Frightfest is back… not quite where you were looking! This year with new headline sponsor The Horror Channel, Frightfest took over the entire of the West 12 Vue in Shepherds Bush, and offered a 67-film lineup over main and discovery screens.
August Bank Holiday weekend, and putting excitement for Series 9 on the back burner for a few days, it was time for the annual visit to the Dark Heart of Cinema that is Film4 Frightfest 2015.
London, August 2014 (what, again?)
Yep, it’s that time of year, and ready to go Into Darkness – also known as cinema screens for 26 times in 5 days! This is the 15th year of the festival that is the Dark Heart of Sinema, and my 14th time after missing 2006 (the year of Pan’s Labyrinth, argh!). Reviews of some of the previous years can be found on this very site – 2013, 2012 and 2010!
“I don’t know… feels different this time”
The big news this time round was the move to the Vue West End from the last few years in the Empire and the separation of the “main screen” into three with offset starts of the primary programme. The three were separated by name; Screen 7 became The Arrow Video Screen, Screen 6 The Horror Channel Screen, and Screen 5 which was to be my home for the weekend The Film4 Screen. So there was a little trepidation at settling into the seat that would be home for the weekend – would the move work, and would the social atmosphere that has always made Frightfest stand out remain?
Thursday August 22, and London saw a muggy Thursday morning cool into an overcast afternoon.
Glamming up as has become a tradition, the meeting point for many was nearby pub the Captain’s Cabin for a couple of drinks before migrating to the Empire. There was a slight sense of poignancy after hearing the Cabin was going to be closed and turned into flats, but the overriding feel was one of excitement and anticipation.
Soon enough it was time to head into the Empire itself, and to squeeze into the seat that would be a second home for the next few days…
Film4 Frightfest is a movie festival that’s a bit different from many others – inspired by the likes of Shock Around The Clock at the Scala and sharing a common organiser in critic Alan Jones, it centres around horror but frequently shows films that push genre boundaries. One of the unique aspects is its family feel with a strong sense of community – many guests stay for the whole weekend and come back in subsequent years for the atmosphere, and there have been Frightfest couples, marriages and even babies (one case even involving having to leave mid-film to go give birth!).
The festival started with 17 films in 2000, and in the years since has added in a Halloween All-Nighter and a March Weekender in Glasgow plus several one-off events. From the start in the Prince Charles Cinema the increasing demand led to relocation to the Odeon West End, and then to its current home at the Empire Leicester Square. Personally, I have managed to attend all bar 2006 of the London August Bank Holiday festivals, and love it – it’s like meeting your mates for a cinema-based holiday!
2013’s fest was introduced by director of Willow Creek, actor and stand-up comic Bobcat Goldthwait – if he doesn’t look so familiar, then as he said “you looked different in the 80s too” 😉 Highlights included him laying into “real horror” film Grown Ups 2 (“a film so bad I’m surprised I wasn’t asked to be in it”), the bible as the first zombie story yet rarely showing any violence when put onscreen (barring Mel Gibson working through his feelings) and the revelation of an upcoming remake of Police Academy being a comedy this time, and his energy was a great set up for the features to come.
Huge thanks must go to organisers Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg James, the staff of the Empire and the Phoenix, the patience and friendliness of seat neighbours Steve, Martin and David and all the Frightfesters who make the event such a great one.
The Movies (all scores are out of 5 stars):
Curse of Chucky ****
You’re Next ****
The Dyatlov Pass Incident ***1/2
Short: Crazy for You ****
Hatchet III ****
V/H/S 2 ***1/2
100 Bloody Acres ***
Frankenstein’s Army ***1/2
Hammer of the Gods **1/2
No One Lives ****1/2
R.I.P.D. 3D ***1/2
Cheap Thrills ***1/2
In Fear ***
Dark Tourist ***1/2
The Conspiracy ***1/2
The Last Days ****
Dark Touch **1/2
Banshee Chapter 3D ****
Short: The Body ****
Odd Thomas ****
We Are What We Are ***1/2
Big Bad Wolves *****
And so, the last film of Frightfest 2013 was also to be the last ever shown in the 1500-seater Empire Screen 1 before its split into two screens (one of which an IMAX). As it was, Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves was also one of the most anticipated, coming from writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (Rabies).
The fairytale-esque title carries through into the imagery particularly at the start of the film, which centres on the converging paths of a policeman investigating a series of abductions and murders of children, a teacher under suspicion and the father of one of the missing girls, but it’s definitely more grim than Grimm in this case.
Yet the element that stands out most about the film is how genuinely funny it is; without ever making light of the seriousness of its themes, the script skilfully brings out a great deal of comedy in the characters. Helped by great performances, you’ll find yourself laughing, then wondering if you should feel guilty laughing at a film about kidnapping, then snickering again. It even pokes fun at typical Yiddish archetypes, with an unfortunately-timed phonecall from a stereotypical Jewish mother of particular note.
For all of the humour though, serious sections are no less impactful and the plot is gripping throughout. Even when actions become extreme, they are consistent to the characters and the desperation in particular is palpable.
By turns disturbing, shocking and hilarious, Big Bad Wolves is a breakthrough for Israeli cinema and a brilliant film to boot. Truly a great farewell to one of the great screens in London, and to Frightfest 2013, it’s already one of my films of the year too. *****
We Are What We Are is the remake of a Mexican film of the same title which showed at Frightfest 2010. But don’t look at the word “remake” and skip to the next, as this is more than a relocation and translation for those who don’t like reading subtitles!
Director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) takes the core of the original – a family following an ancient custom that they have to keep secret – and adds some depth to the characterisation as well as contextualising with a massive storm that adds both atmosphere and tension. The actors are all solid, with Bill Sage (American Psycho) playing an effective patriarch and Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers believable as sisters Rose and Iris.
It’s best to go in not having seen much about the original, as the spoiler element of foreknowledge is more keenly felt than most remakes; indeed, there are times where it feels like the film is focussing on mystery for its own sake and there isn’t much of an urge to return for a second watch.
Still, though, it’s rare to see a remake surpass the original, and while still no classic We Are What We Are manages that uncommon feat. And yes, that really is Kelly McGillis! ***1/2
It says a lot about his look that despite being 24, new-Chekov Anton Yelchin is still being cast as characters in their mid-teens. To his credit, he’s still believable in more than just his look, so the pattern continues in Odd Thomas where he plays the titular short-order cook who can see the dead and helps find justice for the murdered.
Based on the books by Dean Koontz, there’s a great streak of humour that becomes evident from the early moments of the film. “I see dead people”, says Odd (yep, that’s his actual name), “but then, by God, I do something about it”. This carries through several of the characters, aiding defuse some potential lapses into oversentimentality with girlfriend Stormy (Addison Timlin, Zero Hour) but is especially evident with Police Chief Wyatt Porter, with Willem Dafoe having the same mischievious glint of enjoyment that helped make The Boondock Saints a cult hit.
The film rattles along at a good pace, with director Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy) stamp recognisable in the realisation of the phantom Bodachs that congregate around death and a good sense of style. There’s an aspect of the summer rollercoaster about proceedings, and it seems like it would have sat well in the holiday releases had there not been legal issues surrounding the marketing.
It’s not perfect – there’s a few moments of head-slapping “don’t do THAT!” moments by characters and a couple of times where I was half-expecting the Winchester brothers to show up with a quip and a shotgun loaded with rock salt, but a great sense of quirky fun makes Odd Thomas a blast to watch. And without a nuclear wessel in sight! ****
For a killer, getting rid of the corpse is a necessary part of the experience, and the greatest risk of discovery. But on Halloween, corpses would be par for the course, right? Such is the idea behind The Body, directed by friend of Frightfest and really very tall Paul Davis (Him Indoors, Beware the Moon).
Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones) is the murderer (referred to in the credits as The Man) and anchors some very dark but very very funny comedy that is at times worryingly believeable. It feels like Paul Davis and co-writer Paul Fischer are secretly members of the League of Gentlemen, and it’s probably inevitable that at some point it will be cross-credited on video sites as a LoG sketch. Mind you, the League would be proud of the association to something as punchily hilarious as this! ****
The second film of the weekend to utilise the third dimension, Banshee Chapter sounds at first conventional – a journalist, Anne (Katia Winter, of the Sleepy Hollow TV series) is shocked by the sudden disappearance of her friend James (Michael McMillan, True Blood) and so decides to investigate, which leads her into danger. However, when the MK Ultra experiments, numbers stations and a Hunter S Thompson-esque writer come into the mix, it soon becomes clear that this is something quite different to the norm.
Having a film surrounding the myths involving the MK Ultra experiments designed and shot in 3D sounded like a match made in heaven, but unfortunately the end results are disappointing. Even archive footage is converted for the extra dimension, which diminishes impact elsewhere, and the use of only natural lighting added to a lot of night or dark scenes prevent the 3D making the impact it could and leaving sadly a bit of a missed opportunity.
With that taken to one side, the visuals are often strong and in conjunction with fantastic sound design make for a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Pacing is tight, and performances are good throughout – as well as the lead Ted Levine (The Bridge, Monk) deserves note for a great turn as the Hunter S Thompson-inspired Thomas Blackburn.
Aside from the slight misstep with its treatment of 3D, Banshee Chapter is an excellent feature debut for writer/director Blair Erickson. Gripping, disturbing and properly creepy, it’s one I can’t wait to watch again. ****
Every year, there’s one film at Frightfest that is best described with three letters – W T F. This year’s headscratching entry was to be Dark Touch, which tries to say something serious about the impact and repercussions of child abuse but has a habit of jumping so far into left field the viewer is left wondering if their drink has been spiked.
Daughter-of-Boyzone Missy Keating is Niamh, sole survivor of the horrific night that took the lives of her parents and brother. Taken in by Nat and Lucas (Marcella Plunkett and Padraic Delaney), they aren’t sure how to best deal with her increasingly clear troubles. Were her claims that the house came to life true, and is something else haunting her?
Performances vary immensely with Missy’s being one of the highlights; others particularly for smaller roles are at times so bad they become funny, which is furthered by occasionally truly groan-inducing dialogue. The biggest issue is that the film doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be at several key points – is it a serious commentary, a revenge opus or a full-on supernatural thriller?
Dark Touch does at least look the part, particularly during set piece scenes and when the scale gets ramped up. It may step into surrealism and silliness – particularly during the most bizarre doll picnic I am ever likely to see – but somehow in spite of everything it’s hard to really dislike the film. Just don’t go in expecting consistency or sense! **1/2