Frightfest part 2: Attack Of The Leading Man

As promised, we are subject to a takeover from the mighty (and mightily-bearded) Clive Ashenden, who went above and beyond when I called out for contributions for the X&HT coverage of Frightfest. Over to you, oh my Leading Man…

On Thursday 25th August hundreds of genre pilgrims descended on the Empire Leicester Square for the annual celebration of all that is best in Horror cinema: Film4 Frightfest.

On Monday 29th August after 5 days, 36 films, and numerous short films, trailers, Q&As, interviews, and special events; they staggered back out into the moonless night, pale and red-eyed, and babbling tales of eldritch things and widescreen terrors.

And your humble correspondent was amongst them. A little personal history before we plunge into the dark meat: This is Frightfest’s twelfth year and my tenth as a weekend passholder. In 2005 my horror short “Snatching Time” (co-written by X&HT’s own Rob Wickings) was screened before “Broken”.

Last year the teaser trailer I wrote and directed for “Habeas Corpus” – the horror anthology movie on which (together with Rob, Brendan Lonergan, Simon Aitken [“Blood+Roses”], and Paul Davis [“Beware The Moon”]) I am attached to direct one of the stories – was screened before “Primal”. So I have a long standing connection and love of the biggest and best horror film festival in the UK, as both a filmmaker and horror fan.

Due to the dual screen format of the festival, it wasn’t physically possible to see all of the films shown.  But I managed to catch 24 films, and I’m going to highlight the ten best. So gentle readers, if you feel ready to enter some very dark places, take my clawed hand and I’ll be your guide to the best of Frightfest 2011.

10) SENNENTUNTSCHI: CURSE OF THE ALPS (Switzerland, 2010) –

Dir. Michael Steiner

The first ever horror film from Switzerland is a horror/thriller drawing on the Alpine legend of Sennentuntschi. Cross cutting between two parallel narratives, we get the story of three herdsmen who ‘make’ a woman from a broom and some rags and straw, which then comes to life. In the other story, cop Nicholas Ofczarek is investigating deaths and the mysterious appearance of mute beauty Roxane Mesquida in his remote mountain village.

Despite some structural problems with how the two main stories (and a superfluous present day wrap around) link up and pay off, this a beautifully shot and beguiling mystery. The unfamiliar (at least to me) legend on which this is based gives this film a fresh feel, and that freshness pushes it into the top ten.

9) THE HOLDING (UK, 2011) – Dir. Susan Jacobson

The first UK film in this top ten, director Susan Jacobson marks herself as one-to-watch with this rural-set horror/thriller. Kierston Wareing plays Cassie Naylor, whose grit and determination is the only thing keeping her family and failing farm together in the face of financial difficulties and menacing neighbours. When a mysterious stranger arrives, the secrets of the past and the tensions of the present explode into violence.

A low key story without a ‘high-concept’ hook; what the film does have is fine performances from all the actors involved, with Vincent Regan as the stranger, a standout. Flirting with the supernatural, in the end the story stays in gritty reality, which is a shame as that might have lifted this thriller from solid to remarkable.

8 ) THE DIVIDE (USA 2011) – Dir. Xavier Gens

A post apocalyptic Sci-Fi/thriller from one of the leading directors [“Frontier(s)”] of France’s recent horror boom, this is about survival after a nuclear holocaust. In the near future, when New York is decimated, a handful of disparate survivors are trapped together with nutty building supervisor Michael Biehn in their makeshift shelter. As tensions rise and supplies swindle, a new threat emerges from outside.

A pleasant surprise this, as I was dreading another depression-fest where a group of survivors gradually fall apart in the face of the nuclear/zombie/killer virus/alien* apocalypse. And although we do get the usual bickering over who gets the last tin of peaches, this is well written (if grim) stuff. The examination of what people are capable of under extreme circumstances has been done before; and the question of how thin our veneer of civilisation really is has been asked before. However, this is still a relevant piece of drama.

* Delete as appropriate.

7) THE INNKEEPERS (USA, 2011) – Scr. & Dir. Ti West

Yes, it’s haunted house time, as Ti West [“House Of The Devil”; “The Roost”], one of the leading lights of US Indie horror invites us into the Yankee Pedlar Inn for a spooky time. The supposedly haunted Inn is going out of business, and in between taking care of the remaining guests, the two remaining employees are determined to record evidence of ghosts.

Fans of Ti West will know what to expect, and he doesn’t give up his trademark slow-build style here. The deliberate pacing is a natural fit with the ghost story, and West values suspense. So why didn’t I find this a wholly satisfying film? I think because the nicely played slacker humour between the two employees, which gives the film its unique tone, unfortunately also undercuts the building dread and the scares.

Ti West has a great horror movie inside him – but I don’t think we’ve seen it yet. Newcomers to his work are recommended to check out the 80s flavoured “The House Of The Devil” first.

6) THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS (UK, 2011) – Scr. & Dir. Sean Hogan

A British horror film where two hitmen sent on a killing mission, discover a hidden world of occult horror. Is this “Kill List”? No, it’s: “The Devil’s Business” from writer/director Sean Hogan. Despite superficial similarities to the aforementioned Ben Wheatley film, this is very much its own distinctive beast.

Full disclosure time: I met producer Jennifer Hanndorf at Cannes this year and we’ve had talks about working together in the future. But beyond that, I’ve no dogs in this race, as the saying goes.

”The Devil’s Business” was screened on the smaller Discovery screen at this year’s festival and was the best film I saw on the Monday. I really hope this low budget gem isn’t lost in wake of “Kill List”, in the same way that “Stir Of Echoes” suffered from coming out after “The Sixth Sense”.

Sean Hogan makes optimum use of his single location, shooting in long takes and coaxing nuanced performances from his cast. But the secret weapon of this film is its script (also by Hogan). In the Q&A afterwards, Hogan cited Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” as a key inspiration and you can see that in the interplay between the hitmen. There are also Lovecraftian touches to the Black Magic elements, especially in the effective climax.

5) TROLL HUNTER (Norway, 2010) – Dir. Andre Ovredal

This Norwegian ‘found footage’ horror film has student filmmakers follow around a man who claims to be Norway’s only official “Troll Hunter.”

Now, if like me, your hackles rise at just the thought of another ‘found footage’ film following the “Blair Witch Project” template – fear not! The advance buzz on this was right. “Troll Hunter” is a delight which puts a unique spin on that tired genre. Easily the best faux-documentary horror since “Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon”, “Troll Hunter” treats its subject matter with an admirably straight face, and has a very dry deadpan wit.

The trolls themselves are great and a reminder that CGI creatures don’t have to be generic. Director Ovredal isn’t coy about showing them either, with Trolls of many varieties strutting their stuff. There’s also some nice satire based around the idea that the Trolls can smell the blood of a Christian man. Only the brief introduction of a caricatured Polish bear supplier strikes a false and slightly rum note. Otherwise, this is one monster movie that delivers on its premise.

4) TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL (USA, 2010) – Dir. Eli Craig

Take the classic ‘urbanoia’ template: A group of city dwelling college kids go out into the woods/mountains and are menaced and killed by inbred hillbilly cannibal killers. Then turn that premise on its head, and you have the hilarious and gory-as-hell “Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil”.

Sweet-natured Dale (Tyler Labine) and his best friend Tucker (Alan Tudyk) are looking forward to fixing up their new holiday home in the woods, doing some fishing and sinking a few cold ones, when they run into a group of college kids. When one of the kids has an accident, they try to help – and a massacre ensues. As we bear witness to their increasing confusion and incredulity.

The script is sharp and the visual humour is spit-your-popcorn-out funny. However, what raises this film up (and so many horror movies miss out on) is that we really get to know our heroes, so that when things go sour, we’re rooting for them 100%. It also meant I let the slightly unrealistic coda scene at the end go. The most purely entertaining film at Frightfest this year.

And now to The Top Three. These three are all envelope-pushing multi-layered horror films which show (in very different ways) what is possible within the genre. They are the films which resonated with me the most and the thoughts and feelings they provoked stayed with me long afterwards.

3) RABIES (Israel, 2010) – Dir. Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado

Another first! Israel joins Switzerland on horror genre map – and like the previous film on this list, takes genre conventions and tears them up.

Take a group of teenagers, throw them into the woods with a serial killer, a bunch of traps, and a brother and sister trying to escape the killer. Add a sleazy cop and his complicit partner and a dog-loving forest ranger and you have all the ingredients for a slasher movie – right? Wrong. The set up might be generic, but the way it all plays out is anything but.

The first thing to note is that the title, “Rabies” is misleading. There is no literal disease in this movie, and the forest ranger’s dog doesn’t turn Cujo. Instead it is a pretty accurate metaphor for what happens in the movie; but that title may harm its chances in the marketplace.

I’m being circumspect about revealing too much of the film’s plot, as the surprises are half the fun. This is a brilliantly written film, with a vein of black humour running throughout and very lean storytelling.

It is a film with a strong political subtext. Just as the conflict in Northern Ireland inspired Alan Clarke’s “Elephant”, so the events happening on the West Bank and Gaza Strip have inspired “Rabies”. But in the same way as classic Romero, it still works as a straight ahead horror for those with no time for politics. Also, for a film with such a high bodycount – it really values human life. Every death has consequences, and that’s what stays with you after the credits roll.

2) THE WOMAN (USA, 2011) – Dir. Lucky Mckee; Scr. Lucky Mckee & Jack Ketchum

Talk about a dream team! Lucky McKee (“May”) and Jack Ketchum (author of the devastating “The Girl Next Door” and the visceral “Off-Season”) have teamed up for a psychological horror about Man’s inhumanity to Woman.

They’re the outwardly perfect white-bread family of Mum, Dad, and three kids. But when Dad brings home a feral woman he caught while out hunting and makes it a family project to ‘civilise’ her; the perfect veneer cracks and the secrets pour out. All the while, the abused Woman waits for her chance for retribution…

The advance buzz on this film marked it as a controversy magnet in the vein of “Martyrs” and “A Serbian Film”. In previous festival screenings there had been walk outs and angry confrontations with the director. So it was somewhat of a surprise that “The Woman” eschews completely the excesses of ‘torture porn’, and the gore-soaked shock of recent French Horror.

But while there is nothing as hard to endure as the end of “The Girl Next Door” (not to be confused with the Eliza Cuthbert comedy of the same name), this is still a very disturbing film. In the Q&A afterwards, McKee described it as being, (and I’m quoting from memory here, so I may be paraphrasing) “A film about abuse.” Because of the psychological approach, this is a film where a slap is more shocking than a kill in many a lesser movie. It is also both a feminist essay and brutal critique of the traditional family.

This is an uncompromising and important work that straddles the boundary between “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Art house horror. Lucky McKee is clearly not afraid to make a pretentious film, and employs a very arch style. At times the montage sequences are too indulgent and some of the shot choices lead to confusion. However, when we’re left with that final indelible image, those faults melt away.

1) KILL LIST (UK, 2011) – Scr. & Dir. Ben Wheatley

A British horror film at number one, three films in the top ten and two others just missing the cut (“Panic Button” and “The Glass Man”). Not all the British films were good (a couple were terrible), but this must go down as a great year for British Indie Horror.

Leading the pack is “Kill List” from director Ben Wheatley (“Down Terrace”). An unemployed hitman with a temper, is coaxed, cajoled and blackmailed into taking ‘one more job’ by his wife and hitman best friend. As the two hitmen start to work their way down the kill list, they become ensnared in a sinister occult conspiracy from which there seems to be no escape.

Taking his time to establish the relationships between the principals, before moving into Crime Thriller territory, Wheatley achieves the kind of earthy verisimilitude seen in films like Shane Meadow’s “Dead Man’s Shoes”. He then patiently sets up and weaves in the occult horror elements so that the change from Crime Thriller to Horror creeps up on you almost before you realise it.

There is plenty of profane humour along the way, with the interplay between Neil Maskell (“Doghouse”) and Michael Smiley (“Outpost”) contrasting with the brutal violence, which Wheatley refuses to cut away from. MyAnna Brunning (“The Descent”) also impresses as the wife and mother. These are career-making performances from all three.

NB. I understand from fellow Frightfesters that “Kill List” (co-incidentally) shares some narrative similaries with “A Serbian Film”. I haven’t seen “A Serbian Film”, but if you have, you may not find “Kill List” as surprising and original as I did.

The ending is strong and emotionally wrenching, and confirms the film as the true successor to the Brit classics like “The Wicker Man” and “Witchfinder General”. Indeed, it is a much worthier successor to “The Wicker Man” than either the remake or fellow Frightfest 2011 entrant “The Wicker Tree”. To conclude, if you’re making out a list of must-see movies this September: you need to put “Kill List” at number one.

That’s all from Frightfest 2011. Check out www.frightfest.co.uk for further details, and keep an eye out for their upcoming Halloween All-nighter. Don’t have nightmares…

Me again, just briefly after all that. Big, huge, mahoosive thanks to Clive for that comprehensive breakdown. I hope you were paying attention, because there will be a test tomorrow, courtesy of Jaeson Finn. See you there!

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Rob

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

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