Monday, 2 September 2013

Frightfest Day5

DAY 5: Frightfest 2013

On the last stretch now, but still much to go. There have been ominous mentions that the big screen, with its capacity of holding 1330 Frightfesters, is to be closed down; even though the showrunners aren’t saying too much it would seem it is going to split into two separate screens (at time of writing, official announcement by the Empire is pending). Already I am thinking that Frightfest would be a slightly lesser experience for loss of the big theatre… but that’s just the pessimist in me.

“Dark Touch” has a fine grey Irish atmosphere in which its young protagonist, maltreated and confused, discovers and explores her psychic powers. At first her telekinetic powers are uncontrollable and she reads the phenomenon around her as the house having a rage, but once she is taken in by another family who try to draw her out of herself, Niamh soon works out what she’s about and learns to focus her powers against the abuse and inanity of adults.  Marina Da Van’s film starts well enough and there are a number of decent set pieces when Niamh’s power lets loose, but the film struggles as it goes on: some of the adult behaviour seems a bit daft and certainly there was unintentional humour causing audience laughter; at other times, certain things do not quite seem clear enough. This means that the birthday doll party scene ends up as unconvincing and unintentionally funny because surely the adults would have had more sensitivity than to let Niamh go to a doll party (after she experienced her infant sibling’s death) and perhaps it is not quite vivid enough that she casts some psychic influence over the other kids (otherwise their mutilation of the dolls is ridiculous). Similarly, the finale is agreeably downbeat and striking some resonance with the kids emulating the inanities and casual control of their parents, but it also feels as if some footage making the sequence fully coherent has been left on the cutting room floor. Full of promise, it nevertheless ends up unsatisfying and feeling somewhat incomplete.

On the other hand, lair Erickson’s “Banshee Chapter” – 3-D! – has very little to offer at all except a bunch of tiresome clichés. It has some found-footage/character-cam aesthetic, which means we reach the ridiculous situation where found-footage is in 3-D. This gives way to the director’s camera, but Erickson films with the same swirling and swinging camera as a character-cam, so the entire film feels like “found footage”. It’s a mess. The premise is that the American government experimented on people with mind-altering drugs; Internet journalist Anne Roland investigates (and is badly played by Katia Winter). Ted Levine steals the show as a burnt-out ex-beatnik dopehead but to little avail. The Frightfest programme states that this is “Based on real documents, actual test subject testimony and uncovered secrets about testing run by the CIA”, but if true their main achievement was in summoning post-“Ringu” spooks. Despite the “true story” angle, this is of very little interest, tired and trivial.
“ODD THOMAS” is one of those oh-so-cute supernatural-superhero wish-fullfillment tales that have characters with first names like “Odd” and “Stormy”. Eponymous Odd Thomas is a young man with the ability to do whatever the hell the script needs him to do: he sees dead people and spends his time avenging their deaths (wait, how many would he need to save in small town USA?); but he also sees wraith-like death creatures that are never quite called demons, even though devil worshiping turns up elsewhere; and then there is a guy who apparently wants to be a serial killer even though he is actually plotting to be a mass murderer (the script throws this all together). And then Odd Thomas can see dead people except for when he is being haunted himself… er? The film can barely go five seconds without a special-effect of some kind. It seems to be some teen-orientated adventure but with jokes about Ed Gein’s belts made of nipples and a mall massacre: that weird, particularly American mixing between the daft and the genuinely disturbing without an inch of self-awareness leaves the whole thing a bit clueless and unfocused and a hodgepodge of horror junk that just leaves it as a pile of various crap thrown against the wall. “Odd Thomas” has found far more favour with others than from myself, because diverting as it may possibly be, it just seems to me to be more mainstream filmmakers waving various horror tropes and attributes at the audience and ending up incoherent instead of genuinely and gleeful chaotic. There is little sense it actually knows what it is doing except chucking a bunch of stuff onscreen.  It is based on the novel by Dean R Koontz and directed by Stephen Sommers, and you can take those as warnings.
Jorge Michel Grau’s “We Are What We Are/Somos lo que hay(2010) was the very first film I ever saw at Frightfest, years back. It was the only film I saw at Frightfest that year (because they banned “A Serbian Film” at the last minute) and I thought it was minor classic. Bill Sage’s American re-interpretation is moody, slick and getting much praise, but it is elegant and stylised where Grau’s original is dirty and desperate. The original is about a broken underclass beyond repair, it’s about starvation and struggle where Sage’s remake is mostly about ritual and bullying patriarchy. Sage doesn’t really get into the nasty stuff and the very ritual that ought to show without qualm the exact gristle of the family’s cannibalism is all off-stage, so that we get a sympathetic backstory about the ceremony but not its truth. On its own terms it is a fine variation slice of  American Gothic, but it is a far less nourishing and angry affair.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado introduced their “Big Bad Wolves” as a kind of revenge upon their parents who brought them up on Grimm’s fairy tales wherein the monsters are euphemisms and allegories for paedophiles. “Big Bad Wolves” succeeds on that level and many others: as a shocker, as a mystery (did he do it?), as black comedy and as a scathing indictment of torture and men who want to be, in various ways, big bad wolves. After a deceptively elegiac opening, inclining towards fairy-tale, the brutality sets in: the police are beating up the prime suspect in the case of a missing little girl but they aren’t careful and cause the investigation to tank when their ‘interrogation’ is. Meanwhile, the girl’s father has his own plans to make the prime suspect confess. All the clues are there but you may not notice them the first time round for the film moves between black-humoured farce, social commentary, very real horror and stark violence that you may not quite see its greater game.  A brilliantly scripted and cruelly played condemnation of man’s inclination to violence as a recourse and resource.
And so, "Big Bad Wolves" is the very last film to be screened at the Empire's major screen. Festival organiser says he cannot reveal too much but looks forward to something different and better. And why not? I for one will miss the gigantic auditorium.
But I will still be back next year for Frightfest.

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