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Festival Report: FrightFest 2019

Written by James C. Taylor.

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FrightFest celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year. That’s twenty years of probing the breadth and depth of horror cinema, showcasing films at the forefront of current trends while casting a light on that which lurks at the fringes. In this report, I’m going to survey films I saw at FrightFest 2019 that in some way speak to the current moment. Some reveal the longevity of certain subgenres, others offer a pointed engagement with contemporary socio-political issues. Amidst this reflection I’ll discuss a selection of my favourites in more detail.

There were films that immerse themselves in the craft of particular subgenres. Crawl (Dir: Alexandre Aja) is a lavishly produced killer animal movie, in which a father and daughter are trapped in a hurricane and hounded by giant alligators. The flooded sets are stunning, and the premise enables some astounding moments as the stakes ramp up, such as a crashing wave sweeping a gator through a window. Independently produced The Barge People (Dir: Charlie Steeds) proves that stylistically accomplished monster movies can be made without studio funding. The film delivers plenty of grisly action involving flesh eating amphibious mutants, while casting the British countryside in an aesthetic that emulates 1980s American horror, permeated by vivid blues, oranges and thick smoke. Tunisian supernatural chiller Dachra (Dir: Abdelhamid Bouchnak) also boasts a striking visual sensibility, mobilised to maintain an air of unease. Many compositions decentre the characters to draw attention to striking elements of the keenly selected locations, while a smattering of canted angles, lingering takes and other visual tricks exacerbate a creeping discomfort.

Other festival offerings were more hybridised, interlacing tropes from different subgenres or shifting direction as they progress. The Soska Sisters’ Rabid remakes David Cronenberg’s 1977 film (which also screened at this year’s FrightFest), amplifying key elements of the original while also taking the story in new directions. If Cronenberg’s film only begins to germinate the seeds, that would permeate his later works, of body horror and an obsession with fusing the organic and technological, the Soskas nourish these seeds to situate the film more in line with Cronenberg’s most famous films. The Soskas add to this an exploration of physical appearance via surgery and the fashion industry, picking up thematic threads from their own landmark feature American Mary (2012). The different components of Rabid don’t fully gel, but each provides some stand-out moments. Elsewhere, Daniel Isn’t Real (Dir: Adam Egypt Mortimer) is a textured treatment of imaginary friend tropes that takes some startling turns. Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is initially constructed as a confident-to-the-point-of-abrasiveness counterpoint to introverted Luke (Miles Robbins). Invisible to other characters, Daniel helps Luke socialise and talk to women at college, but his advice grows increasingly obnoxious and violent. Despite at times verging on a regressive assimilation of mental illness with monstrosity, the film thankfully avoids this by shifting tack in very satisfying ways, unfolding new layers of reality that introduce different sets of genre tropes as the narrative develops.

Certain films breathed new life into popular subgenres from the last few decades. Death of a Vlogger, the debut feature of Graham Hughes (who directs, writes, produces and stars in this low-budget Scottish gem), finds fertile fresh territory for found footage horror in the culture of vlogging. Graham is a vlogger whose popularity skyrockets when he begins posting videos of supernatural phenomena in his flat. As the hauntings worsen other vloggers get involved, either trying to aid Graham’s investigations or debunk him as a fraud. The film is presented as footage that has been collated after the fact, mixing the vlogs under scrutiny with talking head interviews that reflect on the events. This smart blend of found footage and mockumentary tropes supplements the narrative’s layered discourse on the bleed between reality and fiction online. The parsing of Graham’s actions and motivations raises important issues about addiction and performance in online culture: even if Graham’s videos were all a hoax, they still reveal much about his mentality. Key questions that Death of a Vlogger poses also reflect interestingly onto the nature of found footage horror: despite the audience typically being fully aware of the films’ artificial construction, why are the ways in which the films present themselves as authentic documents still so effective and enticing? All of this unfolds through a witty script and punchy storytelling, making Death of a Vlogger equal parts entertaining and intelligent.

Bullets of Justice (Dir: Valeri Milev), one of the festival’s midnight movies, is a new entry into the cycle of neo-grindhouse films typified by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double feature Grindhouse (2007). All the neo-grindhouse pastiche-laced staples abound in Bullets of Justice, from ridiculous violence and gratuitous nudity to hammy dialogue and purposefully crappy special effects. The premise gives some indication: in a post-World War III dystopia where human-pig hybrids (Muzzles) have overthrown humanity, Rob Justice (Timur Turisbekov) is a soldier for the human resistance. As the film progresses it disregards narrative coherence, opting instead for brilliantly disruptive formal games. For instance, key phrases (such as “Benedict Asshole”, the name of the Muzzle that Rob is hunting) trigger a series of shots in which the words reverberate or loop. Reminding Rob of his nemesis Rafael (Semir Alkadi) prompts a jealous reverie in which lithe hunk Rafael struts around in a one shoulder mankini, parading the looks and ass that apparently caused him to triumph over Rob in a beauty pageant. Each of the film’s crass components, from Rob’s acts of incest with his moustachioed sister to the farting noises that certain Muzzles make when they speak, become counters in its surrealist games of repetition and displacement. Just when you think you’ve got the film figured, it abruptly changes pace. Amidst the barrage of vulgarity, it was a discordant shift when the action slows right down to observe a character spending minutes carefully opening a bag that had me, and much of the cinema, in fits of uncontrollable laughter. Bullets of Justice’s absurd fragments of plot complement its formal games to offer an utterly delirious while shrewdly subversive 76 minutes that are best savoured after a few drinks.

While providing gleeful reprieves from the horrors of the world in which we live, FrightFest also featured a selection of films that directly confront these realities. Girl on the Third Floor (Dir: Travis Stevens) follows toxic alpha male Don (Phil ‘C. M. Punk’ Brooks) as he moves to, and tries to renovate, an old house. The tone is set when Don meets an ominous old bartender, the type of figure who typically acts as a coarse doomsayer in horror films but in this case turns out to be surprisingly liberal, warning Don that the house is “bad news for straight men”. A female presence haunting the house accordingly torments Don, often through excretions of goo/semen that Don’s muscles and arrogance provide no means of countering. The film is, however, derailed in the third act, losing sight of Don and the interrogation of toxic masculinity enacted through his torment. Feedback (Dir: Pedro C. Alonso) is also inconsistent but in a much more troubling way. The opening act establishes an explicit discourse on Brexit, as left-wing radio host Jarvis (Eddie Marsan) prepares to play an incendiary recording. Upon the studio being invaded by assailants, the film abruptly veers off to respond to the #MeToo movement. Much tension and discomfort is created as Feedback toys with aligning the audience with men being accused of horrendous acts against women, but the disconnect between the discourses on Brexit and gender politics at best fractures the film and at worst has disturbing implications in regard to what it’s trying to say. Spiral (Dir: Kurtis David Harder) is much more coherent in its message. Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen), an interracial gay couple, move to a small town where prejudice imposes on them subtly at first then in increasingly overt ways. Spiral is a slow burn, at times using this pacing to develop engaging central characters - Malik is particularly layered, through both plotting and Bowyer-Chapman’s tender performance - while at others meandering. Although the scares never fully pay off, the film’s discourse on systematic oppression is developed to its resonant conclusion.

Identity is explored in more multifaceted ways in Knives and Skin (Dir: Jennifer Reeder). Opening with high schooler Carolyn (Raven Whitley) being abandoned by jock Andy (Ty Olwin) at a lake after refusing to meet his sexual demands, the physically and emotionally wounded Carolyn fails to make it home. Carolyn’s disappearance sets in motion a rumination on desire and sorrow in high school and small-town U.S.A. The premise and enigmatic construction draw obvious comparisons to Twin Peaks (1990-91 and 2017), but Knives and Skin has its own unique ethereal sensibility. The lives of characters of diverse sexual, racial and generational identities are woven together in the film’s fragmentary structure. Knives and Skin is primarily concerned with its core ensemble of teenage girls, but also shows interest in teenage boys, parents and teachers. It’s a richly textured film, filled with hues and materials - neon lights, glitter, makeup, face paint, lace, etc. - that express or conceal characters’ feelings. At intervals characters join together in song, delivering melancholic renditions of pop songs that are often led by the girls’ school choir and at times joined by other characters through overlaying footage, simultaneously knitting characters together and outlining their separation. Knives and Skin is a deeply absorbing film that, while not strictly horror, is infused with genre literacy.

The festival’s closing film, A Good Woman is Hard to Find (Dir: Abner Pastoll), folds genre tropes more gradually into its social-realist mode. The opening moments show Sarah (Sarah Bolger) washing blood off herself, elliptically foreshadowing the film’s genre elements before cutting back to an earlier point in the story. The initial stages of the narrative draw on kitchen sink filmmaking traditions, set in a contemporary context where national austerity weighs heavily. Sarah is a single mother living on a Belfast housing estate where her husband was recently murdered. Her daily life is a struggle: a trip to the supermarket entails stretching her funds to as many basics as she can afford while having to contend with the advances of predatory men. Sarah’s vulnerability to aggressive men is exacerbated when her house in invaded by drug dealer Tito (Andrew Simpson), who elects to use her home to stash his stolen drugs. As crime and horror conventions creep in, these at first amplify the social issues. Men in power on both sides of the law treat Sarah with disdain, while the more Sarah’s living conditions and demeanour show signs of strain the greater the threat becomes of social services taking her children away. The genre elements take over as the film shifts gear towards its climax, and while the change of pace feels a bit too severe, it is for the most part set up by preceding events. Furthermore, Bolger’s nuanced performance, laced with desperation, ensures that the film always keeps one foot planted in Sarah’s social situation. Tense and smart, the dance between social realism and genre in A Good Woman is Hard to Find ingrains socio-political issues into the film’s fabric.

As is apparent from my discussion, many of the films from FrightFest resist a simplistic division into those that are exercises in genre tropes and those that prioritise socio-political commentary. Contemporary issues are often driving forces in the evolution of subgenres, while shrewd use of genre tropes can facilitate socio-political commentary. An appreciation of genre benefits from being attuned to the qualities that make individual films tick, while simultaneously connecting threads across films. In enabling fans to immerse themselves in horror and other genre films for five days, FrightFest provides an ideal (if intensive) space to nurture this appreciation. Here’s to FrightFest’s next twenty years!

You can read James C. Taylor’s report from the 2015 and 2017 festivals here and here

This article was published on September 01, 2019.