The FrightFest Files: Ten Horror Films To Watch – Part 2

Clive’s Best Of FrightFest continues with his Top Five. Brace yerself. There’s some shockers in here. 

5: ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY (Germany 2012) – Dir. Eron Sheean

Driven by personal tragedy, Canadian scientist Dr. Geoff Burton (Michael Eklund) arrives to take up his new position in a research institute in Germany.  Determined to continue his pioneering research into embryonic mutations, he finds himself embroiled in both a burgeoning romance with co-worker Dr. Rebekka Fielder (Karoline Herfurth) and a sinister conspiracy.

Shown on the smaller Discovery screen, the delightfully titled ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY is one of those oddities that almost fall between genre stools.  Despite containing elements of body horror and disease outbreak horror, this is a sci-fi movie.  But where sci-fi on the big screen is usually either superheroes or westerns in tin foil hats, this is a SCI-FI DRAMA – heavy on the science, heavy on the drama.

Almost a companion piece to Vincenzo Natali’s endearingly batty SPLICE, ERRORS similarly begins with romantically involved scientists involved in genetic research, but steers clear of its forbear’s lurch into gothic melodrama.  Instead, ERRORS keeps things small and human.  That means we get less genre ‘juice’, but it also means the resulting drama is genuinely moving.

The film asks the question: what is it that makes us human?  How much is our sense of our own humanity dependant on our own external appearance?  What happens to that sense of self when flesh is changed?  Sci-fi buffs will recognise some of this as territory covered in the likes of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and king of body-horror David Cronenberg’s THE FLY and VIDEODROME.  However, unlike either of those films, ERRORS retains a refreshing pro-science stance on genetic research.

Well played by all involved (including an almost unrecognisable Rik Mayall as the head of the institute), this film ultimately succeeds because of the performances of its two leads: Eklund and Herfurth.  Director Eron Sheehan allows them time to blossom, all the while retain a tight grip on the icy cold mise-en-scene.  With this and his work as co-writer of Xavier Gens’ THE DIVIDE (a highlight from last year’s Frightfest); he marks himself as a talent to watch.  “Long live the new flesh,” indeed.

4) AMERICAN MARY (Canada 2012) – Dir. Jen & Sylvia Soskia

Medical student Mary Mason (GINGER SNAPS’ Katherine Isabelle) just wants to become a doctor.  However, the sexist old boys’ network that runs the hospital where she is studying, coupled with severe debt problems, mean that when temptation rears its head – in the form of the underground world of extreme body-modification surgery – she all too readily succumbs.

Okay, so if the last entry on the top ten flirted with body horror, this Canadian entry gives us the ‘full Cronenberg’.  Some of the resulting gore is pretty strong, and if you’ve got a thing about hospitals and operations, consider yourself duly warned.

As a fan of her work in the GINGER SNAPS trilogy, it’s great to see Katherine Isabelle back in a film worthy of her talents.  Her character is the anchor for the story, allowing all the weirdness and surreal moments to be digested by the audience.  I was (perhaps inevitably given the operations) reminded of the mad doctor movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Only this time our erstwhile FRANKENSTEIN is thanked by her creations!

The tone of this movie is interesting, encompassing the deadpan wit of HEATHERS and the clinical detachment of (yes – it’s that man again!) Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS.  But perhaps the best comparison is with another strong horror movie with an equally strong central performance from Angel Bettis: Luck McKee’s MAY.  In short, if you liked MAY, you’ll love AMERICAN MARY.

If there’s weakness here, it’s that the Soskia sisters (who also cameo memorably) are so interested in the various outsiders they conjure up that the antagonistic forces that threaten Mary’s lucrative new practice are a little neglected.  This saps a little of the impact from the climax, but doesn’t take away from the overall achievement.  For a story which could have been a reactionary tract which recoiled in horror from the freaks and outsiders it depicted, AMERICAN MARY actually celebrates difference and should be applauded for that.

Much has been rightly made of the dearth of female voices in horror.  You can count the female filmmakers featured at this years’ Frightfest on the fingers of one body-modified hand: Jen & Sylvia Soska; Jennifer Chambers Lynch (CHAINED); and Donna Davies (NIGHTMARE FACTORY).  So it’s doubly pleasant (no pun intended – the Soskia sisters are twins) to discover a full-blooded horror movie in you really which feels like it has been authored from a female perspective (and that the story is richer for that).  But don’t think I’m including this film out of tokenism.  This is just plain good old horror – whatever the gender of its writer/directors.

3) MANIAC (France/USA 2012) – Dir. Franck Kalfoun

A remake of Bill Lustig’s 1980 stalk ’n’ slash original, MANIAC is the portrait of serial killer Frank (Elijah Wood in what was the Joe Spinell role) and the troubled life of his mind.  Photographer Anna mistakes Frank’s pathological introversion for an artist’s sensitivity and a dangerous friendship is born, as Frank’s control and his increasingly tenuous grip on reality threaten to dissolve away completely.

So: Why remake MANIAC?  The original was almost an American giallo, with a really gritty aesthetic and some very effective gore sequences from genre legend Tom Savini.  It had some powerful horror set-pieces, despite including one of the least believable romantic subplots in movie history (Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro?  Really?).  It was also an immersive wallow in dirt, blood and misogyny that left me feeling like I need a shower afterwards.

I guess you might as well say: Why remake anything?  Brand recognition within the horror community, coupled with mild controversy the casting of lovable Wood (It’s Frodo!) as scalp-collecting killer might get them?  Probably; and yet – producers Alexander Aja and Gregory Levasseur are clearly fans of the original (so much so that they included a near shot-for-shot remake of the original’s infamous toilet scene in their debut movie SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE), so perhaps there’s some love there as well.

The new MANIAC covers much the same depressing story territory as the original, but was a pleasant surprise because unlike most remakes it actually follows through on its promise: It delivers a genuinely fresh take on old material.  Where the original was gritty, this version is shiny and stylised with an equally sleek electronic score (although personally I could have done without the winking musical reference to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – but otherwise, great).  It’s also confident enough in its own nastiness to chuck out two of the most iconic scenes from the original.

Technically brilliant, the real departure comes with director Franck Khalfoun’s decision to shoot the whole movie from the killer’s point-of-view.  Yes – MANIAC 2012 is that rare beast – the P.O.V. movie.  But unlike previous P.O.V. movies like DARK PASSAGE and THE LADY IN THE LAKE, MANIAC doesn’t feel like such a novelty.  This is largely due to how used we are as viewers to watching P.O.V. sequences in slasher movies.  From BLACK CHRISTMAS and HALLOWEEN (both themselves remade in past decade) onwards it has become standard trope.  But while it loses out on novelty, the movie gains in its depiction of misogyny.

You might think that making you view everything through the eyes of a killer, would force you to sympathize with him.  However, due to the way P.O.V. works, paradoxically the opposite is true.  Your sympathy is firmly with the victims as they are slain and scalped.  This makes the new MANIAC a tough film to watch, but also a better, less exploitational horror film than the original.

2) SLEEP TIGHT (Spain 2011) – Dir. Jaume Balaguero

Janitor Cesar (Luis Tosar) looks after his apartment building, chatting with the residents and attending to the building’s upkeep.  However, there’s more to Cesar than meets the eye and new tenant Clara’s (Marta Etura) perpetual optimism and general cheeriness provoke something deep within him – something very dark indeed.

Welcome to the Spanish corner of Hitchcock country.  It may be helmed by one half of the filmmaking team that brought us the scary REC, but Jaume Balaguero is very clearly following in the suspenseful footsteps of Leystonstone’s most famous son with this accomplished chiller.

Hitchcock may have (with a few exceptions) stuck to the thriller genre, but his movies could (and did) go into some very dark psychological areas.  Indeed, the movie which currently sits atop Sight & Sound’s Greatest Movies of All Time Poll – VERTIGO – is a case in point.  That tale of an obsessed stalker whose obsession destroys the very thing he loves the most, is a clear touchstone for SLEEP TIGHT.

However, the main lesson Balaguero takes from Hitchcock is that the mechanics of suspense are neutral.  It doesn’t matter whether the person in danger (the object of the suspense) is a good person or a bad person – we, the audience will root for them to get out of danger regardless.  Hitchcock knew this all too well and relished the subversive tactic of putting the audience in the villain’s shoes.  STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and FRENZY both employ this ‘dirty’ trick.

SLEEP TIGHT is much more than mere Hitchcock pastiche though.  Balaguero has a few dirty tricks of his own, and isn’t afraid to use them.  Chief among them is the miserly way he doles out exposition.  The opening twenty minutes is a masterclass in how to use mystery to hook an audience, and also how to sucker them into sympathizing with a protagonist who is much more than we first believe him to be.  This is especially apparent if you compare it with a recent movie that had superficially similar story: the disappointment that was Hammer’s THE RESIDENT.

Luis Tosar (so impressive in Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE) gives a masterful performance as the janitor Cesar.  Utterly compelling, I have no hesitation in making him my Best Actor of Frightfest 2012.

Finally, SLEEP TIGHT has that rare thing – a villain with a truly unique and memorable motivation and psychology.   It may not scare you in a conventional horror movie way, but this film will disturb and chill you.  Good luck ‘sleeping tight’ after this one.

1) SINISTER (US 2012) – Dir. Scott Derrickson

 

Desperate to hit True Crime gold, writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a house where the previous inhabitants died in mysterious circumstances.  He discovers a box in the attic filled with Super8 home movies.  Home movies that hold the key to not just the deaths he’s investigating, but to a series of occult-inspired grisly murders stretching back years.  Like Pandora, Oswald is about to discover than some boxes should never be opened…

Every Frightfest (and this was my 11th), there always seems to an overarching theme or visual motif linking a number of the films.  I don’t think this is intentional on Iain, Paul, Alan or Greg’s part.  Perhaps it’s just a natural consequence of grouping together any films that were made around the same time (Re-Discovery Screen oldies excepted).  In past years we’ve had the ‘J-horror festival, ‘zombie’ festival and the ‘torture-porn’ festival.  Similarly, one year it seemed like every film featured an act of genital mutilation (I spent most of that one with my legs crossed).

This year unfortunately, that linking strand seemed to be: rape.  Sometimes the rape was treated soberly as part of horrors of war: THE SEASONING HOUSE.  Sometimes the crime itself was off-screen or the camera fixed firmly on the victim’s face: CHAINED & AMERICAN MARY (significantly I think – both by women filmmakers).  But overall the tone that reigned was one of exploitation and misogyny.  There was sense that in trying to out-shock what had come before certain filmmakers had gone for easy button pushing.

Horror is a broad church, but ultimately, it’s easy to make an upsetting film, and if we keep going down that road ultimately you lose all but the most hard-core gorehounds.  If a horror movie is upsetting, depressing and humourless – well, where’s the fun in that?  It’s much harder to make a genuinely scary movie, which is where I get off my soapbox and onto my number one choice.

SINISTER is a genuinely scary movie.

If you’re a horror fan, that should be all the enticement you need to head down your local Cineplex or add it to the top of your video-on-demand queue.  If competent horror movies are rare (as I mentioned earlier in my review of OUTPOST: BLACK SUN), genuinely scary movies seem to turn up less frequently than England World Cup wins or Halley’s Comet.  Okay – I exaggerate – but the likes of THE DESCENT, REC, and THE ORPHANAGE stick out because they actually succeed in scaring us.

So why continue the review?  Well, largely because I realise I’m not writing this in a vacuum.  SINISTER has had its UK cinema bow, and it has been sold in trailers and adverts to be a certain kind of movie.  Also, the (professional) critics have spoken and they’ve not all been kind.  Many, including some surprising usually genre-friendly writers have just not got it.  SINISTER may not be a little indie film, but I think it deserves championing nonetheless. So I’m going to look at some of the nay-sayers arguments and explain why I think this movie is a must-see.

1) It’s generic Hollywood product – nothing more.

SINISTER does have a very generic title – that’s true.  But then, so did SCREAM, and look how that turned out.  It is a Hollywood movie, but to dismiss it as generic is to overlook how it takes stale horror ingredients: family moves into a haunted house/ ‘true’ snuff movies / a demon that can possess you – and spin it into something new and fresh.  If you only look at the glossy packaging, you might think this was no different from something like THE POSSESSION (which also showed at Frightfest).  But where THE POSSESSION really does follow the generic rules with depressing predictability – SINISTER transcends its studio roots.

While it does feel the need to do that Hollywood thing of having a jump-scare, director Scott Derickson deserves credit for not just serving up the same old tired clichés.  So no ‘cat leaping out’, no ‘something walks in front of camera accompanied with loud noise’ and no ‘mirror scares’.  Sure, it’s still essentially: quiet/LOUD – but these jump-scares work.  The overall sound design is brilliant and the use of Doom Metal on the soundtrack adds to a soundscape that is anything but traditional.

2) It starts off creepy, but then devolves into the same old tropes.

Some kinder critics did pick up on the unusually restrained and creepy slow-build at the beginning, but missed out on just how fully the film commits to a) its own rules and b) its mission to scare the pants off you.  The opening thirty minutes are very effective in setting up an atmosphere of unease.  Perhaps the reason why some critics didn’t respond as well to the rest of the film – is that they didn’t see it with an audience.  This is a film that gains immeasurably from being shared with others.  Being scared – all jumping out of your seat at the same time – is a communal experience.

3) It’s a ‘found footage’ movie.

Okay, Mark Kermode may not have meant this to be a criticism, but despite bright-spots like CHRONICLE and TROLL HUNTER, this particular sub-genre has a terrible reputation.  Headache-inducing camerawork coupled with poor scripts and often little justification for why the cameraperson is still filming with all that’s going on or why they don’t seem to be able to hold the camera still for two seconds.  Yep, this is not a good label to tar SINISTER with – a movie which shares none of the above traits.

Mr. Kermode rightly points out that Ethan Hawke’s character, “does find some footage.”  However, that isn’t enough to make it a ‘found footage’ film in my book.  The ‘found footage’ elements make up less that 10% of the running time.  And while the found films are running, half the time Derickson cuts away to Hawke’s reaction.  This breaks all the rules of ‘found footage’ which gain their effect from the idea that we’re seeing unedited and uncensored material.

A better comparison would be with two films starring George C. Scott: HARDCORE and THE CHANGELING.  Indeed the scenes where Ethan Hawke views the home movies are edited in a very similar way.  Both movies wisely believe that what you don’t see is worse than anything they could show you.  SINISTER still finds room for some pretty disturbing imagery, but as often it’s the sound that does the heavy lifting.

4) The villain just looks like THE CROW or the lead singer in a Metal band.

Yeah – guilty on that one.   But unlike the trailers you may have seen, the movie itself takes the JAWS approach to its monster.  We only ever get glimpses of the big villain and he’s all the scarier for it.  I actually think the monster design is surprisingly effective in its simplicity.  The only misstep I thought the film made, was in the look they gave to ‘the children’, which I thought was a bit naff.

5) No horror auteur behind this movie.

Last one – I promise!  This criticism is largely unspoken, but I can’t help thinking that this movie would have been more lauded if it came from a ‘master of horror’.  Whether that be an established writer/director name like Wes Craven or John Carpenter, or a new horror auteur like Ti West or Lucky McKee.

Director Scott Derickson previously made THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE which I haven’t seen, but I think I would have heard if it had become a major horror film.  So SINISTER is a step up into the big leagues for Derrickson, but before we get too sucked into the cult of the auteur theory, it should be acknowledged that this movie has a great script written by C. Robert Cargill (together with Derrickson).  It’s the two of them, together with star Hawke that make this movie the success it is.

I saw this film with two friends – both hardened horror fans – who were unable to get to sleep after watching this film.  Me?  I slept fine, but certain sequences have really stayed with me including the terrifying ending.  Maybe it’s ultimately too conventional to be classed as great, but it’s good enough to be my number one.  Recommended – go see it.

In conclusion, a few acknowledgements:  Thanks to Rob for being such a generous host.  (De nada – R.) Thanks to the Frightfest team [Iain, Paul, Alan, Greg and all their many helpers] for organising another great festival.  Thanks to the staff of the Empire Leicester Square [and particularly to the projection team].  Lastly, thanks to Simon, Stuart and all the rest of Frightfest weekend pass-holders.  See you all next year…  Oh, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN!   Pleasant nightmares…

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Rob

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

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