Fright Fest (2017) day 4: Mayhem on my double date with a villainess

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★★★★☆

In the morning morning, I was sad to see another Horror great go – this time the legendary Tobe Hooper. As per Wes Craven, he died over a Fright Fest weekend, while people celebrated his legacy together. It’s maybe a fitting tribute to him to note that many of the movies showing may not ever have been made were it not for him inspiring people with power tools and a DIY ethos. Obviously his masterpiece was Texas Chainsaw Massacre, yet the movie that really sticks with me is Salem’s Lot – the most gripping TV horror I ever watched, and about the creepiest vamp film ever made. Is a shame he never got the credit he deserved for Poltergeist – I’d have loved to see what he could have come up with on a bigger scale. But as a voice in horror, he’ll be royally missed: influential, distinct and terrifying. And after today’s movies I plan on honouring him by watching Funhouse and raising a glass. Speaking of which, some interesting looking ones the day.

KILLING GROUND
Directed by Damien Power

All weekend The Arrow Screen has been quiet, but this one didn’t even get a clap afterwards! That being said, I don’t know that Power will have wanted one for this. Enthusiasm and whooping would have been a sign he didn’t totally kill the mood. Four days in, and I can say with confidence that this is the most unpleasant movie of the year. Yeah, others have been more violent (Victor Crowley) and more deranged (Leatherface). Yet Killing Ground is relentlessly bleak, gritty and nehilistic. Not really the normal way to begin a Sunday morning – but then it’s Fright Fest.

An Australian Eden Lake, here we follow a couple on vacation as they get away from it all with a camping trip by a body of water. They aren’t the only ones, and upon arriving they find a family tent pitched up but nobody in it. Across two timelines, taking place a few days apart, we see what happened to the original guests and the new ones at the hands of the same two Aussie killers. The fragmented approach is novel, even if the framing gives a lot away, and offers a grim feeling of inevitability. Expect a lot of rape, murder and target practice – the usual staples of an exploitation flick.

However, cinematic heritage aside it’s hard to escape the feeling this is a film about nothing. The villains lack  psychological depth, just being nasty for the sake of it. There isn’t any commentary, I could see, except a motif about capturing pigs. Yeah, in real life you will get people that do bad things for their own sake, although assuming nobody is born evil then there’s got to be something driving them. Here, we just have baddies without context nor conscience aside from the odd morsel of regret during the escalation that’s soon forgotten. In addition, for a film that leans on realism for its presentation, the plot largely rests upon a series of bewildering decisions – although props to the movie for having a lead make an unexpected, but very realistic, one later.

You could argue that, being a modern exploitation movie, motives don’t really matter of the mood is right. Yet as an exploitation film it’s also not got enough onscreen savagery to please gorehounds – with the key bits happening out the frame. So, what we’re left with is a grim look at human cruelty that’s too trashy to be a serious horror but not trashy enough to be a video nasty. Yet there are some things that really work for it. In particular, both sets of victims earn your attention, with authentic injokes/ banter. There’s also a centrepiece involving beer cans and a rifle that’s long, drawn out and excellently uncomfortable. Even if the rest of it won’t, this scene will stick with me long after leaving the woods. Maybe worth making the trip for, but don’t expect a good time.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

MINDHACK
Directed by Royce Gorsuch

A frantic sci-fi about scientists hacking the human brain and a great mind on the brink of madness. Mindhack marks the only time I’ve ever walked out of a movie. I’m not saying it’s a terrible film – but it’s got a vibe that will attract or alienate and I was very much in the latter group. For some of the audience, particularly those involved with hacking, I can see this being film of the festival but for me it did nothing.

DOUBLE DATE
Directed by Benjamin Barfoot

If The Inbetweeners shacked up with The Devil Rides Out, their offspring is sure to resemble this debut feature film from Benjamin Barfoot. It opens with a brilliant femme fatale murder sequence, where two beautiful women bring two eager guys back to a mansion then kill them to an inspired song choice I won’t give away here. This is then followed by a grindhouse animated intro to a soundtrack by prog band Goat. So a few minutes in and Barfoot has nailed the horror. But immediately after, the scene where 29 year old virgin Jim (played writer Danny Morgan), and wannabe player Alex (Michael Socha) have manly banter shows an equally astute comic sensibility. Their drinking scenes are dead snappy with decent dialogue, cracking chemistry and believable bromance as they discuss the best way into a girl’s bedroom. You see, being a very late bloomer Jim just wants to get laid. And as bad luck would have it, our lads end up in the same bar as our lady-killers Lulu (Georgia Groome) and Kitty (Kelly Wenham). Given the name I think you can guess where this is going.

The first act is very well crafted, with the boys and girls being separate for all but the most painfully awkward introduction you’ll ever see. This means the movie can successfully cross between both the sexcom and darker killer modes it does so well. It also means a lot of humour coming from the use of contrast and use of dramatic irony. Moreover, it allows for audiences to see both sides of the titular date night, and get to know both sets of characters well. Thus when the red stuff starts running you give a shit about all four. Since the cast and story are both slim, with a simple premise, then it’s important there’s some emotional weight to the film, and there is. All arcs are well handled and the leads are brilliant together. Barfoot also shows himself to be an adept director, with a fantastic use of colour and an impressive visual flair that suggests the work of a veteran and not a debut feature-maker.

However, while the movie is, for the most part, deliciously entertaining, there’s a notable lull in the second act, including a wasted cameo from Dexter Fletcher, when we meet both boys families. Much of the problems come from a prolonged drug sequence which starts well but maybe gets too silly (even if a song sequence is laugh out loud), and uncomfortably makes light of date rape. The sense of threat is also hindered by underlining the fragility of our killers, although this is soon addressed in the third, that changes things up and raises the tension again. Yes, the movie definitely recovers with a brilliant final half hour, complete with a stunning and scrappy fight sequence and new twist. But the middle shows the importance of one of the hardest skills to get right: escalation. Now they say nobody’s first time is their best, and I hope this is true for Barfoot. Although if it is, he’s got absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. You’ll be telling all your mates about him.

Rating: ★★★★☆

REPLACE
Directed by Norbert Keil

Some movies take a while to grab you. This is a great example of one such movie. Replace begins with a man and woman (Keira – played by Rebecca Forsyth) discussing the aging process, and how it’s effects on sex appeal, before she wakes up to find him gone and no recall of what’s happened. Now by this point I was wondering if I’d made the right choice going in to what looked like a run of the mill memory recovery narrative. However, in a twist her memory isn’t the only thing that deteriorating – her skin has started to rapidly age and crumble away. However, after an incident with a dropped wineglass she learns she can replace it with that of other women. Unfortunately, willing donors aren’t easy to find. Some visually astounding body horror follows as skin is peeled and blood is shed.

If this sounds like an elaborately setup slasher, that riffs on Hellraiser, I assure its so much more. Yep there’s a generous body-count, with decent kills. But ultimately it’s a part art house, part visceral meditation on vanity. It isn’t just about shallowness though – there’s also a believable romance running through (although unlike the afore mentioned Hellraiser, this is not the cause for the violence). To say more would be to spoil the journey, but it does a great job of working fear of aging into both a sweet drama and a timely science fiction satire. Genre legend Barbara Crampton comes into the action, playing an enigmatic dermatologist and Lucie Aron makes Sophia a likeable love interest, injecting enough personality into her part that there are some emotional stakes. As with how the sheer ugliness of the infection contexualises Kiera’s killing spree, this tender relationship offers a shot at redemption. It’s affecting and makes you care after the downwards spiral.

I was impressed enough with this, before learning it was a debut. Keil knocks the ball out the park, with equal doses of the grotesque and the immaculate. The script is also tight, weaving realist dialogue into a more stylised universe. It feels natural even if it’s artificial – an interesting bit of form underlies meaning.

Rating: ★★★★☆

MAYHEM
Directed by Joe Lynch

Think your job sucks – ‘least you don’t work for Towers & Smythe. They’re a legal consultant firm, with a steep corporate ladder, and ruthless as hell. At the start of this pitch black comedy horror, Derek Cho (Steven Yuen from The Walking Dead) is having a bad enough day, what with being thrown under the bus and sacked. But then to make matters worse he’s given his marching orders as the building is hit by a virus that causes people to lose their inhibitions – including him. By the end of act one the knives are out and fights are breaking out everywhere. Talk about a hostile work environment. With the help of Melanie (Samara Weaving), Derek decides to tell his now former bosses exactly what he thinks of them. And since he’s under the influence, then even if he does more than tell them there’s legal precedent to say he wasn’t of sound mind.

Naturally the word ‘virus’ sounds like shorthand for zombies, although there’s so more to it than that. Sure, with their inhibitions lowered some people get violent. Yet others are fucking, dancing or having a good time: a far cry from the usual office environment. Amongst the fun, Lynch is in satire mode, with the onus being on skewing corporate environments and the readiness for people in the system to screw each other over for the bottom line. Throughout, the caricatured but familiar work zone is hilarious. To an extent, Mayhem can be accused of undermining its own points, given that both Derek and Melanie harm innocent people on their video game style quest to the executive level. But to be fair, Mayhem counters this by having such charismatic leads (with a very strong chemistry) who are damn funny. Plus at the start, a lengthy monologue introduces viewers to all the key figures, outlining in detail their role in Cho’s fall and why they ought to get their assess kicked. This gives the characters just enough good will as they go in with a nail gun at the ready. Nonetheless, sometimes it goes too far towards celebrating Derek’s bloodlust whilst simultaneously presenting him as better than those he decks (an underexplored subtext is that workplace culture is itself infectious which makes you wonder if everyone innocent). In this respect, it makes me wonder if an escape narrative would have helped along with the quest one. Although given how much enjoyable it is, I worry that I’m complaining about nothing. Still, sometimes the consistency of the message is the difference between a great film and an excellent one.

Rating: ★★★★☆

THE VILLAINESS
Directed by Byung-gil Jung

Day four finishes up with a slice of Asian action. Sook-Hee (the incredible Kim Ok-vin) was raised to be an elite assassin – learning to use weapons from childhood like best of ‘em and hold her breathe for a ridiculously long time. However, after a personal vendetta goes wrong she’s captured and then asked to be a government agent in exchange for her freedom. Of course, first she’s reluctant. But then in custody she finds out she’s pregnant. All it’s going to take is a decade of service, then she’ll get a whole new life for her and her child. However, when you’ve got a past as dark as her one, it’s inevitable that it’ll catch up.

What’s interesting is how implicated we are in the violence from the start. During the opening scene, we’re forced behind her eyes, as if this were some sort of first person shooter. With her we then watch as scores of men are mowed down in a bit of gunplay that’s as slapstick as it is brutal. Likewise, in a high speed bike chase the camera stalks her every lean and burst of speed. Then there’s the grand finale that’ll go down as one of the most awe inspiring action sequences I’ve ever seen! Stunning camera work ‘til the chilling last shot. What’s staggering is how long these shots are held for, with staggering patience and coordination having to go into crafting each of these masterpieces of tracking and framing.

It’s not all action. Between these fights we get a lot of dramatics, with a lengthy backing story. Furthermore, a huge chunk of the running time goes to showing Sook-Hee trying to lead a normal life as a mother and part time actor, falling in love with her next neighbour yun-soo (Bang Sung-jun). Their romance is little heavy handed, and will have you checking your watch, itching for another set piece. Yet in contrast to the power of the fight scenes, the often idealised moments they share are earned. The too good to be true atmosphere also makes him spying on her (something audiences learn immediately) more important and the scenes where she’s forced back into old habits more poignant- even if this is slightly undercut by the sheer outlandishness of the plot towards the end. Sure, it borrows from Nikita, Kill Bill, Nikkatsu’s ’70s exploitation films, and many more assassin films. But for the sheer energy it has, plus the adventurousness of the camera, along with the successful marriage of action and melodrama, it remains its own thing.

Rating: ★★★★☆

There we have it – four days down! Still no five star movies, or bonafide classics – whereas last year had Train to Busan, The Master Cleanse and Beyond The Walls. Yet it’s been a very consistent year, with numerous movies that are nonetheless brilliant examples of what horror can offer. And hey, maybe the last day will surprise us.

Mayhem comes to Shudder in early 2018.



david.s.smith
About david.s.smith 164 Articles
London-based horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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