FrightFest (2022) day 1: The Lair and The Visitor From The Future

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Including Glasgow events and digital ones, this year marks my fifteenth time at FrightFest: the dark heart of cinema – and around the ninth or tenth I’ve covered for this site. Celebrating its 23rd edition with thirty-two world, twenty-two International / European, and eighteen UK premieres, the world-renowned event leads the way in celebrating the genre’s versatility, and this year is no exception. Seventeen countries are represented, spanning five continents, with a promising mix of slashers, sci-fi, comedy, mystery, zombies, anthologies, monsters, dramas, evil clowns, etc. Heck, the first two movies are miles apart stylistically. So let’s get started with them – that’s, after all, why you’re here.

Directed by Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall has been going through a bit of a rough patch. His early works Dog Soldiers (which he presents in 4K at this festival), The Descent, and the underrated Doomsday marked him as a rising star. And one of the best of British. Across this trio, he showed he could work with various styles, subgenres, and budgets. Yet as he’s continued to do excellent TV, his stab at a blockbuster, Hellboy, was savaged by the studio (and critics), and 2020’s The Reckoning made for a soulless melodrama. So, it’s with some trepidation that I went into The Lair. Still, the premise is pure Marshall: he calls it “The Dirty Half Dozen meets The Thing.”

On her final combat mission in Afghanistan, RAF pilot Kate Sinclair is shot down over a rebel stronghold. Chased by insurgents, she finds refuge in an abandoned bunker, where Russians once experimented on crossing human organs with alien DNA to build some super soldiers. After a series of stray bullets free them, these monsters set upon a local US army outpost, giving the team a whole new threat to deal with. The monsters themselves aren’t going to win any awards for originality: they look a bit like the monsters in The Descent but crossed with Venom. Their MO is ok, being strong and flailing long tongues all over the shop, but I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by them. It doesn’t help that two potentially exciting ways of developing them, including their capabilities and their scale, are ditched almost as soon as they get introduced. Still, it’s good to see people in rubber suits used throughout, and we get some great money shots, including someone’s whole face being ripped off. At its best, there’s a franticness to the action scenes, and the choppy editing throws us into the increasingly perilous situation. Particularly in confined spaces – whereas the creatures look a bit ridiculous in the wide-open spaces of the desert. There are also cool decent set-pieces – the stand out involves a car and a lift.

But at its worst, it’s a corny and repetitive movie that can’t seem to decide how far it wants to go into self-parody mode. Sometimes it’s targeting machismo and Hollywood cliches and achieving some genuine laughs – though they are few and far between. Yet, at other times it appears to unironically adopt many of the same tropes to sell the predictable character journeys. So we have something that doesn’t fully commit to the comedy but lacks the drama or characterisation to otherwise succeed as a story. There isn’t much heart, and where we see relationships between the troops, they seem rushed – going from a five to a ten in seconds. One bit where Sinclair decides what Sgt Hook would do for others is supposed to fuel an emotional arc but just sounds a little unearned. The loving the enemy story with an Afghan insurgent is pretty shallow too, ditching decades of geopolitics and the fallout of multiple wars for a cuddly more-in-common narrative. Perhaps inevitable for a film that wants to point out the arbitrariness of war while giving people enough explosions to enjoy it. This isn’t helped by some very mixed performances, with different cast members seeming to situate themselves across the a to b-movie spectrum and boasting some distractingly bad accents. It’s notable that the best bit, the tense opening half hour, has very little dialogue and is played mostly straight. Still, by the end, I’d warmed to its ridiculousness. Visually, it’s impressive – with immersive sets and fantastic shots of the landscape (some of the sound effects were lost in the audio mix, though). Plus there’s only so much you can moan about a lack of intelligence in a movie where people with machine guns fight monsters. Not quite the return to form I was hoping for, but probably his best since Doomsday.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Directed by Francois Descraques

A movie about ecological disaster may not sound hilarious, but this French sci-fi comedy shows how to tackle the apocalypse while also being funny as fuck. It’s 2555, and humanity is on the brink of extinction. It’s last hope is a man, simply known as Fox, who “looks like a tramp” and is capable of time travel. He returns to the past to find Alice: a young activist whose father is facilitating the building of a nuclear power plant responsible for the upcoming catastrophe. Either he must die, or the whole world is doomed. Hot on his heels is The Time Brigade: a temporal police force intent on leaving the past as it is. So its Terminator meets The Inconvenient Truth.

From the opening scene, in which we meet two members of staff at a nuclear power plant, the gags come thick and fast. This movie has a lot of fun with its premise, and I applaud the creativity that underlies a lot of the humour. When we’re in the future, there is some efficient and often hilarious world-building, including futuristic pornography. It’s great that we also see the story from the Time Brigade side too – they have amusing workplace politics and are also underdogs in their own ways. And while it does less timey wimey shenanigans than I expected, it has fun with its rules. And zombies, too – we get belly laughs as we learn what separates them from ‘the infected’ and get some gleeful action scenes as they get down. Yet, as impressive as its jokes per minute ratio is, what really stuck with me was its heart.

The relationship between the young activist Alice, and her politician dad, is really rewarding. Both undergo rich arcs, with her asking what it takes for a life to have meaning and him about his complicity in the misfortune of future generations. We can take this as an analogue for the rest of us: what world are we leaving behind? On this point, the script never loses sight of the serious consequences of its subject matter. It isn’t didactic, but the filmmakers know how timely the subject matter is and treat it respectfully. Moments like a melancholic drive through desolate Parisian streets or seeing orphaned children among the survivors remind us of the seriousness of the topic. And while it sags a little in the second half, as characters are moved into position for the finale, I was always emotionally invested in the outcome. The third act also takes some bold, unexpected moves I didn’t see coming, as it widens the scope a little. And as it stepped up a notch, with multiple stories and timelines converging, I was swept from hard laughter to exhilaration and even devastation, all within the same few minutes. There’s an excellent needle drop at the end too. So overall a brilliant, sweet, and funny movie that’s already set a good standard for the fest.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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About david.s.smith 451 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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