CINEWORLD OF THE DAMNED: The Horror Channel Frightfest 2017

CINEWORLD OF THE DAMNED: The Horror Channel Frightfest 2017

Special thank you to Ian Rattray and also to event photographer Julie Edwards.

“All this fuss because I’ve got a beard…?”

You’re probably reading this because you’ve spent much of your life loving horror, a love that many have questioned, hoping for a banal soundbite explanation (“It’s like a rollercoaster ride…blah blah…”) and slightly suspicious of the way you covet movies with the word “dripped” and “massacre” in the title. You’ll also be well aware of the many pleasures horror cinema is capable of providing, none of which can be conveyed in a short, on-demand answer to a question as shallow as “Why do you like that stuff?”

(Helpful Cut Out ‘N’ Keep Side Note: one reliable response to those that patronise you with such queries is to ask “Well…why do you like shoes so much, you condescending, dull-as-fuck, oxygen-thieving, planet-clogging, materialistic, dung-eating waste of flesh?” But only ask it rhetorically before immediately bludgeoning them to death with a potato masher…or whatever is close at hand. Further note: you can also usefully substitute the word “shoes” for “football”.)

Of course, some of horror’s obvious pleasures come down to simple reassurance. After all, if ghosts roam our homes at night…that’s pretty unsettling, but at least it gives us hope that there’s life after death, right? If it turns out that our post-mortem fate will be to stumble around (or sprint, depending on your preference) as a brain-eating zombie, then might we have enough semblance of memory to rip the intestines out of that gobshite who made our school life miserable? Particularly relevant for the astonishingly bleak times in which we live – e.g. a slow news day means your Facebook feed doesn’t reference imminent Nuclear War – is the fact that horror allows us the undeniable vicarious thrill and pleasure of watching unpleasant things happen to someone else. Few things in entertainment are more pleasurable than the recent, outrageous morgue-based episode of ASH VS EVIL DEAD (cited on stage by Joe Lynch during the Frightfest weekend), but it’s doubtful anyone experiencing such grotesquery for real would see even a flicker of “the funny side”. Dribbling necrophiliacs aside, of course.

Horror also – obviously – reinforces the fragility of our short lives – a facet highlighted as we age and time seems to speed up.  This year’s Frightfest was as jam-packed with great escapist entertainment and laughter as ever, though it was also an oddly sobering reminder that we’re getting older, thanks to the nostalgic nature of many of the new movies shown and the recent deaths of genre icons. George Romero’s death in July was a genre loss of a magnitude captured by Adam Green as he introduced his new HATCHET movie on Saturday night. Long-term Frightfesters would have noted a contrast between the fast-talking, boyishly enthusiastic tyro filmmaker of the original HATCHET back in 2006 (when it double-billed on opening night with PAN’S LABYRINTH!) with the reflective grown-up on the Cineworld stage, expressing grief caused by both the death of life-long heroes and by personal events. The image he presented of himself and Romero at their last meeting was probably the most poignant single Frightfest moment in its 18 year history.

The following morning, fans woke up to the news that Tobe Hooper had died, himself a memorable (and charming) special guest at Frightfest 2010, where a characteristically laidback live interview followed a blistering double bill of EGGSHELLS and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Paul McEvoy, given the unenviable task of introducing Sunday’s first movie, was brief, visibly shaken and understandably sombre in reminding us of the fact that our heroes are “slipping away” and we should make the most of Frightfest, and of life itself…

It struck me, upon reflecting on past Frightfests and revisiting notes I made from the first event I attended (in 2002) that my favourite movies of that initial experience -then held at the charming Prince Charles Cinema, where your seat location reflected your chances of being able to read the subtitles on foreign movies – featured stand-out performances by three actors who have, in the interim, died far too young. Robin Williams gave his career-best portrayal of a loner in ONE HOUR PHOTO, Bill Paxton directed and starred in FRAILTY, still one of the greatest horror features of our century, and Patrick Swayze was a stand-out in the DONNIE DARKO ensemble. It’s also worth noting that this first foray into the world of Frightfest also involved relieving myself at a urinal adjacent to future Kubrick heir Christopher Nolan, in attendance for his intense remake of INSOMNIA. It’s unlikely that Mr Nolan, who presumably now has an assistant to urinate for him, remembers this magic moment – though as claims to fame go, it’s a far greater honour than (for example) opening one’s bowels in a cubicle while Danny Dyer waits impatiently in the queue snaking its way out the door.

Life is short and fragile, our heroes are no more immortal than us, and we must be grateful for events that remind us we’re not alone in the passions that many struggle to comprehend. Without further ado, let’s celebrate the 18th instalment of what has become the UK’s premier horror film festival, a labour of love overseen, as ever, by organisers Alan Jones, Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy and Greg Day…

“You look exactly like Jennifer Tilly!”

Frightfest had outgrown the Prince Charles by 2005, and has spent the last 12 years oscillating between the larger commercial venues around Leicester Square: the Odeon (cue disturbing legroom flashbacks!), the Vue and the Empire with its jaw-dropping main screen and overwhelming sound system. After a one-off foray into Shepherd’s Bush last year – where walking back to the hotel via the Green at night was a typical fest-goer’s most harrowing experience – Frightfest took a much welcomed step back in time by pitching up at the new incarnation of the Empire, Cineworld, using the 750-seater IMAX screen as base camp for all the weekend pass holders. The not-inconsiderable 400-seater “Impact” screen paid host to day pass holders while 500 further seats within the “Discovery” screens were available for many more movies, documentaries, short films and events. In a nice touch, movies that couldn’t be shoe-horned into the hijacked Cineworld screens were screened at the Prince Charles. The main screens, named after major sponsors (Horror Channel Screen and Arrow Video Screen) were host to 25 feature films over the five days, while a further 22 films screened in the “Cineworld Discovery” and 26 in the “Splice Media” Screens. All this, plus the “Short Film Showcase”, and all quelled from just under 500 submissions of feature and short films.
As always, many of the movies screened were hosted by key personnel involved in their making, several of whom stayed around for much of the festival to enjoy socialising and movie-watching…. just like regular people. Regular Frightfest visitors will note the array of familiar, genre-famous faces joining us peasants: it wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t spot the likes of Kim Newman, Jake West, Allan Bryce, Andy Nyman – amongst others – haunting the bar and the screens in equal measure.
Given this is the festival that once opened with the mind-blowing opening night double bill of OLDBOY and SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE (so good that it made the final film of the night, Tobe Hooper’s perfectly decent TOOLBOX MURDERS seem relatively meek), there is always substantial anticipation surrounding Frightfest’s first night. This year, the presence of new movies by Adam Green and Joe Lynch was reflected by the latest of their vastly popular “Douche Brothers” sketches, made especially for Frightfest since 2009 and all based around the template of the marvellous “Do you wanna see something really scary?” prologue of TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks. Although a tad overlong en-route to its punchline, this year’s offering was as self-deprecating and funny as ever, with amusing mockery made of Green and Lynch’s own movies and affectionate ribbing of the Frightfest team.

Kane Hodder, attending for both VICTOR CROWLEY and his much-praised career documentary TO HELL AND BACK – plus an on-stage conversation on the Sunday night – and Barbara Crampton (returning from last year and as radiant as ever) introduced Paul, Alan, Greg and Ian before the CULT OF CHUCKY bandwagon hit the stage. A touchingly sincere Don Mancini – returning to the Frightfest stage after hosting CURSE OF CHUCKY a few years ago – joined Kyra Elise Gardner (offspring of FX maestro Tony) to introduce her unashamedly sentimental on-set short documentary “The Dollhouse” featuring some notable footage of Brad Dourif and his daughter Fiona. Fiona was perfectly charming chatting to fans after the movie, though the evening was, inevitably, dominated by a characteristically manic and hilarious Jennifer Tilly, who confessed she read the whole script of CULT – for a change – and proceeded to punctuate the Q and A with uproarious reflections on her great bathtub acting, movie nudity (“male ass is very artistic…female ass is ‘gratuitous’”) and her biggest fear (being filmed in natural light). So, we can confirm : some Americans do “get” irony.
Don Mancini, who has written every Chucky movie and directed all of them since SEED OF CHUCKY, became the first of a few guests over the weekend to reference the never-greater need for fictional horror given the horrifying real world of 2017. Indeed, over the Frightfest weekend, the North Korea Nuclear nightmare became ever more alarming, ensuring that anything depicted on screen could only pale in comparison to our generation’s Cuban Missile Crisis.

Opening night also provided an interesting insight into the shifting world of movie distribution and release. Adam Wingard’s highly commercial, ambitious DEATH NOTE remake – featuring a scene-stealing Willem Dafoe as a cackling, apple-munching demon – would have been a shoe-in for cross-over theatrical success at one stage, but played Thursday evening one day ahead of its worldwide Netflix premiere. CULT OF CHUCKY, meanwhile, was the latest sequel in a franchise that once provided United Artists and Universal Pictures with healthy number one hit box office movies, but now receive their premieres at events like Frightfest before meeting their destiny straight to DVD / Blu-Ray / On-Demand. For most of us, the festival provided the only opportunity to see the bulk of the movies on a cinema screen.

Riffing on the institution-backdrop of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III: DREAM WARRIORS, CULT OF CHUCKY is a stylishly shot and directed successor to the unexpectedly excellent CURSE, both films designed to backtrack from the much campier BRIDE OF CHUCKY and SEED OF CHUCKY and make Chucky into a palpable threat again. The grown-up Alex Vincent returns as Andy Barclay, the suitably messed-up juvenile hero of the first three CHILD’S PLAY movies, while the plot has fun with its is-she-or-isn’t-she mystery as surviving CURSE heroine Fiona Dourif’s sanity comes into constant question. An OMEN-style creative beheading and a couple of the most gruesomely cruel moments in any Chucky movie are the horror highlights, though the final half hour relishes the chance to be playful with Chucky’s new-found ability to inhabit multiple bodies, a manic punchline involving Tiffany, and a moment in which Chucky laments the cancellation of HANNIBAL, a show on which Mancini worked.

In addition to closing with Mickey Keating’s bold, savagely violent – if oddly uninvolving – PSYCHOPATHS, opening night was also highlighted by the latest of James Moran’s wonderful “Turn Your Bloody Phone (Yep, even at a dedicated event like Frightfest, the attention span of certain audience members is still so tiny that they feel a need to check obsessively how many “Likes” their crappily photographed image of a pre-festival roast dinner has accumulated on Facebook. Alas, these people, alongside cockroaches, are odds-on favourites to survive any Nuclear War).
This one capitalised on the summer’s monumental return of TWIN PEAKS with a skit entitled “Pink Teats”, complete with a wrapped-in-plastic corpse, an intrusive ringtone and, perhaps inevitably, Ian Rattray as an irate, backward-talking variant of the Log Lady. Almost as endearing was the Cineworld staff member (part of a pleasingly friendly bunch over the weekend) who, as we departed into the moonlight, advised us not to forget LEATHERFACE was showing the next night, adding / warning “He’ll be stitching…with his sewing machine…It’s what he does best!” Maybe the grown-up world wasn’t so grim after all with enthusiastic flag-wavers for the cause like this consistently chirpy gentleman. (He actually turned out to be more fun to behold than LEATHERFACE the movie, a brutal but fairly redundant attempt to yet again explore the background of the eponymous psychopath).

The (Fan)boys Are Back In Town

Todd Tucker, attending for the world premiere of his TERROR OF HALLOW’S EVE on the closing night, was touchingly enthusiastic about being able to present his feature length ode to the horror movies with which he grew up to such a large crowd. Referring to the first half hour of the movie as entirely autobiographical, his love of old-school monsters, HALLOWEEN and PHANTASM in particular, shone through a 1981-set take on the familiar modern American horror trope of a bullied, ostracised teenager achieving retribution via the supernatural. In this case, via Doug Jones’ impressive wide-eyed antagonist, fulfilling the fates of the hero’s persecutors via malevolent marionettes. Typical of a horror movie made by a fan-boy, the slight but likeable movie offers cameos for familiar faces (Eric Roberts, Juliet Landau) and a retro soundtrack incorporating a couple of John Carpenter’s recent compositions. The age of many of the filmmakers and the current fad for 80’s-set or influenced sci-fi and horror mainstream movies / TV shows (notably, STRANGER THINGS and IT) was reflected throughout the weekend. DEATHNOTE, PSYCHOPATHS, SEQUENCE BREAK, DEAD SHACK, ATTACK OF THE ADULT BABIES, RADIUS and LOWLIFE were just some of the movies with nostalgic electronic scores.

Kevin Greutert’s JACKALS – an intense single-night siege movie about an animal-masked cult murderously trying to retrieve one of their number from his deprogramming family – was also set in the 80’s, rekindling that decade’s “Satanic Panic” madness, though felt much more like a post-STRANGERS 21st century mean-spirited home invasion horror movie than anything else. Graham Skipper’s directorial debut, SEQUENCE BREAK features a likeable hero whose day job – restoring old arcade games – leads him into a technophobic Cronenberg-influenced nightmare with plenty of overstated ejaculate imagery and old-school gloopy, fleshy FX. The nods to floppy discs, Tamagotchis and games with names like “Lunarium” and “Jungle Gator” were enjoyable despite the overriding sense of a short-story idea stretched out to feature length. DEAD SHACK offered all the tooling-up montages, EVIL DEAD quotes (“Yo, shebitch!”), pop culture references (“Dungeons and Dildos”) and exploding heads you could want from a homage to 80’s zombie horror comedies, though was probably forgotten by most by the following morning.

Dominic Brunt nostalgically acknowledged the influence of EC Comics and monster-in-the-cellar genre stories on ATTACK OF THE ADULT BABIES, plus growing up as a Northerner listening to Radio 1 enthuse about a glorious day in London while his own domestic weather was “fucking miserable”. The two most prominent fanboys in attendance were, however, Adam Green and Joe Lynch. Green’s personal traumas and losses have been documented in detail on his regular MOVIE CRYPT podcast (an episode of which the duo recorded at the festival) and it was hard to be unaffected by his heartfelt info to VICTOR CROWLEY, reflecting on his breakdown and George Romero’s encouragement in getting him back into the business of giving the fans what they want.
VICTOR CROWLEY, produced secretly over the last two years and originally announced as merely a 10 year anniversary screening of HATCHET in the Frightfest programme to maintain the ruse, offered a crowd-pleasing return to the swamp from its gruesome opening. Sharper than both previous HATCHET movies, it largely plays the mayhem for laughs and, despite a couple of over-stated, over-long gags (including one featuring Green and Lynch in goofy cameos), delivers both bravura set piece deaths and schoolboy humour (notably at a book signing). Indeed, the finest fatality of the weekend was undoubtedly the sight of Felissa Rose – as the returning Parry Shen’s agent, getting fisted with her own hacked-off arm.

The movie earned Green a standing ovation (a real rarity at Frightfest!), and the deliberately OTT practical gore FX won deserving cheers throughout. In the post-movie Q & A, Green offered an endearing anecdote about Wes Craven’s SHOCKER while noting two scenes the distributor is genuinely unhappy about and which may not survive the movie’s mainstream release. Predictably, the scenes are the best in the movie: a fan offering his dick to sign at the book launch and Felissa’s fisting.

Meanwhile, Green’s less self-absorbed / heart-on-sleeve chum Joe Lynch energised Sunday night with a fabulously passionate account of how MAYHEM got made, the securing of WALKING DEAD star Steven Yuen in a white-dominated Hollywood, and the need for all of us to have a true creative outlet, referring to the movie’s revolutionary call to arms to office workers everywhere. The always-engaging Lynch also offered a moving tribute to Tobe Hooper, referred to as “The Dude”, the horror genre’s very own Lebowski.

Arguably his best movie to date, MAYHEM is an anarchic companion piece to Greg McLean’s THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, in which the “Red Eye” virus causes a law firm to erupt into chaos as the employees begin acting on impulse without inhibition, just as Yuen’s legal analyst has been stitched up and fired by the company’s corrupt chief. Frenetically paced and edited, it is rife with witty one-liners (“Don’t nail-gun the messenger”), cynically accurate portraits of typical corporate hierarchy (love the tea-drinking HR guy) and a keynote moment in which heroine Samara Weaving laughs hysterically at one of her superiors being horribly murdered. An exorcism of Lynch’s own experiences of 9-5 Hell (he portrays the basement-dwelling IT guy in the movie), it’s a movie for anyone who ever dreamed of bludgeoning his / her CEO to death. In other words, everyone. “I didn’t have a job, the job had me.”

“Are you local?” : Homegrown Horrors

The British genre scene is still reasonably healthy, with the Splice and Discovery screens hosting a diverse range of premieres, from the comical FANGED UP and EAT LOCALS to the more serious likes of ACCOUNTABLE, while the return of the festival’s “First Blood” strand to showcase new talent featured MOUNTAIN FEVER, BOOTS ON THE GROUND, WHERE THE SKIN LIES and CANARIES. A chance to bask in nostalgic pleasure from past glories was available in the form of the remastered Hammer double bill of DEMONS OF THE MIND and BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (both long underrated and arguably worthy of being referenced in the same breath as Hammer’s acknowledged classics) and the less majestic one-time Palace Video release DREAM DEMON, which has aged about as well as co-star Jimmy Nail’s music career.
On the main screen, it was great to see all three of the showcased British premieres receiving big, largely positive reactions from the huge audience – and, whatever you thought of them, the three movies were inarguably great audience pictures. A case in point was Dominic Brunt’s ATTACK OF THE ADULT BABIES, which was despised by some but a source of sustained hilarity for a a substantial part of the viewership. Brunt – asked by Jake West how many big nappies he got through – is a deservedly beloved Frightfest guest, a warm hug of a man with an obvious enthusiasm and affection for the genre; he’s also a genuine talent, as amply demonstrated by his first two movies, the sombre Yorkshire zombie movie BEFORE DAWN and dynamic, cringingly violent loan-shark thriller BAIT.

BABIES is rife with genre quotes (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara…”), references to old sitcoms (“Language, Timothy!”) and mannered performances. Among the latter is Brunt’s real-life squeeze Joanne Mitchell as second in command at a secret institution in a remote country manor for some of the most respected men on the planet to shed their inhibitions and act out their deviant fantasies of shitting in diapers and being fed and burped by specially selected hot nurses. Ambitiously incorporating everything from a stop-motion interlude (by regular Brunt collaborator Lee Hardcastle) to a brain trip sequence by Alex Chandon, the movie falls somewhere between a Troma movie and the cycle of godawful Brit horror comedies of the 1990’s. Its unsubtle commentary on 2017 Britain results in clunky, sledgehammer lines like “I’m gonna cut you worse than a state pension!” and “I’m gonna break you like an inner city social worker!” At times, it appears to ape the discomforting gallows humour of TV’s LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, but it is mostly a self-conscious wallow in (admittedly impressive) practical gore and toilet humour that culminates in “The God of Excrement”. Brunt deserves credit for making three bold, very different movies in a short period of time, and this one certainly prompted a healthy mass debate amongst fans.

Benjamin Barfoot’s DOUBLE DATE – written by star Danny Morgan – was a more straight-forward affair and yielded several bonafide laughs. Ginger virgin Morgan, almost 30 and freshly dumped by text, is lured in by a pair of suspiciously eager twins who have groomed him from a virgin dating site and seem intent on using him for a ritual sacrifice. In addition to his amusing performance as the central loser, Morgan wittily punctures lame, laddish bravado and pretentious alternative rock bands (“Have you ever heard an owl cry?”), while finding clever use for Yazoo’s “Only You”. The horror aspects are weaker than the comedy – the climax offers a variant on TEXAS CHAIN SAW’s Granpa skit but fails to achieve a modicum of its intensity – and the comedy is on the level of a superior sitcom (particularly during a sequence involving Morgan’s Christian family), but it’s very likeable and has commercial promise.

Director Barfoot expressed, in the Q and A, the desire to make a horror comedy that wasn’t one of the shit ones following in the wake of SHAUN OF THE DEAD : while this escapes the tonal misfire of something like LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS, it’s still not nearly as smart and consistent as the more underrated likes of DOGHOUSE. Danny Morgan was a likeable presence at the festival, hijacking the on-stage chatter with amusing tales of the film’s inspiration in his own dating anxiety and misery, and a great anecdote about the movie’s connection to Harry Potter, notably Morgan’s short film “Where Did It Go Wrong”, about a depressed Ron Weaselly blowing his own head off. Tellingly, the filmmakers cited that about half an hour of darker stuff was removed from the finished version – had they truly studied the greatest of modern horror comedies, they would have realised that most are not afraid to take things to edgier, more uncomfortable climes, including, of course, SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

Dominic Bridges’ FREEHOLD was warmly received by the festival audience and proved to be, not only the best of British over the weekend, but a prominent highlight of the entire line-up. Inspired both by Bridges’ awful house-buying experiences and by a real-life Hong Kong case, it’s an equally hilarious and distressing London horror movie for the 21st century, with a terrific performance by Mim Shaikh as a cocky estate agent too self-absorbed to notice that his man cave is secretly shared by a painfully skinny immigrant (REC’s Javier Botet) who eats his food, wears his underpants, shares his teabags and, gradually, fucks with his mind. A contemporary variant of the old Gary Busey thriller HIDER IN THE HOUSE, this refuses to follow a generic suspense path, instead cleverly switching our empathy by making Botet the most sympathetic character and finding perceptive observational humour in the downfall of Hussein’s relationship. Botet’s extraordinary, uniquely graceful performance is among the year’s most memorable, though every character is wittily defined and the film is by turns hilarious and intense as it offers a sobering commentary of our “Me” culture. The climactic revelation is powerful, and FREEHOLD bows out with an unexpected, truly haunting, straight-to-camera monologue from Shaikh.

Frightfest has often been host to nervous filmmakers pacing up and down in anticipation as to how the movie to which they have devoted so much energy and time will play out to a notoriously difficult fan-based audience (Johannes Roberts, present a few years ago for the excellent F, is one example that springs to mind). In this case, Dominic Bridges expressed genuine surprise at how well FREEHOLD was received, referencing a screening at SXSW where he considered a 60-40 reaction was due to it being full of British humour. He needn’t have worried- it’s terrific, and also a rare celebration of the pigeon community.

(Very) Bloody Immigrants : Foreign Frights

Frightfest has always launched a broad range of international offerings, and each annual line-up is reflective of worldwide trends, from the early festivals that seemed to bring at least two or three (often phone-based) post RING J-horrors every year to the rise of the new-wave French splatter movie and the Del Toro-led renaissance in Spanish horror. This year, six well received movies came from Canada, for no real apparent reason other than a need to exorcise the country’s abject terror of being a neighbour to the new dawn of Fascism in America.

While the Splice Media Screen’s showcased Clay Staub’s DEVIL’S GAYE and Kurtis David Harder’s INCONTROL, the main screen saw a mostly enthusiastic response to RADIUS, a twisting and portentous chiller heavily inspired by Stephen King and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. When the hero wakes up from a car accident to find a desolate landscape and birds dropping out of the sky, the radio broadcasts he tunes into showcase the terrorism paranoia embedded in our society – and shared by movies throughout the weekend, including DEATH NOTE, THE BAR, ALONE and THE END. The movie’s chief gimmick is the mysterious death-bringing powers he possesses in the wake of this apparent apocalypse: anyone who gets in close proximity to him drops dead. The fascinating concept results in effectively suspenseful scenes and a sustained ambience of hopelessness, and the climactic revelation is suitably grim; a shame that so much of the movie feels like we’re retreading highly familiar territory and that the leads are so undynamic.

DEAD SHACK, highlighted by the horror genre’s most enjoyable “Dad” character of the year, was also so indebted to other movies (mostly from the 1980’s) that it forgot to craft an identity of its own, though the zesty GAME OF DEATH – a sage choice for the Saturday midnight slot – offered a spry and heartlessly gruesome series of unpleasant deaths, as a group of comically callous millennials become engaged with an old electronic board game that results in the need to kill 24 people to save themselves. Punctuated by marvellous dialogue – “He’s a fuckin’ sketchy paedophile!” – and oddly endearing interludes involving a singing forest ranger, this offered the best old-school splatter FX of the weekend, alongside an engagingly mean-spirited approach to its BATTLE ROYALE-ish subject matter.

The Canadian highlight of the weekend was Monday’s STILL/BORN, a highly commercial yet carefully crafted chiller written by Colin Minihan, who with his brother (formerly named as The Vicious Brothers) co-wrote and directed the disarmingly wonderful IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, a popular choice on the Splice screen. The main screen’s single foray into supernatural horror, it has a superb central performance from Christie Burke as a mother who is either suffering from delusions instigated by post-natal-depression (and the trauma from one still-born twin) or being menaced by a baby-stealing demon of some kind. Despite the presence of familiar 21st century horror tropes – including the use of CCTV cameras – it delivers an equal share of disquieting incidental details and full-blown scares, without copping out at the end. And, following his role in the brothers’ EXTRATERRESTRIAL, it offered a supporting role for the always welcome Michael Ironside.
Other countries unleashed their own apocalyptic visions to sit alongside RADIUS – and, with the current global political stage, presumably they will be joined by many others in the coming months. From France came David Moreau’s ALONE, an adaptation of Bruno Gazzotti’s comic book, with an evocative score by MANIAC’s Rob. A European addition to the cycle of post-hUNGER GAMES dystopian teen sci-fi movies, it has over-familiar visuals (notably the 15 year old heroine’s exploration of an eerily deserted metropolis) and at least one groan-worthy final-act twist – not to mention annoyingly referential dialogue (“a virus like the WALKING DEAD”), but benefitted from likeable protagonists and some impressive visuals involving the vast toxic clouds surrounding the city.

Many felt that ALONE was a tad misplaced at the festival, though many also (rightly) singled out Spain’s terrific THE BAR, a real return to form for director Alex de la Iglesia, as a major highlight of the 5 days. A brilliantly sustained single-location, eight-character piece that, like RADIUS, owes a debt to the best of Rod Serling’s TV work, it is by turns intense and hilarious, offering a microcosm of societal breakdown in the face of unconfirmed apocalypse, and playing out like an extension of the outstanding diner sequence in THE BIRDS. An eclectic group of people become trapped in the bar of the title when two patrons are gunned down on the street outside. Amidst endless speculation about what might be happening outside, alongside the obligatory drip feed of television’s “fake news”, they find themselves in an escalating scenario of distrust and survival instinct informed by their own existing prejudices and hang-ups. The oscillating tone is best summed up by the simultaneously funny / sweat-inducingly suspenseful sequence in which the Bible-quoting, would-be homeless prophet Israel – soaked in vegetable oil – finds himself stuck as he tries to squeeze through a sewer hatch in a bid for what may or may not be survival.

A relatively rare contribution from the once-thriving Italian horror scene came with the Manetti Brothers’ THE END?, which, like THE BAR, effectively traps its protagonist in a confined scenario while the outside world appears to be going to Hell and the recurring speculation defaults to terrorism. Trapped between floors en-route to an important appointment, the womanising businessman contacts friends and loved ones by phone while frenzied, ravenous zombies are as unable to access him as he is unable to flee his predicament. YouTube footage of external attacks and conversations via the elevator Intercom offer a glimpse of the bigger picture, and the movie traps the audience, like its hero, in the claustrophobic scenario for most of the picture. An overlong zombie apocalypse variant on DEVIL, THE END? nonetheless makes the most of its restricted setting and sustains a tension that’s slightly undone by, again, the heavy sense of deja-vu from – for example – its effective set of a desolate, decimated Rome.

Various Frightfests have showcased the visceral cinema emanating rom South Korea and this year was no exception, with Sunday night playing host to Byung-gil Jung’s THE VILLAINESS, its visceral, hyperkinetic tone set by a stunning, extended, first-person-shooter action set piece, prefiguring a series of ultra-violent chases and confrontations on buses and motorcycles. Galvanised by a stand-out performance by Ok-bin Kim as the trained assassin of the title, it had real heart and soul in between the breath-taking brutality, though, like many of its forebears (with which it shared several narrative and cinematic tropes), pulled no punches with certain plot turns.

A Communal Experience

The greatest thing about Frightfest, of course, is the all too rare cinematic experience of watching a movie (or, if you saw every single main screen film, 25 movies) with a packed house of people who most likely love the genre as much as you do and are more likely to display that enthusiasm (and respect) than your typical Friday night audience half-watching the new horror release at the Odeon while intermittently checking their phone to gauge the response to a pube-shaving video they uploaded earlier.  This shared experience can transform movies that otherwise would risk being mere beer and cake fodder into something wonderful. Mitch Davies’ MONSTER MAN, for example, is a fun and deliciously gory flick but not a thigh-slapping laugh riot when you watch it alone in your underpants….at a midnight screening at Frightfest a few years ago, however, it was transformed into an unforgettable experience, with regular applause, audience participation and an endearing female patron behind me who thought EVERYTHING (including the pre-film trailer for SEED OF CHUCKY) was almost unbearably hilarious. There aren’t very many drugs out there that would result in such an untarnished pleasurable experience – though, of course, there are certain drugs that would have enhanced it still further*.
(*Drugs are bad.)

An unexpected crowd-pleasing gem of the fest this year was Trent Haaga’s 68 KILL, cited by the director as a riff on AFTER HOURS (amongst other things) and dominated by three fabulously ballsy, twisted central female characters who spend the entire movie running rings around the snivelling, easily manipulated, “pussy whipped” hero (Matthew Gray Gubler). This movie joined several others throughout the weekend to showcase marvellous roles for women – also including the delicious, blackly comic crime anthology LOWLIFE, the aforementioned DOUBLE DATE, THE VILLAINESS, PSYCHOPATHS, KILLING GROUND and STILL/BORN. The poster for 68 KILL, among the best of a not particularly inspiring bunch of artwork for the weekend’s films, summed up the central scenario, with its image of the triumvirate of dominant femmes towering over the relatively tiny hero beneath, in demeaning drag – as he is for much of the second half of the movie. Dominated by acidic dialogue and jarring ultra-violence (notably its insane trailer-trash climax), 68 KILL affords EXCISION’s versatile AnnaLynne McCord another scene-stealing character and boldly delves into Coen Brothers territory with a heap of fresh twists and shocks of its own.
KILLING GROUND – an Australian riff on DELIVERANCE told in a non-linear fashion and cannily keeping its grimmer violence off-camera – earned the biggest communal audience gasp of the weekend thanks to a callous moment involving a juvenile character. And the enthusiastically received closing movie, TRAGEDY GIRLS, was a deliciously mean-spirited slasher movie subversion for the Instagram generation, even if all of its ideas were borrowed from sharper earlier movies, including a blackly ironic ending aping THE KING OF COMEDY. Still, its feature length mockery of millennials was often laugh out loud funny, and its Prom Night climax delivered a surprisingly sour final gut-punch.

As always, everyone will have their favourites and the usual i-can’t-believe-they-showed-that-on-the-main-screen debates will rage for a while, all of them overlooking the fact that “Pleasing All of the People All of the Time” was proven to be a myth long before humankind (d)evolved into the cruel and selfish species we know today. However, one movie that seemed to please pretty much everyone was BETTER WATCH OUT, an inspired home invasion scenario that spirals into a genuinely disturbing and uncomfortably funny study of adolescent violence. Punctuated by caustic dialogue (“are you sure you’ve never sucked another man’s cock?!”) and possessing a twisted sensibility that proved a surprise element of a Universal pick-up, this movie was a joy to watch with an approving crowd on Frightfest’s closing day. Although it was followed by two movies with significant merits of their own, it would have made a marvellous festival closer.

Re-adjusting to “normal life” after Frightfest 2017 was as jarring as always. Watching movies at home alone or in an anonymous multiplex where no one ever cheers when a baby gets mowed down by a steamroller. Returning to work to face the predictable comments: “I don’t know how you can watch all those movies…” Having the luxury of time to make your own full and nutritious meal but secretly wishing you were back in the whirlwind of a 10 minute break and faced with the choice of queuing either for a wee or an underwhelming £4 sausage roll. Catching the news and realising that world leaders are still arrogantly waving their cocks – and world destroying weapons – at each other. But the memories remain. The secure knowledge that our beloved genre is alive and well. Future purchasing prospects and burgeoning talents to watch out for. And, of course, that enduring, exciting voice in the back of your head that still tells you to have a discreet gawp at the person standing at the next urinal…it just might be Christopher Nolan.

Article written by Steven West.

Event photos courtesy of Julie Edwards Photography (

Photo of Attack Of The Adult Babies director Dominic Brunt with Steven West courtesy of Steven West.

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