s claustrophobic The Thing than of any reality – but part of the challenge of this supernatural slasher is to work out just how its ghostly games of hide and seek reflect and refract our recent history.
In fact, answers are not so hard to find, although Jason Arnopp’s screenplay never overstates or overschematises them, nor ever abandons the thrills of genre. Nonetheless, there are all manner of figures and motifs here designed to conjure the spirit of the post-9/11 world. There is the Weapon of Mass Destruction secretly hidden in a bunker; there is the bagged-and-rendered prisoner (Munir Khairdin) whose name, Salim Hassan, resembles that of a key Middle Eastern bogeyman of 2002 (and if Saddam Hussein was a puppet dictator, installed and backed by the very men who later wanted him dead, then Salim becomes, in one particularly grotesque scene, a literal puppet); and in the Stormhouse Base we see in miniature a bunker mentality familiar from the ‘War on Terror’ wherein the civilian’s right to privacy is curtailed, the most horrifically inhuman conduct of those from the ‘other side’ is matched by (and possibly learnt from) our own atrocities; and anyone threatening to expose the illegality of state actions is branded a ‘terrorist’. From the start, Hayley’s compassionate interest in who the ghostly entity is (or at least was) and how it came to be captured is declared irrelevant by Lester – a man determined to keep playing his war games no matter what the consequences or collateral damage. There is a sombre irony to Lester’s suggestion that Hassan “gave his human rights away when he tried to kill innocent people, women and children” – although it is an irony that will only become apparent in retrospect, and represents the film’s most haunting message.
Yet the grim realities that underlie Stormhouse are always presented through the lens of horror. Restricting the film’s action to just four days, Turner capably handles the shift from initial atmospheric menace to the outlandish pandemonium of the climax, with admirably sparing use of CGI to convey the entity’s presence. And if the characters are realised only in skeleton, and some of the underground dashing about seems a bit by rote, at least there is a last-minute twist, as satisfying as it is bleak in its assessment of the humanity lost in any effort to fight terror with terror.
The Dead (special event)
Last year, advertising brothers Howard and Jon Ford premiered their feature debut The Dead at FrightFest, and hinted in the subsequent Q&A at the real horror stories behind their African zombie production. This year they returned to record a live audio commentary on the film for its DVD release. They are charming raconteurs, although less charming are the tales that they have to tell of local banditry (“we had guns waved in our face almost on a daily basis”), corruption, freak weather conditions and constant, near-fatal illness – and their disappointment in being forced by circumstance to get “only about 35% of what we wanted for this film.” There are some hilarious anecdotes here, from the brothers pointing out the exact moment in the film where malarial star Rob Freeman literally shat himself while on camera, to their encounter with a local real-life cannibal who “came by on a bicycle… a guy with a big cheesy grin… he hasn’t tried white meat.” When Jon declares, “I honestly thought I wasn’t going to get out of there alive”, and Howard expresses his amazement that “no-one did die during that film”, you can well believe it.
For more extraordinary stories from this impossibly compromised production – which somehow still ended up looking like a million dollars – check out LWLies’ forthcoming interview with the Ford brothers.
Atrocious (UK premiere)
“There are many different versions of the story,” suggests Carlos (Jose Mesegosa) as he tries to tease out the varied, contradictory strands of a local myth about ‘the girl in the Garraf woods’. He is talking to 18-year-old Cristian (Cristian Valencia) who, stuck on holiday with his family at an old house in the Sitges countryside, is determined to document on film the ghostly girl, said to help, or possibly harm, those who become lost at night. But then, as sinister things start happening in and around the property, Cristian must try, camera in hand, to find his way out of a mystery that we suspect right from the start will be his and his family’s undoing.
For his feature debut, Mexican writer/director Fernando Barreda Luna also offers us a multi-layered rendition of his story, ducking and weaving until we too become lost in his particular take on horror. On the one hand, the ‘found footage’ shakicam style and Cristian’s pursuit of a supernatural legend evoke The Blair Witch Project, while an otherwise gratuitous night-vision shot of Cristian sleeping in his bed points directly to Paranormal Activity, and images of Cristian’s sister July groping about terrified in the dark suggest Spain’s best known faux-reportage horror, [REC]. On the other hand, Cristian explicitly mimics a scene from Taxi Driver, there is a cameo of the old well from Ringu, and the spooky hedge maze alongside the house, as well as the axe that at one point comes crashing through a door, conjures the spirit of The Shining.
While all of these knowing cinematic allusions (in a film that is, after all, about an amateur filmmaker with an interest in horror) will prove equally significant in retrospect, they also create a hall of mirrors in which both Cristian and the viewer alike can easily become disoriented, never quite sure what lies round the next narrative bend. Luna has a rather loose grip on pace, and the seemingly endless handheld footage of Cristian and July in the maze makes much of Atrocious feel like repetitive filler – but its short overall duration (just 75 minutes) compensates for its meandering middle section, while the ending satisfyingly destabilises our expectations, transforming all the supernatural spookiness that has preceded into an entirely different kind of irrational. Perhaps it is more an ingenious footnote than a radical game-changer in the shakicam subgenre, but it certainly marks Luna as a new talent to watch.
Atrocious had its world premiere at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival 2010, near where the atrocities that it portrays supposedly took place – and its release was surrounded by a clever multimedia campaign designed to authenticate its events as a series of real local murders. It is just another layer to a story that is as savvy as it is grisly.
My Sucky Teen Romance (European premiere)
“I am just so sick of teenage vampires!” declares Allison (Lauren Lee) – and viewers gorged on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight saga and even Fright Night may well feel the same way. Sure, the mythology of vampirism makes a great metaphor for the physical and sexual changes undergone by adolescents, but recently it has been done to death, while the teens who inhabit these films are largely constructs invented by adults.
This is where Emily Hagins’ My Sucky Teen Romance distinguishes itself. The writer/director is herself only 18 years old (her first feature Pathogen, which she made at the tender age of 12, is celebrated in the documentary Zombie Girl), and so her voice brings with it an authenticity that is lacking from otherwise similar films. If the protagonist of Craig Gillespie’s Fright Night remake is desperate to leave his nerdy childhood behind him, by contrast Hagins’ teens are unashamed geeks somewhat frightened of their adult futures. As they all converge on Austin’s annual SpaceCon, Allison’s best friend Kate (Elaine Hunt) is longing for a last-minute fling with cornerstore clerk Paul (Patrick Delgado) before she leaves town for college.
1950s greaser-turned-vampire Vince (Devin Bonnée) is also headed for SpaceCon, hoping to use the convention’s cos-play as cover for his blood-letting activities, and even posing as Edward from Twilight, “because”, as he gratefully observes, “now even the most disgusting, grotesque creatures are attractive to people.” Accidentally bitten by the infected Paul, Kate suddenly finds her decision to leave her Austin home coming into sharp focus – even as her friends, picking up tips from the Vampire 101 Panel given by one Harry Knowles, rally round to save Kate from an undead eternity.
Gently sending up both the awkwardness of adolescent love pangs and the silliness of geek get-togethers (like FrightFest itself), Hagins’ film is, at 77 minutes, short, but also very sweet – and makes up for its obvious budgetary shortcomings with the sort of energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that money cannot buy. Allison’s advice to Kate – “you’re a teenager, just have fun and be a little stupid” – might equally serve as the catchphrase of an infectiously exuberant film that is unafraid to flaunt its own juvenile flaws.
The Caller (preview)
Mary Kee (Rachelle Lefevre) is still disentangling herself from her marriage to controlling, abusive Steven (Ed Quinn), and has just moved in alone to an old Puerto Rico apartment building, when she starts getting strange calls on the ancient rotary phone of her new lodgings. The caller is Rose (Lorna Raver), a sad and lonely woman looking for a previous occupant of the apartment, her errant lover Bobby. Once Mary has got over her shock and disbelief at learning that Rose is in fact ringing from the year 1979 (and had hanged herself in despair shortly afterwards), the two women briefly bond over the phone about their shared man troubles – until Rose takes to heart a casual comment from Mary, and sets herself on a course that will change both the past and future forever, with horrifying (yet ultimately liberating) consequences for Mary.
Matthew Parkhill’s The Caller takes the hemmed-in hysteria of Repulsion, the telephone terror of When A Stranger Calls, and the high-concept, time-merging plot of Frequency, and allows the crosstalk between these rather different story types to engender a thrillingly uncanny kind of ambiguity. Rose may be unhinged and increasingly dangerous, but her call comes to Mary – isolated, friendless and in therapy, with a vivid dream life and plenty of skeletons in her closet – just when both women need to reach out to someone. They clearly reflect each other across time, but once the mirror has cracked and the awful (if surely inevitable) final image has played out, viewers will be hard-pressed to decide whether they have been watching a paradoxical SF, a creepy ghost story, or a twisted psychodrama. Whichever it is, this cold caller is offering one hell of a talking cure.
No doubt from a horror marketing perspective, the unique selling point of The Caller is its joint billing of Twilight‘s Rachelle Lefevre and True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer (as Mary’s love interest John Guidi). Yet while their performances are certainly excellent, what makes this film truly stand out is its matching of convoluted plotting to an equally complex morality – where the difference between being a victim and a murderer is but a phone call away.
The Devil’s Business (world premiere)
Ben Wheatley attended the second screening of The Devil’s Business, his interest no doubt piqued by the word going around the festival that Sean Hogan’s film would make an excellent double-feature with Wheatley’s own Kill List. It is true that both films feature a pair of hit men confronted by the devilish trajectory of their work, and that both films, along with Cristian Solimeno’s The Glass Man, involve Faustian pacts of sorts. Still, while a filmmaker working with so minuscule a budget must be delighted to be able to piggyback on the media machine for a phenomenon like Kill List, in fact Hogan’s debut is more than capable of holding its own.
Veteran triggerman Pinner (Billy Clarke) and his young, inexperienced ward Cully (Jack Gordon) break into a rural home at night, awaiting the return of owner Kist (Jonathan Hansler) whom their gangland boss Bruno (Harry Miller) wants dead, with no questions asked. As midnight approaches, Pinner keeps the nervous Cully entertained with an eerie story about a previous hit that he had – also unquestioningly – carried out on a beautiful dancing girl, but before he can finish, a sound outside draws them to a horrific sacrificial altar in the garage, and they are made to realise that in this business, there can be no backing down from the choices they have made.
The relatively short duration (75min), small cast, limited domestic setting (in fact the home of producer Jennifer Handorf’s parents-in-law!), and intense dramatic performances all lend this Pinteresque morality play a lean tautness, as well as a tangible intimacy. For the most part it is a talky two-hander, although its many words are carefully chosen and well delivered. In the end, of course, there are also plenty of Satanic trappings, but they are used not just for the sake of genre, but to reflect the ethical make-up of the human characters here, and perhaps also to satirise the sort of irresponsible business conduct which has recently put everyone into unwelcome debt.
When Cully wonders aloud whether, in ambushing ad murdering Kist, he and Pinner are “doing the right thing”, the older assassin reminds his naïve apprentice that “a job’s a job” and “sometimes you just have to let bad people go.” Yet in fact everyone here has their place in the hierarchical corporate structure, and Kist himself, like Pinner and Cully, is just “an employee who’s trying to rise through the ranks, kissing the right arses, making the odd sacrifice – the company man walking the company line”. It is, of course, the man at the very top of the criminal chain who will always in the end demand his due.
In every enterprise, it would seem, the devil is in the details – and in this modest but resonant film, Hagan gets those just right.
Anton would like to thank FrightFest organisers Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy and especially Greg Day for all their help over the weekend – and also the staff at Empire.
© Anton Bitel