FrightFest 2009 Diary: Day 5 first published by Little White Lies
Includes capsules of: Colin, Fragment, The House of the Devil, Heartless, The Descent: Part 2, Pontypool
Day 5 – Monday 31
So far this diary has restricted itself to the FrightFestive goings-on centre stage in Empire One, but this year for the first time there has also been a separate ‘Discovery Programme’ running in parallel on a smaller screen. The upside of this is that there are now even more films to see than the usual 27 or so, but the downside is that, unless you happen to have a terror-tolerant doppelgänger handy, it is now physically impossible to see everything. Anyway, put off by the title of Warren Speed and Steve O’Brien’s Zombie Women of Satan, and by the lukewarm buzz surrounding Christian Alvart’s Case 39, today I decided to depart from the mainstream and check out what was going on in the more cloistered confines of Empire Four.
First up there was no-budget zombie apocalypse Colin, introduced by director Marc Price and lead Alastair Kirton. Allegedly made for a mere £45, it was cast through Facebook and shot in and around London on a ten-year-old domestic camcorder, with all involved bringing along their own costumes and equipment. It would, however, be unfair to reduce this film to its underdog production backstory, for Price has made a film that easily holds its own against zombie flicks produced on much bigger budgets, thanks to excellent use of locations, superb sound design, Kirton’s poignant performance and a genuinely new take on this old subgenre.
Instead of focusing on the survivors of a zombie outbreak in London, Price follows the perspective of the undead Colin as he shuffles his way through the chaos around him, bearing witness along the way to all manner of human depravities. It is an intelligent, moving depiction of a world gone to hell, dripping with the melancholy of a ‘hero’ driven by a yearning that he is incapable any longer of understanding. Its only fault is Price’s apparent inability to know where and how the narrative should end – but otherwise, Colin really is a discovery.
Also screening in Empire Four, Andrew Miles Broughton’s Fragment is another labour of love, shot over weekends for an entire year in Australia. It focuses on photographer Lloyd (Wayne Bradley), an Iraq war veteran who discovers that the fragment of irradiated ordnance buried in his brain gives him powers to raise the dead with his camera – only for him accidentally to revive a vicious serial killer (Ian McPhee) along with his voluptuous victim (Bree Robinson). Falling somewhere between Jacob’s Ladder and a hallucinatory giallo, it is the sort of labyrinthine PTSD-inflected mind-melt that probably needs to be seen more than once to be fully appreciated – but there is little in its bland characters and ugly blue-filtered palette that would have many wishing to watch it a second time.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Back in 2005, Ti West came to FrightFest with his debut feature The Roost, in which a late-night TV horror show (hosted by independent cinema’s tallest character actor Tom Noonan) framed a batty minor variant on a familiar zombie scenario. Derivative to a fault, The Roost ought to have been forgettable nonsense, but West’s extraordinary manipulation of atmosphere made it instead one of the most unendurably terrifying horrors of its year. Now West has done it again with The House of the Devil.
Everything about this occult chiller ought to be throwaway, from its haunted house setting to its passé obsession with Satanic cults, but West, reuniting with the inestimably creepy Noonan and resurrecting cult star Mary Woronov, has all at once crafted a film that beautifully reproduces the look and texture of a straight-to-video horror from the Eighties, and filled it with the sort of nail-biting tension that works in any decade. Just about anyone can rip off ideas from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but there are few capable of exhibiting the same command of suspense as Polanski himself. See The House of the Devil, and witness a largely unsung master at work. Too bad that, as West revealed in the Q&A, Lionsgate wrested the “really gross, really weird” Cabin Fever 2 from his sure hands and had it reshot and re-edited into something that the director now disowns as simply “terrible”.
The evening, and indeed FrightFest as a whole, ended with the world premieres of two British horrors. Introducing Philip Ridley‘s Heartless, festival organiser Alan Jones made little secret of the fact that he regarded this film as the Festival’s highlight, and in an unusual move, star Jim Sturgess appeared on-stage before the screening to perform two songs from Ridley’s soundtrack with his band in front of an absolutely packed auditorium. The film follows Jamie (Sturgess), a sensitive, withdrawn Eastender born with a heart-shaped mark over one eye, as he witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of a demonic street gang and enters a Faustian pact with the burn-scarred Papa B (Joseph Rawle) in return for the better life of which he has always dreamt. It is an ambitious, disorienting film that plays fast and loose as much with its own generic identity (mixing urban horror, social realism, morality drama, black comedy, psychothriller and fairytale allegory) as with its protagonist’s meandering sense of reality.
That said, anyone who knows their David Lynch will recognise the misguided hubris of Ridley’s post-screening claim to have presided over “the birth of a new genre of horror”; and anyone with any taste will know that it is always a bad idea to feature the line “I love you, Dad” near a film’s conclusion (no matter how ethically ambiguous the line’s context may be in retrospect). Heartless is without doubt a bold addition to the British canon, dealing all at once with post-9/11 anxieties, ‘hoodie horror’, mental breakdown and the theological problem of evil. The devil, however, demands his due, and the price of this film’s complexity and thematic breadth is a decided unevenness throughout – and excessive sentimentality in the end. It is inventive and certainly well worth seeing, but also, much like its protagonist, wears its flaws on its face.
The Descent: Part 2 (2009)
Heartless does nonetheless earn the prize for best jumpshock of the weekend – or at least it shares this honour with the Festival closer, Jon Harris’ The Descent: Part 2, in which any and every sigh of relief expressed by a character immediately precedes another onslaught of murderous creatures (human or otherwise) leaping out of nowhere. There is something terribly old-fashioned about the way this sequel plays its frights so by the book, but that may well prove the key to its mainstream success. Two days after the events of the last film, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has re-emerged in the Appalachian Mountains, traumatised into amnesia by her experiences, only to be co-opted almost at once into joining the search party for her missing fellow cavers.
Back underground, the film reverts to the troglodytic stalk-and-slash formula that was so winning in Neil Marshall‘s original. There are more rock collapses, more savage Crawler attacks, more life-and-death dilemmas, more, er, girl-on-girl mud-wrestling, and more (literal) cliffhangers, all offset by the odd gratuitous shit joke, a newly redemptive theme, and a concluding twist that lays everything open for yet more sequels. What has been lost, though, is the ambiguity of the original, where it was never certain whether the grieving Sarah was taking an actual journey with friends into a complex cave system, or a more figurative descent alone into the atavistic recesses of her own damaged psyche. Here all such equivocation is soundly set aside, robbing this subterranean adventure of any depth – but as horror in the thrill-ride mould, The Descent: Part 2 certainly delivers cheap sensations aplenty.
So what was the best film at this year’s FrightFest? Criminally relegated to the Discovery Programme, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool is a cerebral siege horror in which a shock jock (the awesome Stephen McHattie) and his production team find themselves trapped in the church basement from which their morning talk show is broadcast to snowy Pontypool, Ontario, beleaguered not so much by zombies or rioters or French separatists as by a breakdown in the normal connections between signifier and signified.
In other words, this is an apocalypse of unusually Saussurean dimensions, where nothing is more terrifying, or indeed more liberating, than the arbitrariness of the sign. Alarmingly intelligent and deeply disorienting, Pontypool plays as a radically different film upon subsequent viewings, its metaphor-filled dialogue seeming to shift and alter in meaning with every scene. It also boasts the finest (and possibly the most bewildering) paradigm-shifter of a post-credits coda ever committed to celluloid. See it – and then see it again – but do not dare to understand it. Understanding, you see, will be your undoing.
Now there is an Oedipal principle that every devotee of horror should take to heart.
© Anton Bitel