Arrow Video FrightFest 2019 preview

It was 20 years ago today… past, present and future in Arrow Video FrightFest 2019

Hindsight is 20/20. Nobody could have known, way back when Audition was programmed as part of the inaugural edition of FrightFest in the year 2000, how forward-looking a selection this would prove to be. For, apart from being a film subsequently canonised into the horror pantheon, Audition was riding its own ripple off the emerging wave of J-horror, and anticipating the ‘torture porn’ subgenre that would (along with found footage and the relentless resurrection of zombies) come to dominate the next decade. Takashi Miike‘s feature was outlining the future of horror, looking forward to what would be making us squirm throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

Much as a horror film marks the anxieties of a particular time and place, horror festivals offer a synchronic transglobal cross-section of societal dread, mapping out the stresses and scares of any given year. Over the course of its two decades of existence, FrightFest has allowed us to gauge what has been getting under our collective skin in the eras of Bush Jr, Obama and Trump, in the age of the War on Terror, Web 2.0, the Great Recession, Climate Change and Brexit. Yet as well as providing a killer kaleidoscope of post-millennial fears, FrightFest is also the annual meeting point for a horde of like-minded genre fans who descend on Leicester Square in the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August to catch up, hang loose and drink in pint after pint of horror for four-and-a-half days and sleepless nights.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

This year, as every year, FrightFesters will be at the cutting edge of horror. For as we try to find our way through all the depravity onscreen we are like children lost in the dark, stripped of hindsight’s benefit, groping about blindly for critical distance, and struggling to see the woods for the trees. That struggle against, or surrender to, the genre’s weapons of choice – blunt trauma, panic, disorientation, the irrational – is the visceral essence of horror viewing, and it is only with the passing of time that we can gain a proper perspective on our complex fight-or-flight responses. For its twentieth birthday, FrightFest will afford an opportunity to look back as well as straight ahead, as this anniversary edition is haunted by the ghosts of 19 FrightFests past. That’s four whole lustra of unstoppable, never-quite-dead, ever returning terror. 

Most of the 78 features screening at FrightFest 2019 are brand new, representing the genre’s dark coalface. There are 20 world premières, 20 International/European premières, and 28 UK premières – as well as the odd repeat from other British festivals, including FrightFest’s own recent Glasgow event (Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s Freaks; Jack McHenry’s Here Comes Hell). Yet there are inevitably nods to horror’s history as well. Maestro of horror Dario Argento will appear in conversation with FrightFest organiser (and long-time Argento expert) Alan Jones, before a screening of the giallo king’s classic Tenebrae (1982). Jen and Sylvia Soska, whose American Mary (2012) had its world première to great acclaim at FrightFest, are returning for another world première, their remake of Rabid (1977), and will also introduce a retrospective screening of Cronenberg’s original. 

Rabid (2019)

A quick glance at the horror titles that have made it into our multiplexes this year – remakes of Pet Sematary and Child’s Play and sequels of Annabelle, IT and Godzilla – might suggest that horror has to an extent lost its way and, starved of nutrition, has had to resort to eating itself. Yet what is refreshing about this year’s FrightFest is just how very few remakes or sequels there are in the line-up, restricted, as far as I can tell, entirely to the Soskas’ Rabid, to Bobby (The Cleanse) Miller’s Critters Attack!, arguably to Larry Fessenden’s Frankenstein-update Depraved, and to Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’ – in which McIntosh’s returns as the same Ketchum clan cannibal that she has previously played in Andrew van den Houten’s Offspring (2009) and Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011). This points, broadly speaking, to a different kind of future, at least for the indie horror scene, as the genre seems willing once more to reinvent rather than merely to remake or replicate itself. 

That said, while half the fun of the festival is being caught in the chokehold of the new and the strange, the other half is catching up with old friends and seeing what they are up to these days – and I don’t just mean the other freaks giving up their last weekend of summer sunshine for sustained and serial viewing, but the filmmakers whose previous films have captured our imagination. Of course there will be countless first-time directors at the festival dying to be discovered and to make our acquaintance in the shadows, but there are also plenty of welcome returnees. Well known genre producers Ant Timpson and Travis Stevens will present their respective directorial debuts, Come To Daddy and Girl on the Third Floor. Abner Pastoll (Road Games) will return with the closing film A Good Woman Is Hard To Find. Lucky McKee himself is back with Kindred Spirits, André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) with Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, Lawrie Brewster (The Unkindness of Ravens, The Black Gloves, Automata) with the anthology For We Are Many, Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate) with Daniel Isn’t Real, James Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) with Bliss, Dan Bush (The Signal, The Vault) with The Dark Red, Brett and Drew Pierce (DeadHeads) with The Wretched, and Kurtis David Harder (InControl) with Spiral

There are feature films from fourteen countries and six continents; there are strands dedicated to new Canadian, Argentinian and British horror; there are will be the usual guest Q&As, short film showcases, photo sessions and late-night karaoke. Most of all, though, there are the surprises: those little films, like Miike’s Audition back in 2000, that come at you from out of nowhere and shake you (and the genre) to the core, delivering an experience that you never quite expected and will never be able to forget. Horror, you see, has a future as well as a past, and both will no doubt be present at this year’s big event. So happy birthday!

Festival passes will go on sale Sat 6 July at noon and will only be available to buy online:

Single tickets will go on sale on Sat 20 July from 9am.

For full programme details:

© Anton Bitel