FrightFest Glasgow 2017 Day 1 first published by SciFiNow
Thursday 23 & Friday 24 February, 2017
Two events cast different kinds of shadow over this year’s Glasgow FrightFest. The first was the announcement, one day before the Thursday evening opening, that the next instalment of FrightFest’s main August Bank Holiday weekend event would be taking place back at the Empire in Leicester Square – although the fact that it is now, but never previously was, the Cineworld Empire, and that the mighty Empire 1 has now been split into two smaller theatres, is a sure sign that you can never truly go back. Indeed, 2013’s FrightFest closer Big Bad Wolves was the last ever film to screen in Empire 1 before the conversion of the auditorium into what it is now – and if FrightFesters hanker nostalgically to experience once more the same film together in the same big theatre, the best that they can do now is come to the festival’s single-venue offshoots like the Halloween FrightFest, or indeed Glasgow itself (unfolding, as it does, within the confines of the GFT’s upper floor). The August FrightFest won’t be the same – but then again, it never is.
The other event was Storm Doris, playing havoc with the UK’s train and plane services, and preventing many, including the organisers (and myself), from attending the opening night. As it happens, the evening’s two films were dedicated to the impossibility of ever truly going back. Gore Verbinski’s festival opener A Cure For Wellness (which I had managed to catch earlier) follows Dane De Haan’s ambitious financial executive Lockhart heading from his modern New York office back to the old country where his firm’s CEO has retreated permanently into a sanatorium to ‘take the waters’. And so Lockhart’s twenty-first century sensibilities collide head-on with some old school fairytale gothic, revealing both to be similarly selfish, venal and predatory – and unable to resist, however vainly they might try, the inexorable downhill momentum of mortality. This was followed by Phantasm Remastered, Don Coscarelli’s 1979 cult classic now digitally revisited by Bad Robot so that the original, though disinterred for a new audience, is no longer what it used to be, any more than its dead characters seem capable of staying buried for long. Not that I know how this fresh version differs, as I was unable to make it to Glasgow in time to see it, and so am left only with my memories of Coscarelli’s film.
Fri 24th February
The Warriors Gate (2016)
Director Matthias Hoene helmed the online vampire series Beyond the Rave (2008) which marked the return of Hammer Films, and his feature debut Cockneys Vs Zombies (2012) had its world première at FrightFest’s big August event – all of which might explain his inclusion in this weekend’s programme. Yet his latest film The Warriors Gate, a big-budget French-Chinese co-production written by Luc Besson and Robert Kamen, is less horror than fun family flick with martial arts and the occasional CG monster. Bullied by fellow pupils and facing financial pressures at home, American teen Jack (Uriah Shelton) retreats into video games at the cost of his schoolwork – but when a magic chest opens a portal to ancient Imperial China, he has to work out if he can become in reality the high-kicking hero of his imagination. As Jack sets out with warrior Zhao (Mark Chao) to rescue Empress-in-waiting Su Lin (Ni Ni) from foreign marauder Arun the Cruel (Dave Bautista), what ensues is a bilingual blend (with premodern Chinese characters speaking fluent English in an American accent) of The Karate Kid, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and fantasy-fu. It is all very good-natured, but this wish fulfilment tale of adolescent empowerment is clearly aimed at viewers of Jack’s age rather than at hardened genre fans.
It Stains The Sands Red (2017)
“You really are a fucking trainwreck,” Nick (Merwin Mondesir) tells Molly (Brittany Allen). He is not wrong – for on their way from Las Vegas to a desert airfield amid an outbreak of the walking dead, his pole-dancer girlfriend has snorted coke, drained spirits from the bottle, and needed a stop to throw up. His car now stuck in the sand, Nick is attacked by a zombie (Juan Riedinger) which then chases Molly off into the desert.
If this opening act of It Stains The Sands Red – the latest genre mash-up from the minds of director Colin Minihan and his co-writer Stuart Ortiz (Grave Encounters, 2011; Extraterrestrial, 2014), known collectively as ‘the Vicious Brothers’ – seems all-too-familiar from countless zombie apocalypse flicks, the film’s long middle act changes gear, focusing exclusively on the zombie’s slow-motion pursuit of the menstruating party girl. Now nicknamed ‘Smalls’ (for the alleged size of his penis), the well-dressed shuffler shifts from being Molly’s relentless stalker to her confidante, confessor, saviour, servant and best friend, even as the other, still living and just as predatory men whom she encounters on the way fall desperately short of the standards set by her committed, if braindead, suitor. As an improbable but endearing desert romance blooms, Smalls proves a very good listener to Molly’s regrets about her past, and a catalyst for her own personal transformation into the mother she has hitherto failed to be.
A mannered mix of the odd-couple corpse comedy of Swiss Army Man (2016) and the arid maternity ordeal of Monolith (2016), It Stains The Sands Red offers a fresh feminist spin on well-trodden tropes, only reverting to a more conventional kickass routine in its wisely abbreviated final act.
The Transfiguration (2016)
The main character of The Transfiguration, Milo (Eric Ruffin, excellent), is in one respect quite a bit like your average FrightFester. You see, Milo too is obsessed with horror – and more specifically with vampire movies. His bedroom is festooned with fan posters, his closet is stuffed with VHSs and DVDs, his notebooks are full of detailed commentary on the ‘rules’ that govern his favourite fictive undead. Yet that is perhaps where the similarities end. For not only is Milo an orphaned African-American schoolboy living in a tenement block with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Moten), but he also, in the opening scene, is shown sucking blood from the neck of a murdered adult stranger in a toilet cubicle. With a history of animal abuse, and an earnest affectlessness, Milo is ultimately different both from us, and from even the more predatory of his neighbours.
Like Fresh (1994), only with a fixation on the bloodsuckers rather than chess, writer/director Michael O’Shea’s feature debut The Transfiguration follows a damaged adolescent as he must navigate both his confused emotions and a hostile environment. The catalyst for change comes in the form of Sophie (Chloe Levine), a similarly orphaned white girl who has moved in upstairs with problems and damage of her own. As this odd couple discusses religion, the afterlife, suicide and their hopes for the future, Milo finally sees a way out.
Meanwhile, as film savvy as his pint-sized protagonist, O’Shea plays upon the audience’s desire for genre while also frustrating it. What Milo expressly professes to like from his vampire movies is the sort of ‘realism’ found in, say, Martin (1978) or Let The Right One In (2008) – and in the end, realism is precisely what O’Shea delivers, with admirable restraint and melancholy. Here the fantasy tropes of horror become a way of framing – and even resolving – what is unspeakable in everyday life.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
When a radiation-mutated dinosaur first caused a wave of mayhem and destruction in Ishiro Honda’ Godzilla (1954), it embodied the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and continuing anxieties over America’s nuclear tests in the Pacific. Now, some 60 years later in Shin Godzilla, the lizard king has resurfaced to rampage against an alternative Japan that has apparently never heard of his 29 other Toho outings. This is a different (literally ‘new’) Godzilla, not just because he now lends his monstrous form to the 2011 triple disaster of the Tōhoku earthquake, the ensuing tsunami, and the subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, but also because, as the film progresses, his very shape and size keep transforming and evolving. While the ungainly mix of modelwork, puppetry and CGI that animates him may not always convince (his biggest incarnation emerges from the sea resembling little more than an immobile statue on a trolley), this is certainly the weirdest Godzilla we have yet seen, and comes with a panoply of new powers and abilities.
Co-directed by those maestri of metropolitan mayhem Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (Sinking of Japan, Attack on Titan), the film in fact devotes much of its screen time not to the iconic monster (who is often quite literally asleep on the job), but to the human personnel on the ground tasked with throwing together an emergency response. While the Prime Minister (Ren Osugi) hesitates and falters before himself succumbing to Godzilla’s onslaught, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroku Hasegawa) is left to bring the maverick logistics – with a crew no less willing than ‘the Fukushima 50’ to expose themselves to lethal radiation if it will help save what remains of the nation from ruin. The first casualty here is characterisation, either weak and shallow or just plain annoying (Satomi Ishihara’s US Presidential envoy Kayoko Ann Paterson) – but the frenetic editing and multi-media presentation bring a sense of urgent pace to what might otherwise have seemed just a feature-length control room sequence.
Happy Hunting (2017)
The misspent life of Warren Novak (Martin Dingle Wall) is finally catching up with him. He has just received news that an old flame from Mexico has died, leaving behind a young daughter he never knew he had. After an attempt to sell badly cooked crank to some strung-out dealers ends in bloodshed, he has angry gangsters on his tail. And his long-term alcoholism has left him with a crippling case of the DTs. On his way to Mexico, he winds up staying over in the small redneck community of Bedford Flats, which has found a special way to combine its disapproval of drunkards and its celebration of the annual hunting festival – and so Warren finds himself, along with four others, becoming the most dangerous game in the town’s traditional dash across the desert.
In Happy Hunting, Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson’s feature debut as co-directors and co-writers, it’s a case of cold turkey meets Turkey Shoot (1982), as Warren – resourceful if reeling – must travel a rocky path to reform and recovery. “Stopping or passing through?” is the question ritually addressed to any newcomer in Bedford Flats – but it is something of a false dichotomy, given that all new arrivals find themselves being both hounded out and prevented from ever getting away. Yet this extreme inhospitality – nowadays a clear signifier of the Trump age – is expressly not exclusive to this town. When Warren, in his flight, passes a group of illegal Mexicans coming in the opposite direction (having crossed a very Trumpian border fence), he warns them, “Bad men back there,” only to be reminded by their guide, “There’s bad men everywhere.” And similarly, when a local hotheaded youth (Kenny Wormald) asks his sheriff grandfather (Gary Sturm), “Do other towns do this?”, the sheriff suggests that other places indeed “let their problems die”, comparing the way big cities like Dallas neglect their homeless.
Ultimately, Warren will never pass through his own problems unless he first stops and faces them. Happy Hunting dramatises that process, with all the thrill of the chase and a very dark streak of humour. Warren may get the last laugh, but that is not to say that there is a happy ending.
© Anton Bitel