FrightFest 2014 Day 1 review: all the gore you didn’t see

Reviews of The Guest, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For and Zombeavers as FrightFest 2014 begins

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Dan Stevens in The Guest

FrightFest is upon us. That special time of year when genre fans descend on Leicester Square en masse to enjoy five days of genre cinema from around the world. From unsettling arthouse to batshit schlockfests, FrightFest truly has something for everyone, and this year’s line-up is hugely exciting. There are the returning heroes (Wingard! Roth! McKee! Maury & Bustillo), bona-fide genre legends (Englund! McNaughton!), indie festival sensations (The Babadook! Creep!) and a healthy dose of WTF (AnotherWolfCop! Zombeavers!)

The move to the Vue cinemas in Leicester Square may have caused some murmurings in the lobby, as ‘Festers found themselves split into three screens. As explained by Andy Nyman during his intro, things will be exactly the same as they were in the Empire Leicester Square, but we have been divided according to type. SciFiNow’s seat in the Horror Channel Screen apparently means we’re Goths, so we’re going to try to wear more black tomorrow.

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Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer run in The Guest

As far as opening night films go, Adam Wingard’s hugely entertaining 80s throwback The Guest was the perfect choice. The film stars Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as David, a returned veteran who pitches up at the Petersons’ house to fulfil what he claims was their late son’s last request: to check up on them. The Petersons welcome David into their home, but we soon realise that the handsome charmer isn’t quite who he claims to be….

The Guest is tremendous fun, as Wingard and writer Simon Barrett deliver a thrilling and wickedly funny tribute to The Terminator and Halloween, with a great type-breaking turn from Stevens. It’s drenched in nostalgia, but following A Horrible Way To Die and You’re Next, Wingard’s sense of style and confidence behind the camera is growing more and more evident. There’s no inversion of tropes like we’ve seen in the filmmakers’ previous films, but there’s a determination to show the audience a good time and look good doing it. It’s made clear to the audience from early on that David’s a complete psychopath, but that’s all part of the fun. With a brilliant soundtrack, hilarious and brutal shocks and gorgeous cinematography, The Guest is a terrific thriller.

Wingard, Barrett and star Maika Monroe made their first FrightFest appearance to pay tribute to The Terminator (Wingard remembers drumming the soundtrack on the table throughout the edit), SciFiNow personal favourite Halloween III, and Stevens (“Downton Abs-y”). After providing the fest with some great films over the years, it was great to finally see the filmmakers in attendance and enjoying the crowd’s reaction.

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Mickey Rourke brings Marv back with a bang in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

From amiable psychos to… amiable psychos, next up was the long-awaited Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s sequel is in cinemas today, but received its UK premiere with the FrightFest crowd. It’s been a long time since the first film’s 2005 release, and our question was: has it been too long? Is there really anything left in Basin City we want to see?

In fairness, things do get off to a cracking start. Mickey Rourke has a great time reprising the role of Marv, and Miller, and Rodriguez give him a good chunk more screen time and star billing for this sequel. He blasts through the film’s prologue (‘Just Another Saturday Night’ for the comics fans), before we get introduced to the film’s other main players. There’s Dwight (Josh Brolin), who is drawn back in by his ludicrously seductive, manipulative and naked ex Ava Lord (Eva Green), slick gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has both too much luck and none at all, and mourning stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), who’s channelling her grief at the loss of Hartigan (Bruce Willis) into boozing, target practice and dancing.

The style is familiar but still striking, and Rodriguez makes the most of the 3D. The cast are very-well chosen and have a tremendous time bringing these larger than life characters to life, and Miller’s one-liner-only dialogue can still bring a wry smile to the face of the most begrudging viewer. The main problem is that we’ve been here before. It’s another journey through the inside of Miller’s head, where big lugs take a beating and come back swinging, saving the broken frails who need them and being brutally doubled crossed by the black-hearted dames who use them. Both the men and women are fetishised according to his interests.

Once the film settles into its ‘A Dame To Kill For’ story, things start to drag, and the final chapter focusing on Nancy never really delivers. However, there are some high points, mostly thanks to the cast. Gordon-Levitt brings a livewire energy to his role, sharing a great chemistry with Powers Boothe, who tears the scenery to shreds as the evil Senator Roark. Brolin disappears into the part of Dwight nicely, Rosario Dawson is still terrific as Gail, Juno Temple and Ray Liotta ham it up in a brief scene, and it’s good to see Rourke having so much fun.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is completely stolen by Green, who has so much fun camping and vamping it up as the Jessica Rabbit-esque (if Jessica Rabbit wasn’t just bad because she was drawn that way) of Dwight’s tormented life. Not without its moments then, but Sin City 2 is not worth going too far out of your way for.

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Lexi Atkins under threat from the Zombeavers

Finally, as we headed towards midnight, the last film of the night was the catchily titled Zombeavers. With a ridiculous title and the promise of plenty of crazed undead critters, we settled in for this low-budget creature feature that had surprisingly decent word of mouth from other festivals it has played at.

Three girls head to a remote country cabin by a lake to help Jenn (Lexi Atkins) get over the fact that her boyfriend cheated on her. When their guys show up anyway, it looks like things can’t get any more awkward. However, they’re wrong. Toxic waste has turned the local beavers into ravening killers, and the the six kids have to figure out how to get past monsters who can chew through anything.

The best thing that Zombeavers has going for it are the strangely adorable and endearing titular creatures themselves. The film settles on horror-comedy rather than parody, but it’s neither funny nor scary enough to justify that choice. There are a couple of decent performances, but the character of Jenn in particular is such a wet blanket that we are just waiting for the zombeavers to show up and chomp through the cast. There are some fun moments of critter carnage, and the effects work is decent, but it never really commits to being totally self-aware (“No more beaver jokes!”) or completely insane. There are some chuckles, fun surprises and well-crafted moments of gore, but we left Zombeavers feeling somewhat disappointed. It should find a more forgiving home on DVD.

Join us tomorrow for Day 2, which will include coverage of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, Peter Jackson-endorsed NZ horror comedy Housebound, Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead, Robert Englund’s The Last Showing, festival favourite Late Phases and more!