The August bank holiday weekend in London is always cause for celebration for horror fans as the FrightFest horror and genre film festival rolls into the city’s Leicester Square for four days of blood-spattered cinematic mayhem. This year saw the arrival of horror icon and star of Re-Animator and You’re Next, Barbara Crampton, as the Guest of Honour who starred in no less than five of the entries this year including festival favourite We Are Still Here. As always with film festivals it was a real mixed bag, with very few scares but a lot of laughs (some intentional, other not so much) as the filmmakers, many of them horror fans themselves, had a lot of fun playing with the tropes and clichés of the genre while others tried to put fresh new spins on some well-worn material. Here are a few of the highlights:
We Are Still Here
In the most anticipated film of the festival, Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig play a married couple who move to a secluded house in New England after the death of their son and discover a ghostly presence that is as hungry as it is malevolent. Director Ted Geoghegan’s effectively chilling ode to the haunted house story mixes in Lucio Fulci style extreme violence with quite a healthy dose of humour without ever sacrificing tone. Wildly referential yet with an assured style and execution, it is no surprise Geoghegan is affiliated with that other great horror revisionist Adam Wingard, as they both share the same sensibilities. Beautifully photographed by Karim Hussain and with terrific performances, particularly from Crampton, We Are Still Here will deservedly earn its cult classic status.
Room 237 director Rodney Ascher explores the phenomena of sleep paralysis and the effects it has on sufferers in this horror documentary. Through interviews and atmospheric re-enactments, Ascher draws out the links between disparate groups of people who, despite never meeting and living across the world from each other, all share very similar experiences. The use of re-enactments allow the audience to feel the terror and at times just plain weirdness that occurs through sleep paralysis and in a way we begin to understand why the sufferers believe what is occurring is more the physical manifestation of dark forces than something as mundane as a sleep disorder. The film could have used some expert testimony by adoctor, an anthropologist and/or a priest to contextualise these events, however focusing only on the experiences themselves does keep an air of the paranormal around what is without a doubt a scary reality for many people.
Director Bernard Rose (Candyman) updates the story of Frankenstein for the 21st century. Shelley’s monster (Xavier Samuel) is created not from the assemblage of parts from numerous corpses but through the use of a 3D printer who is rejected as imperfect by his creators (Danny Huston and Carrie-Ann Moss) when his body begins to break down. Rose successfully transplants the classic tale to the modern day and achieves an amazingly committed and physical performance from Samuel who limps, gyrates and grunts his way through the film drawing in the viewer to the horror of his existence and engenders enormous sympathy even when he is committing acts of violence; the true monster is our current superficial culture of glamour and physical perfection that has no room for what is considered ugly or strange. To this end Rose effectively casts Los Angeles as a sun drenched dystopia where the monster is instantly rejected for his ugliness rather than accepted for his inner beauty. This is smart, deliberate filmmaking from a true genre master.
These Final Hours
Since the original Mad Max Australian cinema has had a strong relationship with post-apocalyptic narratives and These Finals Hours continues the tradition, only rather than some desolate wasteland the film takes place in the city of Perth, Western Australia hours before the shockwave hits. When self-obsessed James (Nathan Phillips) comes into contact with a young girl named Rose (Angourie Rice) he must regain his humanity to help her traverse an increasingly lawless city to find her missing father. Director Zak Hilditch creates a remarkable sense of place, capturing the suburban sprawl of Perth while adding ingenious touches, like a barricade of shopping trolleys blocking off a street, a plea to a missing daughter painted on the side of a car or the burning ruins of skyscrapers glimpsed only in the distance. These Final Hours may be a little reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at times but it also defies expectations by focusing more on character driven drama rather than the usual action set pieces in most films in this genre.
Over Your Dead Body
In Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body the play is most definitely the thing. Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) and Kosuke (Ebizio Ichikawa) are actors starring in a new stage adaptation of the popular ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan. Strangeness ensues when the play comes alive and possesses the players to the point where they begin to mimic the story in their real lives. What stands out about Miike’s film is just how beautiful it is. In particular, the rotating stage design for the play on which the actors are rehearsing is decorated with shoji screens and bare trees, the floor littered with fallen autumnal leaves. Miike’s camera either views the play from the point of view of the spectators or sits within the set itself focusing on the actors as the play slowly takes over until actor and character are inseparable. This shifting of perspectives is paramount to portraying the splintering personalities at play and creating a sense of paranormal unrest which, coupled with the sudden acts of violence, creates an overbearing sense of dread.
The Reflecting Skin
Almost lost to the ravages of time but thankfully restored to its original glory is this beautifully photographed and chilling Southern Gothic drama from the early 1990s. Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) is a young boy growing up in the wheat fields of post-World War 2 America who becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who he is convinced is a vampire. This rich and evocative film by writer/director Philip Ridley is so multi-layered it feels like some kind of sublime dream. The audience is positioned to sympathise with Seth who is an un-reliable narrator as his internal world becomes external and we can no longer trust what he perceives to be real. This dreamlike quality also extends to the beautiful photography by Dick Pope, captured at the magic hour to give it a surreal sharpness that is all engulfing. This is a truly wonderful film that should be sought out by all discerning cinephiles.
There was a lot of impressive British talent on display at the festival, particularly this low-budget, gruesome thriller. A teacher (Robert Hands), pushed too far by his delinquent students takes it upon himself to kidnap two of the worst offenders (Even Bendall and Rory Coltart) and educate them with extreme prejudice. The teacher lectures the students on politics and philosophy, driving his lesson home with hammers and nail guns however director Ruth Platt brings an intense energy and a literary spin to The Lesson that makes it more than just gratuitous torture porn. There is a point to be made about the failure of the education system not only to provide the students with a favourable learning environment but also to support their teachers if the students get out of hand. Thankfully Platt doesn’t come down on one side or the other but rather suggests that the lesson to be learned cuts both ways, literally and figuratively
Another of the hotly anticipated films this year was this Cronenbergian body horror about Casey (Elma Begovic) a young woman who gets bitten by a mysterious bug while on holiday in Costa Rica. When she returns home she quickly realises that the bite is transforming her into something entomological. Bite very much wears its influences on its sleeve as it quickly becomes apparent that it is more or less a female version of The Fly, but that doesn’t stop this inventive and extremely disgusting film getting under your skin. A sub plot about a two-faced friend’s plans to derail Casey’s wedding feels like a bit of padding to increase the film’s running time but thankfully it doesn’t get in the way of all the ichor, eggs, blood and all kinds of fluids that are squirted, puked and splashed about with enough aplomb that the result is undeniably fun.
Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema
What Not Quite Hollywood did for ‘Ozploitation’, this film will most certainly do for Turkish cinema. In the 1970s and 1980s filmmakers relied on absent copyright laws to not only borrow ideas and storylines wholesale from Hollywood cinema but to steal entire scenes and soundtracks in order to lend their low budget efforts some production value. This documentary is both wildly funny and deeply profound as director Cem Kaya interviews many of the filmmakers responsible for the thousands of films produced each year. One cannot help but draw comparisons between their style and the current remix culture that takes place today on You Tube where fans take it upon themselves to create trailers and parodies cut from pre-existing films. Yet once the laughter and the anecdotes subside, fascinating stories emerge about the way home grown Turkish cinema is in decline and the imprisonment of directors to the point where making films becomes a political act. This is a fascinating story about the transformative nature of cinema.
Tales of Halloween
Eleven filmmakers collaborate on this wonderfully anarchic and genre embracing anthology film which is a must watch for all horror fans. Produced by Axelle Carolyn and featuring such filmmaking talents as Neil Marshall, Darren Lynn Bousman and Lucky McKee, Tales of Halloween is a laugh-a-minute rollercoaster ride of blood soaked gags and horror film references. Amongst demons running amok, supernatural stalkings, a masked slasher being interrupted by aliens and even a rampaging evil pumpkin Tales of Halloween also features many wry nods to classic horror films of the past, plus cameos by a veritable murderer’s row of horror filmmakers like John Landis and Joe Dante. As with all anthology films some entries are better than others but the film as a whole is so entertaining it becomes more than just the sum of its parts. This is the perfect film to watch with friends on Halloween night; it is fun, gory and absolutely ridiculous.