FrightFest 2014 Day 2 review: Blood, ghouls and werewolves

Reviews of The Green Inferno, Dead Snow 2, Housebound and more from FrightFest Day 2

Nick Damici in Late Phases
Nick Damici is a lone protector in Late Phases

Following last night’s psycho veterans, dames to kill for and… zombie beavers, FrightFest Day 2 got off to a slightly slower start, but there’s nothing wrong with a slow-burner, as Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases proved.

Stake Land and We Are What We Are’s Nick Damici plays Ambrose, an avuncular, blinded veteran who moves to a retirement village. On his first night as a resident, a savage monster attacks his next door neighbour, brutally killing her and his beloved dog in the process. Ambrose soon realises that it’s no ordinary wolf that’s been attacking the community, and over the course of the month he readies himself for the attack that will come on the next full moon.

After a fairly brutal start, Late Phases slows right down and establishes itself as a character-driven drama rather than a monster movie schlockfest, as Ambrose pokes around the community in an attempt to sniff out the man, woman or monster responsible. Damici, who has impressed a lot with his writing on Jim Mickle’s movies, shoulders the leading man responsibility admirably. Ambrose doesn’t ask to be liked, and he’s more than happy to be shunned by his well-to-do neighbours. Like Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (which the film does draw on), there’s a lingering melancholy underneath the monster movie elements, and Damici’s performance gets better and better as the film goes on. The leisurely pace may put off some of those drawn in by the attention-grabbing premise (werewolves in an old folks’ community!) but Bogliano’s film calls on the spirit of lone samurai movies to create something surprisingly moving and gripping that builds to an excellent finale.

Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie in Honeymoon
Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie’s relationship is in trouble in Honeymoon

Also recommended is Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, which played in the Discovery Screen. Rose Leslie (Game Of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful) star as Bea and Paul, a newlywed couple who travel to her family’s cabin in the countryside. It all seems very idyllic, but after an odd encounter with Bea’s childhood sweetheart, things start to get a little strained. When Paul finds Bea naked in the woods in the middle of the night, apparently sleepwalking, things go from strained to strange.

It’s best to go into Honeymoon knowing as little as possible. Janiak puts Bea and Paul in a familiar situation (cabin in the woods) and gives them a familiar problem (how well do you know your loved one?), but finds a way to put her own twist on it. She spends the time establishing how much the two love each other before slowly picking apart the seams of their relationship, and she’s helped by excellent performances from Leslie and Treadaway. Leslie in particular is superb as Bea, who seems to be struggling to provide answers just as much as Paul struggles to get them from her. If you’re looking for an explanation, the film drops some heavy hints fairly quickly, but where Honeymoon really impresses is in showing us a couple that is powerless to stop themselves falling apart. It’s truly chilling, it will make your skin crawl and it will stay with you long after the lights go up.

In Discovery Screen 2, Greg McLean’s highly enjoyable Wolf Creek 2 enjoyed its first London appearance, and you can read what we thought about the return of Mick Taylor in our Glasgow FrightFest coverage here.

Wrenn Schmidt in Preservation
Wrenn Schmidt is the hunted in Preservation

Following Honeymoon, Christopher Denham’s Preservation also takes its characters from the city to the woods, but sees them facing a decidedly different kind of menace. Brothers Sean (Orange Is The New Black’s Pablo Schreiber) and Mike Neary (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton) travel to their childhood hunting ground with Mike’s wife Wit (Boardwalk Empire’s Wrenn Schmidt) to get away from it all. They ignore the fact that the area also closed down, which comes back to bite them when the tables and turned and they become the hunted.

The very strong cast make the most of the time Denham spends developing the awkward relationship between the three, as workaholic Mike and his discharged veteran brother clearly don’t have as much in common as they used to, while Wit remains somewhat stand-off-ish. This deliberate pacing pays off when Preservation abruptly pulls the trigger and our trio are thrust into a life or death situation. As the film enters its final third, it does settle into familiar territory and suffers from wearing its slightly predictable influences on its sleeve a little too proudly, but Denham’s second feature shows confidence and a willingness to put his characters through the ringer. Perhaps not outstanding, but a solid thriller nevertheless.

Kirby Bliss Blanton in The Green Inferno
Kirby Bliss Blanton regrets trying to save the rainforest in The Green Inferno

Back to the main screen, and we took our seats for the long, long-awaited The Green Inferno. It feels like forever since Eli Roth went off to finally make his directorial follow-up to 2007’s Hostel II, and his cannibal movie has been stuck in limbo for some time. The FrightFest crowd got to see it on the big screen, but was it worth the wait?

American student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) desperately wants to get involved with some kind of cause, but she doesn’t know which. When the opportunity comes to travel to Peru to save a remote village from militia-protected bulldozers, she jumps at it and joins charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy) and his loyal band. When a horrific turn of events lands the students in the hands of the tribe they wanted to protect, Justine will confront how little she knows about what she wanted to save.

The Green Inferno establishes early on that these students who are willing to jump into any cause are due a rude awakening. “Don’t think,” Jonah (Aaron Burns) tells Justine. “Act.” That kind of attitude is what leads them to travel to the jungle without speaking the language or doing any preparation of any kind beyond bringing bug spray. Roth is setting these characters up for a fall, and the tone appears to be dark comedy. So when the characters find themselves being torn limb from limb, getting eaten alive and facing the kind of atrocities that they were appalled by in class, that tone feels out of place. It’s shocking and brutal, but Roth can’t seem to decide exactly what reaction he wants. Do we laugh, are we shocked, or do we feel their pain? Maybe he’s going for all three, but this tonal confusion might be the reason why the second half feels so devoid of tension. Horrible things happen, but it’s curiously uninvolving as we wait for Justine to be sacrificed or saved. There are some sharp moments and some truly gruelling ones, but the attempts at humour feel totally out of place with the horrors he’s putting these people through, and this is a disappointment.

So from South America to outer space, the next film up was Jay Weisman’s Shockwave Darkside 3D. This low-budget sci-fi finds a group of religious outcasts fighting for survival and water on the Moon’s surface against the Unlight forces who banished them. When their ship is brought down, the rag-tag group of survivors must find safety before their air runs out.

Heavy on ideas, Shockwave Darkside is essentially made up of a series of debates as the characters trudge across the moon. Murky 3D doesn’t hide the budget’s limitations, but the real problem is the script. While there are some intriguing ideas raised (Robert Heinlein is an obvious touchstone), the repetitious arguments about faith, the afterlife and the nature of conflict tread all over character development or any hope of levity. Only veteran character actor Bill Sage manages to create anything resembling a human being. It suffers from an overload of information and a lack of clarity, and it’s tough to get through.

Omoro Nao gets what he paid for in R100

Much more fun could be found in the Discovery Screen, as Hitoshi Matsumoto’s totally insane black comedy R100 delivers the kind of strangeness that we come to FrightFest looking for. With his wife in a coma, department store bod Takafumi (Omoro Nao) pays for the services of a series of dominatrices to beat and humiliate him to give him release. It’s all (bizarre) fun and games for a while, but when the women begin to attack him at work and at home, Takafumi attempts to back out with disastrous consequences.

R100’s genre elements are slightly too strange to go into here, both for the sake of spoilers and coherence, but it’s both hilarious and oddly moving. The more we see into Takafumi’s life, the more willing we are to forgive him his weird urges and gratifications. It’s beautifully played by all involved, especially as the film becomes a blend of mockumentary (the dominatrices are occasionally interviewed at their inexplicably changing hideout) and meta-comedy, as a group of producers keep interrupting the film to ask what the hell is going on. Much as the women keep escalating their brutal treatment of their client, Matsumoto raises the stakes and keeps us from ever really getting a handle on what the film is. It’s funny, dark and weird, and we recommend it.

Roger Edwards and Denise Williamson find the truth behind the myth in Exists
Roger Edwards and Denise Williamson find the truth behind the myth in Exists

Similarly committed to keeping its audience entertained is Eduardo Sánchez’s Exists, which we were told was the result of the director’s desire to make the best Bigfoot movie. Five people travel to a cabin in Texas with their bikes and their cameras, but they end up documenting something that’s never before been seen clearly on film. And unlike the legend, this Sasquatch isn’t a peaceful creature.

Sánchez puts the film in gear pretty much straight away. There’s very little by way of introduction; we meet these characters essentially as they cause the event that will lead to the horrors to follow. The film’s apparent lack of interest in developing character or story beyond the bare minimum might distance some viewers, but it allows Sánchez to create a lean, effective action movie that hits the ground running. He’s committed to creating a badass Sasquatch, and that’s what he’s done, as the great American legend sets its sights on our Go-Pro sporting heroes and never lets up. The found footage is nicely done (drawing on the director’s use of Go-Pro during his excellent V/H/S/2 segment ‘A Ride In The Park’), although there are some cheats that will annoy purists. It’s a relatively simple creation, but really good fun.

Also worth heading to the Discovery Screen for was Oliver Frampton’s melancholy debut The Forgotten. Tommy (Clem Tibber) goes to live with his dad (Shaun Dingwall) on a council estate scheduled for demolition after his mum suffers a breakdown, but his new situation isn’t much improved. Convinced he can hear something in the deserted next door flat, Tommy begins to investigate with the help of reluctant but good-hearted fellow estate resident Carmen (Elarica Gallacher).

Another example of why it’s worth venturing out of the main screens, Frampton makes the most of his location (Candyman’s Cabrini Green seems to have been an inspiration) to create an atmospheric chiller that boasts strong performances from the young leads. The Forgotten avoids the obvious traps that it could fall into (be assured that it’s no hoodie horror), instead stranding Tommy in a lonely and terrifying situation with a father who’s no help at all and a mother who he can’t find. The adults of the film are untrustworthy, unhelpful, unavailable or worse, and it’s that sense of isolation and abandonment that seeps from the walls of the deserted estate and makes The Forgotten so effective. Tommy and Carmen are left to stumble into the darkness by themselves to uncover the truth. There are one or two hiccups along the way, and the loose ends are all tied up a little too neatly to bring about the finale, but it’s a strong finish for a film that slowly finds its way under your skin. Genuinely affecting and chilling, this is an impressive and mournful debut.

Morgana O’Reilly and Rima Te Wiata in Housebound
Morgana O’Reilly and Rima Te Wiata do some mother-daughter bonding in Housebound

Back in the main screen, and New Zealand horror comedy Housebound won the crowd over with its blend of laughs and brains. When Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is caught breaking into an ATM, she is sentenced to house arrest living with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata). Miriam’s convinced that their house is haunted, but Kylie’s having none of it – until there’s evidence she can’t ignore. What is the spirit haunting the Bucknell house, and what does it want?

It’s difficult to talk too much about Housebound without spoiling it. First-time writer-director Gerard Johnstone’s ingenious script consistently wrong-foots the audience without ever once losing its grip on the comedic elements. The relationship between Kylie and her mum is beautifully observed, while her well-intentioned stepfather Graeme is a particularly deadpan delight. At times the film seems to slow down a little too much, but then Johnstone gives the wheel a sharp turn and we find ourselves in a new situation entirely. Best seen having read as little as possible about it, Housebound is a hilarious and unpredictable horror comedy and definitely marks Johnstone as a filmmaker to watch.

Robert Englund in The Last Showing
Robert Englund makes a movie in The Last Showing

Mr Robert Englund himself was on hand to introduce The Last Showing to the main screen with his fellow cast-mates and writer-director Phil Hawkins. The horror icon plays Stuart, a disgruntled cinema employee who decides that the time has come to make his own film. For his stars, he chooses Martin (Finn Jones) and Allie (Emily Berrington), an unwitting couple who’ve come for the midnight showing of The Hills Have Eyes 2, and  are soon caught up in his twisted game.

Englund certainly seems to be having fun in the film, and he is the high point of Hawkins’ horror. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t have a huge amount to offer beyond Stuart’s game of cat and mouse, manipulating Stuart into becoming his film’s villain. There’s some nice commentary on the state of modern projection, and Englund obviously enjoys bemoaning how modern horror’s become all about the gore, but it’s climbing on a soapbox that’s decidedly wobbly. Neither scary enough to work as a horror or funny enough to be a comedy, The Last Showing is mostly worth seeing for the genre favourite sinking his teeth into a role he’s enjoying, but there’s sadly not much beyond Englund to recommend it.

Back in the Discovery Screen, and The Den, on the other hand, grips its audience by the throat. This lean and nasty horror thriller from Zachary Donohue stars Melanie Papalia as Elizabeth, a grad student investigating how society has changed thanks to the use of social media and chatrooms. When Elizabeth stumbles upon a seemingly innocuous chat user, she is pulled into an increasingly violent and terrifying chain of events.

We’re all so familiar with found footage at this point that describing a film as a fresh spin on the subgenre prompts a sceptical raised eyebrow rather than genuine excitement. However, The Den does give us something unusual, as we watch the bulk of the film through Elizabeth’s webcam and Donohue plays on our fears of online anonymity to great effect. It’s fairly well-trodden ground (and often trod badly), but The Den attacks the issue with great confidence. Elizabeth’s safe spaces are invaded: first her computer, then her social and professional circles, and finally her home. Although the film does lose its way during an overblown final act, The Den is a gripping and inventive horror that will send a shiver or two down your spine.

Listening to the whispers in The Canal
Listening to the whispers in The Canal

Another impressive Discovery Screen… discovery was Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal. Hellboy’s Rupert Evans plays David, a film archivist who discovers old police film showing that his home was the site of a brutal murder. As he begins to lose his grip, his wife suddenly goes missing. Is David responsible, or is there a darker force at work?

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of The Canal is its murky, oppressive atmosphere, as David gradually spirals downwards, but what is he spiralling into? Kavanagh uses the setting very well, and he’s helped by an excellent performance from Evans, keeping us guessing as to what exactly happened. There are elements of The Shining (naturally) as David tries to keep his sanity for the sake of his son, but also of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (the second film of the day to recall it), as David’s environment seems to tighten and close in around him. There’s good support from Sightseers’ Steve Oram as a sceptical detective and Kelly + Victor’s Antonia Campbell-Hughes as David’s understanding colleague, and it builds to a strong, skin-crawling finale. There are some missteps, but they are minor and forgivable; The Canal certainly impressive.

The WolfCop unleashed in...WolfCop
The WolfCop unleashed in…WolfCop

From skin-crawling to skin-tearing, the Discovery Screen also played host to deeply silly B-movie love-letter WolfCop. Much like last night’s Zombeavers, WolfCop is very much a film explained by its title, as boozy officer Lou Garou (Leo Fafard) suddenly finds himself hairier and more aggressive than usual. Can he harness the power of the moon to fight crime and become the cop he was always meant to be, or is he being manipulated by other forces?

It’s always a great relief when self-aware schlock-fests have more to offer than their concept, and although WolfCop does suffer from the usual limitations of high-concept horror comedies, it’s also a lot of fun. The first half is particularly good, as a funny script and a game cast root the movie in an enjoyably sleazy one-horse-town before unleashing the power of the WolfCop on the low-lives who inhabit it. There are some attention-grabbing, gruesome practical effects (an early bathroom scene is a highlight) and Goon’s Jonathan Cherry is fun as Lou’s excitable buddy. Sadly, the film begins to slide once the transformation occurs and the jokes become a little more predictable, but this is good, self-aware fun that got more than a few giggles.

Martin Starr in Dead Snow 2
Martin Starr poses with the undead in Dead Snow 2

Finally, the last pleasant surprise of the day was Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead. Picking up where the 2009 Nazi zombie horror comedy left off, it finds Vegar Hoel’s Martin attempting to convince the police that he’s not a killer and that his friends really were killed by Nazi zombies. However, the undead fascists are coming down from the mountain to attack the small town they were commanded to destroy in life, and Martin calls on American zombie hunters the Zombie Squad to help him and his new zombie arm to stop them.

The first film was an intermittently fun horror comedy and, if we’re being completely honest, our expectations weren’t hugely high for this follow-up. However, Wirkola returns to his budding franchise after the misfiring Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with a sense of energy and invention that quickly won us over. He wisely opens up the film’s world, bringing in new groups of characters and a much broader scope; it’s much more fun watching the Nazi zombies tear apart tour groups and crashing their way into people’s homes than it was watching them torment one small group of people. It’s much funnier (Party Down‘s Martin Starr helps in this regard as the nerdy but proficient lead zombie slayer Daniel), there are some good gore gags, and Wirkola has fun transgressing beyond the obvious, with a particularly funny nod to Pet Semetary via Nekromantik. It’s uneven and overlong, but there are a surprising amount of laughs.

And so, that was it for Day 2. Tomorrow’s coverage will include the much-hyped The Babadook, Life After Beth, The Harvest, Starry Eyes and more!