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Festival Report: FrightFest 2015

Written by James Taylor.

Photo from the article After going on annual daytrips to FrightFest since 2008, this year I decided to take the plunge and get a full weekend pass, granting me five days of horror films, with up to six feature films a day. I was in desperate need of a summer holiday, and determined that my love of horror films vastly outweighs how I feel about the sun. FrightFest currently spreads over five screens at Vue West End and one at the Prince Charles Cinema: three main screens and three “discovery” screens, which typically show more obscure films. A total of 76 feature films screened over the festival, alongside shorts and panel discussions. As such, even before you arrive at the festival there’s a somewhat daunting, but very enjoyable, task of planning each day, often entailing tough decisions between films that clash. Once you’ve been there for a few days it can at times feel a like an endurance, especially if you end up watching a few clunkers in a row. The effect of this is twofold. Firstly, it’s the exemplars of a particular subgenre, or those films doing something genuinely unique, that stick out and keep returning to your thoughts throughout the festival. Secondly, you notice trends that suggest the genre’s current fascinations. Rather than provide a comprehensive analysis of everything I saw, here I’ll discuss what I found to be the more noteworthy films and outline a few trends that emerged.

Found footage, which has persevered and adapted persistently over the last decade or so, was still alive in a few films that tried to innovate within the form. Will Canon’s Demonic (2015) is framed around a police investigation of a séance performed earlier that night by a group of youths, who filmed the whole thing. The film is at its most interesting when in police procedural mode, the police struggling to piece together the events of the night from the youths’ footage, which has been damaged. Sadly the film doesn’t commit to this framework, and we see the earlier events not just through footage recorded in the diegesis, but also in flashbacks. As such, what could have been a refreshing attempt to reflect on the found footage form by actually showing the process of the footage being found and constructed into a coherent narrative within the diegesis, becomes an occasionally creepy but largely unremarkable supernatural horror.

More successful at doing something fresh with found footage was Doran and Yoav Paz’s JeruZalem (2015), which combines the traditional POV perspective with the recent wave of computer screencast films, the most popular of which being Unfriended (2014), through having the footage streamed from protagonist Sarah’s (Danielle Jadelyn) Google Glass-esque headset. This allows for experimentation with a range of digital functions. For example, digital windows pop up to scan people’s faces and look up their online profiles. The film’s set-up, in which Sarah and Rachel (Yael Grobglas) go on holiday to Jerusalem, facilitates the use of these features, encouraging Sarah to use her headset to explore and research the city. As the film builds, slowly at first, to an unfolding apocalypse, it doesn’t innovate as much with its technological gimmick as it maybe could, but manages to find a few inventive ways to use the headset. The location shooting in the magnificent city of Jerusalem gives the film another unique trait, although the travelogue set-up proves somewhat problematic in this respect, our literal alignment with a Western perspective as the horror escalates risking presenting the city and its people as threatening Other.

The creatures that bring on JeruZalem’s apocalypse are zombies in nature, but their winged form is much more demonic. While evidencing the lingering presence of found footage, Demonic and JeruZalem therefore exhibit a much more prevalent trend at this year’s FrightFest: demons. Out of the films I saw, demons also featured prominently in David Keating’s festival-opener Cherry Tree (2015), Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm (2015) and Bruce McDonald’s Hellions (2015). Meanwhile, there was a conspicuous lack of the vampires and zombies that have proved genre staples in recent decades. This is well illustrated by festival-closing anthology Tales of Halloween (2015). Out of a whopping ten segments from eleven directors, all orchestrated by Axelle Carolyn, at least three feature demons (more depending on the looseness of your definition), compared to two ghosts, one witch, and not a single vampire or zombie. Part of the attraction of demons is surely their malleability. Unlike certain other supernatural creatures there’s not really a rulebook, allowing them to be melded into whatever mythology a filmmaker wishes to construct. Visually too they encourage invention. While JeruZalum uses CGI well to realise its winged demon apocalypse on a small budget, in a location with tight restrictions on what you can actually physically film, there was a satisfying prominence of practical special effects elsewhere at the festival.

There are a few fantastic demon transformation scenes in Cherry Tree which, along with some great set design, salvage a largely lacklustre film, while Bernard Rose’s modernisation of Frankenstein (2015) uses distressingly realistic makeup and effects to realise the monster’s appearance and harrowing acts of violence. Practical special effects are used to much more gleeful effect in splatter-filled crowd-pleasers Deathgasm and Tales of Halloween. Deathgasm concerns a demon apocalypse instigated by a heavy metal song, while Tales of Halloween’s segments all occur over the course of one Halloween night in the same town, the mandate seemingly being to have as much fun as possible. Each are packed with gory gags and offbeat humour that received applause throughout the screenings, from Deathgasm’s protagonist bludgeoning his relatives-turned-demons with dildos, to Tales of Halloween’s showdown between an alien and a serial killer in a tool shed full of weapons primed for dismemberment. Tales of Halloween proved an ideal closing film, its segments weaving together while brimming with cameos and references that form a broader intertextual network with horror cinema. As such it feels like a love letter to horror, or a blood-drenched party in its honour, which is appropriate, since that’s sort of what Halloween is. As with any anthology, some of the segments are stronger than others. None are ever dull though. My favourite was Darren Lynn Bousman’s ‘The Night Billy Raised Hell’, which exhibits a wicked sense of humour in its barrage of gags as a child gets a lesson in being a Halloween trickster.

Another crowd-pleaser showcasing plenty of practically realised set pieces was François Simard, Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s Turbo Kid (2015). A pastiche of 1980s dystopian action films, Turbo Kid has greatly benefited from the recent success of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which seems to be mentioned in every blurb. The film offers a different angle on its wasteland though, which the eponymous Kid (Munro Chambers) explores on his BMX, collecting 1980s ephemera, most coveting Turbo Ranger comic books. After befriending the ceaselessly enthusiastic Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), Kid discovers a fully functional Turbo Ranger costume. Becoming the superhero he’s always dreamed of, Kid, together with Apple, takes on callous tyrant Zeus (Michael Ironside). Turbo Kid blends an innocence inspired by the incorruptible morality of superheroes and an idealised vision of 80s youth culture with vivid violence. In its most gleefully gruesome moments it treats human bodies like jigsaw puzzles to be hacked apart and slotted back together in new ways. This mix of nostalgia and idealism with hyper-violence creates a unique tone. However, parallels with Fury Road are still unavoidable, and one way in which Turbo Kid compares unfavourably is in its female characters. Apple is the only speaking female character (besides Kid’s mum in a few flashbacks), and her characterisation doesn’t go far beyond a ditsy, albeit highly proficient in combat, oddball whose only desire is to be somebody’s companion. There’s a plot development that rationalises this, which I won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers, apart from to say that it comes with a range of new problems.

Female characters were much more central elsewhere at FrightFest. While slashers were mostly absent, the figure of the final girl lives on by adapting, with a number of films framed around a lone woman surviving through gruelling ordeals. Hellions establishes protagonist Dora (Chloe Rose) well in its opening act before having her terrorised by demonic children over the course of Halloween night, the sustained haunting growing tiresome and repetitive, despite some sumptuous visual flourishes. In Adam Schindler’s Shut In (2015), agoraphobic Anna (Beth Riesgraf) is a victim of a robbery who manages to turn the tables on the burglars as the house invasion premise shifts into something of an elaborate Saw-esque set-up, but never quite fulfils the promise of this. Ursula Dabrowsky’s Inner Demon (2014) offers a similarly uncertain genre fusion, not giving the audience much time to connect with Sam (Sarah Jeavons) before she’s abducted in the opening minutes, and spends the rest of the film running from her captures or bleeding in a closet, building up to a supernatural finale. The most successful lone female survivor film was Iain Softley’s Curve (2015), which starts off fairly unimaginatively, with Mallory (Julianne Hough) terrorised by a hitchhiker then trapped in her crashed car, but picks up by finding new directions to push the story through good utilisation of its environment. Together these films demonstrate that the figure of the final girl can be remoulded to persevere and survive not just throughout the whole duration of a film, but also outside of her native subgenre, in a range of new, often generically shifting, contexts. Happily, the absence of sexual violence against the protagonists in these films suggests that horror is moving beyond the exploitative trials for female characters that marred FrightFest only three years ago.

The three films I saw that featured the best characterisation dealt not with individuals, but relationships of different kinds. Two of these were smart British debut features. Ruth Platt’s The Lesson’s (2015) opening act offers keenly observed kitchen sinky drama, focusing on the exploits of obnoxious teen Fin (Evan Bendall). This abruptly shifts into a gruelling revenge narrative as Fin and Joel (Rory Coltart) are taken captive by Mr Gale (Robert Hands), a teacher they’ve pushed over the edge, who seeks to force them to finally learn through the incentive of failure being met with torture. Both the social realism and horror are managed assuredly, with only occasional jarring as the two are blended. The script is also very sharp, creating engaging characters that weave a complex web of morality, bolstered by great performances from a largely inexperienced cast. Hands is the only seasoned cast member, evident in his unnervingly unhinged performance. If The Lesson foregrounds hatred in its pupil/teacher relationship, Ben and Chris Blaine’s Nina Forever (2015) is a thoughtful, poignant and funny examination of grief and love. Every time Rob (Cian Barry) and Holly (Abigail Hardingham) have sex his dead girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) emerges from the bed, naked, dripping in blood and protesting, providing a fantastic literalisation of the obstacle she poses to their relationship. What follows is an exploration of how to deal with the dead girlfriend in the room: do they integrate her into their lives and memorialise her, or try to forget her and move on? The scenes in which Rob shares his bed with Holly and Nina can pander to the male gaze, but rather than being a fantasy threesome for Rob it’s always an uncomfortable situation. The film also succeeds in exploring Nina’s impact from both Rob and Holly’s perspectives. Although both The Lesson and Nina Forever struggle to arrive at a satisfying endpoint, they’re dealing with complex issues that are explored with nuance.

The third character driven piece that really made an impression on me was Perry Blackshear’s U.S. indie They Look Like People (2015). The film centres on Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), old friends reunited upon a chance encounter. They’re both dealing with personal issues, although Christian’s attempts to reshape himself into a confident and assertive figure are overshadowed by Wyatt’s paranoia, fuelled by phone calls he receives warning of an impending war between humans and creatures that have infiltrated humankind, and visions in his nightmares. Aesthetically the film is minimalistic, set predominantly in Christian’s somewhat sterile apartment, or venturing out into residential streets of New York, away from the busy hub of Manhattan. These settings have a cold and isolated feel, creating a fitting backdrop for the mounting tension, while simultaneously providing intimate spaces for the rekindling of Christian and Wyatt’s friendship. Although the film is for the most past a two-hander, Christian’s boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), who he’s attempting to court, is another well-formed character, who offers a glimpse into how Christian and Wyatt’s strained situation impacts others outside of their friendship. The tension that builds as Christian and Wyatt prepare for the apocalypse is all the more effective and raw due to your involvement with them, and their actions grow organically from their characterisation. They Look Like People delves into both very dark and very heartfelt places, and was definitely one of my festival highlights.

My other highlight, Steve Oram’s AAAAAAAAH! (2015), is of a completely different nature. The film assembles a great line-up of hip British comedians, situates them in a contemporary setting, yet mentally reverts them back a few evolutionary stages so that they act and communicate like monkeys. It’s a fairly obvious social satire, outlining the carnal impulses that drive much human behaviour, and poking fun at the ways this reveals itself in popular culture, for instance by having a TV chef prepare food with her breasts constantly on show. On paper it sounds like a smug concept piece that could grow tiresome quickly, yet rather than feeling self-congratulatory it devotes itself to foregrounding comedy. The audience are invited to laugh with and at the often outrageous performances, the lack of English dialogue enabling the cast to showcase physical comedy, and explore the range of nonverbal sounds they can make. The plot also pushes the concept to new places throughout the 79 minute duration, and I found myself becoming oddly involved with certain characters. There are some really nice instances of offbeat humour, although much of it relishes devolving into base territory that reflects the characters mentalities: expect nudity, violence and bodily fluids of all kinds. Some of the male characters’ attempts to assert their sexual dominance can be uncomfortable, but they’re always made to look pathetic, and ridiculed by the film. Ultimately, the main target of the film’s satire is the figure of the alpha male. AAAAAAAAH! is only by very loose definitions a horror film, yet the FrightFest audience was perfectly disposed to appreciate both its smartness and crassness. It’s definitely a film that benefits from being shared with a receptive audience, and I couldn’t have asked for better.

Both They Look Like People and AAAAAAAAH! played in the discovery screens, demonstrating that this is often where FrightFest’s real gems are found. These two, like some of the other key films I found significant, were also debut features, outlining the significance of FrightFest in giving new talent an opportunity to screen their films to a welcoming audience, and contrariwise in introducing fans to new filmmakers. FrightFest’s audience are such a vital part of the festival: keen genre fans primed to seek out any value that even the lesser films may hold, and create a great atmosphere for the films that really work. Not only will there never be another chance to watch most of these films with such a great audience, but many of them will barely screen in cinemas again, the current state of film distribution destining them straight to VOD and DVD. The final factor that really makes FrightFest is the organisers, who when they aren’t tirelessly darting between screens to ensure each film has a proper introduction are often hanging out at the bar chatting to fans. It all gives the festival a warm communal feel and by the end of the five days, although the fuzzy feeling in my eyes and brain was telling me it’s probably time to stop watching horror films all day, I knew I was really going to miss FrightFest.

This article was published on September 03, 2015.

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