So I love Fright Fest – I mean really love it. I’ve been five times, and intend to keep going ’til long after I seem too old for it. The movies, the atmosphere and the fans on the whole make it both the biggest part of my horror calendar, and the least pretentious film festival going. As such, the opportunity to represent Horror Cult Films again was what Kevin Bacon would smugly call a ‘no brainer’. Now in its 17th Year, The Horror Channel sponsored event is the UK’s biggest horror/ sci-fi/ thriller celebration going, having jumped from a single room at The Prince Charles to dominating Vue in Shepard’s Bush. Taking place over bank holiday weekend, each year gives fans five days of the most exciting genre entries, including tens of world/ European and UK premieres, some restored classics and appearances from special guests (previous visitors have included Sam Raimi, Neil Marshall and Dario Argento). With a fantastic looking line-up, 2016 promises to be no exception. As such there’s much excitement in my step as I leave the office, where the staff are curious about why I’d put myself through this, and tube along. Outside the cinema I see some of the usual friendly faces, and within moments we’re talking about what looks good/ bad or fairly average. Just enough time for a quick drink before the lights dim. Join me as I run from screen to screen on a diet of Red Bull and Pret a Manger to see stuff such as:
FILM 1: MY FATHER DIE
Directed by Sean Brosnan
Having their film showing first must be a daunting experience for any director since it sets the standard and becomes the first point of reference to whether or not something’s good (i.e. ‘well it was better/ worse than…’). Though it sets a fittingly gruesome tone, this family revenge-thriller can’t quite rise to the occasion. The story focuses on Asher (Joe Anderson), a trauma-induced mute who has spent the best part of two decades readying himself to avenge his dead brother, following the murderer’s release from prison. But if this weren’t dramatic enough, the guy that killed him was their father Ivan (Gary Stretch)! From this simple premise there comes an aesthetically complex, and surprisingly soulful, piece of southern gothic. Yep, this is the deepest part of the south where ‘gaters get gutted, confederate flags fly proud and faith healers (with dirty secrets) raise the roof with prayers for repentance. From the black and white opener to the epic finale it’s all brought to life by excellent visuals, grimy gore and a powerful dirty-twang soundtrack.
Yet despite this technical accomplishment, and high quality performances all round, it’s ultimately an unengaging waste of a classic premise. The notion that all sons grow up to be junior dad is likely buried in the many melancholic monologues – yet big bad pa Ivan is never portrayed as anything but a ‘primitive motherfucker’. There’s no attempt for him to go straight, or even to form a meaningful bond with his family (so much for the good behaviour that cut his sentence early). Instead, the one note brute’s role is immediately established with him killing a cop on his first night back. Frustratingly the father and son bond is also never characterised beyond violence or the threat of it, so there’s very little moral ambiguity behind what should be a weighty decision. As such, Asher may as well be trying to take revenge on anybody for all the emotional gravity it gives the piece. Similarly it’s hard to align the eloquent, introspective soliloquies about the nature of brutality with the, admittedly well put together, gratuitous action filling the third act. When there’s chases happening or bullets flying it’ll keep you thrilled, but it fails to make you think or feel much. So overall stylish, sometimes bordering on brilliant. But far too shallow and, despite its presentation, of little consequence. In short Brosnan’s eyes beats his hands and ears.
FILM 2: CELL
Directed by Tod Williams
Based on an unremarkable Stephen King book, this movie’s spent years in development hell going from Eli Roth (Hostel) to Tod Williams (Paranormal Activity 2). The plot sees a pulse transmitted, via all mobile phones the world over, that turns all callers into mindless ‘phoners’ (aka, zombies). Enter cartoonist Clay Riddell (John Cucsack) to hunt down his estranged wife and kid, following a frantic escape from the airport, and we have our hero. From this early trump card comes an increasingly dull road movie as he goes to find them. Along the way he meets airport shuttle driver Tom (Samuel L Jackson), Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) from upstairs, and a host of other colourful characters. All of whom are immediately crackshots for no reason.
As per the novel it starts well, with a fast-paced orgy of chaos. It’s genuinely exciting to see people simultaneously have seizures, claw and bite. But the fold school is soon bogged down by needless twists and suspense-free set pieces that the budget can’t do justice. Yeah it’s a relevant metaphor, particularly with sets of youths glued to their screens when walking, with Pokemon Go on. But it never gets extended upon beyond the basic cause level. Instead the phoners keep changing – developing telepathy, transmitting music and luring our band of survivors via dreams. In the second act, a character states it’s too early for them to know the’ “rules”. Damn right, as they never get stated or made clear. This means there’s minimal threat-escalation and instead what little we get is vague. Sometimes a zombie movie should just be a zombie movie. This vagueness runs right through the workman-like script that struggles to condense a 500+ page book into a 90 minute film. It comes across as too episodic, with new people dropping in only to be dispatched ten minutes later to nothing more than a shrug. The quieter moments work, in particular one in a bar that does almost all the emotional groundwork. But these are few and far between. It’s a pity, as the cast have enough chemistry to make you want to watch, and thus be disappointed by, more. Jackson and Cusack are reliable as ever, giving their characters depths that exceed the scripts and enough self parody for humour (something helped by a gleefully ironic soundtrack). Though Fuhrman is the stand out, injecting Alice with a tonne of personality beyond her “death-stare”. Alongside the string first and last scenes, that act as lovely thick slabs of bread, think of their turns as good seasoning to a sandwich. The problem is the core ingredients are off and there’s far too many of them.
Sadly if I missed my train it’d be a long damn journey home, with multiple buses. So I had to go before film 3 (Let Her Out). Frustratingly, it looked like the most promising prospect on opening night by far and early world is its brilliant. Ach well, there’ll be others. Not a great double bill tonight, but tomorrow looks like a winner. Two films down – 22 to go.