After the body horror thrills of the previous night’s Afflicted, FrightFest Glasgow’s second day got off to a (relatively) early start as the assembled genre fans returned to the Glasgow Film Theatre for a rich and full day of censorship history, split personalities, home invasion, memory stalking, body horror and serial killers. Armed with the biggest coffee we could find, we headed in for the second day’s first film.
Jake West and Marc Morris’ Video Nasties: Draconian Days, their follow-up to the acclaimed Video Nasties: Moral Panic Censorship And Videotape, traces British film censorship from the rise of James Ferman as director of the BBFC through to the furore caused by the James Bulger case and Child’s Play 3 to the legalisation of pornography. This second Video Nasties film feels very much like a companion piece, picking up where its predecessor left off. There’s the same combination of humour, gruesome archive clips, informative talking heads and stern warnings regarding just how easy it is to forget that these things happened. It’s hard to imagine now, as online streaming continues to become the norm, that homes were raided by officers looking for illegal video tapes. The lengthy look at the evolution of the horror community from swap meets and fanzines, to Scala all-nighters and FrightFest, will probably only be of interest to the initiated, but it played very well to the crowd, many of who shared their memories of the era with West, Morris and Alan Jones in a Q&A discussion afterwards. For those interested in the subject, Video Nasties... is an entertaining and worthwhile follow-up.
From the real world to a science-fiction-tinged comic book genre meld, next up was The Scribbler. Katie Cassidy (Arrow, Supernatural) plays Suki, facing an angry detective (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli) and a dapper psychologist (Eliza Dushku), who want an answer for all the suicides at her halfway-home tower block. She explains how her attempts to beat her multiple personality disorder coincided with a steady number of fatalities. Was one of the residents to blame, or was the experimental ‘Chinese Burn’ machine forcing one of Suki’s potentially homicidal ‘alters’ to the surface?
Based on Daniel Schaffer’s graphic novel, The Scribbler is a heavily stylised piece of work, with over the top characterisation, self-consciously snarky dialogue and one foot (and half the other) in a different universe. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit horror, and a whole lot of lingering teen angst. Suki repeatedly ponders the question of whether or not fitting in is even a desirable outcome, pondering the pros and cons with her only friend and only “rooster in the henhouse” Hogan (No Country For Old Men and Looper‘s over-qualified Garret Dillahunt, having fun).
There’s a real potential for a hugely entertaining whodunnit here, especially with such an interesting cast (Gina Gershon, Sasha Grey, Michelle Trachtenberg). The idea of an Identity-like murder mystery in a dilapidated high-rise full of recovering lunatics sounds like great fun, so it’s a shame this is so determinedly grim. Like the previous day’s Savaged, The Scribbler only really comes to life when it embraces its comic-book sensibilities in its final act, but it’s far too often preoccupied with establishing itself as a scowling and snarky oddity. That’s not to say that this approach is never successful, but a strange determination to drag its feet keeps it from ever gaining momentum. It’s not without its moments, and Cassidy’s performance is solid, but The Scribbler takes far too long to lose its mind.
Home-invasion horror Torment was up next, from The Marsh director Jordan Barker. After seeing the found-footage approach get a fresh treatment from Afflicted the night before, we were hoping that Torment would be a similar breath of fresh air. Ginger Snaps and American Mary‘s Katharine Isabelle continues her genre comeback as Sarah, who has recently married single dad Corey (Sanctuary‘s Robin Dunne), but is having trouble connecting with his young son Liam. They head to his country house for a fresh start, but soon discover that someone else has been there in their absence.
The biggest problem with Torment is its apparent determination to play by the rules of the home-invasion film. By this point we’re all very familiar with the set-up and structure of the sub-genre, and have seen them played with in dazzling fashion in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. Torment doesn’t offer anything in the way of subversion of genre clichés, although it does present an effective and affecting family drama in its opening act. Isabelle gives a strong performance as a woman struggling to make a connection with a child who clearly doesn’t want to return her affection, and there’s a welcome appearance from genre veteran Stephen McHattie (Pontypool, Haunter) as a local cop.
However, while the intruders’ motivations are a little different from what we’ve seen recently, they aren’t developed fully enough to be particularly compelling. Isabelle is subsequently wasted as we’re left yearning for a Sharni Vinson-esque turning of the tables. While it is unfair to compare Torment to You’re Next, especially as they address different themes within the sub-genre’s structure, it’s disappointing to find ourselves on such well-worn ground. There are some well-constructed set-pieces, but most of the best surprises come early on, and Torment never grips like it needs to. It’s a competent home-invasion film, but not much more.
Next up was Jorge Dorado’s Mindscape, a handsome psychological thriller which pays tribute to the likes of Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg by way of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The use of ‘mind detectives’ – specialists who can enter their subjects’ memories – has become standard practice, if not yet capable of producing admissible evidence. John (Mark Strong) is one of the best, bu, like many of the best, he’s haunted by his traumatic past. When he takes on the case of troubled teen Anna (Taissa Farmiga), he realises that all is not as it seems. Is Anna a victim… or a killer?
Mindscape takes about 15 minutes to settle in, as the slightly sci-fi-tinged world of the film and the nature of John as a brilliant but tortured man are both established via the aid of a succession of clunky pieces of exposition. However, things do pick up with the introduction of Anna, played well by American Horror Story’s Farmiga. As John and Anna begin their sessions, Mindscape becomes an entertaining and beautifully shot throwback to the thrillers of the 80s. Strong is a consistently compelling presence, and works well with Farmiga as she starts to get under his skin. Dorado pays several homages to his cinematic predecessors while establishing a style of his own, with the icy real-world scenes standing in stark contrast to the vivid colours of Anna’s mind. The script is probably the film’s weakest element, as there aren’t enough turns in the road that we can’t see coming, and the dialogue is occasionally very weak. That being said, a terrific cast (Brian Cox, Indira Varma and Noah Taylor pop up in supporting roles) and Dorado’s strong visual eye help to make Mindscape an enjoyable and beautifully shot puzzle to get lost in.
Cinematic homages continued, if on a slightly different track, with Joe Begos’ Almost Human. Two years after witnessing his buddy Mark (Josh Ethier) being abducted into the night sky, Chris (Graham Skipper) is still having trouble adjusting. He suffers from nosebleeds, nightmares and is unable to move on in the same way that Chris’ ex Jen (Vanessa Leigh) has. After a series of gruesome murders, Mark suspects that Chris has returned. He’s right, of course, but is Chris the same man he once was?
Begos and Ethier introduced the film, cautioning the crowd that it was a “rough and ready” first movie. While first film problems are in evidence (mostly in the script), it’s pretty easy to see why Almost Human went over so well at Toronto’s Midnight Madness. It’s a film made by horror fans for horror fans and, while there are definitely areas in which it could be improved, it’s also a lot of fun. The opening abduction sequence is impressively staged and, after a slow first act, it settles into a familiar but enjoyable routine of Mark stalking around murdering people and Chris running around after him trying to catch up, with the occasional gooey surprise.
The love for John Carpenter tropes is very much in evidence, from the opening titles and the music through to the effects and slime-coated body horror. It’s likely that Almost Human will have a rougher time outside of the festival circuit, and it will probably suffer from being watched alone on a TV screen as opposed to at the cinema with an audience of horror fans, and there are a few missteps, but there’s also a real sense of confidence, inventiveness and skill to go with the passion for 80s horror that reveals Begos as a talent to watch. Almost Human is both an entertaining home-made love-letter to a much-loved period of horror and an impressive first effort, and it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers do next.
Finally, it was time for the film that we’d picked as being the likely highlight of FrightFest Glasgow 2014: The Mo brothers’ Killers. At 140 minutes and spanning two countries, Killers tells the parallel stories of Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura), a serial killer in Tokyo, and Bayu (Oka Antara), a troubled journalist in Jakarta. Separated from his family and ruined by the powerful and corrupt Dharma, Bayu has been watching Nomura’s videos of his murders online. When an attempted mugging turns fatal, Bayu responds with a tape of his own and a relationship between the two killers begins.
Our expectations for Killers were very high and, for the most part, they were met. The two storylines are expertly handled, as the horrifying Nomura begins to groom the temperamental Bayu into a colleague and a soul-mate. There’s a fantastic contrast between the two, as the pristine beauty of Tokyo provides the backdrop for Nomura’s clinical, heartless killings, while the bustling chaos of Jakarta is the perfect setting for Bayu’s panicked and incompetent attempts at vigilante justice. Bayu is the closest Killers allows us to get to a sympathetic protagonist, and his clumsy efforts to punish those who have wronged him spiral hypnotically out of control in some masterful set pieces. Nomura’s calculated life is similarly threatened when he allows himself to get close to a lonely young woman, and Kitamura plays the moments when Nomura’s mask slips beautifully.
Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy is obviously a big influence on the film’s persistent sense of black comedy, and one lengthy set-piece in particular takes a page from Oldboy’s book of protracted clumsy violence. As good as Killers is, however, there are one or two issues that keep it from perfection. Even with the lengthy running time, some character development feels rushed. It’s never quite explained why Nomura takes Bayu under his wing quite so quickly (beyond the fact that he’s mad), and interesting themes like inherited behaviour and the effects of observing horrific events at a disance (and how that distance can be shortened) feel slightly underexplored. However, these problems don’t detract too much from this very impressive film. Killers is thrilling, gripping, darkly comic and brutal, and comfortably the best film of the festival.
With that, FrightFest Glasgow 2014 came to a close. A strong selection of films, wonderful location and warm, friendly atmosphere made it a fantastic experience, and the FrightFest Glasgow audience proved to be the perfect crowd. They really engaged with the movies, going in with an open mind but responding honestly, intelligently and passionately, and it was great to be a part of it. The Glasgow Film Theatre proved to be the perfect location; providing a cosy atmosphere for mingling and approaching the filmmakers for a chat (almost all of who, it must be said, hung around to watch the rest of the films). Bring on August and London, as well as next year and a return to Glasgow.