FrightFest 2015 Day 2: ghouls, ghosts and devils

Reviews of We Are Still Here, Pod, Jeruzalem, Hellions, AAAAAAAA! and more from FrightFest

Barbara Crampton defends herself in We Are Still Here
Dean Cates and Lauren Ashley Carter make a shocking discovery in Pod
Dean Cates and Lauren Ashley Carter make a shocking discovery in Pod

After the previous night concluded with the giant wasp antics of Stung, FrightFest Day 2 got off to a slightly more grounded if decidedly more intense start with Mickey Keating’s gripping cabin in the woods horror Pod. Lauren Ashley Carter (The Woman, Jug Face) and Dean Cates star as a pair of siblings who head up to the family cabin to stage an intervention for their returned veteran brother Martin (Brian Morvant), who they believe has gone off the rails alone in the woods. Upon their arrival, it soon becomes clear that Martin is definitely in a state of distress, but is he telling the truth about the government experiments? And what is the pod?

Keating delivers an excellent debut that makes very good use of its isolated location and modest budget. Although it starts on familiar ground, Keating builds convincing characters first,, working with his actors to create a flawed but watchable leading trio (control freak, borderline alcoholic, possible schizophrenic) before confidently slipping between genres to create something that’s unpredictable and highly entertaining. With excellent performances from the lead trio (and a welcome appearance from genre legend Larry Fessenden), Pod is a terrific, gripping indie horror that has plenty of surprises up its sleeve. You’re going to want to catch this one.

Trick or treaters have a big surprise for Chloe Rose and Robert Patrick in Hellions
Trick or treaters have a big surprise for Chloe Rose and Robert Patrick in Hellions

In the main screen, early risers were rewarded with Hellions, the latest from Pontypool director Bruce McDonald. Chloe Rose plays Dora, who finds out that she’s pregnant on Halloween. After her mum and younger brother head out to trick or treat, Dora is visited by a very creepy kid in a Halloween costume who seems to know about her baby…then another. What do they want?

McDonald kicks things off with plenty of gorgeous small town Halloween iconography before taking a very welcome left turn into his lead character’s nightmare. The bulk of the film is tinged with a striking pink hue (blame the Blood Moon, possibly) as storms rage inside the house and time becomes meaningless. Characters pop up from time to time to try and help, like Rossif Sutherland’s elf-eared doctor to Robert Patrick’s gruff-but-kindly cop, but this is very much Dora’s journey, as the kids make clear with their horrifyingly precise descriptions of “what happens next.” It’s very impressive how McDonald manages to create a properly creepy Halloween movie (those masks) while pushing for something unique. His approach may shake a few viewers off along the way, but we loved this striking seasonal chiller. It’s creepy, it’s hugely atmospheric, it’s beautifully shot and we can’t wait to see it again.

Taking a bite out of Wind Walkers
Taking a bite out of Wind Walkers

Next up, the discovery screen played host to Wind Walkers, from writer-director Russell Friedenberg. A hunting trip in the Florida Everglades is already decidedly awkward due to the tension between the bullish Sonny (Glen Powell) and twitchy returned veteran Sean (another strong turn from From Dusk Till Dawn’s Zane Holtz). Things get really ugly when something starts picking the old friends off one by one…Wind Walkers is an ambitious piece of work, attempting to blend psychological chills with monster movie fun (Predator is a clear influence). The use of Native American mythology combined with Sean’s Afghanistan trauma is a nice approach that pays off handsomely, the performances are mostly good and it hits more often than it misses. As the group are slowly but surely dispatched and psychic and historical wounds are opened up, Wind Walkers’ feels fresh and confident.

Appealing to better natures doesn't go well in Landmine Goes Click
Appealing to better natures doesn’t go well in Landmine Goes Click

Audiences and critics seem to be divided on the subject of Levan Bakhia’s Georgian-set Landmine Goes Click, in which American tourist Chris (Sterling Knight) is left standing on a landmine out in the mountains when his best friend Daniel (Dean Geyer) discovers that Chris has slept with his fiancée Alicia (Spencer Locke). Daniel bails, leaving the two to try to save Chris’ life, but when a local comes across the pair, Alicia is in just as much trouble as he is.

Landmine Goes Click doesn’t really waste any time getting to the situation that dominates the bulk of the film, creating an effectively unpleasant scenario in which the person who might be able to help is only interested in one thing. Kote Tolordava (who sadly died earlier this year) deserves kudos for his portrayal of Ilya, who toys with the two desperate Americans, but, to this viewer at least, there’s not enough beneath the surface to justify its subject matter, or its relatively lengthy running time. It’s depressingly predictable in the misogynist behaviour of its characters, but doesn’t give the female characters any agency either, giving Chris’ emotional journey priority. The final act goes some way to introducing some depth but we were disappointed. Still, others like it a lot, so this does seem to be one where you might have to try it and make up your own mind…

Family struggles in The Rotten Link
Family struggles in The Rotten Link

Argentinian filmmaker Valentín Javier Diment’s The Rotten Link, on the other hand, succeeds as a portrayal of a small town’s grubby underbelly. Our main family works for the town: Raulo (Luis Ziembrowski) delivers wood, his sister Roberta (Paula Brasca) works as a prostitute in the local bar every night. Their fearsome mother Ercilia (Marilu Marini) cautions Roberta not to go with Camilio (Luis Aronsky) or the town will have no further use for her, but when Ercilia dies, there’s no protection left… Diment has created a convincing, atmospheric symbiotic community gone bad, and for the most part The Rotten Link is a compelling drama as opposed to a genre film. Roberta has become an object in a town where the idea of duty has become a tool of oppression and subjugation; everyone might know each other’s name but there’s nothing good about this small town. A late turn into gore is frankly overdone, but there’s much to admire here and Marini’s performance as a matriarch determined to protect her family until the bitter end is fantastic. It will stay with you long after the credits roll, and we’d definitely recommend seeking it out.

Ali Larter takes cover in The Diabolical
Ali Larter takes cover in The Diabolical

Next up in the main screen was The Diabolical from first time director Alistair Legrand. Ali Larter stars as Madison, a single mum in a house she can’t afford. If her impending bankruptcy and her son’s behavioural issues weren’t a big enough problem, the house is also haunted. The Diabolical wins some points early on by establishing its evil spirit, and the fact that the family is very much aware of it, early on. Money issues mean that Madison can’t pack up and leave, and she’s tried everything from doctors to mediums. The flashes that precede the apparition are also a nice touch, as the spirit is only around for so long before it disappears again. The problem is that it’s just not particularly gripping or scary, and a late twist is both ridiculous and somehow plodding. The effort to put a new spin on the haunted house movie is clear, but despite its best efforts, The Diabolical failed to impress.

There are no hiding places in Jerzualem
There are no hiding places in Jerzualem

Doran and Yoav Paz’s Jeruzalem also started off on familiar territory, as beautiful young Americans Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) and Rachel (Yael Grobglas) head off on holiday to Tel Aviv, before being convinced by a handsome archaeologist that they should go to Jerusalem instead. The movie feels as though it’s prepping us for another “terrible things happen to Americans when they leave America” fable as our two heroines drink, take drugs and hook up, but it goes in a  very different direction. The found footage, too, is given a fresh spin through Sarah’s Google Glass (not called Google Glass, obviously), which give her dad the chance to try to call at unfortunate moments, and which tell her “fatal error” when she falls. It’s difficult to list the film’s influences without giving the game away entirely, but there’s a nice mix of found footage horror tropes at work here and the first half, which is pretty much entirely horror free, pays off as our characters are put through hell in the second. There’s some smart social commentary too, as our protagonists are all in the exact same amount of peril, regardless of religion or nationality. It’s definitely not without its faults (some of the dialogue clunks, and some of the performances aren’t great), but this is fun, gripping, ambitious and intelligent and it certainly marks the directors as a duo to watch.

Toyah Wilcox takes up arms in AAAAAAAA!
Toyah Wilcox takes up arms in AAAAAAAA!

We’re kind of at a loss for words when it comes to Steve Oram’s AAAAAAAA! The co-writer and star of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers has created a decidedly inaccessible but undeniably unique dystopic comedy, in which everyone behaves like apes. There’s no dialogue, just grunting, moaning, and screaming. The plot revolves around a power struggle in a London home, as Julian Rhind-Tutt’s obnoxious patriarch is challenged by Oram’s confident party-crasher. The characters drink, fight and fornicate, as Oram pisses on a fridge, Toyah Wilcox shits on the floor and Julian Barratt tenderly caresses a Battenberg. Chances are you’ll either think it’s an obnoxious drama student experiment or a bold, hilarious vision. We fell somewhere in the middle, alternately frustrated and giggling hysterically. Honestly, you’ve not seen anything like it.

Helen Rogers is in a tight spot in Body
Helen Rogers is in a tight spot in Body

Anything would feel more conventional after AAAAAAAA! and Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Body is a fairly traditional “what the hell do we do with this body?” thriller. Holly (Helen Rogers), Cali (Alexandra Turshen) and Mel (Lauren Molina) decide that their Christmas plans are too depressing, and accept Cali’s invitation to head to a big empty house. Shortly after they realise Cali isn’t related to the owners, a man (Larry Fessenden again) tries to stop them leaving before ending up in a heap at the foot of the stairs. So what are they going to do? Body starts very well with its convincing and likeable leading trio; Rogers (from Joe Swanberg’s ‘The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She  Was Younger’ V/H/S segment) is particularly good. Similarly, the leaps that the girls take to try and stay out of prison are decidedly unpleasant but not entirely far-fetched. The bonds of friendship inevitably stretch and tear as the bulk of responsibility is put on Holly, and before you know it there’s a whole other issue complicating things…Body doesn’t challenge genre conventions but it’s a strong, well-acted thriller that keeps you gripped as its twists and turns unfold.

Barbara Crampton defends herself in We Are Still Here
Barbara Crampton defends herself in We Are Still Here

One of the films that we were most excited about going into the festival was Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig (Upstream Color) play grieving couple Anne and Paul Sacchetti, who move to remote house in a small town after losing their son. Anne is convinced that his spirit is still with them, but are the restless inhabitants of the house somewhat more sinister?

Geoghegan’s debut is a stylish, assured and highly entertaining horror throwback to (mostly) the work of Lucio Fulci that’s funny but heartfelt. It starts as a fairly somber drama (complete with wintry setting) with strong performances from his two leads, then Geoghegan quickly puts his foot on the accelerator, bringing Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie’s wonderful pair of hippie spiritualists into the mix and putting his monsters on full display. It’s definitely self-aware but the laughs never come at the expense of the film’s characters, as Crampton in particular puts in excellent work as the still-grieving Anna. There’s also some wonderful effects, from the ghouls themselves to a fantastic sequence involving Fessenden and a sock. It’s arguably a little too eager to relate its own mythology, but, like a blend of The House Of The Devil, The House By The Cemetery and HP Lovecraft, it’s clever, atmospheric, stylised, scary and a huge amount of fun. We loved it.

Michael Pare is having a bad night in The Shelter
Michael Pare is having a bad night in The Shelter

In the Discovery Screen, John Fallon’s promising directorial debut The Shelter was a moody, atmospheric look at a broken man getting put through the emotional wringer. Michael Pare plays the homeless Thomas, who is having a rough night of it before he sees an empty, welcoming house. He settles in for the night, but there are some surprises in store for him…The Shelter swirls Christianity and Silent Hill-levels of guilt to torment its protagonist, and Fallon’s strong visual style combines with a very strong turn from Pare to good effect. After a grim and gritty opening, the film becomes increasingly dreamlike before whatever is in the house takes hold and Thomas is forced to confront his demons. There’s a confidence to Fallon’s choices too, as he gives us a not particularly likeable protagonist and maintains a sombre tone throughout this emotionally raw journey. It has some problems, particularly with pacing, but this is a strong low-budget debut. We’re definitely interested to see what Fallon does next.

Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley get to work in Final Girl
Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley get to work in Final Girl

Abigail Breslin continues to accumulate genre cred with a strong performance in Tyler Shields’ very stylish Final Girl. She’s Veronica, who’s been schooled in the art of murdering people who prey on young girls from a very early age by the intense William (Wes Bentley, on fine form). Now, it’s time to put practice into action as she takes on a group of four dashing young men who take her to the woods to make her their latest victim. Final Girl is beautifully shot (take a bow, cinematographer Gregory Middleton) but once the film gets into its stalk and slash it quickly becomes routine, despite the table-turning set-up. It’s at its strongest exploring the creepy relationship between Veronica and William, but that’s shunted aside with the arrival of the guys. Not without its charms, but there’s a more interesting film to be made here.

Angela Dixon will Never Let Go
Angela Dixon will Never Let Go

Meanwhile, Howard J Ford’s Never Let Go wasn’t really a horror film, more of a Taken-style action movie about a woman on holiday in Morocco chasing down the bastards who stole her baby before it’s too late. Ford made his name with his African zombie movie The Dead (and its sequel), co-writing and co-directing with his brother Jonathan. He’s on solo duty here, and has no less dedication to presenting breathless action sequences, but the entire subplot involving who the baby’s father is never convinces and breaks our suspension of disbelief. The gritty realism of the chase is undone by the daftness of the backstory, despite a committed lead performance from Angela Dixon.

Seances won't end well in Demonic
Seances won’t end well in Demonic

The final film of the night was James Wan’s Demonic, which has a surprising amount of pedigree in front of the camera. The excellent Maria Bello and Frank Grillo are a psychologist and detective respectively, called out to a notorious murder house where it looks like an attempt to conjure spirits has gone terribly wrong. The only survivor is John (Dustin Milligan), who remembers fragments of what happened…Despite  a strong cast (Magic Mike’s Cody Horn and Mean Creek’s Scott Mechlowicz are two of the missing kids), Demonic feels like a run-of-the-mill re-tread of several other movies. The structure is important for some third act reveals but for the most part it robs the haunted house sequences of their tension, which is frankly lacking anyway. Full credit to Bello, Grillo and Milligan for committed performances but this is a disappointment.

Join us tomorrow for reviews of Deathgasm, Bait, Frankenstein, Sun Choke and more!