Rest of the fest(er): FrightFest 2018 Mop-Up

Rest of the fest(er): FrightFest 2018 Mop-Up first published by SciFiNow

Now that 2018’s Arrow Video FrightFest is over, here is a round-up of eight more films (The Most Assassinated Woman In The World; Book Of Monsters; Heretiks; Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires; Life After Flash; Hell Is Where The Home Is; Anna And The Apocalypse; Open 24 Hours) and a short (Final Stop) that SciFiNow managed to catch over the weekend, presented in the order of their screenings.

Final Stop (2018)

This 10-minute short, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (a previous contributor of episodes to the anthology films XX and Southbound, and producer of V/H/S/2), comes with a lot of buzz – or at least surround sound of one kind or another. Shot entirely on an iPhone (and reflexively featuring an iPhone within its narrative), Final Shot is designed both to exploit and to showcase the capacities of Sennheiser’s new Ambeo Smart Headset which, attached to an individual’s ears, captures their experience in full binaural audio.

As a nervous young woman (Phoebe Tonkin) travelling by bus at night is pursued by a whistling, hoodied stalker (Casey Adams) until her final stop at the aptly named Hunter Street, the story involves a bait and switch familiar from, for example, Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘R Treat (2007) – but the way in which the film captures her frantic subjectivity, tracking her every paranoid glance ahead or behind in a rich 3D soundscape that appears to put us right in her head (concealing only what she is thinking), is something new and very effective. The rustle of a newspaper in the wind, the ritualistic plosive rhythms of teenagers engaged in a clapping game, and the stalker’s signature whistle relentlessly approaching from the shadows, are crucial elements of menace in this experiment in terror – and, heard through the high quality headphones that were provided to everyone attending, this proved a deeply immersive experience in a way that 3D visuals so rarely are. 

The Most Assassinated Woman In The World (La femme la plus assassinée du monde) (2018)

As its paradoxical title suggests, Franck Ribière’s film deals in illusion and fakery. Unfolding in 1932 and weaving a fanciful tale from the realities of Montmartre’s Thêâtre du Grand Guignol and its best known star Paula Maxa (naturally not her real name), The Most Assassinated Woman In The World (La femme la plus assassinée du monde) sets the repeat (though varied) graphic on-stage deaths of actress Paula (Anna Mouglalis) against both the very real traumas of her past (shown in flashback, and eventually as a stage performance) and the contemporary slayings of prostitutes in the Grand Guignol’s vicinity by a mysterious man with a limp. This film, with its combination of Ripper-style murders and period theatricality, is in territory not entirely dissimilar to The Limehouse Golem (2016) – and while the story here is simpler and more predictable than in Juan Carlos Medina’s film, there is great sophistication in the way it reflects upon the human hunger for horror in different media.

As staged fictions and horrific realities start merging into one another, and Paula becomes a target for an actual killer, she must either pull off one final coup de théàtre or literally die on stage – but much as the film is more concerned with backstage drama than with the gory scenarios that it so lovingly reconstructs and restages, its own narrative too is best viewed as a convenient platform for capturing all manner of rich background detail. This includes not just debates about censorship and the human desire for salacious, shocking art, but also a reverential elegy for the passing of a particular theatrical mode of horror. 

Not that grand guignol has entirely disappeared so much as transformed into something else: for given that it still lives on in a limited form on stage, and of course in horror films just like this one, reports of grand guignol’s death are somewhat exaggerated. When we see Paula crossing the stage to watch Michael Curtiz’s Dr X (1932) at the Rex with her lover Jean (Niels Scheider), and eventually (maybe) moving to Hollywood, we are also witnessing the passing of the horror baton from stage to screen (with the screen capable of accommodating both forms, absent the all-important smell of blood that accompanied Grand Guignol sessions). Yet if the past trauma that still pursues Paula is also a figure for the theatrical origins that haunt horror cinema, the latter is no more immune to an eventual real death (after many false ones). The Most Assassinated Woman In The World is certainly a movie, but as a Netflix production, it is very unlikely – outside of specialist festivals like FrightFest – ever to be seen in an actual cinema. Still, no matter how it is told, this kind of story will continue living in one form or another, perhaps for as long as our voyeuristic, sensation-seeking species does.  

Book of Monsters (2018)

Ten years after, aged 8, she saw her mother snatched by a monster lurking under the bed, schoolgirl Sophie (Lyndsey Craine) is now on the cusp of adulthood, and still having her responsibilities tested, when the house party for her 18th birthday is gatecrashed not just by a crowd of revellers, but also by a group of murderous monsters intent on literalising her rite of passage. Together with her best friends Mona (Michaela Longden) and Beth (Lizzie Stanton) and would-be lover Jess (Rose Muirhead), Sophie must embrace her maternal inheritance and face her demons.   

From the same creative team – director Stewart Sparke and writer Paul Butler – who brought us The Creature Below (2016), Book of Monsters transforms its coming of age tropes into an icky Eighties-style gorefest, conjuring the spirit of Evil Dead II (1987) with its own comic diabolism, its practical effects, its Necronomicon-like book of the title, and its hidden toolshed (complete with chainsaw, eventually Sophie’s weapon of choice). The sexual politics, though, are far more up to date, as Sophie’s sapphic inclinations are never exploited for cheap tits-out prurience, and despite the presence of ally Gary (Daniel Thrace) as well as policemen (both fake and real), the female characters here remain very much on top, whether as heroines or villains.

Heretiks (2018)

In 1659, young clairvoyant Persephone (Hannah Arterton) is accused of being a witch, but rescued from execution by the Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins) of a remote Priory which has little food, spreading disease and a diabolical history. What ensues is like a medieval version of Darren Lynn Bousman’s St Agatha (also screening at this year’s FrightFest), as Persephone discovers that the fallen women populating the Priory are doomed to a regime of abuse and hypocrisy, with little hope of ever finding freedom or the promised redemption. 

Riffing on the same theme of female confinement and exploitation that dominated his directorial debut The Seasoning House (2012), Paul Hyett’s Heretiks is something of a confused film. It throws plague, ghosts and demons at its evocatively gothic locations (Margam Castle and Tretower) to see if anything will stick, without ever settling on any meaningful position or even dynamic discourse on faith, the Church or Christianity’s historical treatment of women. The results, though atmospheric, are nunsense.

Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires (2018)

First appearing in Mike Mort’s action short Raging Balls of Steel Justice (2013), Chuck Steel (voiced by Mort) is a throwback from a different era: a cliched, hyperbolised maverick Eighties LA cop seething with constant rage as he leaves a trail of bloody corpses and collateral damage in his take-no-prisoners wake. Half the joke here is the dizzying pastiche of police movie tropes, and the other half is the retreat into a world where the hero is a dinosaur at war with contemporary standards of political correctness as much as with crime. In his first feature outing, Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires, this dubious hero reluctantly works through a quartet of partners (including a chimp and a cheese plant) before finally joining forces with Abraham Van Rental (also voiced by Mort) to defeat the scourge of street-trash vampires plaguing the city. 

The stop-motion animation here is beautiful, and on an impressive city-wide scale, incorporating not just Steel’s brand of explosive crime-fighting chaos, but also, in its climax, kaiju-style monster battles, while littered with throwaway gags and dumb-assed puns. Despite the American setting, this is a very British pantomime: a pile-up of absurdities laced with endless innuendo. In other words, this is like Wallace and Gromit with their coarsest id let off the leash and allowed to run riot through standard Reagan-era action set-pieces. That is also part of the problem: for by the time the film’s long-form duration has passed, the endless jokes about bodily functions have long since palled, and Chuck’s chauvinistic hypermasculinity, though putatively being ironised and lampooned, is also affectionately reasserted and nostalgically revalorised, leaving something of a sour taste in the mouth. Riding along with Steel for a few minutes is a delirious joy, but for the full 85 (or is it ’86?), his casual willingness to demean women, to beat up (non-vampiric) tramps and to shoot first without even bothering to ask the questions later makes him long outstay his on-screen welcome.    

Life After Flash (2017)

When he won the title rôle in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980), Sam Jones was quickly elevated from being an unknown actor to a superstar – but he fell out with producer Dino De Laurentiis before the production had even ended and spiralled into drug-taking, philandering and despair, before settling into a life of family and faith as a father and now grandfather who works in armed security, while more recently returning to the world of film through convention appearances and even the odd on-screen rôle. 

Jones is very much the focus of Lisa Downs’ exhaustive – and often very funny – documentary Life After Flash. While its mix of archival footage and interviews certainly offers a blow-by-blow account of the cult film’s making, and brims with entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes (with Brian Blessed in typically full-throated form) and witty commentary (especially the hilarious Statler-and-Waldorf double-act of Jason Lanzi and Rich Fulcher), this documentary also contrasts the campy artifice of Flash Gordon with the reality of Jones’ subsequent life, as he struggled to shake off his iconic rôle only later to re-embrace it when he was better equipped. It is a strange dynamic, establishing the real Jones as “just a man, with a man’s courage”, and locating, in Jones’ person and in his story, the superheroics of ordinary life. Accordingly, even as it celebrates Hodges’ much-loved film, Life After Flash is also a paean to human concerns beyond the cinema.

Hell Is Where The Home Is (2018)

The programmatic prologue of Hell Is Where the Home Is (aka Trespassers) both enacts and obscures the film’s subgenre. Three masked, machete-wielding hombres approach a house at night and, in their failed search for an item, abduct and shoot dead the couple who live there. We are firmly in home invasion territory – and as, shortly afterwards, Sarah (Angela Trimbur) and her husband Joseph (Zach Avery) arrive at the same house for the weekend, along with Sarah’s old schoolfriend Estelle (Janel Parrish) and Estelle’s controlling alpha-arsehole boyfriend Victor (Jonathan Howard), all their hard partying and interpersonal dramas come front-loaded with our expectation that a violent interruption is in the offing whenever, inevitably, those three murderous men return for what is theirs. 

The tension only increases when a strange, talkative woman turns up around midnight, asking to use their phone but outstaying her welcome. “I’m not the wicked witch of the west”, she insists to her increasingly irritable hosts, and the fact that she is played (brilliantly) by Fairuza Balk – who was Dorothy in Return to Oz (1985) but a witch in The Craft (1996) – leaves us uncertain too as to who this woman really is and how malevolent her intentions might be. The subsequent arrival of two police officers (Carlo Rota, Sebastian Sozzi) further muddies the waters, dredging up the deceit, guilt and sense of entrapment that these people are trying to keep hidden.

It is an inherently suspenseful set-up, and as the camera sinuously prowls the giallo-lit interiors and poolside garden of this opulent modernist home in the Mojave desert (not dissimilar from the setting of Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, 2017), there is the sense that director Orson Oblowitz (The Queen of Hollywood Blvd, 2017) is showing us not so much a house as an arena where a vicious life-or-death struggle will eventually unfold. Yet it will turn out that the tensions already existing in this fragile group of weekenders are no less dangerous than the threats lurking outside, as both Sarah and Estelle are seeking to escape (a key word in the film) their respective domestic situations and to be liberated from a trap of toxic masculinity already inside the premises before the Mexican gangbangers intrude. Accordingly, the film offsets and blurs perils both internal and external, from which a chaotic clusterfuck slowly develops between the psychological and the political, as the realities of the world, at first left behind on this weekend getaway, come crashing in to be confronted and ultimately reentered.

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

A coming-of-age zombie apocalypse high school Christmas musical in small-town Scotland! Yep, few films come more high concept than Anna and the Apocalypse. The beauty, however, of this singular feature from director John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here?, 2015) is that it more than lives up to its own pitch, and – unlike the Snakes on a Planes and Sharknados of this world – has a real beating heart to match all its severed heads and spilt guts.

In sleepy Little Haven, Anna (Ella Hunt) and fellow final-year pupils are contemplating their future in an extramural world that they know is “nae Disney” and unlikely to conform to their already evaporating hopes and ideals. Anna’s response is escapism, and more specifically a plan to put off university and to travel through Australia, but she is conflicted by the thought that getting out of town will also necessitate leaving behind, perhaps forever, her dad Tony (Mark Benton), her friends John (Malcolm Cumming), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu) – and even her bullying ex Nick (Ben Wiggins), for whom she still harbours a flame. In other words, the inexorable if shuffling approach of Anna’s adulthood will inevitably involve a culling of her childhood attachments – an idea which takes on alarmingly real form as Anna wakes up to a hometown, and world, overtaken by the walking dead. Here, zombies are a potent metaphor for rites of passage in all their relentless, irresistible momentum, taking no prisoners and leaving a high body count. 

As these teenagers try to negotiate a perilous path between their dreams and reality, and between school and the workplace, their clinging anxieties and confusion are expressed through the language of song and dance. The poppy numbers here, with their breezily witty lyrics and often complex cross-cutting arrangements, are real toe-tappers, while offering a perfect stage of stylised artifice which manages simultaneously to reference encroaching reality, and to form a barricade, however temporary, against its furious onslaught. Funny, gory and genuinely poignant, Anna and the Apocalypse is a bloody charmer.

Open 24 Hours (2018)

It opens near the end, with the aftermath of a massacre shown in a montage of tableaux: outside a gas station, a parked police car with deep red splattered all over the windshield interior; on the floor inside the gas station, a man’s corpse, the head and antlers of a mounted deer, and Mary (Vanessa Grasse) coming to covered in blood. The rest of the film, aside from a coda, serves to explain and indeed justify that scenario with a flashback to the 24 hours leading up to that moment, from Mary applying in the morning for a job at the station to her first – and last – ever night shift there, to her waking up surrounded by death. 

Mary comes with history. She is out on parole after a brief prison stint for setting fire to her ex boyfriend James (Cole Vigue), the so-called ‘Rain Ripper’. James, now hideously burnt and himself in prison, used to murder young women whenever there was a downpour, and to make poor, helpless Mary watch. Racked with guilt and denial over her forced complicity in these crimes, Mary suffers paranoid delusions, seeing James and the victims everywhere and imagining threats received from their vindictive parents via unplugged phones. So when, on her first shift, James himself appears from the rain and starts killing anyone who comes near the place, a game of tense cat-and-mouse ensues in which Mary must decide, amid all the renewed slaughter, if, in confronting her one-time other half, she is merely a passive, panicked observer of another’s outrages, or is taking a more active rôle herself.  

Written and directed by Padraig Reynolds (The Devil’s Dolls, 2016), Open 24 Hours offers two ways through its narrative. The first is to regard the film as a bog-standard slash-and-dash thriller in which Mary does battle with an escaped James keen to reignite the spark of his sick, controlling relationship with her. Viewers who commit to this narrative route may be impressed by Reynolds’ tense execution of his killer scenario, but troubled by bizarre plot holes (would Mary really have been in prison for stopping a mass murderer? would the partner of a known serial killer not be placed under witness protection far away from the scene of the crime? why is Mary’s grounded best friend Debbie available at any and all hours to help her?), and no doubt bored by the film’s rote recycling of overfamiliar slasher tropes. 

On the other hand, Mary’s overt hallucinations raise the question of just where her delusions end and reality begins – an ambiguity that the film subtly maintains without ever conclusively resolving. To start thinking your way through this reading and its ramifications is to go down a rabbit-hole, as what at first seems a very simple film suddenly becomes a much more complex psychological portrait of a woman desperate to convince both others and herself that her own part in all this bloodshed is always purely peripheral. All this unfolds not only in ‘cleansing’ rain but also in dingy, dilapidated sets which reflect the heroine’s crumbling mental state and stage a frantic, self-expiating psychodrama where perhaps all we can be sure of is the trail of bodies seen at the film’s beginning and end. It may remain unclear which of Mary’s experiences and interlocutors are actual, and which merely imaginary, but we do by the end understand that these murder set-pieces are both serial affairs, and all in a day’s work for bloody Mary. 

© Anton Bitel