This is the end, beautiful friends, the end. Following five days of films, filter coffees and plenty of kills, Fright Fest is over once again. It’s been another successful year, with a mostly stellar line-up. And even where there have been missteps (Ravers and Heretiks) neither was without its charms. It’s been a year of original voices, unconventional storytelling and a shit load of nuns. Let’s hope the Fright Fest foursome have saved the best for last. With the French extremism via Gaspar Noé still to play, along with local Brit flick Possum, I wouldn’t be surprised. But first, let’s visit The States.
OPEN 24 HOURS
Directed by Padraig Reynolds
A slice of good old-fashioned American horror, that shows what happens after the serial killer gets caught. A few movies have dealt with this idea, most notably the satisfying but flawed Last Girl Standing. Open 24 Hours does much the same, only with a more conventional slasher formula. The twist this time is our survivor used to date the monster, and was even partially complicit in his crimes. Nicknamed The Watcher, her boyfriend (The Rain Ripper) used to make her look on as he slaughtered his victims – young women. However, one night it got too much so she burnt the house down, with him inside. He survived, but not without being disfigured then getting put behind bars. Now out, after doing time for her part, she wants to build a new life for herself and, thanks to her probation officer, finds menial work in an all-night gas station off the beaten track. Only it doesn’t feel like she’s over her trauma yet, and on her first shift she starts seeing things like a man in flames, and the face of her former lover. It’s going to be tough to make it through this graveyard shift alive.
Despite feeling a little lazy in places, and being quite predictable, there’s a lot to like about Open 24 Hours. The angle of Mary leaving a physical prison, to find herself in a psychological one, is interesting if a little on the nose. And even if the resolution isn’t thematically tied to this aspect, the journey she goes on to get there is a harrowing one. The script is also strong, spending a while to ground itself in the normality it’ll later bash through with a sledgehammer. For instance, as Mary starts her shift at the gas station, the brief look at over the counter culture, where she’s shown the ropes, is a lot of fun and allows the characters to just be themselves. As part of her wider arc, it’s an endearing mini victory as she rings up her first case of beer with an excited smile.
The gas station itself is used well and makes for a moody backdrop, complete with a modern noire feel when the endless rain beats against the neon signage. Furthermore, some of these early scenes inside, where her and her new colleague shoot the shit, watch like Clerks with a killer. It’s not all so restrained though, and the first half gives way to a more conventional, and more violent second, where the blood flows liberally. A head smash scene, in particular, has to be among this year’s most stomach churning kills. Although by the time she finds her friends tied up to chairs, in a dimly lit room, it’s tough to feel too excited. Although entertained, yes.
Director Reynolds piqued my interest with Rites of Spring, then entertained me further with Worry Dolls. Once again he’s shown he can do the classic slasher beats. And though it’s fair to say he isn’t doing much new with the template, he’s got a good grasp on it, raising the stakes with confidence and skill. There’s some weaknesses in the last act. Notably the characterisation of the villain is a little generic, particularly after a false start. A prolonged chase sequence, through the kind of scrapyard that only appears in movies, also makes for an anticlimactic confrontation. As per the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and its goofy abattoir sequence, it shows sometimes less is more. Still, in giving good kills, characters you care about and a decent atmosphere, all the main parts are there. Perfect for a stormy night in.
Directed by Matthew Holness
Possum is the most significant film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen He’s Out There. And four other movies. If that joke doesn’t mean anything to you then you’ve probably never seen Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place – the mock 80’s horror pastiche, set in a hospital above a gateway to Hell. Having watched that series many times over, along with its spin-off, I was excited to see writer/ director and actor Matthew Holness delve into serious horror. Whilst his fellow alumni, Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade, have gone on to do numerous TV shows, Holness has retained a relatively low profile since, cropping up in bit parts or short films. Though by the looks of it, he’s kept himself busy by writing this. And watching a shedload lot of movies.
The range of influences is vast, spanning horror history from silent European cinema to Cronenberg. Not to mention Freud, who’s theory on the universal fear of uncanny was a starting point for the script. That’s not the only collective anxiety he evokes. The titular puppet (one strike already) is grotesque, boasting long, spider, legs and a flat-faced mannequin’s head. However, this is not to say the film is for everyone. Possum is an emotionally complex and visually raw movie with a minimalist script. It’s also very dirty – filthy, even. I mean this in a literal sense – every last surface is grimy, stained brown and there’s mud everywhere. It climaxes in a skin-crawling sequence that’ll leave you wanting for a shower. This isn’t the kind of movie you just watch, it’s one you feel.
At the heart of this onscreen nightmare are two great performances, from Sean Harris as disgraced puppeteer Philip, and Alun Armstrong as his only living relative: a bitter misanthrope. Their toxic relationship, conveyed through austere dialogue and well times silences, provides one of the movie’s main tensions. The other key one is Philip’s attempts to rid himself of this hideous toy that’s keeps coming back. It’s a burden he’s bound to carry with him, that acts as a manifestation of the trauma he’s not dealt with, and everything he’s come to hate about himself. Queasy, sad and incredibly well made. After the screening Holness said he’s got an idea for another film, though said no more except it’s even darker. I’m mutually awaiting and dreading it.
Directed by Doron & Yoav Paz
People will probably know the legend of The Golem from a range of TV shows, though the original tale hasn’t been on the big screen for over 100 years. Now, having evoked eons of Jewish mythology in Jeruzalem, the brothers Paz are back to make up for lost time in this period horror. Set in 1600s Lithuania, this folk horror focuses on Hanna – a young woman trying to protect her tightly knit community from a deadly plague and some dangerous settlers on the edge of town. As a last ditch effort, she summons the titular monster – a creature, made of mud, to help her out. It also has more than a passing resemblance to the son her and her husband tragically lost. But as every religious horror ever has shown, when you deal with the devil you risk getting burned.
It has real potential, though the film suffers from the same plot constraints as Pet Sematary. There’s simply only one direction it can go, with the classic theme of hubris gradually taking centre stage, along with the trope that what comes back isn’t what was buried. For too long, you’re waiting for Hanna to realise this, as the characters get pushed around like chess pieces by an unsubtle player. To be clear, there are moments of greatness in the film such as when The Golem shows what it can do. Hanna’s personal conflict is also well dramatised, making for an empathetic lead. Though the fable-like story structure means the audience will be waiting on the film to catch up with them. Then when it does it’s too little too late, with the demon’s representation being neither thrilling nor new enough to make it all seem worthwhile. I suspect in millenia people will still tell cautionary tales about playing God for a reason – it’s a staple of monster stories. Thus to do it justice the consequences should be more severe.
Despite weaknesses in Ariel Cohen’s script, the Paz brothers are on form in their directors’ chairs. Their set is amazing, making for a dynamic location for the drama. The night scenes are very atmospheric, with the surrounding woodland looking like it holds all sorts of secrets and intrigue in the village as dim candles hint at hidden lives. Furthermore, as per Jeruzalem, they show themselves as being equally adept at world building and capturing chaos. The action scenes are fantastic, with an energy that’s absent in the story’s pacing. Some of the sequences with the kid are also very unnerving, though the moments of sweetness where it and Hannah seem to connect, are touching. Whether it’s shown as an unfeeling demon, or a surrogate son, they are able to compliment the perspectives of the different characters well. Consequently, while the movie doesn’t work as well as their last one, it does nothing to put me off them as filmmakers.
For an exclusive interview with the Paz brothers, watch this space.
Directed by Gaspar Noé
How do you even start to review something like this? A fitting finale to the festival, and not in name only. Writer/ director Noé, who was in attendance, is best known as the mind behind the shocking rape-revenge/ revenge-rape horror Irreversible. His new outing, Climax, manages to be just as uncompromising, being a head-fuck movie of the highest order. It starts with who we take as our final girl rolling in the snow whilst the end credits roll. Then in a celebration of dance, a prolonged series of talking heads reflect on the art before a stunning vogueing sequence. Arms swing wildly and people bend themselves into shapes you didn’t know existed. It’s beautiful, vibrant and frankly amazing. But then what feels like Heaven soon ends up being Hell, in a haze of sex, drugs and children in very hazardous situations. Beauty gives way to depravity and violence, and though there’s nothing to quite compete with the Irreversible tunnel sequence for sheer horror, the overall effect is more disturbing. Not to mention, it’s a much better film.
Supposedly based on a single page outline, about an urban legend of a dance party where the punch got spiked with LSD, Climax is a tough watch. Its free-form narrative floats between protagonists, following them via prolonged steady-cam shots in an episodic format. We don’t get to know them on an especially personal level, with them mostly defined by why they dance and who they want most to bone. But then the macrocosm is more important than any particular person. And even if you don’t feel for them, you’ll still feel when the shit hits the fan. By allowing a contrast with the dreamy earlier sequences, Noé perfectly encapsulates the moment blurred the room begins to spin.
And spin it does. As the night goes on the omniscient camera twists and turns all over the place, to the point of motion sickness, passing into different clusters of people. It’s disorienting, hypnotic and utterly immersive – sure to give many cinema-goers a sore head. The music helps: a pounding mix of continuous fierce dance beats to compliment the aggressive camera work. During the bad bits, briefly interrupted by moments of tranquil intimacy, the plunge just gets more and more intense ‘til you feel beaten into submission, watching bodies/ demons dance on the ceiling. It’s an absolute ordeal, with the soft, come-down ending making for a bittersweet close as we catch up with the introduction. It won’t be for everyone, and in that respect my rating is not a recommendation. I know a lot of people who’ll think it less than the sum of its parts, and I suspect many of my colleagues here would give it one star. Which is fine, and I expect that’s what Noé would want. And maybe after five sleepy days, watching people get disembowelled on one of the country’s biggest screen, I was in just the right frame of mind.
Leaving the cinema a final time I stopped to thank and shake hands with Ian, one of the four organisers. They’ve been doing this for 19 years now, putting together a great weekend that’s so much more than just an extended movie marathon. A festival where friendships form and develop, where people are introduced to work that otherwise they never would be and, most importantly, where they can share their passion with others who they know feel the same. It’s a place where enthusiasts meet their fan base and people rub shoulders with their heroes, where careers can be made and horror fans (creators or not) come out inspired. Heck, these last few years I’ve met Jennifer Tilly, Matthew Holness, Kane Hodder, Adam Green and a new favourite filmmaker Robert D. Krzykowski. These are the sorts of memories they may barely have made, in the blur of a long line of press, though I know they’ll last me a lifetime. Oh, and it also shows some excellent films.