Clive Does Frightfest

This is the end…

Leading Man Clive pulls out all the stops with his Frightfest overview this year. Get yourself comfortable, Readership. We're going to be here for a while…

 

After five days of horror, with fifty two fantastic genre movies shown over four screens (The main screen, two discovery screens and one for repeats), the fourteenth annual Frightest is at an end. It’s also an ending for the Empire Leicester Square’s Screen One. The closing film Big Bad Wolves proved to be the last ever movie screened there. The cinema is now being redeveloped, and there’s talk of it being split into two screens, with one being an IMAX. Whatever form the new look Empire takes, next year there will be changes to the format of Frightfest.

So perhaps it was appropriate that this years’ festival had a quieter, more muted feel to it. No big name horror guests, some regular faces missing and a film programme that was solid but didn’t (at first glance) contain anything genre-defining. After last year’s controversy, and storms in the twitter-sphere over the content of some of the films (13 really was unlucky for them), this year it seemed that (whether consciously or not) those programming the festival had reacted to the criticism they took last year and played it safe. But who knows? Perhaps there just weren’t any controversial or extreme films to choose from this year.

There’s been grousing from some corners of the Frightfest faithful that in comparison to previous years, this year the films were poor, with few standouts. However, I beg to differ. Okay, on the main screen there were less standout films, but those of us who ventured into the discovery screens found there were many strange and varied genre pleasures to be had. Indeed, half of my top ten films this year came from the discovery screens.

A brief word on my own relationship with Frightfest: This was my twelfth Frightfest in a row as a full weekend passholder, and as a filmmaker I’ve had short films shown at both the Odeon West End and the Empire Leicester Square, and been onstage to introduce them. So I guess you could call me a Frightfest veteran. Cards on the table, I love this festival.

As usual, before the top ten I want to acknowledge the best of the short films; list some of the movies I missed out on this year, and explain some notable omissions.

There was a veritable feast of short films on offer this year. In fact there were so many, that they escaped from the usual ghetto of the Short Film Showcase, and spread themselves throughout the festival like a (thankfully non-flesh-eating) viral outbreak. Paul McEvoy’s official selection was augmented by the six Short Cuts from Hell competition finalists, as well as the return of the Turn off your bloody phone shorts. Of those few I saw, the standouts were two UK shorts, Chuck Steel – Raging Balls of Steel Justice (written & directed by Mike Mort) and The Body that went for laughs rather than scares and succeeded.

The Body was directed by a friend, Paul Davis (Him Indoors), so it was great to see him developing as a filmmaker. Another director friend, Mike Tack (One Careful Owner) was one of the competition winners in the Turn off your bloody phone shorts section with Phoneraiser, a witty homage to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Interestingly, this year the competition winners were much better than the professional efforts in this category. However, it’s surely time to retire this short film strand, as it’s begun to feel like a joke that’s worn a bit thin.

Given the scale of the festival, it’s now physically impossible to see every film that screens at Frightfest over the five day weekend. Of the 52 films screened at Frightfest this year, I saw 25 at the festival, and 3 I had seen previously. That left 24 films (or TV specials) that I wasn’t able to catch.

Of those 24 I was most sorry to miss the 3 documentaries in the programme:

The American Scream

Rewind This!

On Tender Hooks

Sadly, scheduling conflicts and difficulty in getting discovery screen tickets for certain ultra-popular films meant I missed out on all three. I heard very good buzz from those who did though. Other notable titles I wasn’t able to see but heard good things about included:

Stalled

100 Bloody Acres

Haunter

The Last Days

VHS 2

Hatchet 3

The Dyatlov Pass Incident

Just missing out on my top ten and deserving of ‘honourable mention’ status were:

The Hypnotist

Curse of Chucky

Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz

Finally, those notable omissions…

Totally arbitrarily, I’ve decided to restrict my top ten to new movies, which means I’ve had to leave out my retro-discovery of the festival:

Wake in Fright (aka. Outback)

This hugely influential Aussie film from the director of First Blood isn’t really a horror movie, but it is a disturbing and unique one. Like another ‘70s classic starring Donald Pleasance, Death Line (aka. Raw Meat), here an outsider director (Canadian Ted Kotcheff) targets the society he finds himself thrust into (small-town Australia) and skewers it. Warning: contains upsetting footage of a real kangaroo cull.

As a weekend passholder at Frightfest, where I’m trying to cram in as many films as possible into 5 days, the challenge is always coping with sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction, and eating and drinking at odd hours. At some point in the festival I find myself hitting a wall of fatigue and falling asleep during a movie. I’m not talking about the micro-sleeps you experience during the boring bits of a poor festival movie. I’m talking full narcoleptic sleepy-time. You just hope when it hits that: a) you don’t snore; and b) it hits during a bad movie.

It’s confession time – this year I hit that fatigue wall during:

No One Lives

I slept through most of the first half an hour, and was left playing catch up for the remaining 57 minutes. But I did see enough to know that this is a very smart, slick serial killer/slasher movie hybrid with some great surprises and kills. The Frightfest audience loved it. However, I can’t in good conscience properly rate it, as I’ve not yet seen the whole thing, hence its omission from the top ten. I will certainly be seeking it out on DVD/Blu-Ray later.

The final notable omission from my top ten may also be partly due to fatigue as it was the closing film of the festival, or maybe not:

Big Bad Wolves

Sadly, for me this was the biggest disappointment of Frightfest. It was the movie I’d been looking forward to most, as I’m a big fan of the two Israeli directors’ first film, the genre-bending horror Rabies. This uneasy mix of police procedural, fairy tale and Tarantino-esque humour just didn’t work for me. It’s certainly original, and I did laugh at some of the blackly-comic moments, but the tone skewed awkwardly when the grim results of the paedophile killer popped up on screen.

I have friends who love this movie, and I will give Big Bad Wolves another chance away from the hothouse atmosphere of the festival (and when I’m not so tired), but on first watch I’m sorry to say I just didn’t get it.

Here then, without further ado, is my top ten of Frightest 2013:

10) In Fear (2013) – UK – Writ. + Dir. Jeremy Lovering

New couple Lucy (Alice Englert – Beautiful Creatures) and Tom (Iain De Caesteker – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) get lost in a labyrinth of rural roads when they decide to stop off at a secluded hotel on their way to a music festival. Tormented by a mysterious masked figure, can bloodied survivor Max (Allen Leach – Downton Abbey) help them to escape their nightmare? Or is this just another move in a very sick game?

The confined setting or ‘bottle’ thriller is the Holy Grail of low budget filmmaking (I must know at least 5 friends who are writing one). Small cast, one small self- contained location, and hopefully one big concept. It’s a real challenge, so I was interested to see what first time writer/director Jeremy Lovering came up with.

With a few minor exceptions, In Fear is mostly two, and then three people in a car. Thankfully, it doesn’t follow the example of terrible no-budget horror 5 Across the Eyes, in which the camera never left the inside of the car. However, you still have large chunks of the movie where there isn’t a great deal of visual variation. Lovering though makes the smart choice to use the claustrophobia of the car to crank up the tension.

All three leads are likeable, but Allen Leach in particular seems to be enjoying the different character moments he gets to play with. Coming on like a cross between recent Brit-thriller Hush and The Hitcher, this film does actually try and scare you and manages to elicit a few low-octane chills. But for me what elevates an otherwise solid low-budget thriller into the top ten is the last ten minutes. I won’t spoil the ending, but there is a surprise reveal which reminded me of Edward G. Ulmer noir classic Detour, and there can be no higher praise.

9) Willow Creek (2013) – USA – Writ. + Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait

Believer Jim (Bryce Johnson – Sleeping Dogs) talks sceptical girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore – God Bless America) into acting as camera operator on his Bigfoot documentary. Re-tracing the steps of previous crypto-zoologists they meet a bizarre collection of cranks and eccentrics. They seek the source of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film, but deep in the woods they find something much stranger and more terrifying.

Director Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America) brings his satirical eye to the found footage genre and we get an hour of entertaining faux-documentary on the search of Bigfoot and the culture that’s sprung up around it. Mixing up interviews of real Sasquatch experts with character actors playing locals, Goldthwaite seems to be having fun blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

Willow Creek is a ‘found footage’ movie, and it’s one that, like its heroes, is very definitely following in the footsteps of its forebears. On the plus side, that means this movie doesn’t cheat. With only one main camera, there are very few cuts, and (except for the end credits) all the music used is diegetic (ie. It comes solely from sources we see onscreen – from characters singing and playing music, or from the radio). Also, you’ve got to admire the balls of filmmaker who is willing to let a 22 minute scene play out on one camera without any cuts.

On the negative side, if you’ve seen any ‘found footage’ movies before, you are going to be feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. The Blair Witch Project in particular does seem to have been a point of reference for the script, with certain story beats echoing what I believe is still the most financially successful Independent horror movie of all time.

So, despite both movies being wildly different in tone, file this one next to The Last Exorcism as a found footage movie with a whip smart first hour and a disappointing ending.

8) For Elisa [Para Elisa] (2013) – Spain – Writ. + Dir. Juanra Fernández

Cash-poor student Ana (Ona Casamiquela) answers an advert for a part-time nanny and finds she is entering the creepy world of matriarch Diamantina (Luisa Gavasa) and her collection of antique dolls. Imprisoned, Ana finds herself the plaything of Diamantina’s strange daughter Elisa (Ana Turpin), who has a tendency to break her toys.

For Elisa has a neat psychological horror set-up, a likeable heroine, painterly cinematography (courtesy of David Valldepérez) and creepy central idea. It has great ingredients, but frustratingly as a whole it falls short of greatness.

I think the main reason for this is the decision Fernández makes to massively telescope the action and have the events of the story take place over just a few hours. He also rushes through the second half of the film (For Elisa is barely 80 minutes long). While this does give the boyfriend character’s subplot urgency, it also hamstrings the psychological nastiness.

Ana finds herself imprisoned within a truly unique and sick family, and I wanted to see what her life would be like there. Torture, whether mental or physical, is always more painful the more drawn out it is. Films like Misery, 5150 Elm’s Way (aka 5150 Rue des Ormes) and previous Frightfest favourite Mum & Dad, gain a lot of their power by slowly unveiling the full insanity of the abductors over a period of weeks and months. It’s a shame that’s not a choice that was made here. However, fans of Misery will still note its obvious influence on one particular sequence in the movie.

I’m sorry to say that the other reason is Elisa herself. Ana Turpin is fine in the role, but what was needed was an actor willing to move beyond the mousey surface and fully reveal to us Elisa’s potential for violence and unpredictability. A performance like that of Robin McLeavy as ‘Princess’ Lola in previous Frightfest selection The Loved Ones – now THAT is a scary character. Luisa Gavasa is excellent as the mother Diamantina, but sadly we don’t get enough of her.

I feel I’ve been a little harsh on film I did enjoy. This is still a solid slice of Euro Horror, and it’s a promising debut from writer/director Juanra Fernández. It’s just that as the credits rolled I felt it could have been so much more.

7) You're Next (2011) – USA – Dir. Adam Wingard; Writ. Simon Barrett

The Davidson family are re-uniting to celebrate Mum and Dad’s wedding anniversary. Son Crispian (A.J. Bowen – The Signal) has prepared his new girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson – Bait) for fireworks from his dysfunctional siblings, but not for the assault that follows. This year, the Davidson family home has been targeted by attackers wearing animal masks. But these killers haven’t reckoned on one of their victims having a very deadly set of skills.

Ever since hyperbolic and hysterical reports of a slasher movie that broke the mould started to come out of stateside festivals in 2011, genre fans in the UK have been licking their lips in anticipation of a bloody banquet of terror…

Finally, two years on we get see Adam Wingard’s (A Horrible Way to Die, VHS) inventive hybrid of the home invasion and slasher genres. And hybrid is the right word for this often contradictory movie that pulls in a number of different directions at the same time.

It’s a movie that uses the Scream-like meta-approach to get laughs by pointing out and then subverting horror tropes. It’s a studio pick-up that plays by rules of the franchise creation game. It’s also a movie with a defiantly Indie sensibility throughout, which eschews the normal teen cast of a slasher to focus on an older group of characters. Or, to put it another way: its core twenty and thirty something cast members are actually playing twenty and thirty something characters rather than unconvincing teenagers.

Not only that but You’re Next is a movie where the director seems to have got a load of his mates in to fill out the cast, and horror fans can play ‘spot the director’. There’s Larry Fessenden (Wendigo), Ti West (The Innkeepers), Joe Swanberg (VHS) and the film’s writer Simon Barrett (VHS 2). It’s like an American Indie version of a John Landis movie. Personally, I’d prefer to watch a John Landis version of an American Indie movie, but there you go.

The most successful part of this bloody sundae of a film is the horror comedy part. A.J. Bowen excels at this kind of thing and Sharni Vinson gives as good as she gets as his girlfriend. It’s a bit predictable towards the end but the kills are good and just because we’ve heard a joke before that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not funny any more. Finally, any movie with Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, From Beyond) in it – here playing the mother of the family – gets plus points from me.

6) Dark Tourist [aka. The Grief Tourist] (2012) – USA – Dir. Suri Krishnamma; Writ. Frank John Hughes

Security guard Jim Tahna (Michael Cudlitz – Southland) is a ‘Dark Tourist’ who spends his annual vacation retracing the steps of notorious serial killers. This year as he visits the haunts of Carl Marznap (Pruitt Taylor Vince – Constantine), Jim starts to mentally unravel. Torn between his desires for local waitress Betsy (Melanie Griffith – Working Girl; Something Wild) and his prostitute neighbour Iris (Suzanne Quast) his own darkest secrets start to spill out.

Horror cinema, and genre cinema in general is full of serial killers. Jason, Michael, Freddy, Hannibal… the list goes on and on. But most screen serial killers don’t bear much resemblance to their real life counterparts. They’re more like the wolf pretending to be Grandmother; the campfire tale come to life; the Boogeyman made flesh.

If (like me) you’ve done any background reading at all into real-life serial killers, then you’ll find backstory after backstory of physical and sexual abuse, of sick people who are damaged and broken by life. That absolutely doesn’t excuse their actions; it just so often seems to be the common thread between them. It’s not scary, so much as sickening, deeply depressing and sad. This then is the territory that Dark Tourist guides us into.

That’s not a fun place to visit, but thankfully, Dark Tourist is an absorbing study of psychological decline and fall. Initially a voiceover-driven drama, this is dominated by Michael Cudlitz’s performance as the titular Dark Tourist. We are with him throughout the film, witnessing his interactions with waitresses, whores and long dead killers.

There’s a surprise which gives the movie a little exploitation movie kick, but that’s not what you leave with. You leave thinking about the performances, particularly Cudlitz, but also Carl Marznap and Melanie Griffith (who does her best work for years).

[Rob notes: this is nothing to do with the Dom Joly book, which would be a frankly even more terrifying prospect…]

5) The Desert [El Desierto ] (2013) – Argentina – Writ. + Dir. Christoph Behl

In an isolated location, two men and one woman have survived the zombie apocalypse in their fortified house. However, the love triangle between Ana (Victoria Almeida), Jonathan (William Prociuk) and Ana’s former lover Axel (Lautaro Delgado) has poisoned relations between them. When the two men return from a scavenging expedition with a pet zombie who Ana christens Pythagoras (Lucas Lagré), the survivors enter a dangerous new phase.

When is a zombie movie not a zombie movie? When it’s an existential character study with zombies in it…

Like The Divide (another previous Frightfest selection), The Desert isn’t interested in the end of the world, so much as studying what happens to human beings who are cooped up together once the civilised world has crumbled. Where it differs is in its sensibility and approach.

The sensibility here is an Arthouse one, and the pacing and story progression is very deliberate. Writer/Director Christoph Behl meticulously documents the mundane everyday routine that the central trio follow in order to stay alive and stay sane. We watch the video diaries that Ana makes. We see how they get their water and how they’ve fortified their home. But this is an approach that demands patience from the viewer.

I’ll admit that after almost 30 beautifully filmed minutes of nothing much happening, I did start to nod off. Thankfully at that point, Pythagoras the zombie gets introduced into the household and the main plot kicks in. Then, much to my surprise, I found myself drawn into the film by these three characters and their struggles. The whole cast excels, but the performances of Victoria Almeida and Lautaro Delgado as the estranged former lovers Ana and Axel are great.

Also, I really appreciated the little visual grace notes and attention to detail. Whether it was the simple scene when the rains came, or recurring images like the flies that Axel has tattooed over his body. Those flies become a swarm that charts both the time that’s passed and Axel’s own decline. The end, when it comes is heart-rending, and manages the trick of being both surprising and inevitable.

Like Sex, Lies and Videotape spliced with Day of the Dead, The Desert is a drama that rewards the patient viewer, and shows just how broad a church horror is.

4) The Borderlands (2013) – UK – Writ. + Dir. Elliot Goldner

The Borderlands Poster

The Vatican sends in a team to investigate a possible miracle at a remote West Country church. There, damaged investigator Deacon (Gordon Kennedy – Robin Hood) clashes with cynical Father Mark (Aidan McArdle – Killing Bono) over his methods and beliefs. New to paranormal detective work is Gray (Robin Hill – Down Terrace), their technical expert, who ensures webcams and personal headcams record everything. Is this just another case of fakery, or have they stumbled onto something much darker and more ancient?

Just like with last year’s top ten entry The Devil’s Business, I need to declare an interest here. I know the film’s producer Jen Handorf, so it’s true I did go into the screening wanting to like the movie. However, it’s also true that I went into the movie extremely tired and grumpy after having had to get up at the crack of dawn again (this was on Day Five of the festival) and queue for tickets. I’d say the latter feeling cancelled out any bias from the former – but there you go. So having got the formalities out of way, let’s take a trip into The Borderlands.

With a title that consciously evokes William Hope Hodgson’s classic horror tale The House on the Borderland, I was expecting The Borderlands to take me into the realms of the supernatural, and it didn’t let me down. While nowhere near as trippy as that novel, it was still refreshing to see a horror movie with Catholic priest characters that seems to be taking its primary inspiration from the literature of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood rather than the usual touchstones of The Exorcist and The Omen.

Like Willow Creek, this is a ‘found footage’ movie that gets a lot of humour out its initial set-up. Here that humour comes principally from Robin Hill as tech expert Gray and his exchanges with Gordon Kennedy’s Deacon. Kennedy has a comic background as part of ‘90s comedy sketch show Absolutely, but here he plays the straight man to Hill and it’s wonderful to watch their scenes together.

One of the things that often hamstrings the credibility of ‘found footage’ movies is what I call the ‘camera question’. e.g. Why is Johnny still continuing to film the unspeakably horrific thing when he should be either a) dropping the camera and running away or b) dropping the camera and running to aid Barbara, who is about to lose her face to a spiked tentacle.

First time writer/director Elliot Goldner’s script is acutely aware of the ‘camera question’ and extracts sly humour from answering it. Gray constantly berates Deacon for not wearing his headcam rig at all times, until it becomes habit and he, like the audience, simply forgets he is wearing it and just gets on with his business. There’s even a slightly jarring moment right near the end, when a panicky Gray takes the time to stop and set-up an aerial relay for the headcams so they’ll continue to record underground.

Where The Borderlands scores over Willow Creek is in the shift from the humour of the earlier scenes into the dread and fear of the latter half. It wisely keeps its powder dry when it comes to supernatural phenomena during the build up and utilises some excellent sound design to build up tension. The climax is both clever and effective, and I’ll not spoil it. This film pushes the boundaries (or perhaps that should be borders) of the ‘found footage’ genre: recommended.

[Rob notes: couldn't find a trailer for this one, surprisingly. Anyone care to track one down?]

3) Painless [Insensibles] (2012) – Spain – Dir. Juan Carlos Medina; Writ. Luiso Berdejo, Juan Carlos Medina

In the present day, David (Àlex Brendemühl – The Hours of the Day) discovers that he was adopted and only his true parents can give him the life-saving transplant he needs. This leads him to uncover a dark secret from the past: In 1931, a group of children born insensible to pain were incarcerated in the Canfranc asylum, high up in the Pyrenees, for study and experimentation. But what became of the boy Berkano (Tómas Lemarquis – Errors of the Human Body) and his fellow inmates after the Spanish Civil War?

The second Spanish film in this year’s top ten, Painless will inevitably be compared with Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish Civil War set horror fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It shares not only a fascination with 20th century Spanish history, but is also blessed with a director who has an eye for the beauty in the most horrific of moments.

It’s a shame that many Frightfesters will have put off going to see this film by the projection problems that dogged its first showing on the discovery screen. Unfortunately, the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) sent to the festival was corrupted and wouldn’t play properly. Kudos then to the Frightfest organisers for getting a replacement DCP sent over in less than 48 hours. They weren’t sure it was going to make it in time for the second screening, but thankfully it did.

This is a film with a dual time structure, both period and modern. It uses the tried-and-tested route of having a modern day protagonist who plays detective to reveal the secrets of the past which then play out as flashbacks. While it’s hardly unique in that respect, (see any number of movies from Citizen Kane through to A.S. Byatt adaptation Possession) it is unusual for the modern day framing story to be played for such high stakes.

Here the fact that Àlex Brendemühl’s David is dying and must discover the truth about what really happened in Canfranc asylum if he wants to live, gives the movie a great D.O.A.-style dramatic engine that turbo charges both parallel narratives.

Like its protagonist, Painless is absolutely passionate and unremitting in its commitment to uncovering the truth about Spain’s past crimes. It rejects any suggestion that we should let sleeping dogs lie. Here the ending is brutal, moving and tough as hell: Painless? Hardly, but this is brave and rewarding cinema nonetheless.

 

2) Cheap Thrills (2013) – USA – Dir. E. L. Katz; Writ. David Churchirillo, Trent Haaga

After being fired from his job, Craig (Pat Healy – The Innkeepers) is faced with the prospect of imminent eviction and having failed his wife and newborn child. While drowning his sorrows at a seedy bar, he runs into old friend Vince (Ethan Embry – Eagle Eye) who is similarly down on his luck. Their drunken evening takes a twist when rich couple Colin (David Koechner – Anchorman) and Violet (Sara Paxton – The Innkeepers) decide to involve the two friends in their crazy betting games. What starts out as innocent fun turns serious as the stakes keep increasing, and the sex and mind games begin.

Welcome to Global Austerity cinema… Who says Americans don’t get satire? In Cheap Thrills the contemporary American Dream is dissected with a razor sharp script to reveal the inequalities and class tensions writhing underneath.

Cheap Thrills is a twisted thriller that’s indebted to TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected and in particular to the Roald Dahl story Man from the South (adapted numerous times and the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s The Man from Hollywood segment in anthology film Four Rooms). But this movie takes the greed and desperation and devilish tempter figure of Dahl’s story and goes a stage further. It does this by aping and satirising the structures and formula of reality TV talent shows like X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.

Here, before the competition begins we get the sob story backgrounds of both sacked father Craig and ex-con Vince. Then we meet the rich and powerful judges, Colin and Violet. Once the competition begins, the prizes and stakes gradually increase. We even get the moment when the contestants have to basically beg to be allowed to progress to the next round. And then there’s the mentoring of the contestants by the judges ahead of the final. It’s all there. Who would you vote for?

The script (by David Churchirillo and Trent Haaga) is the star here, but the ensemble cast perform it with glee and all four principal give awards-worthy performances. As funny as it is gripping, Cheap Thrills had me laughing out loud one moment and then squirming in my seat the next. A real audience pleaser, this movie may be cheap, but as promised, it definitely thrills.

 

1) We Are What We Are (2013) – USA – Dir. Jim Mickle; Writ. Nick Damici, Jim Mickle

The Parker family harbour a sinister secret: since the time of their pioneer ancestors, they have survived by cannibalism. After the death of their mother, teenage sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers – The Master) and Rose (Julia Garner – The Last Exorcism Part II) are ordered by their father Frank (Bill Sage – American Psycho) to carry out the killing rituals needed to provide for the family. As the two sisters are torn between rebellion and acceptance, evidence of the Parker family’s past crimes is found, and the authorities start to close in.

“What! A Hollywood remake at number one? Have five days of horror movies warped your critical faculties?” I hear you cry. But wait gentle reader, let me explain. For this is that rare exception to the general rule: a horror remake that surpasses the original. An English language re-interpretation of a respected foreign language title that is deeper and more intelligent than its source.

I confess that I very nearly gave this one a miss. While many of my favourite horror movies are remakes – Dracula (1958), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) – this year the likes of Texas Chainsaw 3D and Evil Dead, had given me remake fatigue. Also, Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican original, was an Arthouse film that I respected for its craft, but wasn’t very keen on. It had a terrific sense of place and a nice central idea, but it coasted by on mood and pretty cinematography too much for my liking.

So when Frightfest organiser and esteemed horror critic Alan Jones told me a remake of a movie I didn’t like was one of the best films of the festival, my eyebrows shot up in disbelief. He saw this and fixed me with an Ancient Mariner stare: “Oh no… you HAVE to see it.” And I am thankful that I listened to him.

Director and co-writer Jim Mickle’s previous work was the vampire road movie Stakeland, a film that played like straight version of Zombieland. Too bleak to be a mainstream hit, it’s a good horror film that should be in every genre fan’s collection. However, with We Are What We Are, Mickle steps up to a whole new level.

This film is like an object lesson in how to remake/reboot/re-imagine a respected horror movie:

First, take all the greatest strengths of the original and make that the skeleton to build your new interpretation around.

Here, Damici and Mickle take the original’s vivid rooting of the story in its locality (Mexican suburbia) and apply that specificity of focus to the new locale (rural trailer-park in New York State). Mickle also takes the strengths of the Arthouse approach: an unrushed pace, attention to character, and artful cinematography. He then weds that with taut storytelling.

 

Re-examine all the characters and if necessary invent completely new ones in order to properly create a fresh take on the original idea.

It’s a bold choice to completely change the central family dynamic from the original mother/son/daughter one to the remake’s father/daughters one, but it’s a choice that works, and gives the remake a very different feel and tone to the original.

 

Research the historical precedents and mythology behind the original idea and then use that to flesh out the background of the new movie.

Again, Damici and Mickle have really done their homework here. They’ve not just used cannibalism to create another family of grotesques like we seen in many horror films before. They’ve really thought about things like what it would do medically to a person if they lived on human flesh. They’ve also clearly researched instances of cannibalism in American History, and the infamous story of the Donner Party in particular.

 

Finally, cast the movie with great care.

Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn) and Kelly McGinnis (Top Gun) as might be expected, provide reliable support. It’s the likes of Bill Sage as the severe father, and Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner as the two daughters, that are the revelations here.

Not just a beautifully executed piece of genre cinema, but a beautiful film, period. If you only see one movie that screened at Frightfest 2013, that movie should be We Are What We Are.

This really is the end…

Many thanks to Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy, Greg Day and everyone behind-the-scenes who helped make Frightfest 2013 the huge success it was.

Thanks to the staff of the Empire Leicester Square for making us all so welcome.

Lastly, thanks to the family of Frightfest weekend passholders for making the festival what it is. A big ‘shout out’ to Simon, Jason, Arol, Stuart, Mike, Tim, Xav, Steven, Marco, Christine and Frightfest virgin Keith. See you all next year…

 

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Rob

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

4 thoughts on “Clive Does Frightfest”

  1. Really good piece that i enjoyed reading. I really like your easy going but informative review style.As always i lament the movies that didnt show and the mediocre stuff that was aired instead. I too love this festival in principal and the guys that put it on are as credible as they are knowledgeable and kind.Kudos for championing the short film , but in all frankness this is a groundswell within the genre that should naturally flow into any horror festival worth its salt .I can see that your top ten has tried to be indicative of the spirit of this great horror event but the fact 5 come from the discovery screen could be seen as poor festival programming and a shortchanging of the fans. The fact a cut showing of i spit 2 occurred is also not what hard – core horror fans pay their hard – earned for. I am not bitching from an ivory tower , i constantly view the genre landscape , in- fact obsessively so , and feel there was so much more that could have been shown. .Buzz – wize the only movie that broke from the festival in terms of a must see fervor from the festival after the dust has settled was “cheap thrills” and that is a little sad for such a massive institution.
    cheers , Brad.

  2. Thanks for the kind comments Bradley, glad you enjoyed reading the piece.

    Agreed, the Discovery screen set up isn’t ideal at the moment. Hopefully the changes that are happening with Empire screen 1 will mean that next year’s festival will shake things up so that the Main/Discovery screens split will work better.

    I didn’t see the cut I Spit.. 2, that’s not good. However, we did get the uncut version of Curse of Chucky, so the Frightfest guys are obviously still trying to source uncut versions where possible.

    I’m interested as to what you felt could have been programmed instead. Does your disappointment with this year’s festival mean you won’t be coming back next year?

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