FrightFest 2009 Diary: Day 3 first published by Little White Lies
Day 3 – Saturday 29
Smash Cut (2009)
At FrightFest you expect to see (and hear) all manner of horrors, but after this morning’s screening of Smash Cut, Lee Demabre’s low-rent indie satire of low-rent indie filmmaking, something happened that had even this hardened audience exiting the theatre in panicked (or perhaps just lunch-eager) droves. Actor David Hess’ trademark is killing. He was the psycopathic Krug in the original The Last House on the Left (1972), and in Smash Cut he plays a failed horror director who starts filling his no-budget production with the ‘realistic’ body parts of recently slaughtered critics and crew – but when the cult actor appeared on stage with an acoustic guitar, no-one was quite prepared to hear the way he could murder a song, sub-Springsteen whoops and all.
Smash Cut is something of a curio. Dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis, and featuring an introductory cameo from the ‘wizard of gore’ himself, its cast also includes horror’s favourite bald man Michael Berryman (Pluto in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, 1977) sporting a ridiculous wig and painted-on eye-brows, and porn star Sasha Grey (Steven Soderberg’s The Girlfriend Experience and, er, John Stagliano’s Buttman’s Stretch Class 2) in a part requiring no nudity. Yet Demabre’s self-conscious focus on the z-grade end of the film industry is never quite enough to immunise his film against its own inadequacies. The acting is preternaturally poor, the jokes are an uneven blend of clever-clever and dumber-than-dumb, and only Michael Dubue’s score – a joyously retro pastiche of soundtrack motifs from the Sixties and Seventies – comes close to fulfilling what the rest of the film is apparently trying to achieve. In the Q&A that followed, Demabre proved far funnier and more entertaining in person than anything in his film.
From the ridiculous towards the sublime, next up was Gabe Ibáñez’s psychological thriller cum ghost story Hierro, in which mother Maria (Elena Anaya) clings desperately to the possibility that her young son (Kaiet Rodriguez) is still alive after he vanishes on a ferry trip to Hierro, the southernmost tip of the Canary Islands (and therefore of Europe). This is yet another film that adds to Spain’s reputation for producing quality tales of the supernatural, although its similarities to many of these in general and to Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) in particular may leave some wishing to see something a little fresher. Still, there is no denying the skill with which Ibáñez uses the island’s liminal fringes and barren interiors to trace his heroine’s state of mental withdrawal. The stylish beauty of the images – especially in the watery dream sequences – makes this the most aesthetically pleasing film of the festival so far.
Millennium: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)
The third UK premiere of the day was Niels Arden Oplev’s Millennium: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in which dogged journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) is hired by an aging industrialist (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the disappearance, some four decades earlier, of his young heiress. Joined in his search by an antisocial hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace, excellent), Blomqvist finds himself on the trail of a serial killer who has remained undetected for years. While normally it would be difficult to imagine a 150-minute Swedish language film having much mainstream success in the English-speaking world, in fact Millennium: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo comes with a ready-made audience built from the many millions of people who have read the best-selling novel (by the late Stieg Larsson) on which it is based.
The film is certainly a solid piece of work, full of efficient enough thrills – although it is perhaps more striking for the way that it slyly inverts all manner of gender conventions by having its narrative orientation gradually shift from a rather unengaging, anodyne hero to an altogether more dynamic and self-reliant heroine (the ‘girl’ of the title). As it races along from one sensational clue to the next, Millennium: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo also builds thematic unity from the different cycles of abuse that it depicts – even if the ending is somewhat overdrawn, not to mention oversentimental. Still, this might just become a runaway hit, whether in spite, or because, of its undeniable potboiler status.
A rather different take on the serial killer thriller came in the form of Giallo, the latest colour-coded folly from a director who has over the years carved his name into the whole genre, and who now seems condemned to making piss-poor pastiches of his own past glories. When a beautiful model (Elsa Pataky) goes missing, her sister (Emmanuelle Seigner) joins a driven, dysfunctional inspector (Adrien Brody) in pursuit of a mysterious ‘pattern killer’ with a penchant for mutilating pretty women. This killer, whose jaundiced complexion offers a diegetic justification for the film’s ‘generic’ title, is played, according to the credits, by one Bryon Deidra, although the name is in fact a ludic anagram for another member of the cast. He is utterly ridiculous, as are most of the performances, all of the lines, and much of the direction (including some strikingly awful uses of zoom), and those perversely optimistic enough to keep following Dario Argento’s career in the hope that he may one day reclaim his long-lost crown as the giallo king will no doubt be disappointed once again by this mess of a film.
Still, the sense of disorientation that Argento’s earlier masterpieces (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Suspiria, etc.) inspired in viewers is still present and correct here, if in a somewhat altered form. For while Argento promises a giallo, what he in fact delivers is a hilarious self-parodying comedy that had the FrightFest audience howling with laughter throughout. The tension here derives not from Argento’s usual manipulative games with the viewer regarding the murderer’s identity, but rather from his (and Brody’s) dead-pan refusal to let you know how in on the joke they are. I heard one bewildered viewer comment to another after the screening: “If that was meant to be funny, there would have been jokes in it.” Perhaps – but it is unquestionably very funny indeed. In leaving us uncertain just how much he is aware how preposterous Giallo is, in making us wonder whether the gross incompetence on display here is his true face or yet another of his masks, Argento may have found himself a new mode of directorial cat-and-mouse. The problem is, though, that the joke, whether it was intended or not, is ultimately on us – for there are few who like to be manipulated into watching a bad film.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
More straightforwardly funny – and much more ghoulishly frightening – is Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, an omnibus of macabre stories filled with all the wickedly retributive humour of the old EC comics. One Halloween night, as costumed children go about a small Ohio town collecting bagfuls of candy, many of the townsfolk are also getting their just deserts, confronted by serial killers, revenant spirits, werewolves, and a masked Sam Hain himself.
Instead of presenting his episodes one after another in the anthology format made so popular in the Eighties by Creepshow (1982), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and TV’s Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt, Dougherty interweaves them through fluid cross-cutting and chronological ruptures into a tapestry of interconnected narratives in the manner of, say, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). The result is a real treat – funny and with just enough tricksiness to make its penny-dreadful gothic seem fresh as well. Definitely one of the more memorable films of the weekend.
Appearing afterwards on-stage, Dougherty described how his film, despite being completed in 2007 and winning much critical approval at festivals, has languished ever since in limbo on Warner’s shelf – something that he attributes to “the fact that it’s not a remake, it’s not a sequel”. Fortunately, British viewers who like a bit more originality and sophistication to their fearsome fun will at last be able to see Trick ‘R Treat on DVD from October – just in time for Halloween.
Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)
Last of the day was the UK premiere of Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, in which two Japanese schoolgirls use their supernatural powers to raise hell as they vie for the love of an anemic schoolboy. Here geysers of blood and gore spurt to the upbeat sounds of saccharine J-pop, here the over-the-top dialogue is littered with jaw-dropping political incorrectness (if not out-and-out racism), here the preposterously broad performances are filtered through lurid hues, fetishised costumes and kitsch CG interventions. It is a postmodern chaos of colour, cuteness and cruelty – but it is also a flat, one-note, substance-free affair whose unrestrained violence-and-vibrancy schtick has already been done to death by other recent Japanese splatterpunk (The Machine Girl, Meatball Machine, Tokyo Gore Police). How can something so outrageous also be so dull? Call it overkill.
© Anton Bitel