Monday, 2 September 2019

FrightFest 2019 - Final Notes

This is all to do with the Main Screen films.

It was FrightFest 2012 that seemed defined by a lot of rape, from the opening film ‘The Seasoning House’ onwards, earning it an apparent nickname “RapeFest”. I remember the time we got to Jennifer Lynch’s ‘Chained’ on the last day (it’s good), I was thinking “If I have to see another woman dragged screaming across the floor…”

But 2019 seemed to me to have come a long, long way, a corrective. All the time, there were female-centred films where the fact they were capable and resilient didn’t seem to come with overcompensation or that macho kick-ass one-liner attitude; there was no compromise to their vulnerability. In a run of films with exemplary performances, even those that didn’t require so much were given nuance and far more than they needed by the female leads: I’m thinking of Kaya Scodelario in ‘Crawl’, and Samara Eaving in ‘Ready or Not’, and Hayley Griffth in ‘Satanic Panic’. There was less exploitational nudity and, in fact, probably equal male nudity. I overheard a woman laughing that she had “seen enough penii this festival.” Was this truly what equality in the genre looked like? It was refreshing because it offered several tough-nut female protagonists without all that macho-posturing and one-liners. I mean, you’re always going to have that, but I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes due to it much this festival. Well, aside from ‘Nekrotronic’. I mean, you couldn’t take ‘Bullets for Justice’ seriously and even that was balanced with male nudity and a homoerotic fascination with one guy’s arse. There just seemed added texture with all this attention to women as people. Even a majority of the male roles seemed to come from a place of enlightenment: for example, I was even taken with Alex Essoe in ‘Drone’ denying a typical jock role it’s usual asshole spin.

FrightFest Favourites 2019:

  • Come to Daddy
  • Bliss
  • Daniel Isn’t Real
  • The Black String
  • The Drone
  • Why Don’t You Just Die!
Yep, those ones that were mostly ambiguous and using horror tropes to investigate damaged psychology are certainly my preference. And ‘The Drone’ because it was so much fun to watch with a genre-savvy audience. A drone flying around a house being all sinister proved hilarious. 'Come to Daddy' because it feinted this way and that and was highly entertaining when perhaps you thought you had it pegged. 'Why Don't You Just Die!' was my preference for all the "rollercoasters" on offer.

There were so many good performances that we were spoilt.

  • Dora Madison (‘Bliss’)
  • Frank Muniz (‘The Black String’)
  • Sarah Bolger (‘A Good Woman is Hard to Find’)
  • Elijah Wood (‘Come to Daddy’)
  • Stephen McHattie (‘Come to Daddy’)
  • Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman (‘Spiral’)
  • Sasha Lane (‘Daniel Isn’t Real’)

But that wasn’t all. Caitlin Stasey & Thora Birch & Macon Blair in ‘Kindred Spirits’. Samara Weaving ‘Ready or Not’ just getting down to it without being a superwoman. Hayley Griffith totally selling her fuzzy-bunny pizza girl as Rebecca Romjin thoroughly delighted in her ‘Dynasty’-style witch in ‘Satanic Panic’. Richard Brake in ‘Feedback’. Alexsandr Kuznetsov and Vitaly Khaev in ‘Why Don’t You Just Die!’. Hell, the ensemble cast of ‘Ready or Not’ and ‘Tales from the Lodge’ were a joy to see working together. Much to choose from.

‘Crawl’ reminded me that jump-scares could be good. My friend delighted in the fact that the men behind him kept jumping and bashing the back of his chair.

‘Dark Encounter’ at least reminded me that strange lights coming into the house from outside are scary.

I really wasn’t expecting ‘Bliss’, ‘The Drone’ or ‘Satanic Panic’ to be as enjoyable as they were.

Best parody/pastiche: ‘The Drone’.

Best WTF: obscene possessed foetus in ‘Ghost Killers vs Bloody Mary’.

Best trippiness: ‘Bliss’ and ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’.

Best fight: opening tussle in ‘Why Don’t You Just Die!’

Best fight and kill: Elijah Wood finds his assailant on the toilet and has to desperately fight for his life in ‘Come to Daddy’.
Best horror debate: the complexities of sex with the possessed in 'Ghost Killers vs Bloody Mary'.

Most coveted location: The coastal home in ‘Come to Daddy’.

Best downer: ‘Spiral’

Best props: the painting in ‘Bliss’ and the crossbow in ‘Ready or Not’.

It was good this year. See you next time around.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

FrightFest 2019 - Day 5



Brian Hanson, 2019, USA

At the Q&A afterwards, the filmmakers spoke of how sweet and humble Frankie Muniz was and how he really pursued this role. And surely Muniz gives the performance of his career as mild-mannered Jonathan, a hapless slacker just trying to get through the day. But to stave off loneliness, he meets a woman on the internet, seems to contract an STD and it’s all downhill from there. Hanson spoke of the inspiration as being what if the homeless guy on the street ranting to himself is telling the truth? Muniz’s sincerity, intelligence and wiry energy makes it all consistently on edge as this seemingly meek guy gets more potentially dangerous. Is Jonathan just paranoid and deluded, suffering from a mental breakdown, or is he really the target of a Satanic conspiracy? The ambiguity is wisely kept right to the very end to let the sadness and tragedy linger. Surely a small cult favourite in the making.

Satanic Panic

Chelsea Stardust, 2019, USA

With an opening that evokes ‘Halloween’ and ‘Suspiria’, ‘Satanic Panic’ proceeds to give a decent bright-and-breezy fun-ride into rich people’s Satanism. It’s the kind of thing promised by the covers of teen horror paperbacks, and indeed it’s written by Grady Hendrix, author of the wonderful ‘Paperbacks from Hell’. It’s also backed by the genre bible ‘Fangoria’ and agreeably female-centred. Sam (Hayley Griffith), the sweet but not stupid pizza girl, amusingly gate-crashes a coven’s motivational speech looking for tips and – as she’s a twenty-two year-old fuzzy-bunny virgin and eligible for sacrificing – from then it’s a rush for survival through rich people’s yards and houses. There’s an excellent regally camp performance by Rebbeca Romijn as head witch, some coven politicking, some rudeness, a decent helping of gore and one-liners (“A sweater that smells like racism.”). There’s also the theme of rejecting your parents and adults and asserting yourself.  As a piece of camp bubble-gum pop horror, it’s highly entertaining without any feeling it should be exceptional.


Abigail Blackmore, 2019, UK

Old friends reunite to commemorate the death of their friend Jonesy at a remote lodge and launch into horror stories at intervals. These mini-tales are minor diversions, not strong enough to give an old ‘Amicus’ feel, although the corpse on the windshield and the open rib-cage of Mackenzie Crook are vivid, the sex-ghost raises an eyebrow and Vegas-‘Lost Boy’ mullet isn’t quite the comedy segment as expected. These tales, occasionally directed by the cast members, that brings the memorable imagery.

The main tale is held up by a strong and playful cast, convincing as a bunch of very different but fond friends from University with Martha Fraser as the unaccountably bitchy one and Johnny Vegas puncturing any threat of pretension. But we don’t really get to know why the storytelling is a thing for them, or why Jonesy was loved. Mostly the comedy and drama is decently balanced before it goes-for-broke for a highly convoluted twist that undoes much of the down-to-earth goodwill earned by the cast to that point.


Jen & Sylvia Soska, Canada, 2019

The Soska sisters are FrightFest favourites and certainly their bubbliness and friendliness was all over the festival weekend. They expressed enthusiastically their love of David Cronenberg and their take on his ‘Rabid’ displayed much of the same competence and weaknesses of their former FrightFest win, ‘American Mary’. I saw one comment that we didn’t really need “Cronenberg’s ‘Zoolander’”, which I don’t think is quite fair: there’s plenty of room for updating body-horror in a fashion industry context – just as Refn used it for covens in ‘The Neon Demon’ – but there’s a sense that the two themes of fashion and Rose’s (Laura Vandervoort) surgery don’t truly end up saying much about one another. 

Rose has a car accident that leaves her hideously deformed, crashing her dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but an experimental skin graft not only cures her face but also her fashion sense. Afterwards, she no longer wears her hair back, big glasses and clothing up to her neck, but is more prone to a more conventionally idea of beauty (hair down, no glasses, more cleavage, etc). Cronenberg’s original may have been scruffy and lo-fi but it was visceral and disturbing in its ideas: a zombie virus transmitted as an STD through an armpit penis-syringe. Despite the make-up, the Soska’s reimagining is a far safer affair by comparison by excising the STD element and relegating things to a confusing CGI armpit tendril, or making victims toxic males deserving of death. Although Mackenzie Gray camping it up as Gunter is a delight.  

More disconcerting for me is that ‘Rabid’ threatens my criteria for internal logic, those details that aren’t paid enough attention to or just make me question general plausibility. For example, Rose is forever taking off her dressing as if that’s easy with minimum of weeping from a huge gaping wound – surely it would never be taken off immediately that way – especially when this very point is brought up later by a nurse with another patient. And we never see it reapplied. Of course, this is done to get to the gross make-up, but there’s no sense of suspense or realistic timing with it. Or when she returns home and messily eats blended food through a straw: wouldn’t she already be used to that; wouldn’t that be a scene best relegated to the hospital? Or there’s just a corpse left in the alley and never mentioned again?  Or there’s the writing board that magically clears itself between her scrawlings; or how, in the finale, they walk into the room but don’t seem to see that behind them until it’s wanted by the script. It’s this kind of lacunae that is generally dismissed with “It’s just a movie” but it’s also a sign of a script’s strength or weakness. It’s hard to concentrate on a serious film when it’s playing fast-and-loose with detail and using genre as an excuse. All films have this but when it’s a recurring feature it scuppers investment in the material. (For instance, compare with ‘Why Don’t You Just Die!’ where detail is all or ‘Bullets for Justice’ where it doesn’t matter and isn’t needed.)

Many others liked ‘Rabid’ more than me and, despite my complaints here, I have the sense that the Soska sisters are onto something good but that they aren’t quite disciplined or scrappy enough. Their worthy themes surely demand more fine-tuning? If anything, comparison show that however clinical Cronenberg appeared to be, he was very punk and his ideas inherently scary. The Soskas offer a fine, smoother doodle but it’s not as threatening.


Abner Pastoll, uK, 2019

If Mike Leigh did horror? Pastoll’s follow up to 2015’s highly recommended ‘Road Games’ goes from the sun-drenched to the dull atmosphere of Northern Irish estates. Sarah (Sarah Bolger) is a recently widowed mother trying to get by. It’s pretty clear that wherever she goes, she’s up against knee-jerk assumptions and that there’s no help or sympathy coming; even her mother criticises her life choices. So, when petty criminal Tito (Andrew Simpson) gatecrashes her place and makes her an accomplice in his drug-dealing by stashing them in her place, she has nowhere to turn. Also, he’s taken from the estates’ ruthless underworld bigwig so trouble just keeps mounting. Sarah is forced to become resourceful and ruthless, all the time giving reassuring asides to her young children.

Firstly, Bolger is exceptional, a force of nature, never once compromising her character’s strength or vulnerability; never once do we think of Sarah’s reactions as inauthentic. Simpson’s performance as Tito is also of note, as we can believe he is as disarming as he is frightening. Edward Hogg as Leo Miller, however, comes from the predictable stock of villains with a quirk (he’s a grammar Nazi, so he’s a class above), whose humourlessness is unintentionally amusing because the bad guys are stereotypes where the film elsewhere is effortlessly nuanced; they are far more suited to some Krays knock-off. It arguably makes him scary but surely not economically savvy when he seemingly tortures and kills people for what they don’t know. The third act falls into standard vigilante vengeance denouement, although there is still the sense that Sarah is being forced into this role, just as everyone wants to see her a certain way. She does the required thing of letting her hair down and becoming more conventionally attractive to kick ass; this is ostensibly to disguise her appearance, but she keeps this look afterwards too, just in case we have any doubt that she will no longer be messed with.

Such an ending is crowd-pleasing and set up nicely but also safe. A little more ambiguity would not have gone amiss, but always Bolger as Sarah elevates the material. As Father Gore says, “We’re meant to applaud that, somehow, she’s able to make it out of a desperately ugly male world intact.” And add class to that too because Ronan Blasey’s script is always aware of social status and the impossibility of getting out. But who would begrudge Sarah from making it after all?

Saturday, 31 August 2019

FrightFest 2019 - Day 4

Day 4


Kurtis David Harder, 2019, Canada

In the ‘90s, Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Ari Cohen) move into the suburbs with an eye to improving their general quality of life and that of their daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). But being a same sex couple, they do stand out a little, even in this apparently accepting community. Pretty soon there’s an old man lurking outside, house break-ins and what seems to be weird rituals going on in the house over there. Bowyer-Chapman’s performance is exemplary so that it’s painful to watch this character being broken by malicious external forces. So grounded and real is the context that Harder’s deceptively non-intrusive direction and Bowyer-Chapman’s performance creates that even when the other stuff closes in, this central character and his struggle never feels undermined.

The look is clean, a little washed out in a stylish hue, like a spread in a home-and-lifestyle magazine. The feel is all increasing paranoia and something sinister closing in. With its starting point being that those that are different are the most vulnerable and with an ending that draws a direct straight line to modern prejudices, ‘Spiral’ is disturbing and upsetting with none of the catharsis of ‘Get Out’. The dread is palpable with Colin Minihan and John Poliquin’s script tapping into that most troubling of genre themes, that the worst can happen to good people for no reason, or because they’re trying to improve their lives.


Rodman Flender, 2019, USA

An agreeable enough zombie rom-com: he’s a slightly dim slacker and she’s somewhat of a popular girl and they are finally bonded when they contract a sexually-transmitted virus that turns them into zombies. It’s bright and sometimes amusing without really bringing anything new to the table. Well, there is a full-on naked zombie banquet… You know how it is: zombiedom symbolises, X-Men style, outsiderism and the persecuted with our blighted couple soon going with the idea of being zombie vigilantes whilst pursued by shady military interests. And little forbidden love when one of the pursuers has a crush on the undead guy. More interesting is the Cronenbergian aspect of the zombie outbreak as a STD, also a touch of ‘Scanners’, but aside from the banquet shocker, this is a bright, cheerful but standard young adult horror. Entries such as ‘Warm Bodies’ and ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ utilise zombie tropes for youthful angst but never quite aim for more than just romantic superficialities (although previous FrightFest film ‘Life After Beth’ is one of the best).  


Adam Egypt Mortimer, 2019, USA

Mortimer’s ‘Some Kind of Hate’ showed a filmmaker with a genuine affinity for capturing that uncomfortable edge of self-hatred and -harm that haunts young people, and ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ taps into that same vein of troubled psychology. By turns an Imaginary Friend horror and a phantasmagoria shuffling the protagonist’s reality, ‘Daniel’ was almost as visceral and trippy as ‘Bliss’: the interludes with the void accompanied by an overwhelming ambient drone sounded transcendental on such a big screen and big sound-system (“By the producers of ‘Mandy’” will perhaps help sell it you).

Luke (Miles Robbins) had an imaginary childhood friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) that he banished when things got a little weird, but now Daniel is back to give Luke confidence in adulthood; the imaginary friend now a kind of Brett Easton Ellis rich kid narcissist lifestyle advisor. He's big on toxic masculinity. A highlight is Sasha Lane as an anarchic skateboarder-artist with oddles of charisma, providing yet another example of a tough and assured FrightFest female character without the recourse to the tired cliché of being kick-ass. The trajectory from one person’s mental health to cosmic horror conveyed the failure of reality to protect against the genre and, throughout this festival, offered as much tragedy as disturbance. With the people I spoke to, this was a festival favourite.


Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, 2019, USA

Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying Daniel (Adam Brody), who is part of the mega-rich Le Domus family – and a rich family is usually eccentric and dangerous in horror and the Le Domus’ aren’t an exception. She’s genuinely excited to be joining the family – she’s an orphan – but it involves playing one of those ritualistic party games that the rich like to play, in this case, a lethal game of hide-and-seek. There’s a lot of humour in the bad guys trying to learn on-the-hoof how to hunt – it gets a lot of mileage from the crossbow – a lovely location in the huge house and a lot of satisfaction in Grace having a no-nonsense response to her predicament. Considering the current climate when it’s high in our political consciousness, horror about class divides isn’t likely to take a back seat soon.

As proceedings become gleefully ridiculous and cruel, and although the entire cast are finely attuned to the material so that it doesn’t crumble under predictability, Weaving’s performance centres it all with a vulnerability and resolve that fleshes a character that could have been just two-dimensional. No, she doesn’t feel like an incapable victim. As long as the rich are targeting and abusing the lower classes is prevalent, horror will always have payback tales. But this one is fast, fun, peppered with nastiness and knowing performances. Like ‘Crawl’, it’s a crowd-pleaser.


Kiah Roache-Turner, 2018, Australia

It starts with one of those animated expositions and narrations that warn you this is going to be chock full of stuff that could be found in Black Metal lyrics. But here, demons get you through social media. I have never found the internet scary and adding demons doesn’t make it more so. A couple of sanitation workers – a Chosen One and his Dim Comedy Relief friend – find themselves caught up in the battle between the Underworld Queen (Monica Belluci, obviously having a great time) and Nekromancers, who are on permanent kick-ass mode. There’s 3D-printing of demons, and… 

Well, you see, where other off-the-wall titles like this do so with self-awareness and gonzo-humour (‘Bullets for Justice’ and ‘Ghost Killers vs Bloody Mary’) or even just jet-black humour (‘Why Don’t You Just Die!’), ‘Nekrotronic’ seems to want us to take it seriously as an epic. This means that whilst we are meant to be having fun, it wants us to invest genuine emotion to the plight of the one-dimensional sisters. But it’s full of deux ex machinas, overly complex world-building and the humour has long drained away by this point.

Friday, 30 August 2019

FrightFest 2019 - Day 3


Michael Goi, 2019, USA

A title like that didn’t inspire much interest, but then I learned it was an allusion to the Mary Celeste so that upped the intrigue. And there was Gary Oldman too, so… But the first jump-scare is just a blare of music that triggers indecipherable visuals. The next was just something on a phone screen and it was then obvious that the horror here was going to be of the predictable and tired type. (It’s ‘Crawl’ that has the true jump scares.) Oldman thinks buying a boat (which has some leftovers from the notorious Mary Celeste) will glue his fractured marriage together again, but he is no match for a dull jump-scare harridan ghost. It’s consistently flat throughout and the overall impression is of a waste of resources.

Ghost Killers vs Bloody Mary
Fabricio Bittar, 2018, Brazil

A gang of YouTube fakers riffing on ‘Ghostbusters’ - they call themselves the “Ghoulbusters” – are called into a school by the head as a stunt to cleanse ghost-hysteria. But, of course, it is haunted and they are out of their league. So, the supernatural occurrences become happy excuses for the zany, puerile and gory. The humour comes from how dumb and ill-equipped the wannabes are when the real thing hits them. Bloody Mary, otherwise known as Cotton Girl, has a pretty fluid backstory but she’s not the lead: the main thing is that she’s the handy mechanism to provide the outrageousness of possessed obscene foetuses and faeces (yes, that’s right). This won’t appeal if outright crudity isn’t your thing as it’s like shockjock YouTubers run amok. Even so, there’s an agreeable lack of overall meanness. All is up for satire and there’s a strong streak of the self-referential: “If we were in a horror film…” side characters say; or how they note it would all have been a twenty minute film if they have done something earlier This meta-commentary and self-awareness is a strong feature in the genre, as the FrightFest selection attests: there’s a sense that a Horror Mirror can always be picked up for a laugh, as we know the tropes so well and it’s like poking fun at a friend’s weaknesses. Or it’s simply the underlying feeling that “We know what you came for.” ‘Ghost Killers vs Bloody Mary’ makes for a gonzo good time, going-for-broke where it can on juvenile crudity but knowingly enough so its agreeably wacky rather than silly. There’s a lot of mileage pitting its jerks in WTF situations, but there’s also always time to discuss the complexities about having sex with the possessed.

Pedro C. Alonso, 2019, Spain-USA

One of those titles that brings up several choices on IMDB, Alonso’s chamber piece has Eddie Marsan as a successful talkshow DJ Jarvis Dolan held up the studio and told to facilitate confessions to a scandal on live broadcast. It’s tense, makes fine use of its claustrophobia and has strong backbone with Marsan’s performance. In fact, there’s much nuance and ambiguity to all central performances so that we are left on the edge of doubt for much of the siege. The dark-and-light of the studio space makes for a vivid single setting and Alonso gets up as much gore as he can. However, as a morality piece, it almost backs itself into a corner and stops short from being too ethically ambiguous and challenging. We already know Dolan is a git so revelations are maybe not as shocking as they may have been, and the liberal talkshow host being the worst kind of hypocrite might be seen as a little on the sneery side.

Jordan Rubin, 2019, USA

Of all the self-reflexive horror comedies and amusements at FrightFest, this was the one that didn’t quite flag in the third act; it was the film where I could feel audience enjoyment and laughter most. A serial killer possesses a drone just as the police close in, and the drone is then taken in by a fresh-faced couple who soon sense strange things are happening. Of note is Alex Essoe’s performance as a likeable non-asshole jock. There’s a sense of the script – by Rubin and Al and Jon Kaplan – poking fun at a particular type of Eighties technological horror, although the setting is modern. Who knew there was so much hilarity in seeing a couple terrorised by a malevolent drone, distracting them so it can fly into the study to use the PC, threatening them by fax and being sinister in rocking chairs? I knew nothing about this and went in expecting something pedestrian, but ‘The Drone’ proved to be one of the festival’s surprises and treats.

Jason Mewes. 2019, USA

In which Jason Mewes plays a version of himself trying to be taken seriously and not just as Jay from Jay and Silent Bob. Pretty soon, this need leads him to be an accidental and then intentional serial killer. With all those cameos, it plays like an in-joke for a bunch of pals that only works if you are aware of the Jay and Silent Bob universe. As a commentary on the industry and fame, it doesn’t really have too much to say – even as it depicts Mewes obsessively seeing where he is on online site rankings - and falls a little too often for finding effeminate men or hints of homosexuality funny (hey, it’s mega-butch Danny Trejo being camp with a feather boa!).

Why Don’t You Just Die!
Kirill Sokolov, 2018, Russia

Kirill’s chamber piece wrings as much havoc as it can from it’s one apartment setting. It starts with a prolonged, riveting and hilarious fight between a young thug come to kill his girlfriend’s father, a corrupt policeman. The camera is kinetic, following the trajectory and details of the action and violence, putting to shame the confused and confusing shaky-cam that mars many other films that mistakenly think it’s a technique that creates action. It’s the kind of film that draws a saga from the detail of a man trying to get a hairpin to escape his cuffs, or a tell-tale spot of blood on a finger that could give everything away. As the plot plays out, manipulation, twists, duplicity and violence are piled on and it almost becomes as critical of selfish Russian society as Zvyagintsev’s ‘Loveless’. Except with slapstick gore, an almost cartoon-like attention to violent and extreme detail and an antihero to root for. It knows exactly what it’s doing, it’s self-awareness all but winking, and its black comedy and excess are total delights.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

FrightFest 2019 - Day 2


Carl Strathie, 2019, UK

Out in rural America (actually Yorkshire standing in for Philadelphia), a house outside of town is experiencing weird going-ons and lights in the sky. This is on top of the fact that the family is just commemorating that it was one year ago that their youngest member, an 8 year-old daughter, went missing. There’s a reasonably engrossing family dynamic which is quickly established so that most of the film is a lot of weird lights and happenings and people looking nervously into space, waiting to see what comes next. This is the best section, with Strathie showing his obvious debt to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Then it gets all ‘Interstellar’. But there is a sense that each point is being belaboured, that there is much padding. The ending depends upon how much you accept aliens as angel substitutes and how much you believe they would spend their resources on the concerns of a single nondescript rural family.

Christian Alvart, 2018, Germany

It’s a race-against-time against a nefarious serial killer. The film has the kind of nemesis that does everything in riddles and the most convoluted fashion, leaving clues inside cadavers and just hoping our hapless protagonist Coroner finds and follows them all. Meanwhile, on an island isolated by a storm, there’s a woman running from an abusive ex-boyfriend that just needs to get involved with this killer’s case to toughen her up (and we know she’s now a fully-fledged rebel when she defiantly smokes in a hospital in conclusion). As far as the coroner is concerned, he’s got a bit of a temper and is a bit estranged from his daughter, but all he needs is for her to be abducted and subjected to a sadistic rapist so that he an prove his love and they can bond again. 

It’s fast and full of crazy clues and solutions – judging from laughter, some of the audience seemed to draw a line at the idea of a car crash used to summon a helicopter – but it is, as such thrillers are wont to be, a little too earnest instead of enjoying an air of the absurd, which this so clearly is. A red flag goes up when this rollercoaster nonsense-thriller is underpinned by very nasty rape, but it just pulls back from capsizing the film. I overheard plenty of people enjoying this far more than I did, and that appeared to be the consensus. It’s slick but more self-awareness would have made it more fun to me.

Jennifer Reeder, 2019, USA

Reeder’s mood piece has obvious antecedents – ‘Heathers’, ‘River’s Edge’,  all those films that were the flipside of John Hughes, and moving on through Clark’s ‘Kids’, 'Mean Girls' etc – but it has the air of trying a bit too hard and obviously. A drum majorette goes missing and the fallout reveals town secrets and sardonic one-liners. It doesn’t revel in its pop-narcissism like  the faintly obnoxious‘Tragedy Girls’, but it doesn’t quite find the cadence that makes it all flow. It falls short of the kind of dreaminess of Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’. It’s all wry teenagers – falling between the grating and the charming, so that feels correct – and the adults are all hysterical women and inappropriate men. Colourful, nicely filmed, but a little inert.

Lucky McKee, 2019, USA

There are a lot of casually strong female characters throughout FrightFest this year and this provided a wealth of great performances, not least in Lucky McKee’s standard Viper in the Nest tale. Chloe’s (Thora Birch) sister Sadie (Caitlin Stasey) returns after inexplicably disappearing for a while, and her daughter (Sasha Frovola) is besotted. But Sadie is troubled and manipulative and soon causing discord. Sivertson’s script doesn’t feel the need to give reasons or motivation and that probably spares us some clichés, going through the tropes cleanly and agreeably, but heading to a dashed ending. It’s the three leads that elevate this.  

Joe Begos, USA, 2019 

And not for the first time this FrightFest will I realise that I am so lucky hearing a film on such a loud and first class sound system* (this is an IMAX screen, after all). Begos’ ‘Bliss’ is on that Hard Rock end of horror, and it’s punky, low-budget, hallucinatory feel is arguably the most visceral of the Main Screen festival (although ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ is a close runner-up). 

Dora Madison is a painter suffering badly from creative block, and so turns to her dirtbag friends to indulge in drugs and sex for diversion, which leads to vampirism which is good for the creative juices but totally destructive. Although too many films lapse into frantic and incomprehensible editing, here it helps create the feel of things unravelling. Don’t be surprised if your memory of the edits is just a blur of red. The theme of An Artist Makes a Devil’s Bargain is an antiquated one, but here it’s layered with vampirism, loud guitars and grubby studios that remind of (and I wasn’t the only one to note this) Ferrara’s ‘Driller Killer’. Turn the volume up and let the assault on the senses immerse you. It bit like staring at a metal cover with the stereo at maximum. Madison is another of the festival’s litany of great female performances. A real trip.

I first realised this after having seen/heard ‘Climax’ here at Empire Leicester Square last year and then again at another cinema with an inferior sound system. At the Empire, as characters moved away from the main hall, you could still feel those bass notes coming from the other room; in a lesser cinema you could hear it, but it didn’t feel so much at the root of things. Watch it with headphones, folks. 

Valeri Milev, 2019, Kazakhstan-Bulgaria

Well, within ten minutes you have jet-packing pig assassins, so the gung-ho exploitation aesthetic is strong. After World War III, pig people – Muzzles – rule the world rather than apes. The humans are just food for the porcine overlords, but naturally there’s a small incestuous and kick-ass group of human rebels trying to fight back. The WTF standard is pretty consistent, capturing an anything-goes comic book attitude with a healthy and funny dose of genre satire – impressive on this budget. It’s fun to see a film so wantonly throwing random ideas together and good taste out the window, although the editing is a little too frantic for its own good. Inevitably, it runs out of steam and descends into unintelligible goop by the end, but it stays fascinating and on its own outrageous course until the disco-tinged finale. Whether it’s good is probably beside the point, but it’s commendable for being unruly – perhaps to a fault – and much of the satire and pastiche of bad action films is a riot.

Friday, 23 August 2019

FrightFest 2019 - Day 1

FrightFest 2019

In 2010, I decided to go see Jorge Michel Grau’s ‘We Are What We Are’ at FrightFest at the Empire Leicester Square, and it was good. There was a slightly different cinema vibe than I was used to. Then I tried to see ‘A Serbian Film’, whose notoriety already preceded it, but it was banned. Next year, I went for a day and ever after I have been all weekend to FrightFest. I’m a sucker for watching film upon film and treat it as a key annual holiday.

It used to be that the films started with a brief “Turn off your bloody phone!” comedy skit, directed by a selection of horror directors, with frequent bad taste and outrageous gore. Now, we just get one sketch at the very opening, featuring Ian Rattray – as the ornery one of the festival organisers – but it’s never repeated… and considering trailers get repeated before films, it’s perhaps a little shame that this isn’t shown again at some point. But, you know: what a petty gripe.

The Soska Sisters welcome everyone to the event (you’ll know them mostly for ‘American Mary’) and then the four FrightFest organisers flounce up for the introduction to this 20th Anniversary edition of the festival: Ian Rattray, Alan Jones, Greg Day and Paul McEvoy. Actually, the intro-sketch video is longer and more convoluted than usual – Ian appearing through some well-known zombie films – so it probably wouldn’t work being repeated each morning. And then we’re off.

It’s a strong opening night with three highly entertaining and crowd-pleasing films.


Ant Timpson, 2019, 
USA-Canada-New Zealand-Ireland

Ant Timpson’s ‘Come to Daddy’ (but that particular Aphex Twin track isn’t used) is definitely the kind of film that I feel lucky to have gone into blind: reputation and future packaging is bound to give it all away, but for a long time, I didn’t know if it was supernatural (I think I assumed it was), but it ends up more in the pen with other FrightFest winners like ‘No One Lives’ and ’68 Kill’. It gave the FrightFest audience its first laugh immediately by quoting Shakespeare alongside Beyonce. Toby Harvard’s deft script takes its time revealing all its cards but has consistently amusing dialogue and uncomfortable situations to keep you on edge. It has a great coastal house location and excellent performances from Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Martin Donovan and Michael Smiley. In the Q&A afterwards, Timpson related with much dark humour how the idea had come from seeing his own father drop dead and having the corpse in the house for a while. It's dark with it's far share of laughs and twists and doesn't overburden itself with too much exposition. 


Alexandre Aja, 2019, USA

Is a film currently postered all around town. There’s a hurricane that lays waste to town, but Haley goes to make sure her father is okay, although they have a prickly relationship… The fact that they must battle alligators that are in the crawlspace under the house – and in fact, are all around town too – is surely the bonding experience they need to overcome the hurdles between them. In that sense, there’s nothing at all new in Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s screenplay, but it’s a monster movie executed with crowd-pleasing flare – although it may just be Aja’s most indistinctive piece. The alligators are great, but things are really elevated by the performances of Kaya Scoderlario and Barry Pepper. The key suspense is probably if the dog will survive, but if you’re paying attention to what kind of movie is playing out, you should guess.

André Øvredal, 2019, 

The other film that’s postered around town right now. Undoubtedly, I was expecting something far more average, but Øvredal – director of ‘Trollhunter’ and ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ – is anything but that, so what we have are above-average characters and performances on something that might be termed as "‘Goosebumps’ Dark". You know this one: it's Halloween 1968 and a small group of outsiders end up oin a haunted house where they find a book of short horror stories that come to life.  But there is an alert nature to Øvredal’s direction so that, even if this all well-worn horror - the cosy end of it's tropes and familiarity - there’s nothing too perfunctory about this adaptation of the books by Alvin Schwartz and iconic illustrations of Stephen Gammel. It’s fun family horror – that was the intention – but filmed with a nice cool style and just enough that it may give even genre veterans some creeps. And its sense that horror is anything but fair keeps this from being cosy.