FrightFest 2011: Steph’s Report (Part 2)

Posted on September 4, 2011 by Ben

Report by Stephanie Scaife – read Part 1 of her FrightFest coverage here.

Day three of FrightFest kicked off on Saturday morning with Norwegian found footage mockumentary Troll Hunter, written and directed by André Øvredal. Troll Hunter succeeds on a number of different levels, namely through its originality and the fact that it manages to feel so fresh and compelling even though the found footage genre has been absolutely done to death since The Blair Witch Project came out over ten years ago. Kalle, Thomas and Johanna are three students making a documentary about bear hunting when they come across the mysterious and hostile Hans (Otto Jespersen, a famous Norwegian stand-up comedian) who turns out to be a government appointed troll hunter, who works to maintain and control local indigenous troll populations in rural areas of Norway. This film is really a lot of fun, there is an enjoyably dark sense of humour that permeates throughout this otherwise very fantastical and uniquely Norwegian film. Considering the limited budget the special effects are also very good and I loved the details about the different species of trolls and their individual habits and eccentricities, apparently something created entirely by Øvredal; in traditional folklore there is only one kind of troll. This is a real one off and comes highly recommended; of course due to the praise being heaped upon this film from various festival screenings around the world, an inevitable Hollywood remake is on the cards, to be directed by Chris Columbus, which I can only assume will be dire. Troll Hunter is released in UK cinemas on September 9th, and is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray in the US.

If ever an award was given out for the most unnecessary film ever made, it could very well go to The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy’s non-sequel/reimagining of his seminal 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. It is based on Hardy’s own novel from 2006 entitled Cowboys for Christ and it focuses on evangelical pop sensation Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol), a wholesome Texan girl on a missionary trip to Scotland to cure the locals of their heathen ways using only the power of Christ through the medium of song. Also tagging along is her fiancé Steve (Henry Garrett), a born again cowboy who isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box. This time around the action takes place just north of the border where a small town has been rendered infertile due to its vicinity to a nuclear power station (a thinly veiled Torness). Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) is the CEO of the power station and also an important figurehead in the local village of Tressock along with his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), who together invite Beth and Steve to be their guests. After having no luck converting the people of Glasgow, Morrison convinces them that they may have more joy in the countryside. Little do they know that this is all a ploy to engage the couple in the local May Day celebrations and offer them up as sacrifices. With the production values and cast of an episode of Midsomer Murders, The Wicker Tree is a less than laudable effort from Hardy, who seems intent on rekindling past glories and not much else. There are a few amusing fish out of water moments but the film quickly descends into farce. It is neither frightening nor erotic, two things Hardy promised during his quite bizarre introduction to the film where he introduced the cast but didn’t allow them to speak and came across as a barmy dirty old man. Perhaps worth a watch out of sheer curiosity, but prepare to be disappointed.

Next up was Panic Button which, unlike The Wicker Tree, does a far better job with a fraction of the budget and a cast of unknown British TV actors. The premise is fairly simple; four people have won a trip to New York through social networking site All2gether.com, however they get a lot more than they bargained for when the in-flight entertainment begins and their supposed holiday of a lifetime becomes a privacy-invading nightmare. Despite lacking in originality and the fact that it will date extremely quickly, Panic Button plays up nicely to the fears of every internet user: what if someone knows everything that I look at on the internet? It addresses a number of issues from cyber bullying to internet pornography to how people lie and bend the truth with their online personas. There are some nice twists and turns but I think the major flaw is that it’s just not very scary at all. Generally speaking though, as far as low-budget British horror films go this is actually pretty decent and it definitely wouldn’t be a waste of your time to check this out on DVD.

I saw Fright Night 3D at a press screening a few weeks back and did not want to relive the experience so gave it a miss in the name of refuelling with beer and Mexican food. I am a massive fan of the original Fright Night, which I think is a lot of fun and I even had high hopes for the remake, which is well cast and had the potential to really work. However, I felt that it just took itself far too seriously, it wasn’t in the least bit fun and I was actually a bit bored watching it, which is no mean feat considering the subject matter. David Tennant does his best Russell Brand impersonation and Colin Farrell is perfectly decent as Jerry Dandridge. However, the 3D is unbearably unnecessary, rendering an already dark movie practically unwatchable. (you can check out Britt’s altogether more favourable review here.)

Next up was Lucky McKee’s The Woman co-written with Jack Ketchum and directly following on from The Offspring. Now, I seem to be almost entirely alone in this opinion but I did not like The Woman. Many people have hailed it as their favourite film of the festival and our own Ben Bussey gave it a glowing review, but I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t particularly outraged by the content or the subject matter and I don’t think McKee is a misogynist. If anything, it’s a very anti-male film. In a way it reminded me of Dead Girl, where all the male characters are potential rapists, their actions unfathomable and irredeemable and they’re ultimately just unlikeable, broad villains. In The Woman the same can be said of the misogynistic father (Sean Bridges) and son (Zach Rand) double act whose every action and thought seems to derive solely from their inexplicable hatred of women. The female characters are all two dimensional stereotypes of your archetypal female victim; we have the battered and submissive wife (Angela Bettis), the abused daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter), the slutty teacher struggling to get herself taken seriously (Carlee Baker) and the meek secretary whose life revolves around making coffee and taking notes (Lauren Schroeder), all revolving around the feral and titular Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh). Perhaps these female characters are displayed to the audience in the way that the central male characters view them, but even if this is the case it just didn’t work for me at all. I almost feel a little dense for not getting this film due to the fervour with which it was received and the fact that I actually like Lucky McKee as a director, but ultimately it left me cold, even after a second viewing.

For me Sunday was by far the day I was most looking forward to, and things kicked off in a rather depressing fashion with Xavier Gens’ miserablist post-apocalyptic nightmare The Divide, which I loved (you can read my extended review here). After such a grim film some reprieve was given in the form of Andy Nyman’s Quiz From Hell (which I sucked at) and the International Short Film Showcase. Highlights from the short film showcase included splatter comedy Banana Motherfucker from the team who brought us last year’s fantastic Papa Wrestling; The Last Post, a subtle ghost story directed by Axelle Carolyn (read Ben’s interview with Axelle here); and Little Munchkin, a fun festive short from Ryan Andrews, the director of the upcoming feature Elfie Hopkins.

A film which I’d very much been looking forward to was Ti West’s The Innkeepers. Having been a massive fan of The House of the Devil from 2009 I had high hopes for this and I was not disappointed. West really is the most exciting young filmmaker currently working within the genre and what he excels at is the slow-burn, which is exemplified perfectly in The Innkeepers. It was shot in The Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut; a real working hotel where West had stayed during the filming of The House of the Devil, and had been inspired by the convictions of the staff who worked there and the other crew members who stayed there that the hotel was haunted. The film centres around the two slacker staff members, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) who are working in the hotel on the last weekend before it closes down. They are determined to get to the bottom of reports that the building is haunted by a mysterious phantom known as The Bride. One of the most common fatal flaws within the horror genre is a multitude of expendable characters that you don’t care about one way or another, and what I liked most about The Innkeepers is the fact that so much time is spent getting to know Claire and Luke, so by the time shit starts to hit the fan you are firmly invested in them as characters. They are also believable, realistic and not in the least bit stereotypical; Claire, for example, is an endearing and goofy twenty-something who talks and acts like a real person, she’s not your typical horror movie fodder. West should really be applauded for creating a film that is uniquely and unquestionably his creation, that manages to be equally funny, endearing and at times genuinely spooky. I can’t recommend this highly enough, and I am eager to see what West does next (for a more in-depth review check out Britt’s SXSW report here).

Saint (or Sint) proved to be an endearing but almost entirely forgettable Dutch horror film from Dick Mass (Amsterdamned, The Elevator) that turns good old Saint Nicolas into a blood thirsty zombie, wreaking havoc on the citizens of Amsterdam during the annual festivities. Despite the film looking very good, it was neither particularly scary nor compelling and I was feeling decidedly restless by the end. Perhaps it would be worth revisiting when it’s not following something as good as The Innkeepers and it may sit better if watched during the holidays, as I find there’s something odd about watching Christmas movies during the summertime.

Sunday ended for me on a somewhat reluctant high with the much hyped Kill List, the second feature from Brit filmmaker Ben Wheatley. The central performances from Neil Maskell as Jay and Michael Smiley as Gal, two old army buddies and now contract killers, are absolutely fantastic and understated in the best possible way. However, I’m reluctant to talk about this film as so much of it hinges on seeing it knowing as little as possible, something I was fortunate enough to be able to do. I will say this though; for a large proportion of the film I was convinced that I was watching some sort of bizarre Lynchian ultra-violent masterpiece, but the ending let me down a little. Not that I don’t strongly believe in leaving a lot up to the interpretation of the audience, but it was more to do with the fact of how much I’d loved what had come before that I was a little disappointed. I saw Kill List for a second time a few days later at a preview screening and it definitely sat better with me after a repeat viewing. It probably is the best British film you are likely to see this year, it’s just a little unfortunate that it strays a little too far into familiar genre territory by the end. Kill List received a wide UK release on 2nd September.

Monday brought about the final day of FrightFest, which was sad but also a bit of a relief; 5 days spending more than 12 hours a day inside a cinema bookended with 1 hour bus journeys can be very tiring indeed, not to mention the fact that I was starting to get the shakes from excessive caffeine consumption. The day started with the last minute addition and world premiere of A Night in the Woods, a found footage film directed by Richard Parry, perhaps best known for his war correspondence and as a documentary filmmaker. We were asked not to review this at the start of the film so I won’t spoil anything, but despite Scoot McNairy being as charismatic as always this was a somewhat lacklustre effort and not something I’d be eager to revisit, unfortunately. I’m just not a lover of this kind of film and it left me feeling more than a little motion sick by the end.

I was greatly intrigued by Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps, reportedly the first ever Swiss genre film. The story is based around the legend of the Sennentuntschi; that of a female companion made from a broom that comes to life, then after being violated by her creators she sets about her revenge skinning them all before turning them into dolls. I didn’t entirely hate this movie, it was well acted, original and the cinematography was fantastic. However, there was just something about the way the timeline jumped around that didn’t sit right with me and there was an odd supernatural element that didn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe I was just tired and grumpy by this point or maybe this just wasn’t a very good film, although it was the highest grossing film in Switzerland last year, so what do I know?

The penultimate film was the worst film I saw at FrightFest all weekend, and this dubious honour falls to Alex Chandon’s Inbred, a very loud and decidedly unamusing horror comedy about four teenage ASBOs and their youth workers going on a weekend retreat the small Yorkshire village of Mortlake to learn the true meaning of teamwork.  Upon arrival in the village it soon becomes apparent that everyone there is an inbred homicidal sociopath. The film takes a bizarre turn and becomes something akin to a very bad episode of League of Gentlemen when the locals put on a bizarre “show” involving some truly odd death scenes (death by horse?) It seemed that the cast and crew, who took up a large proportion of the screening, were the only ones who seemed to enjoy this film. A shame really because I’d been hoping that this would prove to be some decent, silly splatter but instead it was just bad and borderline offensive. 

Finishing off the festival was the polished looking (despite it being shot on a Red camera) Brit film A Lonely Place to Die; an odd choice for the closing film but nevertheless fairly watchable, despite being all over the place narrative wise. Melissa George stars as Alison, a young mountaineer on a hiking trip in the Scottish Highlands with four friends. Whilst out in a remote woodland area they hear what sounds like a child’s voice and find a pipe sticking out of the ground. What they find buried underneath is a small wooden chamber containing a terrified young girl who cannot speak any English. The hikers decide to take the girl to the police station in the nearest village, which is unfortunately 15 miles away. What initially started out as a fairly tense thriller soon turns into a fast paced survival movie as the group is pursued through the wilderness by the gun toting kidnappers, Mr Kidd (the reliably sinister Sean Harris) and Mr McRae (Stephen McCole). Although it loses its way in the third act once they arrive in the village and Alison takes one too many knocks to believably still be alive, this was still an enjoyable and unpredictable action packed thriller. A Lonely Place to Die is released in UK cinemas on 7th September.

So that brings me to the end of my mammoth FrightFest round up. I am already looking forward to next year!

My top 5 films of FrightFest 2011:

1)      The Innkeepers
2)      The Divide
3)      Kill List
4)      Troll Hunter
5)      Kidnapped