It went so quickly! After five days of horror, the 15th FrightFest drew to a close yesterday. We’d seen demon-conjuring metalheads, vengeful burning ghosts, gnome-stick wielding manic pixie dream girls and terrible things hidden in basements. However, there was one more day of thrills, scares and nightmares to go…
The final day began on a tragic note as we heard that the great Wes Craven had passed away. A true giant of modern cinema, there can be no denying the impact that Craven had on the horror genre, and the influence that he’s had on generations of filmmakers. He defined, and then redefined what the genre could do over the decades, he gave us some of our definitive boogeymen and delivered intelligent, witty and, of course, terrifying works. Axelle Carolyn paid tribute to him before the screening Tales Of Halloween, which closed the festival, and it’s fair to say that everyone at the festival was thinking of him for the final celebration of horror.
And so, on to the day’s films. In the discovery screen things kicked off with Liam Regan’s debut feature Banjo, which was a love-letter to schlock horror. Specifically it’s a love-letter Troma, so much so that Mr Lloyd Kaufman himself makes an appearance. Peltzer Arbuckle (James Hamer-Morton) is a put-upon dweeb, humiliated at home by his monstrous girlfriend Deetz (Dani Thompson) and at work by his equally monstrous boss (Vito Trogo). There’s only so much a guy can take, and eventually his childhood imaginary friend Ronnie (Damian Morter) arrives to incite some carnage.
It’s made by someone who loves schlock for people who love schlock. The budgetary constraints are clear and it’s very patchy, but there is a sense of manic energy and glee about the proceedings which certainly endeared it to fans of Troma-style sex and splatter, and it achieves what it sets out to do. If the idea of seeing The Human Centipede 2 and 3’s Laurence R Harvey wet himself or witnessing a man sewing the blood-spurting halves of his snapped penis back together again appeal, then there’s fun to be had, but we’d advise anyone else to proceed with caution.
Patchy could also be used to describe Jeffrey Scott Lando’s Canadian slasher Suspension, in which high school outcast Emily (Ellen MacNevin) finds herself stalked by the demons of her past as a series of gruesome murders hit the town. Tonal inconsistency is a real issue here. Emily’s situation is played completely straight, as are most of the murders, but a comedy deputy steps in from another film and feels entirely out of place. On the plus side, Lando does succeed in creating an atmospheric slasher setting, and MacNevin puts in strong work in the lead. Stitching psychological trauma, grisly killings and oddly comedic moments together, the end result is fitfully watchable and mostly well-acted, but feels rather muddled.
Back in the main screen, and French horror Night Fare arrived surfing a wave of buzz from an earlier screening. Mancunian Chris (Jonathan Howard) arrives back in Paris after suddenly leaving a couple of years ago. His girlfriend Ludivine (Fanny Vallette) has hooked up with his friend Luc (Jonathan Demurger), who convinces Chris to have a fun night in the city for old times. But when they don’t pay the fare in their taxi, their night becomes a terrifying fight for their lives.
Night Fare gets off to a really entertaining start, combining John Carpenter-style slasher tropes with more outlandish influences like The Car. It’s great, gleeful fun watching the two men flee through the deserted Paris night-time streets while the taxi is always close behind. There’s some well-staged carnage too, as the driver (Jess Liaudin) proves to be just as deadly outside the car as he is behind the wheel. Director Julien Seri shoots the hell out of the film, making for the second impossibly stylish French thriller in the festival after Rabid Dogs. Then, there’s a twist. It’s completely out of left field, but it’s undeniably audacious and certainly a lot more interesting than we were expecting. There are some troubling undertones to the film’s (eventual) central conceit, but this is a highly entertaining horror that delivers a genuinely unexpected if slightly problematic ending.
In the discovery screen, first-time filmmaker Benjamin Moody’s Last Girl Standing starts with an ingenious premise, opening with the final sequence of pretty much every slasher movie, as Camryn (Akasha Banks Villalobos) kills a masked monster and escapes, the sole survivor of a horrifying massacre. Now, she’s a traumatised young woman trying to rebuild her life. The arrival of potential romantic interest Nick (Brian Villalobos) seems like it could be exactly what she needs, until the masked man reappears…
For the most part, Last Girl Standing feels tonally similar to Adam Wingard’s powerfully bleak survivor horror A Horrible Way To Die. After the opening bloodbath, Moody slows things right down, allowing us to see just how damaged Camryn has been by the horrifying events. We spend the time with the character and witness her cautious attempts to form new bonds with new people, and the developing relationship between Camryn and the kindly Danielle (Danielle Evon Ploeger) is particularly rewarding. The final act takes a slightly regrettable turn into bloodbath territory, but with such a strong focus on its traumatised lead and a strong performance from Akasha Banks Villalobos, this is a thoughtful, powerful take on the slasher subgenre that is most definitely worth seeking out. We’re very interested to see what Moody does next.
Back in the main screen, we watched what turned out to be our favourite film of the festival: Ben and Chris Blaine’s Nina Forever. Paramedic student Holly (Abigail Hardingham) is drawn to Rob (Cian Barry), her colleague at the supermarket who recently tried to kill himself after his girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) died. They develop a relationship, but while having sex Nina gorily reappears and is none too happy with the situation. Can Holly and Rob make it work, and can they get to the bottom of why Nina won’t rest in peace?
At first glance, Nina Forever looks like another in an increasingly long chain of “undead girlfriend” movies like Life After Beth and Burying The Ex. However, this is something far more ambitious, interesting and accomplished. It’s a whirlwind of emotions; bitterly funny one moment and heartbreakingly tragic the next. The characters and their current states are never treated as punchlines, and the trauma of the situation is never overlooked. Rob’s co-dependent situation with Nina’s grieving parents is particularly moving, while the character of Holly is refreshingly complex. This isn’t a film about a guy juggling his dead girlfriend and his living one. This is all about Holly, who is forced to confront truths about herself and what her “darkness” actually means. It’s one thing to be up for involving the broken, bleeding and vocal Nina in their lovemaking, it’s another to listen to this woman deconstruct her motives and her weaknesses. The Blaines embrace the Clive Barker-esque eroticism of the situation in all its slippery complications, and show real confidence in the gear shifts from grotesquerie into practicality, as Nina wonders aloud why Rob still bothers buying white sheets when she drenches everything in blood after reappearing. The humour bleeds into melancholia, the depression bleeds into absurdity, and the result is an absolute triumph. It’s bittersweet, heartfelt, heart-breaking, thoughtful, hilarious, audacious and absolutely fantastic. We loved it.
Also showing off a lot of audacity was Jaron Henrie-McCrea’s gleefully odd Curtain. Danni (Danni Smith) moves into a new apartment and quickly discovers that the bathroom as a certain…quirk. Whenever she puts up a shower curtain, it gets sucked through some kind of portal in the wall. Can she and her save-the-whales volunteer colleague Tim (Tim Leuke) find out exactly what is going on? The opening minutes feel like a riff on Korean horror Into The Mirror, but Henrie-McCrea and co-writer Carys Edwards avoid anything that familiar, instead fully embracing all the crazy potential of their bathroom-bound portal. The lead character herself is fairly grounded; suffering from depression, depending on her uncle for support and unsure of what to do next. By contrast, whatever is swallowing the shower curtain and transporting them…somewhere is completely outlandish and strange. At times, Curtain does feel a little like a short film that’s been stretched to a feature length movie, but there’s a real creativity, intelligence and sense of fun to this blend of Lovecraft and The Twilight Zone that definitely makes this worth watching, and makes the filmmakers worth keeping an eye on.
Writer-director Mark Murphy’s Awaiting took us from bathroom portals to British backwoods, as Jake (Rupert Hill) finds himself stranded at the home of the unpredictable Morris (Tony Curran) and his teenage daughter Lauren (Diana Vickers). As the excuses for why Jake can’t leave begin to pile up, he soon realises that Morris is definitely not someone you want to be stranded with. Awaiting pitches the viewer into familiar territory, with the arrogant city dweller on his way to a job interview suddenly held captive far from civilisation. However, Curran’s strong performance gives layers to the character of Morris, making him unpredictable and genuinely threatening. It’s fairly clear where the film’s going from the get-go but it’s tense and there are definitely some moments that will make you wince.
Wincing was something that was happening a lot in Chad Archibald’s body horror Bite, which arrived at FrightFest riding a wave of stories of previous festival attendees fleeing the screens and vomiting freely. Casey (Elma Begovic) is bitten by…something on her bachelorette party in Costa Rica. Already dreading returning to her fiancé Jared (Jordan Grey) thanks to some doubts, she realises that awkward dinner conversations are the least of her problems. Antiseptic won’t fix this…So; the stories of Bite’s grossness have not been overstated. It is a fantastically gooey film; in fact it’s dripping with the stuff. The practical effects work is absolutely superb, and Begovic deserves a lot of praise for her performance through the increasingly revolting prosthetics. The various subplots get more and more creaky and clichéd as the film progresses, but if you’re going to see Bite, you’re going to see it for the effects, and they are great. It’s grotesque, it’s revolting and on that score, it is genuinely accomplished. If that doesn’t appeal, then steer well clear. If you’re looking to have your stomach turned, give Bite a watch.
Back in the main screen, it was time for Michael Thelin’s bad babysitter horror Emelie, which stars Sarah Bolger as Anna, who arrives in the nick of time to look after the Thompson family’s three children when they head out for their anniversary dinner: moody almost-teen Jacob (Joshua Rush), cheery Sally (Carly Adams) and energetic young Christopher (Thomas Bair). Anna’s methods are a little unusual, and as things escalate from tearing up mom’s good pillows to much more creepy methods of playing, Jacob realises that Anna is not who she says she is.
Emelie plays its reveal very early on, which puts added pressure on Bolger’s commanding lead performance to keep things tense and involving. She’s more than up to the task, giving a controlled, confident and unpredictable turn that is the film’s greatest asset. The children, too, are excellent, and watching this evening go from unsettling to unpleasant is very tense indeed. There’s not really too much to the film beyond wondering exactly what Anna’s agenda is and what she will do next, but it’s gripping stuff for the bulk of its running time, even if it does fall apart a little at the end.
Finally, it was time to wrap up the festival with seasonal anthology horror Tales Of Halloween. The brainchild of Soulmate writer-director Axelle Carolyn and boasting a fearsome line-up both in front and behind the camera, this is a massively entertaining Halloween treat, introduced by Carolyn and co-director Neil Marshall, as well as stars Pollyanna McIntosh and the great Barbara Crampton, making her fourth and final festival appearance.
You know when a film is introduced by a DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau in full Stevie Wayne mode that you’re watching a film made by people who truly love horror movies, and that suspicion is certainly shown to be accurate. From Dave Parker’s fantastic Candyman-esque opener ‘Sweet Tooth,’ in which a young trick or treater is told the legend of the boy who went to incredible lengths to get back the candy his parents ate, through to Marshall’s hilarious closer ‘Bad Seed,’ in which a pumpkin terrorises the small town, there’s just a real sense of joy and excitement to the proceedings. It gets very dark at times (Adam Gierasch’s ‘Trick’ has a gruesomely effective twist), but it’s really a celebration of the season and of the genre. Inevitably, some are better than others, but it is very consistent, not just in terms of quality but also in tone. Stand-outs include Carolyn’s wonderfully creepy ‘Grim Grinning Ghost’, which has one of the best jump scares of the festival, Ryan Schifrin’s hilarious ‘The Ransom Of Rusty Rex’ (two knuckleheads kidnap the son of John Landis’ millionaire with terrible results) and Paul Solet’s western-infused revenge tale ‘The Weak And The Wicked.’ Best in show goes to Lucky McKee’s gloriously batshit ‘Ding Dong’, which features the ingenious pairing of The Woman’s Pollyanna McIntosh and Red White And Blue’s Marc Senter as some kind of demon desperate for a child and her abused other half respectively. Some viewers may find that it leans towards fun more than it does to horror, but this is a hugely entertaining anthology that will sit nicely alongside Trick R Treat for a Halloween night double bill. We had a big grin on our face for the whole 90 minutes.
And so that was FrightFest 2015. Huge thanks goes to the FrightFest team for putting on another excellent year of horror movies from around the world, and to the staff at the Vue for very capably handling the horde of genre fans who descended upon them for five days. Every year we’re reminded how brilliant the FrightFest crowd was, and this was no exception. We can’t wait until next year.
Keep an eye out for longer reviews from the festival and for our interviews with some of the makers of our favourite movies!