It’s that time of year again: the biggest days on the UK horror calendar. Billed as ‘the dark heart of cinema’, the Film 4 sponsored Fright Fest is the country’s most prolific genre film festival. A brainchild of terror fanatics Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Alan Jones, the aim is simple: to share the finest in macabre entertainment from all around the world. Now in its 16th year, Fright Fest has hosted a range of big name premiers and special guest appearances, with attendees including Dario Argento, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro. And with each passing year the audience has grown, meaning what once occupied a single room has spawned a 5 day and 5 screen extravaganza, with over 70 movies for punters to choose from. In addition, the festival calendar also includes a weekend of screenings in Glasgow and other big name events throughout the year. This year the location’s Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, and I’m proudly representing Horror Cult Films, so stick with my features to hear about the highs, lows and mediocres of 2015’s fest. A bit of a festival veteran, I have attended the northern and southern legs twice each. As such, covering it for this website was the kind of no brainer that’d make Kevin Bacon smug. Bidding goodbye to my girlfriend for the next five days, I go for a pre-movie pint with past festival buddies. Shortly after we bump into other pass holders and immediately discuss what we’re most looking forward to seeing. This sense of immediate community and camaraderie is what allows the 5 day extravaganza to be simultaneously a film and unpretentious. But alas, half four so easily turns to six, and on that we rush round to the cinema for opening night where I’m promptly sat in the Horror Channel Screen awaiting the evening’s triple bill. They are as follows:
FILM 1: CHERRY TREE (2015)
Directed by David Keating
Taking on the considerable job of setting a tone for the long weekend to follow, Cherry Tree is a small Irish horror about the cycle of life. The setting is a small port town where the young Faith (Naomi Battrick) is distraught with news of her father’s lethal leukaemia. Fortunately she can seek solace in her new mother figure/ hockey coach Sissy (Anna Walton). However, as fate would have it her new friend is head of a witch coven and soon offers a solution to her sorrow. In a secret labyrinth beneath her house she explains to Faith that her father will be cured if she agrees to carry a child into this world. Faith in initially repelled by the idea, but in a handful of scenes agrees to it. This sees her partakes in an effectively nightmarish sex scene, on her 16th birthday, with a ‘til then platonic friend. There’s also more centipedes than a dozen Tom Six movies. The following morning he’s gone, her father’s cured and she’s already at the vomiting stage of her phenomenally quick pregnancy.
And really this plot point highlights the movie’s main problem – it all feels so darned rushed. Similar to previous pagan shocker Wake Wood (from the same creative team) it’s like the makers are forcing a 2 hour movie into a 90 minute one. As such the content’s too lean, with characters meeting all the plot beats but never feeling as if they are breathing people. They only say what they absolutely have to, adapting to every last three week disappearance or miracle baby as if it were just another of life’s banalities. If the characters don’t seem to care, viewers won’t either. There’s also no real dramatic arcs to Faith coming to terms with her condition or her father’s recover. Characters’ behavioural traits are also in a state of constant flux, meaning they find strength if and when it suits the plot. In particular Faith’s decision to do the initial deal with Sissy seems to happen without much build up. Similarly the sudden attachment to her child, which she has until then seemed ambivalent about, appears to come out of left field. Consequently there’s little emotional gravity to anything that happens and, come the credits, viewers will struggle to describe characters psychological makeup in anything beyond the broadest of terms. This is frustrating as there’s so much potential to a lot of it. The performances are very strong (particularly Walton, who chews as much scenery as she does cherries from the titular tree) and Keating has a decent eye for visuals. The makeup team also conjure up some brilliant Barkeresque imagery in the third act. Yet these accomplishments feels wasted on a script that seems to treat anything beyond the most essential dialogue as an inconvenience.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
FILM 2: TURBO KID (2015)
Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell
Along with my screen, of several hundred people, when the lights went up I wondered what the hell I’d just watched. An early contender for the fest’s strangest movie, this post-apocalyptic tale is set in 1997, where the BMX is the dominant mode of transport. The plot focuses on a young man simply listed as The Kid (Munro Chambers). When not scavenging for provisions, this loner’s obsessed with 80s memorabilia and a comicbook character called Turbo Rider. Enter the ever smiley but deeply unhinged Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) to turn his life around. Whilst he’s first reluctant to go from a lone ranger to part of a duo, they’re soon playing childish games together between discussing survival tips and building weapons; the gnome bat being a particular highlight. Unfortunately their bonding’s soon disrupted by local tyrant Zeus (a delightfully evil Michael Ironside) who, amidst the running of a Soylent-Greenesque operation based on water, stages her kidnapping. Luckily, in his escape, The Kid stumbles upon a real life Turbo Rider suit, complete with the powerful Turbo Glove accessory. Now armed, he sets off to fight Zeus and rescue his damsel in distress.
I’m going to leave the synopsis here, but suffice to say the result is an inspired, fast paced and frankly hilarious 80s throwback that’s Mad Max by way of The Goonies. Visually it’s arresting, with magnificent landscapes and practical effects which somehow manage to keep getting better as the running time races on. Make no mistake – despite the feel-good aesthetic this is a bloody affair. Albeit a largely slapstick one designed to get an audience clapping their hands rather than hiding behind them. Top marks to the synth heavy soundtrack too, that recalls Carpenter without feeling like a cheap imitation. In terms of acting the supporting cast are well fleshed out, but the most impressive turns from are our two youthful leads. Lebeoef shows great comic timing and excels in a role that could have all too easily gone the way of a manic pixie dream girl. Their easy chemistry also means the movie rises beyond a pastiche, also offering touching drama and pathos in unexpected places. Yeah there’s some misfires, including an overly typical backing story that’s out of tone with the rest of the film and a final battle that’s epic in content but not setting. But ultimately this is a hugely enjoyable hour and a half that’s bound to go down as a cult classic.
Verdict 5 out of 5
FILM 3: STUNG (2015)
Directed by Benni Diez
In a slot previously occupied by Zombeavers, this year’s Friday night creature feature sees a party at a stately home descend into killing grounds for an angry swarm of wasps. But these aren’t regular garden pests – no, coming in at a pants-shitting 7ft, these are yellow and black bastards you really won’t want to get stung by. With a tasteful mixture of practical and computer effects (that thankfully lean more towards prosthetics) this first time director’s key achievement is creating some truly ugly looking baddies. As they impale people on stingers, rip their heads off and tear apart small animals, it’s gloriously gory body horror that recalls many 80s classics such as Aliens, The Thing and The Fly.
Understandably trying to evade them are catering team Paul (Matt O’Leary) and Julia (Jessica Cook), who have a genuinely fairly charming romantic tension which brews throughout the movie. Lance Henrikson also offers the movie some gravitas by playing a careerist mayor that’s played equally somber and goofy. In a way his performance summarises the movie’s other great strength: that it doesn’t go for the cheesy ‘so bad it’s good’ angle that’s lead to a saturated market of wannabe b-movies. Instead it remains on the side of real people in an outrageous situation. The characters take the derpy plot and the outlandish threat seriously enough that there’s dramatic weight attached to their lives. Sadly there are moments when it leans too far in the other direction for the sake of plot convenience (for example, the mutations’ explanation), though these missteps are fairly few and far between. More glaring is how in contrast to the charming opening scenes, the leads’ sexual tension gets upped far too quickly come the several endings the movie features. Furthermore, like so many other monster movies I couldn’t help but feel it outstays its welcome by at least 10 minutes. With the nature of the threat not changing throughout, it’s difficult for it to retain its mostly solid pace or justify being feature length. Turns out once you’ve seen one gigantic wasp tear a guest apart from the inside then you’ve seen them all.
Verdict: 3 out of 5.
So there we are: 3 films down – only 22 to go.