Glasgow Fright Fest Day 1: Murder, monsters and morning assembly

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If Fright Fest is the mature older brother, this is the younger, punky one that noises up its adoptive parents – the Glasgow Film Festival – year on year. Since 2006 it’s provided a second glimpse into the dark heart of cinema, boasting a similarly eclectic, range of premiers, guest appearances and fandom. Hit films like Machete, I Saw the Devil, The Raid and The Devil’s Candy have all featured here, to audiences including Eli Roth, Ti West and Neil Jordan. Yet despite being a Scot myself, other commitments or money problems have meant I’ve only made it through three times. Still, living north of the border again –and no longer a student – I’m happy to rectify that. So I take an early-morning train to Glasgow for the weekend to stay with my long-term buddy, and fellow horror writer Chris (@horror365), to catch what looks like a decent line-up. This year there are no big hitters – perhaps an inevitability with it being tier two among increasing competitors for the genre festival crown (including the August event). Yet maybe more than other time’s I’ve been, there’s a real international feel – with the festival including latest films from far and wide: Sweden, Mexico and South Korea. We also have two apiece from the US, and the UK (including one from bonnie Scotland). But first, a trip across the seas to for the first of our Canadian triple threat…

LEVEL 16
Directed by Danisha Esterhazy

If your school days were like mine, they were probably a clumsy negotiation between coming of age and age of coming. Not so much for Vivien – a 16-year-old in a hyper-strict all girl’s boarding school/ prison that aims to educate cohorts to the point they are adopted and taken outside the dilapidated walls. This education consists of the regimented, totalitarian installation of feminine virtues including cleanliness and submissiveness and combating vices like anger and curiosity. She’s used to keeping herself to herself, and having minimal drama – as the girls are encouraged to do. That is until she’s surprisingly reunited with former friend Sophia, who let her take the fall for her own mistake a few years ago. Now she’s off the prescribed medication, so looks set to shake things up for Vivian again by asking what nobody else dares to: what’s the deal with this place anyway?

It’s a cool premise with an intriguing mystery at its core, made deeper with interesting bits of world-building: the girls have never seen the sun, nor can they read. However, as is often the case, the questions it asks are more intriguing than the answers it gives. It’s not that the reveals are bad, given the central twist pretty darn good (and not one I’ve seen before). It also has some interesting themes, with comments on gender roles and the commodification of young women. But what’s frustrating it is ultimately fails to unite the two, with the eventual revelation making much of the earlier parts seem unnecessary. It’s almost like there Esterhazy (who also wrote it) had two concepts she awkwardly tried to marry together. Still, when it works it really works. There’s an oppressive, claustrophobia from the start and both leads give more emotional heft than I would have expected from a film where characters are forced to suppress their feelings. Hence we get strong character journeys that are easy to invest in. Katie Douglas gives Vivien a convincing disconnection and Celina Martin plays Sophia with a brave rebellion in the face of tyranny. I predict a bright future from them both.

Rating: ★★★½☆

THE DEAD CENTRE
Directed by Billy Senese

Dead-man walking. Excusing the poor pun title (the original name was John Doe, so I think this was a step in the right direction), this is a grizzly thriller. A suicide victim appears to have come back to life, and walked out the city morgue. Edward, a medical examiner, goes in search of the missing body unaware that he has checked himself into a psychiatric ward, to be treated by Dr Forrester, where he is experiencing amnesia. But what first seems like a heck of a case-study is actually something all-together nastier as other people begin to act out before ceasing all function then staying dead. With their mouths forced wide open, in a way I haven’t seen since early 00’s Japanese flicks, it seems something’s getting beneath their skin and taking them over. Unaware that they are separately investigating the same mystery, Edward and Dr Forrester’s plots develop in parallel as they simultaneously seek to understand what is going on and why. The structure is interesting enough, though I’m not convinced the story is deep enough to warrant it – with the explanation being vague enough to be summarised whilst moving the plot forward. The more urgent plot with Forrester is also by far the more engaging one. Still, the macabre mood – and stunning sound design – that runs through both should keep most audiences watching.

There’s excellent world-building evident from the start, particularly on the psychiatric wing where doctors deal with day to day problems in the face of bureaucracy and budget constraints. The patients themselves are depicted sensitively and humanly, with neither script nor performances lapsing into old unhinged caricatures or playing their mental health problems as a source of creepiness. Even the extras appear to be essential parts of the very living, breathing organism that is the hospital, giving an authenticity bigger budget films fails to deliver. Also, being a chartered psychologist I loved seeing one of us not playing the bad guy for once. Unfortunately, scenes spent away from the unfolding medical drama don’t really live up to it, with the nature of the threat feeling workmanlike. It lacks uniqueness, making it the sort of supernatural horror I’d be forgetting shortly after if i were not notetaking. It’s weird that the scenes in pursuit of it are where the film feels padded. But then a good measure of horror characterisation is if the characters would be good company in the absence of the monster – in this case, a resounding yes.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

HERE COMES HELL
Directed by Jack McHenry

It’s schlock horror, as Agatha Christie meets The Evil Dead. This affectionate homage effectively combines elements of the cosy, country house mystery with Fulci mayhem. A 30’s cocktail party of the usual suspects (a famous tennis player, a femme fatale, an oil tycoon etc.) go through the usual passive-aggressive scheming and barbed insults that have come to define Christie’s work. Shot in black and white, with delightfully over the top accents and a jingly soundtrack, the team have clearly put a lot of work into capturing an authentic old-fashioned vibe. That it was reportedly done on a shoestring budget makes this achievement all the more impressive. And while it sometimes lapses into campy parody over pastiche, for the most part it is passable as a slightly exaggerated version of the real thing. Importantly, the bits where it’s meant to be serious have the kind of atmosphere where it feels like something scary could happen. Like the eerie séance sequence just before the shit truly hits the fan.

I had a blast during the second half, with a combo of knowingly bad lines and extravagant gore. The small cast all get their time to shine during the often bizarre set-pieces and ultraviolence. And though some will argue it fails to transcend the sum of its influences I’d point out there’s a scene where a demon grows T-Rex heads as hands so they should stop being such a killjoy. The main character arc, with lower-middle-class Elizabeth going from outsider to the most survivor, is a joy to watch unfold. It also provides enough social class, and gender, commentary to show the makers are critical of the era they are aping rather than sticking to its beats in the same of preserving heritage. After all, as the already wrecked walls of the house fall apart around the cast it’s in a way that both mourns, and literally deconstructs, the source material. The only issue I had was the audience hollering with laughter in the screening often meant I missed a few lines at a time. Needless to say, this is maybe the best problem filmmaking can have. Bonkers, bloody and brilliant. I look forward to seeing it again.

Rating: ★★★★★

BLACK CIRCLE
Directed by Adrian Garcia

I got to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this one – I figured it sounded like a Scandinavian Lords of Salem minus the exploitation style. And I was sort of right, from the enchanted record concept down to the incomprehensible lore and dull third act. Based on her sister’s recommendation, Celeste listens to the flipside of a 70s magnetism (i.e. hypnosis) vinyl she’s told will change her life. This is an understatement, with the music birthing a doppelganger who follows her around everywhere. These early scenes are the film at its playful best, with Celeste losing control over limbs as she puts the record on. There’s also a well-developed paranoia running through it – not dissimilar to the 70s classics – even if the nature of the threat, and what happens if it keeps growing stronger, are poorly conveyed.

It also really loses something as it enters the third act, by overcomplicating things with a choppy script in which it feels key scenes have been omitted. Both the visual style, and sound design are exemplary, despite the overwhelming use of Dutch angles, so it’s a technical triumph. But character relationships are left unexplored, meaning we have little reason to invest in their journeys, and supporting cast are introduced with little context – the telekinetic kids. Worse, it all builds up to a prolonged set-piece that is barely explained. This means much of the film follows a process we don’t really get told enough about to combat a threat we don’t know much about to avoid vague consequences we don’t understand happening to characters we don’t care about. In short, it’s emotionally cold and vague to the point of the action often seeming meaningless. Don’t get me wrong, I expect Black Circle will have an audience that really enjoys unpacking it, and fully connects with the uncanny aspects. But I’m very much not in it.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

And on that note we had to go, taking the last train back. I understand the last film of the night was a punk giant bugs film called Deadant about a one-hot-wonder glam-rock band getting high on peyote and fighting an army of oversized insects. The sort of film that could either be very good fun trash or a so bad it’s bad creature feature. Am sure I’ll find out soon.

david.s.smith
About david.s.smith 245 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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