Black Lagoon Blog

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.

Frightfest round-up: day 5

The final day of Frightfest opened with Jake West’s hour long documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape. A passionate but fairly even handed look at the censorship of horror movies in the mid 80s, the film assembled pretty much all the key figures from the period including (for the first time) MP Graham Bright. Perhaps most striking was how tame and even laughable some of this allegedly ‘depraved’ work looks now; the fact that most of these movies are available legally once again offers the reassuring suggestion that, whilst we should be vigilant against attempts to censor on spurious moral grounds and the immediate damage this can cause, it remains hard for such attempts to make long-term inroads into British culture.

The Dead was a real treat, the kind of slow, deliberate, contemplative zombie movie we’d given up hope of ever seeing again. The story of an American military engineer stranded in Africa during a zombie plague, it boasts some understated and touching performances as well as some magnificent photography, and easily manages to better Romero’s recent work in this field. One of the highlights of the festival.

Up next was Bedevilled, a Korean revenge film that eschews the baroque theatrics of some of its more famous countrymen in favour of a quiet desperation that spills over into bloodshed. Interestingly, the story is more or less the same as I Spit On Your Grave, but is about a million times more effective here, being told with both dignity and humanity.

Red White & Blue seemed to split the audience somewhat. The tale of Erica, a promiscuous woman who gains an unlikely guardian angel in the form of Iraq veteran Nate, it’s shot entirely on cheap looking video and appears almost unpalatably raw and unpolished. At times the apparently slapdash aesthetics work against it, but at others it’s utterly harrowing and unflinching, as one of Erica’s sexual encounters comes back to haunt her in the worst possible way. Noah Taylor gives an extraordinary performance as Nate, and as the whole unpleasant situation spirals out of control in the second half the film becomes one of the most gruelling experiences of the weekend.

The festival closed with the Eli Roth-produced The Last Exorcism, which has already been doing enormous business at the US box office. It’s an unabashedly mainstream film, and doesn’t really do anything with the faux-documentary style that we haven’t seen countless times in the last few years, but it’s all good clean fun and boasts a charismatic central performance by Patrick Fabian as a former exorcist seeking to debunk his craft. The conclusion is super-silly, which depending on your point of view either totally ruins it or takes the whole piece to a dumb next level. For my money, The Last Exorcism couldn’t hold a candle to some of the better films we saw this weekend, but it’s a superior popcorn flick that delivers enough spooky nonsense to be worth a look.

We’ll be summing up our thoughts on Frightfest 2010 later this week, but overall we had an absolutely brilliant time – enormous thanks to the organisers (especially Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Greg Day) for putting on such a fantastic event. See you next year!

Frightfest round-up: day 4

Perhaps the strongest day of the festival yet kicked off with The Pack, a superb little French shocker about a cafe owner who abducts her customers, force feeds them iron then drains their blood. Both tense and laced with a deliciously ghoulish sense of humour, this unmistakably French delight comes on like a nastier Delicatessen and boasts a jaw-dropping performance Amelie’s Yolande Moreau as the formidable Maman La Spack. A terrific opener, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival yet.

We opted to head for the pub for a few hours so we missed the quiz and the short film showcase, but we were back in for We Are What We Are, a sober portrayal of a family of inner-city cannibals struggling to come to terms with the death of their father. The story is fascinating and there’s plenty of terrific performances here, but the tone is just a little too bleak to elicit any real sympathy for the central characters which undermines the film slightly; nevertheless, it’s a very respectable piece of work.

Damned By Dawn was up next, a micro-budget Australian homage to Sam Raimi that was introduced as Evil Dead 4. Unfortunately it’s nothing of the sort; it’s hugely ambitious, but fails in pretty much every area: the design is straight out of He-Man, the lighting makes everything look like a school disco, the acting and dialogue are risible, and most ruinously of all, almost every single shot it filled with appalling cheap CGI that makes the whole endeavour look like an episode of Knightmare. The film runs to a slender 81 minutes, but feels double. A disaster.

The notorious A Serbian Film was due to be shown next; however, a last minute intervention from Westminster City Council meant that the film couldn’t be shown uncut, so rather than offer up a butchered version the organisers instead opted to pull it and screened Buried in its place, a film that’s already created an enormous buzz on the festival circuit. Told in real-time, it features Ryan Reynolds as a truck driver who wakes up in a wooden coffin buried somewhere under the Iraqi desert after an insurgent attack. The occasionally impressionistic photography means that the film never feels quite as claustrophobic as it should, but it’s still enormous fun, packed with increasingly ludicrous twists and delivering an intense ending. Despite being 90 minutes of a man in a box, it’s never dull – a terrific achievement and an inspired piece of last minute scheduling.

Australian teen horror The Loved Ones ended the night on a strong note. An inspired medley of John Hughes teen awkwardness and Saw-esque torture, this fantastically trashy confection tells the story of Lola Smart, who after being jilted by her crush before the high school dance, opts to kidnap him and stage a grotesque prom at home with the help of her doting dad. There’s plenty to like here, but the cornerstone of the film is a knockout, off-the-hook, utterly demented performance by Robin McLeavy as Lola, a future genre icon in the Kathy Bates mould. Marvellous fun.

One day left – as ever, we’re on @blacklagoon and @mattnida providing live micro-reviews throughout the day!

Frightfest round-up: day 3

Day 3 of Frightfest opened with Cherry Tree Lane, a British thriller telling the story of a middle class couple who are held hostage in their own home by a gang of youths looking for their son. Boasting some decent performances and a hugely effective streak of black comedy in the interplay between the gang members, the film gets off to an excellent start but fizzles out at the halfway point, failing to either sustain the tension of the opening or to push the story anywhere exciting.

The Tortured was undoubtedly the worst film we’ve seen this weekend so far. A nasty piece of mainstream US dreck about a couple who capture and torture the man who kidnapped and murdered their young son, it aspires to sense of social realism and relevance but contains some of the most paper thin characters and contrived plot devices we’ve seen in a while – and worse, sings completely from the Daily Mail songsheet in its lessons on child safety and criminal justice. Offensively poor.

We found the prospect of a pint more palatable than British flick 13 Hours, but we were back for the remake of I Spit On Your Grave. Whilst undoubtedly directed with more flair, and containing some fairly inventive Saw-style setpieces in the second half, the film is hobbled by the same problematic moral agenda as the original, most notably the apparent suggestion that rape (particularly a rape as brutal as the one featured here) can be empowering.

Monsters had the most pre-festival buzz of any film at Frightfest, but it ultimately split us. Matt felt that Gareth Edwards’ love story/road film/monster movie was a charming endeavour, but Carl found it tedious and somewhat derivative. The view amongst the sold-out crowd (overheard in the toilet at least) seemed similarly mixed, but the film seems destined for Distrinct 9-style crossover success – an impressive achievement for what is effectively a low-budget one-man production.

We finished with the utterly mad but hugely enjoyable Dream Home, a film from Hong Kong that has the distinction of being possibly the first horror movie about the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Following a woman who unleashes an orgy of killing in order to secure a flat in her dream apartment block, the non-linear story manages to be simultaneously touching, funny and brutal, sometimes within the same scene. An excellent end to the day.

Two days to go – as ever, follow @blacklagoon or @mattnida on Twitter for on-the-spot reactions.

Frightfest round-up: day 2

Our first full day at Frightfest opened with a Total Film-curated retrospective of the weekend’s guest of honour, director Tobe Hooper. In truth this turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Hooper’s debut feature Eggshells received its first screening in decades; whilst it may hold some interest for students of cinematic technique, its freeform pacing, random experimental interludes and seemingly endless setpieces rendered it intensely annoying, and we gave up after 45 mins. Similarly, the on-stage Q&A with Hooper fell flat thanks to an interviewer who seemed keener to focus on Hooper’s career failures and disappointments than his successes, which immediately put Hooper himself on edge. (Luckily he warmed up when the audience were allowed to ask questions.) Inevitably, the highlight was the screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a classic given added intensity by the Empire Cinema’s enormous screen.

Next up was Brit flick Isle of Dogs, another tedious piece of gangster nonsense featuring cockneys, strip clubs and brutal violence. The OTT ending left a few raised eyebrows, but for the most part this stinker groaned under the weight of its own self-importance and forced ‘grit’.

Much, much better was F, introduced by the director (an incredibly nervous Johannes Roberts) and probably the film of the festival so far. Roberts has essentially transplanted Assault on Precinct 13 into a British secondary school beseiged by hoodies at night; the film is both inventive in its efficient mining of every possibility for terror in a school, and tooth-grindingly tense, enhanced by admirably restrained acting and direction all round. Sensational.

Probably the best received film of the day was Australian neo-western Red Hill, which features an escaped convict returning to his home town with revenge on his mind. We were slightly split by this one; Matt loved it but Carl was distracted by similarities to High Plains Drifter, though he found it well-crafted.

Final film of the night was the predictably bonkers Alien vs Ninja, a shot-on-video runaround featuring some highly skilled ninjas on the trail of a bizarre rubber alien with holes in his head. As one might expect, total nonsense but enjoyably kinetic, with some surprisingly well-realised CGI-enhanced action.

Don’t forget, for live reports throughout the weekend follow @blacklagoon or @mattnida on Twitter!

[edit: corrected Johannes Roberts' name. If he's reading this, apologies for the error!]