On the second morning of a Fright Fest, the thought of another four days seems intimidating. Yet by the end, knowing there’s just another three seems upsetting. This year the Friday has some of the ones I’m most looking forward to. Thus downing a coffee I practically skip in to see such films as…
Directed by Dominic Bridges
An intriguing start to a long day of film watching, Freehold is a black comedy riff on the home invasion movie. All set in a cramped London apartment, the action follows flash, phony and amoral estate agent Hussein (Mim Shaikh) who deals in “perfect” apartments, whilst unknowingly sharing his own with a previous victim: the tall, skeletal Orlan (Javier Botet). Let’s just say he’s definitely not forgiven him. Yeah, the idea of an unwanted house guest has been done to death. But then not everything has to reinvent the wheel, and by telling the story from both sides the narrative is novel in that there’s no clear good guy – which is never a bad thing. Hussein is scum, yet he’s scum we get to know intimately (an early scene sees him naked on the bog), whilst we root for Orlan since he’s a menace. And a damn creative one at that!
In the first act, the script (by Outpost scribe Rae Brunton) gets a lot of comedy mileage out of the contrast between the self-consciously slick Hussein and the scrappy Orlan living off leftovers. The revenge story is also told with masterful escalation. To begin with, it’s mostly harmless, if grotesque, acts like swapping his shampoos, sharing a toothbrush or borrowing a towel for his balls. But then things take for a dark turn after Hussein’s girlfriend Mel (a good if underused Mandeep Dhillon) returns from holiday and his obsession with taking revenge makes him every bit as predatory. This isn’t just about harming the guy –it’s about utterly ruining his life. Yet even during these scenes of Hussein being gaslit to all hell, the devilish sense of humour is never far away.
As is maybe an inevitability with the sort of film, be it Slumlord or Hangman (both of which this is better than) the second act drags a bit. After one big event, I won’t reveal here, the plot slows, with a reliance on dramatic irony and shots where one character is unaware of the other etc etc. This results in one too many montages, and a forced plot device of Orlan explaining his backing story via two pigeons to keep us invested. Yet it recovers again with plenty time so spare. There’s just something so watchable about seeing Hussein disintegrate, as he questions if there’s a ghost “that shits”. The ending is also on point, even if the dialogue does become didactic. Creepy, hilarious and sick as. One to watch at home.
Directed by Graham Skipper
So on paper this is going to be a tough sell. Graham Skipper’s directorial debut is an odd sci-fi romance about a beautiful geek, Tess (Fabianne Therese) and a vague metaphysical force that enter the life of awkward arcade technician Oz (Chase Williamson). When a mysterious board is dropped off at his work, Oz finds himself getting obsessed with beating it. Of course, we all heard too much video games can rot your mind – here it’s both mind and body, with sickening visual effects as the circuitry starts to breathe then man and machine get combined. It’s suitably stomach churning, slightly sexual, and both looks and sounds mesmerizing.
Sequence Break does a great job of integrating its themes with the content. From the 80’s synth soundtrack, and acadri style graphics in the intro, to the practical effects that recall Videodrome, this is a loveletter to a bygone era. But unlike recent fellow nostalgia trips, such as Stranger Things, it’s much more than the sum of its influences. The love story is genuinely engaging, with both leads doing stellar jobs (even if Oz is maybe too odd at first) with material that sounds silly on paper or could easily lend itself to cheap nerd stereotypes. For the first couple of acts, Skipper finds a good balance between their personal stories and the wider one. However, the third is a glorious mess, with the increasingly trippy visuals never feeling contextualised very well aside from a deeply confusing explanation from a side character. Ambiguity is, of course, fine provided we get the gist of it along with some personal stakes. But as the arcade starts doing what it does you’ll probably be at a loss as to why the hell any of it happens or matters. Similarly, a big twist is reduced to a gimmick without this clarity. This means we end up with a climax that doesn’t feel cathartic. Still, I think you’ll definitely enjoy seeing it happen.
Directed by Caroline Labrèche & Steeve Léonard
Meet Liam (Diego Klattenhoff), a car crash victim who awakes with no memory of who he is and surrounded by dead bodies. First he assumes it’s a virus, but maybe it’s him. Sounds like he needs a lot of help, but how’d you help a guy if can’t go within 50 feet of him or you become another corpse – some men you just can’t get close to. As you can guess, it’s a bleak and lonely existence whilst he comes to terms with his condition and what he’s accidentally done. Luckily, also meet Jane (Charlotte Sullivan) who can walk within the radius and actually offset the danger. Quoth Avril Lavigne, can I make it any more obvious?
Honestly I wasn’t looking forward to seeing this one. By the blurb I figured it’d be a twee comedy that dines off a literal interpretation of boundary issues. Thankfully it never makes the subtext into text, and tells the story admirably straight as a sci-fi mystery. The acting is sufficient, and there are some genuinely thrilling moments when the leads are separated and have to keep the necessary 50 feet to avoid mass manslaughter. The potential for the idea is mined, and the backing story it gradually pieces together is enjoyable. It also raises interesting questions about the fluidity of the self concept, asking how this changes when we become aware of thing we’ve forgotten. The dialogue is less convincing than the ideas though, with it being mostly functional between silences. Fortunately both of the core cast make the most of their, at times, austerely written roles, going beyond the fairly what they’re given. Yet whilst each is good on their own they don’t quite have the chemistry to carry the whole film. That being said, the last act gives some powerful revelations, and even though it rushes the climax the skilled storytelling elevates it far above the gimmick movie the premise implied it’d be. Definitely worth a watch.
Directed by Patricio Valadares
I didn’t know much going in, but Robert Englund, in a supernatural chiller, by Patricio Valadares (of Hidden in the Woods fame) seemed too good to pass up. Alas, it made for the first disappointment of the fest. Brett is a traumatised ex-cop from LA and living in Bulgaria (something almost every character comments as an oddity like it’s a premise for a movie itself) and coming to terms with the death of his wife. Under the influence of his friend, he agrees to do security for a creepy old building that comes with its own glamorous live-in apartment. Between watching footage of darkness, and speaking with his quirky blind predecessor Jacob (Englund), he wonders about what’s behind the mysterious, giant door in the basement he has to monitor.
For this sort of fear of the unknown narrative, I’d argue there’s two measures of success: does it build the tension well? And is there a strong pay off? For the first part, yeah sort of. The building itself looks great and there’s a slow-burn quality about it, that sees a foreboding atmosphere. For the second – definitely not. Problem is it’s not a very tough mystery to crack and the last act feels very streamlined. The concept introduces a dead wife, a door that can’t be opened and a mysterious landlord. As such, even a semi-literate horror viewer can guess all of the key beats long before they happen. They aren’t always well executed either, with clichéd villain designs and a final confrontation you’ll see coming from the first few scenes (although the coda is genuinely pretty cool and offers an unconventional spirit lacking elsewhere). Granted, some of the samyeness is alleviated by a decent chemistry between London and his love interested Zara (Lorina Kamburova), which leaves you caring if they live or die. But it’s hard to care about what actually happens to them.
Directed by Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo
So Fright Fest is now the festival old enough to see its own films, and that’s all well and good – but Chucky aside, few have pushed any boundaries. Thus I was looking forward to Leatherface shaking things up with a great big, bloody chainsaw. Normally a new visit to Texas wouldn’t excite me. After all, the first seven films have been hugely inconsistent, in terms of both storytelling and quality, and the last stab at an origin both over-explained its antagonist and added nothing. However, in finding a team to give this rusty old franchise a clean lick of red paint, you can’t get better than the sick minds behind the visceral French masterpiece Inside. With Leatherface, they offer a prequel to the 1974 original that takes the unlikely form of a road movie. Four violent teenage patients, including one destined to dawn the skin mask, escape a psychiatric institution in the Deep South. With the pedal to the metal they kidnap a nurse, and take her on a road trip to hell. In pursuit of them a similarly deranged police officer, after revenge because one of them killed his daughter some time before. The nature of justice is questioned in what is by equal measures a coming of age tale and deeply unpleasant exploitation.
If this all sounds a bit Devil’s Rejects it’s because it is – for the first two thirds. And this is definitely a problem. While the classic Hooper nightmare influenced a lot of other movies, this feels influenced by the ones it influenced. What adds a lot to it is the narrative twist of not revealing which of the kids is Jed Sawyer until fairly late on (thanks to a plot device of the patients having their names changed). The three boys among them fill different slasher archetypes, with there being a psychotic one, a severely mentally handicapped one and a sensitive one that gives into peer pressure – thus there’s tension around which interpretation they’re going to side with: a good boy turned bad or a bad boy turned worse. Withholding the character for so long is a real risk, yet I’d argue it pays off with a last act that makes you feel like you’ve been on an actual character journey. Significantly, this is also the first film to follow the titular character rather than victims stumbling upon him in the woods, which really adds to the freshness. And while this obviously can’t trump the original for sheer shocks, it’s a more than worthy entry to the series, with the jump in quality from the poor 3D to this one being huge. An icon is finally back. Luckily there’s a good decade between the end of this one and the first – I bet the makers of this one can fill in the gaps.
And with that, I’m on my way home to work on reviews and get some well needed sleep. This year I’ve decided not to cover all 24 movies (a mix of living far out and not being so young) though figure I will get another 5 in tomorrow and the days after – 22 overall isn’t so bad.
Sequence Break will stream on Shudder from early 2018.