FrightFest 2016 Day 4 – Murder clowns, sirens, frogs and filmmakers

FrightFest reviews of 31, Siren, Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, The Neigbour, Egomaniac and more!

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FrightFest Day Four, and the shocks, schlock and splatter-y laughs kept coming. We made sure we were fully caffeinated and headed back to Shepherd’s Bush for another full day of horror goodness, kicking things off with the latest effort from Red White And Blue director Simon Rumley.

Johnny Frank Garrett

In his post-film Q&A for Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word, Rumley described his role as “a director for hire,” but his fingerprints are all over this moody, intense and stylised blend of criminal justice system critique and beyond-the-grave revenge story. The film opens with the titular character being convicted for the brutal murder of a nun despite several serious questions going unanswered. 10 years later, and Garrett, still protesting his innocence is put to death, but not before cursing everyone who was involved. Sure enough, as soon as he’s in the ground, bad things start happening…

Rumley and writers Ben Ketai (The Forest) and Marc Haimes (Kubo And The Two Strings) take aim at American legal proceedings early on, with the fire-and-brimstone prosecutor (Sean Patrick Flanery) spouting about demons, evil and the will of God himself, a psychic’s vision/dream being used as a key piece of evidence, and a teenager’s IQ of 70 being of less importance than a confession that wasn’t even signed. Rumley also cited Making A Murderer and the case of The West Memphis Three, but the story is actually based (obviously loosely) on the real story of Johnny Frank Garrett, the curse he left behind, and the bizarre deaths that followed his execution.

The genre elements are slightly more hit and miss than the real-world horror of execution, although Rumley does deliver some incredibly visceral shocks (one death in particular had us crawling up our seat). He also uses some brilliant editing techniques that keep the atmosphere off-kilter, and there’s some excellent and underplayed long takes that go on for a little while before you realise whose POV you’re watching. It does have its flaws, and we’d be very interested to see a straight take or documentary on the story, but this is creepy, fierce and powerful.

Egomaniac

Next up, we headed to the discovery screen for the world premiere of Kate Shenton’s Egomaniac. The first fiction feature from the director of On Tender Hooks is a gleefully savage semi-autobiographical tale of a female director, Catherine Sweeney (Nic Lamont), who’s trying to make a zombie romantic comedy. She’s promised financing, if she puts a talking dog in it. She gets a producer, but he keeps making important decisions for her. A series of little compromises quickly becomes one big compromise, but whose fucking film is this?

This low-budget horror comedy holds its genre element until right at the end, and for the most part it’s just an all-too-real story about a first time filmmaker being put through hell. There’s an awful ring of truth to so many of the situations (in the Q&A, Shenton said the only thing she’ll say is real is the talking dog business). What impresses right from the off isn’t just the humour, it’s the brutal honesty. Making art is hard: reviews continue to niggle years later, parents are used as banks, and you’re forced to question how far you’re willing to bend to get something made.

The awful things that are said to Catherine by the men who are trying to manipulate her image and control her art are funny, but they cut deeply because they are so plausible (and, presumably, because many of them were actually said to Shenton). From being told that she doesn’t look like a horror person to being told that she doesn’t look the part of a director (“Tim Burton looks like a hedge!”), it’s a funny but all too real portrayal of an industry practice that is nausea-inducing. Even the sequences that are laugh-out loud funny have an undercurrent of unpleasantness to them, as Shenton and Lamont never let us lose sight of the fact that we are watching someone’s artistic dream being crushed underfoot, before she takes it back, in the best John Waters tradition, by any means necessary. Very funny and very sharp, but with some moments of Spaced-esque wonderful silliness, this is a hilarious comedy with teeth and we recommend it.

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Mateo Gil’s Realive was somewhat more meditative, as young, successful and terminally ill Marc (Tom Hughes) is reanimated after subjecting himself to a cryogenics programme shortly after being diagnosed. As he adjusts to his new life, he remembers the world and the people he left behind, and begins to wonder if this new existence as a miracle of science is actually what he wanted.

Gil is the writer of Open Your Eyes (later remade as Vanilla Sky) and The Sea Inside, and Realive is a further exploration of the idea of having to confront your own mortality. Marc’s utter refusal to meet his end is a natural response, and he has the means with which to do that, but his love for Naomi (Oona Chaplin) is clearly the most powerful thing that he has brought with him into the future. Gil jumps between this pristine new world, where, despite more liberal views on the idea of sexual partners, most things are still the same, and the world Marc has left behind him. The latter is a sea of warmth and raging emotions, while the former is sterile, lonely and, inevitably, packing some unpleasant secrets.

It’s overlong at 112 minutes and Marc proves to be a difficult character to invest in (it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to the writing or the performance), but there are some heartfelt points made about the importance of life being finite. Soulful, occasionally moving, if a little frustrating.

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Back to the discovery screen, and Wyndham Price’s Crow was a blend of classic British folk fantasy and environmental critique. Based on the play by Tim Rhys, the film has London property developer Tucker (Nick Moran) buying a plot of land in the countryside to build a massive country house for him, his wife Alicia (Elyn Rhys) and their future children to grow up in. That means clearing all the woodland, which means relocating the group of people who live there by any means necessary. Young Crow (Tom Rhys Harries), listening to the voices of his ancestors and the land, sets out to stop them.

There’s a very British strain of folklore at play here which is enormously endearing, drawing on the spirit of writers like Alan Garner with its a young man becoming a vessel for the ancient spirits of the earth, and the lyrical voice-over also recalls Philip Ridley. In the modern world outside, the egotistical Tucker bickers with his team (Jason Hughes and Emily Bevan), and despite some effort to give the character some dimensions, he becomes an increasingly one-note villain over the course of the film’s overlong running time. However, there’s a certain bewitching quality to the atmosphere that’s helped by appearances from veterans like Terence Stamp and Danny Webb, and the softly-spoken, hypnotic lead performance from Harries makes for a vital anchor. It doesn’t all quite work and it does go on too long, but there’s something about Crow that gets under your skin.

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Next up was the European premiere of Siren, as director Gregg Bishop and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski take on David Bruckner and Nicholas Tecosky’s excellent V/H/S segment ‘Amateur Night’. It’s Jonah’s (Chase Williamson) bachelor party, and his brother/best-man Mac (Michael Aaron Milligan) stumbles upon a last minute alternative to the dull strip club they’ve ended up in. They follow a stranger into the woods to an exclusive establishment owned by the obviously sinister Mr Nyx (Justin Wellborn). He’s got just the thing for Jonah: an encounter with Lily (Hannah Fierman), but when the stag decides to play knight in shining armour, things are about to get bad for everyone.

While ‘Amateur Night’ took great pleasure in tearing a group of obviously horrible men to shreds, Siren takes care to establish Jonah as one of the good guys, and the fact that “a good guy” is a a loaded term  adds another layer of fun to what comes next. His fiancée Eva (Lindsey Garrett) tells him that strippers are fine, as long as they stay away from seedy dives where the girls don’t want to be there, and Lily is definitely one of those girls. She’s also not really a girl, and anyone who saw V/H/S knows exactly what’s coming. The script packs in some genuinely funny gags to get us through the very well-worn bachelor party territory, and once Lily is out and loose, Bishop and his effects team don’t shy away from showing her off. The design is incredible (that tail…) and Fierman is fantastic, shifting gears from vulnerable to terrifying in a heartbeat.

The gender role commentary shifts from subtext to absolutely-in-your-face fairly regularly, with one scene in particular a pretty powerful subversion of typical genre movie gender roles (you’ll know it when you see it). It also refuses to give Jonah a free pass: after his one knight in shining armour gesture, he spends most of the film fleeing in terror from the creature he’s freed, aimlessly making his way through the woods in terror like a classic final girl, and we all know that they’ve historically had a rough time of it. Meanwhile, Lily keeps showing up to save the guy she likes, and when Nyx tells us that “she mates for life,” the obvious implication is that Jonah probably won’t. It’s a little patchy in places, and it occasionally feels under-developed; we would have liked more of the weird occult underworld that Mr Nyx inhabits, with its memory leeches, rooms of horror and punctual demons, but this is both a fun creature feature and a film that takes great pleasure in turning some tables. “I like you.”

31

Up next in the main screen was a film that a lot of us had been waiting for: Rob Zombie’s 31. Love him or hate him, Zombie’s films always feel like a bit of an event, and this latest crowd-funded effort is no exception. It’s also quite deliberately textbook Rob Zombie. It seems that he’s treated the crowdfunding process like a set-list request, and given the fans exactly what they asked for.

It’s Halloween, 1976, and a van full of carnival workers is attacked by a group of masked figures on the road. These unfortunates wake up in Murder World, where the master of ceremonies (Malcolm McDowell) tells them that they’re about to be hunted to death and it’s kill or be killed. Will they beat the odds to survive the night?

So, we have the Halloween 1976 setting, we have murder clowns, we have a grim and grimy setting, and we have a cast of Zombie regulars and B-movie stars (McDowell, Sheri Moon, Judy Geeson). “Fans only” might be a bit of a stretch, but everything from the cinematography to the sexually aggressive threats from the aptly named Sex-Head and Psycho-Head feel like Zombie is preaching to the choir. And, if you’re a member of that congregation, you should have a pretty good time. It’s a nicely twisted set-up, the set-design and cinematography are great, and there’s a fantastically sinister performance from veteran character actor Richard Brake (Doom, Hannibal Rising, Batman Begins) as Doom-Head, the final killer who will be called in as a last resort. Just don’t call him a fucking clown.

We should also note that it’s not just about the clowns. The victims are a (mostly) likeable bunch, with Jeff Daniel Phillips and the always-excellent Meg Foster particularly good, and Zombie does make sure that when they get hurt, it really hurts. Those looking for a bit of meta-ness will find it in McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr’s gleeful betting on who will die first and who will make it through. It is loud, nasty, grubby and often repetitive, in the same way Zombie’s films often are, but if you’re on board, it’s a fairly entertaining, grisly ride. Even then, though, we’re not sure about Hitler-loving Sick-Head.

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Back in the discovery screen, and we were very excited to catch the latest film from Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, the duo behind The Collector and The Collection. The Neighbour doesn’t see them venturing too far from their stomping ground, although, for the most part, it’s more of a hardboiled rural crime story than a horror.

John (Josh Stewart) and Rosie (Alex Essoe) are looking for one last payday so they can escape the clutches of John’s local crime lord uncle. The house they’re holed up doesn’t have much by way of distractions, but they soon find out that, while Rosie has been looking at their neighbour (the imposing Bill Engvall) through a telescope, he’s been looking right back. John isn’t the only one in these parts getting up to some criminal activity.

As we said, The Neighbour, with its morally dubious protagonist, worse villain and seemingly bottomless house full of nasty secrets, feels like home turf for Dunstan and Melton, but there’s a welcome Joe R Lansdale feel to this tale (admittedly located from Texas to Mississippi). This local criminal underworld is convincing and well-detailed, the characters are well-drawn and vivid without becoming grotesque, and, like Lansdale’s Cold In July (and Jim Mickle’s brilliant film of it), there’s the horrible sense that all this is happening within walking distance from where you sleep.

Stewart (star of the duo’s previous two films) puts in another strong performance as the quietly reluctant career criminal  who knows that bad things happen when you get greedy, and although Essoe (Starry Eyes’ leading lady) doesn’t really get to show off until the film’s final third, she’s excellent. It’s a little slight in places, but Dunstan and Melton continue to be filmmakers to keep an eye out for with this tense and well-acted thriller.

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Our final film of the day took us from plausible chills to something a lot more outrageous. Writer-director Tim Reis’ Bad Blood: The Movie gives its heroine Victoria (Mary Malloy) one hell of an unusual problem. She’s attacked by, for lack of a better word, a were-frog, and her only hope of a normal life is the serum being developed by a disgraced med student turned gas station attendant (Vikas Adam). However, her furious step-dad Wade (Brian Troxell) tracks her down and brings her home, mistaking the cure for some kind of street drug, and the full moon is approaching.

In his intro, Reis talked about his love of Henenlotter, and going “full slime.” There’s something immediately endearing about a Creature From The Black Lagoon-type monster going around slaughtering people, but the film’s decision to shy away from a Ginger Snaps-esque metamorphosis story (in fact, it basically skips it entirely and goes straight for the transformation) means that, for the most part, we’re spending a lot of time with characters facing much less interesting problems, like the creepy PI with a repressed rage issue. The slimy effects are well-made and fun, there are some good chuckles (Wade’s horrible son is hilarious), but plenty of the gags don’t land, and it is frustratingly slow given that it feels like there is a more interesting story in there somewhere. Still, good ending, though.

Day Four of FrightFest also packed in some treats for genre fans looking for insight into the genre world. An American Werewolf In London expert Paul Davis discussed his new book Beware The Moon, and writer James Moran (Cockneys Vs Zombies, Tower Block) gave a horror movie writing masterclass. Digital Spy’s Rosie Fletcher led a discussion with excellent filmmakers Kate Shenton, Jennifer Handorf, Anna Biller and Alice Lowe about women in horror and the situation for female directors, and brilliant effects guru Dan Martin talked about his career in film while giving a demonstration. Finally, Screen International hosted a look at the future of the UK horror film industry.

And that’s all for Day Four! Join us tomorrow for coverage of the final day of Horror Channel FrightFest 2016, with reviews of Red Christmas, We Are The Flesh, Shelley, Under The Shadow 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.