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Festival Report: FrightFest2017

Written by James C. Taylor.

Photo from the article What did you do for August bank holiday weekend, potentially the last burst of summery weather in the U.K. this year? I spent the weekend in a cinema watching horror films, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Over the four and a half days of FrightFest I caught 24 feature films. One noteworthy quality of this year’s festival was that no prevailing trend emerged. While Blumhouse Productions are currently the big name in popular horror, having mastered the low-budget domestic spooker, effective baby-napping demon tale Still/Born (2017) was the only FrightFest selection hitching on the Blumhouse train. Yet this lack of a central trend is by no means a sign of a floundering genre. The diversity of films on offer, and general strong standard of these, suggests that horror is nimbly traversing a variety of intersecting paths.

With 1980s nostalgia currently pervading popular culture, FrightFest had its fair share of films reanimating elements of 1980s horror. The most successful used these elements not simply as ends unto themselves. Dead Shack’s (2017) cool synthesiser score and gleefully gory zombie attacks situate it in traditions of 1980s U.S. horror, but its comic sensibility, exemplified by hilarious desperate-to-be-the-cool-dad Roger (Donavon Stinson), provides consistent laughs and surprisingly involving characters of its own design. Elsewhere, Replace (2017) wears its debt to body horror on protagonist Kira’s (Rebecca Forsythe) rapidly deteriorating flesh, which she must replenish with skin sliced off youthful victims. The film maintains freshness in the ways it combines its influences, which also include Dario Argento films and genetic sci-fi, and deploys them in its dissection of cultural obsessions with preserving women’s youth.

Other films rooted themselves more firmly in the present. Sharp witted vampires-under-siege British comedy Eat Locals (2017) takes some satisfying bites at contemporary U.K. politics, at one point having the vampires consider the viability of feeding on immigrants. The Bar (2017) opens with a bold gambit, using what initially appears to be a terrorist attack on a European capital, Madrid, as fodder for grisly farce. Tensions bristle between characters from various social backgrounds holed up in a bar, the film deftly moving between irreverence and incision as it examines the social prejudices revealed through the characters’ interactions. However, the closing act sadly descends into nastiness that plays to some of the prejudices that were initially confronted. Slickly-executed and darkly comedic U.S. thriller Lowlife (2017) has a similar penchant for pushing buttons, from situating a pregnant woman as an almost-McGuffin that its cast of miscreants seek to kidnap, rescue or farm for kidneys, to featuring a thug with a swastika tattooed across his face. However, Lowlife inverts The Bar’s trajectory, developing to disclose a surprisingly warm heart and positive outlook.

Lowlife was one of the many films at FrightFest that couldn’t straightforwardly be categorised as horror, but the fact it sits comfortably in the festival’s line-up indicates the breadth of the genre’s reach. Some of the most memorable films this FrightFest either test the limits of horror or exist at the genre’s periphery. The remainder of this report will focus on four such films.

Festival closer Tragedy Girls (2017) takes postmodern horror into the age of social media. Web-savvy high school seniors Makayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand), the kind of self-absorbed girls who in decades past would be killed in the early stages of a slasher, obsess over, catch and then supersede their disappointing local serial killer, all in pursuit of followers for their blog about the killings. This setup, along with disregarding the mystery killer trope, effectively questions whether the traditional slasher (both figure and subgenre) can survive in an age when all knowledge is seemingly a few clicks away to those with the know-how. Makayla and Sadie’s efforts also prompt reflection on whether our most charitable -seeming online posts are underpinned by narcissism. The film’s deconstruction of tropes, along with its punchy style and infusion of iconography from digital media, is reminiscent of Detention (2011). Yet while Detention bends and breaks slasher tropes to such an extent that it ends up practically forgoing horror, Tragedy Girls remains committed to delivering wickedly grisly set-pieces.

Freehold (2017) is underpinned by a decidedly distressing idea; what if somebody else was living in your house without you knowing? Self-assured estate agent Hussein (Mim Shaikh) is the official paying tenant of his flat. When Hussein’s out or sleeping, Orlan (Javier Botet) emerges from a hidden network of spaces between walls and under furniture. The opposition of the two men’s lifestyles - Hussein works and plays hard while Orlan rejects social convention - is brilliantly captured in the film’s construction. The flat is shot differently depending on its dominant occupant, Orlan often shown from odd angles or, in particularly striking scenes, from outside the window as he befriends a pair of pigeons. The distinction is underscored by the unique ways in which the character’s contrasting bodies inhabit the flat. Shaikh/Hussein is short and fairly stocky while Botet/Orlan’s towering and gangly physique grants him an almost-supernatural presence as he slips silently through the house. Given the context of Brexit, it’s discomforting to see a British film present a Frenchman as a malicious invader, particularly as the ways Orlan menaces Hussein become alarmingly grim. Yet one of the film’s strengths is its depiction of both leads as objectionable yet endearing, which also testifies to the talents of Shaikh and Botet. Hussein is obnoxious but lovably naïve, while Orlan’s dark side is counterbalanced by his charming eccentricities, from the simple pleasure he exhibits purloining a new pair of pants to his exuberance when spraying around expensive toiletries during a rare shower.

Attack of the Adult Babies (2017) also mischievously treads a line between bad taste and eccentricity, although with even more verve and potential divisiveness. Many will be understandably put off by certain elements, such as its gratuitous toilet humour. However, such elements are part and parcel of the heady and unrestrained concoction the film forces upon you. The basic premise is that a family are sent under duress to steal documents from a mansion where an elite group of British men are enjoying a tradition in which they dress as babies while women in kinky nurse uniforms attend to their every need. From here the film takes increasingly bizarre turns. Director Dominic Brunt’s filmmaking philosophy seems to be that nothing is off the table and the more you can cram in the merrier. ‘More is better’ manifests in form - for instance one sequence cut together from old cartoons and another made by clay-motion extraordinaire Lee Hardcastle - and content, which ranges from offbeat family drama to a critique of Bullingdon Club-esque societies. The potentially demeaning ritual in which rich and powerful men excitedly partake to maintain their social status feels like an especially bonkers satirical response to the revelation that David Cameron’s initiation to the Piers Gaveston Society allegedly entailed fucking a dead pig’s head, not least because the adult baby milk they drink causes them to mutate pigs’ features. This satirical edge becomes even more explicit as the film develops, although so does the base humour and ineffable trimmings.

Amidst the festival’s bloody carnage was Imitation Girl (2017), a warm treasure that isn’t horror at all. Imitation Girl belongs to the strain of sci-fi in which a fantastic premise provides not the focus in itself, but the means to an exploration of humanity. The film concerns an alien landing in New Mexico and adopting the form of adult entertainer Julianna (Lauren Ashley Carter) after encountering her image on a magazine cover. The proceeding exploration of identity contrasts the alien’s joyous sampling of life on Earth against Juliana’s despondency. The alien’s storyline, which sees her taken in by welcoming Iranian immigrants, is particularly poignant. First time feature director Natasha Kermani explained at the screening that this aspect of the film was infused with her own heritage as the daughter of Iranian immigrants. The presentation of Julianna’s life risks heavy-handed moralising, with many components of her lifestyle, from her profession to her drug use, depicted as unquestionably bad. Part of the issue is that the film is limited to only contrasting two discrete locales: the alien’s peaceful sanctuary in New Mexico against the density of Julianna’s New York. However, other factors, such as the representation of sexuality, infuse the exploration of identity with nuance. Normative white heterosexual union is present primarily in parodic form, as functional performance in pornography. Meanwhile, the alien enters into a tender relationship with Iranian host Saghi (Neimah Djourabchi), and Juliana is invigorated by an interracial same-sex fling. Ultimately, Imitation Girl promotes looking at life afresh and seeing beyond personal or social barriers that suffocate and divide us. This sentiment is encapsulated in some arresting imagery that evokes the alien’s transcendence of physical boundaries, and is especially resonant for a film made in a country where the president is trying to build literal walls between people.

A horror festival may seem an unlikely place to find such an affirmative message, but genre has long proven fertile ground for social commentary. As evident from the above, it wasn’t just the outlying sci-fi film that chimed with the times in which we live. In such a volatile socio-political climate, it’s not surprising that horror filmmakers are pushing the genre in directions that retreat from, brush against, exploit or tackle head-on the myriad nightmares that confront us in our waking lives.

You can read James C. Taylor’s report from the 2015 festival here

This article was published on October 07, 2017.

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