It’s a home invasion! For the first time in its 21-year history, the Summer leg of FrightFest has left its natural home of London to take over living rooms around the UK. Across all four countries, horror fans in Cornwall to Shetland have the opportunity to tune into the dark heart of cinema on tablets, laptops and TVs. The programme is shorter than usual – with festival-goers being able to fit in 14 films, and a quiz, from 25 (it was 70+ last year). Though given the circumstances let’s not be too picky – besides, there should be a cinematic return in October. As per usual the four horsemen (Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Greg Day) look to have organised quite an event. There are explosive devices, the dark web, mindfucks, curses, masked killers, monsters, zombies and infections. But before all that, we have an iffy opener to get out the way. Oh, as usual, festival goggles apply and these were written in a rush so may be laden with typos.
Directed by Marc Fehse
Drawing first blood is Sky Sharks: a high altitude, and even higher concept, creature feature that sees the world threatened by flocks of flying great whites, piloted by undead Nazis. Think Sharknado meets Iron Sky. As you can guess from this synopsis, the movie doesn’t take itself seriously – something the opening moments underline as a dad watches trashy inflight films full of bad acting, tits and violence. As a heavy Europop synth soundtrack blares on, the reanimated Reich hijack the plane and kill everyone on board in a mess of sloppy editing, big beats and dodgy CGI, before returning to their arctic base. The only thing that can stop wreaking too much havoc, is a special military unit fronted by two young women, Angelique and Diabla (lazy symbolism for you), with their father Dr. Hans Kammler: a former Nazi scientist.
Some films walk the line of being so bad they’re good – the not dissimilar Sharktopus comes to mind, as does Snakes On A Plane. Unfortunately, Sky Sharks is not like them. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know I didn’t think it’d be so boring. The bulk of the action takes place in the opening twenty minutes, with little context. After that the majority of the running time comes from muffled conversations, women getting clothes on or off and surprisingly lengthy flashbacks, that all force it to a bloated 102 minutes. There’s more action towards the end, though by then I think many will have switched off mentally, if not physically (some punters may leave their living room in protest). At least, at points, it looks impressive. Director Marc Fehse has fashioned a cool aesthetic, even if I couldn’t escape feeling he’d do better with music videos. There are trippy psychedelic effects, with the green screen adding an otherworldly quality, from the start and some impressive steampunk designs. In particular, some of the WW2 sequences hint at skills worthy of a far better film. It’s also hard not to be slightly mesmerised by the way the jawsome fish glide through the air.
The humans are less interesting. Even in something this lodged in parody, the characters come first, and there’s little attempt to flesh any out. Our two women are ultimately there for T&A, or to be told what to do. Despite having a lot of dialogue, their dad and they say very little aside from exposition, to describe the needlessly long-winded plot, between montages and simply aren’t engaging enough to pick up the slack during the prolonged second act slump. There’s minimal growth or anything approaching an arc. Movies like this live or die on how well they live up to their premise – since that’s what makes people want to see it. Sky Sharks has neither the story beats, fun factor nor creativity to do its eye-catching title justice. Yeah, there are some fun satirical bits about the military-industrial complex and climate change, and cameos from Tony Todd along with others who’d usually do autographs at conventions near you were welcome. There’s a promising thread too about how people fighting authoritarians may need to become as bad as ones they oppose. However, it’s too messy and poorly paced to be entertaining. At the very least, more badass action sequences with the “unstoppable” and “indestructible” foes would have been welcome. Forget flying: Sky Sharks has an unexpectedly slow stagger to its anti-climax. For the festival, at least the only way is up.
I AM LISA
Directed by Patrick Rea
Now for a different type of creature-feature. I Am Lisa is about a twenty-something, outsider, who returned to her hometown to manage a used bookshop following the death of a relative. However, small towns don’t like when people leave, and the former school bullies are delighted to find she’s come back. After a spat, involving the theft (then the return) of a book, she goes to the police about one of them. Uh-oh, the sheriff is a radge with a badge and the head bad girl’s mum. And it sure as hell wasn’t a windy day when the fell from the tree. Following a ludicrous escalation, during which Lisa is battered then left to die in the woods, she is bit by a werewolf. It may sound like her luck has got even worse, though this creature of the night has resuscitating properties, leaving her with supernatural powers and a hunger for blood, flesh and dog food.
Though I Am Lisa sounds like a werewolf take on The Craft, there’s not much lycan in it (if I were harsh I’d quip that there’s even less to lycan about it). At no point does the titular character grow fur or walk on all fours – something presumably down to the budget. Heck, her claws look like the sorts of ones you’d get from Poundland, and her final form is more like a vampire from early Buffy. It’s also oddly paced, with the character-building scenes being rushed, so there are minimal emotional consequences to their drastic actions, while the actual story drags. The main things I think it has going for it are the forgotten, middle of nowhere, feel and a terrific lead. Kristen Vaganos has heaps of charm and effortlessly sells the different takes on Lisas we encounter. She’s a feral killer, but she’s also a loveable geek, with relatable insecurities, and a magnetic screen presence. I even overlooked her talking in the cinema, as they watch the Last Man on Earth (thematically linked since they’re both about characters losing their humanity) and putting A Clockwork Orange in the philosophy section. It may sound backhanded, and I guess it is, but it’s a testament to Vaganos that she could do so much with such a light script. Her and Jennifer Seward, who plays her besty Sam have solid chemistry too – despite more than a bit of queerbaiting going on. I didn’t particularly enjoy her journey, but, for the most part, I was invested in it.
The characters speak mostly in exposition, or saying things like “tears give me a hard on”. They also seem to do things in service of the story rather than because it’s believable. The sheriff, Deb, gets the worst of it. I get in revenge flicks we need to hate the villain and her henchwomen, but they should also at least be credible. Whereas she’s the sort of person who follows up the news someone close to her had just died by muttering “damn it”, she’s a comic book baddy. I suppose this may be what Rea was going for, with the movie maybe being an origin story, though if it was it’s isn’t a style it commits to enough visually. Combined with the lack of drama, and it’s one of few films in this vein when we aren’t encouraged to interrogate the motives of the hero, despite a loose motif about her becoming a monster to do this. On that point, the deaths are reasonable but should have more bite – something else I suspect was down to the budget. Add to this a hokey old book plot device, the director’s fetish for the colour green and an emotionally unsatisfying ending, and it feels a missed opportunity. A weak werewolf film, and an even more declawed vengeance one.
Directed by Alastair Orr
Of the opening nights, this is the movie I was most keen on by far. South African filmmaker Alastair Orr, who made a name for himself with Indigenous and House on Willow Street, is back for a surprisingly funny twist on The Most Dangerous Game. We start with nine former school friends hit the woods for a debauch camping trip. You’ll know them by now. We got a rockstar, a bad boy, a stoner, an innocent and a nerd. Now in college, they haven’t been close since ‘what happened with Caleb’: a mystery which is unravelled as the film goes on. Following the usual drinking and screwing, they are gassed then wake to more than a hangover. Someone’s strapped bombs to their chests with clocks, showing different timers counting down to zero. And the only way to get more time is to take it from someone else. Their vests have flashing lights, to highlight how long they have left, and record their deaths and any kills they make – a violent Laser Quest. It’s a simple but effective premise, essentially Battle Royale by way of Saw (which it even borrows a musical cue from), with loads of dark comedy. What’s best about it is, unlike almost every other horror, the bad guy is all the good guys.
Not that the good guys are necessarily good people. For a movie with a relatively high body count built into it, the ensemble also has to be cannon fodder. As such, Orr and screenwriter David D. Jones, have crafted a cast of old-school slasher style characters who are horrible people. They lie to, and manipulate, each other, as naturally as they breathe – and that’s before they’re even in the game. Despite these glaring character flaws though, they’re endearing and fun to be around in much the same way as their 80s counterparts. Were this a coming of age I’d have turned it off, but for a ‘kids getting murdered in the woods’ movie they’re perfect. It helps that the actors have a good rapport, and look as if they had a hoot making it. A few out of place witticisms aside, they speak as real people do too – although if a gag about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has dated as well as their vows. Plus, like the idea dictates, once the hunt begins it moves as fast as masked killers seem to walk. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say there’s no cheating the concept with them finding a way to defuse the bombs half an hour in. The kills themselves aren’t overly graphic, though the violent tone and relentless pace still mean the many kills have an impact. It’s vicious, scrappy stuff and I dug watching them turn on each other for a few measly minutes. Perhaps it’s predictable who’ll still be in one piece for the final confrontation, though it’s a blast getting there.
There is also the odd poignant moment, like one guy reminiscing about how when they were teens they felt immortal – and now may not even outlive fax machines. It’s the ‘what would you do ?’ aspect that makes this both an exciting film and a potentially suitable candidate for a franchise. Like The Purge before it, Triggered forces viewers to think about whether or not they’d embrace a survivalist instinct and get their hands bloody. If it’s well-marketed, I think think this one may get talked about in future. On that point, the film also pays tribute to a range of classics including The Shining and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m also pretty sure it riffs on the old Friday the 13th video game. There are problems with it too – this isn’t just a love-in. Like its decades-old slasher influences, there’s casual homophobia, said with huge grins, and a similarly dated explanation for the inciting event. These bits went beyond dark humour into mean-spiritedness. I get that the characters are assholes, though horror as at its best when it punches upwards and they’re still meant to be likeable. Neither should have made the cut, especially since neither is necessary, but at least it made me want to see them die more. The setting’s also reasonably bland, without even so much as a cabin, though I suspect was done to save money. Maybe if there’s a sequel, we’ll see somewhere more elaborate. For now, I’m just glad to have had this trip to the woods.
And with that, the first two days go out on a bang. It’s been the usual mixed bag – the festival typically takes off on Saturday. I’m also frustrated at missing 12 Hour Shift, which has the next morning’s social media raving about it – but then there’s always Grimmfest in a couple of months. Three films down, with many to go. And thankfully there’s no midnight walk back.