Thursday, 1 September 2016

FrightFest 16 post-mortem

Wow, what a week! What a festival, what a great time and what a great bunch of people! Ian, Paul, Alan and Greg deserve all the thanks and praise for putting together yet another amazing event. This time we all moved to the Vue in Shepherd’s Bush, which was bigger, cheaper, more comfortable and superior in almost every way to the overpriced, tourist-clogged Leicester Square. Apparently some of the “talent” were a bit snobby about it not being in the West End, and if so, that’s a real shame because FrightFest isn’t about that – it’s about horror and the love for it, and it’s for us, the fans, the people who are paying to be subjected to hour upon hour of ghosts and zombies and were-frogs. And except for the near-glacial temperatures reached in the screens at times, this was by far the most comfortable venue of any FrightFest ever.

But on to the films…

We were in the Horror Channel screen (whiplash seats D5 and 6) and Thursday got off to a rocky start with MY FATHER DIE, an opening film that many loved, but we found a bit too grim, miserable and melodramatic for our tastes. Also rather inexplicable at times. How hard can it be to find a man wearing a wolf carcass in a small backwoods town? And it’s a bit dodgy to showcase your abusive rapist murderer villain as some kind of cool baddie on his motorbike.

After that was the much-reviled CELL, which couldn’t help but be better than the terrible advance reviews had led us to believe. Yes, it’s a bit of a mess, but it had some very effective moments, particularly the opening scene of chaos in the airport. And you can never go wrong with Samuel L Jackson. It was also a delight to see Daniele Serra’s artwork adorning the walls of John Cusack’s apartment. Well done, Dani!

LET HER OUT was the final film of the day, and another disappointment. A great idea with slightly ropey execution and some very confused character motivation.

After a discouraging first day, we decided to skip the first film of Day 2 in favour of a nice meal, knowing how hard it is to get proper food during the festival. So we’ll have to catch up with FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET when it comes out on disk.

THROUGH THE SHADOW was our first film of Friday – an excellent Brazilian retelling of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. This one had superb performances, eerie photography and some great moments. I was endlessly fascinated by the shot of the drive leading up to the house, flanked by impossibly tall palm trees. Hauntingly beautiful.

Next came ENCLOSURE, which I absolutely loved. A three-hander set in the woods and starring Fiona Dourif, this was one of two films that channelled Arthur Machen superbly. I’m a sucker for anything that pits man (or woman) against nature, and ENCLOSURE put a great spin on the idea. Smart, scary, female-driven American folkloric horror and one of the standouts of the festival for me!

LOST SOLACE was another disappointment. A great idea, garbled by too many subplots, less than believable supporting characters and quite a lot of unnecessary melodrama at the end. A shame.

But then there was PET! A beautifully done psychothriller that isn’t at all what it seems. Dominic Monaghan and Ksenia Solo are both excellent and the film is a masterclass in subverting expectations. Don’t read anything about it – just see it!

The night ended with THE SIMILARS, a Mexican tribute to The Twilight Zone and a truly mind-blowing slice of weirdness. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like this before. The OTT Bernard Herrmann-esque score was the icing on the cake and it will soon be in our soundtrack collection.

Saturday’s opener was THE REZORT, described as “JURASSIC PARK with zombies”. My eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of zombies (hasn’t it all been done already?), so our plan was to give it 30 minutes and if we weren’t grabbed, we’d have another nice meal instead. However, this was a surprise hit. There’s more to it than the gimmick of the concept and it’s well made, well written and well acted, with some wonderfully biting social commentary. What appear at first glance to be stock cliche characters reveal more depth as we go on and the chaos that ensues is entertaining and satisfying. Great fun!

Alas, we probably should have skipped ABATTOIR, an adaptation from a graphic novel that sounded good on paper but didn’t translate well to the screen. We were confused throughout, and bored of all the CGI ghosts by the end. I’m a fan of Darren Lynn Bousman’s SAW sequels and REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA, so I had high expectations for this one. Oh well. Maybe next time, Darren.

But THE MASTER CLEANSE was good! A quirky little gem of a creature feature – poignant and original. I’m still thinking about the ambiguous ending days later.

Next up was THE CREATURE BELOW, another one we weren’t sure of going in, and another we were prepared to leave after half an hour if it didn’t grab us. And this is the reason we didn’t eat all day! Made on what can’t even be called a shoestring at the staggeringly low cost of £12,000, and by the filmmakers’ own admission that it was overly ambitious, this is truly a “labour of Lovecraft”. HPL is alive and well and living in the suburban north of England. A valentine to tentacled beasties and a tribute to those black seas of infinity, this one is deserving of all your love.

And speaking of love, there was a lot of it for THE LOVE WITCH, a gorgeously shot Technicolor dream. The lead actress wouldn’t be at all out of place in a giallo. I adored the visuals (the sets, costumes, makeup and photography were all sublime), but I did feel it went on a bit too long. Still, the whole thing was written, directed, produced, edited, designed, costumed and scored by Anna Biller, so she gets major points for that. It’s quite an achievement. The film belongs in a lavish frame in a museum of moving images. Just gorgeous.

The remake of BLOOD FEAST was the final film of the day and it recalled the disastrous showing of TULPA a few years back, when the audience was in stitches over the unintentionally hilarious bad dubbing. And there were howls of laughter for this one too. Robert Rusler was excellent, despite some bewilderingly dodgy dialogue (“my helpful bipeds”), and there were so many moments of comedy gold that weren’t meant to be funny at all. Oh dear.

Sunday morning opened with DOWNHILL, a Chilean flick by the man who gave us the unwatchable screamy, rapey HIDDEN IN THE WOODS a few years ago. I hated that film. And when DOWNHILL hinted at veering in a similar direction (boyfriend’s camera leering at the leading actress’s bottom while menacing locals do the same, then grab her arse), we decided we’d had enough and went to get some food. A wise choice, it seems, since very few people had anything nice to say about it afterwards. Why was this clogging up the main screen when there were far more deserving films in the Discovery screens?

Up next was LET’S BE EVIL, a POV piece using AR glasses, set in a futuristic facility for gifted children who aren’t what they seem. Entertaining if a little predictable.

BROKEN wasn’t our kind of film at all. Well made and well acted, but the third act went a bit off the rails and didn’t really fit with what had gone before.

It was time for more Machenian myth and magic with CROW, a film described by the director as a “Welsh WICKER MAN”. I bloody loved this one and it vied with ENCLOSURE for my top spot, knocking PET out of second place. It’s a beautifully photographed hybrid of Welsh and Native American mythology, a glimpse behind the veil. I can’t wait to see it again.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, BAD BLOOD: THE MOVIE ended the day on a high note, with a manic tale of were-frogs. The filmmakers originally wanted to do a werewolf film, but didn’t have the budget, so rewrote it for amphibians instead. A wise move, as they’re probably the only Google hit for “were-frogs”! Wildly entertaining, with great FX. Good fun!

Monday got off to a bang with THE WINDMILL MASSACRE, a great old-school horror film that feels like a lost 80s slasher done really well. There’s even an Agatha Christie vibe in the setup – a busload of tourists, each with a dark secret, fearing and mistrusting one another when they’re trapped in an old windmill. Wonderful stuff.

MAN UNDERGROUND was an unusual and accomplished character piece, with endearing performances and an eerie and ambiguous ending. Very subtle and well made, and proof that you don’t need loads of cash to make a solid film.

Next was DIRECTOR’S CUT, a hilarious satire on the modern crowd-funding filmmaking industry by Penn Jillette and Adam Rifkin. A true “meta” film and the first filmic equivalent to the story-in-the-footnotes style of Pale Fire and The Athenian Murders I’ve seen. Well worth a watch!

BLOOD HUNTERS was fairly entertaining, even if it couldn’t really live up to the promise of its strange premise, where a woman wakes up in a facility to find she’s 9 months pregnant. But showing your protagonist shooting up and then yelling at her kid early on is never going to endear her to me, so I’m afraid I wasn’t too invested in her fate and I felt sorry for the creatures.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding the final film, TRAIN TO BUSAN. I didn’t imagine it could possibly live up to the hype. But OMG – believe the hype! This is what is meant by the term “movie magic”. I was completely disconnected from reality for the whole of its 2-hour running time. It’s outstanding – probably the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen. Scary, exhilarating, moving and never lets up for an instant. And yes, there were some tears at the end. Just stunning in every possible way. And our “whiplash” seats made it even more intense, almost like seeing it in 3D. It was actually weird going home on the train to Bristol the next day. I kept expecting to see those terrifying, raging zombies. And I kind of missed them.



But not as much as I missed the festival in general. And our friends. It was impossible to say goodbye to everyone at the end, but fortunately we have Facebook and Twitter! It’s always fun reading other people’s accounts. Especially as we now have so many screens and you can’t see everything, it’s possible for different people to have entirely different FrightFest experiences, with no crossover at all.

My Top Films:

TRAIN TO BUSAN
ENCLOSURE
CROW
PET
THE CREATURE BELOW

Special Thana Niveau FrightFest Awards:

Best Actress: Fiona Dourif (ENCLOSURE)
Best Actor: Dominic Monaghan (PET) 
Best Supporting Actress: Soo-An Kim (TRAIN TO BUSAN)
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Rhys Harries (CROW)
Best Creatures: ENCLOSURE
Best Overall Horror Moment: Hordes of zombies spilling through broken windows in TRAIN TO BUSAN
Best Score: Edy Lan (THE SIMILARS)
Best Line: “This isn’t hell – it’s Holland.” (THE WINDMILL MASSACRE)
Best Tagline: “If you love something, never let it go.” (PET)
Best Poster: For sheer retro creepy nostalgia – THE SIMILARS



And if you want to read John’s more in-depth reviews (with bonus alternate titles!), head over to the House of Mortal Cinema!



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