Wake up, get out of bed and go see some scary movies. So far Fright Fest 2016 has been anything but average – with a mix of masterpieces and misfires. Today looks set to continue the trend, with the eclectic line-up consisting of challenging looking entries. These include:
Film 1: BROKEN
Directed by Shaun Robert Smith
As a critic I’ve seen a fair share of films I hated (I’m thinking of you Burying the Ex). Yet something that’s always been worse than watching them is writing about them: I don’t like dismissing something so many people will have worked so hard on: particularly if it’s an indy project or an obvious passion one. But sometimes there’s just no getting around it – the movie’s that bad. Others, you see something in them and think even if you can’t stand it there’s probably an audience out there. Broken is the latter rather than the former. As such, just because I score it low it doesn’t mean I don’t think anyone will like it. Just means I really, really didn’t.
Still here? Right, so the story is Evie (Morjana Alaoui) leaving France for, England to get away from memories of a traumatic childhood. Here, she finds work as a live-in carer for the now-crippled, always loathsome, former rock star John (Mel Raido). A constant whinger, John is a rough combo of neediness and fuckoffery, which causes a lot of friction with a woman who wouldn’t say boo to her own shadow. Unfortunately for her it’s mostly just them in their dank little home, except regular visits of his druggy mates who are similarly ill tempered. Indeed, more of the white stuff gets snorted here than a Canary Wharf Christmas party. And the worse it all gets for her, the more she fantasises about hurting him.
The problem is, for me the horror and kitchen sink elements worked to cancel each other out. Then when it finally came, the violence was too over the top for the 85 minutes of drama preceding it. But also far too brief as a genuine moment of bloody catharsis. Worse, the scenes of flickering lights or personal ghosts, where it flirts with being a supernatural shocker, felt like a stylistic distraction for a film more interested in Ken Loach than killings. Very little actually happens throughout, and with the same dynamic pushing most scenes (i.e. will she finally tell him to ‘get sodded’ this time) there’s not much feeling of progression. Truly, aside from last year’s Hangman it’s probably the dullest showing I’ve seen at Fright Fest, with the plot moving like a slow burning snail shocker. But then I will emphasise some people I spoke to after said the opposite, considering it a nuanced psychological thriller, and also swore to its authenticity.
For me my boredom was particularly frustrating because the cast are so damn good. Raido, in particular, goes far beyond the words on the page – but because of them he ultimately can’t make John a captivating character. One scene in particular, where him and Evie both talk about their pasts, and how in their own ways they’re both disabled, is a sheer masterclass in delivery. Except after over an hour of watching their bickering it’s maybe too little too late. I could be missing something, and feel like maybe I am. Because when the lights went up and the crew came in for Q and A it was met with a hushed reaction. And only about half of us looked bored. The other seemed in a deep awe, like during those 90 minutes something special had taken place. I just wish I’d seen it.
Film 2: LET’S BE EVIL
Directed by Martin Owen
As an educator, when I’m not writing here, I was keen to see a sci-fi horror that asks how we best teach the next generation. With concerns of America losing its intellectual; rigour, this near-future set film sees the boldest and brightest (aka ‘candidates’) housed in a flashy academic factory called the Posterity Project. Here there’s not much for them to do but learn, learn, learn – which they do so with the help of augmented reality glasses (along with the title, they’re a clear middle finger to Google). With them the kids can study independently via lush, interactive programmes and a constant stream of knowledge. Of course, it can’t all be done on computer – so there to help the gifted children are three millennials with major money problems: Jenny (Elizabeth Morris), Tiggs (Kara Tointon) and Darby (Eliot James Langridge). And there to help the helpers is Ariel (Jamie Bernadette): a visual version of Siri. However, what if someone wants to stop these little geniuses becoming even smarter?
The setup is absorbing, with the location also adding to the intrigue. Furthermore, the use of the glasses makes for a first person that’s ten times more interesting than a normal found footage. They also allow for narrative-bending as chaperones use them to delve into each other’s points of view, play with graphics and learn new information. The main cast are accomplished too, with the scenes where they bond with each other being utterly believable in terms of both script and performance. However, less convincing are the antagonists that are barely characterised at all. Sure, they’re creepy – but then we hardly spend any time with them. They have little motive and the threat they present is never fully explored since they never truly confront our heroes. As such, when the film culminates in a predictable finale it lacks the impact it may have had. Martin Owen therefore shows great skills as a maker of sci-fi, though maybe needs some work on the horror fundamentals. Great concept, but lacking in great content.
Film 3: JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD
Directed by Simon Rumley
What’d be your last words? Something mysterious? A call to a loved one? Or something to stick it to the man? Johnny Frank Garrett doesn’t do any – choosing instead to profess his innocence, telling those present to kiss his ‘everloving ass’ and threaten their kids, their kids kids and their kids kids kids. So all quite dramatic. Moments later he gets the lethal injection, for a crime he unambiguously didn’t commit. And being a man of his word he starts killing from beyond the grave. Based on a real life case, Johnny Frank Garret’s Last Words is, for two acts, a surprisingly sober supernatural thriller
Noticing the Garrett related body-count is, juror on the case, Adam (Mike Doyle) – the only one to back his innocence. It starts small, with an old lady falling downstairs, before getting more up-close and personal as his family are targeted. Some of these scenes are very effective. There’s a great prolonged tracking shot as the ghost hovers through the house, a decent bit with a TV and a part with two pencils that’s all the more effective for what it doesn’t show. I also think audiences will care about the people this happens to. Adam and his family are very convincing as a unit. The difficult bit is the spectre causing them to happen just isn’t all that interesting – so it’s hard to feel caught up in the story or experience much tension.
Garrett’s appearances are minimal, meaning that the thing which makes this film special (i.e. the killer) isn’t played up. Rather it becomes a fairly generic good vs evil movie. This maybe out of fidelity for the “true” story (the sensationalisation of which is arguably in very bad taste, but I’ll leave that for an extended review if there’s ever one). This makes sense, since the writers seem to be trying to construct a piece about justice as much as a ghost film – as exemplified by a cartoonish bureaucrat. Though given how silly the closing sections get, it seems particularly odd that they effectively made an Elm Street without bothering to include Freddy.
Film 4: REALIVE
Directed by Mateo Gil
Every year there’s a non-horror movie – this year Realive has the honour. Though the sci-fi elements may lend it enough crossover appeal, this is much more of a romance than I’d have anticipated showing at Fright Fest. Yeah, there’s reanimated corpses, though this time they’re not being blown to pieces – rather the film explores the emotional ramifications of returning from the grave. Our Lazarus is Marc (Tom Hughes) whom we follow from the cradle to the grave and back again. Having been diagnosed with a lethal disease he becomes cryogenically frozen, only to return almost a century later. Just like Frankenstein, except the emphasis isn’t about feelings of alienation as much as love. You see, before he died Marc had a special someone in his life (Naomi, played by Oona Chaplin), and would do anything to get her back. Their relationship is elucidated through strong flashbacks, tranquil music and lumpy-throat montages that could move even the most stubborn of cynics. Juxtaposed with his new reality, of recharging his organs by being wired to a machine like some born-again fetus, Realive asks the point of living for the sake of it.
It’s a good question, and one that is explored from a multitude of angles. Pleasingly the script jumps between grand themes and believable banter, preventing it from being too bloated or pompous. This fluidity helps to sell the emotions, making something fantastical feel as genuine as Gil’s work on The Sea Inside. There are also some pretty interesting plot developments, (which I’ve seen spoilt by reviewers elsewhere, so tread carefully) leading to novel ethical dilemmas. It could have done with greater psychological depth though. For instance, later sections hinge on Marc coming across something he shouldn’t, yet it’s never particularly apparent why it bothers him so much. Given the later complications it ensues, it’s an annoying shortcoming. Moreover, whilst the film is doubtlessly hindered by its modest budget, the lack of curiosity Marc has for the outside world seems outlandish at best and lazy at worst. These points don’t ruin the film per se but, rather appropriately, they prevent it from being whole.
Film 5: 31
Directed by Rob Zombie
Ask five people their favourite Rob Zombie movie and you’ll get four different answers (Halloween being the one nobody’s big on). And probably none of them will like ‘em all. Yeah, the guy’s got a distinct style, with stacks of recurring motifs. But the execution’s always different – ranging from his dirtier grindhouse efforts to the surrealist Lords of Salem. Now, with his sixth effort 31, he’s gone and made his most Rob Zombie film to date. If he were to retire tomorrow, this’d feel like the logical conclusion of his onscreen career. It has all the main elements: red necks, constant expletives, his wife’s ass, kickass 70s soundtrack and lashings of the old ultraviolence.
This time the victims are a troupe of carnys (including his afore-mentioned wife Sheri Moon Zombie and Jeff Daniel Phillips) whose RV is held up by a line of scarecrows in the road. Turns out to be an ambush, and next thing we know some are dead. In hindsight, they’re maybe the lucky ones as the rest wake up in an abandoned factory – where they’ll fight for their lives against a franchise-worth of scary clowns. There’s nazi dwarves, giants in dresses and chainsaw brothers. Just wait ‘til you meet the truly scary Doomhead ( Richard Brake), glimpsed earlier in a scary as hell intro. Watching the chaos unfold are three 15th century aristocrat types (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr), who bet on the one still standing after 12 hours. Think of The Running Man with maniacs.
Films like this are why star rating systems don’t always work. Sure there’s some problems I think few would argue with – the camera’s often too close to see what’s going on and the characters are underdone etc. Although despite them I fully understand people giving it five or giving it one. There’s a real energy and sense of anarchy about the piece that’ll feel like punk rock to some or self-consciously edgy provocation to others. Personally I liked it more than the Halloweens, plus House of 1000 Corpses, but much preferred the traditional Devil’s Rejects and more substantial Lords of Salem. Yet I found the pacing of it excellent, with it rarely being less than breakneck. Some of the production and design work was impressive too, giving a very grungy aesthetic that resembles a movie madhouse once the lunatics break out. But really, by now you’re going to know if this is your sort of thing or not. And for anyone who doesn’t, it’s the cinema version of being thrown in the deep end.
Four days down and one to go. Hopefully saved the best ’til last.