This year, Film4 FrightFest presented one of its most ambitious, diverse and satisfying programmes yet. The festival cast its net wide, pulling in not just monsters, killers, zombies and hoodie tormentors, but also hippies, dreamers and misfits, exploring horror and fantastic cinema in the largest sense possible, and it was all the better for it.
Sadly, FrightFest was forced to pull A Serbian Film out of the programme after the BBFC imposed 49 cuts. The FrightFest organisers said, as their reason for the cancellation, that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’ and we entirely agree with them: the extreme imagery of the film is meant to make a political point about Serbia and any cuts would alter its effect and meaning. Of course, the short-sightedness of British censorship is notorious and long-standing, as we were reminded by a timely screening of a documentary on the ‘video nasties’, which provided a wider context for the BBFC’s latest misguided decision.
Elsewhere there was much to enjoy. Tobe Hooper was in attendance to introduce his rarely seen 1969 first feature Eggshells, a wonderfully trippy, loose document of the period and a reminder of the influence of experimental cinema on 60s and 70s horror film. Other highlights included Mexican cannibal tale We Are What We Are, harsh and tender murder story Red White and Blue, giallo reverie Amer and brutal Hong Kong property-slasher Dream Home. Below we review some of the high and low points of the festival in more detail.
I nearly gave Hatchet II a miss because of the paucity of ideas in the first instalment. Inexplicably popular, Hatchet is an unimaginative re-tread of 1980s horror films featuring a handful of stars from the genre – Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-8), Tony Todd (Candyman 1-3)and Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th parts 7-9). It follows the misadventures of a boatload of tourists who visit the haunted house of a deformed boy presumed dead, only to be dispatched one by one.
In his introduction to the sequel, which premiered as the opening film of FrightFest 2010, director Adam Green assured the audience that it was much better than the original and I’m happy to report he got the formula right this time. Hatchet II is also a love letter to 80s horror, and Todd and Kane return, joined by ‘final girl’ Danielle Harris (Halloween 1-2 and 4-5) and a less annoying cast of victims who get variously disembowelled, hacked in half and turned into paté. Needless to say, this isn’t a film for the squeamish, but the deaths are so over the top, they are clearly intended as a parody of the genre.
The casual homophobia and risible, relentless titillation of the original Hatchet have been left behind and the enjoyment of the cast is obvious on screen. That said, having seen Green’s more laudable thrillers Frozen and Spiral, it is clear that the world doesn’t need a Hatchet 3. Alex Fitch
Mixing spectacular violence and a concern with the harsh realities of the Hong Kong property market, Dream Home is difficult to categorise and full of surprises. Cheng Li-sheung is a young woman working in a tedious sales job at a bank. Obsessed with buying a flat with a sea view, a much sought after and astronomically-priced commodity in Hong Kong, she will stop at nothing to achieve her dream.
Dream Home works well as a slasher, featuring some very brutal and sadistically inventive dispatch methods, but also offers a provocative take on its central theme. The violence Li-sheung inflicts on her property rivals and potential neighbours, although extreme, does not feel entirely gratuitous: it appears to be an angry reaction against the greed and corruption from both the state and criminals that have priced ordinary people out of the property market. But Li-sheung herself is not quite the people’s avenger, and her ruthlessness ensures the film never falls into any facile sentimental explanations for her actions. Virginie Sélavy
Cherry Tree Lane
Cherry Tree Lane, the latest from London to Brighton and The Cottage writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, is a home invasion movie in which a middle-class couple are brutalised by a gang of hoodies lying in wait to ‘fuck up’ their son when he gets home from football practice. You can tell Williams wants Cherry Tree Lane to work on the associative level, tapping into the rich vein of suburban paranoia as mined by Lynch, the Coens and Haneke before him. The trouble is, it just doesn’t.
The naturalistic performances from the really quite excellent young cast, coupled with their characters’ prosaic reason for being there in the first place – the son is a snitch – marks them as individuals rather than representative types. With the exception of the opening shot of the house, all shots are internal. The only glimpse at a context for the film comes from TV news reports on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombings, which might suggest a general climate of fear in the UK. However, under such isolated scrutiny, terrorist to hoodie is too much of an imaginative leap to make.
So, in this instance the couple’s suburban paranoia is justified, but why are the hoodies like this? Is this just a contemporary problem, or is there something deeper about human nature at work here? Williams does not give the audience enough elements with which to speculate. Alex Pashby
We Are What We Are
This Mexican cannibal film was another FrightFest selection that was not easily pigeon-holed. Gritty, realistic and slow-paced, it had the feel of an art-house movie, but was punctuated by moments of startling, grisly brutality. When the father dies, the rest of the family has to figure out how to provide for themselves. As the eldest boy, Alfredo is expected to take on that role, although he does not feel up to it. Power shifts in the group as his sister Sabina, clearly the brains of the family, makes plans, their violent brother Julian mostly messes them up, and their formidable mother struggles to assert her authority. Despite a certain lack of direction, the film presented a disturbing study of family dynamics and a chilling portrayal of those on the poorest margins of Mexican society, literally forced to eat one another. Virginie Sélavy
An experimental film with a loose plot based around the experiences of four teenage friends who share a suburban house, this is more of a ‘tone poem’ or artist’s film than an ur-slasher movie. Combining moments of comedy, science fiction, surrealism and kitchen sink drama, this is a sweet-natured portrait of the end of the ‘summer of love’ as the kids hang out together, go for walks in the park, take communal baths and throw parties.
The closest we get to horror are scenes set in a supposedly haunted basement where one of the characters has encounters with a pink light that resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – which must have influenced the visual light effects in the more hallucinogenic scenes. Elsewhere, scenes where a character has a date in the park surrounded by balloons, or another attacks the group’s bubble car before setting fire to it and throwing all of the clothes he’s wearing into the conflagration, recall The Monkees as much as the darker elements of the end of the 1960s. The final scene sees the cast sucked into a prop from a science-fiction B-movie before being extruded as sludge and smoke, which, although it sounds like horror, is less horrific than many scenes from Monty Python.
Padded out by scenes of presumably improvised inane dialogue recorded at such a high level the speech is distorted into incomprehension, the film is occasionally unintelligible, soporific and obtuse, but includes enough visually stunning and memorable scenes to make it worth a watch. Comparable to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, this is an intriguing experience that suggests that outside of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper never reached his full potential as a director (or was allowed to, as there is a persistent myth that Steven Spielberg directed half of Poltergeist). Alex Fitch
F. is a very enjoyable and well-made film clearly modelled on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but takes place not in a near-empty police station, but after hours in the empty corridors and classrooms of a contemporary British college. After being attacked in his classroom and finding no support among his colleagues, English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) turns to alcohol and eventual burn-out. One of his pupils is his daughter, with whom he has lost connection, and as he tries to repair this relationship while facing his other demons, he finds himself confronted by a relentless attack on the school by a group of faceless thugs and bloodthirsty killers in the guise of those folk devils du jour, the hoodies.
The cast universally contribute to the film’s success but David Schofield is especially effective and notable for his role as Anderson. While steeped in conventions and plotlines with which we are all too familiar, F. is nevertheless an interesting, clever and very watchable low-budget film, which has both relevance and panache. Definitely director Johannes Roberts’s best work to date. James B Evans
A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.
This South Korean film felt like a folk or fairy tale. The story had a compelling quality but the two-dimensional characters were painted with broad strokes and the film was heavy-handed in its denunciation of the oppression of women in Korean society. It was very slow-paced for the most part, making the sudden change of tone, sadistic killings and final bloodbath all the more shocking. Virginie Sélavy
The plot of After.Life oscillates between the possibilities that Christina Ricci’s character is dead and can only be seen by a creepy funeral director played by Liam Neeson, or he’s a serial killer who has kidnapped her and is trying to convince her she’s that way. This is a relatively rare subject for cinema, as few films cover the existential experience of the recently departed – outside of the occasional zombie movie shot from the point of view of the undead, or comedies featuring ghosts (Ghost, Beetlejuice, Casper). But this isn’t new ground for TV – Dead like Me, Six Feet Under and Being Human have all had lead or reoccurring characters that are ghosts – so this film will feel familiar to fans of telefantasy – and actually might have worked better as an episode of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone.
The film toys with the necrophiliac possibilities of the plot, but is generally more interested in displaying Ricci’s naked flesh as much as possible than in considering the psychological implications of the various traumas experienced by the cast on screen. Running for nearly an hour and three-quarters, the movie outstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes, but convincing performances by everyone involved keeps the atmosphere reasonably unnerving. Compared to some of the more hysterically scary movies shown at Frightfest, it was refreshing to see something a little more low-key. Alex Fitch
A zombie movie set in Africa was a great idea on paper, but The Dead failed miserably to do anything interesting with it. As a horror film, it was actually boring and as slow and directionless as the shuffling undead hordes. The two central characters fighting the zombies, although both military men, were so inept they might as well have been already brain-dead. Watching Africans killing black zombies with machetes inevitably brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, but the film did absolutely nothing with this. In fact, there was something slightly patronising and Western about the film’s approach to Africa, from stereotypical details such as a preposterous witch doctor to the fact that the main character was a white American. The end was not only a cop-out but it was also nauseatingly sentimental. Virginie Sélavy
Isle of Dogs
American director Tammi Sutton (Killjoy 2, Welcome to Graveland) elected to come to the UK to shoot this screenplay penned by Sean Hogan (Little Deaths, The Devil’s Business) and therein lies the first problem with the film – what should have been at times a subtle, British Ortonesque black humour at work in the script becomes in this director’s hands obvious, over-the-top gags, which muddy the tone of the film. What she evidently thought were clever post-modern references recede into triteness and near-camp.
The film concerns itself with Darius (Andrew Howard), a criminal gang boss and psychotic bastard who is married to a Russian former prostitute, Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova). While heaping physical and verbal abuse upon her, he comes to learn that she has been sleeping with Riley (Edward Hogg) and determines to seek revenge. He offers Riley one way out – kill Nadia or be killed. Thus commences the orgy of killing that will occur during the evening.
This is a story about the lengths to which humans will go to survive and contains some neat plot twists and sharp dialogue – that is when the dialogue can be discerned – which brings me to the second and biggest problem with this film. Someone in post-production clearly went mad with the audio levels. The cacophony of sounds that bludgeon the viewer – and oftentimes the script – into aural submission serve only to undermine specificities of dialogue and mood. This bombastic and unrelenting John Zorn-like score is really quite unbearable as well as irritating. When the director revealed that it was a showcase for the music of her boyfriend it became clear: Isle of Dogs served partly as a lengthy horror pop-promo for him. A shame because as mentioned, there is a much subtler film here waiting to get out from underneath the wall of sound. James B Evans
Red White and Blue
Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news.
This was one of the best films in the festival, unpredictable and complex, sweet and gruesome, moving without being sentimental, with fully rounded characters who, although they were capable of the most terrible acts, were neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Virginie Sélavy
The Last Exorcism
Coming from the production stable of Hostel director Eli Roth, the closing film of the festival, predictably, has its fair share of moments to be labelled ‘not for the squeamish’. Director Daniel Stamm similarly took the mockumentary format into macabre territory with his 2008 feature debut, A Necessary Death, which claimed to follow the final preparations of a suicidal volunteer. Under his hand, The Last Exorcism is clearly as comfortable manipulating its audience’s emotions as it is manipulating its own generic format. As with The Blair Witch Project, however, one can’t help but feel that, were you to strip away the shaky cam conceit of the frame, you’d be left with a remarkably formulaic script. That is not to say it is not grimly effective.
In the end, perhaps the most consistently disturbing feature of this film is not the apparently psychotic teenage girl, or the demon that is supposed to be possessing her, but her control-freak fundamentalist father. And it is in the light of this that The Last Exorcism is very much an Exorcist for our times. Robert Barry