While going to film festivals is always a mixed bag in terms of experience, there is one festival that always feel like home to me, which has grown in recent years to be one of the biggest horror festivals in the UK, and potentially in Europe. From its humble origins in the London Prince Charles cinema in 2000, a group of like–minded journalists launched the first Frightfest premièring Scary Movie, twisted Japanese shocker Audition and sci–fi horror Pitch Black, gathering together a small group of like–minded horror enthusiasts who brought their overt passion for the genre into cinemas – perpetuating the horror culture already existent in the post ‘Video Nasties’ period. Since then Frightfest has grown exponentially, attracting huge sponsors including Film 4, premièring films and hosting Q&As from horror legends such as George.A.Romero, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento and Guillemero Del Toro, and becoming a worldwide hub of creativity, nurturing the rising talent in the industry and hosting a huge range of international premieres and special events.
Putting on three events every year including the main 5 day event over three screens in the Leicester square Empire (August), a London based October all–nighter and a fairly recent segment at Glasgow film festival in February, a shorter 2 day affair premièring many different genres and national cinemas attributed to the ‘horror’ genre. In contrast to the silence and serious nature of press screenings in primarily ‘art–house’ festivals, Frightfest has more of a convention type community feel where everyone knows each other, filmmakers comfortably interact with fans after the screenings and most importantly the films are incredibly well programmed.
As my first year at Frightfest Glasgow, it felt like a bit of a step down from the grandiose Empire at Leicester square but once the programme started, with the first day being incredible content wise with films like The Sacrament, Afflicted and Proxy I was hooked again, with news being announced of a Blair Witch Project Making Of documentary in production, amongst hilarious exploitation trailer reels, merch, Q&As, ‘free stuff’ and the now notorious comic antics of Frightfest organisers. While smaller in scale than London, Frightfest Glasgow still contains the right mix of scares, awe and style that will truly revive your faith in the horror genre. If you are a genre fan yourself make an effort to get down to one of their incredible events. You will not regret it
You know what they say on the property market. If it’s built on native Indian burial ground … You should probably look elsewhere. Yet Native Indian based revenge narratives channeling the literal ghosts of genocide have always been an underlying factor in American horror (Pet Cemetery, The Shining, The Amityville Horror) adding justifiable supernatural elements to the most mundane of stories. The first film of the festival Savaged, hyped as ‘I Spit on Your Grave meets The Crow’, was just that. A standard rave–revenge flick supplanting the spirit of Apache chief (Red Sleeves) into the body of deaf-mute Zoe, an innocent gal brutalised and left for dead at the side of the road. Upon being revived by local Shaman and inadvertently becoming tanked up on the vengeful horrors of American past in the process, it is revealed that her murderous captors belong to a generational line of army commanders with a proud penchant for Indian genocide, making the revenge path not only insidiously gory but deeply personal.
Despite ‘rape–revenge’ and humour not always sitting comfortably in the same camp, Savaged consciously creates a lot of laugh-out-loud moments from its hilarious typed characters, cringe worthy dialogue and a comedic sense of body horror ‘borrowed’ from Evil Dead – from lead character Zoe becoming encumbered due to the fact that she is actively decomposing (much to the concern of her boyfriend) to a minor goon spending half of the third act wandering round with an arrow embedded in his neck. Director Micheal S Ojeda’s direction is solid, capturing brutal violence and producing some pretty inventive kills but fails to really portray any emotional bond between characters beyond the realms of pulp campiness and stoic Native American mysticism. Overall the films main flaws (based in the script and performances) are forgiven for its sheer ridiculous nature. It is almost like an extended female fronted version of a segment from 1980s horror comic anthology Creepshow 2, except with a higher body count and even more racism spouting hicks just asking for a tomahawk in the skull.
From Total Recall and Inception to Memento and Being John Malkovich, memories and the subconscious have always been a fertile ground for cinematic storytelling, as a liminal space unbound by reality and logic with unparalleled visual potential. In the case of visionary Spanish director Jorge Dorado, previous collaborator with the likes of Pedro Almodovar and Guillemero Del Toro, his first directorial feature Mindscape adds the similar level of stylish sophistication attributed to his peers work in a stunning neo–noir surrounding a psychological detective’s foray into the dark psyche of a troubled young girl. In this world, ‘mind detectives’ are investigators with psychic ability, paid to enter people psyche via hypnosis to explore the subconscious and sift selective facts from fiction. While not afforded the same validity in court as eye-witness testimony, mind detectives’ findings offer a new perspective to criminal cases and in the case of some sceptical clients – a last therapeutic resort.
Mind detective John’s (Mark Strong) newest assignment is just that, an intelligent, strange and allegedly sexually abused teenager Anna (Taissa Farmiga) at the brink of being institutionalised by her parents because of her alleged sociopathic tendencies. As John’s sessions delve into the gauzy memories of boarding school violence and pedophilia and the two develop a close bond, his attempts to determine whether Anna is a manipulative sociopath or a victim become far from transparent when within the transient depths of the mindscape, where fingers of judgement point placidly to darkness and everyone is ‘guilty’.
Produced by Jaume Collet – Serra (Orphan, Unknown, Non –Stop) the formulaic puzzle box narrative is similarly re–produced, staging the ultimate ‘who– dunnit’ Cluedo investigation in the cliché bourgeoisie mansion that normally exists in films primarily to hold archaic secrets. With the majority of the film involving intimate therapy sessions, complex performances and John’s traumatic memories infiltrating the ‘safe space’ of the mindscape, it becomes impossible to know who is objective and who is manipulating who, made all the more disturbing by Anna’s glacial stare and the reoccurring motifs of eye imagery throughout the film. While this sounds more than similar to the psych–actioner Inception, Mindscape tips the scales towards the emotionally complex issues of child abuse and pedophilia, making John’s personal involvement and investigation all the more threatening to his objectivity and a motivation to drive the narrative forward.
From the beautiful cinematography, ominous locations and faultless lead performances (including Mark Strong’s first role as a leading man) the film skims over the ice of typical noir investigation, becoming more cerebral and surreal in the process, building to a finale that pulls back the curtains to make you question everything you have just witnessed (come on… it is Jaume Collet after all). When you take into account recent neo–noirs such as Jaime Belugro’s Sleep Tight and Chan Wook Park’s Stoker, it seems that non-American directors and producers have a far more slight hand when it comes to mind-bending storytelling and aesthetic sophistication. With the film being released in April through Studio Canal this is one you probably will hear about and should catch accordingly.
From director Zack Parker, Proxy was yet another horror in the festival that really blew audiences away with its mixture of complex storytelling, visuality and sense of impending dread. Opening with a scene of a woman 2 weeks from giving birth having her belly caved in with a rock sets the tone and from that point the puzzle box narrative attempts to explain whether characters are victims, aggressors or even ‘real’ personalities, playing with perceptions to the final cell. The plot in microcosm centrally focuses on pregnant character Esther attending a support group for those who have lost children, meeting Melanie, another mother who has lost a child. As the two women start to develop a closer bond it is revealed that nothing is as it seems, with one of the women being a psycho drama queen and the other being seriously deranged. As events spiral out of control it is revealed that inviting themselves into each other’s lives was not particularly the best idea, as more and more information is drip fed forcing the viewer and the characters to constantly re-evaluate their own identities and hide their vicious motives.
As a stylistic and narrative delve into psychosis that the programme notes compare to Brian De Palma, Lars Von Trier and Martyrs, Proxy is a terrifyingly slick film, implementing stylish slow–motion sequences and horrific violence whilst also working the characters mind states into the style and flow of the film including a last act reveal of a suburban mothers dream (that is equally hilarious as it is disturbing). As director Parker stated before the film, Proxy is best enjoyed going in completely cold, so analysis of the plots structure would create spoilers and I don’t want to take the sadistic pleasures of this film away from you all. For a film that contains very minimal violence (albeit surreal and stylised), the unnerving tone of the film is created by constantly playing with audience perceptions and denying you the pleasure of generic typed characters. As a descent from friendship and empathy into murder and suffering Proxy is an incredible horror film, with chilling performances from the two damaged female leads Alexa Havins and Alexia Rasmussen and a brilliant turn from Joe Swanberg (You’re Next) at the centre of the maternal horror. While at times slow and confusing with layer upon layer of Hitchcockian mystery towards possible protagonists and resolutions, it heightens the whole experience of Proxy as a downright unnerving journey into multiple psyches and the aesthetic horror of American suburbia.
Video Nasties 2: The Draconian Days (2014)
Horror films have always shared their fair share of scapegoating in the media, accused of being responsible for the worst of societies vices. Yet in 1984 this culminated in a legislative act passed by parliament – ‘The Video Recordings Act’ – demonising horror through selective censorial boards such as the BBFC and giving police powers to raid people’s homes to seize and burn the ‘illicit material’. While many people may remember the Jamie Bulger case and its links to Chucky 3 and headlines such as ‘burn video nasties’, the impact upon horror fans and individual liberty was stretched to dangerous levels of authoritarian censorship. As the highly anticipated follow-up to the critically acclaimed Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Video Tape horror fans and filmmakers Jake West (Evil Aliens) and Marc Morris continue the story where the last documentary left off, chronicling the dark days where Britain plunged into a terrifying period of censorship, with pretentious moral guardians, criminalised horror culture and illegal underground black video markets.
Implementing a mixture of talking heads including critics, authors and filmmakers who worked through the period (Frightfest founder Alan Jones, Kim Newman, Neil Marshall) alongside archival footage and historical analysis, the film invites you to reflect on a period of British history, revealing the sheer illegality, hypocrisy and fear inherent amongst horror collectors– where owning and distributing horror films and being under the constant threat of prison time was an actual reality. With a host of archive material from the said ‘video nasties’ themselves and an exploration of the administrative processes of censorship, West and Morris raise questions of the motives of the BBFC with, archive footage from the video nasties and employees, criticising the egocentric actions of BBFC directors and the unethical behaviour of the press creating widespread panic in linking cinematic violence to real–world violence. As the post Q&A discussion with horror fans who had lived and worked in the video industry under the (since repealed) draconian act suggests, the whole underground movement of fanzines, alternative horror festivals (such as Frightfest itself) and a punk spirit of community against the state, led to the development of a lot of the networks and the drive of directors that are working and pushing British horror forward today. As a point in history that shares both a nostalgic and symbiotic relationship with British horror, the ‘Video Nasties’ documentaries tell the famous story with sardonic wit and humour that explores the illogical nature of creative censorship itself, while celebrating the flourishing community that emerged in the face of such artistic and moral oppression. An educational and entertaining must for horror fans.
The Sacrament (2013)
One of the biggest guests of the festival this year was Ti West, a US horror director whose genre exercises in classic horror with a modern twist (House of the Devil, Innkeepers, VHS) have made him a notable rising star in the horror community. His latest film (produced by Eli Roth) transposes the supernatural and the macabre into a real world scenario that is equally as terrifying and harrowing as anything else on the festival programme, exploring ‘cult’, belief systems and corruption. Taking the Jonestown mass suicides as a reference, West sets his latest film in a secret Christian community relocated to South America who have actively separated themselves from society, selling their homes and livelihoods to buy into a secret para–religious utopia led by the benevolent ‘Father’. The viewer’s entry point into the story is through a ‘found footage’ documentary team working for existing new media company VICE, tagging along with a fashion photographer invited to the aptly named ‘Eden Falls’ by his reformed drug addict sister. From the moment the team step off the helicopter things are instantly sinister. From the gated community guarded by aggressive locals, overbearing positivity and the omnipresent voice of father bellowing from loud speakers across the commune, things are a little too perfect and as the team investigate the people and leaders further the findings and results are deeply chilling.
As yet another ‘found footage’ film Ti West cleverly makes the characters ‘professionals’ who know how to frame shots, giving the film a more immersive smooth watching experience in the opening sections where they tentatively interview residents of the commune questioning their motivations for buying into the lifestyle to the ‘big interview’ with the father himself (Gene Jones) in which a, typical probing, Vice interview is turned on its head by the strange energies, manipulation and charisma of the cult leader. Much like the similar documentary Jesus Camp, exploring the Evangelical indoctrination of children at gated summer camps, the film uses music and editing to produce an unnerving sense of voyeurism combining skepticism mixed with fears for the peoples potential for corruption. As it is a horror film after all, a series of unfortunate events perpetuates paranoia and hostility in paradise which leads to a finale which is one of the most uncomfortable sequences I have ever seen, as Father herds his flock to apocalypse with a mixture of self-righteousness and sadistic glee. The films violence is uncomfortable, feels real and is deeply effective because of its basis in reality and thematic direction at the corrupting influence of religion on desperate people.
The Sacrament is an incredible timely film that throws you into the deep end of illogical ‘cult’, in a world where rationality and debate are replaced by mass uniformity and blind consent, with corruption and hypocrisy always silently bubbling under the surface. The choice to use the video doc format also makes for a really immersive ride, the performances are incredible and the finale is one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have seen in straight horror because of the scale, nature and context of the suffering. Highly recommended and my favourite film of festival by far this year. I can’t wait to see what West comes up with next.
Wolf Creek 2 (2013)
In 2005 Australian independent horror Wolf Creek, chronicling the fictional ‘disappearance’ of hitchhikers at the hands of a ruthless serial killer, became a huge commercial hit, screening at Cannes, premiering at Sundance and getting major theatrical US distribution. For a film mixing exploitation with true crime elements, sharing locations with real murder cases and using the menacing isolation of the Australian setting to its fullest advantage it had a lot going for it to help it stand apart from other American horror. When a sequel was made with the same central antagonist again you know there must be something special about that character. It is debatable whether Wolf Creek would have been as effective without the performance of actor John Jarratt’s ‘Mick Jones’, channelling the humour and charisma of Hollywood’s previous Australian for hire Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee), with the addition of bowie knives to the spine, dead aim with a sniper rifle and sustained sadistic torture. With director Greg Mclean reviving the actor and franchise for another spin, things this time are a little lighter in tone giving actor Jarrett more screen time and in many ways developing Mick Jones as the Oz-ploitation version of Freddy Kruger – a singing, dancing pantomime villain (Rolf Harris songs and all).
While the plot contains the typical mixture of outback chase scenes, campsite encounters, sexual violence and a finale further exploring the killers ‘lair’ from the first movie, the tone of Jarrett’s performance at many points teeters between the comic and terrifying. This plays out especially well in the casting of cockney lead actor (victim) Ryan Coor, tied gagged and facing imminent death before randomly starting to sing Australian songs. What follows is perhaps the most bizarrely dramatic scene of the festival transitioning from exchanging Australian songs, scatological jokes and an Australian history quiz, where if you get answers right you get to leave and if not … you get your fingers lobbed off with an angle grinder. Lovely. While this scene is undoubtedly the best in the film, Wolf Creek 2 also expands a lot of the antagonist’s motivations, exploring why Mick collects and tortures backpackers and his own perceived place within Australian culture and history. As Aussie hunter Mick Jones may have played all his serial killer cards in the first film, removing some surprises and shock factor from the proceedings, the result is more of a horror comedy, wrapped in the same Australian aesthetic as the first film and replicating the conscious cruelty and offensive Australian stereotypes of barren lands and feral people who have plagued popular cinema since Paul Hogan made his trip to the ‘big city’. Definitely one for the fans.
Almost Human (2013)
As one of the most low–fi additions to Frightfest Glasgow this year I went in cold expecting a cheesy more modern update on Stephen Kings segment from Creepshow – malevolent fungus and all. Yet despite having major flaws in dialogue and plotting, the film made for a mere $50,000 on a ‘maxed out credit card’ is still a rollicking good homage to the horror conventions of Carpenter and classic sci–fi with a bit of the old Video Nasty violence thrown in for good measure. The plot resolved around the re–appearance of Mark Fisher after 2 years since he disappeared in a blinding blue light. When best friend and Seth Hampton hears about a series of murders happening in a small American town his fears are confirmed for the worst. Mark’s pallid eyes and tendency towards random violence suggest he is out of this world, a receptacle for something evil and as he makes his final homecoming none can stand in the way of his otherworldly bearded fury.
As a self avowed John Carpenter fan director Joe Begos lets Carpenter’s influence drip through in everything from the score to the typography in the credits sequence, with other influences such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers raising their mucus drenched heads as Mark infects characters with a mouth born tendril, leaving them in fleshy cocoons to be ‘re–born’. It’s all generic pastiche of course but it is done in a way where the kills still maintain their brutality and impact, as a direct contrast to the fun splatter synopsis posited by the director before the screening. While the film itself knows it fares very little competition in comparison to the budget and style of Killers and Proxy at the Frightfest this year, the director’s skill in replicating 80s horror aesthetic to a modern audience (huge hit at Toronto Midnight Madness) showcases an exciting generic talent that I will keep a beady eye on.
As a genre fan, sometimes you know a horror sub–genre is becoming a bit stale when you start to remember postmodern genre parody versions instead of the originals. Don’t get me wrong, ‘house invasion’ horror flicks play into a universal fear of the fact that all that separates you from the evils of the outside world is a piece of glass or a door but with the success of Funny Games and more recently You’re Next, ‘house invasion’ doesn’t seem carry the same weight anymore. Enter Torment directed by Jordan Barker, an unfortunate victim to this generic trend in a story of a family attacked by yet another roving band of masked killers, this time presented as a type of twisted cultish family. The film is classical in terms of most mainstream American horrors, fittingly distributed by Filmax International, and contains that signature mix of suspenseful house exploration, dark basements, labyrinthine woods and doomed police officers that always inhabit these sort of stories. While the film’s attention was probably garnered by the fact Katherine Isabelle (American Mary) starred in a lead role, the tired plot of estranged step mothers, family values and saccharine drama is yet another nail in the coffin of generic stagnancy. I do understand why the film exists and that it would play nicely alongside many other mainstream horrors in local multiplexes due to its neat plot, animal mask iconography and moody cinematography but in a programme as eclectic as Frightfest Glasgow, it fell by the wayside in a major way, failing to really impress, envelop or leave any lasting impression, despite its ‘thrilling’ twist ending.
As the final film of the festival Killers, a Japanese–Indonesian psycho thriller about the developing relationship between a serial killer and vigilante brought closer together because of their persuasion towards brutal murder, was a real hot ticket. Directed by the Mo Brothers and including some of the cast from The Raid, the film marked the first collaboration in the thriller drama between Japan and Indonesia and the results are an equally epic, expansive and visceral look at the act and motivations for killing.
In the same styles as most thriller serial killer movies, the two characters are often antithetical opposites, such as the vigilante cop and sadistic killer and initially the film establishes that but suggests that the two are more alike than they would like to admit. After an accidental first kill in a car-jacking that becomes uploaded to the internet, Bayu Adita, an ambitious journalist setting out to smear the name of a politician Dharma who made his life and family fall apart, is contacted by Nomura Shuhei, a young, charismatic executive with a dark sadistic side that nobody knows, with slivers of Patrick Bateman and a studio apartment designed for the purpose of torture and killing. As the two develop a complex bond online and Adita spirals into the rabbit hole of vigilantism, the two agree to meet personally, unaware of the mind games and horrors in store. Perhaps the best element of Killers is that it is a primarily character driven piece focusing on the two damaged men from several psychological angles, presenting them empathetically despite the levels of violence they commit.
In the style of a lot of Asian thrillers, the violence is both creative and equally brutal, from Irreversible style club stabbings, acid baths, torture, voyeurism and Nomura Shuhei’s unforgettable chamber of horrors, seeing him brandishing a white mask as he torments and tortures his kill in clinical white light. With director of The Raid also on producer duty, specific scenes involving a hotel murder gone wrong include impressive fight/ chase scenes resembling Oldboy this time with the ratio of henchman to protagonist being about 50/1 . As a beautifully stylish descent into the minds of two damaged individuals self–discovery Killers reveals chilling new perspectives and approaches to injecting reality and brutality into the psycho thriller formula and should hopefully get a Western release soon as a stylish and emotional addition to the canon of ‘extreme’ cinema
When low-budget film making methods strike phenomenal financial return, the result is often a steam-powered journey from originality and innovation into sad states of generic over saturation. In the case of horror the success of a little film shot in the woods called The Blair Witch Project, rendered the terms ‘found footage’ as an unfortunate buzzword for a trend of throwing composition out of the window in favour of immersion and ‘realism’. As a tired genre itself in modern cinema, it seems genre filmmakers are becoming desperate to add a shot of ‘originality’ to the formula, from shooting zombie shorts on head mounted Go Pros (VHS 2), shifting found footage to historical context (Frankenstein’s Army) or playfully destroying the very cameras that built said franchises in cynical self-awareness (Rec 3). However the Clif Prowse/Derek Lee directed Afflicted gives the found footage formula a much-needed revamp, implementing cameras and ‘found footage’ in innovative ways to add an original twist to the genre motifs associated with ‘vampire’ narratives.
The plot revolves around two best friends, played by directors Clif Prowse and Derek Lee, propelled on a round the world trip and video blog motivated by one of the characters medical state teetering at the edge of terminal brain damage. However after a ‘sexual’ encounter with a mysterious lady in a French bar, friends find Cliff spread out and bitten with no recollection of events. As terminal sickness turns to superhuman abilities much to the bemusement of the filmmakers and their online audience, the evidence and reactions to ‘transformation’ are captured in a mixture of video testimonies, observational shots and a convenient chest mounted camera rig. This rig introduced by Derek Lee’s videographer character justifies a POV ‘monster cam’ in the latter part of the movie, as Cliff’s desperate city hopping final form flees from Interpol in the same breathtaking perspective as the free–running video game Mirrors Edge – albeit murderous and terrifying. As the film flits between emotional testimony and outlandish action sequence, Cliff’s conclusion builds towards a vengeful search for information pursuing the mysterious woman who set the chain of events in motion and to find a cure.
As a winner of the Best Special Effects Award at the Sitges Fantasy festival, the effects are undoubtedly the main selling point of the film, from emancipated blood starved bodies and sun starched skin burns realised in the incredible ‘monster cam’ POV sequences ranging from dodging daylight and bullets in the villas of Spain, to the penultimate predatory encounter with Interpol in a pitch black apartment building. Despite the flashy visuals and artifice of ‘found footage’ Afflicted interjects its technical showmanship into a story with emotionally resonant characters, exploring mortality, friendship and the innate body horror of ‘transformation’ whether it be empowering autonomy or regressive illness. Going into this one it was easy to expect another Chronicleesque mix of spectacle, humour and sentiment, yet Afflicted really adds that needed extra shot of ‘horror’ to the proceedings as a story that seamlessly transitions from laughter and discovery to fear and isolation, as a memorable take on a traditional horror story that busts heads, takes names and brims with the creative potential of digital effects work in cinema. Seek this one out!