First published by EmpireOnline (no longer live)
Year on year, the Film4 FrightFest seems to grow in size and scale, and this August bank holiday weekend’s was no exception, as the UK’s best genre festival boasted a staggering 37 new features, as well as trailers, short films, Q&As, a live directors’ commentary (on The Dead), a quiz and many other events, spread over four days (and five nights) on Screens One and Four of London’s Empire cinema. So while you could easily be forgiven for thinking that horror is in rude health, quantity need not imply quality, and an excellent discussion panel held on Saturday sounded alarm bells over an industry that, at least in its homogenised Hollywood incarnation, has grown sick in all the wrong ways.
The guest of honour was polyhypenate independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden. That only two of his four feature films (Wendigo, The Last Winter) have ever been released on these shores, and even then only direct-to-video, explains why he is a voice in American horror that many of us have never before heard – although he has plenty of compelling stories to tell, both in film and in person. After a survey of his career, he was joined on stage by other independent directors (Ti West, Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Lucky McKee) and another independent producer (Andrew van den Houten), who all painted a picture of clueless studio executives both ignorant of, and uninterested in, horror (except as a money maker), and described the current phase of Hollywood remakes and sequels as the death of creativity for the genre.
It is difficult to argue against this when, of the three big studio titles on offer at this year’s festival, two were indeed remakes and the third was a sequel. Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark reimagines a 1973 telemovie, as well as effectively mimicking the baroque stylings of its producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro, but lacks the sort of subtext that lends del Toro’s own films their memorable distinction. Though smartly packaged, and certainly an improvement on the 1985 original, Craig Gillespie’s Fright Night 3D still feels like a derivative disappointment from the director whose career began so impressively with Lars and the Real Girl (2007). Steven Quale’s Final Destination 5 delivers everything that fans of the memento mori franchise could possibly want, managing its violent set-pieces with grotesque glee and allowing us to see each of its irksome characters die not only bloodily, but also twice – yet as not even the first Final Destination film to feature 3D, this fifth instalment merely coasts along on a now well-established formula, with nothing new to offer. All three films are highly polished multiplex fillers that lack all resonance, and fail utterly to advance the genre – and the weekend’s only other remake, Robin Hardy’s long-gestating The Wicker Tree, was, despite its independent status, hardly better, transforming the recognisable themes of his original 1973 classic The Wicker Man into a silly, unsubtle farce.
To get an idea of the gulf that can exist between the Hollywood and independent streams of American horror, it is instructive to contrast the slick pointlessness of Fright Night with the weekend’s other two vampire films, both low-to-no-budgeters that screened in the ‘Discovery Programme’ strand. My Sucky Teen Romance uses vampirism as a mirror to adolescent experience, but written and directed by 18-year-old Emily Hagins (incredibly, her third feature!), it comes not only with a genuinely geeky wit and charm, but also with an authenticity of which Fright Night 3D (and the Twilight franchise) can only dream. Scott Leberecht’s cool-hued Midnight Son gives the tropes of the undead a thoroughly modern revamp, while playing out themes of addiction and abstinence – themes which it shares with Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way To Die. The latter falls somewhere between a soulful serial-killer flick and a moody ‘mumblecore’ road movie, and was one of the weekend’s quirky finest. Yet another impressive independent film was Matthew Parkhill’s The Caller, matching its ingenious time-leaping plot (think Frequency, with manically murderous intent) to a serious moral complexity. All these titles were genuine discoveries – although it is anyone’s guess why they should have been marginalised to the Discovery Programme, while incoherent torture-porn crud like Taylor Sheridan’s Vile was selected for the Main Programme. At least Jourdan McClure’s similarly ordeal-themed Rogue River earned its place in the Main Programme by off-setting some truly shocking psychosexual taboos with lyrical visuals and restrained performances (even from Bill Moseley).
Meanwhile, back at the panel discussion, Lynch and Green, who have themselves both made sequels in the past (Wrong Turn and Hatchet 2 respectively), insisted that there is nothing inherently wrong with the sequel form itself, only with the loveless cash-in approach taken towards it by Tinseltown executives. How ironic, then, that their own contribution to the the weekend, the gross-out B-movie pastiche Chillerama, was even more dumbed down than the sort of reductive corporate product they were so keen to criticise. If Lynch and Green are really, as they keep asserting, making their films for the true horror fans, then perhaps they themselves should underestimate us a little less.
Their fellow panelist West has also experienced all sides of the American industry, having once directed a studio sequel (Cabin Fever 2) from which he was unceremoniously fired late into the production – but his independent titles (The Roost, The House of the Devil) offer a distinctive low-key take on horror that would probably be unachievable with a big budget and big-name stars. His offering for this year’s FrightFest, The Innkeepers, is a riff on the hotel horror of The Shining, downgraded from Kubrick’s opulent lodge to a smalltown guesthouse, but elevated by a well-written script, believable characters, eerie atmosphere and pure filmmaking talent (something that the big bucks cannot always buy). Likewise, panelist McKee’s The Woman, co-written with cult horror novelist Jack Ketchum and produced independently by van den Houten, is a shocking, if beautifully crafted, tale of small-town misogyny and abuse that one suspects is too raw and blistering for the studios to touch – even if it went down a treat with its intended audience at FrightFest.
Interestingly, the themes of misogyny and errant patriarchy recurred across several films (including two British ones) over the weekend. Despite its setting in rural England, Susan Jacobson’s debut The Holding essentially revisits the type of ‘insidious interloper’ plot familiar from films like Fatal Attraction, and even features its own ‘bunny boiling’ (or at least ‘stud slaughtering’) moment – but there is something refreshing about the way it subverts the demonisation of female characters that is typical of the subgenre. Richard Parry’s Dartmoor-set A Night In The Woods pits its heroine not just against a local legend of the supernatural, but also against her two manically possessive male companions, and leaves you wondering which fate is worse. Best of all, Michael Steiner’s Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps expertly unwinds a complicated, chronology-confounding narrative that intertwines the history of a young woman’s abuse with a traditional Swiss folktale of rape and revenge.
The first horror film ever to have come out of Switzerland, Sennentuntschi is infused with a localism that represents another kind of alternative to the Hollywood model of horror – and there were other non-American films over the weekend that similarly located their genre tropes in rather culturally specific settings. Andy Fetscher’s Urban Explorer is in many ways a rather conventional film about a killer playing cat-and-mouse with his hopeless victims, apart from its unique location in a network of tunnels beneath Berlin, and its unique engagement with different (but equally horrifying) layers of Germany’s twentieth-century history. Likewise Dick Maas’ Saint could have been just another ‘Santa slasher’, except that its Amsterdam settings, as well as its take on Saint Nick’s mythology, make it a peculiarly Dutch affair. An even more unusual spin on the slasher subgenre was to be found in Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Rabies, which, despite its relegation to the Discovery Programme, was another highlight of the weekend – a ‘killer-on-the-loose’ scenario that quickly turns into a Coens-style ensemble clusterfuck as different characters (privileged runaways, college kids, a park ranger and a pair of corrupt cops) prove unable to get along together, and end up thoroughly lost in the woods. It is an allegory of a nation’s incestuous insularity, and of the minefield of Israel’s internal ternsions – but it also never forgets to be thoroughly thrilling and darkly funny.
Likewise André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter is a hilarious ‘found footage’ monster movie that simply could not have come from anywhere but its native Norway (and yet, according to Green, is already being touted for a point-missing Hollywood remake). Yet another ‘found footage’ film, Fernando Barreda Luna’s Atrocious may riff off The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, but after getting somewhat lost in its middle section it comes up with a neat twist on the subgenre in its final scenes, and takes full advantage of a setting very near the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival where it enjoyed its world premiere.
Only Sonny Laguna’s no-budget slasher Blood Runs Cold fails to capitalise in any way on its provenance, instead aping by rote a tired American template, and 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. How much more interesting for it to have been been invested with some real Swedish flavour. Admittedly Miguel Ángel Vivas’ bleakly visceral long-take thriller Kidnapped makes little of its Spanish origins, but at least it is actually in Spanish (with a smattering of Albanian from the home-invading antagonists). In keeping with this theme of cultural fluidity, Ángel Agudo’s bio doc The Man Who Saw Frankenstein Cry covers the life and prolific filmmaking career of Spanish horror icon Jacinto Molina Alvarez, who adopted the decidedly un-Spanish-sounding pseudonym Paul Naschy for the screen, and was required by censors during the Franco years to make the origins of his wolfman foreign – which gave rise to his best known character, the lycanthropic count Waldemar Daninsky of Poland. The documentary itself is on the mawkish side, but it would be impossible to make Naschy’s life story boring.
Despite the unprecedentedly large number of features screening at this year’s FrightFest, there was a conspicuous absence of titles from Asia or Australia (although Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was filmed in Victoria, doubling for Rhode Island), countries which have, at least until recently, been hothouses of horror. That said, no previous FrightFest has boasted as many titles from Britain. Besides the aforementioned The Holding, The Wicker Tree and A Night in the Woods, Julian Gilbey’s festival closer A Lonely Place To Die provides one tense cliffhanger after another in its Scottish highlands setting; Chris Crow’s Panic Button (think Saw on a plane!) just about keeps its potboiler of a plot airborne while stowing an improbably large load of hot-button issues in its cargo hold; and Dan Turner’s Stormhouse accommodates a claustrophobic, Carpenter-esque ghost story during the build-up to the second Gulf War, all in order to allegorise the inhuman horrors involved in any attempt to fight terror with terror.
As it happens, the most impressive three of the British films all involved Faustian pacts of different kinds, and would in fact make an excellent triple feature. In Cristian Solimeno’s tragic psychodrama The Glass Man, fragile Martin Pyrite (Andy Nyman in riveting form) is so desperate to conceal from his beloved wife the loss of his white-collar job and the mounting of his arrears, that he enters a shadowy deal with debt collector Pecco (James Cosmo) which will lead him on a long, dark night of the soul. Sean Hogan’s microbudget The Devil’s Business is a Pinter-esque morality drama in which a novice hitman and his more experienced mentor (Jack Gordon, Billy Clarke) are confronted with the evil of their life choices in a surprisingly genre-bound manner. Best of the lot (and quite possibly the best of the fest) is Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, an assuredly disorienting blend of kitchen sink drama, darkly banalised comedy and paranoid pandemonium. In spite, or perhaps because, of problems at home, family man Jay (Neil Maskell) leaps at the chance to rejoin his old war buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) on the road to carry out a list of professional assassinations. It is a contract, written in blood, that he will see through to its bitter end – an end that, though utterly unexpected, makes a horrific kind of sense, at least for those viewers willing to put in the necessary post-credits ‘reconstruction’ (a key word in the film) of events. Idiosyncratically English, refreshingly original and dizzyingly, devilishly demanding, Kill List flatters us with our own interpretative acumen instead of simply explaining itself away, and heads in unusual directions for genre, leading far, far away from the Hollywood centre – and as with the very best of unsettling horror, it will leave you unsure whether to laugh, cry or scream.
Not that every British film lived up to such lofty standards. Alex Chandon’s tiresomely moronic Inbred is essentially Two Thousand Maniacs! transplanted to the Yorkshire backwoods, and, much like Chillerama, aims its grossout humour at the lowest common denominator. There was far better comedy to be found in the Pierce brothers’ DeadHeads and Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, both buddy pics that cleverly invert the tropes of, respectively, the zombie flick and hillbilly horror, and make amiable heroes from the conventional villains of those subgenres. The best comedy of all (and one of the most astonishing films of the entire weekend) was music video director Joseph Kahn’s self-financed Detention – a hyperactive, supersmart postmodern mash-up of every great teen movie ever made, with a plot so deliriously overwrought that it simply defies synopsis. It is a revved-up Heathers for generation wiki, with seemingly as many ideas per second as frames, and more bizarrely hilarious one-liners than ten of its mainstream counterparts.
That leaves just two more FrightFest titles which, though not the best films, perhaps best encapsulated the festival as a whole. After all, any viewers who holed up and held out at the Empire for the entire weekend could not help but find a special, personal resonance in Xavier Gens’ post-apocalyptic bleak-a-thon The Divide, concerned as it is with a disparate group of people stuck in a confined space together and gradually stripped of all human dignity as they await the approaching end. Even more reflexive, however, was the anthology piece The Theatre Bizarre, set in a strange, cavernous auditorium where a series of macabre short films, each by a different director, is played before a freakish, jittery audience. The very fact that this film’s shorts varied in quality from the downright terrible (Richard Stanley’s ‘The Mother of Toads’, Karim Hussain’s ‘Vision Stains’) to the utterly sublime (Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘I Love You’ and especially Douglas Buck’s haunting ‘The Accident’) perfectly mirrored the patchiness of a weekend that, though perhaps not the most memorable of FrightFests, certainly had some very high points.