The Dead Outside

Film4 FrightFest

21-25 August 2008

Odeon West End, London


Survival in the wilderness was a big theme of this year’s Film4 FrightFest, with British thriller Eden Lake, Spanish offering King of the Hill (El Rey de la montaña, a last-minute substitute for The Substitute), and the straightforward chase movie Manhunt from Norway all re-treading the familiar backwoods path of this particular horror sub-genre. The much-anticipated Eden Lake, which opened the festival, was the most disappointing of the three. The tale of a young couple who come to harm at the hands of a group of local thugs while on a weekend away in the country, Eden Lake crassly played on tabloid fears of delinquent youths in the most unsubtle way. The middle-class lovebirds played by Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender were attractive and decent and had enough of a back story to ensure that we would care about them. The working-class youths and their families were caricatured as rude, violent, ugly white trash. The depiction of the group’s dynamics was simplistic and unconvincing and the escalation of violence ludicrously over the top. The film provided no insights into class conflict or youth violence, but simply further demonised an already beleaguered social category. Much less hyped and much superior was Julian Richards’s as yet unreleased Summer Scars (shown at Cine-Excess last May), which offered an infinitely more nuanced, intelligent and credible approach to a similar subject matter.

Criminal youths certainly seem to be the bogeymen of the moment and King of the Hill also focused on murderous children. The first part was reminiscent of Duel, as protagonist Quim, derailed from his journey by a chance encounter with pretty kleptomaniac Bea, became the target of an invisible gunman while driving down an isolated mountain road. Soon Quim was re-united with Bea and they were forced to try and trust each other to escape from their hunters. Although the film had many familiar elements there were enough unpredictable twists to keep the audience interested. The hunt was finally revealed to be a cruel children’s game and the minimal motivations and characterisation gave the film a certain existential edge. The chilling dénouement in an abandoned village was all the more unnerving for the beautiful light that bathed it.

Manhunt was another pared down human hunt movie in which four gorgeous young people were chased through the forest by a bunch of hairy rednecks. Although it was nothing new, it was a very tight, well-made, gripping survival thriller. As in Eden Lake and King of the Hill – although for different reasons in the latter – the conclusion was entirely pessimistic, which made it marginally more interesting.

Doppelgängers also featured prominently, in Mirrors (Alexandre Aja’s remake of the excellent South Korean movie Into the Mirror), From Within, Time Crimes and The Broken. In the brilliant Time Crimes, the apparition of doubles was caused by the inadvertent time travelling of its hapless everyman hero, which gave rise to increasingly complicated and paradoxical situations. Sean Ellis’s The Broken was a tight, classy, intelligent psychological thriller in which doppelgängers entered human reality by breaking through mirrors. Bathed in a cold blue light throughout, it was a visually accomplished and chillingly convincing piece of work.

The Broken demonstrated the strength of British horror filmmaking, together with The Dead Outside. Produced on a micro-budget, the latter made great use of its gloomy Scottish location. The central idea of an epidemic that turns people into zombified aggressors owed something to 28 Days Later, but the film was more interested in psychological tension than in straight horror thrills. As two survivors separately took refuge in an isolated house occupied by a moody young woman, the film focused on the relationships that developed between the characters while they tried to fend off the infected.

Fear(s) of the Dark, a black and white animated film directed by renowned illustrators such as Charles Burns and Butch, and Let The Right One In, a Swedish teen vampire movie that has already wowed audiences at the Tribeca and Edinburgh festivals, were the two most original offerings of the festival. Fear(s) of the Dark offered a multi-faceted approach to our phobias and superbly demonstrated inventive visual and thematic uses of animation. Let the Right One In was a beautiful film that combined a slow pace and hushed atmosphere with a poignant exploration of love and a sensitive depiction of children intensified by rare moments of violence.

The prize for most extreme film has to go to Martyrs, which was described as ‘2008’s most unforgettable and controversial horror experience’ in the festival programme, and certainly didn’t disappoint. The story of two young women, one of whom attempts to take revenge on the family she believes abused her as a child, it developed in an entirely unpredictable way, taking the audience into uncharted territory. The extreme physical violence rarely felt gratuitous and the film’s exploration of human suffering and of the idea of martyrdom was fascinating. It was a film of excess, of excessive darkness and excessive violence, and as such it will repulse and captivate audiences in equal measures. But beyond the more explicitly brutal scenes, the film was really about existential despair, which made it deeply affecting. Martyrs was not without flaws, but there is no denying that French director Pascal Laugier’s vision is powerful, ambitious and unique.

Laugier was there to introduce the film and take questions from the audience, as were many other filmmakers, which is one of the great perks of FrightFest. The audience itself was as much the star of the festival as any of the guests, however, and was cheering, whooping and clapping throughout. Such enthusiasm and dedication (the pass holders were in the Odeon West End roughly from 11am to 11pm), not only from the audience but also from the organisers, make FrightFest a supremely enjoyable event and single it out as a very special occasion in the festival calendar.

Virginie Sélavy

Eden Lake is released in the UK on Sept 12 by Optimum, Fear(s) of the Dark (Metrodome) and Mirrors (Universal) on Oct 3. Read our review of Fear(s) of the Dark and our interview with Charles Burns in our autumn print issue, out now.