Sing it with me! It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, it’s August bank holiday weekend, and HorrorCultFilms are visiting London, which can only mean one thing –the Arrow Video sponsored Fright Fest is back. Now in its 19th year, making it more than old enough to see its own movies, the nation’s foremost horror and dark fantasy film festival returns. This means that for five days, our four horseman (Paul McEvoy Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day) have put together a stellar looking line-up, consisting of 70 of tomorrow’s biggest genre pieces (I am to cover 24). Past events have premiered such masterpieces as The Descent, The Babadook and Train to Busan. Skimming the guide, I wonder if there’s any of the new batch we’ll be talking about in the same terms.
It could be a few actually – it’s a darn exciting line-up it! Genuinely, I think this year marks the first where there’s only one movie I’m not keen to see (more on it in a future entry). And while it doesn’t have the big names of last year, when Chucky, Leatherface and Victor Crowley showed up, there’s a really good sample of the current indy/ cult circuit and stuff that typically stays under the radar. Naturally there’s some I’m holding out for over others – Incident in a Ghost Land, Terrified and Climax in particular. The rest look a rich tapestry of the new (Upgrade), the schlocky (Open 24 Hours) and the slightly silly (Boar). Of course, five days from now I may need some napkins to wipe the egg off my face. Although given the unique atmosphere, and the still commendable batting average, I expect I’ll be left wanting more. Frankly, if I’m bored of Fright Fest I’m bored of horror.
The fest is back in Leicester Square’s Cineworld, aside from discovery screenings in the nearby Prince Charles (the South-East home of fringe cinema). Following a nightmarish Airbnb situation, where the host’s claim their main-road facing room was peaceful, I awoke early from a very late night, to look up alternative accommodation. I settled on one only a few tube stops from the action, then lazed ’til it was almost too late (so as a word of warning, this wasn’t written on a clear head – though these diaries rarely are). Rushing through the underground, and remembering why I’m glad to no longer live here, I arrive just in time to catch the usual excited faces, floating above a wide range of horror t-shirts, entering. Some I recognized, while others were first timers, picking a promising year to lose their virginity. But no time to shoot the breeze – it’s upstairs to sit with my fellow-critics in the balcony of the Superscreen: best seats in the house. First up…
Directed by Jenn Wexler
This punky 80s-style slasher has the honour of kicking off the festival. It’s a tough spot – half the crowd aren’t there, and day tickets/ single screenings won’t be as big as other nights thanks to that little thing called work. Still, you can see why it was picked: Wexler is a safe pair of hands, with a proven record, it’s got a lean running time and what better way to welcome visitors than the quintessential sub-genre. It’s got the slasher spirit alright, with an atmospheric forest setting, limited but grizzly gore and a villain (played by Jeremy Holm, who I’ve been told is in Mr Robot). Unfortunately, I’m not sure it quite works well as a movie. In 2018 it’s tough to make a straight slasher interesting without continuously upping the ante or greatly exaggerating the gore (as per the Hatchet films). All too often, the characterisation feels clichéd and the audience are twiddling their thumbs in act three whilst the movie chugs breezily through the second. The Ranger is no exception, with its ebb and flow narrative turning what ought to be a white-knuckle ride into a drive through the country for long stretches.
The movie’s got a lot of potential. Inbuilt into the premise are all sorts of ironic park-lands kills, being performed by a stick-up-his-ass authoritarian i.e. Jason meets the Maniac Cop. But it’s just not interesting enough to achieve this vision. After beginning on a literal bang, we jump forward years to witness Chelsea’s loose cannon boyfriend stabbing a police officer, during a drugs bust at their leather-clad club. It’s a chaotic scene, that’s enjoyably messy, and acts as a catalyst for the story – even if it’s thematic relevance is almost zero. In what should be a panic, but isn’t, her friends and she go to hide away in her family cabin in the woods. It’s a rustic old place, run down, and somewhere she’s never wanted to go back to, following a traumatic event we piece together via flashbacks. Along the way they have another bad encounter with law-enforcement – this time in the form of an obsessive park ranger. And let’s just say he takes his job a little too seriously. There’s more shots fired, a bear-trap going off, and a few musings on the meaning of the natural world, as he corrects their violations.
It’s not that its badly paced per se, since the beats occur roughly when you’d expect them to. It’s after halfway when first non-blue blood gets spilled, though that’s kind of common. The problem is the few characters we have (there are five) aren’t enjoyable to be around, making acts 1 and 2 drag. From their apparent lack of concern about the officer they may have killed, to them immediately tagging the trees, the kids except Chelsea kind of assholes. I get that this is necessary, to make her a good girl running with a bad crowd. Yet it still means we got to spent a long time with loud, obnoxious characters we’re already biased against because of the bad thing they did. Maybe it was meant to make their deaths more satisfying, but with a smattering of money-shots, and one being mauled off-screen, if that was the intention it was met. A small cast necessitates more close-quarters character drama, and while we got the sin there’s very little salvation or psychological depth bestowed on them. This means attempts to brand them a dysfunctional “family” fall emotionally flat, and the only time we get to see beneath the surface is with flesh-wounds. The Ranger himself is the best weapon in the film’s arsenal: played with an unnerving dark comedy as he takes glee in dishing out his personal brand of justice. But attempts to shoehorn in a mindset are vague, and the themes informing his part in the backing story (plus his weak connection to Chelsea) are very clumsily worked into the action. Is he doing all this out of a sincere love for mother nature? Or is he just completely psychotic? We don’t know, because unlike most other killers he hasn’t got a clear motivation. Moreover, no serious slasher needs a gun where knives, chainsaw or other farming equipment would do. The clue’s in the name.
It’s a shame, as Wexler’s got her usual great eye, and the overall feel of the universe she’s creating is cohesive – a punky era, where nobody has phones. The cast also make the best of their limited script. But in roughly sticking to a slasher framework, she does herself a disservice because the mechanics aren’t down. Moreover, in a saturated market of nostalgia-horror I’m not sure it has much of an individual identity. It’s not amusing enough to work as a comedy, violent enough to be exploitation or nostalgic enough to be fun. Which brings me to the next entry…
SUMMER OF 84
Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell
Now this is more like it. In an interesting scheduling move, we’re sent to the past for a second time in two movies. But then (*tee-hee*) stranger things have happened. This time it’s courtesy of the Turbo Kid team, who have shown themselves to be adept at making the VHS age cool again before. Only unlike it’s oddball predecessor, that went more Road Warrior than The Road Warrior did, Summer of 84 is rooted in our world – where a group of teens find themselves up against a potential murderer, with no help from their parents. Yes, this is less the 80’s of post-apocalyptic ultra-violence, and more the 80’s of David Lynch (whose Blue Velvet gets more than a nod), Stephen King and the darker bits of Spielberg. It’s an 80’s where kids ride bikes, have dinosaur toys in their bedrooms and the curtains of every house in suburbia hide unimaginable secrets. So far, so Stranger Things. But unlike the sweet-natured, unsullied kids of Hawkins Indiana, our way in is via the cynical, more world-weary Davey who becomes convinced the guy across the road is the Cape May Slayer: a killer with several teens to his name. With scant evidence, he goes to investigate his long-term neighbour, with the help of the usual suspects i.e. his Loser’s Club. Meaning we got a chubby kid, with a heart to match his appetite, a nerd and the funny, horny one who gets most of the laughs.
There’s actually a surprisingly high amount of these. A lot of the time Summer of 84 is played for comedy – your mum jokes, crude banter about girls and comic insults – much of which lands. Maybe this lightweight approach to the material is inevitable, seeing as a script structured around a single question (is Mackey really a serial killer?) can corner itself into one of the two possible outcomes. It is, ultimately, a mystery with one suspect. To its credit, the film plays a bit with both interpretations, though I still suspect the audience will have correctly decided long before the kids. And that’s fine – I don’t consider it a spoiler to say the emphasis is on an enjoyable journey and not the destination itself. Thus the characters mostly fitting templates works to the extent they allow the right tensions, and a balance between order and chaos, to get us to the solution with smiles on our faces. Thriller-wise, there’s a real intrigue to seeing snippets of Mackey’s life are exposed, as late-night sessions with the binoculars tease out reveals piece by piece: a sinister patchwork. Think Rear Window with knobs jokes. These sequences, along with other parts of their boy’s-own style investigation (where they dig up litter or stalk their suspect), are contagiously exciting. They make us relate to boys taking glee in the possibility of a monster next door. There’s not necessarily much threat, since Mackey is unaware for large parts, but tonnes of peril as they race against the clock time and again. The aesthetic is deeply atmospheric, with the suburban stillness and paranoia beautifully captured and boosted by a synth soundtrack. Long term readers will know I’m usually not one for nostalgia fests, and have complained before about the gimmicky twee feel of similar films. But Summer of 84 gets a pass for doing it so well. I fully expect if you showed it to a friend, billing it as a forgotten gem from your childhood, they’d believe it.
As per other coming of age adventures like It and Stand By Me, the kids come from troubled backgrounds, with the need for adventure possibly being rooted in their need to escape. Only here, this layer feels an afterthought, with subplots about parents and first loves just kind of being there vs being an integral part of the bigger picture. At its best, this movie is still way more loving homage than derpy pastiche. But in downplaying its dramatic elements, for the sake of style, it hints at a bleeding heart that’s not beating much. Maybe it’s an ironic bit of form underlines meaning, where the movie juxtaposes the distraction of 80’s adventure against the cruel nature of these kids’ everyday lives. Yet I suspect I’m doing what critics do best, and looking into it too much. Still, for the first two acts the audience get the same enjoyable bit of escapism as as the kids. However, it’s only when the film directly deals with darker themes during its harrowing closing section (one I initially took as tacked on) that it all fits together: facades, the underbelly of the burbs and childhood’s end. This loss of innocence is expertly crafted and chillingly undermines the consequence-free nature of the games. Their youth is over, tainted by the difficult events they’ve had, and its sudden absence is felt by both them and the viewer. In other words, it’s best when it starts to feel real.
As per other years, the difficult of late night public transport midweek means I can’t stick around for the finale – Mega Time Squad – which is unfortunate as, from the trailer and early buzz, it looks great! Instead I tube back to my temporary home, looking over my shoulder a little as streetlights elongate the shadows of those around me. Two movies down – many more to go.