FrightFest 2010 Post-Mortem

First published by EmpireOnline (link now dead)

we are what we are
FrightFesters: we are what we are…

Now that the blood has been spilt, the killing is done and the screaming has finally stopped ringing in the ears, it is time to assess the state of horror as  incarnated at this year’s Film4 FrightFest. Over the course of an extended August Bank Holiday weekend, viewers were treated to a parade of disgust, depravity and death – 34 features split between two screens, as well as short films, trailers, panel discussions and Q&As.

Before turning to the new, though, let’s start with the old. Horror icon Tobe Hooper was in attendance, bumbling his way through an on-stage interview like an eccentric uncle on too much medication – and his 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was given a welcome re-run on Empire’s 20-metre screen, preceded by a showing of his rarely seen debut Eggshells (1969) in a recently rediscovered and remastered print. It is a time-capsule elegy for the end of the Sixties counterculture, part vérité document, part experimental freakout, let down only by a sometimes meandering pace and the projectionist’s insistence on cranking up the volume of the soundtrack so loud that many of the lines were swallowed in a wash of distortion.

Similarly backward-looking was the Festival opener Hatchet II, both as an altogether unnecessary sequel to the film that introduced FrightFest to its favourite son Adam Green, and as a gleeful return to the gore-and-latex excess of an Eighties slasher. Of course, since Hatchet premiered at FrightFest in 2006, there have been plenty of homages to Reagan-era horror, and this belated sequel failed to bring anything new to the table. Still, Green would later make good, both with his affectionate ‘Road to FrightFest’ pastiches (made together with Joe Lynch)  that were screened serially every evening, and with a hilarious special screening of ‘The Diary of Anne Frankenstein’, his 20-minute contribution to forthcoming anthology film Chillerama.

There was nostalgia of sorts too in Steven R. Monroe’s remake of Seventies rape-revenge shocker I Spit On Your Grave, which manages to be far better made – if not necessarily better – than the original while remaining every bit as divisively confronting. Meanwhile Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s loving  homage to all things giallo, perfectly evokes the spirit and texture of Italian genre cinema from the Seventies, while being an unnerving and highly tactile headscratcher in its own right. No other film of the weekend was more aesthetically pleasing than this.

Plenty of oldschool bugbears were also brought back out of the closet. The Ford Brothers’ The Dead gave us reason to believe that there is still life left in zombies, even old-fashioned Romero-style shuffling zombies, as long as their apocalyptic ascent is set amidst the widescreen spectacle of never-before-seen locations in West Africa. It is just a pity that the film lacked any obvious contemporary sociopolitical subtext to match its pretty pictures and doom-laden trajectory. Conversely, the vampires that are now supposedly ruling the undead roost proved tepid and hackneyed both in Steve Lawson’ sub-Ritchie gangster-fangster mash-up Dead Cert or in Kim Tae-kyun’s overlong and underwritten teen manga adaptation Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island. The werewolves in Jonathan Glendening’s 13Hrs may buck convention with their hairlessness, and their destructive transformations may reflect the decline and fall of a propertied English family, but none of this quite saved the film from feeling like a soap opera with claws. As for the rubber-suited, dolphin-headed extra-terrestrials or their PVC-sporting antagonist assassins in Seiji Chiba’s outrageous (and awful) mockbuster Alien Vs. Ninja, the less said the better.

More interesting were those productions that went for less traditional movie monsters. Both Carlos Brooks’ domestic thriller Burning Bright and Patrick Hughes’ Ozploitation oater Red Hill unleash big cats – the former carefully building to its high-concept premise (a would-be co-ed and her younger autistic brother trapped in a house with a ravenous tiger) so that it somehow seems less preposterous than it sounds on paper, and the latter making its cryptid ‘black panther’ reflect the troubled history of race relations in a small Australian town – and an entire nation. Also from Australia, Josh Reed’s body horror Primal uses the feeding-and-breeding cycle of a primeval outback parasite to furnish the perfect context for the most taboo word in the English language.

Horror cinema can go for decades without exploiting Irish folklore, but this year not one but two FrightFest films resorted to the monsters of Celtic mythology. Brett Anstey’s witless, plodding Damned By Dawn tries (and largely fails) to blend Sam Raimi’s special brand of comic gothic with the legend of the Banshee, while Colm McCarthy’s Outcast reimagines the alienated, underground existence of the ancient aes sídhe in the modern setting of an Edinburgh housing estate. McCarthy’s film may have been relegated to the Discovery Programme, but it proved, unlike Anstey’s, to be one of the Festival standouts. Though certainly original, the creatures eventually revealed in Franck Richard’s The Pack are far less entertaining than the game of guess-the-genre that the director deftly plays in the film’s first third. On the other hand, the exquisitely realised gigantic squid-like aliens in Gareth Edwards’ low-budget triumph Monsters merely form the reflective background to a romantic adventure story in which a journalist and his employer’s daughter find themselves becoming the strangers in a strange land that they had thought they knew.

If the real monsters in Edwards’ debut are Americans with their knee-jerk militarism, insularity and xenophobia, there were plenty of other films at this year’s Festival exploring humanity at its most bestial. “We’re monsters,” declares the matriarch in Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, and although her impoverished family slays together to stay together, in this bleak state-of-the-nation allegory, all sectors of Mexican society seem equally governed by carnality, predation and a cool indifference to the lives of others. Tammi Sutton’s Isle of Dogs presents a similar dog-eat-dog underworld of criminals, prostitutes and cops, but the artifices of its many twists and turns never really add up to anything believable enough to be engaging, while the eclectic score (matching the film’s fluidity of genre) is placed so high in the sound mix that much of the dialogue has been rendered inaudible.

Several of the Festival’s human monsters were female. The heroine (Seo Young-hee) of Jang Cheol-soo’s Bedevilled is driven to vengeful insanity by her abusive treatment, exploitation and abandonment on a supposedly idyllic island of South Korea, while conversely David Blyth’s nightmarish Wound plays out its scenarios of incest, perversion, loss and revenge in the arrested unconscious of its protagonist (Kate O’Rourke). In Pang Ho-Cheung’s gloriously deranged Dream Home, on the other hand, a driven young Hong Kong woman (Josie Ho) readily slices and dices her way through eleven total strangers to realise her dream of owning an apartment with a harbour view, in what is perhaps the first horror film to exploit the anxieties surrounding the property market.

Robert Lieberman’s The Tortured turns the tables on the conventions of ‘torture porn’ by presenting us with a couple, tormented by grief and loss, who visit upon their son’s torturer-cum-murderer a twisted taste of his own medicine – only to discover that they might have made a terrible mistake. Never celebrating the couple’s vengeful actions, nor allowing them any easy ethical justification, the film lets no-one off the hook lightly – even if it suffers from its own bludgeoning lack of subtlety. Much better in this subgenre was Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones, where the torturers are a pretty-in-pink would-be prom queen (Robin McLeavy) and her unhealthily doting daddy (John Brumpton), the victim is a depressed schoolboy (Xavier Samuel) already prone to self-harm, and the hysterical grotesquery of the punishments meted out (in an improvised domestic disco) are offset by the film’s seriousness when it comes to dramatising the damage wrought on a small-town community by irrational acts of horror.

The monsters in Johannes Roberts’ F are silent, hooded youths who invade the corridors of a comprehensive school one evening – yet by showing no interest whatsoever in the motives or even identities of these faceless assailants, and  instead choosing to focus on the creepy, somewhat unhinged persona of the English teacher (David Schofield) whose fears appear to have conjured them, the film adds an unsettling psychological dimension to all its frenzied cat-and-mouse thrills. Paul Andrew Williams’ Cherry Tree Lane takes a similarly bleak view of youth culture, suggesting that the gap of mutual incomprehension between a middle-aged, middle-class couple and their adolescent, drug-dealing intruders can only be bridged by violence and revenge.

Unfolding in real time and entirely within the confines of a suburban home, Williams’ film ought to have been a shoo-in for the prize of most claustrophobic film – but then along came Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried, in which truck-driving contractor Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up interred in a wooden coffin somewhere in Iraq, left to contend (by cell phone) with officious US operators, devious hostage negotiators, angry abductors, poisonous snakes and a fast-dwindling air supply in his desperate attempt to get out alive. Cortés boxes us right in with Paul for the film’s breathless duration, while still managing to expose the Coalition’s disastrously dug-in adventurism in the Middle East to the sort of incisive commentary that has eluded many other films set on far broader canvases. The final act of Buried is as tense as anything this reviewer has ever seen.        

In fact, Buried was a ‘surprise film’, brought in after Srdjan Spasojevic’s shocking national allegory A Serbian Film had to be removed from the programme at the last minute. With its censor-baiting combination (often in one scene) of sex, violence and children, Spasojevic’s film came with a ready-made notoriety that led Westminster Council to demand, for the first time, that only a BBFC-approved version could be screened at FrightFest. When the BBFC insisted that an edit be resubmitted with 49 cuts, i.e. almost four whole minutes slashed and burned from the filmmaker’s original vision, the film was pulled. Similarly, the I Spit On Your Grave remake could only be shown in a (modestly) cut version. All of which lent a sense of timely urgency to Jake West’s documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, tracing the ill-conceived history of VHS seizures and censorship in the Eighties. Entertaining and horrifying all at once, it is West’s best film by a wide margin – and the subsequent on-stage panel discussion offered plenty of food for thought about how easily history can repeat itself.

Several of the films here thrived on diabolically sustained ambiguities. In Max Sender’s Christopher Roth, we are never quite sure whether a series of monstrous murders take place in the Italian countryside where a blocked thriller writer is vacationing (Joaquim de Almeida), or entirely in the author’s creative imagination. When, in Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s After.Life, a schoolteacher (Christina Ricci) wakes up on a mortuary slab, we remain uncertain to the end whether she is alive or dead, and indeed whether the funeral director (Liam Neeson) is genuinely a psychopomp cursed with a sixth sense that enables him to converse with the recently deceased, or merely a psychopath who heavily sedates his still-living victims before formally sending them on their way. Similarly, Daniel Stamm’s faux-documentary Festival closer The Last Exorcism leaves us unsure whether the demonic possession that we are witnessing on film is the genuine article or an elaborately staged fake.                        

I have reserved the very best till last. After wowing (and staggering) audiences with the manic intensity of The Living and the Dead at FrightFest 2006, Simon Rumley returned this year with Red White & Blue, a revenge-driven tragedy set in Austin, Texas. Erica (Amanda Fuller) drifts through a series of one-night stands till she meets the older Nate (Noah Taylor), a taciturn Iraq War veteran with a sociopathic streak who, unusually, seems interested in Erica for more than just sex – but when one of her previous partners, hard-rocking mamma’s boy Franki (Marc Senter), resurfaces with a hell of a grudge against the young woman, a bizarre triangle of love, vengeance and death forms to ensnare these three lost souls.

Boasting three of the year’s finest performances, Rumley’s film is a slow-burning tripartite drama that spirals inexorably towards parallel acts of misdirected vengeance – and in the ellipses and silences of its economic narrative lurk the darkest aspects of the American psyche. Many of the weekend’s films may have been nastier, gorier or (superficially) more shocking, but nothing can vie with the impact provided both by Rumley’s solid, engaging characterisation and his directorial restraint that leaves the unimaginable precisely to the imagination. Despite his relatively low profile, Rumley is one of the most important and intelligent British filmmakers working today – and Red White & Blue finds real, harrowing, politically resonant horror in places where no-one else is looking.

The only film that was arguably more confronting for an audience as geeky, factionalised and obsessive as the FrightFest collective is Kyle Newman’s 1998-set comic road movie Fanboys, whose characters’ driven quest for a pre-release copy of Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace is no less endearing, quixotic or downright ridiculous than the FrightFesters’ sudden, critical need to track down A Serbian Film uncut…

Anton Bitel