FrightFest 2011: Ben’s Report

Posted on September 1, 2011 by UK Editor

Festival Report by Ben Bussey.

Five days, thirty-seven films screened, and in my case twenty-three films seen (well, twenty two and a half really), plus sixteen short films including five specifically shot John Carpenter tributes (and I didn’t quite catch all of those either). That’s a great deal of information to process, even considering that I missed two of the main screen features, and unfortunately didn’t get to see any on the Discovery Screen. You may have already read my five full-length reviews from the festival: The Glass Man, Chillerama, Kill List, Deadheads, and – my personal choice for best film of FrightFest 2011 – The Woman. Hopefully you’ve also read Part 1 of Steph’s festival report and her review of The Divide; more reviews are on the way from Steph, plus Part 2 of her report of course. In other words, I hope you’re not feeling FrightFested out, because we’re not nearly done. So without further ado, here’s my take on the best, worst and everything in-between of this year’s FrightFest. Just to make it a little different, rather than do a straight chronological recap I’ve opted to sort the films by rough subgenre; hopefully this can serve to underline the range of content FrightFest showcases, and as such might also be taken to indicate just how broad the spectrum of our beloved horror genre really is. Or not. I don’t know. Just keep reading.

Hollywood Horrors

Three of the biggest studio horror movies to come out of Hollywood this year made their British premiere at FrightFest. It was little surprise that one was a sequel and two were remakes. Even so, it was rather dispiriting that all three wound up prompting various degrees of disappointment. Festival opener Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was certainly the strongest of the glossy, big-budget batch, though this was perhaps a certainty from the off. Feeling almost like an amalgamation of its 70s TV movie source material and 80s kiddie horror The Gate, this variation on a haunted house film is certainly spooky, yet it lacks bite somewhat. The wealth of expectation upon it since last year’s magnificent teaser trailer probably doesn’t help. Still, it’s good creepy fun.

It also comes as no surprise whatsoever that Final Destination 5 is, once again, the exact same fucking film as its predecessors. For the fifth time, some young pretty vapid people avoid dying in a major disaster, then die individually in inexplicable accidents; the end. No word of exaggeration, this franchise has stuck to formula in so steadfast a fashion as to make the Friday the 13th series look like a hotbed of variety. I’d say they should leave it there but it would seem a bit redundant, particularly after they swore the fourth installment would be the last. Oh, and that ‘surprise’ ending? I can’t be the only one who thought, “meh, Remember Me did it better…”

That leaves Craig Gillespie’s take on Fright Night, which in spite of my predictable how-dare-they-the-original-rules misgivings, I still had fairly high hopes for. As it stands, I can sum up my feelings about this one in a single sentence: ya-boo sucks to you. Where the sheer charm of the original was more than enough to excuse its many minor flaws, this is an utterly charmless remake. Sure, it’s commendable that it does not simply regurgitate the original, but the new spin on the material just isn’t that interesting, and it all just hums of mass production/filmmaking-by-committee; a film for opening weekend, not forever. It’s a real shame, as it clearly didn’t need to be this way with the wealth of real talent on both sides of the camera, making the whole thing even more of a waste. But hey, it looks as though audiences worldwide are not falling for it, which we can but hope bodes well for the future; maybe, just maybe, the suits will stop trying to remake everything and – whisper it – make something new? Maybe…?

Found Footage

If there’s one subgenre I thought I’d long since grown exhausted of, it’s this one. So often the model seems little more than an excuse for filmmaking on the cheap, and it feels as though for every [REC] there are half a dozen Zombie Diaries. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that a couple of this year’s entries demonstrated there may well be life in found footage yet. Troll Hunter to my mind more than lived up to the hype, proving not only one of the most entertaining first-person-camcorder films in recent memory, but also quite possibly the best monster movie since The Host. Comparisons with Cloverfield will surely be made what with the giant monster connection, but there’s no nausea-inducing shakey-cam or histrionic acting here. There’s a gentle, understated quality to the whole thing, partly down to the majestic Norweigan landscapes across which it is shot, and also down to the performances, in particular Otto Jespersen as the hunter himself. And, as I will be neither the first nor last to remark, the trolls themselves are astonishing creations, looking as though they just stepped out of a fairy tale yet seeming utterly natural in their surroundings. A marvellous, very entertaining film.

Then Monday morning gave us A Night In The Woods. I knew basically nothing about this going in other than that it starred Scoot McNairy of Monsters. Had I known it was more or less a direct retread of The Blair Witch Project, I may well have skipped it, but I have to say I’m glad I didn’t. While it is breathtakingly close to Blair Witch in form and content – two men and one woman head out into reputedly haunted woods, chronicling their journey on camcorders – it does one thing Blair Witch utterly failed to do: it actually gives you characters to invest in. For the large part it’s a love triangle, which proves surprisingly tense on its own as it gradually becomes clear that not everyone here is playing with a full deck. But when darkness falls things get well and truly Blair Witchypoo, with much running around woodland with night vision on. Its lack of originality may grate, but for what it is I found A Night In The Woods pretty effective, and really quite suspenseful.

(Oh, and there was also Atrocious on the Discovery Screen, but I missed that one.)

Slasher/Torture/Gorefests

It should come as little surprise that we had a few of these. Unfortunately, in most instances these films offered blood, guts, gore, but almost nothing more. Friday’s Rogue River earns the distinction of best film Bill Moseley’s made in some time, but with the likes of The Graves and The Tortured to contend with that’s not saying much. Cold, autumnal and jam-packed with the inevitable displays of torture and deviant behaviour, Jourdan McClure’s film treads familiar ground that I for one have long since tired of revisiting, but to be fair it does so with a good deal more flair and dark humour than many. Largely well performed and well shot, fans of backwoods endurance flicks may well dig it, but personally I found it pretty routine and forgettable, a few perverse moments aside.

Much the same may be said of Urban Explorers. Its promising concept (young thrillseekers venturing into sealed-up tunnels under Berlin) goes out of the window somewhat once a sinister adult appears, at which point we’re counting down the moments until we revert to textbook slasher/torture territory. Though the screening was a little impeded by technical quibbles – a fair portion of the film is spoken in German, but the print had no subtitles – I find it hard to believe the action will play out any less prosiac with all the dialogue translated.

Saint sees a return of that great staple of the slasher film, the psycho killer Santa Claus – but this time, it’s Dutch! As a slickly made, large scale fantasy horror with high production values, it’s hard to imagine a Christmas horror like this getting made in Britain or the US, particularly as it involves so much wholesale slaughter of little kids. It’s an intriuging play on specifically European festive traditions offering a grisly reinterpretation of the Saint Nicholas myth, but underneath it all is a fairly conventional mainstream slasher. Good fun, though perhaps not as memorable as it might have been.

Inbred (pictured above) marked the return of Alex Chandon, the British filmmaker behind Pervirella and Cradle of Fear. To answer the first two questions that most fanboys will have: 1) yes, the star of both Chandon’s previous films Emily Booth appears in this, and 2) no, she doesn’t take her clothes off in this one. She has a brief cameo in a film-within-a-film prologue that doesn’t quite work, which is kind of fitting as, really, there’s almost nothing in Inbred that does work. Following a group of young urban deliquents as their youth workers take them ‘oop north’  for community service, it is played surprisingly straight by Chandon’s usual standards, but this approach really doesn’t pay off as director and cast seem to assume that in order to convey emotional intensity you must NEVER STOP SHOUTING. EVER. In any case, whatever sembelance of realism there may have been is promptly discarded once the titular inbreeders get about their expected tomfoolery. Perhaps most annoyingly, the gore is plentiful and excessive but so much of it is digitized; composite shots rather than CGI apparently, but it’s still nowhere near as satisfying as good ol’ practical.

(Semi-) Realist Thrillers

These ones all hailed from the UK, and are all efficient and well-presented, yet ultimately each one left me a bit cold. Agrarian thriller The Holding plays on fears of isolation in rural areas, and reminds us there’s nothing more dangerous than a man who seems friendly. Beautifully shot in the English countryside with a refreshingly grown-up tone, it is helped by strong central performances from Kierston Wareing and Vincent Regan. However, it is hindered by massive lapses into cliche and an eleventh-hour revelation which, as Steph mentioned in her report, just doesn’t make any sense. We’ve all seen plenty worse, but have also seen plenty better.

Panic Button is an intriuging high concept thriller with a number of scary cards up its sleeve: fear of flying, fear of small places, and fear of just how easily sensitive information can be found online, particularly when we freely give it away. Again, while it’s all well written, well directed and well acted, it all just felt a bit nondescript and unmemorable, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the rather unconvincing finale.

By stark contrast with Panic Button’s claustrophobia, festival closer A Lonely Place To Die (pictured) took us way out into a wide open space where the perils of nature reign supreme; not the best place to be when you suddenly have to run for your life. Playing for the most part like a harder-edged and (marginally) less glossy version of Cliffhanger, it’s mostly good fun and boasts some suspenseful rock face sequences and wince-inducing stunts, but it outstays its welcome once the action leaves the wilderness, and it could have done with a more charismatic cast; I’ve always found Melissa George painfully dull, and this film does nothing to change that.

Supernatural Chillers

The big one here was The Innkeepers. As with Troll Hunter, it is once again proven to me that a subgenre I had long since lost interest in can work if the requisite amount of energy and care is put into it. Written, directed and performed to a very high standard indeed, The Innkeepers takes the understated haunted house chiller, populates it with relatable and believable characters, and squeezes as much drama out as it can. By turns funny and tense, the film crafts a wonderful atmosphere without resorting to cheap tricks or scare tactics, never lets character come second to style, and remains agreeably ambiguous as to whether or not anything truly paranormal is going on. I’ll admit I had not yet been fully sold on Ti West as one of today’s best horror filmmakers; The Innkeepers does much to change that.

Similarly ambiguous yet less effective overall is Sennentuntschi, notable for being the first horror film ever made in Switzerland, with a story modelled on an old Swiss folk tale. It may be simply that it came off looking poorer for its obvious similarities to The Woman – a ‘wild’ woman without speech is abused by men – but despite high production values and decent performances something about it didn’t quite click for me. It doesn’t help that it’s quite convoluted plot-wise, and has yet another of those rather annoying eleventh-hour revelations.

Comedy Horror

Two of my personal favourites here. First and foremost of these is Tucker and Dale Versus Evil. It’s long since become routine that every new comedy horror should garner comparisons with Shaun of the Dead, but this is perhaps the only time to date that the comparison is truly justified. That the film has sat on the shelf so long is both surprising, and yet not; given that it plays heavily on backwoods horror cliches, it may well be that those less familiar with the subgenre might not quite get it. But for the rest of us, it’s a premise so simple and brilliant that it’s hard to believe nobody thought to do it before. Superbly performed with a laugh count that puts the bulk of 2011′s comedy to shame, it’s almost inconcievable that this won’t end up a solid gold cult classic.

Meanwhile, few films serve to demonstrate the variety of content at FrightFest better than Detention. It may be a horror movie from a music video director, but don’t expect another nondescript Platinum Dunes job here. Joseph Kahn has thrown together one of the most self-consciously oddball hipster teen comedies you may ever want to see: think Scott Pilgrim by way of Heathers, with a dash of slasher and a sprinkling of sci-fi. He even finds room to mock his shameful previous film Torque. It’s even more overloaded than it sounds, and subsequently I suspect it’s a film that will leave very little middle ground, enthralling some (FrightFest organiser Alan Jones named it his overall favourite) whilst annoying the living shit out of others. I for one lean more toward the former. In spite of its pop culture excess, there is actually a coherent narrative of sorts underneath it all, and it boasts some endearing central performances and an abundance of smirk-inducing dialogue. Not for everyone, but I mostly dug it.

Now, part of me is still not certain as to whether the label of comedy horror should also apply to The Wicker Tree… but honestly, I don’t know what the hell you could call it. Stunned loss for words seems to be the general audience reaction to this film, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. To put it simply: The Wicker Man this ain’t. I suspect how I felt watching this is much how devotees of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre felt when Tobe Hooper unleashed Part 2 on them; where the original was haunting, menacing and poetic, this is broad, bawdy and cartoonish. It also really underlines that Robin Hardy has barely directed since the 70s, as the overall atmosphere is more akin to a 70s British film, with a high camp tone, inneundo-ridden dialogue, melodramatic performances and a bombastic orchestral score. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself a bit, but nor can I say it’s what I was hoping for. 

That more or less covers it, except for three more things:

The Short Films. The showcase on Sunday was a bit of a mixed bag; all were well-assembled, not all were so well-concieved. Most fun by far were the riotous (oops, should be careful using that word in reference to anything London-related) Brutal Relax and Banana Motherfucker, two high-energy gore-soaked extravaganzas. But also worthy of note, way over at the other end of the spectrum, is The Last Post, a sombre, mournful and touching glimpse of an elderly woman reflecting on her past. Of the John Carpenter tributes, Jake West’s opening play on Escape From New York – reimagined as Escape From London with a female Snake Plissken and a distinctly non-Isaac Hayes-like Mayor of London – was by far the most entertaining, though I was also tickled by Marc Price’s tribute to They Live, in which two men fight over putting 3D glasses on.

Flop of the festival for me was The Theatre Bizarre. An anthology movie based around a haunted theatre, I’d been curious about it thanks mostly to the presence of the first new work in many years from a director who once looked set to become one of the genre greats, Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil). But when his installment opened proceedings and fell short, it didn’t bode well. The first three segments - from Stanley, Buddy Giovinazzo and Tom Savini - were all depressingly flat middle-aged male fantasies with low production values, lacklustre writing and performances, preoccupied with sexual anxieties and delivering little else. I’m afraid I can’t tell you whether the remaining entires fare any better, as owing to a combination of sleepiness and disinterest I walked out. I realise it’s unfair for me to condemn the film having not seen it through to the end… but there you have it. Sue me.

And finally, the moment of truth: My FrightFest Top Five – in order of preference:

5) Deadheads
4) The Innkeepers
3) Troll Hunter
2) Tucker and Dale Versus Evil
1) The Woman

Okay. That’s a wrap. Cut, print, check the gate, etc. FrightFest; a rewarding way to spend August Bank Holiday weekend, but damn it takes it out of you. Can I go to sleep now please…?