Four FrightFest 2023 Documentaries includes capsule reviews of:
Full reviews of The J-Horror Virus and Otto Baxter: Not A Fucking Horror Movie + The Puppet Asylum can be found elsewhere
1982 Greatest Geek Year Ever! (2022-23)
UK première on Saturday 26 Aug
An irony of Roger Lay Jr’s 1982: Greatest Geek Year Ever! – and at over two and a half hours, this TV documentary miniseries is long enough to examine its own ironies – is that one of the films from 1992 that it chronicles is Richard Benjamin’s resonantly titled My Favorite Year, where the year in question is in fact 1954. For like Benjamin’s film, this is a nostalgia piece, casting an eye very much back over the year that it contends – rather compellingly and exhaustively – was, pound for pound, movie for movie, a cultural high point for (mostly American) cinema.
Yet – as is acknowledged – the films for which ’82 is now remembered were not always the films being celebrated at the time, and for every blockbuster hit like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial or John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian or Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist or George A. Romero’s Creepshow, there were films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing which are recognised as influential masterpieces today, but which were considered both critical failures and box-office bombs in their own time (not that ticket sales are everything, and not to cast aspersions on either film, but Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer had better returns in 1982 than Blade Runner).
As you might expect from a film with ‘geek’ in its title, there is a definite bias here towards sci-fi, horror and fantasy, but the documentary (written by Mark A. Altman) can afford to take its time, and in fact covers a very impressive range of titles, while exploring the miraculous circumstances that allowed for such a strong run of quality cinema. Following a formula not dissimilar to that from British television’s I Love the ‘80s (2001), this combines film clips and behind-the-scenes footage with talking-head commentary from filmmakers and critics, some of whom were already active at the time, while others were still kids or teenagers in ’82, when their tastes and their very identity was still being forged in part by these movies. The documentary is of course a time capsule, capturing a synchronic cross-section of movie history, while also mapping out the formative filmography of Generation X.
Enter the Clones of Bruce Lee (2023)
European première on Sunday 27 Aug
Although Bruce Lee had paved the way with his portrayal of the sidekick Kato in American television’s The Green Lantern (1966-7), his lead rôles in four martial arts features – The Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) – would put Hong Kong kung fu cinema on the global map, centring the genre’s entire international profile on Lee’s – and only Lee’s – kickass skills and considerable charisma. The problem, though, was that while still at his youthful peak, Lee suddenly died, indeed a month or so before his fourth and most successful feature was released, leaving only a vacuum where just moments ago there had been a promising career and an emerging industry. Yet exploitation cinema loves a vacuum.
David Gregory’s documentary tracks the different phases of Brucesploitation, and indeed is named for a 1980 title that both exemplified and reflected this peculiar subgenre. Up to 200 of these cheap cash-ins were made, all either fanciful biopics of Lee’s life (and legend), or sequels and spinoffs to his existing films, or all-new stories, often featuring actors who closely imitated Lee’s idiosyncratic gestures, distinctive vocalisations and dress sense, and whose real names were changed into minor variants of Lee’s – Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lo, Bruce Lai, Bruce Liang, Dragon Lee, etc. – to trick western viewers into imagining they were seeing the genuine article.
Interviews with the now ageing actors reveal that for them Lee was both blessing and curse, launching their own careers while limiting and typecasting them in parasitic rôles that showed off but also muted their individual talents. The cycle lasted about a decade, before collapsing in on itself both under the weight of ever more ridiculous plotting, and with the arrival of new stars like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan who were their own selves rather than mere Lee understudies. It is a funny, bittersweet slice of monofocused nostalgia.
I Am Monsters! (2023)
world première on Mon 28th Aug
This is actor/writer Nicholas Vince’s one-man autobiographical show translated into the idioms of cinema. After a textual quote from Clive Barker on the multiplicity of personal identity in stories, and a montage of photos and videos from Vince’s childhood, we see Vince introduce himself on stage with the greeting, “Hello, humans,” and then tell his life as a series of monster stories: excerpts from beloved books like H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) which he relates to formative episodes in his life; personal anecdotes in which he faces others’ or his own monstrosity; and of course funny behind-the-scenes accounts of playing the monsters Chatterer in Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) and Kinski (as well as two smaller, less recognised rôles) in in Barker’s Nightbreed (1990).
Presented as “a play in five acts” and structured to follow carefully laid-out themes as much as chronology, this is a film essay about being viciously bullied in school for being different, growing up gay and closeted at a time when homosexuality was demonised in Britain, and finding yourself (even if that also involves discovering your ‘own darkness’). It is both coming-of-age and coming-out tale, told with warmth, wit and generously wise self-deprecation. Here mask, monsters and make-up (not to mention dentistry) are the flesh and sinew that bind everything else together, as Vince proves not only an engaging raconteur, but a philosopher of humanism in all its capacity for the monstrous.
The Darkside of Society (2022)
world première on Mon 28th Aug
Anyone who has seen Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) will recognise that, beneath all the dark comedy, paranoid thrills, sexual grotesquery and sci-fi weirdness, it was also a fairly upfront allegory of class privilege and underclass exploitation. Yet this documentary on the film’s principal writer Woody Keith, now named Zeph E. Daniel, brings another layer of reference. For although Daniel claims he was unconscious of this at the time of writing, he insists that the film’s story conceals a strong autobiographical element: his own upbringing in one of Los Angeles’ élite families, who (he suggests) subjected him repeatedly as a child to ritual abuse and orgies with other well-to-do families and their children, and then gaslit, programmed and brainwashed him into years of institutionalisation – and amnesia, from which he has since somehow managed to recover.
Director Larry Wade Carrell, who has collaborated with Daniel on Girl Next (2021) and The Quantum Devil (2023), lets Daniel tell his story – and it is a fascinating one – without so much as hinting at the elephant in the room: that the Satanic panic movement with which Zeph’s accusations are explicitly associated, as well as the whole idea of recovered memory, have been broadly discredited, undermining the very foundations of Daniel’s claims.
Daniel suggests that the bizarre participation of his own (abusive) mother as an extra in Society was a smokescreen designed to remove any suspicion that the film’s story of abuse might have a basis in reality. Yet filmmaker Richard Stanley’s participation in the documentary seems equally bizarre. He is supposedly there as a victim himself of child abuse – but the failure even to mention in passing that Stanley too has recently been subject to allegations of abuse seems a curious omission, if not a failure of balanced reportage.
The effect of all this, whether deliberate or not, is one of disorientation, leaving viewers – not unlike the bamboozled protagonist in Society – feeling uncertain where the conspiracy ends, where the delusion begins, and where the truth lies. Daniel is no doubt deeply troubled by his past, and has also crafted one of the finest horror fictions of the Eighties – but viewers might wish to question the new interpretation that he is imposing on that screenplay more than the documentary itself ever does. Meanwhile, the contributors include one Alan Jones, and the film is narrated – on camera – by the (now late) Julian Sands.
© Anton Bitel