FrightFest Glasgow is upon us again, promising horror fans a smörgåsbord of serial killers, Australian zombies, killer clowns and Satanic possession. It all got underway on Thursday night with the latest offering from Session 9 director Brad Anderson: Eliza Graves (also known as Stonehearst Asylum). The Edgar Allan Poe adaptation stars Jim Sturgess as the young Dr Edward Newgate (from Oxford, no less), who travels to the remote Stonehearst Asylum to complete his training. He’s met by the intense Dr Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), who cares for an interesting selection of lunatics, including the bewitching Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), and offers some unusual treatments. However, a trip to the basement reveals a large group of caged patients, led by Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine), who claims that they are the real doctors and that the inmates have taken over the asylum.
Anderson doesn’t seem hugely concerned with establishing a mystery; instead focusing on creating an atmosphere that recalls pre-Code horrors and creating a beautiful looking film in the process. The cast are all very much on message, with Sturgess offering slightly twitchy propriety in the lead, while the supporting cast tear up the scenery around him. David Thewlis is particularly good fun as the intimidating Mickey Finn, while Nymphomaniac’s Sophie Kennedy Clarke has fun as a childish nurse, while Kingsley and Caine seem to be having a great time. It slightly outstays its welcome at nearly two hours, and you can easily see where it’s all going, but this is a superbly cast, entertaining tribute to a bygone era that’s well worth a look.
On Friday, the festival began proper as the Glasgow Film Theatre’s screen one filled up for Chris Sparling’s The Atticus Institute. The writer of Buried and ATM went behind the camera for this mockumentary about a research facility where a group of doctors investigating psychic phenomena get more than they bargain for with the arrival of Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstead) in 1976. It soon becomes clear that Judith is possessed, but when they call in the military, things take a turn for the terrible.
The film gets off to a strong start, as Sparling combines present day talking heads with “recovered footage” and still photos, creating a familiar atmosphere to contort. It also helps that Kihlstead is excellent as the tortured woman who, as the characters point out, looks like a school teacher but is something else. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his Buried script, Sparling also takes aim at the government’s treatment of threats and potential assets, as Judith is brutally tortured by the military attaché (Julian Acosta) who tries to figure out what they can do with her. However, the script is what really lets the film down. It’s frequently silly but also incredibly earnest, as the older versions of the characters keep describing just how terrifyingly powerful Judith is over and over again as the events escalate far beyond that. It quickly settles into a routine that’s not particularly scary, despite the occasional interesting spin on formula, and is not particularly memorable.
Next up was The Hoarder, from director Matt Winn. Mischa Barton stars as Ella, who recruits her best friend Molly (Emily Atack) to break into her husband’s storage locker. After travelling to the creepy basement, they uncover something horrifying, and the question is now about how to get out.
There’s something unnerving about a storage facility as a setting and Winn does mostly make good use of it. After a bad start with some atrocious dialogue, The Hoarder improves with the first reveal of its main threat, and the introduction of new characters including the reliable Robert Knepper (Prison Break) as an unstable homicide detective. That being said, the improvement doesn’t last particularly long and it soon becomes a routine stalk and slash while Winn tries to hide the clues about what’s really going on from the audience. It’s not without its moments, but there’s not really enough here to recommend it.
Up next was Wyrmwood, which was a vast improvement. This much-buzzed Australian zombie comedy/action movie sees the outbreak take place suddenly overnight with an airborne toxin spreading the virus. Our hero Barry (Jay Gallagher) teams up with a ragtag group of survivors as he tries to get to his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), who has been taken by a sinister government agency.
Director Kiah Roache-Turner and his co-writer Tristan introduce a mix of tones early on, blending some pretty heavy stuff with gory knock-about comedy. A terrific sight gag about slow walking zombies is soon followed by the revelation that a major character has been forced to kill his wife and daughter. The film moves quickly and shows great invention, giving us a well-thought-out spin on the virus with plenty of hilarious surprises. There’s an obvious love of the genre in all its forms (John Carpenter, Peter Jackson and George Miller are of course paid homage to, as well as films like Return Of The Living Dead 3) but it establishes its own identity as well. With far more hits than misses and a host of likeable characters, Wyrmwood is a huge amount of fun and definitely recommended, and the crowd seemed to love it.
April Mullen’s revenge thriller 88 was a bit of a shift, and wasn’t particularly genre, but not without its merits. Festival favourite Katharine Isabelle plays Gwen, who comes to while sitting at a diner with no idea how she got there. After finding a gun in her backpack and accidentally shooting a waitress, she begins to put together the pieces, which include a murdered fiancé, an evil mob boss (Christopher Lloyd) and a badass alter ego called Flamingo.
88 veers between crime thriller, emotional drama and violent slapstick comedy, and does the latter best. Isabelle seems more at home playing the ice cold Flamingo; chain-smoking, dead-panning, soiling convenience store floors, than the terrified amnesiac Gwen (although she’s a strong presence throughout), and the film works best when ramping up the dark chuckles. Writer Tim Doiron got a lot of laughs as the upbeat, trigger happy Ty who regularly pops up to save her life, and there’s a lot of out-of-nowhere weirdness that works quite well. There’s some affecting weight to the events that led to Gwen/Flamingo’s predicament but it’s a shame that any mystery is dispelled by a title card that explains the plot, and that the criminal underworld doesn’t really convince. Still, there’s enough to enjoy to make it a mostly-fun 88 minutes, including a hilariously delirious visit to a business/leisure time dividing gun merchant (played by Mullen) and to watch out for what Mullen and Doiron do next.
The final film of the night was another film of many titles: Backmask, or The Asylum, or Exeter, from director Marcus Nispel (the remakes of Friday 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). After a big party at a burned-out former treatment centre, a group of teens realise that they’ve awakened an evil spirit that promptly possesses responsible Patrick’s little brother Rory. Locked in with only Google for help, they try and battle the forces of darkness without being brutally killed or having to call the cops.
Based on Nispel’s track record, which also includes Pathfinder and the most recent Conan The Barbarian, there’s not much to indicate the sense of humour on display throughout most of Backmask. After a not-particularly promising set-up (we’d already seen one film today about an institution where terrible things happened, after all), the film moves incredibly quickly as Kirsten Elms’ script pushes through the party to the next day to the first possession and the chaos. With the kids’ swift acceptance of what’s going on and their best course of action, Backmask recalls similarly frantic and funny self-aware genre movies like All Cheerleaders Die and Detention, although it’s more focused on the horror, and it’s not quite as successful. After a hugely entertaining first half packed with brutal surprises befalling a group of know-it-all-but-baffled teens, it all settles down a bit as it moves its pieces about to find an ending. However, it was great choice for the late-night slot with plenty of gory shocks and some big laughs, and a lot more fun than it looked.
Day 2 brings [REC]: Apocalypse, Clown, There Are Monsters, The Treatment and The Woods Movie so check in for more coverage!