FrightFest 2014 Day 5 review: a bloody good finish

Reviews of V/H/S: Viral, The Signal, Alleluia and more from the last day of FrightFest 2014

Lola Dueñas protects her love in Alleluia
Lola Dueñas protects her love in Alleluia

The fifth and final day of FrightFest 2014 promised to be just as strong as those that came before it, and we rallied ourselves to face the pouring rain with the biggest coffee we could find and a determination to make it to Leicester Square in time to catch Alleluia, the latest film from Fabrice du Welz, the director of Calvaire.

Alleluia stars Lola Dueñas as Gloria, a single mother who is convinced to go on a blind date with Michel (Laurent Lucas). He is attentive, he is charming, and Gloria quickly forms a fierce connection with him. When she discovers that she is just one of a series of women used by him, she decides to join him on his journey and become an accomplice.

Fabrice Du Welz’s story is influenced by The Honeymoon Killers, the 1969 movie based on the true story of the “Lonely Hearts” killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.  It’s the idea of an all-consuming and taboo-breaking love story that clearly interests Du Welz, and he creates an intoxicating, darkly comic romantic thriller. As stylish and arresting as the cinematography is, the success of Alleluia relies very heavily on its cast, and Dueñas and Lucas are just perfect in the leads. Lucas (Calvaire, Lemming) has a tremendous amount of fun with all of Michel’s strange behaviour, from his belief in witchcraft to his Humphrey Bogart obsession to his odd peccadilloes. However, it’s Dueñas who drives the film forward with ferocious passion and energy. She keeps us gripped throughout the film’s genre and style hopping, somehow sympathetic enough to make us want to see what happens to her, but increasingly violent and obviously willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto Michel. It’s certainly not for everyone, but this is another beguiling, daring and intense film from Du Welz with two stunning performances. This is a must-see.

In the Discovery Screen, another violent romance played out in Ate De Jong’s (Drop Dead Fred) transgressive home invasion film Deadly Virtues. Aaron (Edward Akrout) breaks into a suburban home and assaults the couple inside. He ties up the husband and leaves him in the bath, and tells the wife, Alison (Megan Maczko), that he will be her husband for the weekend. Will Alison succumb to his charms, and does he offer a healthier alternative to her husband?

Deadly Virtues is obviously interested in being daring and addressing challenging issues. There’s discussion of S&M, Alison is dressed up in fetish gear, and the subject of spousal abuse is key. The performances are fine but it takes far too long to really give Alison any agency of her own in the delicate relationship with the intruder, which makes its subject matter more than a little troubling. It threatens to become interesting around the half-way point as we learn a little bit more about the couple, but the final third wraps things up in an infuriating and unsatisfactory fashion. There are some interesting ideas here and De Jong doesn’t make the kind of exploitative, hateful thing that we were afraid of, but it’s not sharp or interesting either.

Zorana Kostic Obradovic as the Nymph (tail not pictured)
Zorana Kostic Obradovic as the Nymph (tail not pictured)

Back in the main screen, and we were taken from the Ardennes to Montenegro with Milan Todorovic’s Nymph. First, however, we were treated to some footage from the Soska sisters’ upcoming See No Evil 2 (it was noted during the intro that the film was supposed to play at the festival). Essentially a single scene with Katharine Isabelle, it was fun, self-aware few minutes that hinted that our hopes for a hugely entertaining slasher from the Twisted Twins might be well founded.

Nymph, on the other hand, was surprisingly slow. Americans Kelly (Kristina Klebe) and Lucy (Natalie Burn) are on holiday visiting Alex (Slobodan Stefanovic), their friend from college. Ignoring the not-particularly-cryptic warnings of an old sea dog (Franco Nero playing Jürgen Prochnow in House Of The Dead) they travel to an island that used to be a Nazi prison where they find a dangerous aquatic menace.

In some ways it’s unfortunate that Nymph sells itself so determinedly as a creature feature (in the US it’s called Killer Mermaid), as the bulk of the film passes without a glimpse of a flipper. Instead, after a clunky set-up where we establish who wants to sleep with who, Todorovic’s film spends the bulk of its running time as a rudimentary slasher. Our young, healthy characters stumble through corridors on the run from a single man who’s getting on a bit and looks a bit unsteady on his feet. Nymph’s script really needed to be stronger to satisfy as a thriller, and perhaps should have gone all-out as a monster movie. Instead, it’s a very daft film that takes itself surprisingly seriously, and is frankly dull as a result.

The Discovery Screen was also playing host to a low-budget creature feature, as British werewolf western Blood Moon aimed high. In 1887 Colorado a stage coach and a pair of dangerous outlaws collide in a deserted one-horse town, but the biggest danger isn’t each other. It’s the skinwalker outside.

There’s something really quite charming about Blood Moon’s ambition. The cast seem to having a brilliant time with their accents and dressing up as Wild West staples, particularly Misfits’ Shaun Dooley as a mysterious gunslinger. The script packs in all the obvious staples for both the characters and the script, and the creature design is pretty good. There’s also an unexpected bleakness that works in the film’s favour. However, sadly, director Jeremy Wooding’s reach has exceeded his grasp. It’s apparently impossible to look at the set of a British Western without thinking of the Red Dwarf episode ‘Gunmen Of The Apocalypse’, and for every moment that works, there’s one that reminds you of the film’s country of origin. It’s certainly better than you might imagine, but it’s difficult to shake the idea that you’re watching people playing dress-up rather than watching a film.

Nick Blood regrets his curiosity in XMoor
Nick Blood regrets his curiosity in Xmoor

There was British horror to be found on the main screen as well, with writer-director Luke Hyams’ Xmoor. Georgia (Melia Kreling) and Matt (Nick Blood) are American documentary filmmakers who travel to North Devon’s Exmoor to try and get the legendary beast on film. They’re accompanied by veteran hunter Fox (Mark Bonnar) but they soon realise that the monster they’re tracking might not be an animal.

Xmoor does get off to a good start as the two leads share decent chemistry and Hyams makes the most of his expansive, desolate location (even if it does take a little while to get used to the notion of monster hunting in Devon). The early efforts to unnerve the audience are mostly successful, and the character of Fox, with his grand statements about the hunt and automatic weaponry, is a nicely unpredictable wildcard element. The big revelation at the film’s halfway point isn’t too much of a surprise, but again, it’s quite well played. However, the second half of the film struggles to keep our interest, as Xmoor falls into the trap of leaving its characters to run around the woods pursued by an unseen enemy. There’s certainly promise here and Hyams has a good eye, but it doesn’t live up to its decent start and suffers from a botched ending.

A skate video with a difference in V/H/S: Viral
A skate video with a difference in V/H/S: Viral

For the third year in a row, the V/H/S franchise took over the FrightFest main screen as Nacho Vigalondo introduced the franchise’s third instalment: V/H/S: Viral. The found-footage anthology franchise has split audiences since the first film but we’ve always been impressed by their energy and creativity, so we were certainly excited to see what this new group of directors would bring.  The wraparound is the most fun and the most ambitious that the franchise has attempted so far, as a group of teens follow a police car chase around LA as a cell phone video causes insane behaviour and nose-bleeds.

It’s a mixed bag as ever, but the sense of madcap invention is still very much present. Whether it’s Gregg Bishop’s barely-found-footage ‘Dante The Great’, which blends fun mockumentary with a really impressive final action sequence and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s (Resolution) ‘Bonestorm’, in which a pair of disaffected skater teens take on a seemingly never-ending army of supernatural foes in an extensive bloodbath, there’s a real sense of getting as much as possible on screen. Of the three main shorts, Vigalondo’s is certainly the most complete, as a scientist gets his doorway into a parallel universe to work and agrees that he and his double should explore each others’ apparently identical worlds only to be shocked by the differences. It’s got a lot more in common with the second film in that it goes for sheer entertainment over horror, and it’s certainly good fun. If you’ve enjoyed the series thus far, as we have, we think you’ll have a good time with this.

In the Discovery Screen, we had a lot less fun with Jessica Cameron’s Truth Or Dare. The stars of the titular reality show are taken captive by a super-fan who demands that they play the game seriously this time. As the evening progresses, the group find out each other’s terrible secrets before taking the dares to the next level. Cameron made this film with the help of crowd funding and it’s clearly the movie she wanted to make. Budgetary restrictions aside, the script doesn’t take its reality TV satire beyond the set-up, and uses the obsession with YouTube video hits to propel its villain into forcing its characters to do extremely unpleasant things to each other. It’s obviously supposed to be revolting and it succeeds on that score, but we didn’t find much substance beyond the confrontational ick. Grim.

Brenton Thwaites discovers the truth behind The Signal
Brenton Thwaites discovers the truth behind The Signal

And so, somehow, it was time for the final film of the festival: William Eubank’s The Signal. Riding a wave of festival acclaim, this indie sci-fi tells the story of three students driving across country who decide to stop off at the home of a hacker who has been tormenting them. The house seems to be deserted but something is alerted to their presence. When Nic (Oculus‘ Brenton Thwaites) wakes up, he finds himself in a nightmarish situation.

Fittingly in tune with a lot of our favourite films from this year’s festival, we can’t talk too much about The Signal without giving too much away. The first aspect of it to hit you is the beautiful cinematography by David Lanzenberg, as Eubank lingers on the stunning scenery of the American desert and the fragments of Nic’s happy memories of his girlfriend Haley (Bates Motel’s Olivia Cooke) and best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp). Eubank moves the film along at a deliberate pace, giving the relationships between the three real depth, which is hugely important as The Signal moves into its second half. Nic has stumbled into a situation that’s being handled by Damon, a scientist played with almost impossible patience and restraint by Laurence Fishburne. As the details are teased out, The Signal begins its transition from drama to sci-fi, with each step a clear and logical progression that’s no less surprising and effective for it. Naming influences would spoil it, but The Signal fits into the recent tradition of visually impressive and emotionally affecting sci-fi that has propelled directors to the big leagues, and we feel confident predicting the same for Eubank. There are some wobbles and Cooke is underused, but it’s striking, moving and gripping. In short, The Signal is excellent.

So that’s it for 2014. We couldn’t believe how fast it all went, and we attribute that in part to the fact that the line-up was incredibly strong this year. Our list of favourite films (coming soon) is drawn from each day of the festival; there wasn’t a single day that didn’t offer thrills, laughs and sheer terror. From The Guest all the way through to The Signal, this has been a great year for the festival. As ever, it was an absolute pleasure to watch this selection with the discerning and rabidly enthusiastic FrightFest crowd (even if, going by Twitter, we didn’t agree on everything…but that’s all part of the fun!). The move to the Vue was a success, the guests were brilliant, and we can’t wait until next year. All together now…”Babadook…dook…DOOK!”

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