FrightFest 2014 Day 4 review: killers, singers and demons

Reviews of Faults, The Samurai, Stage Fright, Open Windows and more from FrightFest 2014

Sasha Grey gets instructions from the screen in Open Windows
Sasha Grey gets instructions from the screen in Open Windows

After a late night being extremely…well, creeped out by Creep, SciFiNow shuffled back to Leicester Square for Day 4 of FrightFest armed with the biggest coffee we could find, excited to see some of our most-anticipated movies of the fest. First up was writer-director’s Nacho Vigalondo’s long-awaited Open Windows, one of three films that the maker of TimeCrimes has at this year’s FrightFest. Introducing the film, Vigalondo announced that he was happy to have so many movies at the festival as, “It’s impossible for you to hate me!”

Open Windows is a found-footage-ish tale that uses a similar technique to The Den, but on a much bigger scale. We watch the entire film through windows opened on the laptop screen belonging to Nick (Elijah Wood), a webmaster obsessed with action movie star Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). He’s in town to interview her about her new film when he gets a call from Chord (Neil Maskell) telling him that dinner’s been cancelled, but there’s something better happening. Chord hacks into Jill’s phone and begins to manipulate surveillance cameras giving Nick access to everything…but what is he setting Nick up for?

Heavily influenced by Brian DePalma, the first thing that strikes you about Open Windows is its technical ingenuity. Visually, Vigalondo’s film is hugely impressive and we spent a good deal of the film marvelling at how nifty it all was. As much as we had to use the old criticism leveled at the director of films like Blow Out, there is certainly a case of style over substance going on here, as Chord’s abilities to manipulate, hack and shoot seem to grow exponentially as the film goes on. It seems to be setting the audience up for a hell of a ride and your enjoyment of the film will depend on how willing you are to simply go along with it. Wood puts in a good show as the increasingly frantic Nick but there’s more than one too many twists in the tale and Open Windows can’t keep up with itself.

Sarah Mac in Extinction
Sarah Mac in Extinction

In the Discovery Screen, the day opened on a very different note, as British found footage movie Extinction travels deep into the heart of the Amazon. A camera crew follows a research team on their trip into the rainforest, but when they go further than originally planned, they make a shocking discovery that will change everything…if they can make it out alive to tell anyone.

Extinction (previously titled The Expedition) sensibly spends  a lot of time laying the groundwork for what is to come. We get to know the characters, the script (by director Adam Spinks and star Ben Loyd-Holmes) keeps things moving at a steady but deliberate pace, and the film takes itself completely seriously. Professor Howson (Loyd-Holmes) believes that there may be apex predators in the region that have remained unchanged for thousands of years, but they’re not looking for Nessie. What they find are…well, you can wait and see or you can look at the film’s promotional material. When the effects are placed front and centre they’re occasionally clunky but they do look pretty good considering the budget. It’s an ambitious take on the found footage genre and for the most part it’s a fun enough journey through a rainforest packed with monsters.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in treatment in Faults
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in treatment in Faults

Following the frenetic plotting and camerawork of Open Windows, Riley Stearns’ feature debut Faults introduced the main screen audience to what is essentially a two-hander. This SXSW favourite stars veteran character actor Leland Orser (Taken, Se7en, The Guest) as Ansel Roth, an expert in cults who has fallen on hard times following a succession of well-publicised failures. In desperate need of cash, he agrees to de-programme Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in five days. However, the more time he spends with Claire, the less clear it becomes as to who is actually in control.

Faults begins as a deliciously, Coen brothers-esque dark comedy, as we’re introduced to Ansel at an incredibly low point. He tries to con his way out of paying for dinner, he steals the battery from a remote control, and he’s beaten by the brother of the woman who killed herself after he failed to help her. How exactly, the film asks us, is this man supposed to help anyone? After kidnapping Claire, Ansel is suddenly confronted with this almost impossibly serene presence, while the behaviour of her parents (the excellent Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) gets more bizarre. Stearns’ script keeps the audience on its toes, never quite allowing us to feel comfortable and keeping us as much in the dark as Ansel is. Both Orser and Winstead (Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim) are fantastic as the balance of power consistently shifts, and there are great supporting turns from Lance Reddick, Jon Gries and AJ Bowen. Unpredictable, hilarious, often unnerving and beguiling throughout, Faults is an excellent debut and will certainly end on our list of this year’s FrightFest’s best films.

doc_of_the_dead
A zombie Charlie Chaplin in Doc Of The Dead

In the Discovery Screen, those who perhaps had had their fill of zombie movies could enjoy the highly entertaining documentary Doc Of The Dead. An impressive range of talking heads debate all things zombie, from the very first voodoo zombie movies through the Romero revolution, right up to the present day and the success of World War Z and The Walking Dead.

Although you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing about the Romero movies that you don’t know, Alexandre O. Phillipe’s doc casts its net much wider and its this commitment to covering everything and talking to as many people as possible that ensures its success. We’ll never tire of hearing Romero talk about Night, but it’s great to have Simon Pegg discuss why he loves them, seeing Robert Kirkman talk about what he would do if the zombie apocalypse happened, and porn star Joanna Angel talk about the difficulties of making a Walking Dead porn parody. There’s Max Brooks, Bruce Campbell, Stuart Gordon, Greg Nicotero, Tom Savini, Charlie Adlard and many more amiably discussing everything from slow versus fast to zombie walks (one zombie walker memorably can’t believe that Romero doesn’t get it). Doc Of The Dead is a lot of fun.

Summer holiday gets off to a hell of a start in Among The Living
Summer holiday gets off to a hell of a start in Among The Living

We’re huge fans of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s two previous films, Inside and Livide, so our expectations for this, their third feature, were very high indeed. The intricate and dreamlike Livide was a serious change of pace from the frentic and blood-drenched Inside, so we were prepared for something different. Among The Living draws heavily on the work of Stephen King (and a dash of Tobe Hooper), as three kids skip detention on the last day of school to visit an abandoned film studio. What they find there terrifies them, but no one believes their story…and they should have.

Fans of the filmmakers will feel like they’re on familiar ground with the violent prologue starring Béatrice Dalle, but the sun-drenched countryside which we soon find ourselves in is definitely almost alien territory. The three young actors playing the boys are excellent, forming a strong Stand By My-ish unit, but the horrors they confront are decidedly uneven. Maury and Bustillo have never been shy about stuffing their films full of references to films they like, but the sub-genre-hopping is done with decidedly less elegance than before. It’s intermittently excellent and some of the sequences are chilling, but it doesn’t quite come together. Something very scary is quickly followed by something that doesn’t quite work, resulting in a film that’s certainly entertaining and quite memorable, but ultimately a bit disappointing.

The wolf is in town in Der Samurai
The wolf is in town in Der Samurai

From Stephen King to Angela Carter, as Till Kleinert’s The Samurai draws on the burgeoning sexuality of the great author’s fairytales to create a rich and hypnotic dream-like arthouse chiller. Small town cop Jakob (Michel Diercks) doesn’t quite fit in, even though he’s got an idea for how to deal with the wolf that’s been coming into the neighbourhood. One night he finds an intense young man (Pit Bukowski) wearing a dress who has come into possession of a katana. This samurai wants to wreak havoc throughout the village, and Jakob is determined to stop him.

Kleinert has crafted a beautifully shot fairytale of his own, exploring the themes of repressed sexuality through this gorgeous, atmospheric and darkly funny fable. The  roaming wolf is an early clue that we’re not strictly operating within the realms of the everyday, and the film begins pushing at those boundaries early on. The town itself seems to expand and contract, while the titular samurai that Jakob is chasing is both decidedly physical and also clearly a manifestation of our hero’s id. The confines of the village that has pushed Jakob into living a role that nobody seems particularly convinced by (the local motorcycle rebels don’t respect his authority and his boss certainly doesn’t), and the gleeful anarchy that the Samurai brings launches him on a compelling journey. As things draw to a bizarre but wonderful conclusion, The Samurai has drawn you into its odd, half-Lynchian, half Company of Wolves dreamscape completely. This is excellent.

Allie MacDonald is ready to go on in Stage Fright
Allie MacDonald is ready to go on in Stage Fright

Following The Samurai, the main screen stage was set for Jerome Sable’s horror musical Stage Fright. Ten years after star performer Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) was brutally murdered in her dressing room after The Haunting Of The Opera, her teenage children Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) work at a musical theatre summer camp run by her manager Roger (Meat Loaf). Camilla still dreams of following in her mum’s footsteps, and when it’s announced that the camp show will be The Haunting, she is ready to take her mother’s role. However, someone’s got a different plan…

We love the idea of a horror musical and everything about Stage Fright, from the casting to the retro poster designs, was hugely promising. However, it’s disappointing to report that Stage Fright doesn’t really come together, neither funny enough to work as a Wet Hot American Summer combination of nostalgia and satire, nor scary or gory enough to work as a full-blooded horror comedy. The opening sequence is great, and Driver has great fun with her brief appearance, but once we arrive at the summer camp the film’s elements never really click. Crucially, the songs aren’t particularly catchy or memorable, although the metal stylings of the killer do raise a smile. MacDonald puts in strong work and it’s not entirely without laughs, but Stage Fright doesn’t live up to its potential.

The House At The End Of Time
Confronting the mystery in The House At The End Of Time

In the Discovery Screen, those who decided to leave the beaten path were treated to twisty Venezuelan horror The House At The End Of Time. Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) is imprisoned for the murders of her husband and two children, and is released back into her home after thirty years. Now an old woman, she understands the threat that the house represents, and we begin to see exactly what happened that night.

The House At The End Of Time may start slowly but it rewards the viewer’s patience, as the narrative unfolds and the flashbacks begin to take on greater meaning. Writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo teases out details slowly, as we learn about the family’s difficulties and the house’s history, and the perspective flits between Dulce’s and that of her two fueding young children. At times this leisurely pace does hurt the film’s momentum, but the revelations that unfold are effective and the construction impresses. This is a solid slow-burning horror mystery with heart that is worth sticking with.

Another
Maria Olsen in Another

In the second discovery screen, the barking mad Another was not slow-burning at all. Far from it, in fact. Jason Bognacki’s film stars Paulie Rojas as Jordyn, who descends into an Argento-inspired nightmare as a dark force seems determined to wreak havoc in her life and take possession of her soul.

Bognacki is clearly influenced by the deliberately non-sensical dream logic of Argento’s magic-infused horrors, as Jordyn begins to lose track of what is real and what is not. There are two forces competing for her soul, but will the dark witch and her evil powers claim the 18 year old, or will her Christian aunt help her save herself? None of this is particularly important; it’s best to just go with it and enjoy the excellent cinematography, which is retro without being obnoxiously Grindhouse, and the sheer madness of it all. Another moves at a cracking pace through its 80 minutes and although it’s often clunky, daft and ludicrous, we recommend that you sit back and let this deeply strange but decidedly entertaining film take you along with it.

Ashley Rickards in Home
Ashley Rickards in Home

The final film of the night was Nicholas McCarthy’s Home, which seems to have been retitled At The Devil’s Door, which is a shame as the original title plays into the central theme very nicely. Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full Of Grace, Magic Magic) is Leigh, a kindly estate agent who takes on a foreclosed house that the owners are desperate to get rid of. What exactly happened in that house, and why does the owners’ daughter keep coming back?

Home gets off to a strong start, as McCarthy delivers an unsettling, boo-scare heavy prologue before jumping into Leigh’s story. The sombre atmosphere is effective and Moreno is a terrific actress, but she does suffer from the clunky dialogue that keeps threatening to shatter any tension. The jump scares certainly work, but Home is strongest when it’s quietly, slowly revealing exactly what is going on. A little more subtlety would have helped the film no end, as all the information we’ve been given is leading somewhere, but we’re already a few steps ahead of the film thanks to the fact that it’s been hammered home. There are some very creepy sequences, some good shocks, and McCarthy’s central conceit is unpleasant and chilling enough. However, Home does suffer from wanting to be a restrained, insidiously horrible chiller and a loud, explosive ghost train, and from having one ending too many. Possibly suffering from coming a day after we were all made terrified of cupboards by The Babadook, it’s enjoyable enough, but it’s not quite there.

So that was Day 4 of FrightFest 2014! Join us tomorrow for its final day, and Alleluia, V/H/S Viral, The Signal and more!