FrightFest 2014 Day 3 review: loved to death

Reviews of The Babadook, Creep, Life After Beth, The Harvest and more from FrightFest 2014

Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon in The Harvest
Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon in The Harvest

Last night’s FrightFest finished on the decidedly silly Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead, and things got off to a very different start on Day 3 with John McNaughton’s The Harvest. The first film from the director of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer since the early noughties, this grim fairytale introduces us to a family under intense strain. Katherine (Samantha Morton), a doctor, and Richard (Michael Shannon), a nurse, care for their very ill son Andy (Charlie Tahan). Confined to a wheelchair and almost never allowed out of the house, Andy is the focus of the tense relationship between the temperamental, overbearing mother and the weak-willed but well-intentioned father. When Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves to the neighbourhood, she befriends Andy, which sets a dangerous chain of events in motion.

In what seems to be a recurring theme of this year’s FrightFest, it’s difficult to talk  about The Harvest without giving too much away. We’re introduced to this suffocating family unit that seems to be living on a knife’s edge, and McNaughton keeps dropping hints as to what exactly might be wrong. Shot on film, The Harvest is filled with beautiful autumn colours as Maryann coaxes Andy into the land of the living and McNaughton plays up the Grimm fairytale elements, with dashes of Hansel and Gretel, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Morton is a ferocious presence as Katherine, who seems to be constantly on the verge of rage, but her performance never tips into cartoonish monstrosity. Meanwhile, Shannon’s role as Richard is a nice change of pace for the actor, as hints at a good nature keep butting against the wishes of his wife. Some might find the final act a little overblown but this is, well-constructed, very well-acted and totally engrossing.

Gillian Jacobs and the manifestation of Ken Marino's id in Bad Milo
Gillian Jacobs and the manifestation of Ken Marino’s id in Bad Milo

From engrossing to gross-out, the Discover Screen played host to comedy Bad Milo! Party Down‘s Ken Marino stars as Duncan, a man under a lot of pressure at work and at home, who goes to a therapist to help cope with the stress. What he finds is that there is a small, ferocious creature living inside him who emerges from his rectum to take violent revenge on those who cross him.

Paying tribute to bizarre, puppet-led creature features like Basket Case and It’s Alive!, Bad Milo! is one of the better horror comedies at the festival, thanks in large part to its fantastic cast. Marino is supported by Community’s Gillian Jacobs, Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton and character actors like Mary Kay Place, Stephen Root and Peter Stormare. It fully commits to the inherent daftness of its premise and its decision to constantly try and humanise the creature makes it oddly endearing. “I have a creature up my ass, it’s the furthest thing from a metaphor!” wails Duncan as his therapist tries to get him to understand the wonder of what he’s going through. It might not be big or clever, but Bad Milo! is sharper than most and often very funny.

Alex Essoe and her Hollywood dreams in Starry Eyes
Alex Essoe and her Hollywood dreams in Starry Eyes

Next up in the main screen was Starry Eyes, which has been creating a lot of buzz on the festival circuit. Writer-director duo Kevin Kolsch  and Dennis Widmeyer tell the story of Sarah (Alex Essoe), an aspiring actress who struggles with her demeaning job as a waitress and constant rejection at auditions. When it looks like she might finally get the role of the lifetime, Sarah is thrilled, but is she willing to pay the price?

Starry Eyes begins in familiar territory: the beautiful but creatively stifled ingénue who is forced to decide what’s more important; her soul or her dreams. Kolsch and Widmeyer are determined to subvert that trope, however, and we soon realise that Sarah’s not the innocent girl next door that we assume she is. There’s a darkness to her, and her commitment to get what she wants, no matter what the cost, leads the film into its dark places. Flitting between a grim, realistic LA (The Innkeepers’ Pat Healy puts in great work as the cheesy restaurant manager) and a heightened Hollywood heavily influenced by David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the filmmakers create a striking contrast between the two worlds that will violently clash. Starry Eyes does run into second act troubles as it feels like it’s killing time before the big finish, but the finale is shocking and strong. We have some issues with it, but it’s an arresting and extremely stylish arthouse chiller and Essoe is fantastic.

Pollyanna McIntosh in White Settlers
Pollyanna McIntosh in White Settlers

Back in the Discovery Screen, and White Settlers took home invasion north of the border. Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) are an English couple who buy a house in the Scottish countryside. It’s a fixer-upper but they’re happy to be there, even if their preconceptions about the country and its people are a little offensive. When they investigate a noise in the middle of the night, they soon find that they’re not wanted.

Described as the first horror film about the Scottish Independence debate, White Settlers gets off to a good start and is helped by a strong performance from McIntosh (The Woman, Filth). The tension is built up nicely during a protracted “what was that?” sequence but things go downhill once it all kicks off. Sarah and Ed’s purchase of a house of historical interest in a country that’s not their own seems to be the catalyst for their being hunted, and this subtext never really convinces as anything beyond being a simple plot device. Once it’s Sarah and Ed versus the home invaders, the film struggles to bring anything new to the subgenre and despite good performances, this is disappointing.

Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Caitlin Stasey in All Cheerleaders Die
Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Caitlin Stasey in All Cheerleaders Die

Back in the main screen, and FrightFest viewers were treated to Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s deliriously entertaining All Cheeleaders Die. We loved this hilarious and totally insane 80s throwback and you can read our full review here.

Dane DeHaan tries to work things out with Aubrey Plaza in Life After Beth
Dane DeHaan tries to work things out with Aubrey Plaza in Life After Beth

Next up was Jeff Baena’s rom-zom-com Life After Beth, with the excellent lead pairing of Aubrey Plaza and Dane DeHaan. Zachary (DeHaan) is struggling to cope after his girlfriend Beth (Plaza) dies from a snakebite while hiking alone. He can’t stop thinking about the arguments they had and how badly they left it, so when she somehow comes back from the dead, he decides not to think too hard about it. But what about the terrible mood swings, the lapses in memory, and her newfound strength?

Life After Beth does get off to something of a slow-start, as DeHaan mopes around his parents’ house, sitting out by the pool in his sunglasses like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, but Baena doesn’t wait for too long to introduce Plaza’s Beth, at which point the film really gets going. The star of Parks And Recreation is fantastic, managing to nail not-quite throw-away moments (like gathering dirt and loving the attic) and Beth’s sudden, terrifying rages. She’s truly a force of nature and she is absolutely hilarious. The film does suffer when she’s offscreen, but Baena has sensibly filled the film with comedy ringers, including John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick, Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines and Matthew Gray Gubler, all of whom are on very good form. After a slightly meandering second act the final twenty minutes takes an unexpected and effective turn, and builds to a very funny and surprisingly heartfelt finale. When all is said and done, Life After Beth is Plaza’s show and she nails it.

Essie Davis tells a bedtime story in The Babadook
Essie Davis tells a bedtime story in The Babadook

After a quick lungful of fresh air we were straight back in our seats in the main screen for one of our most-anticipated films of the festival: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. We’ve been hearing a lot about this Australian horror since Sundance and the screen was packed as star Essie Davis introduced the film and emphasised that this is a film about loss and grief, and that she’s quite surprised to hear that people find it so scary.

Single mother Amelia (Davis) is reminded of her late husband every time she looks at her young son, as he died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to give birth. Seven years later and she’s still struggling to hold it together, as the irrepressible Samuel (Noah Wiseman) seems to be developing behavioural issues. One night, he asks her to read a new book: The Babadook. The terrifying story convinces Samuel that the titular monster is real, and his behaviour grows worse, pushing Amelia to breaking point…but is he right?

The film’s marketing makes The Babadook look like the latest boo-scary-heavy supernatural horror, and while there are certainly elements of that, Davis’ assertion that it’s about grief first and boogeymen second is important. It’s Amelia’s daily struggle to simply get by that draws us in as we see just how much strain she is under. She can’t find anyone to play with her son, the school wants to assign him a monitor, and even she struggles to keep her temper with him. As the film progresses, she gets more and more worn down and Davis is just superb in the lead. It’s a heartbreaking study of a grieving woman struggling to reconcile her grief and resentment towards a child who needs her time, patience and love.

That’s not to say that The Babadook isn’t scary. It is. It’s terrifying, and it’s made all the more so because we are so invested in these characters. The growing sense of dread is beautifully built up by Kent from the very first reading of the story (“If it’s in a word, or in a look…”) and it is maintained as the sleep-deprived mother finds reality and subconscious beginning to blur. Drawing on The Shining and A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Babadook finds a strong identity all of its own and this is a hugely impressive debut. It will break your heart and it will scare the life out of you in the process.

A film crew face the undead in I Survived A Zombie Apocalypse
A film crew face the undead in I Survived A Zombie Holocaust

The last film of the night in the main screen was New Zealand comedy I Survived A Zombie Holocaust. Wesley (Harley Neville) is an aspiring screenwriter who gets a job as a runner on a zombie film overseen by a tyrannical director. After suffering a series of embarrassments, it seems like Wesley’s first day can’t get any worse. He’s wrong, of course, and the film’s method actor doesn’t have to pretend anymore, as a real-life zombie horde attacks the film crew.

This well-intentioned horror comedy gets a few laughs and the cast are game (Ben Baker is particularly fun as ex-rugby player and glory-days obsessed Tane) but there’s not really too much going on here beyond the meta zombie movie jokes. One or two sequences work very well (such as the director convincing his first AD to literally sacrifice himself for the art) but it’s overlong at 100-odd minutes and it struggles to find jokes beyond the self-referential. It’s difficult to criticise a film this amiable too harshly, but it’s not particularly funny.

Mark Duplass wants you to stay for one drink in Creep
Mark Duplass wants you to stay for one drink in Creep

The late night Discovery Screen film, however, more than rewarded those willing to brave the night bus. Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’ Creep, which made a splash at SXSW, made its UK debut and slowly worked its way under our skin to leave its mark as one of the festival’s most memorable films, and it’s yet another one where it’s best to know as little as possible.

Brice plays Aaron, a cameraman who agrees to film Josef (Duplass) for the day in exchange for $1000. Josef wants Aaron to help him leave a lasting document, and over the course of the day the two bond over hiking and pancakes. He seems amiable enough and he’s certainly friendly, but is Josef being completely honest with Aaron?

It’s not been a FrightFest short on found footage, but Creep uses the technique in what is essentially its purest form. There are no obvious cheats, it’s just (almost entirely) one camera filming one subject, as Aaron listens to what Josef has to tell him. Duplass is excellent in the lead, beautifully playing Josef as an apparently open book with just a hint of something off. Is he simply a really upbeat, enthusiastic, energetic guy, or is he someone Aaron needs to be worried about? Brice also deserves praise, giving Aaron the right mix of healthy scepticism and a desire to be a nice guy. It’s also incredibly well-constructed, as details are teased out and we start to realise what it’s doing at FrightFest. It’s very funny, it’s scary, it’s unnerving and it will definitely stay with you. Creep is one of the best films we’ve seen at FrightFest so far; just try not to read too much about it before you see it.

With that, we stumbled home. Join us tomorrow for reviews of Faults, Open Windows, Among The Living, Stage Fright, and more!