Assignment: Terror

Gareth Negus creeps from behind the couch to let us know about the best and worst of FrightFest 2011

“But … but – where are the bees?” Britania Nicol in The Wicker Tree

Horror is a broad church, and the FrightFest 2011 programme reflected that.  37 films, mostly British or American in origin but with a solid international selection, meant most people could reasonably expect to find something to upset or repulse them.

I managed 24 features, including a few I’d previously seen at Edinburgh.  Let’s get the real turkeys out of the way first.  Rogue River was a poor ‘woman held prisoner by incestuous psychos in the American backwoods’ tale that was scuppered by more than usually ludicrous plotting.  Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered what The Blair Witch Project would look like if set on Dartmoor and with all the scares removed, then A Night in the Woods is the film for you.  The UK also gave us Stormhouse, which starts with a great, Nigel Kneale-ish premise – the military have captured a ghost and are doing experiments on it – but sadly ends up trying to scare us with a possessed basketball.

My least favourite sub-genre is the splattery gore comedy (The Evil Dead has a lot to answer for), and several of these were clogging up the schedule.  Tucker and Dale vs Evil was reportedly the best, but I must confess it was showing past my bedtime.  I did see Deadheads, which turned out to be a tolerable buddy zombie comedy; the fact that I took a nap in the middle had more to do with it being the final day than any problem with the film.  Sadly, I was awake throughout the dire Inbred, in which a bunch of young offenders run foul of hillbilly cannibal locals in Yorkshire.  It’s one of those films that seems designed to appeal to FrightFest weekend pass holders, and absolutely nobody else.  Though it did give us a bizarre (and very, very sub-League of Gentlemen) torture-porn circus led by a blackfaced ringmaster, it ultimately had nothing to offer beyond callous cartoon gore.

This is England, 2011: Inbred

I’m sure some people in the audience enjoyed it, though the biggest laughs seemed to be coming from the cast and crew.  But the FrightFest audience doesn’t help by cheering trailers for currently-in-production classics like Strippers vs Werewolves, and Cockneys vs Zombies. I can’t get excited about either: these are horror films that merely feed off past successes while offering nothing of interest  (though to be fair, the clips we saw of the latter included a good gag with Richard Briers outrunning a lumbering zombie with the help of his Zimmer frame).

The programme also included a hefty number of sequels and remakes (as well as a few that merely felt like remakes and sequels).  They weren’t all bad, by any means: Final Destination 5, showing a day before its national release, was the most fun this franchise has been since part II, and had excellent use of 3D.  Fright Night offered David Tennant doing a fine Russell Brand impression and did not disgrace the original, but had entirely superfluous 3D.

The opening film was itself a remake, though one carrying higher than normal expectations thanks to being produced and co-scripted by Guillermo del Toro (the director is one Troy Nixey).  Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was a 1970s US TV movie that imprinted itself onto a generation of future filmmakers.  The new version seemed to get a fairly mixed reaction from the crowd, though I personally enjoyed it.  In a recorded introduction, del Toro claimed it was designed for a PG13 certificate; a couple of minutes later we were watching a woman have her teeth broken with a chisel.  Have to say, I’m with the MPAA on this one.

Bailee Madison in Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

The film has something of the stylistic trappings of Pan’s Labyrinth, with a child discovering fantasy creatures in an old dark house, though it inevitably suffers by comparison.  The script plays up on the fairy tale aspect of the production design, tying its little monsters into myth (they are supposedly the inspiration for the tooth fairy, though this aspect feels inconsistently handled and doesn’t work particularly well).  Inevitably, the creatures themselves (men in costumes in the original, which didn’t completely convince) have been redone in CGI.  Equally inevitably, they are a lot scarier when scuttling around in the shadows than when seen en masse at the climax.  But if the attempts to open out the original don’t always come off, the work of the cast – particularly little Bailee Madison as the child the monsters want – does.

If that was the most anticipated remake, the sequel everyone wanted to see was surely The Wicker Tree.  Directed by Robin Hardy, based on his novel Cowboys for Christ (and thank God they changed that title) it is a companion piece to his classic, The Wicker Man.  Sadly, it doesn’t work at all.  It seems that Hardy understood all the elements of the earlier film, but not how to fit them together.  Though some of the appeal of The Wicker Man comes from its music, its portrayal of sexuality, and its exploration of a pagan belief system versus Christianity, its real power lies in its devastating ending.  Seeing Edward Woodward’s devout policeman finding himself cruelly betrayed not just by the islanders, but by everything he believes in, is painfully unforgettable.

There is no way to pull that off twice, which is maybe why Hardy doesn’t bother trying.  Instead, we get some broad satire at the expense of two American evangelicals (singer Brittania Nicol and her cowboy boyfriend Henry Garrett) while the locals set them up for pagan sacrifice.  Much of the humour is at the level of a Carry On film, and so is much of the supposed eroticism.  Made on an obviously low budget (we’re told Nicol’s character is a major star, yet she seems to give concerts to an audience of a dozen extras on her home turf), the direction is flat – there’s a scene early on where the villains conspire mere yards from their intended victim in a very echoey church that I can only hope was meant to be a joke, while Christopher Lee’s flashback cameo (as a character who may or may not be Lord Summerisle) is shoehorned in in the most clumsy manner imaginable.  The cast are game, but the tone never feels right.

Too stupid to live: Nathalie Kelley in Urban Explorer

Andy Fetscher’s Urban Explorer was an ostensibly original film that felt familiar.  A group of young thrillseekers enter Berlin’s closed-up underground in search of excitement.  Naturally, they get more than they bargained for.  Director Fetscher actually got arrested during production of this, his first feature, though the charge was trespassing rather than, as one might reasonably have assumed, the blatant theft of Wolf Creek.  Lack of originality aside, this lost points for having characters who were simply too stupid to live – if you’ve got the mad killer at your mercy, either finish him off, or at least tie him up!  These issues aside, the film was one of the more effective when it came to keeping the nerves jangling – a fairly central test for a horror film – and I would be interested to see future work by Fetscher.

One of the weekend’s highlights, for which there were a disappointingly large number of empty seats, offered some suggestions as to where these films go wrong.  Larry Fessenden, the actor/writer/director/producer who was the subject of the Total Film interview, had a fair bit to say on the status of the contemporary horror film and the people who finance them.  I had only recently heard of Fessenden, thanks to the new edition of Kim Newman’s book Nightmare Movies.  I subsequently watched the more recent of his four films as director, Wendigo and The Last Winter, both of which I would highly recommend (you can watch The Last Winter free on blinkbox.com).   Although he nearly got to direct a remake of The Orphanage, Fassenden – along with those whose films he produces, including Ti West, also a guest at the Festival – remains an independent, though what that gives him in artistic control costs him in ease of distribution (his first two films have never been released in the UK, and the brief clip of The Last Winter shown to introduce him looked much better on the big screen than it did on my laptop).  He was subsequently joined on stage by directors including West and Lucky McKee, for a discussion which chastised Hollywood’s love of familiar titles: remaking films that were specifically relevant to the times in which they were made.

So did any films engage with contemporary fears?  A number certainly tried.  Cristian Solimeno’s The Glass Man starred Andy Nyman, on fine form as a sacked businessman sinking deeper and deeper into debt, while hiding the fact from his wife (Neve Campbell, doing a very good British accent).  When menacing debt collector James Cosmo comes calling one night, he is offered the chance to wipe the slate clean in exchange for doing one favour.

Watching the ineffectual Nyman being trodden underfoot by life, unable to come to terms with his reduced circumstances, made for some of the more unsettling scenes of the whole Festival.  Unfortunately the film is poorly paced, with a major plot revelation obvious from a very early stage.  Once this has been confirmed, the film has too much screen time left to fill, and meanders to its inevitable conclusion.

The low budget Panic Button attempted to hit a few hot button topics to do with online privacy and how much of ourselves we inadvertently make public, but though slicker and more exciting than The Glass Man, it was ultimately a less serious piece of work.  Four strangers win a luxury trip to New York through their favourite social networking site.  But once in the plane, it becomes clear that sinister things are afoot; somebody knows all their guilty secrets and has brought them together for a reason.

I enjoyed Panic Button immensely at the time, but it’s not a film that would hold up to a second viewing.  Much of the pleasure came from the mystery of the faceless villain’s motive for tormenting the quartet; it’s a rare treat to watch a film where you genuinely cannot guess the end.  Once the reveal is out of the bag, you can’t help picking at the threads until the film starts to fall apart before your eyes (and the post screening Q&A included the worrying revelation that sequels have been talked about).  But if you can go into it blind, you get a well-performed, well-paced film that wrings an impressive level of tension from its confined setting.

I also very much liked Lucky McKee’s The Woman, a collaboration with author Jack Ketchum, upset one or two people at Sundance.  I knew nothing of Ketchum’s work, and it didn’t matter that the film is in fact a sequel to one of his previous novels.  The excellent Pollyanna McIntosh (who had to take her mum out of the screening for some of the nastier bits) stars as a primitive woman living wild in the woods who is captured by a hunter (Sean Bridgers).  He takes her home to ‘civilise’ her, a process which involves chaining her up in his cellar.  Already you should be asking yourself who the real savage is here; the question is pretty much settled as we see the man handling family disputes with his fists and turning his adolescent son into a smaller version of his sadistic self.

Though the subject matter makes the skin crawl, the level of on screen violence was lower than I had anticipated from the publicity (it was the one film Westminster Council had asked to see prior to the Festival).  Possibly this is because the film has a clear seriousness of purpose that makes the viewer accept that the violence is being shown for a reason.  Some will certainly question its gender politics; it’s plainly not a misogynistic film, but whether the ending is particularly positive is another question.

The evil that men do was also featured in Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps, apparently Switzerland’s first ever horror film (one of those big claims I’m always suspicious of; did anyone actually check?).  It’s inspired by an Alpine legend about three herdsmen who made themselves a makeshift ladyfriend from a broom and a rag; the devil brought her to life, only for her to wreak bloody revenge when they have their way with her.

The storytelling aims to keep us wondering whether the mute mystery woman (Roxane Mesquida) is in fact the Sennentuntschi or a mortal woman (the nice cop thinks she’s human, the local priest says otherwise).  There’s also some tricksy playing with the chronology that leaves you unsure for some time which scenes are flashbacks.  In its attempts to keep us off balance, the film asks us to sympathise with a number of characters, some of who are treating the woman in a thoroughly reprehensible manner – not something of which The Woman could be accused, and it’s a shame that treating the subject of abuse seriously comes second to playing head games with the viewer.

That’s about the size of it: Neil Maskell in Kill List

By the time this post is online, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List – one of the Festival’s most anticipated films – will already be in cinemas.  So you may well have read a number of reviews, most of which will say that it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.  They’re correct. Many will also say that it’s a film you need to see more than once. I’d agree with that too. So I will simply say that if there was a worthy successor to The Wicker Man at FrightFest, this was it: a British horror that follows one man’s inexorable journey into a nightmare (Wheatley’s nightmare, in fact: some scenes are based directly on his dreams).

Kill List is ostensibly about a soldier turned hit man (Neil Maskell) who is recruited for a series of murders by a sinister new employer.  But what starts as a crime thriller with a dose of domestic drama (it’s surely the only film at FrightFest this year to claim Mike Leigh as an influence) becomes increasingly surreal and uncomfortable.  It won’t please those who like a traditionally structured plot – at the end, there was vocal confusion and disappointment coming from the row behind me.  It’s possible that a second viewing might convince me that the film is in fact a pretentious exercise in style over cohesion (though I doubt it); but if so, better that than another torture porn clone.

Kill List was almost my favourite of the Festival, but it was just beaten by one of the most traditional films in the programme.  My highlight of the 2009 FrightFest was Ti West’s House of the Devil.  His follow up, The Innkeepers, is again somewhat old fashioned in style (though less ostentatiously so than Devil’s early 80s-style credits).  It’s a ghost story set in the Yankee Pedlar Inn (set, and shot, in the hotel where West and his crew stayed while filming House of the Devil) on its last night before closure.

Sara Paxton and Pat Healy star as Claire and Luke, the last two members of staff, a pair of likeable slackers who are attempting to find scientific evidence of the hotel’s long-rumoured ghost.  Having come up blank for months, sinister things suddenly start to happen, coinciding with the arrival of a psychic healer (Kelly McGillis).

Paxton and Healy are a delight to watch; she’s cute and slightly goofy, he’s laconic and funny.  They feel like real people, rather than figures who are simply waiting to be eviscerated.  Their bantering friendship is completely convincing (as is his crush on her), and for once the film offers a completely plausible reason for the pair to venture into the creepy cellar (they’re bored and drunk).  While I would have liked some more backstory on the hauntings, and more explanation for why the ghosts appear to be targeting Claire, this is a slightly-plotted but tremendously engaging film with perfectly timed scares.

The two best films of FrightFest: one classically styled and paced ghost story, one bizarre and threatening film that refuses to satisfy normal audience expectations of narrative.  Both created by directors in complete control of their material.  Perhaps 2011 wasn’t a vintage year for FrightFest, but among the mass of hackneyed or disappointing films, there are still distinctive voices to be heard.

Gareth Negus tweets at twitter.com/GarethNegus

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