Digital FrightFest (2021) Day 1: The Show and The Brilliant Terror


The dark heart of cinema beats again. Last week FrightFest took place in London’s Leicester Square – by the looks of it, a joyous celebration of all things horror. This week, there’s a second dose: a digital option for those who can’t make it or are not keen on travelling. It’s a sort of best of the fest, with some of the most popular movies getting their second airing and a way for fans the country over to celebrate from the comfort of their sofa. As usual, our four horsemen (Alan Jones, Greg Day, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray) are there, before the opening slot, to introduce us to such films as…

Directed by Mitch Jenkins

A few years back, FrightFest screened some shorts for a project called Nighthampton: the brainchild of Mitch Jenkins, and the loveably eccentric comic creator Alan Moore. They were a sometimes inspired, always odd, series that combined to tell the story of what happens to Northhampton after the sun’s gone down. Well, it turns out they were all a prequel to this movie: a horrific comedy-fantasy in which a mysterious investigator named Fletcher searches for a stolen artefact that used to be with someone he claims is his brother. This quest brings him to a town of vampires, masked vigilante millionaires, singers dressed like Hitler, voodoo gangsters, noir private eyes, and parapsychologists – all in the heart of England. If you think that sounds odd, wait until you see his dreams. It’s a promising, if unremarkable, premise, though what makes it different is the very British sense of humour and offbeat production designs. Jenkins and Moore find the extraordinary in the ordinary: a secret world going on right below our noses.

Folks most familiar with Moore for his serious superhero work may be a bit lost when it goes into noir mode as Fletcher enters a detective agency, in a shed, to have a hardboiled kid help him between narrating his life. When it’s not in the dark, there’s a kaleidoscope of colours to match the demented proceedings. Still, the narrative is pretty laboured, with a somewhat samey cycle of Fletcher meeting unusual characters, asking questions then being sent on to the next. And while these exchanges are often fun, such as a chat about why pineapple is a good weapon, somewhere we’re missing is an engaging protagonist. I don’t think this is down to Tom Burke, who is a more than capable leading man – and has also played a not dissimilar role in Cormoran Strike. But here, he spends a lot of it looking bored in a distractingly big wig, and it’s only in the second half that we learn much about him or his motivations. Without being invested in our detective, it’s tricky to invest in the outcome of his convoluted goose chase. He’s neither strange enough to fit in with the bonkers bits nor straight enough to ground them.

The supporting cast is enjoyable – particularly Becky, who goes from tears about one of the visitors to her guest home dying to gleefully welcoming her new one within seconds. A superhero who watches over everyone on a computer has promise. But, despite the two-hour running time, these bits are seldom developed, giving them a hit and run burlesque quality – they show up long enough to move the plot forward then leave, never to be seen again. It eventually leads to an out of place, tiresomely foul-mouthed gangster third act. Where it’s at its best, The Show is a delightful mix of small-town mystery meets The Mighty Boosh: a surreal court sequence loaded with dad jokes and a visit to an odd bar. However, its meandering plot, long dialogue sequences and emotionally cold storytelling meant I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Directed by Paul Hunt and Julie Kauffman

As well as showing us the best horror films, FrightFest always takes time to bring us behind the scenes. Last year it was the excellent Clapboard Jungle. This year it’s The Brilliant Terror: a structureless but passionate look at grassroots movie making. For instance, Mike Lombardo struggles to shoot, then reshoots, his latest effort: ‘The Stall’. A film about a bad trip to the bog, complete with slimy tentacles and buckets of blood. As the film’s main focus, we follow him and learn about his doubts, economic woes, family life and the various technical problems that can come with making monsters. Among other we also meet Jeremiah Kipp (Slapface), Paula Helfley (Movie Monster Insurance), Thomas Norman (Gitchy), Julie Ufema (Caveat), Heidi Honeycutt (Wreteched). All talk about their way into the scene and their love of the genre more broadly. If you don’t know their names don’t worry – they work at the fringes of the genre (for now)

True to stereotypes, many of them talk about not fitting in or how harshly everyone judges horror fans. One of them also suggests horror is fucked up people making movies for fucked up people. There may well be truth to that, and far be it for me to argue with their experiences – one of them even gets a death threat during the filming of the doc. Yet horror has long since left the shadows (if it was ever in them), with many indy filmmakers finding mainstream success. The general public like it. Still, perhaps it’s not the genre as a whole and more the sorts of splatter films the moviemakers here tend to gravitate towards (and boy do we see splatter). This isn’t the only familiar territory we enter – musings about horror allowing us to confront our real fears in a safe setting have come up in numerous documentaries or articles – though at least here they’re explored in more detail than usual. I also liked that these aren’t the same voices you’ll typically hear from: the grassroots movement are unfiltered and uncompromising. Which reminds me – there’s a weird motif of scenes being shot in bathrooms – seemingly a recurring feature of the grassroots scene. Still, it’s a very positive, affectionate look at horror that’s even quite moving at points – the line-up isn’t afraid to look vulnerable, and the directors evidently have their confidence. Impressive, considering we’re told horror fans seemingly lack empathy compared to the general population.

Those hoping to learn how to break into the trade may feel short-changed – though since it follows amateurs, an aspect we’re frequently reminded of, this isn’t the documentary for that. Heck, when isn’t filming people die we see Mike doing the toppings in a pizzeria. Special effects wizards, we’re also told, are highly secretive. But they’ll likely enjoy hearing the filmmakers’ stories, finding out why coffee can be helpful to makeup artists or how a good horror film can put you off sex. It’s a lot of fun. There’s also some good, and gory, footage of actors and extras getting all bloodied up – these are families and friends who believe in their visions. It softens the blow when they mention other jobs, debt and mental health issues etc. The frank, warts and all footage also mean we’re getting a positive, but never romanticised, account of the process. This lot may like making movies as much as we like seeing them, but it’s still work. On that, despite some niggles outlined above, The Brilliant Terror is an easy watch with likeable people. It may be less focussed than last year’s Clapboard Jungle, lacking its narrative momentum – but the two could make for a decent double bill. Props to it also for including a lot of fierce, female filmmakers too.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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About david.s.smith 450 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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