Wednesday, 19 October 2016

American Honey

Andrea Arnold, 2016, UK-USA

Tired of scavenging through trash to feed her half-siblings and with no other affections to hang around for, teenager Star (Sasha Lane) sees her chance to escape when she runs across a van load of wayward travelling magazine sellers. It’s a crush on Jake (Shia LaBeouf) that leads her to take her chances and move on and what follows is the outline of their relationship in a context of a group of misfits taking her across American strata. It’s a world where cues often seem to be taken from musicals – sorry – from music videos breaking into song and dance at regular moments, an indication of their unity, aspirations to party all the time and to be unrestrained misfit spirits. Now, I’m always going to be a sucker when a film breaks into Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade into You’, but whereas many others would have used the whole song to underpin the accompanying sex scene to accentuate the romantic vibe more, here it’s cut off to leave something more real and ambiguous. Elsewhere, the crew rap, rock and rave whenever the mood seems to take them. It’s the American Dream of life on the road as freedom, even if it requires taking advantage of everyone else with the lies creating a barrier between them and the society outside. Perhaps that’s part of The Dream too.

Right from the start, this duplicity to make a magazine sale isn’t something that Star approves of. Although there is the hint of uncertainty in Star, she’s feisty and controlled and willing to take risks, all of which makes her immensely appealing when it counts. She’s frequently reckless with the assumption of indestructibility that comes with youth and newfound liberty, jumping into vans with cowboys without thinking it might open up the possibility that things will take a turn for the worst. She’s trying to find a place where her natural nurturing personality and empathy can find voice.

Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough are all great, full of exuberance and adrenalin without quite falling into forced cool; certainly  Lane is enthralling and LaBouf may have never been this good. The other cast members – made up of amateurs – are vivid but they never really get any focus – it’s mainly about this triangle. Oh, there’s heartbreak and drama but it all feels a part of the fabric so that nothing quite disturbs or truly ruins the flow. It's kind of like Larry Clark or Harmony Korine without the sleaze.

Andrea Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan find visual beauty everywhere, not just in natural vista but in tattoos, Gummy Bears pinned on windows and even in industrial plants in the distance – all without resorting to affected poeticism like Terence Malick. The shakiness of the handheld camera creates an openness and fluidity and even though it is filmed in the squarer Academy ratio, it never feels limited, even in the packed full van scenes. It leaves a lot of room for skies. Like Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’, the loose-limbed film soon shrugs off audience expectations of narration and plot to reach something far more about experience.  As an experience, ‘American Honey’ is naturally pretty, free-wheeling and ultimately life affirming. You know that upbeat summer song with a hint of melancholy that you liked as a youth? It goes some way to capturing that feeling. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Gerard Johnson, 2014,  UK

Hey, the police are just as corrupt and despicable as the criminals they hunt. Here’s a thriller based upon that, with crooked policeman DI Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando) trying to get control of the local irredeemable Albanian hoodlums as well as dodging an Internal Affairs investigation. He does this after he spies the hoodlums murdering his Turkish contact who he was visiting concerning a deal for a drug route. Through a cascade of stylishness and brutality, he gets deeper and deeper in trouble, leading to a wilfully perverse ending. 

Nicolas Winding Refn likes ‘Hyena’ – calling it “the future of British crime film” – and one can see that director Gerard Johnson offers up Refn’s favoured aesthetic, similar to Michael Mann’s:  a colourfulness rather than drained-out Britishness; that it thinks that its characters are perhaps deeper than the archetypes they are; that the drama leans heavily on music for ambience. Of course, it helps to have The The making the music (I’ve been a fan ever since I first heard the single “Infected” as a teenager; Matt Johnson is the director’s brother), which certainly sets a mood without being overly intrusive. It is a British crime flick but it’s more Alan Clark than Guy Richie.

DI Logan’s superiority seems to come from the fact that he’s less boorish than his team, thinks bigger and has perhaps hints of a conscience. In fact, one of the pleasures is seeing how Ferdinando plays Logan as someone who comes across equally as tough guy assured and a sad sack in equal measure. He finds himself trying to help an Albanian woman the brothers are mistreating, but really his interference sets in motion one of the ugliest depictions of rape ever put on film. No, it’s not as explicitly violent as anything in the dubious ‘The Seasoning House’, but its unblinking matter-of-factness strikes more realism and therefore is more harrowing. The film has an unwavering look to much of its atrocities – a hacked up victim; a fire extinguisher in the face; Neil Maskell covered in condiments – but arguably the prolonged rape doesn’t quite convince as qualifying for this approach. The artifice of extreme cinema violence for genre entertainment is one thing whereas a long scene of the sexual violence visited on a woman is another. In the same way, Logan doesn’t quite qualify as truly riveting as the centre of all this, a character drama, despite Ferdinando’s performance.

Nevertheless, the colour filtered squalor and brutality and Gerard Johnson’s general intelligence behind the camera keep this fascinating. It’s not really trying for enlightened sociology, or even empathy, but it’s also a million miles from the cartoonish gangsterism of much British crime cinema, even if it’s portrayal of Albanian hoodlums is so thick you could can it. Its true bravado comes with the ending, stopping at the point where our scummy protagonist doesn’t quite know what to do, knowing he’s probably damned no matter what.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Under the Shadow

 زیر سایه‎‎ ~ Zir-e Sayeh
Babak Anvari, 2016, UK-Jordan-Qatar-Iran

There’s something malicious haunting the apartment, which is old news - but  what will be mostly new for a Western viewer is the Iranian context. Set during Iran’s war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) seems to be trying to break out of the confines that being a woman in a man’s society imposes on her. She is grieving over the loss of a mother that had bigger dreams for her than just maternity and her frustrations are apparent in her prickly personality. It’s striking and complex portrayal by Narges Rashidi that highlights how bland her equivalents are in other similar films as she vents by working out to illegal Jane Fonda videos, argues through impulse rather than logic and then softens up to play tea party with her daughter. In fact, the workaday, unquestionable, unsentimental but loving portrayal of motherhood the film presents puts it firmly in recognisable reality that is refreshing in its honesty. This is greatly helped by a non-cherubic but winning performance by young Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. All this is the film taking its time to establish characters and context before a missile pokes into the building, which is when her daughters says it let in Djinns that proceed to take things, come through cracks in ceilings and threaten possession. But the feminist streak is just as vivid as the supernatural, producing the celebrated moment where Shideh quite sensibly simply runs out of the haunted building only to be arrested for not wearing a hajib. (AA Dowd gives a good account of this moment.) But this oppression is there in the smaller moments where Shideh has to hamfistedly hide her video or has to quickly cover herself to answer the door.

And it’s no mistake that djinns resembles a burka or a bed sheets or tablecloth gone mad, tapping into the feminist themes; one apparition resembles a malicious vision of her absent husband merged with the marital bed. It resembles a drama like Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ being possessed.
At the screening I attended, one jump scare had the entire audience jumping in their seat en masse. I can’t quite recall when I genuinely jumped in that way and then approached the rest of the film with a genuine unease that resulted from that moment. Make no mistake, if Barak Anvari favours a slow build-up with slightly edgy pacing, he also knows how to unleash a horror funhouse too. This is how you do jump scares; it makes ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ and all their cattle-prod scare ilk look like horror babyfood, no matter how well staged. If you prefer your frights with proper drama, here is a fine example. 

The fact that aside from the Middle Eastern context, this narrative follows mostly familiar beats means that it is sure to have great crossover appeal. This seems assured with its acquisition by Netflix. It’s superior fare that like ‘The Babadook’ – most likely the film it will be most compared to – it uses subtexts as driving themes and its spooks as clear metaphors. This may be too obvious for some but nevertheless, this is engrossing, assured, scary and creepy stuff. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Girl with all the Gifts

Colm McCarthy, 2016, UK-USA

Yes, so zombies are everywhere in a way that I am sure we never quite imagined when ‘I walked with a Zombie’ (1943) was a thing. When they announced that ‘The Walking Dead’ was going to be a TV series, I could hardly believe it as the comic was quite uncompromising. But they did and it was more ‘hardcore horror’, shall we say, than I ever imagined they would allow. Of course, it’s old news now and zombies are everywhere, providing backdrops for romcoms like ‘Zombieland’ and ‘Life After Beth’ and so on. So, yes, there is that demand to do something new with the premise in a way that perhaps isn’t asked so much of with other monsters. It is perhaps because zombies can be more of a blank slate upon which various themes can be imposed, that are more about the abstract mob than the individual.

The Girl With All the Gifts’ has a great slow-burn opening, which is even better if you know very little about the premise.1 Then the zombie stuff is unleashed in a pleasing attack set piece that totally blows the preceding sinister quietness in one big go. The film never quite manages to get that anticipation back again but compensates by moving into eco-horror: the zombies are caused by a fungal virus which provides some striking vistas of London covered in foliage in a way that harks at nuclear disaster sites like Chernobyl that have since been claimed by nature. It not only reminds of the visions of John Wyndham but of the kind of apocalyptic vision of London that has always featured so strongly in Dr Who and in the Quatermass thrillers. Of course, as we’re talking devastated London and a zombie infection, one is legally obliged to mention ‘28 Days Later’ as well. 

And then Mike Carey – adapting from his book – throws in a little ‘Lord of the Flies’ and it is perhaps this focus on the effects on the young, harking on evolution, that has many commentators asking about whether this is based on a Young Adult novel, and people saying it’s like Young Adult fiction as if that is a disparagement. True there is the ‘Chosen One’ trope typical of that genre, signalled in the very title, but it surely also comes from a tonal thing and this being a zombie film of ideas rather than hardcore gore and perhaps that shift from the latter makes it seem soft. The other accusations that are around are those of “gurning” and “amateur dramatics”, and it’s true that some moments are a little rough in the acting department. For example, the film never quite sells the gang of zombie kids beyond its “act your inner savage” instruction. But as for gurning: there’s a shiver of suspense and dread when the boy in the classroom starts to chomp away at the air, a scene that works up to exaggerated facial manoeuvres played out against silence and given time to drum up a chill.2 And anyway, when you have Glenn Close and Paddy Consadine in pivotal roles, you’re going to get a full course of characterisation. Indeed, Glenn Close perhaps brings such nuance and ambiguity to her role of the doctor who is trying, sort of, to follow some moral code as she seeks a vaccine that her fate ends up somewhat reductive, as if the mob of kids is saying
I got yer poetic justice right here.” And this isn’t the only moment where characters act to the whims of genre and plotting (hey, leave your equipment behind!), weakening what otherwise is a strong foundation of character, dilemma, concept and visuals. And Sennia Nanua as the eponymous girl Melanie captures both an innocence and a primal awakening , providing an striking centre to the film, more than holding her own against top level acting company.

But ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ does follow through on its premise, touching on a somewhat Cronenbergian view of diseases just doing their job, maybe highlighting how a somewhat sentimental view of humanity dominates most apocalyptic scenarios. Its focus on evolutionary themes rather than just solely survival and chomping distinguishes this zombie film as the beauty of desolation takes over the more that Melanie asserts herself. It’s all directed by Colin McCarthy directs in a clean, unobtrusive manner with moments of flair to let the themes and action take centre stage as necessary. Weaknesses happily ignored, it’s a thoughtful and ambitious horror piece and in that way it’s exactly what smaller budget genre offerings should be.

·         1           I am sure I knew it was a zombie thing but I had mostly forgotten that and thought that I was getting into a ‘psychic kid’ narrative so was pleasantly in the dark for much of the opening. I try to know as little as possible about a film before going in, relying on a general vibe I pick up from promotion and lightly perused feedback to pull me in for an attempt to see the film as fresh as I can.
·          2                       I couldn’t quite work out the young actor’s credit for this, but he certainly made an impression as he took his time with this moment.

Thursday, 29 September 2016


Joe Dante interview with the release of "matinee" on blu-ray (at last!) where he discovers one of my favourites, "Eerie Indian" amongst others. And here he is with Marc Maron.

Jacques Tournier on Val Lewton. 

Favourite songs #1

Favourite songs #2

Favourite songs #3

Saturday, 24 September 2016

"Roar" ... and WTF

Noel Marshall, 1981, USA

There are a few films that have a genuinely WTF ingredient. I don’t mean in the way that they amaze through execution, a wow of wonderment reaction; no, what I am referring to is that reaction where you find yourself thinking What the fuck were they thinking when they made this?! All the way through. I’m not thinking of examples such as Troma’s output, as that’s contrived to elicit such a response. I mean those films that seem to be genuine in intent, have no idea that they are bizarre/laughable/outrageous. And when you revisit them, they still have that WTF effect, because it is in their DNA. It’s not something easily explained: you have to watch it and experience all the elements to fully get and feel why it causes jaw to drops and laughter of disbelief. It’s in  the timing of things, the presentation of scenes, a turn of phrase. ‘Troll 2’ has it. ‘The Children of Ravensback’ has it. Even ‘Shrunken Heads’ has it, although that’s partially intentional. 

And ‘Roar’ has it. In a way that few films can ever reach.

A man lives in Africa and has a house full of big cats. Dozens and and dozens dozens of them. Over a hundred, in fact. His problem seems to be that they attack visitors all the time, albeit and arguably playfully. Anyway, he has invited his family to come live with him. And the premise seems to be that since he is late meeting his family at the airport and he is on his way – um, his getting to such an important appointment on time doesn’t seem to be his concern – they get to the house early when he’s not there and the big cats think it’s playtime, or dinner. 

From the very beginning, the film has the lions and tigers and panthers pawing and lunging at the cast as well as each other, and the film essentially does that throughout. Even when they are being playful, they are lunging at people to have “hugs”. The film doesn’t try to soften the idea that when they are playing around these big hunters still cause injuries. I mean, even being friendly and disinterested, they cause mayhem. It’s all part of their being wild animals. Characters even tell Hank – their deluded landlord rather than their owner - that he’s crazy to invite his family, but he insists that the big cats are just misunderstood, even as they playfully chomp on his foot and make his hand bleed and… Well, the thing that makes the jaw drop is watching the actors trying to act whilst wild big cats do their thing. Hank is played by Noel Marshall, the director, and the cast is filled out with his family. One imagine a family being convinced this is a good idea, but the crew? The official ‘Roar’ website even states: 

“No animals were hurt during the filming, but over 70 people were injured, including all cast members except Mativo. Not the animals fault, but the fault of the project. We’ve now learned that these are wild animals. If you do what the family did in the film, it’s not “if” you’ll get bitten, it’s “when”!”

“We’ve now learned that these are wild animals.” “We”? The website writers? Because if it was the filmmakers, well it apparently took eleven years to make so one would imagine they would have worked out the wildness before then. And there’s a certain lightness to that paragraph – as if being bitten by a big cat was all part of the hi-jinx! –that even a cursory summary on Wikipedia will easily cast a somewhat more sceptical light, saying that “It has been considered the most dangerous film shoot in history.” Reading through the “cast and crew injuries” will loosen the jaw for dropping. There is this irreconcilable friction between the idealised vision of the big cats and the threat they pose, and the film swings from one to the other without any qualms, even if it acknowledges that very friction, and that’s where the WTF element lies. 

So the premise is that the big cats are misunderstood and the family’s arrival and terrifying experience by being met and attacked by a whole menagerie – hey, the elephants are just as aggressive – is just a kind of comedy of feline manners? Indeed, the positive reviews all seem to reference a humour and amusement, which means I guess they were seeing a farce where I was thinking This is crazy! I guess the moment where the guy is holding his breath underwater in a barrel as the big cats drink above is meant to be comedy whereas I was thinking it could be read a moment of genuine danger and suspense? Indeed, much of the positive response seems to display a sentimental view of these wild creatures that I am not sure gives them their proper respect. 

So the big cats are both the threat and, ultimately, the loveable critters that just need to be understood and lived with? In the end, according to the closing montage, the family just goes about their lives with the big cats without apparently any incidents. Hmm. I’m not buying it and no crappy closing song will convince me otherwise. 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Dear Wendy

Thomas Vinterberg, 2004,
Italy, USA, Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany, UK

A main criticism against Lars Von Trier’s satirical critique and goading of America’s love affair with firearms, “Dear Wendy” is that neither he as the writer nor director Thomas Vinterberg know anything about America or its gun culture. They are Swedish, of course, and the film was even made in Europe… as if making a set in Europe is less authentic than one erected in a backlot in the States. But I am not sure that criticising Von Trier for lack of realism is helpful as he has never dealt in neo-realism. It is hard to imagine that “Europa”, for all its grubby look, is an authentic portrayal of post Second World War Germany, or “The Kingdom” of European hospitals. And so on. He has always processed his polemics through cinematic artifice, allegories and fairy-tales. Downbeat real life frequently gives way to cinematic fantasia (see 'Dancer in the Dark' as the major example). Indeed, the character's embrace the poses of American Wersterns mythology as something to aspire to.

The Wendy in question is an antique gun with which Dick (Jamie Bell) is having a love affair, to whom he is writing a love letter which acts as the film’s narration. Orphaned and alienated, rebelling against a life down the mines and living alone, Dick buys the gun as a gift, believing it to be a toy. By chance, this gun bonds him to other gun-enthusiast pacifists and they form a secret club, “The Dandies”. “The Dandies” treat their guns like secret friends: they dress up absurdly, create bad poetry to firearms, research the horrific effects of bullets, give themselves what they consider to be Dandyish codes and phrases, et cetera. The balance and conceit is disturbed with the arrival of a new black member, but it is not quite this that brings them to the inevitable movie consequences of their firearm fetish.

Where the parable-like quality doesn’t help can be in the tiny but crucial details, such as the local residents being paranoia of a couple of gangs. Trying to be general and specific at the same time causes some friction: that is, there is nothing seen in the American mining town of “Dear Wendy” that supports the existence of the violent, amoral and street-owning gangs that the residents fear. Perhaps then the joke is that the only gangs we see are “The Dandies” and police, both trigger-happy. In fact, the best surprise and gag that the whole drama rests upon is the use of a shotgun by the most unexpected of residents. So: gun culture and fear and love of gun culture breeds more love and fear of gun culture and gun culture. It can only end in bloodbaths. I am not sure that an example, by comparison, like Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is any more subtle, advanced or informed just because he is American, regardless of his evident first-hand experience with warfare. It’s not subtle nor advanced, and yet there is always something a little punkish about Von Trier, and the black humour sidesteps the judgemental fascism of that other provocateur Haneke. As a fantasy about the allure of firearms to young people, a punkish sensibility serves well. It’s all aided by strong performances and Von Triers’ typically borderline Brechtian inclinations, embraced by Vinterberg. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

FrightFest 2016 summary

So FrightFest 2016 finished on a great high indeed with ‘Train to Busan’ and everyone came out very buoyant to stand around for the after-screening lock-in to give a chance to chat and say goodbye. It wasn’t a remarkable year but it was enjoyable as always, because the atmosphere and the multitude of guest make it special. To abandon the real world for a long weekend and to watch twenty-five films with like-minded people is the treat. It's a funny thing that there is a sense of being bereft when it's over, even though we've surely had more than our fill? Also, the fact that Shepherds Bush Vue was all on one level seemed to increase sociability too, as people were for more likely top bump into each other and into the cast and crew of films.

My favourites. In no particular order:

·        Broken
·        White Coffin
·        Director’s Cut
·        Train to Busan
·        They Call me Jeeg Robot

And I found 'Beyond the Gates' highly charming. 

And favourite moments? Well, getting to talk a little to the cast of ‘Broken’ and Ivan Silvestrini (director of ‘Monolith’). People laughing at ‘Blood Feast’ and ‘Sadako  vs Kayako’, especially the dialogue, treating them as more as farces. And then there was the near physical joy running throughout the audience to ‘Train to Busan’. Bumping into friends in the lobby to discuss editing in ‘Johnny Frank Garret’s Last Words’ and the nature of zombies. It seems there were some real treat in the alternative screens – ‘We are the Flesh’ got lots of positive feedback, for example, and then there was ‘Egomaniac’ which evidently handed out promo sock puppets.

·        BEST UNINTENTIONALLY FUNNY DIALOGUE: ‘Sadako vs Kayoko’ provided more consistent comedy, but the biggest laugh was for ‘Blood Feast’ when a new character, apropos to next-to-nothing, asks our crazed cannibal if he’d like to see come all over her face.

·        BEST FREE-FOR-ALL: A toss-up between ‘White Coffin’ and ‘Train to Busan

  • ·        BEST PERFORMANCES: The cast of ‘Broken’.
  • ·        MOST CRINGE-INDUCING DEATH SCENE: Oh, the pencil-suicide in ‘Johnny Frank Garret’s Last Words’ had the audience squirming in their seats.
  • ·        MOST BEAUTIFUL: ‘Monolith’s Utah desert scenery.

Until next year.                                                                                                    

FrightFest 2016 Day 5


Adam, Rifkin, 2016, USA

It’s the era where we’re all film directors, editing, scoring and shaping our life on film to upload on social media. Now more than ever our lives are dictated by film and their narratives. And remember those mix-tapes we made… well, we call them playlists now, but…? Well, what else has Quentin Tarantino been doing except making films around his mix-tapes? Hell, he even steals other film’s theme songs (of course, it helps that he can actually write). And you know how a big part of hip-hop was sampling other tunes to make a new claim on its ool? Well, that’s where ‘Director’s Cut’ begins, with a nerd appropriating someone else’s film to make it his own. This means wandering around as a crowd-funder on the set of the film ‘Knocked Off’ and splicing into it amateur footage he’s made on the fly. His real intention is to make a film with its star, Missi Pyle, which goes on to involve stalking and kidnapping. ‘Knocked Off’ is one of those slick serial killer movies that take up a lot of space, but it soon gives way to his “improvements”.

‘Director’s Cut’ is a hilarious satire on film-making with jibes at crowd-funding and product placement and all. The sequences with ‘Knocked Off’ are done as if it’s a credible script – it’s the kind of ridiculous serial killer thriller that certainly took off in the Nineties – until it falls to the delusion of Herbert Blout, the nerd who is the natural result of an audience who’s criticisms go “Yeah, but they should’ve done this to make it better.” Blout is played in a remarkable turn by Penn Jilette; and the film features a very droll cameo by Teller. Blout’s narration is a funny appropriation of the director’s commentary and although the actual plot is lesser than the satire, and although it pokes fun at the problems of film-making, it’s also a great dig at a generation that will film everything. Even their delusions and crimes.

The Windmill Massacre

Nick Jongerius, 2016, The Natherlands

Not every film can be a masterpiece and it’s surely wrong to expect that. Some films, Like ‘The Windmill Massacre’, are just good solid fun with enough style and artfulness in script and execution to avoid being bad. ‘The Windmill Massacre’ plays like a story from Amicus portmanteau films: certainly director Jongerius reference Hammer horror as an influence. A bus of tourists find themselves at a mysterious windmill where their ‘sins’ are to punished by supernatural malevolence. Except the innocents, who are to be dispatched anyway as kind of collateral damage.
There are visions of the sins before the ghoulish Miller appears to dispatch standard outrageous slasher kill-offs and the whole thing is played with an straightforward professionalism and intent that may not be enough for some, but it’s fine undemanding entertainment.


Ivan Silvestrini, 2016, Italy/USA

My experience as a passenger in a smart car is that it beeps and alerts you all the time – which I dislike immensely. But a car like the eponymous Monolith doesn’t seem so very far from plausibility. Designed to be impenetrable, Sandra’s new car is meant to keep her and her toddler safe, but there’s no protection from the messy errors of humans. Soon, through a sequence of foolish impulses, Sandra (Katrina Bowden) is stuck out in the middle of a desert locked out of the car and desperately trying to save her child trapped within. As a cautionary tale, ‘Monolith’ gets how the easy yet fussy usability of super-technology – a big selling point, being all interactive and interconnected and susceptible to accidental touches on a screen – can quickly create crisis for the owner. It’s the standard warning we get from science-fiction not to trust technology, although this is very softly in that genre. But its real intention is to track how Sandra’s self-absorption and bad luck leads her to calamity and how she’ll have to think past herself and use all her smarts to resolve the situation. It’s a tale of redemption, then, but is resolved more by Sandra getting some simple and critical insight to herself rather than some big salvation. It’s a gorgeous film to look at, utilising its Utah locations to maximum stunning effect and looking somewhat slyly like a car commercial. It’s increasingly tense and never really uses a deus ex machina to spur things on. Katrina Bowden is more than able to carry the film and from a simple premise a lot of suspense is generated.

The promo car air freshener accompanying 'Monolith'


Craig Anderson, 2016, Australia

One of those endless chains of date-themed horrors that subvert holidays and so on, this starts well with a typically dysfunctional family gathered and set up for slasher slaughter. The mother thought she had an abortion a long time ago, but the foetus was saved and has grown up to be a hideously deformed character that just wants to be loved (and I don’t believe that head would really be capable of speech). And if he isn’t getting that, he’ll kill everyone in sight. The comedy of awkwardness when the cloaked figure gatecrashes the Christmas celebrations and insists on reading a letter provides a peak of black humour that the film never goes on to replicate, although it’s a great moment of high absurdity. The abortion provocation seems like strong stuff for a film that then just goes on to abandon its black humour for increasingly routine and shoddily executed slasher tropes. The ellipses in scenes that show before and after a killing is mordantly amusing early on, but by the end these ellipses seem out of necessity to skip over budget restrictions rather than producing more gags at the expense of genre expectations. It’s a shame because early on it seemed to promise something raw, outrageous and darkly funny.


Yeon Sang-Ho, 2016, South Korea

The last films of FrightFest has often been notable. I loved both ‘Big Bad Wolves’ and ‘Willow Creek’, for example. ‘Train to Busan’ follows a tradition of delivering one of the best for last.

A rip-roaring zombie film set mostly on a train, a real crowd-pleaser because it’s brilliantly presented, funny, nasty and with a decent emotional core. It’s been a great hit in South Korea. These are the fast kind of zombies that swarm – and how they swarm. The audience I was with was sent into repeated laughter of delight as the zombies burst through glass doors and clung to the rear of the train en masse. I got into a debate with a friend who said that this wasn’t a zombie film because, as per Romero, zombie films are slow and existential and social commentaries, but since ‘20 Days Later’ they just run. Well it’s true that the swarming zombie is a standard now, representing how quickly society can descend into chaos and how we are easily overwhelmed by it. It’s true this is more like a virus horror, but I’d say they’re still zombies, whose nature has progressed from voodoo origins through Romero and Fulci to the overpowering hordes they are now. There is no brooding here and very little social commentary, but themes of heroism and self-sacrifice provide the commentary that guides the narrative without letting them be smothered totally by the sentimental streak. Rather this is fun and furious with enough emotional punch to feel like a full course meal.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

FrightFest 2016 Day 4

Downstairs, in the shopping centre below the cinema, FrightFest songs play over the shopping speaker system. There’s “The Monster Mash” and “Thriller”, of course, and I’d guess that if I hung around and listened there would be Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Jack the Ripper”; but I doubt we’d get Bauhaus’ “Bela Legosi’s Dead”. Anyway, I have to be upstairs in a dark place to see films that cover troubled subject matter.


Shaun Robert Smith, 2016, UK

A both bleak and humane kitchen sink drama that turns to horror for its resolution. Splatter by Ken Loach, perhaps. Up until then, we are introduced to a world every bit as claustrophobic as ‘The Chamber’, with tetraplegic former rock star John – a remarkable turn from Mel Raido – and his 24 hour carer, Evie – Morjana Alaoui of Martyrs. John is bitter and difficult, trying to come to terms with his condition, while Evie seems strong but has experienced a traumatic childhood and, in this situation, comes up against her limits. The whole thing takes place in one house and the acting from everyone is exemplary, proving once again that if you lock up a bunch of good actors with a decent script you need not need to do or demand much more. But Shaun Robert Smith keeps the camerawork interesting and the somewhat dour surroundings never descend into wanton miserablism, despite the subject matter. Indeed, so engrossing and brilliantly played is the drama that it’s almost a disappointment when the film veers into more extreme territory for its denouement. But it’s about people’s breaking point and the abusive, relentless nature of work when there’s no real support and nothing else to balance it out.  

Originally it was called ‘The Myth of Hopelessness’ but it was changed to a far more generic and anonymous ‘Broken’, which director Shaun Robert Smith didn’t seem pleased about (he did mention it was against his will).


Patricio Valladres, 2016, Chile

It’s awkward when the filmmakers are present and the film you have just seen isn’t much good. And there’s also not much unintentional humour to make it enjoyable as a shared experience. Mostly, people just head for the exit as soon as the Q&A starts over the closing credits. 

In ‘Downhill’, cyclists head to the hills for an exhibition contest but run into a man at death’s door due a strange virus and a group of hillside killers they soon fall foul of. Although it commendably doesn’t try to explain everything, especially when it gets to its demonic sect, it is increasingly badly performed and edited so that it seems to have skipped whole scenes and looks more and more amateurish as it goes on. It gets so that it’s hard for any hack to not utilise the title for negative criticism. But I won’t.  


Simon Rumley, 2016, USA

Johnny Frank Garret was executed on death row for the rape and murder of a nun although it seems this was an obvious miscarriage of justice. From this true story comes a supernatural tail of revenge from beyond the grave as the last thing Garret did was to write a curse at length (far longer than the version in the film, the director told us) for all those that had condemned him, as well as their loved ones. I always feel a little uncomfortable of true stories and suffering used for the trivia of cash-in films, but Simon Rumley talked of how the Garret family are fully behind this film, I guess seeing it as a platform to truly spoke of how he was unjustly murdered by the state so long ago. 

But as to the film: it’s obvious from the way that Rumsey also told us he tried to tone down the business of the malevolent fly that he wanted to stay away from ‘The Omen’ route. Indeed, it manages to mitigate much ridiculousness by keeping the tone mostly sombre and by not giving in too much to horror melodrama, sticking closer to themes of injustice than vengeance. It avoids the unnecessary blares of jump-scares and achieves some eeriness by always keeping in view Garret’s fury at the injustice as an ongoing otherworldly force. As such, this is a decent and solid chiller whose true story basis lingers long after the genre shenanigans. 


Mateo Gil, Spain/France, 2016

There is always one film in the FrightFest programme sidestepping the usual horror tropes for a small breather, and this year it’s ‘Realive’. It’s a futuristic tale about Marc, brought back from a terminal illness after having put himself in cold storage until a cure can be found. Well, now he’s the the first successful case of being brought back from the dead to live a second life. But his emotional ties and existential ruminations butt against the limits of his new clinical existence, for he can’t go too far. The feel is somewhere between Jan Van Dormael and ‘Gattaca’, or ‘Ex Machina’ even, with the clean and antiseptic feel on one side broken up with multiple flashbacks to Marc’s former life. It’s good, solid science fiction reflecting over mortality, the meaning of existence, love, all that jazz. Just when its dour tone threatens to be a little pleased with itself, there’s a last minute twist that throws a welcome chill over it all. 


Rob Zombie, 2016, USA

Wherein one whacky Rob Zombie gang fights another whacky Rob Zombie gang. After the unfair panning given to ‘Lords of Salem’, Zombie reaches back to his earlier homages to Seventies grindhouse to tell the tale of a travelling group of carnival workers who find themselves kidnapped for the amusement of some upper class types who pit them against highly conceptualised killers. It’s a comic book of crazed characters whose designs provide much of the visual feast. Zombie is usually better when his characters shut up, but this one is full of talk with a recurring motif being the telling of disgusting jokes. The fights are so hand-held-blurry and edited into incomprehensibility that you really won’t know what’s going on – Oh, did he just fall on a chainsaw? I think so… And at one point he introduces a strobe effect so you really won’t know what’s going on. Zombie always remains interesting but it’s Richard Brake that steals the show as Doom-head, starting it all off with a memorable monologue… although it’s true that Doom-head's reputation as a super-killer seems unearned as he stabs his prey in the back and attacks them when they have been stabbed multiple times, etc. It’s rude and crude and waywardly stylish, but it mostly misses.

And coming out of the screenings, there’s someone handing out squishy stress-ball hearts like some Victorian street flower girl gone off the rails.