FrightFest (2019) day 3: Sailing, acting and other extracurricular activities.

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Day three: The point where weariness kicks in, Frightfester shuffle between screens like zombies and some of the films start to blend in. On a personal note, please excuse if these reviews aren’t my best writing, but they were done early morning after a night that ended around half one. So except sloppy spelling and questionable grammar from the start. Still, my head may be sore and I could do to mainline some caffeine, but (spoiler alert) Why Don’t You Just Die! was more than worth it. But that’s getting about 14 hours ahead of myself…

MARY
Directed by Michael Goi

The Mary Celeste is an intriguing little mystery: why a full crew abandoned ship, after taking the time to fold their clothes and put everything in perfect order. Some suspect fear of fire from the bottles of grog – others say sea monsters done it. Regardless, it’s a cool inspiration for a horror intent on scaring you shipless. With a cast, including recent Oscar-winner Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer, and the director of Megan is Missing, it’s got stuff going for it. Both leads are on form, playing their parts with a fondness that hints at a long, shared past. They’ve been through a lot together, and are prepared to get tested again. Which they very much are, when they decide to take their new boat, which Oldman spunked their savings on, for a maiden voyage in the Bermuda Triangle of all places. As per yesterday’s Harpoon (which this otherwise couldn’t be further from) you have the ultimate no way out scenario: a struggling family lost at sea on a haunted fishing boat. It’s a safe set-up, and Goi does lots with just a few rooms. He’s an able craftsman too – clearly knowing the rhythms of individual set-piece scares.

However, he struggles with the rhythms of a full movie. The right beats are mostly there but it’s as unsatisfying watch that quickly settles into a repetitive cycle not dissimilar to Goi’s work on American Horror Story. That old problem where there’s plenty more with little next. We get a “scary” noise, then someone suddenly gets violent, or has a ghostly vision, before Oldman or Mortimer takes a breath then the two of them discuss turning back. Outside the first and last ten minutes, I’d go as far as saying you could nip off for a pee any point and not have missed anything important when you come back. When the baddy finally gets explained they lack any personality or (*snigger*) depth: a genetic dark force for a generic film. The framing device of the mother being interviewed is also an odd one that’s undermined by numerous perspective scenes she wouldn’t have access to – such as other characters’ dreams. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the scare sequences borrow from other films, including side characters getting their tops off to face away from the main cast and whisper scary things. Or a little girl having an imaginary friend/ drawing creepy pictures/ running behind the protagonists giggling in the background. It’s all competently staged but lazy. And ultimately failed to shiver my timbers.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

EXTRACURRICULAR
Directed by Ray Xue

The Strangers told from the other side. Not to give the wrong impression about me, but when I was a teenager me and my friends used to plan perfect murders. Not to do it, of course – just for the intellectual challenge. Could we come up with something so darn devious it couldn’t fail? Extracurricular takes this pastime a step further as four bored high school friends, in a small town, see how savvy they can be by making murderous fantasies into reality. Think of it is a much nastier, mean-spirited and cynical cousin of yesterday’s Knives and Skin. By way of patience, meticulous planning and psychopathic tendencies they have carried out a series of elaborate kills. So with their mid-terms coming up, then college, they plan one more: a Halloween special. Along the way we watch them debate if it’s better to improvise or come up with a play for every possibility, and what masks haven’t been done to death. The narrative takes us from the idea stage all the way to execution.

It’s a fascinating premise. The makers know people watch horror films for the kills, and play with the hypocrisy in us being more than happy to do so provided justice is served and at least someone survives. So it’s an interesting position to put us in: we see the murders come together, as per a caper or heist flick, and then because our the rapport built up we don’t know if we want to see them succeed. This is made an even more difficult by the kill sequences getting told from the perspectives of the victims (the opening scene see them stalk and slash a pair of soon to be parents). So they’re no longer targets, but terrified people like anyone else who dies onscreen. The main characters are such shits too, with the narrative asking us to follow some really horrible people. Yet by starting off when these killings are already underway, and having us revel in the game aspect, it makes us willing accomplices to these murders: hell, it’d be a shame if all that hard work went to waste. It’s not dissimilar to Strangers on a Train or The Rope, and it’s been a while since a horror made me so morally conflicted.

However, the script maybe tries too hard to let us off the hook too. Almost hardwired into this idea is a moment when one of the gang decides enough is enough, and they fall apart trying to cover their asses. Extracurricular is no exception, with one of the friends (Mariam) getting a guilty conscience and being partially redeemed by love. However, it’s hard to accept this turn given she’s already so far in and also still continue to be involved – so it doesn’t feel like a natural arc. Were it more carefully threaded through it’d be different, but her moral concerns seem to come up when the director’s worrying about the viewers caring. This is a misstep. While I don’t think we ever truly sympathise with the devils we’re invested in their quest. Bits from the police perspective also don’t fit in. Mayhaps it’s about making us more uncomfortable with wanting to see the schemes come into fruition, though this could possibly have been achieved without a shift in who’s story it is. It’s good that the local cop happens to be two of the gang’s dad, but it doesn’t matter much since their relationship isn’t very developed. These parts are a distraction that dilutes the challenge the film presents us with. Still, I’m glad it never answers the most obvious question: why do it? Nihilism? Bad home lives? It never tells us or tries to give a simple justification, because sometimes we don’t want to know. Just like we don’t want to know why we sort of want them to win. Very good film, and one that’s sure to be a conversation starter. Whether it’s about what we’ll allow fictional characters away with, or how we’d have done it better.

Rating: ★★★★☆

THE DRONE
Directed by Jordan Rubin

Modern tech’s a bad thing: so goes the message of just about every horror and sci-fi hybrid ever made. In surrendering our privacy for convenience, or cool toys, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box. Social media and mobile phones have been done to death, so this new horror-comedy looks at you guessed it, Drones. What if one of those pesky, flying devices got possessed by a serial killer (who presumably read a programmers’ version of Voodoo for Dummies) who wanted to keep stalking from beyond the grave. After being picked up by newly-weds Chris and Rachel he gets to carry on his reign of terror. Even if he’s now mostly reduced to being a menace or (*chortle*) cyberbully, with such hijinks as filming them do it, almost crashing the car or messing with the TV. Still, after a while, they finally decide to do something with the titular piece of technology – hurrah! Only for Chris to think it’s fixed and the story all to start again.

If this sounds frustrating to read about, it’s worse when stretched out for 80 minutes. For a switch off your brain comedy, it’s remarkably slow-paced and doesn’t really get going until the last 20 minutes or so when it embraces the idea’s silly potential. If you’re doing high concept then it can help to go as high as you can. Before then the kills, what few we get, aren’t particularly imaginative and mostly take place off-screen. There are some good bits: the scheming drone rocking back and forth amused me, Rachel’s ridiculous backing story was great and the cheesy soundtrack, whenever the done sneaks up, elicited a chuckle. But there were no belly-laughs. I think a big part of the problem is the characters are too passive and way behind us from the prologue. They also aren’t likeable or unique enough to sustain our interest in the absence of an exciting pace. Both actors are fine, if out of sync with the supporting cast’s more knowing performances. However, the script’s a dull cycle of awkward misunderstandings. It’s only late on, once they’re both committed to fighting this thing, that I became invested in their survival. It’s not just the characters that are underdone either – the whole film felt flat, with the main attempt to add layers revolving around a clumsy parallel between Chris’ job shooting models and a serial killer stalking then murdering innocent women. Still, if you hang on for it the third act is a serious upgrade and a sign of what it could have been.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

MADNESS IN THE METHOD
Directed by Jason Mewes

The second comedy in a row. Oddly it was up until he started flirting more with horror that I loved Kevin Smith’s films. I used to own all his script books, read every article about him and watched hours of him just shooting the shit about movies. Heck, I wanted to be him. Now his long-time collaborator, an onscreen stone sidekick, Jason Mewes (aka Jay) has gotten behind the camera, as well as in front of it, in an irreverent feature debut stacked Quick Stop style with View Askew in-jokes to the point is feels like semi-famous people sniggering at their own jokes. Snoogins/ Snootch to the nootch etc. It’s a clearly personal project for Mewes, starting on a meta note as a quick cartoon summarises his journey from troubled teen to an offbeat star with fans all over the world. Despite doing alright for himself now, he’s in a rut – wanting to be seen as more than just the stoner sidekick to do some serious work. So he tracks down a legendary book, that’ll reveal all the secrets of method acting. But after he tries to apply some of its rules, inhabiting the role of a criminal to scaring a director into giving him the part of one, chaos ensues.

The cast Mewes has assembled is admirable, with a combo of big (Teri Hatcher and Vinnie Jones), cult (Zach Galligan and Danny Trejo) and novelty names (Dean Caine). All of them get the exaggerated tone just right and clearly had fun doing it: a horror-comedy equivalent of Mamma Mia. It’s also made unexpectedly poignant by being the last thing Stan Lee ever filmed. However, a great line-up can only do so much with bad material, and when the plot’s as thin as a joint wrap, then the characters and jokes have to be spot on (like in Clerk). On both counts it fails for me. By linking Mewes’ success to crime, there’s the potential for the narrative to do something challenging or push our loyalties. But his dilemma of siding with success or friends is seldom given any weight, and he comes across as a selfish prick. I get this is a big, dumb ex-stoner comedy filled with dick jokes. Still, fundamentals like character motivation matter, and it’s hard to support or even like Jason when he mistreats everyone without it going commented on. The bad characterisation isn’t limited to him, with most parts being delineated by a single one-note joke. Brian O’Halloran’s part is particularly poor. Yeah, Dante being the most sought after writer in town is funny. Though he’s otherwise portrayed as so goofy it doesn’t even make in-universe sense this could happen. The movie’s also oddly homophobic, with the kind of uncomfortable “aren’t gays funny” schtick I figured we moved on from a decade ago. I get this is View Askew, and if it ain’t woke don’t fix it etc. But there’s a difference between characters casually queer-bashing, and queer characters being a joke unto themselves. The high points, except the ridiculousness of Dean Cain having to hide from fanboys, are the scenes with Kevin. These have a warmth that can’t be faked, and it’s a joy watching these two best buds shoot the shit. Unfortunately, they also highlight how much Jay needs Silent Bob.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE!
Directed by Kirill Sokolov

I originally wasn’t interested in this, though on day one Ian Rattray recommended it highly – saying it was a good thing I didn’t get my much-wanted seat for Volition after all. I suspect he’s right. Billed as a Russian take on Tarrantino, this is a bloodthirsty dark comedy with spectacularly gory action sequences. The story’s initially quite minimalist: a rape-revenge by proxy, in which twenty-something Matvei goes to a Moscow apartment, armed with a hammer, to kill his girlfriend’s dad for abusing her in the past. This doesn’t go so smoothly and after an epic scuffle, he’s left trying to fish a pin out of a grotesque plughole using only his tongue. Just as you think this particularly bad bout of meeting the parents can’t get worse, there’s a knock on the door.

I’m not normally a fan of prolonged fight scenes. But it’s hard to put into words how good these ones are. There’s a visceral physicality to the whole thing, with a Loony Tunes on painkillers approach to violence and exceptional choreography. As per the title, the characters have a habit of dying slowly and painfully, and an everything but the kitchen sink approach to fight choreography is breathtakingly savage. There’s a lot of gore, but fortunately, the way it’s presented makes it more fun schlock than sick, even when limbs are being broken and skin’s getting torn. The soundtrack is exceptional, combining spaghetti western standards with 80s pop, adding to the cartoon feel. It’s not all just people duking it out though, and the plotting is good too with razor dialogue and a penchant for humorous asides and quick plot twists. Three different sets of flashbacks giving three different characters reasons to be there – and the final standoff is a stylish play on Westerns. A Rusky rampage of violence, betrayal and family dysfunction. Perfect for the midnight slot.

Rating: ★★★★★

So a very mixed day, with two films I dug and three duds. Leaving around half one I headed back towards the hotel with another reviewer, on the way getting harassed by kids out past their bedtime and a drunk trying to cover us brown liquid. Central London attracts all sorts.

david.s.smith
About david.s.smith 272 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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