When I started coming to FrightFest, I remember it started off as an experience of maybe sitting through two or three films before a good one hit the mark. But over the last few years I see it as the reverse, as it being rare to have a truly bad film. I mean, there is usually one but I have to protest that, for all that I may appear picky, I really do enjoy the whole experience and I think a wealth of good-to-great films only make each other look better. In fact, it was last year that I realised that watching decent-to-brilliant films back-to-back was just as tiring as watching a host of bad films: there isn’t much time at a film festival to digest a good film before the next one is upon you. But this year, I found it much easier.
So on to the last day:
Brandon Christenson. 2017. Canada
Mary gives birth to twins but one is stillborn. A new spacious home and surroundings can’t quite hold off post-partum depression, especially when odd noises come from the baby monitor and she starts to believe that a witch-like spectre wants her other baby. Odd noises down a baby monitor are, of course, inherently scary and this may be the most creepy film on the FrightFest main screen this year. Christenson doesn’t really fall back on redundant jump-scares so much, but there is a lot of running to the nursery for the spookiness, and it then becomes evident that the film isn’t going to break free from convention. It all ends with a slightly sloppy party scene: (so she just runs to the party from the hospital? Was it just down the road? And she’s sitting there with a knife and they just impotently bang on the glass? Does nobody think to even try to break the glass door? And then he just opens the other door and runs in…? Wait, wasn’t the other door locked?). And then it has one of those it’s-not-over-really codas that really doesn’t resolve anything. So it’s an average scarer that does nothing insightful with such a loaded premise.
Ryan Prows. 2017. USA
Interweaving narratives about a series of characters living in the underbelly of Los Angeles. The most striking characters being El Monstruo, a disgraced Luchador who never takes off his mask and deludes himself with his own mythology, and Randy, fresh out of prison with a full-face Swastika. But there’s also Crystal, a recovering addict trying to achieve some kind of pride and morality in running a shabby motel; her estranged junkie daughter; a corrupt policeman; a thoroughly reprehensible hoodlum running an illegal organ donor scheme with the daughter in his sights… And it’s here we come in, starting with the business of Teddy the human trafficker. This opening is nasty and bloody and more in the vein of ‘Sicario’; it doesn’t hint at the black humour and amusements to come.
The different stories are divided into chapters and play with time so that we gain a fuller picture when scenes are retold and then they converge for the last act. Of course, such a focus on temporal and perspective playfulness and criminal society will be compared to ‘Pulp Fiction’ as if such techniques were never done before, but Tarantino was never this humble in the face of people’s suffering. It probably leans more to indie crime drama than horror and it may be scruffy at the edges but ‘Lowlife’ is a great mixture of crime drama, offbeat characters, gore, amusement and social discourse. It may stem from different vignettes and have five writers, but Ryan Prows keeps it all fluid, bringing it all together by investing in the complexities of the characters, even if they initially seem cartoonish. Prows spoke at the screening of being a fan of luchador movies and trying to put that in a more realistic contexts, which he does to amusing effect as well as El Monstruo being a study in delusion. Then it successfully humanises a guy that’s a walking Swastika and delivers an exemplary performance from Nicki Micheaux. It doesn’t waste time in colouring in Teddy (Mark Burnham), but then it’s not really about humanising the bad guys as focusing on good peole doing bad things to survive. A stand-out curio.
Chris Peckover. 2017. Australia/USA
After his parents go out for Christmas (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton delivering brief but great comic turns) 12 year-old Luke (a startling Levi Miller) is looking forward to being baby-sat for the last time by Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) for he has quite a crush on her and wants to declare his love. But then a home invasion interrupts his plans…
And here I really do want to stop you if you want to enjoy ‘Better Watch Out’ to the fullest. My blog is full of spoilers and I don’t usually pause to give more warning as my “About me” has a big one, but ‘Better Watch Out’ – originally ‘Safe Neighbourhood’ – deserves to be gone into unprepared for its twists. No, don’t even watch any trailers because they are sure to give away a little too much. Just take it that’s good and worth your time. Get the idea? Then I’ll continue, knowing that anything I hint at might give the game away.
During the height of the video nasty craze in the UK in the Nineties, I felt appalled that a film like ‘Home Alone’ was considered suitable for kids with its slapstick approach to using household implements to, for instance, set fire to a man’s head when ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was banned for an ear-slicing you didn’t see – remember one of the chief motivations of censorship was to cull films of bad behaviour that kids might imitate (hence the wholesale removal of nunchuks from ‘Teenage Ninja Turtles’ and so on). Something happens halfway through ‘Better Watch Out’ and it becomes a whole different film that seems to me to be a dismantling of all those precocious brat films and their slapstick violence. And you can even count in that ‘The Visit’ which also starred DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (they were unbearable in that and excellent in this). I still don’t like ‘Home Alone’, but when ‘Better Watch Out’ kicks into full gear, it gives the lie to all the films that use inappropriate horny behaviour from boys as funny (‘Crazy Stupid Love’ comes to mind) and the preciousness that defines character like Kevin from ‘Home Alone’ that apparently some find cute.
Zack Kahn’s script – a writer for ‘Mad’, so that should be a clue – is peppered with details that seem innocuous and cutesy at first but are subsequently filled in later to fill in a more sinister back-story (like “sleepwalking”). Bloody-Disgusting thinks that “There is a period of time in the second act where Safe Neighborhood [‘Better Watch Out’] plays things a little too seriously”, but I was disturbed as soon as its true agenda was revealed and perhaps others still found it a romp but as I was tuned into it as a scathing satire (indictment?) of the precocious brat genre, as I was throwing it more into the “budding psychopath” genre, I thought its lightness of tone was deceptive. A black comedy that looks as bright as any Christmas movie but, boy, it has a real mean streak.
And kudos to the fact that it doesn’t resort to all-out violence on a minor to resolve things: considering that whenever the deserving got their heads pounded in with rocks or whatever the FrightFest audience whooped and applauded approval (even in ‘Killing Ground’), the fact that in this film an off-screen, overheard line of dialogue produced the same loud approving response surely goes to show that it wasn’t just violence the horror audience wants, but to see bad guys get theirs. And ‘Better Watch Out’ has quite a bad guy, one you’ve seen before but maybe not identified in many other family films.
THE TERROR OF ALL HALLOW’S EVE
Todd Tucker. 2017. USA
An outsider kid into horror make-up, models and pranking the locals gets bullied one time too many and makes a pact with The Trickster for vengeance on those who have humiliated him.
Autobiographical to Todd Tucker – even the workplace full of horror stuff is actually his – it’s a straightforward old-style teen vengeance tale with practical creatures and effects which makes it all the more than winning on that front. Doug Jones gives a creepy and articulate turn as the seducer to the dark side. You would think fifteen year-old horror fan Timothy (not Timmy – Caleb Thomas) would know all about Faustian pacts… and the creature that offers him vengeance is called The Trickster so that is surely a clue? Nevertheless, what marks this out is its lack of jubilation typical of getting-your-own-back narratives: it’s eventually a very downbeat film with the message that if you lose your temper, you might do unspeakable things and lose everything. This makes it haunting and deeply sad in retrospect, which is not typical of these kinds of things that usually like to wallow in ‘Eerie’ comics-style poetic justice.
Tyler MacIntyre. 2017. USA
Starts off with a lone car on a bridge and a couple of young people romping in the back seat in a shot that looks as artful as those found in ‘It Follows’. But this is not that film. Rather, it’s about two girls going psychopathic to get ‘likes’ on social media. The girls want to be horror legends so they kidnap an old school slasher to teach them something, but soon see this hunger for this most twenty-first century form of fame as an excuse to murder anyone that challenges them or pisses them off.
‘Tragedy Girls’ has great central performances by Alexandra Ship and Brianna Hildebrand whose onscreen chemistry anchors the satire and, as Andrew Barker says, “both of which split the difference between Tarantino and Nickelodeon remarkably well.” It riffs on the High School tropes we know so well but here the mean girls are completely without any moral compass as they search for more social media fame as if that means credibility and meaning. But they aren’t regular bullies targeting freaks and geeks; rather, ex-boyfriends and rival cheerleaders have more to fear. It’s fast, bright, witty and well-played so that its messier elements are easily overlooked.
They overcome the old school slasher they kidnap as if the film is saying the narcissism and ethical indifference of social media generation is a far scarier thing. The film seems aware of this when a teacher berates them for their shallowness, but a film that seems so smart doesn’t quite establish a moral stand: this isn’t the dumb fun slaughter of ‘Victor Crowley’ or the gung-ho carnage of ‘Mayhem’. They slaughter the whole school and get away with it as their cruel intentions are recogisable as American ambition and popular culture. They seem normal. But are we supposed to celebrate their being sociopathic BBFs as that seems to justify it all…? So they’re the bad guys, but is their selfish anarchy of murder to be cheered as asserting themselves? I could not quite get rid of the bitter aftertaste that the irony of the ending was on the back of a prom load of corpses. Popular but troubled, much like the girls themselves.