In last week’s blog I talked about the first half of my recent five day FrightFest experience. FrightFest is an annual horror film festival held at Leceister Square’s resplendent Empire Cinema in London.
Comprised entirely of premieres and preview screenings of new horror films that run the gamut from mainstream to obscure, FrightFest is an exciting opportunity to sample the state of modern horror cinema, and take in a bunch of new genre films free from the burden of too much advance knowledge.
What follows is my journal of the second half of my experience along with first-reaction reviews, recorded as the festival progressed.
I’ve composed myself after the disappointment of The Wicker Tree, and am about to experience a new British horror film called Panic Button, which as the producer explains when introducing the film, utilises the social media phenomenon to generate its terror. Groan.
Turns out though, the film is kinda nifty and moderately engaging. Four users (two guys, two gals) of a Facebook-like site called All2Gether have won a trip on a private jet to New York. Once the passengers are up in the air, an ominous voice comes over the PA and explains that there are further prizes to be one while en route. The voice proceeds to quiz them on various aspects of their online activities, as revealed through their usage of All2Together, which reveals unsavoury secrets about all four contestants. Then things get really nasty.
Although it borrows considerably from Saw’s set-up, Panic Button remained watchable throughout and generated a decent amount of tension. The performances are all pretty good, and despite the obvious grab for the zeitgeist with the Facebook angle, it manages to highlight some uncomfortable truths about social media. Plus it has a great tagline: “Have You Read The Terms & Conditions?”
It kinda runs out of steam in the third act though, and is unable construct a satisfying resolution. Still, I’ll be interested to see what the filmmakers do next, and it led me to reflect on all the the missed opportunities of the endless Saw sequels.
I’ve just watched three movies in row, and after an evening break, I’m back at the Empire for the UK premiere of the festival’s second horror anthology, Chillerama, from writer/directors Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City); Tim Sullivan (2001 Maniacs); Adam Green (the Hatchet movies; the underrated Frozen) and Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2, the upcoming Knights of Badassdom).
Green and Lynch are present to introduce the film, and they prove a witty and engaging pair with many a funny story to tell. Clearly giant horror nerds themselves, they cite Creepshow and Twilight Zone: The Movie (two of my faves) as inspirations for this enterprise.
Chillerama is a full-on, gonzo love letter to horror films and excess in general. It makes Creepshow look like a Jane Austen adaptation. In any other context, I would probably have been grossed out (there’s A LOT of dick violence), but this was the perfect place to see these films, with the perfect audience.
The wraparound sequences feature various characters at a drive-in theatre on its last night before being turned into office blocks – the films we are watching comprise the final night’s programme, so there’s a meta-quality from the get-go that harkens back to Creepshow. Each segment embraces a different genre mode, so there’s a large degree of variety, but not a huge amount of tonal follow through.
Rifkin’s Wadzilla is the first entry – a brightly coloured ’50s monster movie pastiche which follows a mild mannered gent (played by Rifkin himself), who takes some experimental scrotum medication before going on a blind date. His doctor advises him to, er, rub one out, if any pain occurs, which he proceeds to do in the bathroom of his horrified date. Then his sperm grows to gargantuan size and terrorizes the city. Uh-huh.
This gleefully tasteless outing is like a filthy riff on Little Shop of Horrors. It managed to inject enough humour (mostly bad puns, granted) to keep me entertained among the grossitude and cameos from the likes of Eric Roberts and Ray Wise were fun.
Sullivan’s entry, I Was A Teenage Werebear, is next. This ’60s style beach party musical focused on Ricky (Sean Paul Lockhart), a teenager torn between his girlfriend and the leather-attired bad boys attempting to recruit him into their gang. Also, they turn into big hairy gay dudes in chaps and leather caps. With bear faces. So the ‘bear’ of werebear refers to both kinds of bears.
The singing ability of the actors is lacking (turns out Lockhart’s a gay porno actor!), but the love for the genre it’s sending up comes through loud and clear, and there was a sunny, hammy quality that carried it along.
Green’s entry follows, and it more than lives up to it’s awesome title: The Diary of Anne Frankenstein. Made to look like a cruddy melodrama from the late ’30s, Joel David Moore (of Avatar and Green’s Hatchet) stars as Adolf Hitler, who upon finding the Frankenstein family hiding in an attic, slaughters them all and discovers in teenage Anne’s hands a primer on how to contruct a live human from body parts.
So Hitler puts the plan into effect, but the monster comes out looking like…a Hasidic Jew (played by longtime Jason Vorhees, Kane Hodder). This segment is pretty funny, and stretches beyond the bad taste set-up – Green had just attended a screening in Germany, and he assured us it went down like gangbusters.
The fourth segment, from Joe Lynch, is set-up to be an exercise in excretement-causing cinema called Deathication (geddit?), but only a minute or two of that unspools before we leap back into the wraparound story (also directed by Lynch), which turns out to be the actual fourth segment – entitled Zom B Movie, in which the drive-in attendees all start turning into sexified zombies due to some tainted popcorn.
Lynch goes all out here, and you can see the influence of Peter Jackson’s Braindead (which Lynch cited in his intro) on the carnage. The zombies are all sexifying which each other in a variety of messed-up ways, while a couple of teenage film nerds and the drive-in owner attempt to save the day while spouting classic genre movie quotes.
Chillerama was fun, but definitely benefitted from playing after midnight to a generous crowd, and I’ll have to work hard to get some of the grosser imagery out of my head. The overall affect is more reminiscent of scuzzy Troma movies than Creepshow. As I stumble blarily out into Leicester Square afterwards, it’s almost 3.00am and I’m having trouble distinguishing the drunk tourists from the sexified zombies hordes I’ve just witnessed on screen.
Day Three over. Mental state check: Confused delirium.
After far too little sleep, I get up early on Sunday morning to attend a screening of a new thriller called The Divide from Frontier(s) and Hitman director Xavier Gens. The film opens with nuclear bombs raining down on New York. Ten or so residents of an apartment building escape into a basement shelter, set up by the building’s superintendant, played by genre legend Michael Biehn (The Terminator; Aliens). Unsure of what’s going on outside, the survivors inevitably come to blows, fighting over the food and what to do next.
I was intrigued by the set-up, which has driven many an episode of The Twilight Zone, which I am currently more obsessed with than ever. The execution was less than fun to watch play out however, and failed to creatively exploit the scenario in ways we haven’t seen before. The film posits a boringly cynical view of human nature, and it’s overly concerned with how horrible most of the characters are.
Gens’ penchant for graphic violence comes to the fore, and much effort has been put into portraying the deteroriating effects of radiation sickness. There’s some nice hardware on display, but the grimness is ultimately overbearing. Maybe that was the point, but it prevented me from investing in the film.
Notable cast members other than Biehn include Rosanna Arquette; Heroes‘ Milo Ventimiglia; A History of Violence‘s Ashton Holmes and Hostel Part II‘s Lauren German, who once again shows she deserves a better career than the one she has.
After lunch, it’s Ti West’s The Innkeepers, which also recently screened at the New Zealand International Film Festivals.
Former child star Sara Paxton (the upcoming Shark Night 3D, can’t wait!) plays Claire, a guileless employee at an urban inn with a bloody history that’s about to close down. Goaded on by her slightly skeezy older co-worker (Pat Healy), she tries to establish if there’s a ghostly presence in the building with old school ghost-tracking methods.
As in his previous film The House of the Devil, West spends a lot of time setting up a naturalistic environment and an ominous tone. He uses his location here to great effect, and it stands up to inevitable comparisons to The Shining. There are no gimmicks in the almost quaintly old fashioned The Innkeepers, and it’s all the more enjoyable for it. When the scares arrive, they’re well-earned and they very much stayed with me.
I really enjoyed the The Innkeepers, and it confirms West as one of the most interesting horror directors working today. He remains confidently out-of-sync with trends in modern horror films, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Next up is the most buzzed about movie at the festival, and another film some Kiwis may have caught at the NZFF: Kill List.
I’m still unnerved by the experience. It’s difficult to explain exactly why this film had such an impact without revealing some of its secrets, but it’s not spoiling anything to say that it starts out as an intensely intimate portrait of a young family in financial dire straits. The dad is a former sniper whose old army buddy shows up and offers him some dirty work. It’s as if Mike Leigh made a hitman drama.
Once they start going down the titular list however, it takes some very dramatic turns, and ends up as one of the most chilling British films ever made. I will definitely be seeing this again.
Director/co-writer Ben Wheatley introduced the film and stated that he would not be explaining the plot at the Q and A session afterwards. Having watched the film, I very much wanted him to, but respected his stance. The film goes to some almost Lynchian places, and Wheatly stated afterwards that much of it was inspired by his nightmares. It shows.
Adding to the oddness of the experience was the fact that in the seat next to me was Simon Pegg, whose old Spaced pal Michael Smiley co-stars in the film. Pegg proved to be a very nice fellow (he was there with his mum) – we discussed the film a bit afterwards and he was happy to pose for a photo. Nutty.
Day Four over. Mental state check: Nervous paranoia.
It’s the final day of the festival and I’m seeing my second-to-last movie, a fantastic effort called Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps. Despite all the ballyhoo over the fact that it is the first genre film to ever come out of Switzerland, it is an incredibly accomplished and entertaining piece of work.
The film takes place over two separate timelines, which are both bookended by modern wraparounds, and concerns itself with the titular legend, which tells of three isolated miners up in the alps whose desperate loneliness leads them to create a woman out of a broomstick and some hay. The story goes that the devil takes pity on them and brings the woman to life, who tends to their every domestic need. But the men take advantage in the bedroom, so the woman skins them alive.
Far from a straight adaptation of the legend, Sennentuntschi tells a generations-spanning story that plays with notions of superstition and the mob mentality of small villages, balancing a fine line between the supernatural and the real. The dual timelines are occasionally confusing, but come together intricately (like a Swiss clock!), resulting in an very satisfying genre flick that is much more than just a horror film. Plus it has an absolutely amazing poster, which tells the entire story of the film in pictorial form.
That evening, it’s the closing film of the festival, A Lonely Place To Die, the vertiginous poster for which has my falling death-loving self very excited. Former Home and Away star Melissa George, and British actor Ed Speleers (of that shitty dragon movie Eragon), star as a couple of mountain climbers amongst a small group enjoying an adventure holiday in the Scottish Highlands.
While tramping through a mountain woodland, they hear a strange cry, and discover a young Eastern European girl buried underground in a box. Taking it upon themselves to deliver her to safety as quick as possible, the group splits up. But the men responsible for putting her there are soon in pursuit.
A Lonely Place To Die is a decent action thriller with a unique setting and a some cool (but not nearly enough!) falling deaths. It reminded me at times of the forgotten 1988 Tom Berenger/Sydney Poitier action thriller Deadly Pursuit aka Shoot To Kill. Some great falling deaths in that one.
The last third of the film takes place in a small Scottish village during a scary-looking pagan festival. I was initially disappointed with this development, as it took the characters away from the vertiginous setting, but the director explained at a Q and A session afterwards that one of his main inspirations for this turn was the 1980 Deliverance-wannabe Southern Comfort, which I love, so I found myself able to forgive this transgression.
The director and his co-screenwriter brother took to mountain climbing to research the film, and the authenticity comes through in the relevant scenes, I guess I just wanted a little more of this stuff. Cliffhanger, this ain’t.
Still, it was a pleasant-enough watch to round out the festival, and thankfully one of the less sadistic of the films on offer.
Day Five (and festival) over. Mental state check: Resigned darkness.
For all my excitement about the festival, I am kinda over it after five days. It’s been fun for sure, but all the suffering and misery has kinda gotten to me. And I conciously avoided most of the nastier-looking entries, so maybe I’m more of a nancy than I thought. But the films were pretty good for the most part, and it’s nice to see all the creativity going into a genre known for going back to the same well too many times.
Of the fourteen films I saw, my favourites (in order) are: Kill List; Troll Hunter; The Innkeepers and Sennentuntschi.
Despite my currently overpowering horror-exhaustion, I defo wanna be here next year.