Frightfest: peaks, troughs and a mission.

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Saturday dawned, sunny with clear blue skies. A blessing, after three twelve hour days at work in the dark, staring at a screen.
No sun for me. I would be spending the day voluntarily sitting in a dark room, staring at a screen. Saturday was Frightfest day.

I met Leading Man Clive and Blood ‘n’ Roses Aitken in the one decent pub in Leicester Square. They were breakfasting. I had already eaten, so fortified myself with a pint of crude. It’s good for you, right? Besides, I didn’t want any more coffee. Twitchy in a horror movie crowd is not a good look.

To the Empire, the big new venue for Frightfest. We grabbed wrist bands, perused the retail opportunities around the main concourse (The Cinema Store had a decent selection of goodies, but I contented myself with a Frightfest teeshirt) and all too soon it was time to go in for the first movie.

SMASH CUT is a loving tribute to the work of Hershell Gordon Lewis, The Wizard Of Gore. It wears it’s influences lightly and isn’t afraid to make fun of itself. The story of a director who starts harvesting murder victims for props for his movie, it’s light on it’s feet, funny, sharp and impassioned about the state of the industry. It features a lot of genre names in cameo and supporting roles, including Hershell himself, who was clearly having a ball. It was a great casting move to include porn star Sasha Grey, who gives a fairly solid performance as the investigative journalist tracking down the psycho director. There’s a fine horror tradition of giving strong female roles to porn actresses, and it’s carried off with aplomb here.

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I loved it. It will never win any Oscars, but for fans of the genre it’s well worth the time. Director Lee Demarbre and star David Hess introduced the film and gave a hilarious Q&A afterwards, which also addressed the central dilemma at the heart of the film. A love story to cheap and cheesy 16mm film-making, it’s shot on video. I’m never convinced by the arguments given for shooting on HD versus film, and just think it always looks a bit cheap. I’m biased, I know, but I simply don’t see HD as the only choice for the lo-to-no budget film-maker.

Aaaaanyway. Twenty minutes later, we were back in our seats for HIERRO, a Spanish horror that’s clearly going for the same creepy ghost child feel as The Orpanage and The Devil’s Backbone. It doesn’t, sadly, feeling leaden and plodding. Rather than building a mood and putting us on edge, director Gabe Ibáñez seems content to make a good looking frame, and ensure that his lead actress, the lovely Elena Anaya, always looks stunning even at the height of her despair.

Elena plays Maria, who lost her son on a ferry trip to the island of La Hierro, on the southernmost tip of the Spanish territories. Crazed with grief, she returns to the island when a child’s body is found, only to then believe that the child is still alive.

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It’s a shame that it doesn’t work. The performances are fine, the last plot twist is clever, and Gabe Ibáñez can compose a beautiful looking shot. But the funereal pace and lack of shocks just do for it, in the end, and I found myself unable to care for Maria or her plight.

Another short break, which led Aitken to indulge in the Pick ‘n’ Mix counter as we didn’t have time to get anything proper to eat, and back in for MILLENIUM, aka THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. This, we were told, was something of a departure. Not strictly speaking a horror film at all, it contains enough horror tropes to make it suitable for we merry band of hardcore Frighters. “Trust us on this one,” we were urged. “It’s great.”

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And it is. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of detective stories, but this was utterly absorbing. A twisty, clever tale of the decades-spanning work of a serial killer and the journalist and hacker who team up to stop him, it features one of the best new characters of the decade, and if there’s any justice, Bizarre magazine’s new muse, the heavily tattooed and pierced Lisbeth Salander. Vicious, antisocial, but stridently moral and incorruptible, she is no victim despite her harsh upbringing. Her revenge on the guardian who abuses her is jaw-droppingly cruel – but he deserves everything that happens to him, and she had the whole cinema cheering.

Already a massive hit in Europe, you need to search this one out when it hits the UK early next year. There are two other films in the trilogy, which are out in Scandinavia in September and November. Time for me to start brushing up on my Swedish…

Yet another short break (you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?) which gave us just enough time to dash out and inhale a Burger King. It was getting on for seven o’clock at this point, and we’d all had to skip lunch. Pick ‘n’ Mix, Simon opined, is no substitute.

I was excited now, as the next film up was the new one from one of my horror heroes, Dario Argento. A return to his slasher roots, to the point where it was simply named after the genre: GIALLO.

These days, it’s unusual for me to watch a film through my fingers. I like to think I’m pretty hardcore. Giallo was a rare exception. I was in a knot throughout.

It’s utterly, mind-buggeringly, squirm-inducingly awful. It would be laughable without the name of a master attached. The dialouge is rotten. The performances veer from flat to scenery-chewing without ever hitting decent. The effects are no better than the ones in Smash Cut, and they were supposed to be laughable. I spent the first reel hoping against hope that it would improve, and realised by the end of the second that there was no hope for it. I very nearly walked out, but I was so utterly mesmerised by the slow-motion car-crash unspooling in front of me that I was rooted to my seat.

It’s interesting to note that Argento’s most recent mainstream interview, a three-page spread in this month’s Bizarre, fails to mention Giallo at all. There are strong rumours that he has completely disassociated himself from it, that it was taken out of his hands, even that Emmanuelle Seigner, the lead actress, was on drugs throughout. Can’t properly comment on that one as it’s pure speculation, but it would explain the dreadfully flat performance. I’m not a believer in the so-bad-it’s-good school of film appreciation, but it honestly has laugh-out-loud moments. If it’s a spoof, it’s a work of utter genius. If it’s not, then I’ve just witnessed one of my favourite directors piss what’s left of his reputation away.

After that we all needed a drink, so I got them in while we waited for the next film of the night. I had tried and failed to get tix for Pontypool, a clever spin on infection horror, but I was assured that I would not be disappointed by my second choice.

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And so it proved to be. TRICK ‘R TREAT is a loving tribute to the horror anthologies of the eighties. It’s chock full of invention, wit, charm, proper scares and features the most genuinely inventive new horror character in years, the Halloween sprite Sam. It’s being hailed as the highlight of the festival, and rightly so, as it’s genuinely, properly entertaining. Quite honestly, it’s a film I could take Clare to, feeling sure she’d enjoy it.

So, it’s a shoo in for Halloween screenings, right? Warner Bros must be all over this one like a rash, right? A proper, honest horror hit in the making, right?

Wrong. Trick ‘R Treat was made in 2007, and has been shelved ever since. It’s finally getting a DVD release this year, which is totally bogus for a film that really comes to life in front of a cinema audience. For this film to be sat on, when formulaic retreads and remakes get the nod is frankly sickening. Michael Dougherty, the director, was there, and made an impassioned plea for people to get behind this film and push for it. He has support from none other than John Landis, at Frightfest for the re-release of An American Werewolf in London, and who made his feelings about Warner’s actions very clear indeed, with a bellowed “Fuck ’em!”

Supporting this criminally overlooked film is the least I can do. It’s available for pre-order now – go snag a copy. Better, if you get the chance to see this film on the big screen, do it. It’s brilliant. It’s just the most deeply satisfying horror I’ve seen in a long time.

The last film of the night, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, started late, and was shaping up to be good, sugared-up gory fun, but something made me check the train schedules, which was just as well. The 3:30am train I was counting on wasn’t running, which meant an abrupt exit, hasty apologetic texts to Simon and Clive, and a dash across town to catch the last train home. A shame, as I enjoy the anime-brought-to-life of films like Tokyo Gore Police. The twenty minutes I saw came across like Grange Hill on meth. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

(The clip below is NOT SAFE FOR ANYBODY)

And that was me done. I was drained after just one day, so Gods know how Clive does it year after year. I can see why he does it though. It’s a great way to get a real snapshot of what’s going on in the horror and fantasy field, as well as seeing rare and interesting movies that you simply wouldn’t see otherwise.

My one problem was with the density of programming. It’s great that they cram so many films into the day, but it does mean if you want to network or kick back with your mates, you’ll probably have to miss something, and if you’re on a day pass that’s just not the best use of your time.

Still, that’s a minor grumble against a day that was otherwise well worth the money.

Frightfest – very nearly the best fun you can have with lots of people in the dark.

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Published by

Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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