Film4 FrightFest 2011 part 3: Sexual politics and low-key vampires

The Woman

Film4 FrightFest

25-29 August 2011, Empire, London

FrightFest website

At this year’s Film4 FrightFest, the obvious big hitters were not necessarily the most rewarding. The festival opened with the Guillermo del Toro-produced Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which has his habitual mix of real-life childhood trauma and fantasy world, although the two levels of alternate realities don’t blend as well as in his own Cronos or Pan’s Labyrinth. A young girl moves to Rhode Island to live with her father and his new girlfriend in the 19th-century house they are restoring. Boredom and curiosity lead her to discover the mansion’s hidden basement, and loneliness makes her open a bolted door she should never have opened, releasing frightening creatures from an archaic world. There are some excellent atmospheric and frightening moments; references to Arthur Machen are tantalising, and the creatures are great, but those elements lack depth and resonance, and the ending seems like a feebly convenient resolution of the problematic family situation.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is released in the UK on October 7 by StudioCanal.

Anticipation was high for Lucky McKee’s controversial The Woman, the story of an American family who take in a feral woman found in the woods by the despotic father, Chris Cleek, while he is out hunting. He chains her up in a shed and tells his family that they have to ‘civilise’ her, giving them tasks to care for her, in the same way that they have to look after their dogs, as he says. It is not long before the dubiously worthy motivation gives way to vicious abuse and the dark secrets of the family are revealed. Although it is a compelling film in some ways, it’s not as deep as it thinks it is, and certainly doesn’t give any insight into abuse or the coercion of women into submission by men, despite its director’s avowed aims (as explained in the Q&A that followed the screening). It is a film in which all of the female characters are subjected to abuse by men, and it seems to suggest that there’s essentially nothing they can do about it. The Woman is a great character who exudes ferocious power, but she’s chained up for most of the film. Belle Cleek has been battered into subservience, and although daughter Peggy is the only one who attempts resistance, she is pretty much powerless. The final revenge is far too short and simplistic to be satisfying or meaningful and just seems like a cynical excuse to show nasty violence against women for most of the film’s running time. This is made worse by the fact that in the last quarter of the film, Cleek turns into such a cartoonish caricature that the end sequence feels completely unconvincing.

Pollyanna McIntosh gives an amazing performance as The Woman, and it’s frustrating to see such a fantastic actress and a potentially great character so wasted. Angela Bettis, who plays Belle, was the eponymous heroine in May, Lucky McKee’s excellent 2002 debut about an isolated young woman and her painfully misguided attempts at connecting with other people. May was both an original, gruesome, disturbing horror film and a brilliant, sensitive, heart-wrenching study of the central female character, and Bettis’s presence in The Woman only serves to highlight how crude McKee’s new film’s view of women (and men) is in contrast. Some critics have claimed The Woman is a feminist film, which it most definitely is not. It is a frankly dodgy film that feels exploitative. Anyone who has seen May will know that Lucky McKee is not a misogynistic director, but whatever point he was trying to make in The Woman is very badly put across.

The Woman is released in the UK on September 30 by Revolver.

Alarmingly, The Woman was one of two films in the festival that featured disturbingly casual rape scenes. The other was Switzerland’s first ever horror production, Sennentuntschi, a mish-mash of folk tale and TV drama-style small-town shenanigans. It is based on the legend of three shepherds who made a woman out of a broom; she was given life by the Devil to do the domestic chores and sleep with them, but when they abused her she took her revenge and killed them. Roxane Mesquida plays a mysterious, speechless young woman sequestered by three men in an isolated mountain farm, in an echo of the story. Despite her fine performance, it is a plodding, incoherent and quite unpleasant film. The return to the casual misogyny of the 70s and the playing down of rape were also observed by our Electric Sheep correspondent in Venice (read the article). What social attitudes or anxieties this reflects is not entirely clear, but let’s hope it does not herald a return to full-on retrograde sexual politics in cinema.

It was not all unsavoury rape-and-revenge stories though, and over the rest of the weekend the main screen hosted crowd-pleasing horror comedies Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Troll Hunter and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, as well as The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy’s follow-up to his cult film. Also screened were the eagerly awaited British thrillers Kill List and A Lonely Place to Die, and the fine recession horror movie The Glass Man. The comedies in particular were very successful and hugely enjoyable, playfully subverting the clichés of the genre.

But it was in the Discovery Screen that the richest pickings were to be found. A Horrible Way to Die was an original take on the serial killer genre, seen mostly from the point of view of the former girlfriend of a murderer. After Garrick’s arrest, Sarah is trying to rebuild her life and address her problems, attending AA meetings, where she meets a sensitive young man. When Garrick is released, the film intercuts flashbacks of Sarah and Garrick’s lives together before she found out the truth about him with his journey down to the town Sarah now lives in, and her tentative new romance. Shot in an impressionistic, elliptical style, the film paints a nuanced picture, evoking the tenderness and love Sarah and Garrick shared, making her realisation of his betrayal all the more horrifying. A well-observed, evocative, heartbreaking story, it never feels sensational despite moments of violence, and develops slowly but compellingly, until all the pieces of the puzzle sickeningly fall into place.

Midnight Son, a vampire movie with a melancholy indie feel, was the other standout film in the Discovery Screen. Jacob is a night security guard with a skin condition that prevents him from going in the sun and who starts experiencing physical changes after he blacks out at work. He meets Mary, a girl who sells cigarettes and sweets outside a bar. They are attracted to each other, but Jacob’s deteriorating condition and Mary’s drug habit conspire to keep them apart. In addition, Jacob starts getting troubling flashbacks of a young woman who was found dead in the underground car park at work. The film uses the vampire motif to evoke the tenderness, heartache and destructiveness of two outsiders’ tormented love. Like Let the Right One In, it is sweet and creepy in just the right amounts. The moody feel, the hazy look and a low-key soundtrack all combine beautifully to conjure Jacob’s strangely detached, dreamlike life in a shadowy, oddly empty LA.

The Devil’s Business starts as a tense, tightly scripted character-driven drama with some excellent performances from Billy Clarke as a hitman (delivering a particularly spellbinding monologue early on in the film) and Jonathan Hansler as his chillingly evil victim Kist. It then shifts into supernatural territory, which seems somewhat superfluous and does not fully work with the rest of the story. As in Kill List, it is the rounded characters and dramatic tension that work best in the film, not the tacked-on occult element. Also worth a mention is My Sucky Teen Romance, the third feature directed by the incredibly driven 18-year-old Emily Hagins. Lovable and knowingly silly, this nerdy teen horror comedy has bucket loads of charm and marks Hagins as one to watch.

Virginie Sélavy