A move to the Vue Multiplex that was nowhere near as painful as anyone was expecting and a fantastic programme of movies meant that FrightFest 2014 turned out to be my favourite so far of those I’ve attended. Quality was high, with many of the best films being shown on the smaller ‘Discovery’ screens. That didn’t mean there wasn’t some right old rubbish in there, though, if you looked hard enough. The award for Film On The Main Screen Everyone Can Delight in Despising went this year to SHOCKWAVE DARKSIDE 3D. I was fortunate enough to dodge that particular bullet, which means that, after careful consideration, my own award for Most Rubbish FrightFest Film 2014 is a tie between Lucky McKee’s woeful ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, which boasted elements of THE CRAFT and some rubbish about floaty, shiny stones; and Jessica Cameron’s TRUTH OR DARE, which reminded me of Joel M Reed’s BLOODSUCKING FREAKS, or the worst films of Herschell Gordon Lewis for its sheer mean-spirited gross-out gore - all shot on a single ‘set’ where the walls looked as if they were made of bin liners. Both of these were of a type of film I thought no-one made anymore, and not in a good way.
Eli Roth’s THE GREEN INFERNO wasn’t much better, being a ‘homage’ to the kind of cannibal film that film-makers could get away with in the late 1970s but which now feel xenophobic and exploitative. Roth is in danger of building a CV of movies that suggest he is either terrified of absolutely anywhere abroad, or he wants you to be, neither of which can be considered exactly laudable. VHS 3 - VHS VIRAL was a bit of a mess, offering lots more wobbly-cam, an Amicus-style ‘cloak’ opener, a decent story from Nacho Vigalondo (definitely my favourite film-maker of the festival) and some quite terrible ones otherwise. The theme of a wraparound that makes absolutely no sense at all and ends up as a confusing waste of time also continued, and one story had been left out altogether resulting in a truncated running time.
SIN CITY 2 - A DAME TO KILL FOR at two hours was about 119 minutes too long and offered more grunty growly men in ludicrous situations and Eva Green with no clothes on a lot. NYMPH was a great idea for a Euro-Horror about a KILLER MERMAID (retitled as such for the subtle and discerning US market) living on an island. Franco Nero is in that one, and he completely unbalances the movie with a great performance that shows everyone else up. The festival closed with SF OUTER LIMITS episode-wannabe THE SIGNAL, which was all right.
Other than that, by my count Larry Fessenden only managed to appear in one film this year (werewolf picture LATE PHASES) and it really wasn’t the festival for dog lovers, with poor old canines getting beheaded (THE SAMURAI), shot (LATE PHASES) twisted in half (THE BABADOOK), eaten by zombie beavers (ZOMBEAVERS - of course) and spiked through the head (VHS 3). Other recurring themes included weird things going on behind a crack in the wall (at least three films), and the saving of screaming children under the age of ten.
OK, that’s enough of the stuff I wasn’t blown away by - now on to everything I really liked.
First off, the honourable mentions. HOME was the new film from Nicholas McCarthy (it's been retitled AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR for its US release). While it wasn’t quite as good as THE PACT, there were plenty of extremely well-orchestrated scares, a deliciously creepy atmosphere, and a bottle of J&B at the beginning. If nothing else, it helps to consolidate McCarthy’s position as the new king of suburban horror and a worthy successor to Wes Craven in the ‘Horror comes to your house’ subgenre.
ZOMBEAVERS scored points for sheer bravado in its use of glove puppet beavers that were turned into glove puppet zombie beavers by toxic waste. There was also a very catchy end title song sung by a Sinatra soundalike that I’m having difficulty getting out of my head.
STARRY EYES was a Hollywood satire with a great synthesiser score (analog was very much in this year) and a stellar central performance from Alex Essoe as the struggling actress who finds that tinseltown is even nastier than Robert Bloch suggested in TORTURE GARDEN. THE SAMURAI featured a man in a dress wielding a very big sword (in more than one meaning of the term) in this German art-house picture that was a splendid allegorical tale of one man’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality. THE SLEEPING ROOM was the new British horror from the producers of PANIC BUTTON and while it wasn’t as good it featured a fascinating premise with its Victorian mutograph used to make turn of the century snuff movies and a gloomy Brighton setting.
And now…the top ten!
10 BLOOD MOON
A British-made werewolf Western filmed in Kent and set in 1887 Colorado sounded like a recipe for disaster but I couldn’t resist it. And how pleasantly surprised I was. Jeremy Wooding’s picture feels like a Hammer film from the good old days, with fantastic production values (including Black Park location shooting with stagecoach!), a likeable ensemble cast and a great monster. A genuine surprise and a film that deserves lots of love and attention. There’s also the suggestion at the end that Shaun Dooley’s monster-hunting gunslinger might be back for more adventures and I for one think that would be an excellent idea.
9 STAGE FRIGHT
Not the classic Michele Soavi picture but an American slasher musical billed as a cross between FRIDAY THE 13TH and GLEE. I have never seen the latter, but this was the best of the horror comedies shown this year. A summer camp for ‘talented children’ is staging a production of the ‘classic’ THE HAUNTING OF THE OPERA but setting it in feudal Japan for no real reason other than to give the killer a scarier mask. Great songs (the killer sings heavy metal riffs) and a fine sense of both horror and comedy made this one a breath of fresh air - highly recommended if you’re a fan of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE-style craziness. Meat Loaf is the star and Minnie Driver gets killed before the credits roll.
8 THE BABADOOK
I very much suspect THE BABADOOK will be the standout film at FrightFest for many. A mature, considered horror movie for grownups about a single mother having to cope with a six year old son who has behavioural difficulties. The arrival of a mysterious storybook allows for fear, guilt, horror and regret to be expressed in the form of the titular creature. Well made and acted and with thoughtful production design suggestive of a mature Tim Burton film, this was the antithesis of movies like TRUTH OR DARE.
Has Mary Elizabeth Winstead been brainwashed by a cult? Or is something far more sinister going on? It’s the job of Leland Orser’s cult de-programmer to sort her out in this terrific movie that, for the most part, is pretty much a two-hander filmed on a single set. I loved it and I’m not going to say anything else about it other than you should watch it at the soonest opportunity.
6 DIGGING UP THE MARROW
Director Adam Green implored the FrightFest audience not to give too much away about this one. What I will say is that it begins as a documentary about monster-based art with Green playing himself. Then Ray Wise turns up playing a man who claims monsters are real and he can prove it. MARROW starts off as comedy but then gets darker and weirder. It was one of the few films on this list to properly scare me, and well done to Mr Green for doing so.
Another film on this list I imagined lasting for ten minutes of and then leaving. Ten minutes in and I was absolutely hooked. I think the original title must have been PEACHFUZZ (see poster above) which makes no sense until you see the movie. Now if you mention the word you’ll still get a shiver out of me. A found footage, mumblecore improvisational piece featuring only two actors, one of whom is also the director, CREEP is about a man answering an advert to go to the isolated house of a complete stranger who claims he is dying of cancer and wants a video diary of one day to leave to his unborn son. It quickly gets very weird with an ending that was a candidate for most horrible and disturbing in the festival. Now, who’s for ‘Tubby Time’?
4 OPEN WINDOWS
I liked Nacho Vigalondo’s clever TIMECRIMES a lot, and OPEN WINDOWS confirms that he is one of the most deliciously manic and original film-makers working today. Elijah Wood runs a website devoted to actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). When the competition he believes he has won to meet her turns out to be a hoax and he is contacted by someone who claims he can help Wood get revenge that’s just the beginning of a hugely complex plot that eventually collapses in on itself but is still rather brilliant anyway. Another film I loved and I can’t wait to watch again.
3 THE GUEST
The biggest shock of the festival for me - an Adam Wingard film that I adored. I’ve never been a huge fan of his wobbly-cam mumblecore aesthetic but THE GUEST is a revelation. Inspired by John Carpenter movies and THE TERMINATOR, and with a fantastic analog synthesiser score to match, THE GUEST stars Dan Stevens from DOWNTON ABBEY (I’ve never seen it) as a soldier who arrives on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claiming he was friends with their recently-deceased son. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s been part of a military experiment that’s turned him into an unstoppable killing machine. A great film in its own right, but watch out for gags related to HALLOWEEN III, HALLOWEEN IV (!) and YOU’RE NEXT.
2 THE FORGOTTEN
After last year’s THE BORDERLANDS and the previous THE DEVIL’S BUSINESS, any horror movie producer Jennifer Handorf has a hand in is going to get my undivided attention, and THE FORGOTTEN is another winner. I’m not usually a fan of movies set on deserted council estates but this won me over with one of the saddest ghost stories I’ve seen in many a year. It was a delight to discover afterwards that both director Oliver Frampton and writer James Hall admitted MR James and Henry James as influences, and special mention should be made of the sound design which makes the already terrifying location feel like HELL HOUSE for hoodies.
1 THE CANAL
This played directly after THE FORGOTTEN, which had already managed a good job of scaring me silly. The reason it deserves the number one spot is that almost anything coming after THE FORGOTTEN would have been on a losing streak and THE CANAL succeeded in terrifying me. A film archivist moves into a house that was the scene of a murder in the early 1900s. He discovers newsreel footage of the case just as his life starts to fall apart and he enters a world where the horrors he is experiencing might be of his own imagining. Terrific, terrifying imagery, great acting and a downbeat tragic ending make THE CANAL my favourite in a festival loaded with great movies. Well done writer-director Ivan Kavanagh.