Last night I dreamt I was in a horror movie situation. I was in a scary house somewhere, surrounded by things not dissimilar to the Xenomorphs – only they seemed to be made of leather. On waking, that’s all I go from it – a single unpleasant flash. It’s maybe a sign I’ve watched too much horror lately, though in a roundabout way it actually got me in the mood for more. Day fours can be difficult – by this point you’re partially desensitised to what you see, and it’s harder to appreciate movies on their own merit. But then the Fright Fest guys seem to know this, so they’ve scheduled some promising ones in – particularly Terrified and the brilliantly named The Man Who Killed Hitler Then the Bigfoot (possibly the bluntest title since Hobo with a Shotgun). I got a good feeling about this…
HELL IS WHERE THE HOME IS
Directed by Orson Oblowitz
Starting the day is this spirited, but too cluttered, take on the home invasion subgenre. Sarah and Joseph are a couple growing apart, following a tragic miscarriage. Hoping to make things better for them, Joseph has booked a weekend away in a luxury house on the hills (the layout of which remains annoyingly elusive) for some quality time. Only Sarah’s less keen to face their problems head on, so invites her high-school BFF Estelle, plus her partner Victor. The loss of her unborn isn’t the only thing kept hidden though, and soon secrets start to spill out like wine. As tensions build, a mysterious “neighbour”, claiming to have a broken down car, shows up to the house to use the phone. What’s the worst that can happen? As she says, she’s not the Wicked Witch of the West – even if she is played by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk.
To Oblowitz’ credit, the cookie-cutter premise benefits from his characters first approach. Hell Is Where The Home Is won’t be the most claustrophobic, and scariest, home invasion you’ve ever seen, though it may be one of the most personal. The people in it feel rounded, with realistic responses to the looming threat. As important, they also have realistic faults, and problems, meaning for the most part I actually gave a shit about their survival. Unlike opening movie, The Ranger, the first half of the small-scale script is fashioned around exploring dramatic tensions between its narrow group. Sarah is maybe the most non-descript, along with being the closest we have to a lead, though she still has greater nuance than most protagonists in this kind of film. The core cast meet the emotionally challenging script, though Balk is the stand out. Given the audience know they’re watching horror, her scenes carry a delicious dramatic irony, that plays cleverly with expectations. It’s just a shame the second half doesn’t live up to it. The main threat doesn’t manifest until very late on, and when it does it’s not well characterised. There are some good moments, for sure. Yet the film seems to follow a fragmented five act structure (“the 20 minutes when that happens”) with not enough of a throughline to connect each part.
This wouldn’t have to be a problem, were there a greater effort to integrate the underlying themes with the ongoing tension. But in the absence of any such merging, by the end so much of what’s happened feels completely arbitrary: like if you walked in halfway through, or only caught the tail-end of the first half, then it wouldn’t matter. Maybe there’s a poignancy to this, that in life or death moments the arguments you’ve had won’t mean shit, so it’s good to share both feelings and confessions with those you love when there’s time etc. Yet given how escalated the domestic drama gets in its own right, and a big event I won’t spoil here, then if this was the intention it’s clumsily carried out. Elsewhere, there’s an awkward twist, that the script clearly cheats with, that further detracts from its ending. Though even if the story doesn’t, the soundtrack picks up a lot during the second half. For the first it’s invasive, doing too much work for the audience, with long tones whenever someone says something suspicious. Towards the end its replaced with a bit of synth, that’s thankfully not too “look, it’s like Carpenter”, and then some pounding industrial percussion. For the most part it’s immersive, and makes up for the pacing issues earlier. Good, but the sums of its part don’t add up.
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT
Directed by Robert D. Krzykowski
Don’t judge this movie by its title. I know – it’s got a great name, which it’s both the epitome of, and the exact opposite of. Yeah, I guess it is both a literal and accurate description of what happens. But The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot isn’t like the sort of Troma schlockfest you’re maybe thinking of i.e. Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Going in, I pictured something off the charts insane. I dunno exactly what I was expecting, but I definitely think I’d be fighting back tears by the end (were I not sitting with all the macho movie critics, you bet I’d have been bawling). This feature-length debut is just amazing. It’s so strange and funny, though more than that – it’s a poignant, deeply insightful movie about the aging process and what matters most in life when you’re nearing the end of it. Think of it as being a spiritual sibling to gentle, reflective, slice-of-life films such as The Straight Story, Lucky or, more aptly, Big Fish if it were told from the other side.
In the late 80’s set section of a duel narrative, Sam Elliot gives a career-defining performance as unsung superman – Calvin Barr. He’s tough as nails, but carries as much pain as he can give. It’s a great part – an all American folk hero, that reluctantly went undercover to frag the Fuhrer (though acknowledges he “had it coming to him”) in an operation so secret it’s not on his official file. The details of this mission, that’d go on to define his life to follow, are show in flashbacks. During which he’s played by Poldark’s shirtless scyther Aidan Turner, and is an altogether less jaded individual. Now in his Autumn years, living a solitary life of grumpy sorrow, with just his younger brother for company, the withered legend is called out of retirement for one more job: saving the planet by killing the Bigfoot. It’s myth vs myth.
As can be gathered from the synopsis, there’s more than a dose of magical-realism to it. The surreal aspects work well, with the plot building steadily towards an epic monster battle, though the more rewarding parts of the film coming from its introspective, almost lyrical, human drama. As a slow burn character study it’s fascinating to see a guy with such a fascinating life dwell on what didn’t happen: his lost love. Not everyone doing something historic wants to be a part of history, and we’re used to reluctant heroes. Though how about one who killed history’s biggest bastard when he only wanted to take his girlfriend out on a date? There’s so much pathos in both the romantic past scenes, and the understated senior years. Serious cudos to Krzykowski’s script for balancing out the serious and fantastical elements, that function as an exaggerated account of life getting in the way of itself. The events may be farfetched, but the regret is very real.
The presentation is also stunning, and way beyond what you’d expect from a first timer. Period scenes are filled with colourful detail, making for a vibrant aesthetic. By contrast, the humdrum of Barr’s regular life, in bars nobody goes to and a house in need of a repaint, is stark. Barr’s titular confrontations are also so matter-of-fact as to make them seem as commonplace to us as they are to him: just something that happened. The score is great too, matched for the period and going from fragile, subtle notes to full sweeps when need be. Hearing the swelling soundtrack, as a weather-beaten Calvin ascends the hill to face is target and his demons, is maybe my most profound moment of the year. Hardly surprising since this is my pick for 2018 thus far – and I’m not just talking about at Fright Fest.
So there’s a new best of the fest for me (and one so damn different to reigning champion Upgrade). It’s a testament to the organisers that this can come sandwiched between two more conventional titles and not feel out of place. But then, as the documentary the other day reminded me, Fright Fest is where Donnie Darko got its first UK showing, so its a broadchurch. Not that it doesn’t do horror by the numbers too, bringing me naturally to the next one…
For an exclusive interview with Robert D. Krzykowski, watch this space
HE’S OUT THERE
Directed by Quinn Lasher
A little girl draws something on the pavement with chalk. Her mother warns her to be careful, but she minds her own business. Then suddenly a loud car goes past, just missing her. Phew! It’s neat – a symbolic loss of innocence. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s very maybe the only part of the film with such substance. As can be gauged from the name, He’s Out There is a fairly standard home invasion thriller, but with some slasher elements. The victims are a perfect family, with no backing story to speak of, going off to their perfect lake house for a perfect break from big city life. The mother and two daughters go ahead, because dad’s some work to finish up (him working too hard is the closest we get to layered characterisation), though waiting for them is John. I wouldn’t be too scared – he’s an almost comically inept slasher: weak, and I don’t just mean that in a literal sense. From his taste for children’s iconography, to the way he spends a good 75% of the running time in the bushes giggling, he barely registers as a threat. No doubt part of this is owed to the script, with Mike Scannell seeming to have spilt a big bag of tropes on his pages, and not bothered to pick them up. Not that following a template itself is necessarily terrible, with plenty examples of samey slashers. However, it requires a level of craftsmanship and skill that I can’t see evidenced here, with bog-standard bumps in the night and a slow, tired third act.
With that being written, to his credit Lasher gets at least some of the template right, with the early scenes carrying a sense of menace via a mysterious red thread going into the woods and an atmospheric apprehension when dusk breaks. To an extent, this is sort of inevitable, since the situation itself is stressful enough to force a base level of suspense. Although the feel is helped immensely by a strong cast, with Yvonne Strahovski and her two pint sized co-stars sharing an easy chemistry. That her character also responds as a mother would, when she isn’t taking her sweet time to realise glass breaks, gives the film some stakes – as do their little scared faces doing a tearful terror (even if they seem to recover with minimal reassurance). You may not be frightened, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be invested. There’s also some legit dumb fun to be had from this shamelessly old-school offering, with the pacing being fairly persistent from when darkness falls until that turgid last ten minutes.
But the main thing that makes He’s Out There such a mess is so little of it seems to matter. For instance, early on the kids come across a twee tea-party between the trees. And why? Just because. There’s a number of childish motifs from the start, be them ugly stuffed toys, nasty cakes, sing-songs or drawings. All the same, they seem to serve no other purpose than they’re meant to be stereotypically scary. It’s like a horror movie shaped by a cynical committee of casual fans who think little of their audience. There’s sort of a reason chucked in at the end, when Johnny boy laments how he never solved a super easy riddle as a kid, so decided to try and massacre a family (bit of cunt really). But it feels like such a lazy afterthought that writing about it now I feel all sorts of second hand embarrassment. It’s very maybe the worst motive I can think of in any horror flick. Still, at least part of it won’t be forgettable.
Directed by Demian Rugna
Now that’s better. Recently, festival director Alan Jones said this movie more than lives up to its name. Which is as strong a recommendation as you’re going to get, since if there’s a person who knows his horror its him. I’m not surprised either – this Argentine haunted house flick, which is part of a steadily growing scene, is virtually overflowing with harrowing images.
It all starts when husband returns home to find his wife too scared to enter their kitchen because she hears voices from the pipes that threaten to kill her. Taking this as the humble beginning of a domestic horror, more akin to Paranormal Activity, I began to relax in my seat. However, within the first handful of scenes this has escalated a lot leading to a disturbing reveal in the bathroom. But you won’t get long to catch your breath, as there’s another one moments later, when we find out what’s been happening next door – and it’s really fucking scary too. Then there’s the house across the road… In short, it’s one darn creepy neighbourhood, so who they gonna call? Well the cop on the case calls in two elderly paranormal investigators.
As per The Grudge movies, Terrified watches less like a classical narrative than a collection of different set-pieces loosely combined. Yeah, we get an explanation of sorts eventually (and it’s original too, even if it raises more questions than it answers), and in the second half there’s a proper protagonist. But even then, the cast are mostly kept apart from each other and left to fend for themselves. What’s rewarding is how each of them brings their own methods, expertise and approaches to the table – allowing for the same sinister force to depicted in a range of ways and situations. The scares are genuine too, with Rugna being a master of timing and, crucially, knowing when to release the pressure. With some dissatisfying plot points, and a few inconsistencies, Terrified is not the best written horror of the weekend, though it is by far the most effective. Heck, I’m 17 movies down, and it’s the only one to have truly gotten to me.
Many horror films nowadays work by making their audiences scared of their own home – challenging that sense of security. I don’t know how Terrified will be distributed, but I could see it being best in that setting. Not because it isn’t worthy of the big screen, or because of the endless coughing at my screening (which thankfully wasn’t enough to pull me out). But because any wheezing in the pipes, innocuous thumping on the wall and shapes in the shadows are going to make it that much more chilling. Move over Blumhouse: this is how you do a homegrown horror.
After Terrified I want to see Cult of Terror, a documentary about the genre, though left the cinema early from a mixture of being both tired and a bit bored of it. It’s not that it wasn’t insightful, and I applaud the director for bringing together so many names (Dario Argento, Robert Englundm Bruce Camobell etc.). Although over forty minutes in the talking heads were saying the same things: horror taps into something primal, and weren’t the Universal monster movies cool. Still, heading back to hotel for one more night, I agree on both points.