Fright Fest (2017) day 1: Death notes and killer dolls

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★★★½☆

Sing it with me – it’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yes it’s bank holiday weekend in August, which can only mean one thing for UK horror fans: The Horror Channel’s Fright Fest. Now in its 18th year, the festival that celebrates the dark heart of cinema gives fans five days of the freshest, most fucked up, movies of the year. This year, the four horsemen (Paul McEvoy Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day) have picked 64 cuts for us to get our grubby hands on.

But it isn’t just about the films – between screenings there’s a tonne of guest appearances, interviews, live stuff and parties to enjoy. And as such, long before I got asked to cover it for the third year running (and my sixth visit), I’d booked the time off – much to the confusion of my colleagues. You see, there’s really no atmosphere like it: the buzz when a new classic plays, the excitement of seeing a big name cross the room and the round of applause that follows the most gruesome kills. Really, in the UK, Fright Fest is the definitive way of experiencing the genre.

This year the fest is back in Leicester Square’s Cineworld Cinema (formerly the Empire), save for a few showings at the Prince Charles round the corner. Crossing the tourists and buskers to get there I see familiar faces, as the veterans stand outside catching up and readying themselves for no sleep ‘til Monday. We exchange a few words, talk about what we most want to see, and before too long the crowd shuffle in. With everyone in a high the first film better be good.

CULT OF CHUCKY
Directed by Don Mancini

Fortunately you can’t get a better opener than this. After seven movies, with only one that can really be considered a misstep (the underrated Seed of Chucky), I can’t imagine a more sure fire hit with the festival crowd than the 7th Child’s Play. Taking a slot typically reserved for mediocre movies (previous years have included the almost aggressively unremarkable Cherry Tree and the pretty but shallow My Father Die) this gets the screen going. Particularly when scream queen legend, supporting actor, and all round force of nature Jennifer Tilly comes out to introduce it!

Picking up a few years after Curse of Chucky left off, Cult handles the psychological impact of our favourite killer in a doll’s body (once again voiced by Brad Dourif), on past survivors. Part 6 survivor Nica (Fiona Dourif), who has since been sectioned and deemed criminally insane, has begun to erroneously believe she killed her own family. That is until her dubious psychiatrist introduces a new therapeutic “tool” – a Good Guy doll – and things start to get messy. Meanwhile, in another strand, Chucky’s original victim, Andy Barclay (played by a now grown up Alex Vincent), isshell shocked and struggling to form a meaningful connection with anyone. That is, save for the Chucky head he keeps in his house and likes to fight on a Friday night. It’s a dull existence ’til he hears of the grisly murders at the hospital, through an odd choice of site, then heads there to play hero. But how can Chucky be in two places at once? Will his ex-wife Tiffany (now voiced and played by Jennifer Tilly) let Barclay get at him? And just what the hell is the cult? All having satisfying answers.

For many of us Chucky is a gateway drug – he’s one of the ways into horror. Sure, there’re bigger killers, but few badder ones. Ever since I saw the doll replace blanks with real bullets at a scout camp, then laugh his ass off as the guys in green shot each other, I’ve loved the glee with which he watches people die. Well here he’s killing people in more elaborate ways than ever! Although the series has always been violent, this entry gets downright nasty with limbs being cut off and fountains of blood spurting. Furthermore, even if people think it’s not the best in the series, it’s definitely the best looking. With the action relocated to a mental hospital, Don Mancini takes full advantage of the premise and makes for an at times surreal perspective piece that’s haunting and even occasionally beautiful. This is well complimented by the rock’n’roll carnival score. Some of the kills look great, and with the flexibility of the antagonist, the tone is able to effortlessly leap between outright horror and pitch black comedy. And while Andy’s subplot feels inconsequential, as does the idea of Nica believing she did it, it’s great to see a part 7 that a) acknowledges other entries and b) is this damn good. After all other 80s icons have been buried, and remade, there’s life in this doll yet.

Rating: ★★★★☆

DEATH NOTE
Directed by Adam Wingard

With several films having premiered here before, Wingard is no stranger to Fright Fest. This year he offers London the European premier of his latest, made for Netflix, movie Death Note. Based on the best-selling manga series, this Americanised adaptation (some would say whitewashed, but I’m not getting into that) tells the tale of a promising, but troubled, high school kid called Light (Nat Wolff), who coming across a mysterious book. Although it looks like a bad poetry journal, it turns out any person whose name he writes on these pages will die a horrible death. Needless to say that’s a hell of a lot of power for a teenager. And with great power tends to come great irresponsibility. With the help of Machiavellian death god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), who looks like a Tim Burton creation on a comedown, and love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) he sets about righting the world’s wrongs. This means executing school bullies, ISIS members and local criminals alike, with a similar zealous under the psuedoname Kira. And much of the public love it. However, on the trail is shit-hot sleuth L (Lakeith Stanfield), who’s come from Japan and won’t be stopped unless Light works out his real name. And thanks to him stumbling across an investigation, by Light’s own father (Shea Whigham), he soon pieces together who has the death notes.

As per Wingard’s other work, the presentation is flawless. It’s all slickly shot, to a cool glossy soundtrack, and the framing perfectly captures the feel of the source material. Furthermore, some of the kills are just darn crazy. Most of these take elaborate forms, recalling the Final Destination franchise, and elicit laughter as much as repulsion. But then this is maybe consistent with the wish fulfilment aspect of the story. Also, thanks to the books, the story is also utterly captivating with enough twists and turns to keep audiences entertained. In particular, the employment of the internet as a tool to choose victims is inspired and raises some interesting conundrums.

It’s very brief though. You see, also as per most of Wingard’s back catalogue, the film rarely does the premise justice, with its plot heavy script ultimately failing to address the idea’s moral complexity. Our anti-hero’s casual disregard for human life is the scariest thing in the books, with the focus being best when it explores how power corrupts. Here thematic depth and the fantasy setup are not well blended, with the former seeming like a loose, ironic, justification for the often gratuitous tone of the latter. While the books stretched audience identification to its limit, this has neither the emotional gravity nor the in depth characterisation to do that. Most scenes last less than one minute and the breakneck pace means you get to see the characters do a lot but never get to know them so the, often erratic, arcs don’t quite land. This is maybe due to Death Note being a concept that lends itself much better to a longer form, rather than being squished into less than two hours. Consequently the emphasis is always on forward momentum vs introspection or contextualising sociopathic behaviour. The lightweight, goofy, performances also don’t help, with Wolff being too whiney and Stanfield being too darn weird for you to take their contrasting philosophies seriously. Consequently there’s minimal dramatic weight to watching the cat and mouse games ensue. None of this means it isn’t fun, as it definitely is. But it does mean it’s ultimately forgettable. Good film but could have been a great miniseries.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

And with day one being a Thursday, the unpredictability of late night transport meant I had to leave before the European premier of Psychopaths – which looked a sure-fire hit with this crowd. But then it’s been a decent double bill and a spirited start to the long weekend. Two films down – 22 to go.

See my best picks for 2015 and 2016.

Cult of Chucky is released on DVD and Bluray October 23rd, Death Note is on Netflix today.



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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