The final day of the 2013 Film4 FrightFest had the strongest line-up of the whole festival, and it got off to a divisive start in the main screen with French filmmaker Marina De Van’s (In My Skin) new Irish horror Dark Touch. Missy Keating stars as Niamh, a young girl who discovers a terrifying ability that is linked to the dark secrets in her home life. Dark Touch is dealing with incredibly grim subject matter but De Van has no hesitation about taking her story to some fairly overblown places. That she does so with such confidence and style is partly what keeps the film so involving. The central performance from Keating is excellent, although one or two members of the supporting cast struggle with some of the hammier dialogue. Dark Touch occasionally verges on the ludicrous but De Van’s assurance in her material never wavers, building to one of the most affecting finales of the festival. It split the FrightFest audience almost exactly down the middle, but we were very impressed.
Following on from Dark Touch‘s grimness was Blair Erickson’s found-footage chiller The Banshee Chapter, in which an investigative reporter goes looking for her friend who went missing after taking a government-created drug. The Banshee Chapter lifts inspirations from various corners of the horror genre, from The X-Files to HP Lovecraft, with a tremendously entertaining performance from Ted Levine as a Hunter S Thompson-esque figure. It provided FrightFest with some of its biggest jump scares and, although there’s perhaps one or two too many ideas swirling around, it keeps you guessing and it’s highly entertaining. Whether or not you’ll understand exactly what you just watched is another question entirely.
Accompanying the hotly-anticipated Big Bad Wolves as a representative of the growing realm of Israeli genre cinema was Eitan Gafny’s zombie action movie Cannon Fodder. A small elite squad of Israeli soldiers are sent into Lebanon to retrieve a wanted Hezbollah operative, but soon realise that they’re facing a threat that does not have a political agenda. Gafny’s influences are worn a little too clearly (Predator, Dog Soldiers, many more zombie films), the low budget is occasionally an issue, and the broad strokes are a little too broad, but it’s a relatively promising first film that has some decent ideas, and Gafny does manage to create some tense sequences. Not as successful as it could have been, but it will be worth keeping an eye on the filmmaker to see what he does next.
Stephen Sommers’ adaptation of Dean Koontz’ novel Odd Thomas is currently languishing without distribution, which is a real shame as it’s one of the festivals best pleasant surprises. Anton Yelchin stars as the titular character who tells us via voice-over “I see dead people, but then, by God, I do something about it.” When he realises that something terrible is going to happen to his small town Pico Mundo, Odd must figure out the details before his friends pay the price. It’s brimming with ideas, it’s funny, it’s sweet, and it’s got a tremendous central performance from Yelchin, who hasn’t been allowed to have this much fun since the underrated Fright Night remake. With supporting turns from Willem Dafoe (the understanding Sheriff/father figure), Patton Oswalt, and Ashley Sommers (as Odd’s girlfriend/partner Stormy), Odd Thomas deserves to find an audience beyond the Empire Main Screen. It’s messy, but it’s got charm to spare. Great fun.
The Main Screen took us from entertaining undead antics to low-key unsettling family drama with Jim Mickle’s superb remake of Chilean cannibal arthouse hit We Are What We Are. Rather than recreate the 2010 film note for note, Mickle makes it his own to create a distinctly American family saga. When their mother dies suddenly, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) are faced with the terrible duty of providing for their family at their annual ceremonial dinner. As their father (Bill Sage) reminds them that this is how the family has done things for generations, the local doctor (Michael Parks) stumbles on remains in the flooded river that look human…Mickle impressed in 2010 with Stake Land but this is a superior piece of work that arguably improves on its inspiration. It’s a tremendously effective slow-burn that teases out the details of the family tradition and combines them with small-town tragedy and powerful Christian imagery. As the film builds towards its fantastic climax, there’s not a single element in the film that disappoints. Sage (Mysterious Skin), Childers (The Master), Garner (Electrick Children) and Parks (Red State) are all on their very best form (with Parks especially impressing as the doctor grieving his missing daughter) and we really can’t recommend this highly enough.
This year’s festival drew to a close with Big Bad Wolves, the new film from Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, who won the crowd over two years ago with their excellent Rabies. This follow-up covers some similar thematic ground, but presents a more obviously adult narrative, as three men involved in the investigation into a killer of children (the father of a murdered girl, the lead detective and the prime suspect) collide in a violent and misguided fashion. As with Rabies, there’s both a strong sense of the futility of reactive violence, a keen political awareness that isn’t forced down the audience’s throats, and a strong sense of Coen brothers-esque dark comedy. The adults become children as authority figures look the other way, and the subsequent generation pays the price. The filmmakers are dealing with extremely bleak and provocative subject matter, but it’s sensitively handled throughout and the characters never once slip into caricature. Expectations for Big Bad Wolves were extremely high but Keshales and Papushado have created a clever, atmospheric, and ultimately human thriller that cements their deserved reputation as two of genre cinema’s most exciting talents.
And with that, FrightFest 2013 was over. We were very sad to hear that Screen One in Empire is being divided into two smaller screens, but we’re sure that next year will provide the same level of quality, both in terms of the films and the festival experience. As Bobcat Goldthwait said in his festival introduction; horror fans aren’t scary, they’re adorable. With thanks to the FrightFest team, the filmmakers, and the audience: Roll on next year.