My Big Fat Frightfest
Another year, another Frightfest! Being a 9-year veteran of the UK’s premiere genre film festival, you would think I’d be feeling a little fatigued by now. Being 9 years older does make the late nights and early mornings tougher, but it’s still very much worth my while. Although primarily a horror festival, Frightfest makes enough room for everything from comedy to fantasy, showcasing a staggering 72 films from around the world. This doesn’t include all of the short films, previews and other events hosted throughout its 5-day duration.
I was fortunate enough to see a total of 20 films this year and I’ve selected just a couple from each day of the festival to talk about.
For a full list of the World, European, and UK premieres screened visit www.frightfest.co.uk.
DAY 1: Thursday 23rd August
Summer of 84 – European Premiere
A young American teen living in middle class suburbia suspects his police officer neighbour of being the notorious Cape May Slayer and enlists his three best friends to help him gather evidence so they can expose Officer Mackey to the authorities. Mackey appears to be good natured about their evidence-gathering antics at first, but is his calm exterior just a facade for something altogether more malevolent?
If the premise of this movie sounds familiar, that’s because it is. With its plot and 80s retro setting, it’s easy to draw parallels with the likes of THE BURBS, DISTURBIA, GOONIES, STAND BY ME, STRANGER THINGS, and even REAR WINDOW, but there are elements that make SUMMER OF 84 unique and refreshing. I believe it’s largely due to the film being left in the capable hands of directing trio François Simard, Anouk Whissel and Yoann-Karl Whissel (TURBO KID). They handle the material with an assurance and understanding that delivers a solid period piece, instead of a cheap reference-laden cash-in of 80s nostalgia.
The young cast bolster the film with some great performances, and Rich Sommer (MAD MEN) provides the quiet central menace as Officer Wayne Mackey.
For all of its suspense and intrigue, not until its final 15 minutes does SUMMER truly show its hand. It is sure to take audiences off-guard and will annoy some, but herein lies the film’s defining moment — a stroke of dark genius that elevates it to something far more significant than a mere coming-of-age story, cementing life lessons that will haunt you long after its last reel. My pick of the festival.
SUMMER OF 84 is available to rent in the US and will be available to stream exclusively with Shudder in the UK this autumn.
DAY 2: Friday 24th August
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich – European Premiere
Trying to recover from a broken marriage, Edgar returns to his family home and discovers a strange puppet in his dead brother’s closet. Together with a childhood friend and his comic book store boss, he travels to a puppet auction during the 30th anniversary of the infamous Andre Toulon murders.
When Charles Band agreed to hand over the creative rights to the Puppet Master franchise, it was with the caveat that this new film and any other sequels would take place in a separate universe to the originals and the original franchise could still continue. For anyone reading this who has been a fan of Andre Toulon and his monstrous marionettes, this is an extremely important distinction.
This new iteration is most definitely a re-imagining in almost every respect. In the previous films, the fortunes of Andre Toulon and the developing characterization of the puppets were always the focal points. This time around, the backstory of Toulon has been completely re-written and the man himself appears in only a small cameo, played by Udo Kier.
The tone is very different, replacing the creepiness of the originals with something more schlocky and blood-splattered. Gone are the stop-motion set pieces — the puppets only being seen in brief flashes of violence.
The story plays out like a Jewish revenge fantasy, evoking the kind of sentiment found within INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and there are several references to the rise of right wing fascism; although you could argue that these topical observations feel out of place in a gorefest that features a lich-like puppet that has been crafted in the image of baby Hitler.
This is a movie that rejoices in its political incorrectness, and in doing so delivers some memorable, jaw-droppingly offensive kills. One particular murder of a pregnant woman will probably cause your amusement at the sheer audacity of it and your utter disgust to cancel themselves out, leaving you in a stunned silence at what you have just witnessed.
All in all, it’s an entertaining enough romp, but as many of the Festers said when they left the screening ‘That wasn’t Puppet Master.’
PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH is due for a UK release some time in 2019.
Incident in a Ghostland – UK Premiere
A mother and her two teenage daughters move into an old family home in the countryside. On their first night, they are attacked by two nightmarish intruders. Sixteen years after the incident when the family reunites at the house again, the fabric of their world begins to unravel.
It is difficult to talk about the narrative of this film without entering spoiler territory, and the less you know going in, the better. This is director Pascal Laugier’s (MARTYRS) second English language film. I have a complex relationship with MARTYRS, so much so, I haven’t been able to bring myself to re-watch it. As you can imagine, I went into this one with a great deal of trepidation.
As with MARTYRS, it doesn’t make for easy viewing, but there are rich rewards to be had here. The reason Laugier’s films are such hard going is not because of the violence and blood, which are plentiful, but the emotional pain underpinning those acts. Laugier’s remarkable talent of conveying pain in such a personal way is the magic movie dust that separates GHOSTLAND and MARTYRS from the post-millennial craze of torture porn fare served up to horror audiences.
If, like me, you are creatively inclined, the emotional and psychological journey endured by Elizabeth Keller may affect you in a profound way. Laugier observes in his central character that which he sees within himself — the contradictive duality of imaginative intelligence and its existential threat to human existence in its simultaneous ability to be both a blessing and a curse.
INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND is out now on DVD and Blu Ray.
DAY 3: Saturday 25th August
What Keeps You Alive – UK Premiere
When Jackie and Jules travel to the mountains for a romantic getaway, one woman is ready to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, the other has something very different in mind.
How well do you really know the person you’re in love with? The premise of WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE is no doubt retreading old ground, but it does so with a flair and confidence that pulls you along with it.
Brittany Allen (IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, JIGSAW) has always impressed me, but this is her most notable performance. She manages to capture a distinct sense of vulnerability and defiance that puts you right there with the protagonist’s every triumph and setback.
Alongside Allen, there’s a deliciously devilish turn from Hannah Emily Anderson (SHOOT THE MESSENGER, THE PURGE TV SERIES) who seems to revel in the calculated and darkly-comedic psychopathy of Jules’ ‘other-half’ Jackie.
There are twists and turns aplenty in the game of cat and mouse that ensues throughout the bulk of the film. However, it’s the emotional journey of Jules, as she comes to terms with the utter betrayal and desperation of her situation, that anchors the narrative and makes WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE greater than the sum of its parts.
Currently on limited release in the US. UK release to be confirmed.
The Devil's Doorway – UK Premiere
Two priests visit an Irish Catholic home for ‘fallen women’ on a mission from the Vatican to investigate a suspected miracle. During their investigations they uncover secretive sisters, untold abuse, and a force of tangible evil.
I’m one of many horror fans who has little time for ‘found footage’ movies. For the most part, I think the sub-genre lends itself to lazy and cheap attempts at creativity and falls into the now tired horror tropes of shaky, nausea-inducing camerawork, clumsy improv and the dreaded night-vision mode.
Despite my weariness, occasionally a found footage horror movie will come along to add a fresh perspective. The likes of LAKE MUNGO, THE CONSPIRACY and RATTER are the only ones that have impressed me thus far, but when they work, they can get beneath the skin in a very specific way. Add THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY to that list.
Helmed by debut director Aislinn Clarke, this claustrophobic tale draws on the heartbreakingly real experiences of thousands of Irish women during most of the 20th century at the hands of the Catholic Church. The ghosts of these poor women and their children have their fingerprints all over this film, adding to its creepy effectiveness. Clarke uses at least the appearance of a 16mm shoot. The reduced framerate helps to convince the audience that this was indeed lost footage from 1960, documenting the cruelty and misogyny that has blighted Ireland’s history to this day.
The performances are solid, particularly from veteran actor Lalor Roddy as the conflicted Father Thomas. When the demonic scares eventually arrive, they work well and escalate to a nerve-jangling and satisfyingly bleak conclusion.
For all of its supernatural elements, it is the moral guilt of a nation’s sordid religious past at the film’s center that really unnerves and disturbs.
THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY is due for release in the UK in 2018