FrightFest 2015 Day 3: Metal, monsters and mayhem

Reviews of Deathgasm, Shut In, Frakenstein, Sun Choke, The Hallow and more from FrightFest 2015

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Beth Riesgraf in Shut In
Beth Riesgraf in Shut In

FrightFest Day 3 got off to a tremendous start for the early risers with Adam Schindler’s nifty home invasion horror Shut In. The underrated Beth Riesgraf (Leverage) takes a rare starring role as Anna, the agoraphobe of the title whose brother has just died after a long illness. She can’t even leave the house to go to his funeral, which is unfortunate as three crooks break in looking for a cash stash. Given that she’s got nowhere to run, how much trouble can she be?

The interesting supporting cast (Rory Culkin as a good-natured delivery boy, Martin Starr as a dangerous heavy) is an early sign that Shut In has more to offer than meets the eye, and Riesgraf is excellent in the lead role. It’s difficult to talk too much about the movie without giving away the twists and turns of it, but the script by TJ Cimfel and David White finds ways to wrong-foot its characters and the audience, and there’s a wicked seam of black comedy running through it. The final act goes a little too far in explaining itself, but this is a rare home invasion movie that feels genuinely fresh and surprising. It’s funny, it’s sharp and it’s damn entertaining.

BaitDominic Brunt’s Bait isn’t a horror movie as such, but this revenge thriller mines the very real terror of loan sharks to muscular effect. Dawn (Joanne Mitchell) and Bex (Victoria Smurfit) are two women in a small town in need of some big money to start their own coffee place. The banks say no, so when the seemingly kind-hearted Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger) offers them a loan; it’s hard to see the catch. Except when they try to refuse, and Jeremy explains that it’s too late. They owe him big, and he’ll get it one way or another. At times Bait feels like misery porn but it’s a timely subject matter and Brunt shows a steady hand behind the camera. The two leads put in good work and Slinger is particularly unpleasant as the two-faced, sadistic lender. It’s just a shame that the second half’s turn into revenge movie isn’t as effective as the bleak, oppressive first half.

The NightmareFollowing his The Shining fan theory documentary Room 237, Rodney Ascher plays with the format again with his sleep paralysis study The Nightmare. A selection of interviewees recounts their horrifying experiences, which are recreated with actors. It’s undoubtedly a terrifying condition to suffer through (that this writer has not experienced and hopes never to), but Ascher’s dramatisations succeed in conveying that only intermittently. The experience of hearing the subjects describe the feeling of sheer hopelessness is decidedly affecting (Chris Carolan’s blend of good humour and despair is powerful), but the absence of medical professionals is a problem, and writing them off as not helpful doesn’t feel useful. There’s some very nice moments of visual flair and when it hits, it hits hard (how often do fantastic jump scares happen in a doc?), but we can’t help feeling that there’s a more interesting straightforward documentary to made on the subject. The Nightmare is interesting, if not a categorical success.

HangmanAdam Mason’s Hangman definitely feels like a nightmare that we’ve all had. It’s a nice/horrible spin on the found footage technique, as a masked figure breaks into the Millers’ family home while they’re on holiday, setting up cameras all over the house. He makes it look like a home invasion for when they return, but we then watch the family through hidden cameras, as they’re unaware of who’s in the house…It seems like a tricky story to spin over a feature length running time, but Mason confidently takes his time in slowly escalating the home invader’s behaviour, from leaving orange juice out on the side to actively involving himself in the lives of his victims. There are strong performances (Jeremy Sisto and Kate Ashfield star as the parents), and although it drags a little, the essential horror of the central conceit never dissipates. As you watch the family go about their day, you can never forget the perspective you’re watching it from. Hangman is genuinely skin-crawling.

FrankensteinUp next in the main screen was Bernard Rose’s modern day take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, introduced by the director and star Danny Huston (who gave the audience an “It’s alive” before the film began). Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss are the Frankensteins, who create a beautiful human (Xavier Samuel) with the mind of a new-born. He’s perfect…until overactive cell division causes him to become imperfect, and they try to dispose of him. However, the creature escapes and discovers life on the streets of Los Angeles.

This is a sensitive and surprisingly faithful update of Shelley’s story, which uses modern technology to tremendous effect. The early sequences of the Frankensteins testing and nurturing their new creation/son are absolutely fantastic, and the decision to get rid of him leads to a truly affecting, violent sequence. Rose finds ways to channel the spirit of the classic James Whale adaptations while sticking more closely to the novel, while remaining firmly rooted in the modern day. From the shoot first, ask questions later attitude of the LAPD to the tidal wave of information available to “Monster” on the cell phone of a friendly stranger, this update feels unforced and very aware of its roots. It’s anchored by a superb performance from Samuel, who goes from confused infant to vengeful outcast with tremendous skill. There’s also a very good turn from Rose’s Candyman star Tony Todd as a kindly blind beggar who takes Monster under his wing. The film drags a little in its second half and can’t quite find the climax to match its opening, but this is an impressive and decidedly worthwhile take on a classic.

EstrangedAdam Levins’ British horror Estranged also depicts an unusual family, although the precise nature of it isn’t revealed until roughly halfway through. Following a bike crash in South America, January (Amy Manson) returns home to her family estate with her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quatermain) but without her memory. Her family seem happy to see her, although deeply disapproving of Callum, but January struggles to remember them at all. As they grow increasingly impatient with her behaviour, Callum begins to think that things may very well not have been rosy before January left…For the first half of its running time, Estranged is tense and unpredictable, helped by the slightly unhinged performances from the strong cast. James Lance (Bronson), Nora-Jane Noone (The Descent), Eileen Nicholas (The Quiet Ones) and the fearsome James Cosmo (Game Of Thrones) all impress as January’s family. When the film shows its cards, however, things get a little dicier, and increasingly unpleasant, leading to a drawn out and not particularly satisfying conclusion. It’s overlong at 100 minutes, and seems to enjoy making its heroine suffer more than it should, but there are some surprises and some good performances.

Some Kind Of HateFrom British country piles to remote desert camps, Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Some Kind Of Hate won us over with its convincing ferocity. After finally fighting back against the school bully, Lincoln (Ronen Rubenstein) is dispatched to a facility for troubled teens run by the slightly new age-y Jack Iverson (Northfork director Michael Polish). Despite falling for the like-minded Kaitlin (Grace Phipps), he soon becomes targeted by another bully. Praying for an end to the cycle proves to be dangerous, as Lincoln accidentally unleashes a vengeful spirit who’s more than happy to dole out some punishment. Some Kind Of Hate could easily be a tasteless attempt to portray the darker side of being an outcast, and it does skate close to glamorising cutting with a Clive Barker homage sequence. However, Mortimer commits to his premise and he’s helped by dedicated performances from a strong cast (Rian Johnson regular Noah Segan pops up as a camp staff member). At times, the film shows a little too much relish in the slashed wrists of its protagonists but there’s an anger and a frustration to our hero’s journey that ensures that Some Kind Of Hate makes the right kind of impact. The teen melodrama is occasionally a bit much, playing like a heavy metal Point Horror, but despite the occasional misstep, it’s powerful stuff, and marks Mortimer as one to watch.

The HallowCorin Hardy’s much-buzzed Sundance hit The Hallow sold out the discovery screen, and conjured the spirits of Irish folk mythology to highly entertaining effect. Joseph Mawle (Sense8, Heartless) stars as Adam, a tree surgeon who moves with his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) to a remote Irish community to mark trees for deforestation. Naturally, this doesn’t make him too popular with the locals, but should the family be more worried about why the house had iron bars on the windows?

Hardy makes excellent use of his location, as the natural beauty of the lush Irish forests quickly turns threatening as the sun goes down. He’s also working with a very good cast, as Mawle and Novakovic put in excellent performances, backed up by Game Of Thrones veteran Michael McElhatton as the threatening neighbour and Michael Smiley as a local copper who helps with some exposition. The Irish fairy folklore feels like relatively fresh territory, and Hardy dives into it with relish. Once things really get going, The Hallow commits to becoming an effects heavy creature feature with some wonderful effects. It loses its way a little towards the end and arguably shows off too much, but there’s some affecting human moments in amongst the chaos and this is an atmospheric, creepy horror fairytale.

Rabid DogsThe fae folk were nowhere to be seen in Éric Hannezo’s remake of Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs, in which three crooks fleeing a violent bank robbery gone wrong head for the border with three hostages: a just-married woman (Virginie Ledoyen), and a father (Lambert Wilson) and his young daughter, who is hours away from a life-saving transplant. Will anyone get the outcome they want?

From the opening credits it’s very clear that Hannezo has made a very stylish film. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, the synth-heavy soundtrack is fantastic, and there’s plenty of well-staged violence. The opening chase sequence in particular is superb, as our protagonists shoot and speed their way out of a tight spot and into an even tighter one. Crammed into an old Volvo, the characters bicker, panic and fume as things go from bad to worse. The cast is very good; in addition to Wilson and Ledoyen, The Returned’s  Guillaume Gouix puts in a compelling lead performance as the increasingly desperate Sabri, and Laurent Lucas pops up as the remorseless gang leader. The problem is that the film seems more interested in developing its style than its stock characters. The final twenty minutes takes a welcome turn into the surreal with the festival of the bear and a lovely cover of Radiohead’s Creep, but it’s overlong and the big twist is telegraphed from the very start. It’s very watchable but curiously uninvolving.

Sun ChokeGenre legend Barbara Crampton made her second FrightFest 2015 appearance in Ben Cresciman’s very strong debut Sun Choke, but the real star of the show here is Freaks And Geeks and Buffy veteran Sarah Hagan. She takes an all-too-rare lead role as Janie, a young woman attempting to “get well” after some kind of mental break. Janie lives with Irma (Crampton), whose treatment methods are a little…unconventional. As Janie uses her occasional breaks of freedom to stalk Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), we start to wonder how justified Irma’s methods are…

Cresciman’s confident, unusual narrative style makes Sun Choke a compelling puzzle. Clues to Janie’s past are few and far between; instead we spend the bulk of the film observing a character that really could go one way or another. Hagan is superb in the lead role, switching between sympathetic victim and sinister potential predator with tremendous skill. The structure of the film is often just as confusing, as Janie’s actions and fantasies seem to shift and blend. The final act is absolutely stunning, culminating in a finale that makes you want to go back and watch the film again. You will leave with as many questions as answers, but Sun Choke will stay with you. It’s tense, affecting and powerful. See it.

Deathgasm_Still01The last film of the day in the main screen was the highly anticipated New Zealand metal horror comedy Deathgasm from writer-director Jason Lei Howden. Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is a metalhead outcast in his tiny NZ town, with only his close band of losers and outcasts for company. Naturally, it’s not too long before their band DEATHGASM (“All caps. Lower case is for pussies.”) summons some kind of evil demonic force. Can they save the town and their souls? And spines?

It’s very easy to see why Deathgasm has gone down so well on the festival circuit. The love of the genre (and metal, obviously) is so clear in every frame of Howden’s movie. It’s made for the midnight movie crowd and teenagers looking for a blast of gore and a lot of silly laughs, and it delivers that in spades (our favourite joke involves a second attempt at decapitation). It’s funny, it’s sweet, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. Frankly, if you’re won over by the title, then the chances are high that you’re going to have a good time. Spines are ripped clean out, dildos are wielded as weapons, and chainsaws go up people’s rear ends. To be honest with you, we giggled a hell of a lot.

17G1_Still001The day was rounded off in excellent fashion with Kyle Rankin’s wonderful zombie comedy Night Of The Living Deb. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the zom-com well had run dry, but this warm hearted movie shows that the right approach can still yield great rewards. Maria Thayer (Strangers With Candy) plays the titular character, who is unceremoniously ushered out of uptight Ryan’s (Christian Waverly) apartment after a one night stand only to find a zombie apocalypse. The pair will have to work together if they want to survive.

Rankin gets excellent results from reversing the stereotypical comedy gender roles, as Deb is the fun, easy-going, impulsive one with the cool car and a love of junk food, and by ensuring that the film is all about her, he avoids the manic pixie dream girl problem. Thayer comfortably steals the movie with a performance so likeable you wonder why she’s not given more opportunities, and Rankin’s love of the genre shines through with plenty of fun zombie gags. Shaun Of The Dead is an easy point of comparison, but largely because she share a similar wit and heart. It can’t quite find a third act to match its first two, but this is a hugely entertaining comedy that we highly recommend. Oh, and Ray Wise and Chris Marquette share the best father-son bonding scene you’ll see at the festival. We loved it.