It was a welcome surprise to see so much diversity in the programme of this year’s Film4 FrightFest, which ranged from fun thrill ride You’re Next to sweet teen fantasy Odd Thomas, deeply affecting, horrific Spanish Civil War tale Painless to bleak serial killer study Dark Tourist, not to mention the great retrospective screenings, including the extraordinary, gut-wrenching tale of outback isolation and savagery Wake in Fright. Not everything was an unmitigated success, but there were enough ideas and oblique takes on horror tropes to keep things fresh and interesting throughout.
Dark Touch (Marina de Van, 2013)
Expectations were high for In My Skin director Marina de Van’s first English-language film. Set in Ireland, Dark Touch centres on Niamh, a troubled young girl who is terrified of the isolated countryside house where she lives with her parents and her baby brother, believing it’s alive and murderous. But even after she leaves the house following a terrible tragedy, she continues to be surrounded by violent manifestations. With clear echoes of Carrie, Dark Touch has moments of greatness, including a chilling inverted family dinner and a startlingly poetic scene of jaw-dropping horror, but its intense, resonant tale is marred by clunky dialogue and an occasionally clumsy script.
Watch the trailer for Dark Touch:
Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado, 2013)
Undoubtedly the richest and most accomplished film in the programme, Big Bad Wolves is the second feature by writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, and their follow-up to the excellent Rabies, the very first Israeli horror film, made in 2010. Keshales and Papushado continue their subtle exploration of their country’s mindset through the story of a suspected paedophile and murderer and the men who hunt him. Avoiding any heavy-handed allegories, the film examines a macho culture in which men think they can solve everything through violence; the complex intricacies of guilt and responsibility; and the troublingly easy role reversals between victim and persecutor. Opening with a beautiful, haunting credit sequence set to a gorgeous score, it mixes fairy tale and political subtext, black humour and disturbing subject matter with skill and assurance. An intelligent, thoughtful film that lingers long in the mind.
Watch the trailer for Big Bad Wolves:
Cannon Fodder (Eitan Gafny, 2013)
The third Israeli horror film in existence, although well-meaning, was only worth seeing as a foil to Big Bad Wolves, and as a crude representation of the exact same culture so shrewdly scrutinised in Keshales and Papushado’s film. The idea of a horror movie about an Israeli mission against Hezbollah sounded so promising. Alas, the script was dreary, the dialogue dire, the execution poor, and dumb, gun-toting heroism unquestioningly celebrated.
The Desert (Christopher Behl, 2013)
One of the great discoveries of the festival, this Argentine film was a brilliant demonstration that fresh takes on the zombie movie are possible – although maybe that’s because it is, arguably, not really one of them. After an unexplained catastrophe, Axel, Jonathan and Ana live locked up in an impenetrable house that they have armed and fortified. Completely isolated from the hostile world outside, they entirely rely on one another for physical and emotional survival. But the love that has developed between Jonathan and Ana leads to frustrations and tensions, and when Axel and Jonathan bring back a zombie to the house, their intensely close bond and the possibility of continuing their existence in this no man’s land are dangerously threatened. A wonderful, melancholy study of the poignant human need for sustained love, friendship and intimacy, and their impossibility.
Watch the trailer for The Desert:
The Borderlands (Elliot Goldner, 2013)
Rural Britain was a place of dread and mystery in two UK thrillers, The Borderlands and In Fear. Following two priests and a technology expert (the inimitable Ben Wheatley-favourite Robin Hill, star of Down Terrace), who are sent by the Vatican to an isolated country church to investigate reports of ‘miraculous’ activity, The Borderlands begins in starkly realistic mode before weaving an increasingly disquieting, creepy atmosphere around its characters. The unhinged local priest, the sinister villagers, a sickening incident outside the investigators’ house, an eerie walk through the fields at night, the supernatural manifestations, and the descent into the ancient church’s subterranean vaults, all unnervingly racked up the tension, sustained in no small part by a terrific sound design, before culminating in a startling, inventive, horrific ending.
In Fear (Jeremy Lovering, 2013)
Although it also effectively drew on moody British landscapes, In Fear was not as successful overall as its compatriot. On their way to a music festival, young couple Lucy and Tom plan to spend a romantic night at a countryside hotel. But misleading signs pointing in contradictory directions lead them in circles, and as night falls they seem unable to find their way back to the main road. Lost in an infernal maze in pitch-black darkness, they begin to believe that there is someone out there threatening them. Unbalanced by frustration, fear and paranoia, Tom and Lucy are pushed to their limits by the taunts of their invisible tormentor, and what they believe is their fight for survival. The two leads’ intense, raw performances, as well as Roly Porter and Daniel Pemberton‘s excellent soundtrack, contribute much to the atmosphere of terror. The cruel games theme, the chilly manipulation of the characters’ emotions that leads them to extreme behaviour, and the surreal set-up are all great, but the film feels too slight to sustain these, and requires a fair amount of the audience’s good will in order to work. Ultimately, the film is let down by an unsatisfactory ending that feels like a cop-out.
Watch the trailer for In Fear:
Haunter (Vincenzo Natali, 2013)
Young girls forced to face difficult situations appeared in three of this year’s films, starting with ghost story Haunter, the latest offering from Cube and Splice director Vincenzo Natali. Teenager Lisa is stuck in a temporal loop, forced to relive the same day over and over again with her family, her boredom compounded by the fact that her parents and little brother are blissfully unaware of their situation. Soon she discovers that she is not the only one caught in this plight. The idea is interesting and the plot nicely convoluted, but the film remains oddly uninvolving, possibly because its angle on the ghost story is not new.
We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, 2013)
It was a pleasant surprise to find that the American remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 We Are What We Are is very different from the Mexican original, to the extent that it is less a remake than an entirely new film based on the same premise. Grau’s film was gritty and realistic, with a few staggeringly visceral, gruesome scenes. Through the portrait of a family of cannibals, it hinted at the brutality of survival among Mexico’s poorest, and observed the shifting family dynamics after the death of the father, mixing in intimations of incest and awakening homosexual desires.
Jim Mickle’s version intelligently places the story within the context of American history, making the family’s cannibalism a twisted tradition going back to the hardships of their pioneer ancestors. And where in Grau’s film the men were in charge even though the women were by far the fiercest members of the family, here it is up to the delicate, pretty blond daughters to continue the tradition, under the oppressive control of their tyrannical father. Dreamy and sad, Mickle’s We Are What We Are exerts a spellbinding charm that is unfortunately broken by a jarring, unneeded, excessively grisly end.
Watch the trailer for We Are What We Are:
A couple of the shorts deserve a mention too. Dominic Brunt’s Shell Shocked set up a brilliant, tense face-off between a British and a German soldier in a bombed-out bunker. It is so rich with conflicting human emotions – wavering between fear, paranoia, careful camaraderie and survival instinct – that it doesn’t need the zombies that make a belated appearance.
Screening on the final morning of the festival, Can Evrenol’s BaskIn was an astounding assault on the senses – especially so early in the day. The film follows a team of Turkish policemen into a Satanist den, where macabre horror after macabre horror is uncovered. What makes the film so shockingly effective is the way it constantly disorientates the audience, with (what appeared to be) mutilated victims leading gory attacks and bags of body parts seemingly coming back to life, throwing both the policemen and the viewers into sweaty, panicked terror. Disturbing and nauseating in the best possible way.