This year’s London FrightFest turned out to be one of the best for years - not least, I suspect, because initially the programme looked rather uninspiring. I usually try and post my five favourites somewhere but because there were so many good films this year I thought I’d do a top ten on here instead. Before we start the countdown, however, it’s only fair that I mention some of the films that didn’t make it. There were very few terrible films this year, and certainly nothing as hateful as 2012’s HIDDEN IN THE WOODS. There were a few films, however, that deserved the description ‘a bit crap, really’ and these included the ‘driving around and around with not much really happening’ tediousness of IN FEAR, the quite horrible (except for one laugh out loud moment that almost makes the film worth watching) I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2, and SADIK 2 - a gallic horror ‘satire’ that was basically the modern day equivalent of gendarmes hitting each other over the head with baguettes passing as French comedy, before the torture porn of MARTYRS was played inexpertly for laughs. I didn’t hate it, in fact I didn’t hate anything this year, but SADIK 2, like the others above, is quite missable.
This year’s Total Film magazine choice was Adam Wingard’s YOU’RE NEXT. It’s a pretty good thriller but Adam still can’t hold a camera even halfway steady during dramatic dialogue exchanges, and his editing of suspense is non-existent, preferring the ‘swing the camera at great speed from one individual to another’ approach that can often leave one feeling confused, nauseous and wanting to give up. DEMENTAMANIA was a micro-budget British horror with some interesting literary references to Lovecraft, Clive Barker and even Fritz Leiber and Ramsey Campbell, although I’m not sure how intentional those were. The film was very rough around the edges, and the few moments of interest were completely eclipsed by the male star’s onstage appearance after the screening wearing the most singular outfit of the festival. Dressed as someone auditioning for the gayest all-singing and dancing version of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS that could ever exist, I had almost entirely forgotten the movie after his exceedingly memorable display of spandex and cowboy hat.
NINJA ELIMINATOR III was a glorious, delirious tribute to crappy dubbed 1980s ninja movies from the makers of the equally splendid DEMONITRON: THE 6TH DIMENSION of a couple of years ago. It was only a short & these chaps deserve the money to make something more substantial.
It was lovely to meet up with old chum Norman J Warren who, in the company of David McGillivray in the most glorious pink suit I think I have ever seen, was there to witness their first big screen collaboration in over thirty years. It was a forty five second short for the ‘Turn Your Bloody Phone Off’ strand, took three hours to shoot, and featured David getting attacked by a vengeful RINGU lady after he declined to politely turn his phone off at Norman’s request. Aside from the historic nature of these two lovely chaps having stuff up on screen again, it was great to hear the cheer that went up when they appeared, and they both admitted to being very touched by the response when I got to speak to them in the bar afterwards.
Others in brief: HATCHET III was much better than the previous two entries (or possibly I’d just had a very good lunch), Vincenzo Natali’s HAUNTER was really rather good - an atmospheric ghost story that felt like a modern-day version of the Sunday teatime BBC1 ‘grown up children’s drama’. THE HYPNOTIST was a new Nordic noir directed by Lasse Hallstrom featuring some superb acting and direction and a plot that rapidly went from a bit farfetched to outright daft, making me wonder if Nordic Noir is actually just giallo in cold weather.
Ok that’s enough rambling. Here are what I thought were the top ten films of this year’s FrightFest, or GruffVicarFest, or CrushedHeadFest (there was a lot of both of the latter this year) or even SpotLarryFessendenFest (did you catch him in YOU’RE NEXT and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE?). Ok, away we go!:
FATAL ATTRACTION with Mormons, MISSIONARY actually draws some interesting parallels between stalking and religious recruitment by combining them in a storyline in which unhinged Mormon missionary Elder Brock (Mitch Ryan) begins to take rather too great an interest in recently separated mum Katherine Kingsman. After initially accepting his advances his subsequent rejection seemingly tips him over the edge as he pursues her relentlessly. Then it turns out it’s all happened before. A nice gentle start to this one allows the tension to build and the added subtext of the religious angle means this one’s more than just a standard psycho stalker pic.
9 THE DARK TOURIST
The one film in the festival that could conceivably be walking away with Oscars, DARK TOURIST is the story of security guard Jim Tahna (Michael Cudlitz) who, once a year, takes a vacation to a important locations in the life of whichever serial killer he’s picked this time. But Tahna has his own problems and a secret we don’t get to learn of until close to the end of the picture. Cudlitz is superb in the violent, messed up, and ultimately tragic lead role, and Melanie Griffith is also excellent as the waitress who befriends him. A very good film, beautifully shot by director Suri Krishnamma, but it’s not one I’d want to watch twice.
8 CURSE OF CHUCKY
Pretty much the only ‘old school’ movie in the festival, and extremely welcome after the less-than-inspiring THE DEAD 2: INDIA, which was shown before it, Don Mancini’s Chucky film dispenses with the outright silliness of BRIDE and SEED and delivers a good old fashioned horror film set in a creepy old house and with plenty of good murders. Brad Dourif is back, both in voice and on screen in flashbacks, and his daughter Fiona is excellent as the put upon heroine. Loads of fun, with more endings than LORD OF THE RINGS and a post-credits coda you have to hang around to see.
7 THE DYATLOV PASS INCIDENT
Found footage meets Algernon Blackwood - or does it? Here’s a BLAIR WITCH type movie that kept me guessing right up until the final scene, and re-establishes director Renny Harlin (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, PRISON) as a director capable of delivering some decent horror. 21 year old Holly Goss gets grant money to investigate a famous historical case in which nine explorers died in the Urals. Off she goes with her team of movie university explorers, including busty sound recorder Denise and three blokes with the requisite characteristics of hunkiness, woolly hats, and bristly facial hair. When they get to the pass, days before they should, phones don’t work and the compass spins. There are naked footprints in the snow and a severed tongue at the local weather station. When Holly discovers something odd buried in the snow the film takes a very interesting right turn indeed but to say any more would be to spoil it. I understand the American release has been retitled DEVIL'S PASS - make of that what you will.
6 WE ARE WHAT WE ARE
Jim Mickle made the cracking STAKELAND and here he manages that most difficult of feats - the remake that’s a lot better than the original. Set in a flooded, rustic, rotting town, the Parker family are struck by tragedy when mum dies, with the task of performing their yearly ritual falling to teenager Iris. A very slow burner that’s probably not best watched on the last day of a festival when you’ve had little sleep, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is Mickle’s best film yet and there are great performances all round.
5 V/H/S/ 2
The original V/H/S holds the unenviable position of being the only film I’ve almost walked out of. This is a lot better, although the wraparound segment here makes no sense either (these things aren’t that difficult to do, you know, chaps). Adam Wingard kicks things off with a corneal implant that allows him to see the dead, followed by a zombie story that manages to be both hilarious and touching. But it’s the third segment that puts this high on the list. Co-directed by Gareth Huw Evans (THE RAID) and Timo Tjahjanto, it documents the final days of an Indonesian cult before the coming of its heralded master. This involves them all killing themselves, and the appearance of a huge scary demon thing. Believe me, this all looks even better than it sounds, and even Jason Eisener’s rather damp squib of an alien invasion segment at the end couldn’t stop this V/H/S 2 from being one of the best films at the festival.
4 DARK TOUCH
Now this was what I really needed to start the final day of movies - an operatic, Italian style, Irish devil child movie. I’m not sure if that’s what “multi award-winning visionary” Marina de Van intended, but that’s what she’s made. 11 year old Niamh kills her parents in an orgy of destruction that destroys the family home. She’s sent to live with her aunt, but the social workers, teachers, and the adoptive parents themselves all become possible targets for her wrath. One of the best endings in ages that is simultaneously haunting, operatic, and daft as a brush made this one a complete winner for me.
3 FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY
How do I describe this one? If there was one film in the festival made for me this would have to be it, and I spent most of the running time on tentertooks, unable to believe it could get any crazier or more outrageous. It’s a Russian found footage movie set in World War II in which a squad of soldiers come across an enormous laboratory in which the descendant of Dr Victor Frankenstein has been creating war machines out of metal and human body parts. Somewhat video gamey but in all the right ways for a change, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY really kicks into high gear when we’re given a tour of the mad doctor’s laboratory. The monsters are superb, the direction is frenetic without being nauseating (are you listening Adam Wingard?) and the torture scenes are just the right side of SAW and HOSTEL. The one film I absolutely cannot wait to see again.
2 BIG BAD WOLVES
The closing film of the festival, and another one I can’t say too much about without spoiling it. A little girl goes missing. The police think they have the culprit - a schoolteacher - and try to beat a confession out of him. The beating goes up on Youtube and the man is released. The girl turns up headless and strapped to a chair with barbed wire (a very nasty bit). Her father swears revenge and the cop responsible for the beating is sacked. They both think the teacher is guilty and the second half of the film becomes a prolonged torture sequence to discover where the little girl’s head is buried. Subverting your expectations at every turn (unbelievably a lot of what happens is very funny) and with the best and bleakest final image of the entire festival, BIG BAD WOLVES was an unexpected, and quite superb, delight.
1 THE BORDERLANDS
Now we come to the most unexpected surprise of the entire festival. You only have to say ‘priest fighting the devil in the West Country’ for me to be there, but THE BORDERLANDS is so much more than that. It’s found footage again, but don’t let that put you off. By the end of the film I had coined the description ‘Lucio Fulci directs THE STONE TAPE’ and if the director didn’t look as if he was quite sure what I was talking about, producer Jen Handorf certainly did. There are weird events at a church in the West Country and Vatican representative Gordon Kennedy (yes that Gordon Kennedy, and bloody good he is in this too) is sent to investigate along with irritating obnoxious unbeliever Rob Hill. The story unwraps slowly but atmospherically as it becomes apparent that there may be more going on than simple demonic possession.
Absolutely my favourite film of FrightFest, I can’t praise THE BORDERLANDS highly enough. I understand from various sources that it required a bit of work from various parties under the guiding hand of Jen Handorf to get it into the state it is now, and if that’s the case then bloody well done to her for pulling everything together and delivering such a (finally) polished piece. THE BORDERLANDS is low budget British horror at its absolute best and if you see one film from this year’s FrightFest this should be it.