After a late-night, made even later by the loud sounds of next door’s TV through the paper-thin walls, I awoke to a Scottish breakfast and day 2 of FrightFest Glasgow. The first was varied enough, with a mix of boiler room intensity, gleeful stupidity and carnival thrills. But today there’s a cocktail of deadly drugs, religious horror, a zom-com and a movie about a guy who can send whatever he wants into a secret dimension where the sun don’t shine. A middle-finger to all who say horror films are all the same. But before we get to any of that…
A NIGHT OF HORROR: NIGHTMARE RADIO
Directors: Luciano & Nicolás Onetti, Sergio Morcillo, Joshua Long, Jason Bognacki, Adam O´Brien, Matt Richards, A.J. Briones, Pablo S. Pastor & Oliver Park.
Owed to a technical hitch, this anthology about a folksy-horror radio show – which was planned as a closer – got brought forward. Which is maybe unfortunate, as its the sort of thing that’d maybe air best long after dark. DJ Rod Wilson shares tales of terror with his eager, and not so eager, listeners. These then get shown through a series of shorts, of varying quality, that tie in loosely to the sorts of things Rod’s callers tell him scares them. Between his many stories, he also receives strange calls from a scared child asking him for help. At first he thinks it’s a joke, but they keep on coming in.
This wrap-around is probably the worst part, with some dialogue, and some very tenuous links to the material (a bit where he says “forest is our word of the day”, before asking if people had been in one, made the audience chortle). The answer to the missing child mystery is also weak and does little to contextualise the things we’ve just seen. Not that this would have been an easy ask – unlike the best anthologies, there’s nothing stylistically or thematically to tie it all together. As for the shorts themselves, there are too many to go into proper detail. However, some of them hit the mark – even if you may have seen them before on YouTube (they were not commissioned for this movie, but rather are established ones getting curated by it). The Smiling Man, for example, is a solid combination of the playful and the eerie. The Disappearance of Willie Bingham is also a conceptually interesting satire on an unusual form of capital punishment, that puts us in engaging place ethically – even if it peters out at the end. Both find their home here and enrich an otherwise unremarkable compilation of killer mermaids, monsters that can’t stand the light and a predictable twist on Sweeney Todd.
ZOMBIE FOR SALE
Director: Lee Min-Jae.
It wouldn’t be a horror film festival without at least one zombie-comedy. This time it’s an offbeat social satire, from South Korea, that joins the ever-growing horde. In it, the country’s biggest pharmaceutical company has been conducting illegal experiments on humans. After one goes wrong, a corpse shuffles up to the door of the Park family, who runs a gas station on the outskirts of Poongsan. At first, they’re understandably scared. Though once they find out its bite has restorative de-ageing side effects they see an opportunity to wangle some won from the local men. Then some of them start developing side effects and the small town has an outbreak of old men with vitality and an appetite for brains.
I enjoyed a lot about this film. There’s a real sweetness to it, telling a lovely story of cabbage, ketchup and an angry dog. We get some fabulous one-liners and amusing bits where it breaks the fourth wall (how the family decides they’re dealing with a zombie is laugh out loud funny). The slapstick humour is also consistently good, with the cast showing impressive comic timing. Moreover, their characters are individually very likeable. I don’t think they work so well as a group though and, for all the focus on the family, the relationships that make it up are relatively underexplored. Had the film been shorter, I don’t believe this would have been too much of a problem. It’s a two-hour watch though, and because we don’t necessarily root for the Parks as a unit, and their journeys are quite basic, then this feels too long and repetitive. Perhaps the better version of this film would be a smaller one that emphasises the budding relationship between the zombie and daughter Hae-Gul – which is a pleasure from start to end. Regardless, there is much to like and it, eventually, builds up to a very satisfying climax.
Director: Rose Glass.
Holy shit, this one is good. Arguably the most promising film of the fest. This debut feature from Rose Glass, who was in attendance, has the honours of being distributed in America by new horror favourites a24. As per their movies, such as Hereditary, Midsommar and The Lighthouse, it’s a slow-burning character study that fits in very nicely with their genre-pushing approach. The titular Maud is a young hospice nurse, on a pious path. She hasn’t always had such a sense of purpose, though, and is also struggling with personal demons. One day she’s put in charge of caring for Amanda, a hedonistic dancer now in the late stages of a terminal illness. Despite her old carer calling her ‘a cunt’, Maud believes that through helping she can achieve redemption. And will stop at nothing to try and save her new patient’s soul.
Many of my favourite horror films have leads that leave viewers emotionally conflicted, and Maud is as difficult as they come. She’s a complex creation, combining self-righteousness and religious sanctimoniousness with a heart-breaking vulnerability: something the far more world-wise Amanda sees straight away. Their exchanges are simply sublime, tackling sophisticated subject matters, and tell us so much about them both. Saint Maud is as much a film about someone struggling with their mental health as much as their faith. We don’t get a full look into Maud’s life, though what glimpses we get through her self-harm scars and uneasy interactions with those she once new tell us enough. There are, of course, some scary scenes too with a handful of deeply unsettling moments. And though it’s not a possession flick per se, there are also novel takes on some of the possession tropes: levitation and facial/ vocal distortions. The beachfront in Scarborough provides a perfect, and often an ethereal, backdrop to this silently epic story. It helps that Glass uses the aesthetic to communicate her protagonist’s increasingly unhinged view of the world: a true perspective piece from its haunting opening to its horrifying finale. A religious experience, and an early contender for best of the year.
Director: Tyler Cornack.
And now for something completely different: the one about the inter-dimensional anus. If anyone says to me again that horror is too samey, I’ll point out that I caught Saint Maud and this one after the other. I know its still early days, but I’m already calling this for the most surprisingly good film of 2020. Common sense will tell you it not only won’t be, but also can’t even, be good. However, with a surprisingly serious tone, and a story that takes us both literally and conceptually to strange places, it’s hard not to love it. The absurdist Butt Boy does for arses what Teeth did for vaginas. In it, the lowly feeling father Chip Gutchell, who is in a soulless job and loveless marriage, finds himself being the first guy to enjoy getting his prostate examined. This moment of self-discovery leads to him putting various things up his rear end, including a bar of soap and remote control. Though from humble beginnings, once he’s got the itch he can only go further. Nine years later, a newly sober detective, Russell, suspects meets him as an AA sponsor and soon suspects he’s up to something. But his worst suspicions are nothing compared to the insanity when he gets to the bottom of things.
It’d be easy to dismiss Butt Boy as being gross-out, lowest common denominator trash. When it features as many poop jokes as it does, along with numerous (stomach) groan-inducing puns, then it almost challenges viewers not to. Beneath all this though, there’s a fascinating look at addiction and flawed men fighting their urges. Chip is the best kind of villain in that we know he doesn’t want to be, one and is a weak man with (admittedly unorthodox) urges he would overcome if he could. Seeing him use the support group as a platform to disguise one habit as another is a great means of humanising something so stupid. Even after a range of animals, people or evidence get put betwixt his cheeks you sort of want to see him get away with it. Russell is less engaging a lead, which I suspect is more down to the writing than the performance since he’s just another regretfully divorced cop with a drinking problem. Still, the archetypical approach grounds Butt Boy in the language of film noir: an amusing contrast to its subject matter. It also means the unusual cat and mouse game is grounded in a framework that makes it easier to take the emotional journeys seriously, if not the plot. There’s a very competent thriller here, if you ignore the premise. Predictably, there are a few bum notes too, and it arguably lingers too long like a bad fart. Yet, also like one, it’ll still elicit a chuckle. As a digested version, Butt Boy did not just exceed my expectations – it blew them away.
Director: Joe Begos.
Long-time festival friend Joe Begos is back with his follow-up to Bliss: a retro exploitation movie. Set in the near future, or an alternative present, where a designer drug is causing devastation, death and destruction reign supreme, VFW is another psychedelic outing. A teenage girl, named Lizard, is in way over her head when she gets her hands on a stash from a local mobster. When a gang of violent punks come looking for her, it falls on a group of war veterans to defend her, along with their local watering hole. These guys have been through hell, but this siege will be the fight of their lives. It may not be the birthday that bar-man Fred was hoping for – but at least it makes him feel alive.
It will make the audience feel it too, waking many of us up from a late in the day lag. As per like Begos in-person, there’s a contagious energy about VFW that’ll suck you in. It’s an inspired marriage between director and material, with him using the austere set-up to deliver fountains of blood, stunning practical effects and carefully managed mayhem. It isn’t all scrapping – the beginning bits where our vets, interestingly played by ageing pop-culture heroes, shoot the shit are rewarding and oddly touching. The film wisely takes the time to ask questions about how these people have been treated post-combat and the camaraderie that can still underline emotionally closed, hypermasculine, friendships. These scenes provide an emotional foundation for the fighting to follow and humanises our heroes. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that Begos’ movies sometimes feel like the sum of his influences, with this one having a distinctly Assault on Precinct 13 vibe that’s not helped by his continued reliance on synth-heavy scores (he claims it’s less Carpenter than Hawks). Still, if there’s an element of tribute to the film, it’s every bit as good as the real thing.
Director: Julien Seri.
Oh dear. FrightFest inadvertently saves the worst for last. In a change to the billing, thanks to the afore-mentioned tech hitch, this became the not so grand finale. Following his wife’s apparent suicide, Detective Jeff Anderson can’t check off the sense she was murdered (to be fair, since her murder is the opening scene then he isn’t wrong). It’s a suspicion that becomes an obsession, as he finds out she was the victim of a twisted father and son combo of killers, while all the time being a bad dad to his own boy. Naturally, nobody believes him, so to stop them from killing off other women he’s going to need to break some rules, as well as a lot of limbs. Oh, and get lucky though some staggering second act coincidences when he’s been written into a corner.
It’s tough to know where to begin with this one. It’s an impressive cast wasted on rotten material. Anderson Falls is ostensibly a mystery, despite us knowing precisely who done it and how from the start. Unfortunately the why element isn’t too interesting, and the baddies have the sort of misogynistic agenda that the movie’s poor handling of female characters does little to counter. Most are just obstacles to the plot, and there to hinder Jeff. To be fair, their scepticism is understandable, given the logic he uses to work out their killers’ motive and identify their next target, is ludicrous. Had we not seen the baddies in the first frames, in a frustrating structural decision that just leaves the audience waiting for them to meet finally in the third act, we wouldn’t believe him either. In particular, the near-parody part where Jeff gets into the head of the killer, in which he makes the compulsory crazy-wall of newspaper clippings and shouts “I hate you” at a photo, is the sort of thing cops could only get away with in movies. Including this breakthrough, several scenes are unintentionally funny and made parts of the audience snigger – something I hope Seri wasn’t there for. Still, if there’s a saving grace, then it’s him. Like his last movie, Night Fare, Seri can stage a thriller. He’s good an excellent eye for shot composition that’s let down by writer Giles Daoust’s tin ear for dialogue. Characters speak in clichés and functional exposition, saying things like “I tried to think like they do and now I know how they operate!” I won’t give it away, as I don’t wish to take away what little fun you may have with Anderson Falls. But one overly earnest line towards the end, where someone summarises the value of police work, may go down as the most amusing I hear all year. So very bad, but at least it wasn’t boring.
On that, we’re off and I head to the hotel late, nervously peering over my shoulder for monsters, punks and gaping a-holes behind me. A mixed day, but overall another great fun one – helped in no small part by the FrightFest family. I’d like to take a moment to thank FrightFest for, as usual, putting on a largely wonderful weekend. And to the Four Horsemen, and the many regulars in the audience, I look forward to seeing you again in August.