a long post about a frightful weekend

There is always a period of catching up that is required after any trip abroad, no matter how short. Just sorting out my email can take half a day.

As usual I had a brilliant time at FrightFest in London. It was my fourth year attending the genre festival, and it was the strongest programme, and the best facilities that they’ve organised thus far. We were in the Odeon West End again this year, but in the 800-seat theatre downstairs, which has comfortable seating, air-conditioning, a big screen, and a thumping sound system. Many of these elements are essential when you’re sitting on your ass for four days in a row.

I’ll detail my favourites films first, in the order in which I saw them.

A charity screening of Severance kicked off the festival, earlier than usual, on the Thursday night. The theatre was packed, and the director, writer, producer and actors were all present for the viewing. The screenwriter, James Moran, has detailed the experience from his point of view on his blog.

What stood out for me with Severance was the quality of its writing, and the strong direction. It’s a black comedy with horrific elements, and the balance in tone is maintained with adroit skill. It’s a pleasure to watch a film where the director and writer know and understand the conventions of the horror genre, and play up, and subvert, the expectations in clever and funny ways.

It’s a very British film, with a cast of characters that would not be out of place in an episode of The Office: there’s the bloke, the ineffectual manager, the practical woman, the second-in-command (who’s holding everything together), the pretty girl, and the dork. They’re co-workers who are participating in a team-building weekend in the company lodge in the back woods of Eastern Europe. Their company sells munitions to foreign countries, and some of its past dealings arrive to take revenge upon the unsuspecting group.

A strong cast and skilful writing prevent the characters from falling too deeply into caricature. You care about these people, and want them to survive. This to me is a key element in horror films. There are several moments in the film that are poignant, such as when Maggie (Laura Harris) covers the mouth of Billy (Babou Ceesay), who has just been injured, as they hide from a man stalking them. There is a genuine frisson in this scene, which shows that Severance is operating on a much higher level than most horror flicks. After a rush of mutilations and deaths Maggie shoots her attacker in the head, just to be sure. If only more characters in horror films acted with such pragmatism.

The film even manages to inject subtext into its film in relation to companies that deal arms and interfere with countries in transition. The film could have established the back story a little better, and I got the feeling that perhaps this had been scaled back from earlier drafts. There’s enough there to keep you from asking too many questions during the film, and the action and gags keep the momentum going. The music is well-chosen, and often provides an ironic commentary on the events.

Severance was a strong start to the festival, and was very well received by the crowd.

The following morning I skipped the three classic Hammer films, because I had to drop something from the schedule, but otherwise I sat through every other film and short screened at FrightFest.

Friday evening was kicked off with Guillermo del Toro’s superb fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), which received a 22-minute applause at its showing in Cannes.

The film details the arrival of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero ) and her heavily pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to the mountain outpost of Carmen’s new husband, the cold and brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi López). The Spanish Civil War is over, and the fascist government is mopping up those who resist the new regime.

Ofelia is a dreamer who loves fairy tales, and misses her father. She and Vidal do not hit it off, but she finds companionship from the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). Ofelia discovers an old labyrinth close to the house, and is told that she is the reincarnated soul of the daughter of the King of the Underworld. If she completes three tasks she will be returned to him and rule as a Princess. Like in most fairy tales, the tasks are frightening and dangerous. Intertwined with this story is the backdrop of a society in convulsion, which is dealing with its recent violence in a predictable fashion: with oppression and torture. Ofelia has to contend with worry for her mother, whose health fails during the end of her difficult pregnancy.

This complex fantasy is superbly acted, and has magnificent sets and creatures. The harsh realities of life in post Civil War Spain are mirrored in the scary fantasy worlds that Ofelia must traverse. It’s a story of growth, and the bloodshed that often accompanies it. At several points the film reminded me of Víctor Erice 1973 film, Spirit of the Beehive, which shows that Pan’s Labyrinth can easily be categorised as an European art film, as well as a fantasy. It’s a beautiful film, which does not shirk from the reality of the world even as it explores its fantastic reflection. Anyone who likes a strong story, good acting, excellent production design, and tight direction should go see this when it is released.

Frostbite is a Swedish vampire movie directed by Anders Banke, and written by Daniel Ojanlatva with help from Pidde Andersson. The film has many of the traditional vampire elements but is greatly helped by its setting in winter in Sweden (there will be no light for a month), its opening sequence, and its striking cast. At times the dialogue is a little clunky, and there’s at least one sequence that has no useful effect, but there are several quirky takes on the vampire mythos that elevate this film above the herd of fanged flicks.

There’s an analogy made between vampirism and drug taking, which is not unusual, but works in the setting of teens popping pills without much consideration for what they’re taking. There’s also a comical story thread that follows one young man’s descent into vampirism just as he meets his girlfriend’s parents. An exploration of the vampire’s ability to talk to animals is dealt with in a humourous fashion. Some of the special effects are a bit creaky in places, but that’s forgivable for a film with enough interest to carry you along. It was aired during the midnight slot at FrightFest, which means the story and plot have to be strong enough to keep your head from nodding towards your chest, and it succeeded on that level for me.

I’m always nervous when an Irish film is screened at FrightFest. I want it to be enjoyable, but equally I know that Ireland does not have a proud heritage of horror films. Recently they’ve either been mediocre or garbage.

Thankfully, Isolation is a horror film that won’t embarrass Irish lovers of the genre. This despite the fact it deals with genetic experiments on cows, is set on an isolated farm, and features travellers (usually given stereotypical representation in Irish films at best). Any of these elements could spell disaster, but writer/director Billy O’Brien wisely chose to steer his film as a strict horror/thriller flick. The direction and writing is tight, and a likeable and interesting cast bring their characters to life.

O’Brien shoots most of the action at night, which adds to the dank and eerie scenery. Several scenes give a subtle nod towards Alien, and Ruth Negga proves that she will be

one of Ireland’s star actresses in the future. Although, I should not single her out, since John Lynch is solid as John, the Irish farmer in the brink of ruin, Essie Davis is believable as Orla, the Vet overseeing the experiments, and Marcel Iures is great as the mad scientist. Sean Harris puts in an admirable performance as the young traveller, Jamie, who is hiding out with Mary (Ruth Negga) from her family.

I’d like to see more films from Ireland of this nature, which treats the horror/thriller genre with respect and innovation.

The Living and the Dead is a tragic but compelling film from British writer/director Simon Rumley. The story revolves around an aging couple, Nancy (Kate Fahy) and Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd Pack), and their mentally-challenged son James (Leo Bill). Donald is a Lord, and his crumbling mansion is a metaphorical expression of his wife’s physical illness, his son’s permanent disability, and the difficulties in their relationship that centre around the duality of love and hate.

Simon Rumley and Kate Fahy talked about the film afterwards, and it’s incredible that they pulled off this art-house film on such a tight schedule and on a constrained budget. The performances are uniformly brave and honest. Leo Bill must be congratulated in particular for his insight to his character.

Most of the story revolves around the truly frightening horrors of illness and disability. When Donald leaves for a short trip James locks the nurse out of the house. James becomes increasingly disturbed and unstable as he forgets to takes his medication, and his ability to take care of his weakened mother is dangerously impaired. The sequences that are shot from James’ point of view as he falls into unreality are some of the most powerful in the film, and the use of sound adds an extra dimension to these scenes. With the excellent sound system in the Odeon cinema it was almost unbearable at times, which was the point. It’s a tough film to watch at times, but is well worth the trouble.

Much of the enjoyment of watching Puritan comes from its distinct noir atmosphere, with its gorgeously-lit sets, and the fine acting from fake psychic Simon Puritan (Nick Moran), and the lady in trouble, Ann Bridges (Georgina Dylance). Ann is in an unhappy marriage to media ego-mogul Eric Bridges (David Soul), and a tryst arises between her and Simon. Things proceed in usual noir fashion, along with the occasional appearances of a badly-burned stranger who seems to know the future. Woven into this love triangle is a back-story about the history of the White Chapel murders in London, and even Aleister Crowley gets a mention.

Writer/director Hadi Hajaig, and most of the cast, turned up to discuss the film afterwards. My main complaint about the film is that I would have liked to see more of the sub-plot. Hadi admitted that there was more of it, but it was excised from the film while it was in development. Despite this quibble, Puritan is a fine example of modern noir, and Hadi should be congratulated for his approach to funding, and his desire to distribute his film on his own.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon benefited from the fact that it was slotted in on the last day and after a streak of grim films. We all needed a laugh at that point, and this film came as a relief. It’s a mockumentary in which a film crew, featuring girl reporter Taylor (Angela Goethals), follow Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), who is in preparation for his appearance at Halloween as the next big supernatural killer.

Directed by Scott Glosserman, the film is co-written by him and David J. Stieve, and is a funny and knowing dissection of the horror genre and its tropes. Baesel plays killer-in-the-making with conviction and humour without wavering into slapstick, and Taylor is strong as the reporter who realises that she and her crew have stepped over a moral boundary into a murky area. Robert Englund makes an appearance as a Van Helsing-type character, just as another nudge in the ribs to the audience. It’s a witty film with enough tension to keep the audience’s interest, and plenty of in-jokes for lovers of the genre.

The last film of FrightFest was the fantastic Korean monster movie, The Host (Gwoemul). It’s directed by the Joon-ho Bong, who delivered the impressive 2003 film Memories of Murder. In this film Bong clearly demonstrates his ability to direct a high-action film that packs in plenty of laughs along with a few heart-breaking moments. The film is well-written by the trio Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong, and Won-jun Ha.

As with a lot of monster movies, The Host concentrates on the effects of the rampaging beastie upon a family: in this case the Park clan. There’s the loving but simple father, Kang-du (Kang-ho Song) whose daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) is abducted by the monster that’s the result of reckless pollution from the American Army base into the Han River. The dysfunctional family is rounded out by the loving grandfather Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), the champion archer sister Nam-ju (Du-na Bae), and the cynical brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park).

Much of the drama comes from Kang-du’s attempts to recover his daughter despite the attempts of the government who wish to contain him and the situation, and who constantly disregard Kang-du’s attempts to communicate because of his low intelligence. The Park family rally together and escape the government’s clutches in an attempt to liberate Hyun-seo from the giant fishy beast.

There is a lot of play with conventions, and Bong really makes you feel for the characters. There is genuine fear for their safety at times – which is an essential ingredient for the success of such a film. The monster itself is weird, but never ridiculous, and the effects are top-notch, with only a couple of glitchy moments. There is a clever balance between the humour and the tension, and Bong twists enough expectations to surprise the audience.

It was a great up-beat ending to the festival, even though there are a number of dark and sad moments in the film.

At the top of my b-list is the ghost story The Marsh, by Canadian director Jordan Barker, and written by Michael Stokes. This is a well-directed, competently acted mystery that revolves around a past incident and a vengeful ghost. There is a quality to this film that reminded me of a good TV movie, and there is enough suspense and spooky moments to sustain your interest in the film. I liked the haunting scenes, and the overall design. The plot was a little too generic to raise this film above the bar, but it’s a sound and enjoyable film.

The Thai film The Ghost of Mae Nak was a last-minute replacement for the Pang Brother’s new film, Re-Cycle, which turned up at FrightFest without any English sub-titles. British writer/director Mark Duffield has put together a decent ghost revenge film, which is set in local Bangkok mythology about a woman who dies tragically and haunts a newly-married couple. The biggest problem with the film is that it’s about 20 minutes too long, and sometimes the characters seem to take too long to figure things out, but I suspect some of this could be because of the conventions of Thai cinema. It’s well worth checking out, however.

The French flick, Sheitan, squeaks in here on the basis of freakish originality. It had the tough midnight time-slot on Sunday, after a slew of gloomy films, and my interest didn’t flag and it kept me awake. It features a brilliant performance by Vincent Cassel, as a weird caretaker of a decaying mansion i

n the countryside. A trio of unsuspecting clubbers are taken to the house by a pretty young thing over the Christmas period. They are variously freaked-out and menaced by the inbred locals, while tucking into food, wine, and weed, and trying to score with the cute French girls. The set design is fantastically-weird at times, and there is a bizarre occult background story that utilises a fresh mythology. There are threads dangling at the end of the film, and there is a dubious attitude towards women in several places in the film (but, hey, that’s a common feature in horror films). Still, it stood out among some of the lesser-quality films I endured over the long weekend.

Hatchet is an admirable first film from writer/director Adam Green, which is set in the New Orleans swamp and has an unkillable deformed man picking off a bunch of hapless people who are marooned unexpectedly. Green’s film has just enough humour to keep this above the waters of mediocrity, and there’s plenty of gushing blood and dismembered corpses for those who like that kind of thing. The cast deal with the buckets of red corn syrup with style, and even put in good performances. There is a charm to the low-budget approach and genuine love of the genre exhibited in this film. The deformity = monster subtext bothered me, however, and it’s never addressed or even noticed. Lovers of horror gorefests will lap this up.

Treading water in the average waters of horror fare is the Hollywood horror/slasher flick, See No Evil, which is directed by Gregory Dark and written by Dan Madigan. This is standard stuff: wayward teens in a decrepit hotel are threatened and picked off by a monstrous man. If you leave your critical faculties behind then you might enjoy watching the new ways in which people can be killed. There are shocks and a couple of surprises, but it’s forgettable stuff. It’s the kind of movie that blurs in your mind after a couple of days.

I wasn’t impressed with Adrift (known as Open Water 2 in the USA), which opens in Europe today. Again, characters seem to be too slow in coming up with solutions to their predicament, and seem more concerned with gushing about their personal problems as death looms. Of course we want characters to have depth, but I find myself tuning out when their arc is highlighted. Perhaps I’d have liked it more if I hadn’t seen it as part of this festival – which is something I could say about a number of these films. When you see a mass of films together each one needs a strong story to make a lasting impression.

Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror has a trio of horrific tales from the Hood, as narrated by Devon, Snoop Dogg in very little disguise. It’s directed by Stacy Title, and written by a quartet of writers. Again, this film had the difficult midnight slot, and I didn’t fall asleep. I was surprised to sheepishly enjoy this film in places, and by a couple of the cameo performances. As is usual in this kind of framed narrative, the stories are morality tales, in which people who step over some defined line get their comeuppance. It’s often stupid, but is saved by some funny situations and gory deaths. We are in rental territory here, and you might want to have a couple of drinks before watching it.

Some people said they enjoyed Them (Ils), which was co-written and directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, but it didn’t do much for me. I thought it was rather slow to start, and once the attractive couple was being menaced in their home it picked up, but mostly it was a lot of running around. I didn’t find the ending particularly disturbing either. Maybe it was the result of seeing too many films on the trot. It’s well-acted, designed, and directed, but there is a hollowness to the film. As if we are expected to say “isn’t that terrible” at the end, but without the context to that sentiment. It also had the “based on a true story” tag at the beginning of the film, which was a line I came to loathe at FrightFest.

Butterfly: A Grimm Love Story (Rohtenburg) is a film with all the ingredients for success: it’s based on the true story of the German man, Armin Meiwes, who dismembered and ate his willing victim. This version, directed by Martin Weisz and written by T.S. Faull, unnecessarily inserts an American woman’s point of view as a narrator of the story. Katie Armstrong (Keri Russell) is a graduate student with too much mascara and eyeliner (’cause she’s morbid, get it?) who is fascinated by the story of Oliver Hartwin (Thomas Kretschmann) who eats the flesh of Simon Grobeck (Thomas Huber), who agrees to the deal. Much of the story is told in extended flashback, with too much voiceover by Katie. Kretschmann and Huber are excellent. The story is gripping when the film allows itself to be about them. Yet, it’s too worried that we won’t get it, and instead we have Katie gripping pillows and sobbing, and tearing out the tape that she went to so much effort to obtain and watch.

In a separate category is the documentary, Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water, which is directed by Alexandre O. Philippe. Philippe follows people who are obsessed about the Klingon language, as created by Dr Marc Okrand for the movie, Star Trek: The Voyage Home. Many people are interviewed for the documentary, including actor Michael Dorn (best know as Worf from the Star Trek TV series), Dr. Lawrence M. Schoen from the The Klingon Language Institute, and a number of fans ranging from the scary to the sad. A lot of the adherents of the language are linguists, who are fascinated by how a constructed language evolves and change. Others are rather strange individuals who dress up as Klingons and invest in the fictional culture and behaviour. Overall it’s an interesting insight into the group, and Philippe using rather arty settings to invest extra interest in his interviews. It’s a touch too long, and for those who’ve attended science fiction conventions there’s a lot of behaviour that will make you cringe (in memory).

Finally, I’ll come to a trio of flicks that are problematic. First is Broken, which is directed by Adam Mason. The opening quote implies that this is a film with a commentary on slavery, and instead is a rather pointless film, with continuity and logical problems. What the film is about is a survivalist-type man who kidnaps women. Then he locks them to a post outside his tent in the forest and gets them to scrub pots and tend a garden. Our heroine in this film is Hope (Nadja Brand), who does a decent job considering the brief.

I don’t enjoy watching women being tortured. There has to be a reason if it’s going to be a strong element in the film. This is one of the common problems I see in low-grade horror films: no sense of empathy for the victim. I love horror films, but unintelligent slasher flicks bore me. Or appal me, as we’ll see later. Hope does the typical female victim thing in Broken of not killing her captor when she gets the chance – and considering the circumstances it is beyond believable. Reason doesn’t come into it, however.

The Lost is written and directed by Chris Sivertson, and is based on the novel by Jack Ketchum. It follows the actions of young hotel worker, Ray Pye (Marc Senter), who is a sociopath, womaniser, drug-dealer and killer. The film begins with a “once upon a time” statement that wrong-foots the viewer about the tone of the film, but puts Pye front and centre as the protagonist. Therein lies the problem. The guy’s a killer, a narcissis

t, a liar, and a cheat, and yet the audience is meant to identify with him.

If you watch how the film is directed, you’ll notice that Pye is always the centre of attention. His rampage at the end is done with jokes that we’re meant to laugh with, yet he’s harming women (one of whom is pregnant) and a man. The final scene is quite wrong – we’re left with an image of his screaming face as he’s been shot, and presumably captured, yet there is nothing left for the people he’s maimed and killed. That’s not the point of the film. The film glamorises violence in a way that is dubious at best, and exploitative at worst because it’s done in a slick and pleasing fashion. Nearly all the violence is directed at women.

Then there’s the worst of the lot: H6: Diario de un asesino, written and directed by Martín Garrido Barón. The story begins with the unplanned and brutal murder committed by Antonio Frau (Fernando Acaso) of his girlfriend. It follows him 15 years later when he emerges from prison, and inherits a decaying guesthouse from his aunt. He marries, and sets up a torture chamber in room 6. There is a lot of voiceover in the film as Antonio documents the how and why of his murders.

First he murders a man (he’s poisoned), and then rapes and murders two women. These deaths are filmed in a completely gratuitous fashion, with the women wearing suspenders, high heels, and lingerie, and strapped to a table. Later he kicks a man down the stairs to his death. There’s pseudo-religious philosophy spouted for what he does, which is stupid and unbelievable (but the guy is insane). At the end, Antonio manages to get three years in jail and emerges once again, with money he’s wrangled from his wife. Again, the camera ends on him. As if his triumph is to be applauded.

What worst about the film is that it’s well directed, acted and put together. Why would this subject matter appeal? About half-way through the film I wondered why anyone would want me to watch this. Afterwards, someone admitted to me that he nearly walked out.

There is something fundamentally screwed up about cinema of this nature. Women are nearly always victimised, controlled, and made powerless. They are often tortured and raped. How is this entertainment? What does it tell us about the world? What insight does it give us to the killer or the victim? It’s not that such elements can’t be incorporated into films, but some intelligence is required, or a smidgen of self-reflexivity. The problem with these three film in particular is that they are signalling that they are about something other than being a straightforward horror/slasher, and yet when you look into them you see a void.

I’m not going to end my review of FrightFest on that note as it would do the event a disservice. Every year there are the good, the bad, and the in-between. This year the programme was stronger than usual, it was well-organised, and the facilities were great. Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, and Paul McEvoy should be pleased with their work, and I look forward to attending FrightFest next year.