While to some the appeal of horror films will never be understood, it is fascinating to consider the way the genre diversifies itself over the years. To some fans, horror means splatter; it’s the guts and grue that matters. Some look for jumps and suspense; a return to that childlike excitement of watching something that you know can have its way with your heart-rate whenever it pleases. To others, it means dealing with disturbing ideas; a forum for examining society’s taboos and darkest fears. Many of the films selected for this year’s Frightfest fell into this latter category; deeply troubling, serious-minded films, which despite often hinging on acts of protracted human-on-human cruelty, go way beyond the recent ‘torture porn’ boom kicked off by ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’.
Most of these movies are not designed to be enjoyed; independent films like ‘Red, White And Blue’ (about three damaged individuals whose lives collide in potentially redemptive and destructive fashion) are purposely gruelling, and force the viewer to confront the reality of the acts depicted. It is therefore ironic that the BBFC has started targeting horror again, back-pedalling on its recent attempts to get with the times, having re-released most of the (relatively harmless nowadays) “video nasties”, despite exploitation clearly being their modus operandi. The shadowy figures governing our censorship board seem to have learned nothing from past knee-jerk reactions; even something as iconic, ubiquitous and near-universally praised as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (shown this year to celebrate the appearance of its legendary director Tobe Hooper), a film which is on permanent display in the New York GOMA, languished in BBFC limbo for 25 years despite being practically gore-free – or maybe it was because of this, as its sleight-of-hand evidently made their job much harder. New films which take a more mature, thought-provoking stance on their subjects are becoming the ones likely to be reprimanded for being a little too good at what they do.
This apparently applies to the festival’s biggest talking point, ‘A Serbian Film’. we say ‘apparently’ because this scribe, along with the 1300 other Frightfesters, was deprived of the chance to see it. The film that most people wanted to see, the film that has been said to “rape your soul”, was itself raped by the combined forces of Westminster Council and the BBFC. Requesting nearly 80 cuts, totalling four minutes, the organisers decided to pull the film at the last minute; showing a heavily censored version would not appease the Frightfest crowd. Many have had the chance to watch this film online for months, but being responsible adults who wanted to support the filmmakers and respect the integrity of their creation, they had waited to see it on the big screen, in an environment designed to provoke debate over its merits and motivations. The remake of ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ was also trimmed; the BBFC’s stance on sexualised violence remains staunch.
Kudos to the festival organisers for the humble and honest way in which they handled the issue; this made the debate on censorship which followed ace new documentary ’Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape’ even more interesting. Suffice to say the BBFC representative in attendance, despite being a relatively lucid, open-minded bloke, was fighting a losing battle. It seemed nobody in the audience had ever been consulted by the BBFC in seeking public opinion to back up their decision-making – so who are they really serving? Do they really think the sort of clued-up audience that attends a film festival is going to be whipped into an orgy of rape by a few images of genitalia? By any accounts, surely censoring these scenes is lessening their impact – they’re not supposed to be easy to sit through, they’re supposed to be difficult and challenging. God only knows what will actually be left of ‘A Serbian Film’ by the time we’re allowed to see it legally.
In place of this most contentious and anticipated of films was the Ryan Reynolds-in-a–box pot-boiler ‘Buried’, which managed to win the crowd over despite most complaining that it wouldn’t be a worthy replacement. Playing on the very real and effectively conveyed horror of claustrophobia, this was more of a thriller, but its acceptance by the crowd spoke volumes about how we’re not just slavering gorehounds. Indeed, it was the dramatic and emotional qualities of many of this year’s films that stood out more than the violence; this was apparent even in unknown quantities like the silly but surprisingly intense ‘The Tortured’ (who knew Jesse Metcalfe had it in him?) and Korean revenge opus ‘Bedevilled’ (which put the viewer through an hour of increasingly upsetting psychological and domestic abuse before delivering the goods). There were very few films which were designed to just be fun; it seems horror is serving its age-old purpose of reflecting the concerns of its time, ours being particularly fraught. Sexuality, disease, poverty, war; it was all here, and dealt with in a variety of unexpected ways. There were a handful of films that stood out, however, as being particularly well-rounded and worthy of your attention . . .
Johannes Roberts’ school invasion chiller is ruthlessly suspenseful. Inspired by (and possibly better than) John Carpenter’s ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, the film follows an over-the-hill English teacher into a long, dark night where faceless hoodies lay siege in un-nervingly creepy fashion. Roberts thankfully avoids ‘Eden Lake’-style sadism; the film plays on your imagination by keeping the young terrors in the shadows, their campaign of hate most comparable to recent French horror ‘Them’. There’s also a powerful emotional strand to the action; the first half-hour establishes how today’s education system is letting down teachers as well as kids, and the relationships of the deeply flawed (and therefore very human) lead characters are skilfully sketched, adding layers of drama to everything that follows. Excellent performances and an ending which offers no easy answers make the film a lingering success, something it will hopefully enjoy when it’s released in October.
The Ozploitation boom shows no sign of abating this year, with several strong genre offerings (backpackers-into-beasts schlocker ‘Primal’, neo-western ‘Red Hill’). James Rabbitts’ film distinguished itself from the pack by cribbing ideas from a variety of classics but still coming up with something new and affecting. Expectant couple Cameron and Beth are on their way to visit relatives when they pull into a deserted motel for the night. What follows is a harrowing ordeal for both of them, playing on emotionally frightening ideas. The bulk of the film works as a mystery thriller, almost like ‘The Crystal Maze’ for new mothers. The lead actors bring great pathos to their situation, their struggles becoming more intense for the audience as they get more desperate. Rabbitts may wrap events up a little too neatly, but his film has a lasting resonance, and a refreshing ending in an increasingly predictable field.
Gareth Roberts’ lyrical road movie through alien-infested Central America was one of the most hyped movies of the weekend, and its warm reception further proved that the horror crowd appreciate a bit of heart. It’s a slow-burning, character-driven travelogue, which becomes more poignant the more you think about it. The aliens themselves are spectacular and belie the film’s meagre budget, but the story is more about people and places, especially those that have been abandoned amidst the American government’s usual futile attempts to maintain control over things they don’t understand. Ignore the ‘District 9’ and ‘Cloverfield’ comparisons; this is more like ‘Before Sunset’ set in a shattered but still awe-inspiring world.
We Are What We Are
This Mexican cannibal drama has widely been mentioned in the same breath as ‘Let The Right One In’; while it shares the same matter-of-fact portrayal of its particular evil as well as a few crucial plot points, it stands as a pretty unique little film. It plays its cards close to its chest for most of the duration, allowing the family of people-eaters to slowly grow on you as their dysfunction leads them towards trouble. The death of the patriarch puts the responsibility for procuring victims onto the eldest son’s shoulders – a burden he is ill-equipped to deal with. As the family’s dynamics are slowly revealed, and personal secrets come out in the wash, the film gathers pace towards a game-changing climax. While the film feels like a slow burn, its ambiguities and creeping doom make it something that will resonate in your head afterwards. If you invest in it, it will have you squirming on the edge of your seat.
Alien Vs Ninja
Like last year’s ‘Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl’, this film could have been just another cheapjack Jap gorefest riding on a ridiculous title, but it’s actually a bit smarter and way funnier than you might expect. A troupe of competitive, deadly ninjas see a fire in the sky, and end up embroiled in a war with village-destroying, people-possessing xenomorphs. The effects may be cheap but they’re served up with such wit, energy and imagination that they can’t fail to please. The actors are also genuinely talented performers, with many of the fights becoming spectacular displays of martial artistry, which the director captures with flair. They’re also in on the joke; most of them play it deliciously deadpan, leading to many amusing moments, especially between the headstrong female ninja and her vain male accomplices. This is another glorious guilty pleasure, which will be well worth investing in when it hits DVD early next year.
The Loved Ones
Owing an obvious debt to ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ – with a psycho family motivated by romance instead of meat – this bonkers Oz oddity takes a while to hit its stride, but once it starts to, it really keeps you on your toes. It’s prom night in an idyllic country town, and dowdy Lola’s knockback from a grungy teen with issues of his own leads to a night of unpredictable mayhem for all around them. With a seriously black vein of humour which at times sits uneasily with the raw nastiness on display, the film’s tone takes a while to adjust to, but in the second half, its idiosyncracies really help it transcend the genre. There is a surprising amount of time devoted to the dramatic situations of the secondary characters, and by the time it all comes together, you’ll be thoroughly impressed by the places the film has taken you. Just try to avoid spoilers before you see it – while the components are nothing new, the crazy abandon with which they are thrown together make the film fresh and exciting.
I Spit On Your Grave
A remake of the notorious 1978 rape-revenger (also known as ‘Day Of The Woman’, signalling its much-debated feminist attributes), this film is utterly without a point in terms of plot, but it works outstandingly as a raw blast of sheer catharsis. A young female novelist breaks every rule in the genre book by heading off alone to an isolated cabin in Hicksville to try to get some writing done. Some deeply misogynistic locals take exception to her presence, and you can guess the rest. The original traded on its cheapness, giving the film a grubby intensity despite its poor performances. This version is almost too polished, but is lent conviction through the spirited acting and the director’s effective build-up of tension and release. The rape is as upsetting as you’d expect, especially the goading that it begins with, but the retribution meted out to the assailants is as satisfying as it is morally bankrupt. The second half of the film is so wrong, but oh so right. If you think you can stomach it, you should get some sick kicks out of this – but don’t expect a deep or meaningful story.
This trippy Giallo tribute plays like three spectacularly stylish shorts, covering the different stages of feminine life from childhood, into adolescence and on to womanhood. The fears and anxieties of these periods power the narrative – what little there is of one. A young girl is spooked by a corpse and the old woman through the wall; a teenager is caught between her mother’s control and the admiring glances of young men; a woman is stalked by a gloved killer in her twilit mansion. The film begins like a gothic David Lynch fantasy, morphs into a sun-kissed ‘60’s Italian melodrama, then climaxes with an Argento-style slasher chase, the line between the protagonist’s imagination and reality remaining blurred until the end. The reliance on quick cutting, extravagant close-ups, exaggerated sound effects and dialogue-free action gives the film a dream-like power that’s hard to shake. If you can surrender to its sensual appeal, it is absolutely intoxicating, and well worth owning to experience again and again when it comes out on DVD later in the year.
This earnest, old-school zombie epic is a refreshing return to the Fulci-esque use of exotic locations and ultra-slow ghouls. An American army engineer is stranded in undead-infested Africa, and forms an alliance with an African soldier looking for his son. As they make their way towards the last safe army base, a great deal of tension is wrought from the oft-ignored reality of such journey; the need for sleep, water and petrol leads to frequent danger, as the zombies are never far away. The Ford Brothers’ co-direction is very impressive, achieving a sense of scale on a limited budget through judicious use of their undead extras and the naturally spectacular African landscape. They even find time for some effective intimate moments, making the audience really care for these characters, and suffer along with them. Everything unravels a little towards the end, with a predictable final attack and underwhelming denouement, but this is a very solid, entertaining little film which deserves to find an audience.
Opening the festival was this follow-up to 2006’s retro slasher. While Adam Green hasn’t really changed the formula at all for his sequel, he has tightened it up in every way to deliver a much more effective ride. The humour that bogged down the original is still present but it’s less cloying than before, largely due to Tony ‘Candyman‘ Todd’s expanded and outrageous role as Rev Zombie. He’s a delight, relishing every word and showing a comic gift that he’s sadly seldom utilised. Less effective is Dannielle Harris in the female lead; her feistiness is appealing but she takes it all a bit too seriously, and what the hell’s going on with that perma-arched eyebrow? It’s maddeningly distracting. The disposable cast isn’t as annoying as it was in the first film, with several indulgent but entertaining cameos from horror icons and a surprisingly admirable straight-man role for Tom Holland, director of ‘80’s classics ‘Fright Night’and ‘Child’s Play’. The real stars, however, are the back-to-basics physical effects – no CGI blood here, just glorious rubber prosthetics and excessive splashes of thick, scarlet claret at every opportunity. Some of the kills are genuinely inventive, not to mention amusing in a twisted way, and the film packs alot of action into its short running time. A further sequel might taint the good work that has been done here – would anybody really want to see ‘Hatchet 10’? – but for now this is a fantastic love letter to the splatter-slasher (splasher?) flicks of yore.
The line-up felt slightly stronger than that of last year, but it was noticeably less diverse. There was hardly any supernatural horror, and creature features were also thin on the ground. The overall vibe of the festival was still electric though, stoked by the generous and frequent guest appearances, Q and A sessions and little surprises (including a preview of ‘The Walking Dead’ introduced by its star, Andrew Lincoln). The organisers continue to surpass themselves in keeping the community spirit of Frightfest alive, and were on-hand to hear everyone’s two cents on everything from scheduling conflicts to the inevitable disappointment felt in last-minute line-up changes. Hopefully the censorship issues which blighted this year’s festival won’t affect it in coming years; it would be a shame to have to leave the fabulously plush Empire Cinema just to escape Westminster Council’s draconian conservatism. In the meantime, we horror fans can help fight for our right to see these films as they are intended by writing to local councils and showing that we are mature, intelligent individuals, who deserve to decide for themselves what to watch. If they don’t listen, they’ll only be harming cinema on their own soil by encouraging downloading, piracy and importing; here’s hoping they see sense before bringing the scissors out again.
For more information visit the official Frightfest website.