We love FrightFest’s Glasgow event. It’s a weekend packed with horrors in the cosy Glasgow Film Theatre, with fans and filmmakers making the trip for the hauntings, anthology horrors, exploding heads, multiple personality monsters and cult madness. It’s always a damn good time, and this year was no different.
The event kicked off with a preview screening of Jason Zada’s The Forest, in which Game Of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer heads to Japan to find her twin sister (Dormer with dark hair) who has gone missing in the notorious Aokigahara Forest. As she heads into the suicide forest with a strapping American journalist (Taylor Kinney) and a sensible local guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), the malicious spirits try to lure her into danger…or are her companions not who they say they are?
With its American abroad plot (scary sushi!) and a series of variously sinister Japanese women popping up to spook our heroine, The Forest feels weirdly like a throwback to all of ten years ago, when po-faced J-horror remakes were all the rage. Dormer commits to her twin characters and is a likeable screen presence, but her efforts are undone by some ropey dialogue and a plot that requires her character to ignore common sense at every step. There are some jump scares that land and the location is undeniably atmospheric, but there’s not much here to recommend it.
Things got off to an audience dividing start on Friday morning with The Hexecutioners, the latest from Pontypool writer Tony Burgess. It’s a wilfully odd stew of a film, with some savage and smart healthcare satire thrown in with some Fulci madness in a Shirley Jackson house. The film opens with the sensitive Malison McCourt (Liv Collins) getting thrown it at the deep end as a corporate euthaniser (“Turn the lights out. That’s your job.”), before accompanying the more seasoned Olivia (Sarah Power) on a strange commission to a creepy old mansion. The man they’ve come to “close” has an unusual request that might put them in grave danger…
The film’s jump from black comedy to something more bizarre might throw some viewers, but there’s a rich seam of dark comedy throughout that doesn’t let you take anything too seriously, and it definitely knows what it’s doing, even at its most daffy. Burgess’ gift for dialogue loaded with double meaning ensures that it will be worth a repeat visit and director Jesse Thomas Cook (Septic Man) shows a visual imagination that only occasionally bumps up against his budget. With strong performances from Collins and Power, The Hexecutioners is creepy, funny, stylish and smarter than it looks.
Also taking an unexpected sharp turn was dour possession tale Anguish from writer-director Sonny Mallhi, in which troubled teen Tess (Ryan Simpkins) struggles to distinguish between what’s really there and the voices in her head. Despite opening with some mental health statistics that gave this reviewer a bad feeling, it gets off to a very strong start and Simpkins is excellent in the lead. Mallhi moves at a slow, deliberate pace, and makes good use of a surprisingly warm soundtrack and very good cinematography from Amanda Treyz. While the third act goes in a direction that we didn’t expect, it does undercut some of the tension. However, it deserves praise for committing to a tone and a message that’s more sensitive than shocking, and it’s very scary when it wants to be (we definitely jumped a few times).
Anguish was preceded by three very different striking short films. Our favourite was the timely and stylish Spanish effort Ashen (Cenizo), which shows an eviction from the viewpoint of a comics-reading young girl who tries to help her dad fend off the uniformed intruders, while Katie Bonham’s quiet, mournful Mindless had Hellraiser‘s Nicholas Vince as a troubled man who reacts badly to the arrival of his healthcare support worker, and shows her developing confidence as a filmmaker (her short film The Paper Round played at a previous FF Glasgow event). Finally, Cat Davies’ hilarious KEEN-wah went down a storm, as a woman makes the best of her blind date with a gent with a surprising number of dietary requirements…
It was certainly more sensitive than John Suits’ Pandemic, an energetic POV zombie action movie with some impressive action and less than impressive characterisation. Continuum’s Rachel Nichols puts in a committed turn as a CDC doctor sent out with a small team into an LA overrun with infected to retrieve a previous group who went missing shortly after reporting survivors. The first person technique makes for some quite intense sequences, with the first drive out of the safety of the base getting things off to a very promising start, but the script doesn’t do the eclectic cast (Mekhi Phifer, Missi Pyle, Paul Guilfoyle) any favours, and Alfie Allen is miscast as a streetwise con (“Just a mama bear trying to get back to her cubs, huh?”). The city is put to good use but it’s too much of a mish-mash of videogame and B-movie references and is lacking identity of its own. We were disappointed.
However, it was preceded by the massively entertaining Portal To Hell!!!, the Lovecraft-ian short film starring the late Roddy Piper as a pissed off landlord who has to contend with the titular gateway two of his more irritating tenants have opened. It’s great fun and we definitely think you should seek it out.
After having our expectations of a good time somewhat dashed, we were most definitely ready for The Mind’s Eye, as writer-director Joe Begos was on hand to present his 1990-set throwback revenge horror about telekinetics who must escape from a maniacal doctor (John Speredakos, chewing scenery until it bleeds) who wants their powers for himself. It’s a sincere homage rather than a spoof, filled with big performances, bigger exploding head effects and all the trappings of a midnight movie discovery (bold red and blue lighting, references to everything from First Blood to The Brood, Looper‘s Noah Segan as an eyepatch-wearing henchman).
How much you enjoy it will almost definitely depend on how much you love the films it’s channelling, but if you’re on board with its psychic battles story, you’re going to have fun, and much like Begos’ debut Almost Human, the visual effects, sound design and editing are excellent, making sure that those who have come for exploding body parts and severed limbs get what they came for and more. We should also mention the excellent cast who are all on message, with Almost Human‘s Graham Skipper in the lead, supported by Lauren Ashley Carter (The Woman, Pod) as his powerful girlfriend, Jeremy Gardner (The Battery, Spring) as a perpetually embattled henchman, and the great Larry Fessenden, who is nicely cast against type as our hero’s cop father. We had a brilliant time, and judging by the reaction, we’re confident that the audience did too.
The good times kept coming with Tyler MacIntyre’s surprisingly sweet-natured debut Patchwork, in which three young women find themselves murdered, reanimated and sewn together into a single body. Can they work together to find who turned them into this Frankenstein’s monster? We were slightly cautious approaching this movie, but were quickly won over by the excellent performances (Tory Stolper is particularly good as the work-obsessed Jennifer/three-in-one Stitch) and its amiable approach to body horror.
The concept of the three distinct personalities allows for three strong turns from Stolper, Tracey Fairaway and Maria Blasucci, and it’s great fun watching those three learn how to combine their efforts and discover the joys of beating the crap out of creeping frat boys and pretentious artists. It consistently refuses to turn seedy or unpleasant, offering a cheerful blend of Monty Python and Stuart Gordon instead, and Corey Sorenson’s mad scientist is an absolute delight. Oh, and Harry Potter‘s James Phelps pops up as a well-intentioned but definitely confused friend of Jennifer’s. There was also the added bonus of MacIntyre dropping a brilliant Roger Corman story in his introductory Q&A. We definitely recommend this one.
Things kicked off bright and early on Saturday morning with Roar Uthaug’s The Wave. The Norwegian disaster movie was the biggest film of the year in its home country, and the director of Cold Prey does make the most of his stunning location, but it follows the natural disaster movie playbook step by step. Kristoffer Joner makes for a likeable lead as a geologist working on the country’s most unstable mountain whose move away from the area with his family is interrupted by the titular massive, terrible event. Some good performances ensure that we’re invested in the family’s survival and mostly distract from the fact that we know where it’s going at all times. Uthaug mounts some impressive set-pieces (the wave itself is stunning), but we wish it had offered a few more surprises.
That certainly was not true of Southbound, which stands as our favourite movie of this year’s festival. The much hyped anthology horror from some of the makers of V/H/S ties five stories together as strangers running from their guilt collide on a stretch of desert highway that isn’t all it appears to be. The linking is done brilliantly, especially between our two favourite segments, Roxanne Benjamin’s ‘Siren’ and David Bruckner’s ‘Accident.’
“It looks like the desert, but if you go out there, you might not come back,” Al (Matt Peters) tells a gunman desperate to find his missing sister. It’s refreshing to see this stretch of America mined for horror that doesn’t immediately recall The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, instead going for the David Wong-esque soured Americana with madness, devils and tentacles lurking underneath the surface. For an anthology it’s remarkably consistent, and those two aforementioned stories drift between darkly funny and straight-up-nightmarish with great skill, as all-girl rock band The White Tights hitch a ride with a husband and wife seemingly trapped in the 1950s, and a driver attempts to save the life of a girl he’s just run over with the long-distance help of emergency services piped from his phone into his ear buds. It also provoked the biggest “Oh god, that’s disgusting” reaction from this reviewer all weekend, which is something, given that Baskin was still to come…Anyway, we highly recommend this, even if you feel burnt out on the whole horror anthology thing. And Larry Fessenden is the voice of the DJ, which is obviously just fantastic.
Anthology horrors were followed by a more traditional kind of ghost story, with Johannes Roberts’ The Other Side Of The Door. Sarah Wayne Callies stars as a grieving mother living in India with her family, who is told about a temple where she can talk to her dead son…she just can’t open the door. The essential set-up is fairly shop-worn but director Johannes Roberts (Storage 24) makes the most of his setting and is backed up by a good cast. There are a couple of instances where it threatens to veer into “exotic mysticism,” but for the most part the focus is squarely on Maria, her intense sorrow, and the consequences she faces for opening the bloody door. Callies (Prison Break, The Walking Dead) has always felt like an actor in need of a good showcase, and she makes the most of her leading role. It putters along through the story notes that you’d expect but a strong performance from Callies and Roberts’ assured direction makes for a solid ghost story.
Next up was the much-anticipated Baskin from first-time director Can Evrenol, and the filmmaker was on hand to introduce the movie to an audience that was most definitely keyed up for it. Evrenol was as keen to emphasise Baskin’s arthouse nature as he was its madness, and the film does take the viewer on a path down to hell as opposed to simply dropping them in it. A van full of Turkish cops of dubious moral character answers a distress call in the middle of nowhere, but find much more than they bargain for…There’s plenty of shocking moments of twisted gore, with Clive Barker, Lucio Fulci and Silent Hill influences in evidence, but Evrenol’s just as indebted to David Lynch, with some of the film’s best moments channelling films like Lost Highway (the director also acknowledged an debt to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives).
The sliding between dreams and nightmares feels totally assured, and the film isn’t short on nightmarish imagery, mostly courtesy of the master of ceremonies who offers the terrified law enforcement a frankly undesirable opportunity. But for all the moments which we’d feel uncomfortable discussing in an office environment, Baskin succeeds because of its powerful atmosphere and skin-crawling sense of dread. It’s not flawless, but it’s bloody memorable.
It’s fair to say that the knives were out for Kevin and Michael Goetz’s remake of Pascal Laugier’s modern classic Martyrs, and although we did our best to keep an open mind, we did not emerge as fans. The set-up is exactly the same, as Lucie (Troian Bellisario) escapes from a terrifying warehouse as a child, meets Anna (Bailey Noble) at an orphanage where they become inseperable. But Lucie is still haunted by the monsters of her past, and takes drastic steps to put things right…at which point her past catches up with her.
The first twenty minutes or so proceed much exactly as the original did, to the point where we started wondering what the point of it all was. Then, at a certain point, Mark L Smith’s screenplay takes us in a different direction. While we initially found this encouraging, it absolutely lessens the impact of what these women are going through. Kate Burton (Big Trouble In Little China) arrives surprisingly early on to clue poor Anna into what’s going on, and at that point it becomes a revenge movie about tortured women not succumbing to the brutal desires of their captors. Which is obviously fine, but it’s not what Martyrs is about, really, and it doesn’t diverge with enough confidence to convince. It deserves some kudos for trying something different, but it can’t pull it off, and there are at least three or four moments in the final minutes that make sure that, if you hadn’t already taken powerfully against it, you would leave having done so.
We went from the film we were probably the least excited about to ending the festival with one of our most eagerly anticipated: The Devil’s Candy. It’s been a long wait for the new movie from The Loved Ones‘ writer-director Sean Byrne, and this new horror sees the filmmaker relocate from Australia to the American south, as artist Jesse (Ethan Embry) and his family move into a beautiful new home that has an unfortunate history and a dangerous former occupant (Pruitt Taylor Vince) desperate to return.
Stripped down to its most basic elements, The Devil’s Candy could be seen as just another middle-class-family-in-peril movie, as Jesse, his supportive wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their precocious daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) have their domestic idyll threatened by a crazed local and unquiet spirits. But Byrne has such a clear identity as a filmmaker that the story is immediately elevated. He finds the absurd and the mundane in the terrifying, and the horror in no way suffers from the dark humour. There are occasional moments of weird for weirdness’ sake (particularly with the art world Jesse’s trying to get into), but that’s no bad thing, especially when it’s balanced by such a likeable family unit.
The heavy metal bond between Jesse and Zooey is so charming (their in-sync head-banging in the car is just wonderful) that the idea of their being torn apart is genuinely upsetting, and all three performances are excellent (Glasco’s in particular). Vince is an old hand at playing unsettling characters and he’s on top form here. There are points when it seems to be going through the motions in terms of the plot, but Byrne’s world is so distinctive and immersive, and the characters are so likeable, that we can’t wait to see it again.
And that was it for another year of FrightFest Glasgow! As ever, the atmosphere and crowd were great and it’s just brilliant to see these movies on the big screen with their target audience. We’re now slightly dazed and counting the days until we can go back…
Thank you to the FrightFest team and the staff at the Glasgow Film Theatre for three brilliant days of horror movies!