FrightFest Halloween 2022 is a post-mortem round-up of the films featured at this all-day event. 29 October, 2022
Tripping The Dark Fantastic (2022) World première
While films are there, front and centre, to be seen, composers tend to exist in the shadows, providing a film’s emotive beats, backbone, and what veteran scorer Simon Boswell refers to as ‘conscience’, while themselves appearing on screen only as a credit. Yet in Lg (Lola Gunn) White’s feature debut, documenting a live performance given by Boswell and his band Caduta Massi at London’s Earth Theatre in 2021, the composer is both the subject and focus, occupying centre stage as conductor, multi-instrumentalist and singer, as well as occasional raconteur. The director herself also has an unusual prominence here, not just as Boswell’s wife, but also as the band’s melancholically toned lead singer.
Clearly aware of the pitfalls of the concert film format, White breaks the potential for cinematic monotony by inserting interviews and archival material between each track – and much as the performance itself took place beneath a screen on which was projected recut material (mostly from the films that Boswell has scored), she too wildly intercuts and overlays those and her own materials (shot by Vince Knight) into a psychedelic feast for the eyes. As Boswell plays his themes from his very first film score, for Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), as well as from Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2 (1986) and Graveyard Disturbance (1987), Michael Soavi’s Stage Fright (1987), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989), Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusion (1995) and various works by Richard Stanley, what becomes clear is his extraordinary mastery of many very different musical modes and his ready talent for mimicking other composers’ signature styles while making them his own.
In one anecdote, Boswell describes how Herb Alpert was initially reluctant to have his song Spanish Flea (1966) used in Álex de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango (1997), not because of the film’s violent, wilfully offensive content, but because Alpert felt that a young character’s line about his dad liking the song made Alpert sound like a musician whose time had passed. Boswell, by contrast, is the dad musician par excellence, happy to revive old material with his 18-year-old son Jimi literally onstage beside him on guitar, while at the film’s start Simon is interviewed by his older son Jack, unseen but heard. For the concert, Simon even covers his own song Time To Die (2000), whose lyrics are an angry rejoinder to the romantic myth that great artists die young. In its way, White’s work-in-progress represents a similar, extended rejoinder to this principle, as it shows Boswell very much in his prime.
Freeze (2002) International première
Some time in the early twentieth century, a 400-tonne ship heads to the Arctic in search of a smaller ship’s crew who went missing on an expedition to the geographical North Pole. Yet we know from the opening scene that anthropoid fish creatures are lurking in the frozen shadows, and as these beleaguered men – and a kickass stowaway woman (Beatrice Barrilà) – head from their ice-locked vessel to the distant mountain caves, they come to realise that the fight for their own survival may be at odds with the survival of the human race.
On paper Charlie Steeds’ creature feature might sound like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or Xavier Gens’ Cold Skin (2017), only relocated from the bottom to the top of the world. Yet given that the ships are named Innsmouth and Eibon, that the ‘ichthyoid’ antagonists are expressly referred to as ‘Deep Ones’, and the setting is in mountains of madness, this obviously has as its principal inspiration the cosmic horror of author H.P. Lovecraft – and, in case the point is missed, there is a textual quote from the American author in the closing credits.
Too bad then that the low budget, the perfunctory dialogue, the bare-bones characterisation and the unconvincing rubber-suited monsters combine to drain away any of Lovecraft’s trademark dread, leaving the spectacular snowy wastelands echoing only with an air of unengaging adventure and stilted silliness.
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Playing before Freeze was the world première of Gnomes, Ruwan Suresh Heggelman’s proof-of-concept short about a woodland ecosystem of ‘magical’ mushrooms that emanate an unnatural iridescence, luring joggers who serially trample them. This transgressive act immediately attracts nature’s revenge (and a highly mechanised predatoriness) in the form of stop-motion gnomes looking to take hilariously hyperviolent restorative justice – or is it just to hook their next dinner?
Mad Heidi (2022) UK Première
Take the beloved title character from a pair of classic Swiss novels for children (1881), have Heidi (Alice Lucy) still living in the mountains under the care of her grandfather (David Schofield), but otherwise transpose her to a future dystopian Switzerland ruled by an Emmental-obsessed autocratic President (Casper Van Dien), paint everything in the broadest of national stereotypes (Lederhosen, dirndls, cuckoo clocks, halberds, Alphorns, absinthe, crossbows, and even a Swiss Army Knife) for affectionately self-ridiculing effect, pepper Heidi’s adventures with improbable references to everything from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) to Robocop (1987) and Faster Pussy Cat, Kill Kill (1965), and let Heidi go on a B-genre journey through the tropes of blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, women-in-prison pictures, martial arts movies and gladiatorial combat films, throw in awkwardly gratuitous female nudity and questionable race commentary, and you will have something like this Swissploitation satire from co-directors Johannes Hartmann and Sandro Klopfstein.
Made independently through crowd-funding, this literally cheesy fable of a rural innocent’s path to becoming a kickass fighter and national heroine is bloody, silly and bloody silly – and its laughs, though somewhat hit and miss, certainly come thick and fast. Its plot, if taken at all seriously, is as holey as a Swiss comestible, but best just to let its lactose-filled diet rot your own as much as the characters’ brains, and surrender to the mad maximalism of its faux-grindhouse sensibilities.
Outpost (2022) World Première
Perhaps best known for playing series regular Charles Boyle in television’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, actor Joe Lo Truglio now turns writer/director with his feature debut Outpost, a hallucinatory psychodrama about trauma and recovery gone wrong.
The title refers to an observation tower in the backwoods of Idaho. Bruised, battered Kate (Beth Dover) has signed up for three months of solitude here as a Lands Department volunteer, hoping to get far away from both her abusive boyfriend Mike (Tim Neff) and the deep scars that he has left – or perhaps reopened – in her vulnerable psyche. The isolation of this lookout station for forest fires attracts a certain kind of broken person: Kate’s ranger boss Earl (Ato Essandoh) – and brother to her best friend Nic (Ta’Rea Campbell) – worked there to clear his head after a tour of duty in Kabul, and is still living with the guilt of a deadly fire that he called in too late; and her nearest neighbour the cantankerous widower Reggie (Dylan Baker) expressly lives alone off the beaten track to avoid having to deal with other people. Yet as her PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks continue unabated, Kate finds her void of loneliness filled by Bertha (Becky Ann Baker), a local middle-aged hiker who soon become a regular visitor, confidante and friend.
“I’m losing my mind up here”, Kate will tell Bertha – and like Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock (2019), only stretched out from one day to a quarter of a year, Outpost will turn its protagonist’s vigil into an ordeal of endurance as much mental as physical, where victimhood is not just overcome but inverted. This is a glorious calling card – sensitive to sympathetic characterisation, yet unafraid, when the time is right, to call in the nasty exploitation. Offering a panoramic view of tinderbox trauma, this was my favourite film of the day, along with…
On The Edge (2022) World première
As Trump-quoting US Senator Coleman (Mackenzie Gray) can be heard on the television lionising family values while decrying pornography, prostitution and ‘perverted entertainment’ (which would no doubt include this latest feature from Jen and Sylvia Soska), Christian family man Peter (adult star Aramis Sartorio, aka Tommy Pistol, here intense and vulnerable) is a disrupting force to his own family: lost in his work, his phone and his damaged headspace, and so inattentive to his loved ones that in the opening sequence he distractedly knocks to the floor the breakfast that his loving wife Claire (Sylvia Soska) has just prepared for the twin daughters (Alanna and Brianne Finn-Morris) – whose big hockey game later that day he will be missing because he has a business trip.
Except that it is not a business trip – or indeed straightforwardly for pleasure either. For Peter has booked himself an epic 36-hour session in an exclusive hotel penthouse with the dominatrix Mistress Satana (Jen Soska, playing the dark reverse of her own twin sister’s character), and from the moment he walks through the door, it is clear that the next day and a half are going to be an ordeal of painful humiliation and sexual torture, as Satana suffocates him, trusses him up, cages him, and repeatedly penetrates him with an ever expanding array of objects. Yet as she degrades his body, more importantly she gets into his head, messing with his mind and dredging up his most agonising memories. This hotel suite is to be Peter’s Calvary and his personal Hell – and yet, for all his obvious anguish, all his repeatedly stated desire to flee and for the pain to end, he still keeps declining to use the pre-arranged safe word.
If the Senator’s opening conservative diatribe frames Peter’s harrowing adventures in vice as a morality tale, the slippery ambiguity of the Soskas’ film will leave viewers uncertain – at least until the end – whether Satana truly is a Satanic figure embodying and realising precisely what Coleman so roundly condemns (and what Peter despises in himself), or if this sex worker’s personal services represent something more salutary. For, like any psychotherapist, Satana engages in a talking cure, administers medicines, reenacts key scenarios via rôle play, and confronts Peter with his past traumas – and if she is unquestionably objectifying her client (on his dime, of course), she is also allowing him to use her as an object of projection and transference. Or maybe she, the Desk Clerk (Ola Dada) and the Maid (Andrea Jin) are all just figments of Peter’s fugitive, dissociative imagination. In the topsy-turvy games of BDSM, all torment is also self-torment, and reality is difficult to distinguish from play.
The result is a peculiar, twisty session, reminiscent to a degree of Hitoshi Matsumoto’s R100 (2013) and Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing (2018), where one man’s walk on the wild side becomes an arduous journey inward – by turns distressing, disorienting, funny, moving, and ultimately cathartic. Submit yourself to this film’s manipulative control, and you might just emerge from its cruelty not just alive, but even improved and redeemed. Perhaps, after all, perverted entertainment has its productive place in a healthy society.
The Offering (2022) International première
Oliver Park’s debut feature situates itself as the latest in a recent run of films – Ole Bornedal’s The Possession (2012), Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015), Doron and Yoav Paz’s JeruZalem (2015) and The Golem (2018), and Gabriel Bier Gislason’s Attachment (2022) – which marry the creatures of ancient Jewish folklore to the tropes of modern horror. Here Judaic tradition is embodied by the old widower Saul (Allan Corduner), running a funeral home in the Hassidic part of Brooklyn New York with his faithful colleague Heimish (Paul Kaye), while secular modernity is represented by Saul’s estranged adult son Art (Nick Blood), who has turned his back on his faith, and now returned with his pregnant shiksa wife Claire (Emily Wiseman), athough not so much to be reconciled with his father as to use the funeral home as collateral on his own new family nest.
Finding its way into this tense household (and exploiting and accentuating its divisions) is the demonic trickster Abyzou, whose child-taking ways threaten the possibility of this riven clan ever having a next generation to bring it back together. There is a truncated shiva, Hebrew text, kabbalistic rituals and the odd smattering of Yiddish, all bringing Orthodox Jewish colour to the material, but at heart this is a conventional possession and exorcism flick, full of magic circles, CG-distorted realities, mirror worlds and jump scares, as a changing family may prove no match to a devil whose shape may shift, but whose mission has remained unwavering for eternity.
© Anton Bitel