Tag Archives: FrightFest

Big Bad Wolves: Interview with Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado

Big Bad Wolves
Big Bad Wolves

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 December 2013

DVD release date: 28 April 2014

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado

Writers: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado

Cast: Guy Adler, Lior Ashkenazy, Dvir Benedek

Original title: Mi mefahed mezeev hara

Israel 2013

110 mins

An intelligent, thoughtful film that lingers long in the mind, Big Bad Wolves is writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s follow-up to the excellent Rabies, which had the distinction of being the very first Israeli horror film. With their second feature, Keshales and Papushado continue their subtle exploration of their country’s mood 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, the film mixes fairy tale and political subtext, black humour and disturbing subject matter with skill and assurance.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado at Film4 FrightFest in August 2013, and discussed victims and victimisers, corrupt politicians, and taking revenge on your parents.

Virginie Sélavy: Big Bad Wolves seems much more ambitious than Rabies. Is it because you developed your filmmaking skills, or had more money or better production?

Navot Papushado: All of the above! Rabies was a shoe-string-budget, guerrilla kind of film. It was shot over 17 days using only available light in a forest, in one location, and a bunch of the crew were Aharon’s students. Aharon was a film a critic and a university lecturer. Still, we are very pleased with the result. For Big Bad Wolves we worked with the top people in the industry – we got the best cinematographer and the best production designer. We were much more prepared, and we had more shooting days. The budget was bigger, although still not big in terms of Israeli film. Rabies was in the middle of what we could achieve and what we wanted to achieve. Big Bad Wolves is the kind of film that we are aiming to do.

Rabies was described everywhere as the first Israeli horror film. Did that feel exciting or was it a lot of pressure?

Aharon Keshales: Both! The good thing is that you have the opportunity to become a pioneer, you’re building the path for future generations. The bad thing is that if you do a crappy job that’s the end for you and for the entire genre. If you don’t collect prizes and you don’t do well at the box office, that’s it, because Israel is a small industry and it doesn’t like to take big chances on new stuff. So it was a lot of pressure. But when we did Rabies we were these young people who didn’t think about this kind of stuff. We just wanted to make the first Israeli horror film and to have fun. When you ask us now, we’re a bit older so we know what that meant.

Horror films have always worked very well as allegories for social or political issues, which potentially makes it a rich genre for Israeli films. This is something you do in Big Bad Wolves, but very lightly and suggestively. It feels more like you tried to evoke the mindset and atmosphere of the country, rather than specific issues. Is that fair to say?

NP: Yes. We both feel that most Israeli cinema is very heavy-handed and deals with political subject matter in a way that feels like they’re trying to educate you about the wars of Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians, or the memory of the Holocaust, and it’s always so serious. And sometimes you think, I didn’t come here to be educated. We have no fun at the movies, we cry all the time – and we cry in reality too. And we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to give Israel the gift of entertaining cinema? So people would go to the cinema and forget real life and tragedy, even though we are talking about it. We tried to do this a little with Rabies because it’s a movie where Israelis kill other Israelis and the real killer goes to sleep, so you see the allegory in that film. But with Big Bad Wolves, we tried to look at the macho, male-dominated Israeli society, but not upfront. First of all, it’s a revenge comedy thriller, and once the tone of the movie has been set, you start to think about what you’re seeing. What you’re seeing is three guys who were in the army and all their instincts from that time just come to life when the girl’s life is in peril. So it’s not in your face, but it’s there. And I think you’re willing to get this kind of subtext more easily because it’s not in your face.

Watch the trailer for Rabies:

There is also the idea that despite their violence and belligerence those men are unable to protect their loved ones.

NP: I think that growing up as Jews in Israel we carry this weight, first of all for being Jewish – and we don’t need to go back far into the past, we can just go back to the Second World War and the Holocaust. The instinct for survival is very strong in our people and we brought this with us to Israel. We are a small country surrounded by Arab countries, some of which we were at war with, some of which we’re at peace with, and we have the Palestinians within us. So you grow up in an environment where there is war in the air, you absorb it, you develop this survival instinct which is so strong, and sometimes can lead you to do horrific stuff in the name of survival, in the name of our children. Sometimes these moral questions need to be raised. In the name of our kids, in the name of surviving, are we allowed to do certain things? We’ve never been in a war or a combat situation, but as teenagers in the 80s-90s we were walking the streets of Tel Aviv and buses were exploding. It’s a very strange environment to live in – life goes on, it’s a very complex situation. And a lot of the film is about us growing up in Israel, but it’s filtered through an entertaining film.

AK: There’s a strong debate about torture these days, and the film by Kathryn Bigelow put it out there. I think that when you’re talking about torture you have to ask yourself, is this violence justified? Even if it’s justified by the fact that they will tell you where Bin Laden is, did you just create another enemy inside the guy that you’ve just tortured, maybe for his entire life and that of his family? It’s like a big circle of blood. That’s how we see things. It started with Rabies and it’s evolved to be this idea of a circle of death, a big dance that you can never stop.

You also seem to lay some of the responsibility for what happens to the girl at her father’s feet – and he’s not the only character in that position. Do you think that ideas of guilt and responsibility are more complicated than just pointing the finger at one man?

NP: When we wrote the script the idea was that we were writing a revenge thriller that was upside down. You have the avengers and the suspected victimiser, but the suspected victimiser is also a victim, and we wanted to have that kind of flip in the film. You see a lot of revenge films that end with the triumph of the vindictive hero. But those films support this kind of behaviour – people who take the law into their own hands, who do horrific stuff. We didn’t want to make that kind of nihilistic movie. We wanted to do a Dirty Harry movie where Dirty Harry gets punished for his deeds – personally, not because someone he knows dies. Stick it to him. That’s what we tried to do with Big Bad Wolves.

AK: We had a few arguments with our producers about the moral questions we tried to raise at the end. They wanted a lighter ending, a slightly funny, uplifting final scene, even though everything that happens is terribly wrong. But we wanted to have a heavy, serious ending, because you can never foresee the consequences of violence, you never know when or why it ends. That was very important to us. With this subject matter it was important for us to infuse some more moral layers into the film.

Watch the trailer for Big Bad Wolves:

Both Big Bad Wolves and Rabies show the Israeli police in a very negative light, they are consistently brutal and abusive of their power. Are they really that bad?

AK: I think it has to do with authority, because when you want to do a movie that questions the patriarchal society – and Israel is still patriarchal – you have to deal with authority figures, so the best thing to do is to make fun of the military or the police. We decided to do this one with the police, but that doesn’t mean that in the next film we won’t make jokes about the army.

NP: There have been a few rumbles with the police in Israel lately. The police have not had a very good reputation in the last two years. At the time when Rabies came out there were huge protests on the streets of Israel, and the police reacted very violently.

AK: And it was a very peaceful protest, they were students, they weren’t doing anything, but the police turned violent in order to smash their spirits. But I don’t think it has to do directly with the police, I think the authorities in Israel are corrupt these days. You have prime ministers under suspicion, a president who is a rapist and is doing time in jail now. So when we wrote the script for Rabies we had this scene with the cop who’s molesting the girl, and the producer came over and said, ‘This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Israel,’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about? We have a president who’s just been tried for molesting women inside his chambers’. So I think we have a problem with authority figures, a lot of people are under investigation in the government.

NK: I think we can call ourselves a bit patriotic because we love Israel, but we don’t love the way that things are run over there. It’s a complex thing to say, because a lot of movies that come out of Israel only criticise the country in the way they treat Palestinians, and we’re saying that first of all we have to question ourselves. And the movie is also about that, because you have a corrupt policeman, a man who is a politician or a lawyer, very high up, and a teacher who is suspected of being a paedophile. So they’re all the authorities that we grow up with in life, and something really needs to change. But they should do more popcorn films in Israel, that’s the first thing we’d like to change.

There is also a strong fairy tale element in the story. Do you see the film as a dark fairy tale?

AK: Yes. We decided to take revenge on our parents, because they told us horrific stories before we went to sleep, and they were all about wolves, which are really paedophiles. That’s what we were told as children – stay away from the wolf, they will lure you in with candy. And we wanted to take revenge on our parents with a nice story before they go to sleep, and now my mother can’t sleep. That was the idea, to make a grown-up fairy tale, and that’s what’s happened, because every spectator who’s a father or a mother takes it much harder than young kids, who just like it because they see it as a violent genre movie.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Film4 FrightFest 2013 – Part 2


Film4 FrightFest

22-26 August 2013

London, UK

FrightFest website

We follow up Part 1 of our Film4 FrightFest 2013 coverage with more reviews of some of the most notable films in this year’s line-up. Below, Evrim Ersoy looks back at his highlights from the programme.

Cheap Thrills (E. L. Katz, 2013)
One of the best films to grace the screen at Film4’s FrightFest, E.L. Katz’s debut feature is a heady concoction of morality tale and unrestrained thrill ride. Pat Healy plays Craig, a sometime-writer who’s down on his luck, working blue-collar jobs to make ends meet for his wife and kid. On the day he’s going to ask for a raise, Craig finds himself fired. Too depressed to head home, he stops off at a local bar only to run into Vince – a high school buddy who works as a collector for a loan shark. Before you know it, the two are having a drink, and it’s not long before they’re joined by a couple, Colin and Violet, who are out to celebrating her birthday.

How the story proceeds is half the fun in this unexpected, impossible-to-guess tale, which marries strong characters with plausible plot developments and creates its own odd, offbeat rhythm. As the stakes get raised further and further, the whole debacle becomes more and more difficult to watch – however, it is to the credit of the excellent script and brilliant direction that it’s almost impossible to tear your gaze away from the screen. Boasting perhaps the most brilliant final shot of any film this year, Cheap Thrills is an incredible opening gambit from a clearly talented and promising creative team. Do not miss it.

Watch the trailer for Cheap Thrills:

Dark Tourist (Suri Krishnamma, 2013)
Michael Cudlitz stars as Jim, the titular ‘dark tourist’ who spends his holidays visiting a serial killer’s locations, including the murder sites. However, Jim is much more than who he first seems, and as he gets closer to two women – one a waitress at the diner and the other a prostitute who occupies the room next door at his hotel – his dark nature is slowly and shockingly revealed. Suri Krishnamma’s exploration of one man’s tortured soul can be, by and large, considered a failure: although Michael Cudlitz gives a decent performance, the material itself is so weak and fractured that nothing can really save this mess of a movie.

Mistaking general stereotyping for character study, Dark Tourist goes through the clichés of every descent-into-hell study and comes up with even more hollow statements to make. Fitting every impulse neatly into black and white categories, the film is nothing more than a glorified TV movie, with perhaps some of the worst insights into human nature seen on film. All in all, there’s nothing new in the world of Hollywood’s understanding of the whys and hows of the creation of monsters – the answers are still simplistic and banal, even with the wealth of information and resources available.

Watch the trailer for Dark Tourist:

Odd Thomas (Stephen Sommers, 2013)
In the tradition of Hollywood thrillers of the 80s like The Burbs, Odd Thomas is a delightful, offbeat yet mainstream film that will be sure to please those looking for some old-school thrills. Anton Yelchin plays Odd Thomas, a short-order cook with the ability to see dead people, who uses his powers to bring killers and murderers to justice. Addison Timlin plays Stormy Llewellyn, while Willem Defoe is Chief Wyatt Porter, who knows about Odd’s powers, and helps to keep them hidden.

Stephen Sommers keeps the whole film lighter than a ball of marshmallow, while the set-pieces and special effects are impressive enough for a film clearly not made on a big budget. The central mystery is simple – for once it’s nice to see a thriller where there aren’t complicated layers after complicated layers – it’s a true Hollywood case of good guys vs. bad guys, and Odd Thomas is not a lesser film for it. Clearly trying to attract as wide an audience as possible, this is a breezy, fun-ride reminder of how good Hollywood mainstream can be when it chooses to. Delightful.

Watch the trailer for Odd Thomas:

The Last Days (David Pastor, &#192lex Pastor, 2013)
Taking the typical apocalypse scenario, but putting it through one of this year’s more unique reincarnations, The Last Days is a glossy, character-driven drama with some real heart.

The time is now. Humanity develops a severe form of agoraphobia overnight, with those daring to venture outside immediately dying. Everyone is stuck exactly where they were when the illness struck, with people trying vainly to access the subway tunnels to be able to travel. Marc is an office worker who is desperate to get back to his girlfriend, who he is sure is still alive. He finds himself teaming up with new colleague Enrique, a corporate downsizing expert. The two men form an uneasy alliance, which will see them confronting the very best and worst of human nature through a fallen Barcelona.

With a threat that is almost completely internal, The Last Days eschews the usual horror of the infected or zombies for something a bit more cerebral. While the descent into unruly behaviour apes those seen in other apocalyptic films, directors David and &#192lex Pastor keep the story moving quickly enough for the audience not to become irritated by these similarities. Terrific central performances from Quim Guterrez and Jose Coronado keep the audience rooting for these two everymen, who also seem to represent figures from Spain’s recent economic downturn. Only a divisive third act threatens to derail what has been an engaging series of set-pieces; however, the film is assured enough to let the audience determine the meaning of the final 20 minutes. All in all, it’s an admirable and terrific effort, definitely worth seeking out.

Watch the trailer for The Last Days:

V/H/S/2 (2013)
If the first film was a tentative but flawed attempt to breathe some life into the well-worn anthology format by combining nostalgic longing and creepy storytelling, this second instalment represents a coming-of-age of the most over-the-top kind: like the unruly brother who bursts in the door at the most importunate moment, V/H/S/2 is loud, brash and brilliant.

V/H/S/2 will be released in UK cinemas by Jade Films on 14 October.

Veering from the sublime to the outrageous, V/H/S/2 is a terrific combination of talent and ambition. Most of the stories are not only technically impressive, but also combine terrifying scares with laugh-out loud moments. Without spoiling any of the storylines, suffice it say that the four segments vary from alien abductions to strange cults, with eye transplants and zombies in between. Standout segments from Gareth Evans and Jason Eisener impress and astonish in equal measure, however, the talents of other directors (especially Adam Wingard’s tender Carpenter tribute) must not be ignored. V/H/S/2 is an engaging, brilliant sequel, which deserves a huge audience to enjoy it loud and big at the cinema – an almost perfect Saturday evening film.

Watch the trailer for V/H/S/2:

Snap (Youssef Delara, Victor Teran, 2013)
Although it seems far too lazy to define a film in terms of its music, there’s no other way of explaining Snap, a psychological thriller deeply settled within a dubstep rhythm.

At first glance, the story is familiar: Jim Whitman is a shy musician who spends most of his time alone at home. When he finds himself drawn to Wendy, a social worker, and Kevin (played by the brilliant Scott Bakula), it seems that he might be able to step outside his comfort zone for the first time. However, Jim’s inner demons are not willing to let go without a fight, and the scene is set for a distraught showdown.

None of the elements are new, but it’s what the film does with them that surprises. Snap treats the audience as equals, and rather than relying on unnecessary twists to make the narrative seem interesting, it focuses instead on the characters, slowly painting portraits of lonely, isolated and damaged people thrown around by the waves of life. Jake Hoffman excels as Jim Whitman, at once charming and yet sinister, while his battle with his own psyche might be one of the better portrayals on the screen for a long while. The sound design also deserves a mention, with the loud and disruptive soundtrack affecting the very nature of the film, with the abrupt jumps and the sudden cuts adding to the overall atmosphere. This is a very assured effort from two young directors and is well worth a watch.

Watch the trailer for Snap:

Evrim Ersoy

Film4 FrightFest 2013 – Part 1

We Are What We Are
We Are What We Are

Film4 FrightFest

22-26 August 2013

London, UK

FrightFest website

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.

Dark Touch will be released on DVD in the UK on 13 October 2014 by Metrodome.

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.

Big Bad Wolves will be released in UK cinemas on 6 December 2013 by Metrodome.

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 will be released in UK cinemas on 15 November 2013 by Studiocanal.

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 We Are What We Are will be released in UK cinemas on 28 February 2014 by Entertainment One.

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.

Virginie Sélavy

American Mary: Interview with Jen and Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle

American Mary

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 January 2013

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: FrightFest

Directors: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

Writers: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska

Cast: Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren

Canada 2012

103 mins

Sexy and horrific, shocking and thoughtful, gorgeous and freakish, humorous and disturbing, American Mary sent a blast of fresh air through FrigthtFest back in August where it wowed the horror crowd. It opens in selected UK cinemas today, with the DVD and Blu-Ray release following shortly on 21 January.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger in John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s 2000 Ginger Snaps) plays Mary Mason, a medical student whose moral signposts are pushed further and further out by financial necessity as she is drawn into the underground world of illegal surgeries and extreme body modification. The second feature by Vancouver twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, following Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), it is a boldly original conflagration of rape-and-revenge story, psychotic doctor/sadistic nurse characters and fetishist world with a feminist twist. Mary may indeed appear in sexualised fetish outfits, but she is no typical victim or mere eye candy. Disenchanted and angry against those she used to look up to, she uses her fine skills with a scalpel to stand up to the authority figures who have abused their power.

American Mary is a film with tremendous heart as well as terrific cinematic qualities. Complex and morally ambiguous, Mary is capable of repulsive acts, but never loses our sympathy. The body mod characters are handled sensitively, with the Betty Boop-like Beatress Johnson and Barbie-wannabe Ruby Realgirl equally grotesque, fascinating and moving. Ruby Realgirl in particular is a tragic character, provoking only violent disgust when she finally achieves the mass-market doll’s asexual sexiness she had longed for so much. In that as well as its main character’s story, American Mary brilliantly deals with the contradictions and pressures, but also the possibilities and variations, of modern female identity.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Jen and Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle about the monsters of the filmmaking industry, the importance of Ginger Snaps and making a feminist horror film.

Virginie Sélavy: American Mary seems like a big leap from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). What changed?

Jen: We had a little bit of money (laughs). A tiny bit more. But we knew we had no money when we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk so we picked grindhouse filmmaking, so hey, if there’s a few flaws that’s OK, that’s the style. With this one we wanted to show people that that’s not all we’re capable of. It’s more of a love letter to European and Asian cinema, especially as we’re such big fans of horror. Horror movies can be beautiful and operatic, I was really proud to be able to do that with the second film.

Sylvia: Dead Hooker in a Trunk was really to say, ‘here we are’, and American Mary was to say, ‘here is what we can do’. The main thing that changed was us in every way. When we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk we were super young, we were very ambitious, our hearts were on our sleeves, you can really see that. And then in American Mary, we’ve seen a lot of monsters, we’ve battled a lot of demons…

Jen: …and now we’ve become psychotic surgeons

Sylvia: … and we’re little bit pissed off about it! (laughs)

Yes, I read in an interview that what happens to Mary is a parallel for what’s happened to you in the world of filmmaking.

Sylvia: Very much so. It just became a little more honest than I originally intended because we wrote it in two weeks, and I was thinking, I just need to put something in there that I can relate to, and I put a lot of personal stuff in there. And when you put a lot of personal stuff in a film, it’s more than just you who sees it. It was nice to have that kind of dialogue because I know a lot of working women come into contact with a few monsters, even working men, and it was nice to hang those monsters up in a storage locker.

American Mary can be described as a rape-and-revenge story to some extent. Did you want to bring a fresh spin on that sub-genre?

Jen: I think the way we shot it was definitely something we wanted to put a spin on. And to say that it’s rape-revenge, I think that Mary went through a lot of things in the film that kind of tear away at her, and no one event is more than the other: having to compromise her morals with the surgery at the beginning and then the surgery with Ruby, and then finally those two sacrifices that she makes to continue with her medical profession, and then she finds out that the people she’s idolising are not exactly what she was hoping for.

But most rape scenes are shot to be completely gratifying to men, and we even had some notes, ‘you’ve got to make sure that Katie’s tits come out at some point’, and we said ‘absolutely not’ because then, not that I have something against nudity, but the main thing that everybody would be talking about would be, ‘oh here’s Katharine’s breasts, oh my god, how fantastic’.

Sylvia: And considering how rape is one of those things that is rampant in our society, and almost shameful to even mention, if you show it in the horrific light that it is and people are like, ‘it is a very long and upsetting scene’, I’m like, ‘yeah, because if you are in that situation you don’t get to cut away’. A lot of it is on her expression and on his expression. I love watching how difficult it is for people to watch because it is realistic, it is real horror, and it is what a horror film should have.

It was a huge and welcome contrast to rape scenes in some of the films that showed at FrightFest last August. Do you feel you’ve made a feminist horror film?

Jen: Very much so. When we have films like Twilight, that go under the guise of ‘this is a female’s film’, my god, I hope that’s not a female’s film, because I think back in the dark ages a woman defined herself by who she’s with, and men defined themselves by what they do professionally, and to go back to pining over two guys, what about your own life? The writer of Twilight said that she was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just blew my mind because this is a very self-assertive woman who is in charge of her own destiny with some guys in the background. We also took the crap of why doesn’t Mary leave with the guy at the end, or why does she not get the guys to fight her battles for her. I think there is such a lack of women fighting their own battles that are portrayed in films.

Sylvia: Yeah, it’s an agenda of making women seem weaker and subservient and I just couldn’t stand that, especially after the horrific event that happens between her and her mentor, people are like, ‘why doesn’t she cry?’ And I’m like, ‘how many movies have you seen where something horrific happens and the female character is crying and then calling someone else to help her?’ No, I don’t want to see that anymore.

Katharine, do you feel you play a feminist heroine in the film?

Katharine: I absolutely do. I’ve done a few horror movies and it’s absolutely refreshing. The character of Mary on paper has no redeemable qualities. She’s not that pleasant, she’s not that kind, she has no friends, she has no family. She’s very narcissistic and self-absorbed, and that was refreshing in itself. I tried my best to make the character likeable without sweetening anything, without dumping any radical rigid feminist plotlines and themes! (laughs) I think it was the most true-to-life character that I’ve ever had the opportunity to portray because all the time in film women are, like Sylvia said earlier, those sort of easy bake kind of cookie images, like the slut, the tease, the good girl next door. And to have a character that was so multi-dimensional, that didn’t have any particular redeeming qualities, but was still likeable, was still strong, was still interesting and stood up for herself and gave not one fuck about anyone else, or what anyone else thought, or what anyone else expected of her, is something that I think we need to see more of in film and in society in general.

You played another very important horror female character in Ginger Snaps. She was also something refreshingly new.

Katharine: Yeah, I’m really blessed to have been given those two girls, Ginger and Mary. In Ginger Snaps, I was 17, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But that’s what she says in that movie, a girl can only be a bitch, a slut or the girl next door, or something like that. And it kind of came full circle for me with American Mary, it’s like maybe that’s what would happen to Ginger if she didn’t end up being a werewolf – she’d be a weird psychotic surgeon! (laughs)

Sylvia: That’s really interesting because when I was a teenage girl Jen and I were called the Fitzgerald sisters because we were so similar and dark, and that movie got me through a lot of things, being teased a lot, mocked, and I got a lot of strength from those girls. And now you’re playing this next decade of a same kind of power female – now I’m going to have to write a forty-year-old! (laughs)

Jen: We actually have a forty-year-old housewife role…

Sylvia: It’s fun to see that, because you were not only a big part of my growing up as a teenager but a lot of girls growing up as teenagers, and to get you to do this next step is really interesting.

You deal with body modification in a complex and sensitive way. What led you to set the film in that world?

Sylvia: We wanted to have people from the real-life community: they don’t take off their horns, they don’t put their tongue back, they don’t change, it’s their life choice. And more often than not people are going to judge them because of this choice of how they feel more comfortable in their own skin. This is probably the first movie that just focuses on the body mod culture and I wanted to have a good first introduction. I wanted to have respect for the people who looked over the script, the people who came from the society to actually play themselves and be authentic, and it was my goal to do these people a proper representation. And some people will always be ignorant but I hope it educates and shows that these are just people, just like if I got a Mohawk it’d still be me, it just doesn’t change anything.

Jen: You’d look cute with a Mohawk.

Sylvia: I’m going for it.

American Mary will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21 January 2013 and opens at UK cinemas on 11 January 2013 (Frightfest).

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Watch the trailer:

FrightFest Glasgow 2012


FrightFest Glasgow

24-25 February 2012, Glasgow

Part of the Glasgow Film Festival

FrightFest website

FrightFest Glasgow, part of the Glasgow Film Festival, keeps growing, and this year it presented no less than 11 features, as well as shorts, exclusive teasers and special guests from all over the world.

Among the features I saw, Penumbra (2011), from Argentine directors Adrián and Ramiro García Bogliano, was a morality tale about greed. On the day of a solar eclipse, a money-loving, promiscuous businesswoman, Marga (Cristina Brondo), makes a lucrative property letting deal with a mysterious stranger, Jorge (Berta Muñiz), who is acting on behalf of a wealthy client. But to get the cash payment, Marga has to wait as Jorge’s various shady associates arrive at the apartment. Wittily choreographed ensemble scenes, together with Marga’s dealings with a hapless neighbour lean towards a farcical comedy of manners, and Jorge steals the show with a camply hysterical anticipation of his client’s arrival. The film is at its most sinister immediately after the deal between Marga and Jorge is done: in a paranoia-inducing sequence, a tramp covertly directs a stream of vicious verbal abuse; when she retaliates, she appears to overreact and is censured and shunned by the locals. A classic horror trope, this is played with dark comedy, and the comic moments are the saving grace of the film throughout. Sadly, the humour is absent from the final part, and the punchline – that the darkest forces come from within – lacks weight.

The Manetti brothers’ L’arrivo di Wang (Wang’s Arrival, 2011), largely centres on an interrogation between a gruff, increasingly aggressive secret service agent (Ennio Fantastichini) and Mr Wang (Li Yong), a Chinese-speaking extra-terrestrial who claims to come in peace but nevertheless is bound and eventually tortured for information. Gaia (Francesca Cuttica) is interpreter, witness and, ultimately, fellow captive. A film about culture, communication and prejudice, this is no District 9, but it is thought-provoking in its own way, for example managing to make an emergency call to Amnesty International absurdly comic, and generating a compelling tension mostly from the three-way conversation between the engaging leads.

Anthony DiBlasi’s Cassadaga (2011) packs in a plethora of horror devices, including a cross-dressing serial killer in a frumpy dress and a sensorially impaired (deaf) heroine who has a connection to a murder victim. It’s popcorn fun with a variety of references and genuinely spooky ghost appearances, the best moments of suspense deriving from the heroine’s Nancy Drew-like sleuthing exercises.

Extras around the billed features included The Other Side, directed by Bethanie Martin, a well-executed and atmospheric short reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, pitting the grey, factory-like lines of uniformed school pupils/office workers against visceral impulses and raw red meat. Federico Zampaglione presented seven minutes from the opening of his new film, Tulpa, in which a beautiful woman in bondage witnesses the brutal stabbing and castration of her lover – warm applause and cheers peaked as Zampaglione announced, ‘It’s a giallo!’ The Manetti brothers showed a FrightFest exclusive teaser for L’ombra dell’orco (Shadow of the Bogeyman), which they are currently editing. There was much enthusiasm from these filmmakers and FrightFest organisers about the idea that these films mark the beginning of an anticipated imminent resurgence of Italian horror. Fans should look out for these films at London’s FrightFest in August.

After the screening, I asked the Manetti brothers if genre or story comes first. There was no hesitation: for them, the story takes precedence. Marco explained: ‘Genre is a mechanism to get deep – that’s the strength of it. People think genre is superficial but it allows you to get deeper into a problem. Horror amplifies the problem. Comedy and horror are the most difficult genres because they must touch the stomach.’

A savvy audience, waiting for its stomach to be stirred, and reciprocally generous relationships between them, the festival and the filmmakers: FrightFest provides the ideal conditions for a fun exploration of genre filmmaking.

Jo Shaw

The Films of Larry Fessenden


Larry Fessenden is a prolific figure in the world of horror. As a director, he has made only five full-length films, but he has produced and starred in over 40 other features. As actor and producer, Fessenden’s films range from B-movies, best watched after several drinks on Halloween night, to cult classics in the making by up-and-coming directors. However, as an auteur filmmaker (he produces, writes and stars in most of the films he directs) he has brought a refreshing new voice to a genre that seems too often unwilling to experiment – ironic for a type of storytelling that is all about the fear of the unknown.

At this year’s FrightFest, he spoke on stage as part of a panel of his peers (Ti West, Lucky McKee, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Andrew van den Houten), who are almost exclusively directors of slasher movies and ‘torture porn’, and, with the exception of McKee, have done little to innovate. Hilariously, these directors had the arrogance to complain about big-budget horror remakes in recent years being helmed by ‘unknowns’ – second-unit directors and editors of Hollywood schlock. But the truth is, their own output is barely known outside of the cultish clan of aficionados with a high tolerance for the drivel often found at horror festivals.

Fessenden’s work is also little known outside of the pages of Fangoria or independent video shops, but in his four horror films (his 1985 Experienced Movers has rarely been seen since its year of production) and one TV episode, he has established himself as a terrific filmmaker. First was a thoughtful trilogy that commented on the classic tropes of horror films – Frankenstein in No Telling (or The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), vampires in Habit (1995) and werewolves in Wendigo (2001) – followed by The Last Winter (2006) and Fear Itself: Skin and Bones (2008), in which he further explored the myth of the Wendigo.

In Native North American folklore, the Wendigo is a kind of cannibalistic spirit with a shape-shifting exterior. In Fessenden’s films, the Wendigo’s appearance changes, depending on who is telling the narrative. In Wendigo, it first appears (or rather, doesn’t appear) when the members of a family who survive a car crash all encounter different aspects of an animalistic shape, one part sticks rustling in the wind and one part fur-covered Arctic predator. Here, the Wendigo has some kind of amorphous role in protecting its environment, but the link between the creature and the land is made more explicit in The Last Winter. As a multinational company starts drilling in the Arctic tundra, the humans who have braved the lethal environment encounter the spirit: first as a flock of birds, ready to peck out the eyes of anyone crazed enough to stay outside to the point of hypothermia, then as madness that drives the men into the cold, then as an enormous shadowy figure made of smoke that stalks the land at night. Finally it appears as a flock once more: dark, velociraptor-style predators gorging themselves on the human remains. In The Last Winter, Fassenden presents the monster as a monitor and destroyer of the men who encroach on its territory or endanger the planet. In his TV episode Fear Itself, Fessenden reveals it to be the animal within, as a character in the show transforms into the Wendigo.

Fessenden is interested in the ambiguity of horror and of storytelling, and in unreliable narrators. Fessenden challenges every aspect of mankind, from our position at the top of the food chain, to being subservient to an eco-system we try to master, to the unreliable perception of the environment itself. Science fiction wouldn’t be a challenging enough genre for this kind of storytelling – although the director flirts with it in No Telling when a mad scientist experiments on the animals in his care. Fessenden wants to disrupt, to unsettle and to disturb, while keeping an ecological leitmotif in all of his horror films, except Habit (and even then, perhaps, the transformation of man into vampire is a type of evolution).

Since 2001 his films have been beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, evolving from his more underground, ultra-low-budget roots to slick verisimilitude, which seems comparable to the work of the Coen Brothers (if they only worked in horror). The only flaw in the director’s tales is his unwillingness to provide his films with a definitive or satisfying ending – but if horror is to disturb and unsettle, perhaps one should leave the cinema with the sense of a drama left unresolved. Certainly with Fessenden, the journey to a final door left ajar is always one worth taking.

I spoke to Larry Fessenden immediately after the panel discussion on modern horror at 2011’s August FrightFest.

Alex Fitch: You spoke eloquently on stage about how you had a love of classic horror films as you were growing up, of RKO films like King Kong, and then in the 1960s, films like Night of the Living Dead. But, as well as an interest in those classic horror tropes, something that’s very prevalent in your movies is your anger about how man is destroying our environment. What sort of experiences in your formative years created that anger?

Larry Fessenden: I’m not impressed with people who put on airs, and I think the whole of humanity has that element. I had a passion for thoughtful and eccentric people – I went to a great school when I was young, and I thought that was the way of the world. Then when I went out into the real world, I saw that many people were faking it, and were un-genuine, and would call on the name of a religion in a false way. So it’s an anti-authoritarian thing. I also grew up going to Cape Cod and liking nature, respecting it. I’m not an outdoors man, I just believe in respect for your elders, and there’s nothing older than the Earth. Although some in America would question that, too.

In films like No Telling, humanity has manipulated evolution for our own survival. When it comes to presenting that on film, horror is a very good way of doing it, but how do you avoid making it just an issue movie?

Well, some people would feel that I do preach – at least in No Telling, I think things got carried away. There’s a central scene where they’re arguing at a dinner table, and the point I’m making in that scene, which the casual viewer sees as preachy, is how we can’t communicate. You go to parties and people do talk about politics, and you walk away and you realise you can’t change people’s minds. I find that fascinating. So, in a way, I try to have movies where there’s some dialogue about a situation. But then there’s the reality that you’re showing cinematically, and then the one that trumps it – because reality will trump all this conversation. You can say something like global warming is not true, but the fact is, there’s going to come a time when it simply is true and then you have to deal with that.

That basic betrayal of our potential as a species and as individuals is really what drives me. Habit is about how that guy cannot rise above his alcoholism, cannot find his better self, and that’s the tragedy of humanity, I think. That’s why my movies are personal, even though they have this political veneer. If you deal with the environment, people will be defensive, because in our heart of hearts, we all know that we are part of the problem, which I also find interesting and horrific. It’s really what I love about horror – it’s the truth-teller of the genres. I don’t want to make movies that preach about politics, I find that uninteresting, so I have a monster come along, and that vindicates nature!

I suppose the supreme example of that is Wendigo, because it’s very much about the myth of a creature on whose description no one can agree.


It seems very brave of you, that unlike a lot of filmmakers, you will show that it looks different to many people. To the audience that can be frustrating, but there’s an honesty there.

I believe that if you show the monster in different ways, you’re getting at the essence of another theme that interests me, which is the subjective nature of reality. I mean, to one character in Habit, his girlfriend’s a vampire; to his friends, she’s an interloper, taking away his attentions from their party life; and then in the end, there’s a very subtle thing where you realise that both stories are true. He’s either fallen out of the window alone, or he’s fallen out with her. I love this slippery reality. I believe in a very deliberate ambiguity in storytelling because that is how life is. It’s appalling, sometimes, when you talk to someone and realise they hold a different view, and they’re absolutely coming from a genuine place. You realise it’s hard to connect, and it has to do with their upbringing, and every subtle thing that creates a human personality is in play – I like to show that in movies. I think the nature of horror is that it allows you to delve into issues of split personalities, of unreliable narrators and untrue, slippery reality.

The ambiguity of horror films seems to be an antidote to the encroaching apocalypse presented constantly in the news. You spoke on stage about the August riots on the streets of London – but if society is going to collapse, maybe it’s these communal myths that can bring us together again?

Well, that’s also my business. In my films, I’m trying to show not which myth to follow, but how important myths are to give us meaning – because otherwise you’re left with a very bald, desperate reality that is amoral. So I celebrate, and I want people to acknowledge, that if you are clinging to mythologies and your world view is formed for a reason, then you can at least get a window into someone else’s world, and that gives you some hope. I really think the pinnacle would be to make a film that created a new paradigm for people to get behind, and that’s why I’m trying to suggest that could be nature in some way. It’s funny, most people think that my movies are about nature getting revenge and being threatening, but I’m saying: ‘Have awe. Have respect.’ I’m not really saying it’s a baddie. But you realise you can be easily misinterpreted when you’re dealing with something so primal as our relationship to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not interested in The Exorcist type of film, because it’s dealing with God and the Devil, and I’m like, ‘Let’s stop talking about good and evil and let’s look at this whole other paradigm.’ So, while I’m not going to single-handedly save the world, that is my preoccupation, to sort of put forth a new way of looking at our reality, and if we could agree on that, then maybe we could get to this business of saving ourselves!

Interview by Alex Fitch