It’s finally here. Film4 FrightFest, five days of horror from around the world. We’ve been waiting for what seems like forever, and last night it all kicked off in Leicester Square. This year is bigger than ever with more than 70 films playing over the course of the long weekend, and it started last night with Wake Wood director David Keating’s witchy Irish horror Cherry Tree (but not before Jonathan Ross introduced the festival with a hilarious story about Dario Argento, the Italian police and a big block of weed).
The film stars Naomi Battrick as Faith, a 15 year old high school outcast who is dealing with the fact that her father is dying of leukaemia. Fortunately, or not, her new hockey coach Sissy (Anna Walton) isn’t just there to provide pep talks. She’s a witch with an incredibly deep cellar, a lot of centipedes, a love of cherries and a proposition: if Faith gives Sissy a baby, Sissy will cure daddy. When Faith agrees, it’s really not very long at all before she realises that she’s made a terrible error.
Riffing on The Craft, Lucio Fulci, and a whole load of high school horrors from Ginger Snaps to The Woods, Cherry Tree is all over the place. Which can be charming, except that the film doesn’t seem to know whether it’s going for dark comedy, horror or monster mash, ending up as a slapdash mix of all three. This means that there are some sequences that are a lot of fun, while others fall thuddingly flat. It’s definitely not subtle (cherry subtext), but it never leans into the dark comedy enough, leaving the whole thing tonally awkward with some especially clunky dialogue. “I don’t know how I feel about this,” mutters Faith’s dad after he finds out she’s pregnant. We didn’t really either. It picks up with a (good) practical effects-heavy and endearingly daft finale, but despite a good deadpan lead turn from Battrick and an increasingly entertaining performance from Walton, Cherry Tree doesn’t really pay off.
Next up was one of our most highly anticipated films of the festival: Turbo Kid. This homage to and pastiche of 80s Mad Max rip-offs definitely lived up to the hype and we insist that you see it as soon as possible. It’s 1997, and The Kid (Munro Chambers) lives in a post apocalyptic world where water is hard to come by, death is everywhere, and the only way to get around is your bicycle. His only refuge is his Turbo Man comic books, until the manically happy Apple (Laurence Lebouef) arrives and teaches him the value of friendship. But the evil Zeus (Michael Ironside) and his henchmen are coming…
This kind of movie is hard to get right. Lean too far one way and it’s a parody, but you don’t just want to slavishly recreate it. Luckily, the writer-director team of Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoan-Karl Whissell get the balance perfectly right. It’s hilarious and blood-drenched, but it’s surprisingly sweet with a big heart to go with the buckets of gore that rain down. It’s that heart that sets it apart from the competition, as the leading duo of The Kid and Apple are incredibly likeable and easy to root for. Lebeouf in particular is superb as the insanely cheery Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a gift for ultraviolence and a joyful excitement about everything, from Gnome Sticks to the prospect of death by combat. Ironside chews the scenery to wonderful effect as the one-eyed water-hogging villain, Aaron Jeffrey is hilarious as the beyond-masculine legendary arm-wrestler, and the gore effects are absolutely glorious (so much gore). Seriously, we can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s a joy.
Finishing off the night was Benni Diez’s creature feature Stung, which stars Matt O’Leary (Frailty, Brick) and Jessica Cook (Undateable) as Paul and Julia, down on their luck caterers working an event at a remote mansion. Things aren’t going too badly until giant wasps attack the guests, and getting stung isn’t the end…
Stung gets off to a good start and the leads are supported by genre veteran Lance Henriksen and the always excellent Clifton Collins Jr. There’s a real effort to flesh out the characters, and the sequence in which all hell breaks loose is great. The practical creature effects are great fun, there are buckets of goo and human faces hanging off wasp carapaces, and the cast seem to be into it. Once the characters run for the cover of the house, however, there’s a weird shift in tone, as Adam Aresty’s script keeps hitting the pathos button. Given that it’s a giant wasp movie, it seems odd that the film is so determined to keep bringing the mood down. There are some fun effects surprises, but a film in which a character sprouts a wasp head from his shoulder and seems to be controlled by it should really have more laughs. Still, it’s not without its charms and O’Leary continues to impress.
Join us tomorrow for reviews of Hellions, Pod, Landmine Goes Click, The Diabolical, We Are Still Here and more!