Yeah, I do love my annual FrightFest holiday. After film eight or nine, you start to lose track of time and the days and all you are required to do is to turn up for the next film. It’s such a delightful neglect of reality and responsibility, such a wonderful indulgence for anyone who enjoys being fully lost to the film experience. And the FrightFest mob are generally so friendly. I venture there is a streak of anarchy to this audience that you don’t really find in other audiences which is all about the genre. And when you tell people you are going to a horror film festival, I bet they are either imagining Hammer Horror or an endless parade of “torture porn”. Something like that. But the range of the selection is so varied that it gets to the point that it could be argued that some films merely contain horror elements (‘Alone’; ‘The Bar’) or some gratuitous violence (‘The Villainess’; ‘Lowlife’) and that’s where they qualify.* But whether the choosing or submissions have improved doesn’t really matter as it’s true that the past few years have served up consistently enjoyable menus.
I know I am missing out by not going to the smaller screens or to the Prince Charles, where FrightFest spreads to, but executive decisions need to be made and I elected to stay in the main screen to see what’s what. It’s a shame that the short film showcase is now in the smaller screens as I know I am missing out on some good stuff there. But there’s just so much to choose from and try…
This year I will mostly remember as one dominated by horror comedy. ‘68 Kill’, ‘Dead Shack’, ‘Hatchet’, ‘The Bar’, ‘Lowlife’, ‘Double Date’, ‘Tragedy Girls’, ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Better Watch Out’ all had the audience laughing, and not just at outrageousness but at deliberate jokes. That seems to have been the trend this year: horror comedy. And it was all on the IMAX screen of the Empire Leicester, which was pleasingly ginormous.
• It hasn’t always been so: there was the infamous year dubbed “RapeFest” where every film seemed to be about the debasement of women, and then there was the year where two out of every three films seemed be found-footage which got boring very fast.
Don Mancini. 2017. USA
I probably should have included Don Mancini’s latest Chucky film in my list of horror comedies, but the humour here is more of the kind where the film in elbowing its audience in the ribs going “Eh? Eh? See?” It’s the kind where the killer doll illicits a laugh by flipping a finger or saying “And they call me sick?!” And the audience claps at cameos and so on – this one is a continuation of all that have gone before with returning cast, etc –and crowd-pleasing seems the name of the game. It’s a trait that runs through a lot of horror franchises. Even so, Don Mancini also focuses on delivering a more focused film than others that have gone before. There even moments that verge on beauty, such as a skylight shattering and falling down. Nica Pierce has been in an asylum and convinced that she killed her family last film rather than Chucky, but as soon as a Chucky doll turns up for therapy, this doesn’t last long. There’s some mystery until it becomes apparent that the spirit of Charles Lee Ray can just about possessing any doll and anyone he wants… but if he can possess anyone, what does that mean for a killer doll franchise?
Adam Wingard. 2017. USA
Wingard is a celebrated exponent of the crowd-leasing aesthetic mentioned beforehand, but he does have a winning slickness too. However, ‘Death note’ is one hot mess of an adaptation of a popular franchise. I haven’t read the original - a Japanese manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata - or seen the original adaptation, but comment threads complain that where the original was about a sociopathic popular boy Light finding the supernatural book that can kill, here it is your routine bullied American guy (an unremarkable Nat Wolff). The moral qualms would seem to be much less troubling in this version, with the slip into greater amorality manifest in his girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley). It’s soon evident that Wingard is making up for lack of focus or understanding of possibilities by throwing any directing technique at the screen to see what sticks. There’s the standard use of pop songs in lieu of proper emotional engagement – the standard “killer soundtrack” – and it all comes to an end with somewhat of a befuddling whimper. Oh, and there’s Willem Defoe as the voice of Ryuk the Death Demon or whatever, which is amusing and sinister. Ryuk is brilliant underlit and comes as hints and a human-porcupine silhouette but he rather playssecond-fiddle to the more trivial elements. Oh, and there’s the off-kilter L (Lakeith Stafield: is his hamming it up good or bad? It’s appropriate but I can’t quite decide) who seems unable to sit on a chair properly: in this condensed version, his cat-and-mouse with Light has little room to breathe and ultimately doesn’t amount to so much. This is an Netflix film and it was screened at FrightFest just before streaming release and I am glad I saw it on such a big screen where it at least looked at its best.
Mickey Keatin. 2017. USA
The soul of Henry Earl (not Charlie) Starkweather (Larry Fassenden) seemingly inspires several other serial killers to do their thing and cross paths over one night. Keatin’s film is a mood piece with a nocturnal dreamy ambience, musical segues, a touch of David Lynch and a somewhat retro-feel. The psychopaths range from a masked hit man, femme fatales, asylum escapees, sadistic cops and your average brutal woman killer. There are misogynistic killings, women that turn the tables, home invasions, shoot-ups in brothels and burials in the middle of nowhere, blurring recognisable genre set pieces rather than delivering a straightforward narrative. It’s all presented as a kaleidoscope of noir, neon, low budget horror motifs, fever dream tones. Ashley’s Bell’s schizophrenic dramatic monologue to camera is a highlight. Always intriguing and fascinating, if you go with its mood it is thoroughly beguiling.