FrightFest is back. Following an exciting triple threat of events last year, the dark heart of cinema makes its welcome return to the Glasgow Film Festival. The four horsemen, Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Greg Day, have given fans a six-pack of the latest genre releases to watch safely from the comfort of their own homes. This year looks like an exhilarating blend of exorcisms, explosive action and exploitation. First of all, though, we have an uber small-scale caper gone awry.
THE WOMAN WITH THE LEOPARD SHOES
Directed by Alexis Bruchon
First to go live was this French thriller about a robbery gone wrong. A mysterious woman asks a thief to break into a house and steal a mysterious box. It seems easy enough at first, but dozens of people arrive for a party as he’s escaping. He manages to hide just in time, taking refuge in the study. But confined to this little room, he makes a shocking discovery – a corpse in the wardrobe. What follows is an unconventional and minimalist murder mystery. Throughout the film, everyone except the thief remains faceless – a Tom and Jerry approach where we only ever see their lower half. Hence the title – there’s enough feet in this to make Tarantino blush. This approach is great for making us care about our nameless burglar – and we build up quite a rapport, despite him being a blank slate. The first act, in which he creeps through the house, is hold-your-breath tense. However, what’s less impressive is the whodunit second act in which we watch him piece together a story from various handy documents that have been left around. In terms of just the story beats, it’s an intriguing tale of betrayal and assumption. But in terms of its presentation, it’s simply not very dynamic. We’re not invested in the suspects since we don’t know them, and the repetitive nature of our robber ruffling through papers becomes akin to watching someone else solve one of those mail order mystery boxes. It picks up again towards the end, as the thief’s position becomes increasingly precarious, but it still wasn’t enough to grab me again. Though plaudits to Bruchon for some outstanding presentation: the editing is excellent, and were it not for the mobile phone (which becomes essential to the plot), you’d never know it was made recently. The score is also top-notch: traditional strings that are always teasing at things to come. If only they had been more exciting when they did.
THE OLD WAYS
Directed by Christopher Alender
Another chamber horror. This time we’re stuck with Cristina: a journalist of Mexican origins who travels to her ancestral in Veracruz to investigate a story involving sorcery, witchcraft and healers. Once there, she’s kidnapped by a group of mysterious locals: a mother and son combo who claim that she’s possessed by the devil and needs to undergo an exorcism. But that’s absurd, right? The Old Ways is an altogether more successful piece of storytelling than The Woman With The Leopard Shoes since from the get-go, it presents us with a story we’re invested in and a character we care about: Carli isn’t a passive protagonist and leading lady Brigitte Kali Canales finds blunt humour in the gravest situations. The parallel between her drug addiction and her captors isn’t over-egged, and as the situation develops, Alender uses the single room setting to significant effect. It makes for a claustrophobic, character-driven riff on the possession genre with lore and a demon that’s like none you will have seen before. Even if there are only so many ways you can mess with the template, it’s refreshing to see an often conveyor belt concept adapted to a different culture. I enjoyed seeing the dynamics between the small cast develop. At times it’s unnerving, with effective close-quarters horror and genuine scares. Perhaps it drags in the third act, but the devilish denouement is worth the wait. What makes it even more exciting is The Old Ways is only the director’s second feature, following one in 1999. As a showreel of what they can do, this is dead promising. Now hopefully, someone will give them a bigger budget.
RUN HIDE FIGHT
Directed by Kyle Rankin
Oh boy, this one is going to piss some people off. And rightfully so. Bankrolled and distributed by Cinestate, who you may remember had a series of #MeToo allegations against them, and hosted by super conservative pundit Ben Shapiro’s outlet The Daily Wire, this was already going to be a tough sell for some people. What makes it even tougher still is the story: it’s Die Hard set during a school shooting. And yes, it’s roughly as tasteless and crass as this sounds, with the only thing that can stand between the teenage would-be terrorists and their body count being a good girl with a gun. Its sensational take on a serious subject matter, which makes a popcorn movie out of national tragedies that have resulted in hundreds of children murdered, is crass, exploitative and ethically dubious. Still, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t thrilling. Rankin uses dramatic irony well as the first half-hour skilfully builds to the moment the shooters enter the canteen and take hostages. What follows is a wonderfully tense story of heroism and gunplay with some pointed satire. In particular, pointless paperwork and the media’s complicity come under fire. The acting is also first-rate, with Isabel May putting everything she has into playing Zoe: our Jane McClane. It’s a physical, dramatic and highly charismatic performance. While blunt, the motif of her speaking to the ghost of her mother also shows her emotional range. The shooters are portrayed well, too, with the actors transcending their tropey material: an outcast, someone who is mentally ill, an incel and a nihilistic ringleader. And though it could be comfortably cut down in the middle, with no significant loss, it makes for an enjoyable alternative to We Need To Talk About Kevin or Elephant. Even if some of the appeals to vigilante justice and even more guns to stop gunmen are potentially harmful, what it lacks in sophistication Run Hide Fight makes up for in sheer audacity. I’m not going to give it a rating since it gleefully defies any star system. Rankin has an objectionable idea that he dares his audience not to take pleasure in seeing come to life. No, it isn’t all about taste –it’d be rich for a horror site to dismiss a movie entirely based on that. But that does have to come into it, considering it is very grossly dealing with something very real. Nonetheless, if you aren’t entirely put off by the premise or, to be fair, maybe even if you are, then it’s a good piece of action-exploitation.
Directed by Cody Calahan
The second day starts with this horror-comedy about a horror movie writer (yay!) accidentally entering his own slasher. When drowning his sorrows in a bar, the bitter Joel, a reporter for a Fangoria style magazine, accidentally stumbles across a support group for serial killers. Meeting after hours in a bar, they sit in a circle discussing their dreams and their evil deeds. At first, Joel is able to pass as one of them, spinning a movie idea he had into a backing story: killer cab driver. But soon, his cover gets blown, and he’ll have to find his inner monster to make it through the night. It’s a neat premise, and you got to hand it to Calahan: he knows the genre inside out. Tropes are turned on their head throughout, and he manages to keep a sufficient balance of building tension and presenting the baddies as caricatures (even if some are underused). The move from a more traditional slasher into a siege movie is also effectively done, resulting in a sometimes thrilling second half with effective scares and stellar choreography. If there’s a core problem, it’s that one creative decision makes it far less dramatic, with a characterless guardian angel coming to help Joel when he most needs it. As such, we no longer have him in over his head as much as we do a slasher smackdown. Moreover, although it’s a weird complaint about a comedy, the reliance on sitcom-style gags also slows things down. The playfulness mostly works and means Vicious Fun more than lives up to its name. But at the same time, I didn’t find it hilarious enough to excuse the lack of tension towards the end.
OUT OF THIS WORLD
Directed by Marc Fouchard
From a film where someone pretends to be a serial killer who drives a cab, to one about someone who is. It’s back to France for this shocking film about a serial killer trying to find love. Leo is an aspiring composer who lives and works in his car as an Uber driver. Between dropping people off/ chopping them up, he works on his masterpiece. One day, he picks up Amélie, a deaf dancer he sees as a like-minded spirit: someone similarly cut off from the world but connected to the same remote sound universe. Can he find redemption in her? It’s a story you’ll have seen before, in anything from Joker to Maniac, but it’s told better here than most other variants. Much of this comes down to the immersive presentation, with innovative sound design and some perspective sequences immersing viewers into Leo’s dark world. Kevin Mischel is also outstanding, finding the halfway between someone you’d run from and give a hug. Yeah, he could probably kill you – and he plays his scary scenes with a quiet intensity, hinting at someone who could snap any second. Yet, there’s a sadness to how he handles his character’s disconnection. The well-judged script also doesn’t do an awkward exposition dump to force us to feel for him either, functioning more as a character study than a melodrama. We see the literal and metaphorical scars of his past, but it never fully explains them nor sanitises the horrible acts he performs. Aurélia Poirier is similarly compelling, with the lingering shots on her dancing providing a beacon of light in an otherwise dark movie. Much of this you’ll have seen before. For instance, the violence as self-expression part is done to death. It’s also now standard for this kind of movie to focus on the male protagonist’s torment over the suffering of their female victims. Still, the way it’s told is unlike anything else I’ve seen in ages, and it packs an emotional punch. There’s one film left, but I expect this will be the best of the fest.
Directed by Kirk Caouette
Yep. Rounding things off is this low-budget riff on John Wick. Dean is a hitman who goes by Badger – apparently, Dean is too lame, so he’s chosen this fittingly solitary, vicious animal instead. Like his namesake, he prefers being alone between jobs he gets given by his Handler. Emotionally distant from the world and everyone in it, he’s a quiet loner until he makes friends with his target: Velvet, a call girl he’s supposed to get information from then off. Only he wants to take her out in another way. An embodiment of the ‘tart with a heart’ trope, he learns to connect through her and finds someone worth killing to protect. He doesn’t know that she’s a mob daughter, meaning all heck is about to break out. Eventually, from a high-octane opener, the pace soon grinds to a halt as our characters fumble their way through a cliché-heavy romance plot that’s never deep enough to distract you from the thought of another punch-up. You’ll have seen the kind of story told many times before; the gangster and showgirl romance is as old as the genre and often better than it is here. Caouette, who casts himself in the lead, isn’t engaging enough to evoke emotions beyond indifference or wanting to see him batter more people. And attempts to widen the narrow focus to look at deeper philosophical issues feel relatively superficial, with both the film and its protagonist lacking character. Still, the action scenes are always well-done, with visceral energy about them and fantastic choreography. The handheld style also means every last hit lands as we get up close and personal during the fights. If only there were more of them.
And that’s us for another year. Thanks again to FrightFest for putting on a darn enjoyable weekend and all the filmmakers for putting their work forward. Hopefully next time we get to do this in person.