by Gareth Negus
If I start by saying that the film I enjoyed most at Frightfest this year was a 40 year old reissue, it might sound like a cheap shot. But as that film was The Devil Rides Out, one of several vintage Hammers spruced up and showing to plug their imminent blu-ray release, it really isn’t. All the same, this year’s festival did raise a few questions about the state of contemporary horror, with the best films tending to be those that looked back in some way to past glories.
Guest of honour was Dario Argento, who in some respects is the Woody Allen of horror. He started out as a writer for others before rising to prominence as a writer/director in the 1970s, with his best work being done while in a long-term relationship with an actress (Daria Nicolodi) who appeared regularly in his films. Since their acrimonious break up, he has tended to produce films that are at best (Sleepless) retreads of familiar ground, while his worst leave long-term admirers praying for that elusive return to form.
Whether Argento’s latest – a 3D version of Dracula starring Rutger Hauer – represents a return to former glories remains to be seen, as the Festival was unable to secure a screening. We were assured that’s because the film is due a proper release next year – though whether that’s an actual national release or a week in the Apollo West End before the DVD hits the shelves is another matter. (If it’s the former, I will eat my hat.) Either way, Argento seemed cheerful and even stayed sanguine at the prospect of a US remake of his classic Suspiria. And though we were denied his work on screen, the Italian flavour ran through much of the programme, including the documentary Eurocrime (which I sadly missed, but was reportedly excellent), the neo-Giallo Tulpa, and the superb Berberian Sound Studio, reviewed on Mostly Film by Indy Datta and by me here.
Argento’s early giallos led to his being labelled ‘the Italian Hitchcock’. In fact, the most Hitchcockian film this year came from Spain. Jaume Balaguero’s Sleep Tight has a great performance from Luis Tosar as the misanthropic janitor of an apartment block who is stalking Marta Etura, largely to relieve his own sense of ennui. He takes to drugging his victim every night and sharing her bed. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant and dangerous man, yet Tosar and Balaguero achieve the trick of having you root for him in a number of suspenseful sequences in which he is nearly caught.
Curiosity of the Festival was Nightbreed: the Cabal Cut, a recut version of Clive Barker’s 1990 film that incorporates sections of the original release along with extensive material recovered from VHS. The film was chopped about by the studio, and sank like a stone. The current cut is a much closer adaptation of Barker’s novel Cabal, though is still described as a work in progress. Technically, that’s certainly true as the 20 year old VHS material inevitably looks awful, especially in the night scenes. But the real problem is that, while there does seem to be a film in there struggling to get out, it’s clearly designed to be part one of a trilogy that the author shows little inclination to complete. Whole characters – the Priest in particular – are included purely to set up events in the still-unwritten sequel. It’s an interesting project, but you can’t help feeling Nightbreed‘s time has been and gone.
The most worrying element of this year’s FrightFest was the amount of sexual violence on display. Perhaps it was down to unfortunate timing; coming hard on the heels of news coverage of Julian Assange’s determined efforts to avoid sexual assault charges in Sweden, and sundry American politicians making even dumber statements than usual, may have made some more sensitive to the issue than usual. But there did seem to be an uncomfortable amount of raping taking place on screen. I’m not suggesting horror films should avoid featuring rape – it is, after all, horrible – but as something that happens far too often in real life, it should be treated responsibly. And a lot of it seemed very, very casual.
Credit should go to the opening film, The Seasoning House, for at least treating the topic of sexual abuse seriously. Set in a Balkans brothel, it features an excellent performance by Rosie Day as Angel, the mute girl who prepares the captive whores for their clients. She has also discovered she can traverse the house through the air vents and crawlspaces. When the soldiers (led by Sean Pertwee) who killed her family and abducted her pop in for a visit, she takes her chance for revenge.
This is horrible subject matter, and it’s to director Paul Hyett’s credit that he makes the business of sex trafficking and rape look as thoroughly squalid and unerotic as it must in real life (in fact, the house is such a depressing tip that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting aroused within its walls). Unfortunately, the film makes a couple of missteps toward the end. Moving out of the confines of the house dissipates the tension (a common failing of location-specific horror; even Speed slows down once they’re off the bus). But my real quibble – and this is a spoiler alert – is with the final scene, which goes for the “heroine thinks she’s escaped but is actually going into one of the bad guys’ house” rug-pull. It’s a disappointingly schlocky move from a film which had seemed concerned to avoid exploiting its characters, and reduces its avenging angel heroine to the level of dead meat in the manner of a Friday the 13th sequel.
But if The Seasoning House is cheapened by its ending, that still puts it streets ahead of Hidden in the Woods. This thoroughly repellent effort from Chile, directed by Patricio Valladares, is based (or 70% based, according to the creators) on a true story; it throws incest, rape, cannibalism and the kitchen sink into a frenetic brew that just leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The portrayal of men is also pretty offensive. There isn’t a single male character in the film who does not attempt to either exploit, torture or assault the heroines. Presumably the intention was to be so extreme as to provoke laughter, but its lack of empathy left me cold.
Though Hidden in the Woods was the worst offender, it’s memory made me more uncomfortable with the less explicit sexual violence in other films than I might otherwise have been; it leaks into rather too many segments of the found footage anthology V/H/S, for example. So it was a relief to discover American Mary, which though also featuring a rape scene, tells the story from the female protagonist’s point of view rather than simply observing the act. It might seem too easy to point out that this was the only such film at the festival to be directed by women (sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska), but I hardly think it’s a coincidence.
American Mary stars Katharine Isabelle, who hasn’t been nearly as high profile as she deserves post-Ginger Snaps, as medical student Mary Mason. Strapped for cash, she applies for a massage job that leads to a lucrative spot of emergency surgery on a gangster’s knife wounds. This coincidence leads Mary to discover the subculture of body modification, where people willingly undergo the kind of surgery that you can’t get on the NHS. This is a subculture I haven’t seen explored on screen before, and coupled with Isabelle’s performance made this one of the most unexpected pleasures of the Fest. Unfortunately, the Soskas seemed unsure how to end the film, but while the resolution feels random and unsatisfying, the film overall is wholeheartedly recommended.
Light relief came from the likes of Cockneys vs Zombies, which was better than I expected but not much (Rec 3 had better jokes), and the excellent Grabbers, which mixes Tremors and The Guard to highly entertaining results. We were also offered two relatively mainstream films about Dads whose ickle daughters are targeted by evil forces. Already in cinemas, The Possession is a very watchable ‘based on a true story’ potboiler from Sam Raimi’s production company, but I preferred Sinister (pictured above). Due out in October, this one stars Ethan Hawke, on good form as a true-crime writer who makes the bad decision to investigate the unsolved death of a family some years previously. From the makers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, it shares the latter’s ability to craft effective, old-fashioned jump scares (avoid the trailer if you can – it gives most of them away) but thankfully avoids its third act descent into abject silliness.
Overall, this year’s FrightFest programme felt patchy and sometimes uncomfortable. There’s nothing new about horror films treating its characters solely as victims rather than people, but that trend occasionally reached levels that made the films tough to enjoy on any level. That doesn’t mean I won’t be back next year, of course.
Maybe I like being tortured.
Gareth Negus tweets at twitter.com/GarethNegus