In its 10th year, Film4 FrightFest now resides in the Victorian grandeur of The Empire on the North side of Leicester Square. Like all festivals, its line-up is dictated by the films released in time for the event, and for this reason, the programme of FrightFest 2009 is not as exciting as last year’s. However, for the first time the festival is showing films in two screens simultaneously, which means they are able to offer their largest selection to date as well as repeated screenings.
The last decade has seen a general lack of innovation in horror and has been marked by waves of various sub-genres following the release of a particularly popular film, as with J-horror for instance. The re-emergence of zombie films shows no sign of abating and the festival includes screenings of the micro-budget British film Colin, the slightly larger budget Canadian effort Pontypool, the Norwegian living dead Nazi movie Dead Snow plus Zombie Women of Satan, not to mention Infestation and the short films Deadwalkers and Paris by Night of the Living Dead. Remakes, re-imaginings and sequels are also present with new versions of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) and the cult 80s film Night of the Demons being screened; Dario Argento revisits his favourite genre in the new movie Giallo, which was written for him to direct by fans of his career and the festival closes with the belated sequel The Descent 2, which has a lot to live up to if it is to be anything like the excellent first instalment.
2005 and 2006 saw marathons of classic films at the festival; George Romero’s original zombie trilogy preceded screenings of Land of the Dead and Day of the Dead 2: Contagium in 2005 while the year after a Hammer triple bill was introduced by Mark Gatiss. It’s a shame these screenings of classic films haven’t continued, but at least this year includes a remastered version of An American Werewolf in London (1981) accompanied by cast and crew on stage, which follows the feature-length documentary Beware the Moon. Appropriately, the director of Beware the Moon was born the same year that American Werewolf was first released! (ALEX FITCH)
Here are some of the highlights of this year’s festival:
Pontypool: One of the most intelligent and experimental horror films in recent years. Making full use of its one-location set-up, Bruce McDonald’s film focuses on ‘shock jock’ Grant Mazzy (brilliantly played by Stephen McHattie), a character who has been kicked off the Big City airwaves and now works at the only job he could get, hosting the early morning show at CLSY Radio in remote Pontypool, Canada. What begins as another boring day covering school bus cancellations due to yet another snow storm turns into something much more dramatic when reports of horrendous acts of violence start piling in. Before long, Grant and the small staff at CLSY find themselves trapped in the radio station as they discover the root of the insane behaviour taking over the city. Turning a great many genre conventions on their head, Pontypool is one of the most literate and ambitious zombie films in recent years and the climax will certainly divide audiences’ opinions. (EVRIM ERSOY)
Heartless: After a long hiatus, reclusive artist/director Philip Ridley returns to the big screen with possibly his most mature and moving work. Building on the themes that he explored in his previous films, The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), Heartless focuses on a young man with a large heart-shaped birthmark on his face, who discovers that he can see demons roaming the streets of East London. Taking its cue from ambiguous horror-dramas like Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Heartless‘s basic premise slowly opens up to reveal an intricate and touching plot. With stunning performances from the lead Jim Sturges, as well as British stalwarts Timothy Spall, Eddie Marsan and Ruth Sheen, Heartless is a truly haunting experience. (EE)
Dead Snow: Following Nazi vampires in Frostbiten (2006) and 30 Days of Night (2007), Nazi zombies return to the big screen for the first time in a generation since Shock Waves (1977). The zombie genre has changed considerably since then, with some of the most notable recent examples combining the appearance of the living dead with black comedy. Dead Snow is no exception, referencing Evil Dead II (1987) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) specifically, with a subplot lifted from John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980). As another ‘zom-com’, Dead Snow is very successful when the action gets going – the large number of ashen-skinned Nazis set against the bleak snowbound setting is impressive and memorable, not to mention the director’s obsession with entrails. However, the first half of the film is a stereotypical and tedious teenagers-on-holiday set-up, which leaves you counting the minutes to the first explicit zombie attack. (AF)
Infestation: A terrifically enjoyable giant bug movie that sees the inhabitants of a quiet North American city (actually Bulgaria, should viewers be confused by the atypical woodlands that form the setting of the climax) knocked unconscious by a mysterious noise and light and waking up in cocoons patrolled by giant insects. The unusual premise, which combines classic British science fiction like Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later with a tense climax inspired by Alien, is a terrific mix of comedy, slapstick (but often cruel) violence and engaging characters. The second feature by Kyle Rankin, who directed the indie comedy The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003), sees the filmmaker reunited with genre veteran Ray Wise and brings a great ensemble cast to the screen plus memorable creatures including giant spider/zombie hybrids. I, for one, hope the cheeky cliffhanger that ends the film leads to a second instalment. (AF)
Appropriately for a festival in its 10th year, the line-up is overall both fresh and nostalgic. Heartland and Infestation are must-sees while Colin and Trick ‘r Treat promise twists on the familiar elements of the genre. A new Clive Barker adaptation, Dread, is welcome and there are high expectations for Triangle and The House of the Devil, made by the directors of the excellent Severance (2006) and The Roost (2005) respectively. When catering for fans of a particular genre, festival programmes can be a mixed bag, but there’s certainly an intriguing and varied selection of films showing at this year’s Film4 FrightFest, ensuring there’s bound to be something that’ll scare and delight even the most jaded horror fan.
Alex Fitch and Evrim Ersoy