Film4 FrightFest 2014: a review

Danni Glover brings you the pick of this year’s festival of fear, which ran at the Vue Leicester Square over the bank holiday weekend.

The Guest
The Guest

If I’ve ever recommended a film to you by saying “It’s weird, you’ll love it,” there’s a good chance I saw it at FrightFest and I’m not sorry. Unless the film was Switchblade Romance in which case I am actually a bit sorry for putting you through that. The festival is renowned for its spirit of community and army of devoted attendees, and for attracting some of the most innovative and surprising genre films the world has to offer. I’ve been attending for a few years and I always find it difficult to pick stand-out films because the quality is generally very high, and this year was no exception (nobody mention Shockwave Darkside 3D). These are the films to which I’d be excited to subject my friends, coworkers, strangers I meet in the pub, and MostlyFilm readers.

This year, the festival opened with the new outing by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, The Guest, aptly titled given that this was the first year Wingard and Barrett were in attendance. The pair’s films have always played exceptionally well at the festival, from their 2010 mumblegore A Horrible Way to Die, to last year’s home invasion epic You’re Next, with anthologies V/H/S/ and The ABCs of Death for good measure. Their films are always such a treat to watch because they have a palpable affection for their genre and they always look like they’re having fun, without the film feeling flimsy. Although The Guest is not a horror film in a straightforward sense, it’s no exception in its sense of delight in its own capacity to shock. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens gives a commandingly charismatic performance as an ex-Marine with a secret, visiting the family of a fallen comrade; I’m looking forward to more like this from him in the forthcoming Criminal Activities. Look out for a few You’re Next easter eggs if you get the chance to see this; it’s released theatrically on September 5th in the UK.

R100
R100

Hitoshi Matsumoto is best known in Japan as a comedian and his new film R100 is so deliciously weird and kinky that one could make a favourable comparison to Terry Gilliam in terms of sexy surrealism. The film is about an extreme bondage society which offers gentlemen the opportunity to be randomly punished and subjugated as they go about their day, and has a hilarious if heavy- handed subplot about a focus group reacting to the movie along with the audience. Think Burn After Reading with latex and you’re nowhere near puzzled enough. In a bizarre twist of programming, this showed on Film4 on the Sunday night of the festival, so your chance to see this odd little gem in the UK may have come and gone, but it has been picked up by Drafthouse, a distributor who really sees the potential in VOD, so you could be seeing it on the small screen soon. I’d also recommend checking out Matsumoto’s Big Man Japan if you’re not a fan of sex comedies; it’s every bit as weird without compelling you to make a Fetlife profile.

I’ve only been properly, chewing nails, eyes wide, whispering “don’t go in the basement” scared a handful of times in my years of Frightfesting (verb: to Frightfest) but Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal is certainly one of the most intensely unsettling and terrifying films of recent years. I’d be tempted to compare it to 2012’s The Pact, but American horror of that style often suffers from lacking a sense of humour and Sightseers‘ Steve Oram is a comic relief that goes with the flow of the film rather than removing the audience from the moment or making them feel self-conscious about allowing themselves to be frightened. The Canal also brought us the first of many excellent child actors to turn up the chills this weekend. Five-year-old Calum Heath’s performance is easily as good as the young Danny Lloyd, which isn’t the only time we’re reminded of The Shining, a film which is hard to escape in the Dad’s Gone Mad genre. At turns psychological, supernatural, body horror and sheer sensory overload, this is definitely one to watch with the lights on.

The Canal
The Canal

If there’s one filmmaker who personifies the spirit of Frightfest, it’s Adam Green. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Green – that’s to say, I hate Hatchet and love everything else he’s done – so my expectations for monster mockumentary Digging Up The Marrow were tempered by what I see as a lack of originality in his monster visions, which is not technically an incorrect assumption. The thing is, Digging Up The Marrow works as well as it does because of Green’s familiarity with the tropes of monster movies, not in spite of it. Green plays himself, investigating the claims of retired cop Will Decker (Ray Wise) that there is a secret society of monsters living in an underground metropolis called Midian – sorry! The Marrow. So far, so derivative. What makes the film interesting is the recurring motif of loss and rejection running parallel in the world of the monsters, our own world, and the intersecting space between. Some sweet but portentous footage of the late Dave Brockie – his last onscreen apperance – lends a real gravity to Green’s assertion that there are people who accept the cult of monster wholeheartedly, who look under the bed not to assure safety but in the hopes of glimpsing something special. I loved Digging Up The Marrow because I identified strongly with the optimism of the monster hunter, and in an era of the drawn-out non-ending of the 90 minute horror, I thought the final scene was pitch-perfect.

Digging Up The Marrow
Digging Up The Marrow

The film of the festival, for me, was Riley Stearn’s first feature-length film Faults, in which cult psychology expert Ansel Roth abducts a young woman from a cult when her parents enlist his help in deprogramming her. It sounds grim, but actually this film is a laugh riot with the dryness of a Coens script. Ansel (Leland Orser, who we saw earlier in the festival in The Guest) is a sad clown Willy Loman, while Claire (the always excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is chillingly zen. The two central performances are so committed and original that they could instantly become a classic onscreen pairing, helped by Stearn’s crisp and breathless script. The meeting of calm and chaos plays out almost entirely in a small wood-panelled hotel room and the film is psychologically pretty claustrophobic. Smart, sinister, and surprising, this is one of the best films about cults of recent years. It’s not as shocking as Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it gets under your skin just as effectively and for totally different reasons. If I could only recommend one festival film this year it would be Faults.

Faults
Faults

Frightfest isn’t only in the glossy new films, though. Honourable mention goes to Arrow’s Nekromantik rerelease featuring an hour-long Q&A with Jörg Buttgereit, Steve Oram’s top secret sneak preview of the forthcoming Aaaaaaaah!, the true terror of karaoke at the Phoenix, The Duke Mitchell Film Club reanimating our feet, the advert for The Strain, Fabrice du Weltz using 16mm because he’s a film maker, beavers, werewolves, babadooks, and everyone who was nice to me when I got mugged (thank you). Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you’ll be there next year? There’s always room for another guest.

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