FrightFest 2009 Diary: Day 4 first published by Little White Lies
Day 4 – Sunday 30
Dead Snow (2009)
Of all cinema’s monsters, zombies have so dominated the horror landscape that the particular subgenre they form comes with its own sub-subgenres. You might, for example, be forgiven for supposing that the Nazi zombies who turn the Norwegian slopes blood red in Tommy Wirkola‘s Dead Snow represent a uniquely quirky blend of twentieth-century history and fantasy, but in fact the Aryan undead have already been seen half shuffling, half goose-stepping their way through Shock Waves (1971), Zombie Lake (1981), Oasis of the Zombies (1981) and Outpost (2008).
Wirkola, however, is striving neither for originality, nor indeed for any incisive comment on the trauma of the Second World War. Rather he desires merely to disinter the kind of gleefully big-and-bloody horror comedy showcased by films like The Evil Dead (1981) and Braindead (1992). Everything here is in the service of goofily gory fun, as the only thing stopping a group of medical students from being dismembered and devoured by SS returnees is a collection of guns, chainsaws, knives, axes and an inventively weaponised snowmobile. Dead Snow is about as amiable as 90 minutes could be imagined when spent in the company of Nazis, and despite being much shorter than Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), it is also far bloodier.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)
On-stage with Wirkola afterwards, festival organiser Alan Jones commented “no-one gets tired of zombies.” That is not really true – the subgenre may have survived death for many decades, but that has not prevented it from smelling rather stale and rotten at times. So it was a real breath of fresh air to watch the next film on the slate, the world première of Tom Six‘s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) – for while it features such horror clichés as a mad scientist and a survival scenario, its central conceit (boldly advertised in its title) scuttles surreally through the narrative, bringing a grotesque and sickening novelty to all these familiar tropes.
Two American women and a Japanese man (Ashley C. Williams, Ashlyn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura) are abducted by Josef Heiter (the mesmerising Dieter Laser), a German specialist in the separation of Siamese twins who has more recently turned his unhinged mind to more creative forms of surgery. Forced to become a part of his deranged plans, the hapless trio tries desperately to get away and reclaim a semblance of their human dignity – but it is difficult to coordinate an escape, let alone move, when they have been surgically grafted to one another, mouth-to-anus. Dutch avant-garde artist Six has concocted a premise that is abjectly bizarre even by the most repellent standards of body horror, and just goes with it, right through to the bitter end. Like food sent through an artificially lengthened gastric system, the emerging film is excrement of an unusually refined texture. The director’s on-stage assurance that everything presented in The Human Centipede is “100% medically accurate” seemed only to add to this film’s rarefied appeal.
Coffin Rock (2009)
Rupert Glasson’s Coffin Rock is an Australian thriller placed firmly in the ‘bunny boiler’ tradition of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987). Living and working together in the close-knit fishing community of the title, married couple Jess and Rob (Lisa Chappell, Terry Camilleri) long to have a child together but seem unable to conceive – until, that is, a young, charming yet unstable stranger (Sam Parsonson) begins insinuating himself into their lives after spotting them at the IVF Clinic. Soon Lisa falls pregnant, but uncertain paternity and psychopathic jealousy conspire to ensure that everything will come to term unhappily.
Enjoying its world première, Glasson’s feature debut boasts both writing and performances of great subtlety, although the effect is somewhat undermined by the odd moment of sensationalist grotesquery (fish-fellating, eye-gouging, flashbacks to patricide, etc.). While such flashes of horror might be well suited to FrightFest and not entirely unexpected in a film from the producer of Wolf Creek (2005), they are ill matched to Glasson’s slow-burning psychological nuances, and appear to have been tacked on in a bid to broaden the film’s natural audience. It is a pity, for in all other respects, this is a tense and brooding drama about family breakdown and the legacy of abandonment, with a final, ambiguous image (in ring composition) that is all the more confronting for its quiet restraint. Still, to be fair, at least this is not quite as tonally schizophrenic as Fatal Attraction was.
Night of the Demons (2009)
“When I was 17 this is the film that I would have wanted to see.” That is how director/co-writer Adam Gierasch introduced the world premiere of Night of the Demons, his reimagining of Kevin Tenney’s 1988 ‘classic’. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with mixing tits and gore in pursuit of one’s own misspent youth or even of that elusive teen demographic, but there is arguably a problem in presenting the finished product to an auditorium full of people not one of whom actually is 17, and most of whom will look back on the original either so fondly that a remake will seem an act of sacrilege, or so indifferently that the remake will be less appealing than whatever is screening in FrightFest’s parallel Discovery Programme (Glenn McQuaid’s Hammer pastiche I Sell The Dead, as it happens).
Gierasch’s film is the exact opposite of the film that preceded it: there are characters about whom we never care, incidents which never grip, and only the occasional moments of creative grand guignol ever raise the viewer’s pulse. Visibly defensive about slumming it on a remake, the director commented afterwards: “I said the only way I would do it is if I could figure out a way to put demon anal into it.” That such an ambition was his sole incentive tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
If recently Ryuhei Kitamura‘s The Midnight Meat Train (2008) and John Harrison’s Book of Blood (2008) suggested that the short stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were a dependable source for horror films offering a cerebral brand of perversity, then it is a principle borne out in full by Anthony DiBlasi‘s Dread. Two Boston film students (Jackson Rathbone, Hanne Steen) are persuaded to redirect their work to a Kinsey-style documentary study of fear, little realising how far their colleague Quaid (Shaun Evans) will go to exorcise his own personal demons.
Dread is a twisted psychological thriller that combines the phobic focus of Fearless (1993), the discomfiting reflexivity of Peeping Tom (1960), and the abhorrent torments of Seed (2007). It is a film very much about its own audience, confronting us all with the insatiable sadism and voyeurism of those who seek to dispel their own innermost fears vicariously. The mostly nocturnal sets and tight camerawork lend the film an atmosphere of stifling claustrophobia from the outset, as though one were witnessing a nightmare from which one could not fully wake up, and DiBlasi expertly builds the tension to a climax of casually shocking depravity. The director revealed to FrightFesters that he hopes next to adapt Barker’s novella Pig Blood Blues. To judge by the strength of Dread, that is something to which we can all look forward.
Michael Jackson: Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)
The last film of the day, Pierre Laffargue’s Black, was due to start at 11.15pm, but in fact did not get underway until well after half past midnight owing to an unscheduled addition to the programme – a would-be ‘surprise’ screening that was still somehow ‘accidentally’ leaked to the press a day earlier. Yes indeed, even this festival offered no shelter from the media frenzy surrounding Michael Jackson’s recent death, and so we were ‘treated’ to the full-length video of Thriller (introduced by its director John Landis), followed by the feature-length promotional documentary Michael Jackson: Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), which is essentially a collection of Jackson music videos, with occasional glimpses of Landis and Jackson clowning.
All very entertaining, no doubt, for those who worship every howl and hip swivel from the king of pop, but annoying as hell for those of us who had already been watching horror films for some twelve hours that day, and wanted to get to bed a few hours before dawn. If the idea was to attract to FrightFest an audience that normally would keep well away, that idea proved to be fatally flawed, for most viewers who had clearly come just for Michael left the auditorium before Black finally began, while many loyal FrightFesters who had stayed the distance felt antagonised by seeing their programme interrupted by a lengthy pop music love-in that felt entirely out of place. It would have been better to reverse the order of these screenings, with all Jackson-related material left till last for the moonwalking faithful (which, believe it or not, is not everyone).
Black, however, was well worth the wait. An uncategorisable exploration of the contradictions to be found in Franco-African identity, the film appears to package itself as a slick thriller, with bankrobber Black (MC Jean Gab’1) heading for what he imagines to be the easy pickings of his native Senegal after a heist in Paris has gone wrong. Yet the film quickly shifts from the Mesrine-style action of its ‘northern’ scenes to something altogether more African in nature, where a whole history of crime, poverty and colonial exploitation are portrayed through mythology as a clash of the totems.
“Did you think you could just come to Dakar and steal the diamonds from the stupid Africans?”, Black is asked. Not so easy when you are faced with corrupt officials, Russian mercenaries, French arms dealers, a powerful witch, machete-wielding musclemen, and a white enemy (François Levental) who is slowly metamorphosing into a venomous, treacherous beast. Black has been billed as the French Shaft in Africa (1973), but that is selling Laffargue’s film somewhat short. Sure there are evocations of Seventies blaxploitation (inter alia) to be found here, but this film travels mystic/animistic pathways that John Shaft was too busy kicking ass to explore. Well performed, beautifully shot in a range of visual styles to match its many mercurial shifts in genre, and boasting a thumper of a soundtrack, Black is a vibrant oddity to be savoured by those who lament the lack of originality found in much of today’s cinema. And what a contrast with Michael Jackson, who may also (in Thriller) have transformed into a wild beast, but who gradually came to reject rather than embrace his African roots.
© Anton Bitel