FrightFest 2016 Day 3 – ghouls, grudges, cleanses and ravens

Reviews of Sadako Vs Kayako, The Master Cleanse, Abattoir, The Unkindness Of Ravens and more

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It was hard to believe we were already heading into the halfway point, but FrightFest Day 3 started bright and early with a human-flesh eating take on Jurassic Park, which is a good way to get sleepy horror fans out bed and shuffling towards Shepherd’s Bush, muttering about coffee…

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The Rezort finds a world recovering from a zombie outbreak by giving human survivors a unique way to purge their rage: touring an island resort filled with the undead and killing as many as they feel like. Naturally, all this machine-gun-slaughter good times isn’t going to end well, and soon enough, already-traumatised Melanie (Jessica De Gouw) and her mismatched band of zombie killers turned zombie food have to get the hell off the overrun island before the Brimstone Protocol blows the place to hell.

The title may not inspire a huge amount of confidence but there’s a lot more to director Steve Barker and writer Paul Gerstenberger’s film than first meets the eye. The zombie-killing resort is painted as morally dubious from the off and there’s some extremely welcome political commentary (we don’t want to say too much about that because, you know, spoilers). There are some well-mounted gory set-pieces, and the cast is mostly very solid, with Dougray Scott, Martin McCann and Elyn Rhys in giving good supporting performances and De Gouw (Arrow, Underground) making for a likeable lead. It’s a little patchy in places and you’ll probably have guessed most of its twists, but this is surprisingly sharp, entertaining and definitely worth a look.

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First up in the discovery screens was Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s Cruel Summer, which is inspired by rather than based on real events, and it’s very grim stuff indeed. An autistic teen (Richard Pawulski) out camping in the woods for his Duke Of Edinburgh award is hunted down by a trio of teens led by the violent and vengeful Nicholas (Danny Miller), who’s been convinced by a lie and has spun one of his own to get this band together.

Given the subject matter you’d be forgiven for worrying about tastelessness and the exploitation of something very tragic, but for the most part Cruel Summer is smart and sensitive enough to walk the fine line that it has drawn for itself. The performances from the young actors Reece Douglas, Natalie Martins, Miller, and Pawulski in particular are strong, and it manages to address the social issues and situations of the three teens on the hunt without falling into the trappings of hoodie horror. It’s grim watching to be sure, but it delivers its body blows with surprising sensitivity.

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Up next in the main screen was Abattoir, the latest effort from genre-hopper Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III and IV, Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival). In his taped intro, the director described the film as being something like what might have come from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall making a horror film. While the noir mystery element is heavily in play early on, it eventually takes a backseat to its more compelling central concept: how do you build a haunted house?

Grieving reporter Julia (Jessica Lowndes) and her detective boyfriend Grady (Joe Anderson) investigate the strange disappearances of crime scenes from murder houses. They find that it all comes back to the mysterious Jebediah Crone (Dayton Callie) and the ghost town of New English…

That noir business may not be quite as appealing as Bousman and writer Christopher Monfette think it is, and given its present day setting, it’s a bit of distraction from the matter at hand. After an effectively creepy set-up, Jessica’s investigation is a slow-burn that’s made more enjoyable by things like a brilliantly fun supporting turn from genre veteran Lin Shaye and the occasional good jump scare. It’s a bit of a long slog to the final third, which really does make good on how promising the concept is, and if you have the patience to get through the more repetitive and self-indulgent elements, there are some juicy rewards for genre fans with a reveal that’s heavily influenced by Clive Barker, Stephen King and old-fashioned haunted houses. Flawed, but definitely worth your time.

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The next film in the main screen was a definite change of pace and a most welcome one indeed. Writer-director Bobby Miller’s The Master Cleanse finds likeably aimless and heartsick Paul (Johnny Galecki) signing up for a mysterious free retreat in the middle of the woods. After being shown to their cabins and being assured that the practice’s founder is on the way, the group is asked by Anjelica Huston’s slightly off-kilter guru to drink four specially-designed cleansing drinks. After they purge their bodies of their toxins, Paul is surprised by the shape of what’s come out of him…

The Master Cleanse starts as a witty satire of the groups who claim to have the answers to all of life’s problems (there’s a bit of everything from homeopathic medicine to Scientology), and becomes a weirdly affecting hybrid of a drama about a person reconciling themselves with the things they don’t like about themselves and a creature feature. It’s self-consciously odd, right from the moment that Anjelica Huston makes her grand screaming entrance (and that is a joy), but there is a real heart to it. Galecki and Anna Friel are great as our two main Cleansers, and there’s strong support from Kyle Gallner and Oliver Platt. It’s tough to talk too much about the genre element without ruining anything but the creature design is absolutely marvellous, and Miller combines comedy, horror and drama to great effect. The ending does leave something to be desired but this is highly recommended.

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In the discovery screen, Fabien Delage’s Fury Of The Demon (La Rage du Demon) is a pleasure for fans of vintage cinema and anyone who’s in the market for a bit of a conspiracy theory. We can’t talk too much about it without venturing into spoilers (see our full review here for more on that), but this tale of an early film (possibly directed by George Méliès) that drives anyone who sees it to insanity is a wonderfully constructed piece of work with some great talking heads (including directors Alexandre Aja and Christophe Gans). At 60 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and it’s a lot of knowing fun.

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Speaking of a lot of knowing fun, we were pretty excited about Sadako Vs Kayako, if only to see how on Earth the two double-jointed J-horror legends could possibly be coerced into a showdown. The answer is: through some prime silliness and a plot set-up that veers between knowingly daft and…just daft.

Students Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) accidentally stumble upon the famous cursed video while shopping for VCRs. Their urban legends professor is hugely excited about the whole thing and watches it too, and although he’s dying to see Sadako, he’s nice enough to engage the services of an exorcist to help his students. Meanwhile, high schooler Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro) and her family have just moved next door to the famous house inhabited by Toshio and Kayako…

With a Candyman-esque opening featuring a professor dispelling all urban myths before getting very enthusiastic about the prospect of a real one, the film shows a wry self-awareness early on that may or may not be present throughout depending on how generous you’re feeling. It is totally ridiculous, with almost all actual horror going out of the window; inevitably, placing these characters in the same universe robs them of their power to chill (poor tongue-waggling Toshio is the worst victim of this). There are some fun outlandish/nonsensical deaths, and it has to be said that the croaking contortions of Kayako are still pretty effective, but with a badass exorcist sporting Elvis’ hand motions, some extremely rote dialogue and plot twists that are only twists because someone’s been withholding information, this can only really be recommended for the curious, and not to anyone actually hoping for a scary movie. Still, if you’re in the mood and the right frame of mind, there is quite a lot of fun to be had. (NB: it also has a tie-in song over the end credits, which should tell you how seriously to take it).

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Low-budget Lovecraftian horror The Creature Below is an ambitious and slippery effort from director Stewart Sparke and writer Paul Butler. After freaking out during a deep sea dive into a mysterious new trench, driven scientist Olive (Anna Dawson) brings a little something back home with her. Her new pet is inquisitive, growing, and hungry…

Essentially a possession movie with a slippery squid thing standing in for an evil spirit, The Creature Below spends most of its time in the basement of the house Olive shares with her well-intentioned but dull partner Matthew (Daniel Thrace), and while the domestic scenes may not quite convince (the relationship between Olive and her sister Ellie seems weirdly spiteful), the filmmakers do an excellent job with the ‘Creature’ part of The Creature Below. The practical effects are excellent and Dawson is a very watchable presence as she slips into insanity. It’s a shame that the material around it doesn’t measure up, but if you’re looking for some tentacle creature fun, this ink-soaked homage to Andrzej Żuławski and Lovecraft may scratch that itch. This is a mostly impressive debut feature with a great monster, and we’ll be interested to see what they do next.

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One of our most highly anticipated films of the festival was Jackson Stewart’s tribute to VHS adventure games Beyond The Gates. Genre regulars Graham Skipper (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) and Chase Williamson (John Dies At The End, The Guest) play Gordon and John, two semi-estranged brothers who reunite to clear out their dad’s VHS store after he goes missing. When they find VHS adventure game Beyond The Gates in his office, the two decide to play, and unleash a spirit that won’t stop until it’s game over.

There’s something immediately endearing about Beyond The Gates, an heartfelt love-letter to a pretty niche area of interest that calls on influences as varied as Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante and Jumanji. Skipper and Williamson are great as the two brothers, whose differences don’t really mask a very obvious affection, and there’s a good performance from Brea Grant as Gordon’s supportive partner Margot. Stewart uses his big effects moments sparingly, although they’re pretty damn effective when they arrive, instead going for an ever-growing air of creepiness (helped by a wonderful turn from Barbara Crampton as the game’s eerie mistress).

Those hoping for something a little showier may be disappointed by how much of the action is kept on our side of the gates, but the characters are just as important as the neon fog and voodoo dolls. This is a highly entertaining adventure horror that plays out like Dante’s The Hole for grown-ups (and we mean that as a compliment). More of this, please.

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Over to the discovery screen, and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch was a gorgeous break from the norm. You can read our (very) long take on the film here, but in brief, it’s a stunningly made love letter to technicolour melodrama and Eurohorror, with a great performance from Samantha Robinson as the titular sorceress who moves away from San Francisco in search of a man, only to struggle to find anyone who matches up to her. At two hours, it’s a big ask of audience members who find themselves unwilling or unable to get on board with Biller’s very clear vision, but for those who do, it’s a beautiful, sharp and witty film that we highly recommend.

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Lawrie Brewster’s The Unkindness Of Ravens had similarly ambitious visuals, although it made for a very, very different viewing experience. This brutal, nightmarish horror follows homeless traumatised veteran Andrew (Jamie Scott Gordon) as he’s sent by his social worker to an isolated artist’s retreat in the Scottish countryside. Forcing him to be alone with his demons will either kill or cure him, as his doppelganger arrives to tell him that the ravens are coming, and they’ve saved him til last…

Horror fans may well be slightly familiar with this film as the berserk trailer and Kickstarter campaign have been around since the end of last year. It’s fair to say that, if you chipped in to help Brewster finish the visual effects on the movie, your money has been well-spent. The Unkindness Of Ravens looks incredible, and the level of ambition here cannot be overstated, as the film travels from the Highlands to (just about sufficiently convincing) Afghanistan to hell itself. While the brutal blood and thunder is effective and powerful (so many terrible things happening to so many eyes), drawing on Clive Barker, Sam Raimi and British folk horror, for us the film is at its best when it strands our traumatised hero alone with himself. Gordon delivers a superb dual performance as the quaking, terrified Andrew and his double, who gleefully informs him that he won’t make it through the night but is just as terrified of what’s coming as he is.

There are flaws; some of the editing, especially early on, feels unnecessarily choppy, and the film does start to become repetitive about two thirds of the way through as Brewster builds to the grand finale. However, although it is rough around the edges and could have done with a bit of a trim in the edit, there’s a lot to admire here. With its impressive visuals bolstered by a fantastic lead performance, The Unkindness Of Ravens will stay with you.

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The final film in the main screen was Marcel Walz’s blood-drenched take on Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast. Relocating the action to a suburb of Paris, the movie finds American cook Fuad Ramses (Robert Rusler) and his wife (Caroline Williams) and daughter (Sophie Monk) struggling to get their diner off the ground. When Ramses loses his meds and is visited by the spirit of Isis, he decides that a cannibal feast is the best way to spice up the menu and turn their lives around.

The original movie already has pretty niche appeal, so a nastier, more polished take on an early schlock fest might have an even narrower one, and although the gorehound devotees of schlock horror might get the most out of Blood Feast redux, they might also be those who have the most trouble with a redo of a classic. It’s nice to see genre veterans Rusler (A Nightmare On Elm Street 2) and Williams (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), but despite their committed performances, the script is clunky and the supporting cast isn’t great, and although there is a lot more effort put into developing the characters, for the most part it feels like the film is simply killing time until the next disgusting shock, and it’s certainly pretty hard to watch. It’s gruesome, it’s nasty, but there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that.

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Supernatural slasher Knucklebones closed the day, and we have to say that we were not fans of Mitch Wilson’s debut feature. Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Neesa (Julin) goes with her friends and two guys to an abandoned factory, where they unearth some kind of Nazi demon-summoning ritual. Once conjured, the only way to get rid of Knucklebones is to play his game…

Wilson is obviously a big fan of 80s slashers and monster movies, which is no bad thing, but apart from the occult Nazi plot element, there’s not much here that really stands out. There are some good practical effects, but the acting is mostly poor and the dialogue isn’t great either. Knucklebones’ quipping demon might appeal to die-hard fans of the sub-genre and a couple of the gags do land, but with no real reason to care about whether of these cardboard cut-outs live or die, it’s difficult to be that interested which of one of them gets a chainsaw where the sun don’t shine and which will make it to the end to roll the bone dice.

And that’s it for FrightFest Day 3! Join us tomorrow for reviews of 31, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, Realive, The Neighbour and more!

Horror Channel FrightFest is currently running at Vue Shepherd’s Bush 25-29 August. Longer reviews of these films will run online at SciFiNow.