a weekend of horrors

I’m back from my trip to London for the horror film festival FrightFest, and I had a lovely time. The weather was great, mostly, and I avoided the occasional showers. When I wasn’t watching movies, I strolled around Soho in the sun, bought a bowler hat, and met up with mates who’ve moved to the city.

This year I tried a new strategy in relation to the festival: don’t watch everything. There have been FrighFests in the past where I have attended every single screening over the five days. It’s not recommended, and impossible now since there are two streams of programming. This year I skipped all the late films, and avoided a couple that I was tipped off in advance weren’t worth watching.

First off the new venue – the Empire in Leicester Square – was a winner. Screen 1 is enormous with a tremendous sound system. The staff were attentive, polite, and the facilities were kept to a high standard. Nearly every film over the holiday weekend was sold out. The second “discovery” stream of films were in a very small theatre, and on the Sunday I spent a chunk of my time in there watching films I’d been warned not to miss.

There are three films from FrightFest that I have no hesitation recommending to everyone. None of them are American or British.

The first standout film is The Horseman, an Australian film written and directed by Steven Kastrissios. It features powerful performances by the entire cast, but especially by Peter Marshall, who plays Christian, a father who is dealing (badly) with the death of his teenaged daughter, Jesse.

The story unfolds in chronological disarray, which is never confusing. Christian is fuelled by a fury over the events around his daughter’s death, as well as guilt and grief over how his little girl could end up involved in the porn industry. He proceeds on a merciless crusade of revenge. Along the way he encounters a young woman, Alice (Caroline Marohasy), who is dealing with other troubles, and through their friendship they discover a new perspective on their problems.

Christian’s ruthless path of revenge results in graphic and harrowing violent scenes. Kastrissios does not flinch away in showing us how Christian makes the men pay for what happened to Jesse. The common refrain the men cry out is: “I wasn’t involved” or “It wasn’t my fault”, and Kastrissios makes the point that the industry is steeped in violence, drugs, and gangsters, and participation in some form ensures its continued existence. A hard film to watch in many ways, but highly recommended.

For me the highlight of the festival was the Swedish film Millenium: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor). Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg adapted the best-selling book by Stieg Larsson for the big screen, and Niels Arden Oplev directed the film. The English translation of the title of the film is actually Men Who Hate Women.

It clocks in at two and half hours, and I never felt bored or restless. It’s essentially a thriller, with a murder mystery story at its heart, but there are several horrific moments that mean it’s not for the squeamish.

Michael Nyqvist plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who has just lost a slander case against a big corporation, and ends up contracted by Henrik Vanger, an aging industrialist, to solve the forty-year mystery of his niece’s disappearance. Despite his reservations Mikael takes on the case and leaves his magazine, Millenium, for a year. Intertwined in the story is Lisbeth Salander, played by Noomi Rapace, a young female hacker, who takes an interest in Mikael’s case and eventually the two of them uncover conspiracy and family secrets as they shift through the details of the old enigma.

All the performances are fine, the direction and cinematography are excellent, and the story is gripping. If you like crime procedural dramas than this film will hit all your buttons.

Often, while watching films at FrightFest, I get the distinct impression that some horror writers/directors hate women. The message is clearly underscored in the countless scenes of rape and torture, the vehement “die bitch” moments, and the sense that women are merely posable dolls that you can position in gruesome scenes just to achieve some gory effect.

In Millenium: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all the violence is there for a reason, including a brutal rape scene that is never exploitative. There are at least three moments in this film where I held my breath out of shock at witnessing a woman do something I’d never seen depicted on a screen. Lisbeth Salander is never a victim, even when terrible things happen to her. She takes control of her life, refuses to submit to intimidation, and relentlessly pursues those who have wronged her.

This kind of behaviour is commonplace in cinema in relation to men, but it is so damn rare from a woman on the big screen. After watching the film I went out and bought Stieg Larrson’s first two books, and am enjoying the hell out of the first one.

My final favourite is the Canadian film Pontypool, which was written by Tony Burgess – an adaptation from his own novel Pontypool Changes Everything – and directed by Bruce McDonald.

Although it’s technically a zombie film, this is one that concentrates firmly on those who are threatened by a bizarre outbreak of riots and cannibalistic behaviour in the small town of Pontypool during a snowstorm. Most of the action takes place in a couple of rooms: the radio station for the town. The three main characters are the DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and his technician, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly).

The story is pushed forward by the dynamics of the characters, their dialogue, and their attempts to fit the pieces together of what is happening based on the information they receive from outside the studio. When the violence arrives it’s even scarier because you care about the threatened people.

This movie proves that provocative ideas, strong characters, and smart dialogue will keep an audience’s attention. So many horror films would be much better off if they pared back on the gore, and paid more attention to the story and characters. Every screenwriter should watch this movie.

My second tier of films are: I Think We’re Alone Now, I Sell The Dead, The House of The Devil, and The Descent: Part 2.

The documentary I Think We’re Alone Now, which is written and directed by Sean Donnelly, is rather grainy and almost slap-dash at times, and yet the two obsessed Tiffany fans – Kelly an intersexed person, and Jeff with Asperger’s Syndrome – make the piece fascinating. It’s at times both scary and depressing how two people can be so utterly fixated upon the 80s singer. Tiffany deserves a medal because she’s learned to be kind and generous to her more obsessive fans, and it appears that tack might even have helped Kelly move on a little.

I Sell The Dead is written and directed by Irishman Glenn McQuaid, and is a charming, genial movie about the exploits of two nineteenth century graverobbers Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). The framing narrative consists of Arthur in jail telling the monk, Father Duffy (Ron Perlman with a dreadful Oirish accent), about his career and his various run-ins the dead – including those that were a little lively. The film was a refreshing change of pace and I enjoyed the series of amusing tales. The characters are amiable, and t

here are comic book-style intercuts between the various stories. A promising start from this writer/director.

The House of The Devil proves that writer/director Ti West has talent, and shows great improvement upon his first feature film from four years ago, the killer bat yarn, The Roost. This stylish, slow-boil horror, is a homage to early 1980s movies with a nod towards occult classics like Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a simple premise: Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a strapped-for-cash student who obtains the job of babysitting for a night for good money. It involves being in a grand, old house in the middle of nowhere. West goes for atmosphere, and creepiness, with enough indications of horror to keep the audience engaged. There wasn’t enough of the occult elements for me, and I thought the final shot was a little predictable, but otherwise it’s a well-made and suspenseful film. Also, kudos to him for the casting of Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the eerie couple, Mrs and Mrs. Ulman. They were terrific.

There are no major surprises in The Descent: Part 2, except perhaps that it is better than expected. My hopes are low for most sequels. It’s written by J Blakeson, James McCarthy and James Watkins, and directed by Jon Harris. The events of the film follow-on immediately after the first film, where rescuers are attempting to locate the vanished women. The heroine from the first film, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) turns up, traumatised and with little memory of what happened. The local sheriff forces her back underground, and we have more scrambling about in close, dark spaces with nasty, blind creatures. Krysten Cummings is the best newcomer as the deputy, Rios, but most of the new cast are lightly-sketched and have a disposable feeling. I rowed behind the movie most strongly in the last half. There were several nice uses of artefacts from the previous film. I’m not a fan of the last couple of shots in the film, but since this movie now has the appearance of a franchise it’s to be expected.

I should also mention the two special events of the festival: the screening of the documentary about An American Werewolf in London, Beware the Moon, and the digitally-remastered version of American Werewolf. John Landis was at FrightFest for the screenings, and not only was he full of amusing stories, but he also stuck around the entire weekend and went to see lots of films at the festival. Aficionados of American Werewolf will enjoy the documentary, and I liked it mostly – although I felt it was too long, and spent too much time explaining every special effect used. It means that if you are working in film make-up and effects this documentary is well worth watching. I wish they’d played the movie first, and the documentary afterwards, as I thought it spoiled my viewing of the film somewhat. Still, American Werewolf remains a classic, funny horror film that entertains. It played very well to the audience.

Two films I’d put in the pizza-and-beer category are: Dead Snow (Død Snø) and Trick ‘r Treat. Dead Snow is written by Stig Frode Henriksen and Tommy Wirkola, and directed very competently by Wirkola. It’s a Norwegian Nazi zombie movie, which involves a group of friends out in an isolated cabin in the snowy mountains being menaced by Nazi zombies. That’s all you need to know. It’s got the usual gory zombie dismemberment and chase sequences, but it’s also well shot and edited, and exhibits a thorough (if not inventive) understanding of the genre. It’s the kind of film that plays much better with an audience of horror fans, which probably elevated my enjoyment of it.

Trick ‘r Treat is written and directed by Michael Dougherty (one of the writers of X2), and is a welcome return to the horror anthology movie. There are four stories woven together over the course of one Halloween night. It’s amusing, a little gory in places, features interesting characters, and a creature called Sam (who appeared in Doughtery’s first short film “Season’s Greetings” in 1996). It’s somewhat disparate, however. The weakest story is the one featuring the girls’ night out, with the best being the kids’ trip to the stone quarry. It’s a fun movie for friends on Halloween.

Now we’re down to the films that show promise but were led astray by poor execution, or a disregard for basic storytelling. Triangle, is a British film written and directed by Christopher Smith. The acting and direction is decent, but as the story progresses one gets a unsettling feeling that the writer/director did not have an iron-clad vision of exactly what is going on (this theory was proven correct when the director took to the stage after the film was screened). It’s basically a time loop story that reveals a little more about what’s happening as it progresses. It resembled last year’s superior Los cronocrímenes (even to the point where both protagonists disguise themselves in a similar fashion). Smith is clearly talented, but the story needed more rigour and clarity.

The Spanish film Hierro originated as a story by Jesus de la Vega and Javier Gullón, was written by Gullón and directed by Gabe Ibáñez. Thematically it’s reminiscent of The Orphange. A woman who works in oceanography loses her son while crossing by ferry to an island, and then suffers from a phobia of water. A couple of months later she’s called in to identify a body washed up on the island, is stuck on the island for a few days, and proceeds to search for her son following some clues. The problem is that the story is rather dull and slow-paced, but is almost redeemed by Ibáñez’s direction and the incredible beauty and inventiveness of several dream sequences. Still, there’s a rather disappointing denouement, and the brilliant visuals don’t save the film from its lassitude.

The Shadow is a confused film by Italian musician Federico Zampaglione, that bears too many similarities to Jacob’s Ladder. There are two many turns where the film switches from one genre (being pursued in the woods) to another (scary torture by weirdo), to a final very unsatisfying conclusion. Still, there are interesting sequences, especially those that revolve around Mortis – played by the extraordinary actor Nuot Arquint. I fully expect Arquint to turn up in horror films again, since he is so physically arresting on the screen.

Dread is based on a story by Clive Barker (from The Books of Blood), and is adapted and directed by Anthony DiBlasi. Supposedly it’s an exploration of fear, as a disturbed young man Quaid (Shaun Evans), tries to break through the fears of his new friend Stephen (Jackson Rathbone) and Cheryl (Hanne Steen). I’d prefer if the story had forefronted the undercurrent of sexual attraction between Quaid and Stephen (it seemed obvious to me), instead of sublimating it into the other female relationships. Perhaps that’s why Quaid likes to torture people – especially the women. I’d have preferred if the film arrived at the “real” fear study earlier in the film, and had explored that properly, instead of using it to offer up rather tiresome and shallow observations. It looks well (as long as you don’t mind greenish light and peeling walls for a lot of the film), and it proves that Jackson Rathbone has all the makings of a star (and maybe an actor, if he’s allowed).

I can’t say anything about the French film La Horde as r

eviews of it are embargoed currently since it will not be released until next year. It has two directors and four writers, and I’ll leave you to contemplate that fact.

The two films I disliked the most were Zombie Women of Satan and The Hills Run Red. The first is merely stupid, and has only a clutch of funny lines: nothing to redeem the poor acting, direction, and questionable material. You would need a lot of beers to find this one entertaining.

The Hills Run Red was written by John Dombrow and David J. Schow, based on a story idea by John Carchieta, and directed by Dave Parker. It’s better produced and directed than the previous film, but the actors are uncharismatic, and nearly everyone in it is unpleasant or dull. This is the typical torture film, in which the worst excesses of violence are saved for the women. It has the whole gamut: incest, mutilation, dismemberment, rape, and torture. The last image is of a woman, imprisoned, screaming as the camera lingers on her anguish. I wish this was an unusual gambit in horror cinema, but it’s not. Afterwards, the director got on stage and bemoaned the fact he had to cut “the extended rape scene”. Whoever made that suggestion has my thanks.

Finally, a special word about Heartless, written and directed by Philip Ridley. This film infuriated me because it showed so much promise. Ridley puts great visuals on the screen, and there are solid performances from all the actors. It really takes off when the protagonist, Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) makes a kind of Faustian bargain with Papa B (Joseph Mawle). This results in the appearance of the Weapons Man (Eddie Marsan) for the best scene in the entire film. This cosmology is the most interesting aspect of the film, but in the last ten minutes of the film Ridley throws it all out with a dismissal of the events as fantastical. In my opinion this is a director who doesn’t want to be labelled as a horror director, and hopes to pass his work off as “art”. His boast when he got on stage that he’d “invented a new genre of horror cinema” is a good indication of his discomfort at being a horror director (no, he’s a special horror director). There’s also the excruciating cliché of “fear of hooded youths” which is well worn in horror circles.

Once again the directors Adam Green and Joe Lynch put together a collection of little films especially for FrightFest to entertain the crowd, this time themed around An American Werewolf in London. The pieces are amusing and sarcastic, and Green and Lynch are not afraid to poke fun at themselves. It turns out that these sequences of small horror buddy films have landed them a TV series in the USA called Coffee and Doughnuts. Good for them.

Once again the fab four (Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy and Greg Day) put together a well-organised event with a diverse selection of films, and plenty of directors, writers, and actors supporting the films. It’s the best venue to date, and I look forward to attending next year.