FrightFest 2008 Roundup

Another year, another FrightFest.

Here are a number of horror movie clichés I could do without in the future:

  • A blood-covered girl being chased in the woods as a hook to start a film
  • A woman being captured, locked up, and tortured
  • Stating at the beginning “Based on actual events”
  • Yuppies being menaced by psycho assailants
  • Creepy mirror scenes that aren’t scary enough
  • Comedy horror flicks that have more gore and rubbery intestines than story or funny lines
  • Oh gosh, the bad guys are kids!
  • The countryside is occupied only by crazies – even if you escape, you can be guaranteed you’ll fall back into their clutches just as you think you’ve evaded them

So, what were the stand-out films?

In my opinion nothing tops the Swedish vampire film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). John Ajvide Lindqvist wrote the screenplay, which was an adaptation of his novel of the same title, and Tomas Alfredson directed the film with great sensitivity. It gets extra credit since the title comes from a Morrissey song, “Let the Right One Slip In”:

Let the right one in
Let the old dreams die
Let the wrong ones go
They cannot
They cannot
They cannot do what you want them to do
Oh …

The film centres around the relationship between twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and his new neighbour, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who is “Twelve… more or less”. At its heart the film is about the desperate need for friendship, especially when you’re young, bullied, and lonely. The two outstanding performances by the young actors, the poignant story, and the restrained but lyrical direction make this a memorable film and a very welcome addition to the vampire film canon.

After watching the film I bought the novel, because if the film is that good than I expect the original material is even better (and I’m looking forward to learning more about the back story of all the characters). The film will get a UK/Irish release in the Spring, and I expect to watch it again if it turns up in a cinema near me.

Another film to watch is Los Cronocrímenes (Time Crimes), a low-budget Spanish time-travelling film, which was written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo. The film is intelligent, with a light touch, and well-crafted. Just when you think you know what’s going on Vigalondo twists the story again. After watching a lot of films that were only on nodding acquaintance with the concept of a plot, it’s a great relief to watch one that thought everything through to the end.

Chugyeogja (The Chaser) is a South Korean film written by Won-Chan Hong, Shinho Lee, and Hong-jin Na–the latter also directed the film. This film straddles the line between being bleak, funny, and touching without ever straying into melodrama. Our anti-hero Joong-ho Eom (Yun-seok Kim), is an ex-cop, and now a pimp who has lost three girls in a short period of time. He quickly sees a pattern to their disappearances: they were all hired by the same man before they vanished.

The film is set over the one night and day as Joong-ho becomes increasingly emotionally involved in saving Mi-jin Kim (Yeong-hie Seo). This is a film that has one of my movie clichés (girl captured and tortured in a house), but it works because it’s not the central focus of the film, but rather the ticking clock that motivates the characters.

The best horror zombie romp was Dance of the Dead. Joe Ballarini wrote the script, and director Gregg Bishop gets extra kudos for thanking his screenwriter as soon as he got up on the stage to introduce the film. It’s a good job he did, because the story, characters, and dialogue have that extra polish that elevates this above the usual guts and gore zombie flick. It features a bunch of teenagers in jeopardy on prom night, but there are enough new twists to make this very entertaining fare. It’s probably the best horror comedy I’ve seen in years. You’ll love the way the zombies jettison themselves from their graves.

There are three British films that held my attention for various reasons. Mum & Dad, written and directed by Steven Sheil, neatly avoids the worst excesses of the “girl captured and tortured in a house” by showing the awful consequences for rebellion early in the film, and concentrating on the characters and the complex relationships in this bizarre family situation. Unfortunately, I’ve seen films like this before, and while I appreciate the excellent acting, and the sense of complex character dynamics, part of me wonders why this film is being made again. Still, it’s a fine version of this kind of film.

The Disappeared, was co-written by Neil Murphy and Johnny Kevorkian, and Kevorkian also directed the film. This is an effective ghost story, in which Matthew Ryan (Harry Treadaway) must follow the clues that will uncover the secret to his younger brother’s disappearance. Effort has been made to establish credible and interesting characters in this film, and there are several creepy scenes that work very well, but overall the film could have been a touch shorter.

The Dead Outside was the only film directly solely by a woman, Kerry Anne Mullaney, and she also co-wrote it with her producer Kris R. Bird. This is an ultra low-budget film set in the Scottish highlands, which deals with the aftermath of a plague that has turned people into raving crazies who attack everyone on sight. Not the most original idea, but the execution of it avoids the usual tropes.

Two survivors meet and form a friendship despite all the horrors they’ve experienced. The filmmakers had the sense to slowly release the information about the back-story to the audience, and to keep certain elements deliberately vague. Instead, it focuses on the sense of isolation, and the importance of the friendship between the protagonists. The pacing judders in spots, but what was most amazing to learn was that the entire project was drafted, cast, and shot within a six-month period. The film is low on production values, out of budget necessity, but the filmmakers quite rightly realised that this made it more important to have interesting characters and an actual storyline.

Another solid film is From Within, which was written by Brad Keene and directed by Phedon Papamichael. The story is set in a hyper-Christian Midwestern town in the USA. After a suicide of a teen from the local “bad family”, a strange series of apparent suicides follow. This is one of the many “don’t look in the mirror” films that were shown at FrightFest this year, and was probably the best of them. This movie should prove popular with the fanbase of the Supernatural TV series since it features a good-looking cast, and a rather fine moody young man. The film provides enough scares and storyline to keep you interested, and the actors all put in believable performances. Having a story to work with, and credible dialogue certainly helps.

Midnight Meat Train proves that if you give Vinnie Jones a role in which he must prove physically menacing, but not speak, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s directed by Ryuhei Kitamura and the screenplay is adapted by Jeff Buhler from the original Clive Barker short story. Actor Bradley Cooper plays Leon Kauffman, an up-and-coming photographer, who wants to take pictures of the city at its most realistic (that means gritty and cruel, a

pparently). In the process he spots Vinnie’s character, called Mahogany, who is a butcher, and rides the trains at odd hours in the morning. Leon gets a little obsessive about the man, which worries his waitress girlfriend, and their investigations unearth the truth about the bloodiest train journey in the world, and its ancient purpose. There are lots of gory scenes in which Vinnie wields a hammer with deadly skill. The final exposition at the end is kept carefully sketchy, which is a good thing, as it’s a bit too preposterous to take seriously. However, the film works well for what it is, and is one of the better Clive Barker adaptations. I could have done with a bit more complexity, and a little less of the silly girlfriend antics, but it could have been worse.

What about the films I didn’t like? The first film of the festival, the British thriller/horror Eden Lake annoyed me immensely. Not only were there Yuppies being menaced by working class yobs, but they were in the woods, so there was a lot of running around. I despised the ending, with its flat “what can you expect, look at their families” morality. The good acting and sound direction just can’t save me from the message of the film, which seems to indicate that we should all be afraid of young, working class kids.

The Strangers is a stylish but ultimately empty film. It starts off well, but at least twenty minutes from the ending I just wanted everyone to get on with dying. This is the problem with films that indicate the ending right at the beginning. It also features rather vapid Yuppies being menaced for no good reason. There are a number of particularly stupid decisions made by the characters, which seems to be de rigueur for this kind of horror film – one gets the impression that the characters do everything to make the life easier for the plot, rather than because of character motivations.

Freakdog is a cross between Grey’s Anatomy and The Entity, without the wit and originality of either. Since this was directed by Irishman Paddy Breathnach (it’s written by Spenser Wright), it gives me no pleasure to dislike it. It’s a bunch of clichés (unpleasant well-to-do medical interns break the law and then are in fear of losing their careers – oh noes!), set in a location that doesn’t look American, with a cast of characters that aren’t particularly charismatic, and many of them struggle with an American accent, although the lead actress, Arielle Kebbel, does her best with the material. It’s not scary, no one speaks with any credibility, and the plot is entirely predictable.

The film, The Subsitute never arrived, so instead we got its substitute, El Rey de la montaña (King of the Hill). Of its type it’s fine, but there is nothing new here in premise, despite the fine execution and acting. A young man takes that one wrong turn off the road in rural Spain and ends up being hunted, along with a young girl. There’s an interesting shift in POV in the story about twenty minutes from the end, which worked enough to elevate this above the usual fare.

I quite enjoyed the schlock Trailer Park of Terror, which features a trailer park full of demons who are intent upon butchering anyone who stumbles into their domain on a dark and stormy night. Nichole Hiltz is charismatic as Norma, the leader of the demonic trailer trash gang, and the film shows promise for the first hour by its story-within-a-story structure. Once the demons began their a-torturing, however, I lost a lot of my initial enjoyment. I know some people appreciate the gruesomeness of over-the-top dismemberment scenes, but they rarely do anything for me. I thought several of these later scenes bogged the film down, and drained it of its essential fluids. If you like horror comedy flicks this is worth the price of a DVD rental.

Jack Brooks Monster Slayer is harmless enough of its type: rubber monsters, slapstick, and explosions of ichor. Robert Englund does his job as the possessed professor who becomes a ravenous monster, and there are the usual scenes of people running around, while others are turned into crazed creatures. The beginning and ending sequence were entirely superfluous to the film, however.

The French film, Peur(s) du noir, made a nice change of pace because it was animated. It consisted of several stories stitched together without much of a framing device, which lent it a fragmented feeling. A couple of the stories were better than others. There were beautiful and clever scenes animated with confidence and style, but it didn’t quite bring the film together as a cohesive whole.

The Japanese film, Tôkyô zankoku keisatsu (Tokyo Gore Police) kept me awake at its late-night-showing because of its downright weirdness. This is a film that revels in its outlandish mutated monsters, and isn’t afraid to marry it with strange sexual fetishes. There was one scene of racism that was so wrong and overt I almost thought I’d been transported back a decade or two. Like Robocop (to which it owes a lot), it peppers the film with hilarious advertisements, which indicated a sly subversive sense of humour. It’s all drowned out as the film moved towards the inevitable scenes of monsters of different levels of difficulty being attacked. The film would have been better if it was shorter (a regular observation of the weekend).

I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer is a cheap and cheerful Aussie low-budget number, that celebrates its scenes of cricket-inspired mayhem. It’s devoid of originality, but at least it’s aiming for fun lowbrow humour, which it delivers most of the time.

Rovdyr (Manhunt), is a film about young middle class people being chased by the Norwegian equivalents of rednecks out in the forest. Cue scenes of running about, and barbaric acts by laconic woodsmen. I did like the 70s era credit sequences, and the film is competently made and acted, but there isn’t anything new here. Again, I had to wonder why someone thought it would be a good idea to make another one of these films.

We’re back to girls being tortured in Martyrs, although since it is a French movie the director/writer had a philosophy behind why this was happening. It still doesn’t take away from the fact that there’s a good twenty minutes of watching a defenceless woman, who is chained up, being beaten into a pulp, before the final torture. All for the greater good, it seems. That’s all right then.

The budget of the final two films that played at FrightFest probably could have funded twenty or thirty of the lower-budget films I watched during the festival. Neither of them is particularly memorable.

First is Mirrors, a film that had the potential to be a spooky mirror haunted house affair, but turned into Keifer Sutherland running about, tracking down clues, and trying to solve a mystery (sound familiar?). I likened this film to fast food: easy to consume but forgettable. I doubt I’ll recall much about it by the end of the month.

Death Race has almost nothing to do with the original film upon which it is based (the cult classic Death Race 2000). It’s now a prison break movie combined with a racing film that features armoured cars with mounted weapons, and a race track that’

s more like a video game (which should make the computer adaptation pretty easy). There are plenty of chases, fights, and explosions. If you’re in the mood for mindless entertainment then this should hit the spot.

I didn’t watch Scar 3D, Bubba’s Chili Parlour, The Broken, and Autopsy, so I can’t comment on them, although I don’t believe I missed much from what I was told.

As usual with FrightFest there are pros and cons to seeing so many horror films over a short period of time. It’s a useful snapshot of the industry, and its current trends, but it also highlights the deep unoriginality of so many movies. Any film with a half-decent story immediately stands out. Sometimes I might be more forgiving of a film seen during the festival because it gave me a laugh, or it held my attention, but equally there are some films that I might have cut more slack if I hadn’t watched them with the common horror herd.

I’m not sure what horror film directors and writers have against women. After watching so many films that were dedicated to chasing and/or torturing women I must wonder what is afoot here. This is not a random, unusual case, but a resonant strand in the horror tradition that is disturbing to contemplate.

As usual the FrighFest organisers put together a wide range of material, and it mostly ran to schedule – even if there was very little time to eat between the shows, especially if there was a Q&A scheduled after the screening with the director. I’m sure I’ll be attend again next year, when it will move location to the Empire on Leicester Square. Let’s hope I won’t have to endure too many films that indicate that the countryside is scary, and populated only by murderous slackwits who are handy with weapons, and who enjoy hunting and maiming women.