Things we learned at Frightfest 2010

Now that the dust has settled, here’s a little roundup of the highlights and lowlights of Frightfest 2010. Overall, we had a fantastic time at our first FF – and the tickets are already booked for the Halloween all-nighter later this month. See you there!

CARL’S TOP FIVE

1. F. Searingly contemporary and stylishly low-key, F has all of the makings of a modern-day classic. Johannes Roberts skilfully mines several of society’s tremor lines and weaves their content together to produce a taut, gritty and utterly engaging film. The travails of Robert Anderson’s character – masterfully portrayed by David Schofield in perhaps the performance of his career – adds real emotional depth to what is a relatively simple plot, as does the flawless supporting cast. In the Q&A afterwards Roberts revealed that he tinkered with the script for around two years, crafting a credible explanation for how such a horrific scenario could play out a school environment. He entirely succeeds, and it’s a joy to behold.

2. The Pack. Franck Richard set the bar high in his stunning debut feature, and in wrestling Madame La Spack offered up perhaps the most memorable character of the Festival and a new horror icon. Part black-comedy, part road-horror, part zombie apocalypse, its macabre richness is utterly enveloping. Richard successfully builds upon the grimy, rustic tradition of French horror of the Grapes of Death school by adding a humour that propels The Pack to a new level, particularly in La Spack (the mesmerising Yolande Moreau was born for the role) and Sherrif Chinaski. A director to keep an eye on.

3. The Dead. Any concerns I had that the African backdrop heralded a gimmicky return to the Caribbean voodoo zombies of the 1940s were swiftly dispelled, and The Dead proved to be one of the best entries to the genre we’ve seen in recent years. Thankfully, the Ford brothers used the zombie format for what it does best – providing a horrific canvass on which to sketch a wider, distinct human story, striking gold in the chemistry between Rob Freeman and Prince David Osei. Visually beautiful, the utterly bleak has rarely been delivered with such heart.

4. Dream Home. It can’t have been easy to pitch a film predicated on the sub-prime mortgage meltdown to developers, but thank goodness Ho-Cheung Pang did. The utterly bonkers premise is delivered with such gung-ho passion by Josie Ho that you can’t help but buy into her bloody quest to get on the property ladder. Kill Bill meets Falling Down, in Hong Kong. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of silliness.

5. The Loved Ones. Taking the clichés of teen horror that one step further, The Loved Ones continued a strong year for Australia. Sean Bryne stylishly and adeptly dances between macabre black comedy and savage brute horror, and for all of the parallels with Misery creates something that feels fresh and inventive. Robin McLeavly’s portrayal of the cosseted Lola is the real show-stealer though.

Honourable mention: Red Hill. As linear and predictable as it is, Red Hill is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable return to the themes of High Plains Drifter, Assault on Precinct 13, Rambo and the like. Ryan Kwanten, Christopher David and Steve Bisley pitch their performances at a suitably pantomimic level, and as a result it’s easy to be swept along for the ride. A marvellous modern Western, and look out for a great appearance by Kevin ‘David Bishop’ Harrington.

Wooden Spoon: The Tortured. There’s no denying that this dross had a measure of sincerity about it. Sadly, it lacked any of the other composite parts of an even average film. Script = laughable (“Imagine the worst pain you’ve ever experienced…this will be worse”). Cast = equal to the script. Plot = As ambitious as the script and cast allow. The cartoon-like kidnap scene is indicative of the respect Robert Lieberman has for his audience and, combined with the primary-school level morality debates Elise and Craig, helps to smash out any wider resonance the scenario might have. One to avoid.

MATT’S TOP FIVE

1. F. Maybe it was just a sense of relief after seeing two abysmal British films on the first two days of the festival, but F really is a phenomenal achievement. A tense and stylish exercise in efficiently mining all the possibilities for terror that existing in a deserted school at night, Johannes Roberts’ film is absolutely watertight – there are no leaps of logic, no illogical actions by characters, no gaping holes. As such, it’s not only a worthy homage to Assault on Precinct 13, but marks out Roberts as a worthy successor to Carpenter in the making.

2. The Pack. This bizarre genre hybrid’s expert blend of black comedy and the macabre reminds you what an exhilaratingly oddball experience French indie cinema at its best can be. The nutty characters and bizarre, twisting plot are a delight, but the real highlight is a truly iconic performance from Yolande Moreau as Mme Le Spack. Deserves as big an audience as any of Jeunet & Caro’s best work.

3. Monsters. Perhaps a brave choice for Frightfest, and certainly one that divided the audience. But whilst the decision to downplay all the supernatural and fantasy elements in favour of a love story didn’t go down so well with some of the more hardened genre nuts, it’s still a charming piece that elicits the same sense of innocent wonder from the natural world as it does its sci-fi elements. Only rarely does Monsters ever become more than the sum of its parts (and certain aspects of the design and dialogue wear their influences prominently on their sleeves), but it’s still a beguiling and lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

4. Bedevilled. Proof that the Koreans are still indisputably masters of the revenge flick. This story of a horrid domestic situation turning into an all-out bloodbath is at times agonisingly slow (it’s a good 70 minutes until anyone gets the chop) and is a good deal less flashy than some of its more celebrated countrymen. Yet it remains incredibly affecting and jumps effortlessly from internal human drama to baroque slasher pic. A low-key triumph.

5. Red Hill. Superior Western that builds its tension the old-fashioned way and is all the better for it. A lot of films were in contention for fifth place, but Red Hill just pips them on account of a single, blissful, wordless scene towards the end that is both utterly unexpected and utterly beautiful. You’ll know the one I mean when you see it.

Honourable Mention: Cherry Tree Lane. This was potentially the biggest letdown of the festival, in that it started so well and finished so poorly. This story of a middle-class couple held hostage in their own home by a gang of youths starts off with a winning mixture of tension and black comedy, boasting some terrific well-observed and nuanced interplay between the gang members as they deconstruct both their own lives and those of their victims. Two thirds of the way though, however, director Paul Andrew Williams remembers he needs to wrap up the plot, and the whole film fizzles out unmemorably, leaving a lingering sense that there’s really not much more mileage in this British ‘middle class nightmares’ movement short of dramatising a copy of the Daily Mail. A shame, because it could have been so much better.

Wooden Spoon: Damned By Dawn. It’s hard not to feel like a bastard when you’re slating a film that was obviously a low-budget labour of love, but it’s also incredibly rare to see a film that manages to get everything so totally wrong. The dialogue is risible, the shocks signposted, the acting amateurish and the lighting gives the whole endeavour the air of a school disco. To cap it all, almost every shot is infected by terrible cheap CGI that ranges from being simply excessive to unintentionally hilarious. Obviously intended as a homage to Evil Dead, it’s worth remembering that Raimi made a far more visually arresting film simply by attaching a camera to a piece of wood and running round a forest. A total car crash of a film.