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.