Wednesday, 27 August 2014

FrightFest 14 report

Wow, what a festival - 26 films in five days! By the end they were starting to blur into one huge Lynchian nightmare of a film and there are certain images (and one sound effect) I’ll never get out of my head.

It still blows my mind that there are that many hardcore horror fans in the world, and it’s always a delight to be part of this weird and wonderful tribe for a few days each year.

It was a great year for analog synths and we have a few new film scores to track down, even if nothing will ever top the magnificent score for MANIAC (iTunes tells me that one’s been played some 60+ times on my computer!). It was also a great year for women, with some first-rate performances.

The BAD:
I left my shoes behind in the cinema! The staff will probably wonder which film was so terrifying it knocked me right out of them.

The UGLY: can add a few new films to its database. Yes, this year it was DeadDogFest, with at least SIX doggies becoming statistics. Kill all the people you want (kiddywinks too) but leave the animals alone!

But hey, as you must always keep repeating: It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only . . .

A movie like THE GUEST is a real delight and the sort of thing that’s made for fans and festivals like this one. A tribute to John Carpenter and 80s action flicks with the first great synth score of the festival. Director Adam Wingard won us over with this one and we’re proud to say we’re converted fans now. It was also a special treat for me to hear Love & Rockets’ “Haunted When the Minutes Drag” on the Vue’s state-of-the-art sound system. I had the song in my head for the rest of the week.

The midnight show was ZOMBEAVERS. Better than any film with that title and concept has any right to be. But we’re suckers for that kind of fantastically trashy fun. Even though the dog died - boo!

Eli Roth’s THE GREEN INFERNO is sort of a reboot of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and overall I liked it (I think) but I did feel uncomfortable with the use of actual tribespeople who probably had no idea they were in an exploitation film - exploiting themselves.

The cannibal ultraviolence didn’t put us off our lunch, though, and we skipped what we gather was the real turkey of the festival, SHOCKWAVE DARKSIDE 3D to treat ourselves to one proper meal. At one point, as another film was starting, someone shouted out “SHOCKWAVE DARKSIDE 3D!” like some deranged football fan. We don’t know why but it kept us laughing for the rest of the festival.

LATE PHASES was next. A low-budget werewolf pic with some cool practical effects (hooray!) and a solid central performance. Unfortunately, the doggie body count rose again with this one. (And apparently also with PRESERVATION - which we didn’t see.)

Then it was off to the Discovery Screens to unearth two real gems: THE FORGOTTEN and THE CANAL. THE FORGOTTEN is an effective, scary, and very moving urban ghost story. I got something in my eye towards the end . . .

Irish indie horror THE CANAL is a great mix of haunted house / J-horror / Polanski-esque paranoia / descent into madness / Victorian ghost story. And even if one of the final scenes shamelessly borrows from another iconic horror film, the little twist that follows kind of makes it okay. In any case, it scared the pants off me (no, not the shoes) and wins for scariest film of the fest.

STARRY EYES was a nice surprise. It took a well-worn cliche (Hollywood is bad and uses people) and turned it into something gruesome and real, with a fantastic leading lady (Alex Essoe), who really puts herself through it and was apparently up for anything. “Anything” included going through a Seth Brundle style transformation, slaughtering her friends and being splattered with blood and guts and prosthetics that took hours and hours to apply (and probably wash off too). Definitely one I’ll watch again!

Aussie psycho-horror THE BABADOOK claimed another dog. But it also had a brilliant performance by its leading lady. Essie Davis went through a different kind of transformation, swinging from sweet and long-suffering widow into the Mother From Hell. She scared me more than the Babadook himself. This is a great film with a great story that works on multiple levels. A real triumph for debut director Jennifer Kent.

Adam Green’s fantastically clever and scary DIGGING UP THE MARROW proves that there are still inventive things to be done with the found footage format. The always-brilliant Ray Wise is on top form here as a loony monster-watcher.

The night ended with the super-creepy CREEP (aka PEACHFUZZ) (and yet more proof that found footage isn’t dead yet). A truly unnerving portrait of a man no one should be alone in the tub with and I had to wonder if it was inspired by Edward Albee’s THE ZOO STORY. One of the true gems of the festival. And if you’re wondering which film had that sound effect and image that disturbed me so much - this was it. (Is that where I lost my shoes?)

John and I did a little re-enactment of a scene from the film...

FAULTS was another total surprise and the always-excellent-but-here-exceptional Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the third candidate for Best Actress. It’s an absolutely riveting piece with Winstead and Leland Orser in a motel room for most of the film. I had no idea where it was going at any point and my expectations were constantly subverted. It lies somewhere between horror and black comedy and I really can’t stop thinking about it. Don’t read anything about it - just see it.

OPEN WINDOWS by the manic Nacho (TIMECRIMES) Vigalondo (no, Spellcheck, not Vagabond) was great fun. I confess I was a little lost at times but the concept was so clever and so well done I didn’t even care. I was mesmerised by the constantly opening/closing/shifting windows and Elijah Wood is great as the hapless pawn in a techno game of cat and “mouse”. (See what I did there?)

Then there was STAGE FRIGHT. Introduced by a wildly un-enthusiastic Ian Rattray, whose cup of tea it clearly wasn’t, it was a real crowd-pleaser and I enjoyed telling him so afterwards. Riffing on such horror musical classics (a far-too-small subgenre) as PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, ROCKY HORROR and I WAS A TEENAGE WEREBEAR (from CHILLERAMA), it was the most fun I had in a single film. The songs were hilarious and catchy, the kills superbly executed, and the little tribute moments to other films never ceased to raise a cheer. It will definitely be added to our list of feel-good films.

Nicholas McCarthy’s HOME (aka AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR) was next. A super-creepy ghost story paying homage to TWIN PEAKS, J&B and THE HOWLING in the first 5 minutes, and then catapulting me back into my 80s-era adolescence for the rest. It wears its influences on its sleeve, with nods to DON’T LOOK NOW, ALICE SWEET ALICE and THE ENTITY. McCarthy’s debut, THE PACT, really scared me and HOME featured a lot of the elements that worked so well in that film. Anyone can make a derelict gothic asylum scary but how scary is a normal suburban American tract house? Very, if McCarthy is behind the camera. Even when the mirror is covered by an Ocean Pacific hoodie of the type everyone in high school wore, you know something spooky is just waiting to be let out. Corner-of-the-eye images constantly made me jump in this one, although I have to say I preferred the subtler ones without the musical stingers. The third act was right in my personal horror zone but I can’t say any more than that without spoilers.

The uber-strange DER SAMURAI (“The most dangerous thing to come out of Germany since 1945”) left me confused but still appreciative of the imagery. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. A bizarre metaphor for protagonist Jakob’s closeted homosexuality, it seems to have upset at least one reviewer, who thought it was condemning gay sex by portraying it as violent. I didn’t see that at all; what I got was the Cronenbergian idea of birthing one’s own inner turmoil, a la THE BROOD. I particularly loved the image of Jakob running down the street of the elaborate model of the village he’s created. And a woman’s severed head opening her eyes and smiling. Alas, another dog died, but this one also had a real wolf in it (who didn’t die) so it scores points for me there.

UK-shot werewolf western BLOOD MOON was a revelation, with a whole cast of Brits doing spot-on American accents and invoking the spirit of DJANGO (the original, of course) with its mud-drenched town. See John Llewellyn Probert's review for a more in-depth description, as I’d just be repeating what he said.

VHS: VIRAL was terrible except for Nacho Vigalondo’s segment. And another dog died!

THE SIGNAL was an okay sci-fi film that frankly suffered from having Laurence Fishburne in it. Don’t get me wrong - I think he’s excellent but it was impossible not to see Morpheus every time his kindly, soft-spoken character talked. A bit of an odd choice for a festival closer but hey - it can’t always be BIG BAD WOLVES.

We were all heartily sick of the trailer for THE STRAIN by the end (someone even paper-bombed our seats one day with flyers for it in case we’d missed the point) and when it came on for the last time it prompted a spontaneous ironic round of applause. Conversely, the Arrow showreel was always a joy to see. The spirit of ROCKY HORROR was invoked the final time it ran, with everyone shouting the dialogue along with the showreel: “I caught a big fat bug, right in my spiderweb!” “You better run - for your lives!” “C'mon, shoot me, I’m goin’ nowhere!” “Why is this happening?”

Well, it’s all over. Again. We’ve seen all the films we could possibly have seen (and a couple we wish we hadn’t). So much wine, so many hot dogs, so much fun, so little sleep. And it’s all over for another year. When we came home we watched FINAL DESTINATION 5 and we’re already scouring the multiplex listings for something to see this weekend. Because like Depeche Mode, we just can’t get enough. And we can’t wait for Glasgow! Hope to see you there!