Finally, those notable omissions…
Totally arbitrarily, I’ve decided to restrict
my top ten to new movies, which means I’ve had to leave
out my retro-discovery of the festival:
Wake in Fright (aka.
This hugely influential Aussie film from the director
of First Blood isn’t really a horror movie, but it is
a disturbing and unique one. Like another ‘70s classic
starring Donald Pleasance, Death Line (aka. Raw Meat), here
an outsider director (Canadian Ted Kotcheff) targets the society
he finds himself thrust into (small-town Australia) and skewers
it. Warning: contains upsetting footage of a real kangaroo cull.
As a weekend passholder at Frightfest, where I’m
trying to cram in as many films as possible into 5 days, the
challenge is always coping with sleep deprivation, caffeine
addiction, and eating and drinking at odd hours. At some point
in the festival I find myself hitting a wall of fatigue and
falling asleep during a movie. I’m not talking about the
micro-sleeps you experience during the boring bits of a poor
festival movie. I’m talking full narcoleptic sleepy-time.
You just hope when it hits that: a) you don’t snore; and
b) it hits during a bad movie.
It’s confession time – this year I
hit that fatigue wall during:
No One Lives
I slept through most of the first half an hour,
and was left playing catch up for the remaining 57 minutes.
But I did see enough to know that this is a very smart, slick
serial killer/slasher movie hybrid with some great surprises
and kills. The Frightfest audience loved it. However, I can’t
in good conscience properly rate it, as I’ve not yet seen
the whole thing, hence its omission from the top ten. I will
certainly be seeking it out on DVD/Blu-Ray later.
The final notable omission from my top ten may
also be partly due to fatigue as it was the closing film of
the festival, or maybe not:
Big Bad Wolves
Sadly, for me this was the biggest disappointment
of Frightfest. It was the movie I’d been looking forward
to most, as I’m a big fan of the two Israeli directors’
first film, the genre-bending horror Rabies. This uneasy mix
of police procedural, fairy tale and Tarantino-esque humour
just didn’t work for me. It’s certainly original,
and I did laugh at some of the blackly-comic moments, but the
tone skewed awkwardly when the grim results of the paedophile
killer popped up on screen.
I have friends who love this movie, and I will
give Big Bad Wolves another chance away from the hothouse atmosphere
of the festival (and when I’m not so tired), but on first
watch I’m sorry to say I just didn’t get it.
Here then, without further ado, is my top ten
of Frightest 2013:
Fear (2013) – UK – Writer / Director Jeremy Lovering
couple Lucy (Alice Englert – Beautiful Creatures) and
Tom (Iain De Caesteker – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) get lost
in a labyrinth of rural roads when they decide to stop off at
a secluded hotel on their way to a music festival. Tormented
by a mysterious masked figure, can bloodied survivor Max (Allen
Leach – Downton Abbey) help them to escape their nightmare?
Or is this just another move in a very sick game?
The confined setting or ‘bottle’ thriller
is the Holy Grail of low budget filmmaking (I must know at least
5 friends who are writing one). Small cast, one small self-
contained location, and hopefully one big concept. It’s
a real challenge, so I was interested to see what first time
writer/director Jeremy Lovering came up with.
With a few minor exceptions, In Fear is mostly
two, and then three people in a car. Thankfully, it doesn’t
follow the example of terrible no-budget horror 5 Across the
Eyes, in which the camera never left the inside of the car.
However, you still have large chunks of the movie where there
isn’t a great deal of visual variation. Lovering though
makes the smart choice to use the claustrophobia of the car
to crank up the tension.
All three leads are likeable, but Allen Leach
in particular seems to be enjoying the different character moments
he gets to play with. Coming on like a cross between recent
Brit-thriller Hush and The Hitcher, this film does actually
try and scare you and manages to elicit a few low-octane chills.
But for me what elevates an otherwise solid low-budget thriller
into the top ten is the last ten minutes. I won’t spoil
the ending, but there is a surprise reveal which reminded me
of Edward G. Ulmer noir classic Detour, and there can be no
Creek (2013) – USA – Writier / Director Bobcat Goldthwait
Jim (Bryce Johnson – Sleeping Dogs) talks sceptical girlfriend
Kelly (Alexie Gilmore – God Bless America) into acting
as camera operator on his Bigfoot documentary. Re-tracing the
steps of previous crypto-zoologists they meet a bizarre collection
of cranks and eccentrics. They seek the source of the infamous
Patterson-Gimlin film, but deep in the woods they find something
much stranger and more terrifying.
Director Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America)
brings his satirical eye to the found footage genre and we get
an hour of entertaining faux-documentary on the search of Bigfoot
and the culture that’s sprung up around it. Mixing up
interviews of real Sasquatch experts with character actors playing
locals, Goldthwaite seems to be having fun blurring the lines
between reality and fiction.
Willow Creek is a ‘found footage’
movie, and it’s one that, like its heroes, is very definitely
following in the footsteps of its forebears. On the plus side,
that means this movie doesn’t cheat. With only one main
camera, there are very few cuts, and (except for the end credits)
all the music used is diegetic (ie. It comes solely from sources
we see onscreen – from characters singing and playing
music, or from the radio). Also, you’ve got to admire
the balls of filmmaker who is willing to let a 22 minute scene
play out on one camera without any cuts.
On the negative side, if you’ve seen any
‘found footage’ movies before, you are going to
be feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. The Blair
Witch Project in particular does seem to have been a point of
reference for the script, with certain story beats echoing what
I believe is still the most financially successful Independent
horror movie of all time.
So, despite both movies being wildly different
in tone, file this one next to The Last Exorcism as a found
footage movie with a whip smart first hour and a disappointing
Elisa [Para Elisa] (2013) – Spain – Writer / Director
student Ana (Ona Casamiquela) answers an advert for a part-time
nanny and finds she is entering the creepy world of matriarch
Diamantina (Luisa Gavasa) and her collection of antique dolls.
Imprisoned, Ana finds herself the plaything of Diamantina’s
strange daughter Elisa (Ana Turpin), who has a tendency to break
For Elisa has a neat psychological horror set-up,
a likeable heroine, painterly cinematography (courtesy of David
Valldepérez) and creepy central idea. It has great ingredients,
but frustratingly as a whole it falls short of greatness.
I think the main reason for this is the decision
Fernández makes to massively telescope the action and
have the events of the story take place over just a few hours.
He also rushes through the second half of the film (For Elisa
is barely 80 minutes long). While this does give the boyfriend
character’s subplot urgency, it also hamstrings the psychological
Ana finds herself imprisoned within a truly unique
and sick family, and I wanted to see what her life would be
like there. Torture, whether mental or physical, is always more
painful the more drawn out it is. Films like Misery, 5150 Elm’s
Way (aka 5150 Rue des Ormes) and previous Frightfest favourite
Mum & Dad, gain a lot of their power by slowly unveiling
the full insanity of the abductors over a period of weeks and
months. It’s a shame that’s not a choice that was
made here. However, fans of Misery will still note its obvious
influence on one particular sequence in the movie.
I’m sorry to say that the other reason is
Elisa herself. Ana Turpin is fine in the role, but what was
needed was an actor willing to move beyond the mousey surface
and fully reveal to us Elisa’s potential for violence
and unpredictability. A performance like that of Robin McLeavy
as ‘Princess’ Lola in previous Frightfest selection
The Loved Ones – now THAT is a scary character. Luisa
Gavasa is excellent as the mother Diamantina, but sadly we don’t
get enough of her.
I feel I’ve been a little harsh on film
I did enjoy. This is still a solid slice of Euro Horror, and
it’s a promising debut from writer/director Juanra Fernández.
It’s just that as the credits rolled I felt it could have
been so much more.
Next (2011) – USA – Director Adam Wingard, Writer
Davidson family are re-uniting to celebrate Mum and Dad’s
wedding anniversary. Son Crispian (A.J. Bowen – The Signal)
has prepared his new girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson –
Bait) for fireworks from his dysfunctional siblings, but not
for the assault that follows. This year, the Davidson family
home has been targeted by attackers wearing animal masks. But
these killers haven’t reckoned on one of their victims
having a very deadly set of skills.
Ever since hyperbolic and hysterical reports of
a slasher movie that broke the mould started to come out of
stateside festivals in 2011, genre fans in the UK have been
licking their lips in anticipation of a bloody banquet of terror…
Finally, two years on we get see Adam Wingard’s
(A Horrible Way to Die, VHS) inventive hybrid of the home invasion
and slasher genres. And hybrid is the right word for this often
contradictory movie that pulls in a number of different directions
at the same time.
It’s a movie that uses the Scream-like meta-approach
to get laughs by pointing out and then subverting horror tropes.
It’s a studio pick-up that plays by rules of the franchise
creation game. It’s also a movie with a defiantly Indie
sensibility throughout, which eschews the normal teen cast of
a slasher to focus on an older group of characters. Or, to put
it another way: its core twenty and thirty something cast members
are actually playing twenty and thirty something characters
rather than unconvincing teenagers.
Not only that but You’re Next is a movie
where the director seems to have got a load of his mates in
to fill out the cast, and horror fans can play ‘spot the
director’. There’s Larry Fessenden (Wendigo), Ti
West (The Innkeepers), Joe Swanberg (VHS) and the film’s
writer Simon Barrett (VHS 2). It’s like an American Indie
version of a John Landis movie. Personally, I’d prefer
to watch a John Landis version of an American Indie movie, but
there you go.
The most successful part of this bloody sundae
of a film is the horror comedy part. A.J. Bowen excels at this
kind of thing and Sharni Vinson gives as good as she gets as
his girlfriend. It’s a bit predictable towards the end
but the kills are good and just because we’ve heard a
joke before that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not
funny any more. Finally, any movie with Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator,
Chopping Mall, From Beyond) in it – here playing the mother
of the family – gets plus points from me.
Tourist [aka. The Grief Tourist] (2012) – USA –
Director Suri Krishnamma, Writer Frank John Hughes
Security guard Jim Tahna (Michael Cudlitz –
Southland) is a ‘Dark Tourist’ who spends his annual
vacation retracing the steps of notorious serial killers. This
year as he visits the haunts of Carl Marznap (Pruitt Taylor
Vince – Constantine), Jim starts to mentally unravel.
Torn between his desires for local waitress Betsy (Melanie Griffith
– Working Girl; Something Wild) and his prostitute neighbour
Iris (Suzanne Quast) his own darkest secrets start to spill
Horror cinema, and genre cinema in general is
full of serial killers. Jason, Michael, Freddy, Hannibal…
the list goes on and on. But most screen serial killers don’t
bear much resemblance to their real life counterparts. They’re
more like the wolf pretending to be Grandmother; the campfire
tale come to life; the Boogeyman made flesh.
If (like me) you’ve done any background
reading at all into real-life serial killers, then you’ll
find backstory after backstory of physical and sexual abuse,
of sick people who are damaged and broken by life. That absolutely
doesn’t excuse their actions; it just so often seems to
be the common thread between them. It’s not scary, so
much as sickening, deeply depressing and sad. This then is the
territory that Dark Tourist guides us into.
That’s not a fun place to visit, but thankfully,
Dark Tourist is an absorbing study of psychological decline
and fall. Initially a voiceover-driven drama, this is dominated
by Michael Cudlitz’s performance as the titular Dark Tourist.
We are with him throughout the film, witnessing his interactions
with waitresses, whores and long dead killers.
There’s a surprise which gives the movie
a little exploitation movie kick, but that’s not what
you leave with. You leave thinking about the performances, particularly
Cudlitz, but also Carl Marznap and Melanie Griffith (who does
her best work for years).
Desert [El Desierto ] (2013) – Argentina – Writer
/ Director Christoph Behl
an isolated location, two men and one woman have survived the
zombie apocalypse in their fortified house. However, the love
triangle between Ana (Victoria Almeida), Jonathan (William Prociuk)
and Ana’s former lover Axel (Lautaro Delgado) has poisoned
relations between them. When the two men return from a scavenging
expedition with a pet zombie who Ana christens Pythagoras (Lucas
Lagré), the survivors enter a dangerous new phase.
When is a zombie movie not a zombie movie? When
it’s an existential character study with zombies in it…
Like The Divide (another previous Frightfest selection),
The Desert isn’t interested in the end of the world, so
much as studying what happens to human beings who are cooped
up together once the civilised world has crumbled. Where it
differs is in its sensibility and approach.
The sensibility here is an Arthouse one, and the
pacing and story progression is very deliberate. Writer/Director
Christoph Behl meticulously documents the mundane everyday routine
that the central trio follow in order to stay alive and stay
sane. We watch the video diaries that Ana makes. We see how
they get their water and how they’ve fortified their home.
But this is an approach that demands patience from the viewer.
I’ll admit that after almost 30 beautifully
filmed minutes of nothing much happening, I did start to nod
off. Thankfully at that point, Pythagoras the zombie gets introduced
into the household and the main plot kicks in. Then, much to
my surprise, I found myself drawn into the film by these three
characters and their struggles. The whole cast excels, but the
performances of Victoria Almeida and Lautaro Delgado as the
estranged former lovers Ana and Axel are great.
Also, I really appreciated the little visual grace
notes and attention to detail. Whether it was the simple scene
when the rains came, or recurring images like the flies that
Axel has tattooed over his body. Those flies become a swarm
that charts both the time that’s passed and Axel’s
own decline. The end, when it comes is heart-rending, and manages
the trick of being both surprising and inevitable.
Like Sex, Lies and Videotape spliced with Day
of the Dead, The Desert is a drama that rewards the patient
viewer, and shows just how broad a church horror is.
Borderlands (2013) – UK – Writer / Director Elliot
Vatican sends in a team to investigate a possible miracle at
a remote West Country church. There, damaged investigator Deacon
(Gordon Kennedy – Robin Hood) clashes with cynical Father
Mark (Aidan McArdle – Killing Bono) over his methods and
beliefs. New to paranormal detective work is Gray (Robin Hill
– Down Terrace), their technical expert, who ensures webcams
and personal headcams record everything. Is this just another
case of fakery, or have they stumbled onto something much darker
and more ancient?
Just like with last year’s top ten entry
The Devil’s Business, I need to declare an interest here.
I know the film’s producer Jen Handorf, so it’s
true I did go into the screening wanting to like the movie.
However, it’s also true that I went into the movie extremely
tired and grumpy after having had to get up at the crack of
dawn again (this was on Day Five of the festival) and queue
for tickets. I’d say the latter feeling cancelled out
any bias from the former – but there you go. So having
got the formalities out of way, let’s take a trip into
With a title that consciously evokes William Hope
Hodgson’s classic horror tale The House on the Borderland,
I was expecting The Borderlands to take me into the realms of
the supernatural, and it didn’t let me down. While nowhere
near as trippy as that novel, it was still refreshing to see
a horror movie with Catholic priest characters that seems to
be taking its primary inspiration from the literature of H.P.
Lovecraft, M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood rather than the
usual touchstones of The Exorcist and The Omen.
Like Willow Creek, this is a ‘found footage’
movie that gets a lot of humour out its initial set-up. Here
that humour comes principally from Robin Hill as tech expert
Gray and his exchanges with Gordon Kennedy’s Deacon. Kennedy
has a comic background as part of ‘90s comedy sketch show
Absolutely, but here he plays the straight man to Hill and it’s
wonderful to watch their scenes together.
One of the things that often hamstrings the credibility
of ‘found footage’ movies is what I call the ‘camera
question’. e.g. Why is Johnny still continuing to film
the unspeakably horrific thing when he should be either a) dropping
the camera and running away or b) dropping the camera and running
to aid Barbara, who is about to lose her face to a spiked tentacle.
First time writer/director Elliot Goldner’s
script is acutely aware of the ‘camera question’
and extracts sly humour from answering it. Gray constantly berates
Deacon for not wearing his headcam rig at all times, until it
becomes habit and he, like the audience, simply forgets he is
wearing it and just gets on with his business. There’s
even a slightly jarring moment right near the end, when a panicky
Gray takes the time to stop and set-up an aerial relay for the
headcams so they’ll continue to record underground.
Where The Borderlands scores over Willow Creek
is in the shift from the humour of the earlier scenes into the
dread and fear of the latter half. It wisely keeps its powder
dry when it comes to supernatural phenomena during the build
up and utilises some excellent sound design to build up tension.
The climax is both clever and effective, and I’ll not
spoil it. This film pushes the boundaries (or perhaps that should
be borders) of the ‘found footage’ genre: recommended.
[Insensibles] (2012) – Spain – Director Juan Carlos
Medina, Writers Luiso Berdejo, Juan Carlos Medina
In the present day, David (Àlex Brendemühl
– The Hours of the Day) discovers that he was adopted
and only his true parents can give him the life-saving transplant
he needs. This leads him to uncover a dark secret from the past:
In 1931, a group of children born insensible to pain were incarcerated
in the Canfranc asylum, high up in the Pyrenees, for study and
experimentation. But what became of the boy Berkano (Tómas
Lemarquis – Errors of the Human Body) and his fellow inmates
after the Spanish Civil War?
The second Spanish film in this year’s top
ten, Painless will inevitably be compared with Guillermo Del
Toro’s Spanish Civil War set horror fantasies Pan’s
Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It shares not only
a fascination with 20th century Spanish history, but is also
blessed with a director who has an eye for the beauty in the
most horrific of moments.
It’s a shame that many Frightfesters will
have put off going to see this film by the projection problems
that dogged its first showing on the discovery screen. Unfortunately,
the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) sent to the festival was corrupted
and wouldn’t play properly. Kudos then to the Frightfest
organisers for getting a replacement DCP sent over in less than
48 hours. They weren’t sure it was going to make it in
time for the second screening, but thankfully it did.
This is a film with a dual time structure, both
period and modern. It uses the tried-and-tested route of having
a modern day protagonist who plays detective to reveal the secrets
of the past which then play out as flashbacks. While it’s
hardly unique in that respect, (see any number of movies from
Citizen Kane through to A.S. Byatt adaptation Possession) it
is unusual for the modern day framing story to be played for
such high stakes.
Here the fact that Àlex Brendemühl’s
David is dying and must discover the truth about what really
happened in Canfranc asylum if he wants to live, gives the movie
a great D.O.A.-style dramatic engine that turbo charges both
Like its protagonist, Painless is absolutely passionate
and unremitting in its commitment to uncovering the truth about
Spain’s past crimes. It rejects any suggestion that we
should let sleeping dogs lie. Here the ending is brutal, moving
and tough as hell: Painless? Hardly, but this is brave and rewarding
Thrills (2013) – USA – Director E. L. Katz, Writers
David Churchirillo, Trent Haaga
being fired from his job, Craig (Pat Healy – The Innkeepers)
is faced with the prospect of imminent eviction and having failed
his wife and newborn child. While drowning his sorrows at a
seedy bar, he runs into old friend Vince (Ethan Embry –
Eagle Eye) who is similarly down on his luck. Their drunken
evening takes a twist when rich couple Colin (David Koechner
– Anchorman) and Violet (Sara Paxton – The Innkeepers)
decide to involve the two friends in their crazy betting games.
What starts out as innocent fun turns serious as the stakes
keep increasing, and the sex and mind games begin.
Welcome to Global Austerity cinema… Who
says Americans don’t get satire? In Cheap Thrills the
contemporary American Dream is dissected with a razor sharp
script to reveal the inequalities and class tensions writhing
Cheap Thrills is a twisted thriller that’s
indebted to TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales
of the Unexpected and in particular to the Roald Dahl story
Man from the South (adapted numerous times and the inspiration
for Quentin Tarantino’s The Man from Hollywood segment
in anthology film Four Rooms). But this movie takes the greed
and desperation and devilish tempter figure of Dahl’s
story and goes a stage further. It does this by aping and satirising
the structures and formula of reality TV talent shows like X
Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.
Here, before the competition begins we get the
sob story backgrounds of both sacked father Craig and ex-con
Vince. Then we meet the rich and powerful judges, Colin and
Violet. Once the competition begins, the prizes and stakes gradually
increase. We even get the moment when the contestants have to
basically beg to be allowed to progress to the next round. And
then there’s the mentoring of the contestants by the judges
ahead of the final. It’s all there. Who would you vote
The script (by David Churchirillo and Trent Haaga)
is the star here, but the ensemble cast perform it with glee
and all four principal give awards-worthy performances. As funny
as it is gripping, Cheap Thrills had me laughing out loud one
moment and then squirming in my seat the next. A real audience
pleaser, this movie may be cheap, but as promised, it definitely
We Are What We Are (2013) – USA – Director Jim Mickle,
Writers Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Parker family harbour a sinister secret: since the time of their
pioneer ancestors, they have survived by cannibalism. After
the death of their mother, teenage sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers
– The Master) and Rose (Julia Garner – The Last
Exorcism Part II) are ordered by their father Frank (Bill Sage
– American Psycho) to carry out the killing rituals needed
to provide for the family. As the two sisters are torn between
rebellion and acceptance, evidence of the Parker family’s
past crimes is found, and the authorities start to close in.
“What! A Hollywood remake at number one?
Have five days of horror movies warped your critical faculties?”
I hear you cry. But wait gentle reader, let me explain. For
this is that rare exception to the general rule: a horror remake
that surpasses the original. An English language re-interpretation
of a respected foreign language title that is deeper and more
intelligent than its source.
I confess that I very nearly gave this one a miss.
While many of my favourite horror movies are remakes –
Dracula (1958), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) – this
year the likes of Texas Chainsaw 3D and Evil Dead, had given
me remake fatigue. Also, Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican
original, was an Arthouse film that I respected for its craft,
but wasn’t very keen on. It had a terrific sense of place
and a nice central idea, but it coasted by on mood and pretty
cinematography too much for my liking.
So when Frightfest organiser and esteemed horror
critic Alan Jones told me a remake of a movie I didn’t
like was one of the best films of the festival, my eyebrows
shot up in disbelief. He saw this and fixed me with an Ancient
Mariner stare: “Oh no… you HAVE to see it.”
And I am thankful that I listened to him.
Director and co-writer Jim Mickle’s previous
work was the vampire road movie Stakeland, a film that played
like straight version of Zombieland. Too bleak to be a mainstream
hit, it’s a good horror film that should be in every genre
fan’s collection. However, with We Are What We Are, Mickle
steps up to a whole new level.
This film is like an object lesson in how to remake/reboot/re-imagine
a respected horror movie:
First, take all the greatest strengths of the
original and make that the skeleton to build your new interpretation
Here, Damici and Mickle take the original’s
vivid rooting of the story in its locality (Mexican suburbia)
and apply that specificity of focus to the new locale (rural
trailer-park in New York State). Mickle also takes the strengths
of the Arthouse approach: an unrushed pace, attention to character,
and artful cinematography. He then weds that with taut storytelling.
Re-examine all the characters and if necessary
invent completely new ones in order to properly create a fresh
take on the original idea.
It’s a bold choice to completely change
the central family dynamic from the original mother/son/daughter
one to the remake’s father/daughters one, but it’s
a choice that works, and gives the remake a very different feel
and tone to the original.
Research the historical precedents and mythology
behind the original idea and then use that to flesh out the
background of the new movie.
Again, Damici and Mickle have really done their
homework here. They’ve not just used cannibalism to create
another family of grotesques like we seen in many horror films
before. They’ve really thought about things like what
it would do medically to a person if they lived on human flesh.
They’ve also clearly researched instances of cannibalism
in American History, and the infamous story of the Donner Party
Finally, cast the movie with great care.
Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn) and Kelly
McGinnis (Top Gun) as might be expected, provide reliable support.
It’s the likes of Bill Sage as the severe father, and
Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner as the two daughters, that are
the revelations here.
Not just a beautifully executed piece of genre
cinema, but a beautiful film, period. If you only see one movie
that screened at Frightfest 2013, that movie should be We Are
What We Are.
This really is the end…
Many thanks to Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy,
Greg Day and everyone behind-the-scenes who helped make Frightfest
2013 the huge success it was.
Thanks to the staff of the Empire Leicester Square
for making us all so welcome.
Lastly, thanks to the family of Frightfest weekend
passholders for making the festival what it is. A big ‘shout
out’ to Simon, Jason, Arol, Stuart, Mike, Tim, Xav, Steven,
Marco, Christine and Frightfest virgin Keith. See you all next