FrightFest (2019) day 1: Crawl to daddy, and other scary monsters

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I’m not much of a gambler. But I’d bet big money you like having your buddies over to drink beer, eat junk food and watch movies together. Heck, even Uri Gellar could call it: it’s part of being a film fan. It’s also the spirit behind Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day’s creation: the ultimate horror marathon. Only they do it for five days and an audience of hundreds – often including the filmmakers themselves. Yes, Arrow Video FrightFest is the UK’s number one genre film festival and way into the dark heart of cinema. It’s also a weekend in Glasgow, a Halloween night and an exciting home video/ book label in its own right. And it’s now in its twentieth year: a huge achievement. Just think, when they were selecting their debut line-up you may have been listening to the second Britney Spears album, which you downloaded of Napster, and using dial-up to track down people you once knew on Friends Reunited to discuss who’d win: Freddy or Jason (if the studio’d only pull the thumb out and make it). It was a very different time.

To celebrate FrightFest turning a fifth of a century, I’m delighted to be in London again to visit its spiritual homes: Cineworld (formerly The Empire) and the Prince Charles, both in Leicester Square. I say the same thing every darn time, but this year the four horsemen have outdone themselves, with a roster filled to the brim with promising movies. There’s the latest big releases, two of which will play on opening night, fresh talent from the ever-impressive independent scene and a tonne of international offerings. After checking into my hotel, I go on Twitter to read about last night’s Best of the Fest party, a booze and quiz night setup with some of the attendees and some of the special guests, and it sounds a bloody blast. Yet another example of FrightFest going the distance for its community. Given the relatively low status of horror among the general public and mainstream critics alike, who place it below sci-fi but perhaps above fantasy, it’s great that this festival so fully embrace the fans. And wandering into the cinema for half six, it’s nice to see so many people in t-shirts depicting their favourite killers and films or the FrightFest mascot. Who knows, maybe 20 years from now they’ll come wearing ones of the picks from this year. Perhaps starting with…

COME TO DADDY
Directed by Ant Timpson

Drawing first blood: Frodo does dark again. To be fair to Elijah Wood, the sorts of films and performances he picks nowadays are nothing like his magnum opus. Yet given how iconic his turn in Lord of the Rings was and remains, there’s maybe still an unintended smidge of stunt casting when he swaps Baggins for Baddins and does something adult. Which this gross-out, comedy-thriller definitely is. In it, Wood plays Norval: a 30-something hipster “DJ”, with a bad haircut, a supposed friendship with Elton John and major daddy issues. Now, decades after he last saw him, his estranged father gets back in touch and asks him to visit his house: sat on a cliff edge and looking like “a UFO from the sixties”. Norval’s cautiously optimistic in wanting both answers and maybe even some sort of familial relationship. No such luck: from his arrival, things are more than a little weird, and his dad seems a deeply disturbed man. Plus a bit of a dick, undercutting and undermining his son at every chance. Their relationship soon goes from fraught to dangerous. But that’s all I’m going to say on the plot: the movie has a habit of subverting expectations, and to say anything more would be to say too much.

While Come to Daddy is laugh out loud funny, there’s an unexpected emotional heft to seeing Norval trying to reconnect with his dad. These scenes are often excruciating, thanks to a well-judged script and Timpson’s use of high or wide angles to capture the distance between them. Both Wood and Stephen McHattie are very watchable, and the film is at its best when it’s just the two of them. However, I was less convinced by how the script married this minimalist drama with the far sleazier, and far sillier, second half. To be fair, it’s pretty bold and I doubt many would guess where it’s going. The explanation for everything is not something you’d expect here, even if that’s more due to the contrast than it being an especially out-there premise. The gore is also very well done, and the gags are dead funny (one involving a UK politician is likely to be the best you hear all year). So as the sum of its parts, it’s very good. Although it doesn’t hang together as a narrative, transitioning from a great two-hander into a third act that feels like part of a completely different (and more pedestrian) film. Still, at points it feels more like Timpson is working to a quota than serving the story. Granted, its clear from the off, where Shakespeare and Beyonce are mutually quoted, that Come to Daddy won’t stick to a normal template: I can’t say I wasn’t wanted. Though it goes back to the personal plot for the finale it was still affecting, but felt somewhat unearned. I guess I wanted more quality father and son time.

Rating: ★★★½☆

CRAWL
Directed by Alexandre Aja

It’s been ages since I saw a good creature feature. As such, I was looking forward to this alligator fest from the director of Piranha 3D, Switchblade Romance and The Hills Have Eyes remake. In his latest, he takes us to Florida where a massive hurricane has led to a small town being evacuated. However, Haley ignores it to save her father who’s gone silent. As the weather gets worse, they’re trapped in the crawl space of flooding house (geddit, double meaning in the title). And to make matters worse, the rising waters have brought a bunch of giant, hungry (and reasonably good CG) gators. So it’s a fairly basic set-up, but then as these movies arguably should be. Crawl is big, dumb high octane fun that’s unashamed of what it’s trying to be – a movie equivalent of body positivity. There’s no alligator as a metaphor, or a “maybe we’re the real monsters” angle here. Which is fine, as it does what it does well and with a (tee-hee) refreshingly snappy pace.

You’ll know by now if this flick’s for you. If you’re into this sort of thing, it’s solid. Aja escalates the tension well constantly upping the stakes as Haley fights off the new squatters. The compact space is used excellently throughout, offering plenty of shadows and water for the alligators to come out of. It’s success really rests on how well it sells the fear they could be around any corner. And as the storm grows stronger, and the alligators get more ferocious, it becomes increasingly evident Mother Nature is a boot. Yeah, the story relies on characters making iffy decisions, doing little for the Florida man/ woman stereotype. Though in a roundabout way, I suspect that’s sort of the point. The cast takes to the material well enough, with the film resting on a believable father and daughter relationship. Even if the combo of Hayley being a skilled swimmer, underappreciated by her pops, and the threat being aquatic is more than a bit contrived. If there’s a major problem, it’s that the narrow focus on the two of them in one place necessitates a low body count. This isn’t to give away how many (if any) named characters die, but the intimate cast mean we buy these big lizards as dangerous, but not necessarily deadly. There’s also some second act slump as the reptiles seem to sod off to let the leads talk about some fairly pedestrian family drama, and then a fizzle out ending in place of a final huge setpiece. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining twist on the home invasion subgenre and an at times relentless reptile romp.

Rating: ★★★½☆

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Directed by André Øvredal

On paper, the director of Trollhunter doing a movie produced by Guillermo del Toro is a heavyweight genre tag-team. Particularly when they’re working together on a horror-fantasy full of things that go “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker” in the night. Based on a series of children’s books, that are huge in America, this is the kind of light horror that makes veterans nostalgic and may even convert new genre enthusiasts. Not that it’s all family-friendly fun. The tone’s way more macabre than Goosebumps, and there’s even some comment about the Vietnam war running through it: their loss of innocence framed against America’s. Still, having never read the source material, which I’ve heard is like Clive Barker’s Books of Blood edited by R. L. Stine, something was missing for me. The ghouls are pretty cool, using 90% practical effects with CG enhancements. However, the script does the bare minimum to contextualise them. Think the Annabel Comes Home speed-dating approach to meeting baddies. Scary Stories assumes a knowledge of the original stories and an understanding of the context that’s missing in the seven or eight-minute vignette style. Without this, things tend to happen with little explanation and the lack of underlying logic remains a point of frustration rather than an intriguing mystery to be cracked. As a collection of short scares it just doesn’t hold up.

Not that this is an anthology per se. It’s episodic, but still follows a central story that acts as a lengthy framing device for a series of sketches. Holding it all together is a set of unsuspecting teens, in 1960s America, who decide to spend Halloween sneaking into an allegedly haunted house. There they find the writings of Sarah Bellows: a woman that allegedly hung herself following a lifetime of abuse. As they read from her pages they notice the stories are writing themselves and telling tales of their own demise. It’s not a hugely original idea, being a literary Pandora’s Box, but it’ll do. The meta aspect and the notion of free will vs a guiding hand are also disappointingly underdone. Inevitably, when the plot is light then a lot of work falls on the characterisation to keep us interested. And though the young cast is accomplished, there’s not enough to their parts to manage this. Except for our protagonist Stella, whose a likeable horror fangirl/ troubled teen, they’re unremarkable conduits for an unremarkable story (on a related point, a film that looks at race relations also shouldn’t resort to the aged mystical black woman for exposition trope). There’s a slight attempt to personalise the different creatures to the individual kids e.g. a girl scared of zits has one pop open into several nests worth of spiders. Although in some instances this is barely done. Most notably, when one of the boys encounters The Pale Lady the link between them and the thing they’re meant to fear most is tenuous at best. A shame, as maybe the film’s best scare. So it may make you jump, but I doubt it’ll make you care. There’s always next time though – with a hundred or so tales in the three books, and this being a huge hit in The States, there’s more than enough for a franchise. This could be a new, more playful, answer to The Conjuring. They’ve created a monster.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

So there we have it – a consistently good, but rarely outstanding opening night. However, I’m keen to see what tomorrow brings. With the lineup including Dachra, Girl on the Third Floor plus Knives and Skin I’ve got the Friday feeling.

david.s.smith
About david.s.smith 281 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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