First published by Little White Lies
Whether it was the paradigm-shifting narrative in Switchblade Romance, the disorienting mix of revenge, J-horror demons and torture porn in Martyrs, the collision of gritty policier and zombie apocalypse in The Horde, or the clash of banlieue violence and rural terror in Sheitan and Frontier(s), recent Gallic horror has been characterised not just by its unabashed extremity, but also by its mastery of genre-leaping mash-ups.
There is similar misdirection and mystification to be found in the first half of The Pack, a French/Belgian co-production here enjoying its UK premiere. Viewers are left trying to guess who is the greatest threat to gothic rock chick Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) as she drives through the mist on her road to nowhere. Could it be the sexually aggressive biker gang that dogs her? Or the hitcher (Eric Godon) she picks up on the way? Or the retired cop/sheriff (played by France’s favourite horror villain Philippe Nahon) who makes inappropriate passes at her? Or the gun-toting mama (Yolande Moreau) at whose backwoods truck-stop café Charlotte stops for a drink?
Peppering his film with sly allusions to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Vanishing, Motel Hell and TV’s The Twilight Zone – and throwing in some ‘torture porn’ for good measure – first-time writer/director Franck Richard repeatedly wrongfoots us with impressive genre savvy. Unfortunately, though, this twisted narrative trail ultimately reaches a destination which, while certainly unexpected and bizarre, is also ill-conceived, and feels crudely tacked on. So although it mines a rich seam of genre’s raw materials, The Pack ends up being all tense build-up with little convincing follow-through.
We Are What We Are
A shabby, bearded man staggers through an upmarket mall, leering hungrily at the bikinied mannequins in the windows. This is Papa (Humberto Yáñez), who to all purposes resembles one of Romero’s zombie shoppers from Dawn of the Dead – but when, in this opening sequence to Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, the lascivious patriarch drops dead in a pool of his own bile, the mall’s cleaning staff briskly sweep away all evidence that Papa was ever there. So while we expect one kind of monster, we get another – the chilling spectacle of bourgeois consumerism, and of the poverty, hunger and mortality whose very existence it denies.
“We’re monsters,” Papa’s widow Patricia (Carmen Beato) will later inform two of her children – and the mutilated corpse of a prostitute in the boot of their car confirms the truth of her words. This is a family that, for all its dysfunction and perversion, slays together to stay together – and yet there is something in Patricia’s use of the first person plural, echoed in the film’s title, that implicates us all in the family’s horrific Darwinian rituals of survival. In Grau’s artfully aloof anatomisation of a dog-eat-dog society, everyone is a monster ruled by carnality and predation.
Vulnerable street children and prostitutes run in violent packs for safety. A law officer (Jorge Zárate) is less interested in justice than in personal advancement and financial reward, and barely hesitates to agree to some extra-judicial killing in return for ‘a tasty little morsel’. Even on the dance floor of a gay nightclub, there are, as one character puts it, “a lot of hunters and they all want to eat you up.” And so the family’s atrocities, dressed up in the superstitious guise of ritual, merely mirror the harsh realities of the corrupted world around them. Here, we are what we are, and also what we eat. Grau’s macabre tale is told in stately long shots, presenting scenes of both domestic banality and bloody outrage in the same cold, indifferent light, and defying us to judge those whom we so readily overlook and brush aside.
Damned by Dawn
Originally Gregg Araki’s Kaboom was scheduled to play in this slot, but the director himself withdrew the film in the belief that the FrightFesters are too geeky and gore-focussed to roll with his own omnisexual, psychedelic vibe. On the contrary, surely we are the core audience for such freaky filmic marginalia. Ironically, though, its replacement was precisely the kind of shopworn genre fare that Araki probably imagines we all lap up with relish. Brett Anstey’s Damned by Dawn is a slice of stylised Antipodean gothic whose very title references the much-loved horror oeuvre of Sam Raimi – but while Anstey is happy to pillage motifs wholesale from the Evil Dead trilogy and Drag Me To Hell, he lacks the pacing, and more importantly the humour, to make such materials seem anything less than hand-me-downs that have seen much better days.
The only novelty here is the use of the Banshee myth, although as Claire (Renee Willner) finds herself and her family fighting to survive the vengeful demonic forces that she has inadvertently (and rather foolishly) unleashed, Anstey devotes unduly large amounts of his film to scenes of the characters engaged in running, running and more running through a blue-lit smoke-machine fog that recalls music videos from the ’80s. Stitching together all this endless to-ing and fro-ing is the Banshee herself (Bridget Neval), looking like a goth girl after a particularly hard night on the town (more ’80s music video flashbacks!), and her army of flying CG reapers who, for all their numbers and mobility, seem strangely incapable of slicing up this hapless family in seconds.
Instead we get 81 minutes of near tension-free meandering from characters about whom we never much care. Even the Banshee’s much-vaunted wailings fail to get the blood curdling – their resemblance to the whistling of an old-style kettle will just have you wanting to pop out for a nice cup of tea instead.
Kaboom was not the only film to be removed from the original schedule. The feature slated to follow it was A Serbian Film, but when Westminster Council caught wind of the many controversies surrounding Srdjan Spasojevic’s bleakly allegorical state-of-the-nation shocker, for the first time in a decade they insisted that only a BBFC-approved version of the film could be screened at the Festival under their jurisdiction – even though A Serbian Film has been shown uncut at other festivals around the world.
Several days before FrightFest was due to open, the BBFC announced that it needed 49 cuts, which amounted to the extraction of almost four minutes of footage from the original. Annoyed at having only a heavily mutilated version of the film, and faced with the possibility that even this might again be rejected upon resubmission to the BBFC, the organisers had little choice but to pull it from the programme – and so the energies that FrightFesters should have spent debating Spasojevic’s sexually graphic torture show were instead devoted to fevered (and largely accurate) speculation about what would replace it. A Serbian Film was well and truly buried – and Buried is what screened instead.
Few, however, were disappointed by Rodrigo Cortéz’s ‘underground’ thriller, set entirely within the darkened confines of a wooden coffin interred somewhere in Iraq. Civilian truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakens in this most extreme of claustrophobic locations, and uses his limited resources (a lighter, a flask of whisky, a mobile phone, a pen knife) to assess his surroundings and negotiate with American bureaucrats, a British representative from the hostage working group in Iraq, and one of his abductors, in an increasingly desperate effort to get out alive before the oxygen can run out leaving him buried forever.
Buried is a miracle of cinematic minimalism. Beginning with a completely black screen and only the expertly mixed sound design to indicate what is happening, Cortéz puts us right in this close environment with Paul from the start, and then restricts his lighting to whatever sources of illumination Paul has at his disposal. This is a film of ever-narrowing close-ups, and the only relief (if that’s the word) from this pinewood prison for both Paul and ourselves is the voices and images from outside that come via his phone, with the battery gradually running out.
Even when Cortéz occasionally ‘cheats’, zooming the camera out to show impossible shots of Paul (where a wooden roof or wall ought to be blocking the view), the sight of the protagonist, distant and barely lit in the middle of an engulfing darkness, only increases our sense of his utter desolation. It is significant that this is Paul’s ninth month working as a contractor in Iraq – for lodged in this enclosed space, he might as well be gestating in a womb, and dying to come out.
Although focussed very tightly on a single individual, Cortéz’s film manages to capture all the exploitativeness, hypocrisy, follly and futility of America’s current entanglement in the Middle East, from which, much like Paul, a deeply dug-in Coalition is struggling to extricate itself. The words “I’m sorry”, something of a leitmotif here, ring ever more hollow as we are rushed by one of the tensest climactic sequences this reviewer has ever seen towards a truly breathtaking dénouement. So much more than its high-concept premise might suggest, Cortéz’s film is a bravura one-off whose simple-seeming title resonates hauntingly in the dark.
Buried was followed by a world exclusive – Adam Green’s 20-minute contribution to the forthcoming anthology film Chillerama, designed to do for the drive-in movie what Grindhouse did for, well, grindhouse. Entitled ‘The Diary of Anne Frankenstein’, Green’s piece is a hilariously broad black-and-white send-up of the old Universal horrors (and Nazism!), featuring Green regulars Joel Moore as a mock-German-speaking Hitler, and Kane Hodder as the golem-like kickass monster Meshugana. This more than makes up for the shortcomings of Hatchet II…
The Loved Ones
With its protagonist bound and brutalised for much of the duration, writer-director Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones might sound as though it is running through the same tired old routines as many a ‘torture porn’ – but whereas this much despised subgenre is usually far more concerned with torture than porn (A Serbian Film being a recent exception), here the antagonist really does have twisted erotic motives, even if she is too spoilt and immature to direct her desires through conventionally sexual channels. For Byrne’s confident feature debut takes the coming-of-age tropes of John Hughes, and adds a hefty dose of campy psychosis, creating a tale of small-town adolescent horror where the growing pains really do hurt.
Teenager Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel) is a tortured soul, still racked with guilt over his father’s accidental death six months earlier, and drifting through life on a steady diet of marijuana and self-harm, with only the love of his long-suffering girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine) affording him any hope of recovery. On the day of the school prom, after Brent politely rebuffs the advances of pretty-in-pink Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), he is abducted by her over-doting daddy Eric (John Brumpton) and finds himself captive to a psychotic father-and-daughter duo whose past victims have been swept beneath the carpet. Subjected to unspeakable torments in their private domestic disco, Brent is about to have the value of life drilled right into his skull.
While The Loved Ones takes gleeful pleasure in tracing the details of Lola’s ritualised danse macabre, playing up all the unhinged grotesquery with a dark and twisted sense of humour, the film is in deadly earnest when it comes to documenting the damage wrought upon a broader community by acts of violence.
This is, as its title suggests, a tale of love and loss – and in the strange blend of tacky teenage kicks, graphic physical suffering, hysterically over-the-top dysfunction and serious character drama to be found here, it is precisely these tonal dissonances that create the frantic sense of disorientation and unease. We are left squirming in our seats, never quite knowing whether to laugh, cry or hurl – which makes The Loved Ones a welcome addition to the Ozploitation canon. Great performances, too.