Frightfest 2014: The Good, The Bad And The Undead…

Back for its 15th edition, the first to be held in Leicester Square’s Vue cinema, this year’s Frightfest was the biggest to date, boasting over 60 movies from around the world spread over five days. As popular as ever with horror fans, Frightfest 2014 saw guest appearances from the likes of Robert Englund, Jorg Buttgereit and Nacho Vigalondo and saw the UK premieres of Adam Wingard’s The Guest and Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Eli Roth’s cannibal shocker The Green Inferno, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2, anthology threequel VHS Viral and Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead we’re just a small selection of the other movies getting UK or English premieres over the August bank holiday weekend.

I managed to catch up with about a third of the Frightfest line up and the results, as is not uncommon with film festivals, were hit and miss. The upside was that the hits were a diverse bunch of films, stylistically and thematically, that confirms there’s still a lot of talented filmmakers out there tackling the horror, fantasy, thriller and sci-fi genres to be found among the more generic offerings that, while solidly made, offer little in the way of genuine invention, wit and narrative surprises.

A contender for one of the best films of not just the festival but the year comes in the shape of debutant Australian director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which along with Wolf Creek 2, Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound and Guy Pidgen’s I Survived a Zombie Holocaust, the latter two both from New Zealand, saw a healthy contingent of Antipodean movies screening during the festival. Kent’s emotionally intense movie, remarkably shot for a five figure sum, revolves around two exceptional performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as Amelia and Sam, a mother still deeply affected by the death of her husband seven years earlier and her equally troubled young son respectively. Transcending genre pigeon-holing, The Babadook uses its dark fantasy elements to devastatingly portray the effects of unresolved grief, loneliness and eroding mental health; it’s a real gem well worth seeking out. Johnstone’s Housebound, meanwhile, is a clever black comedy that teases the viewer as to whether it’s a haunted house movie or a home invasion thriller before nearly subverting both sub-genres in playful, satisfying fashion.

Life in our hi-tech, Internet age formed the narrative backbone of three diverse movies that  variously tackled celebrity worship, identity and violence as entertainment. Nacho Vigalondo’s English language debut, Open Windows, sees Elijah Wood’s Nick Chambers unwittingly drawn into the nefarious plans of a mysterious hacker (Neil Maskell) to mess with the life of actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). Outlandish, dizzying and with its tongue firmly in its cheek, Open Windows is a hoot, both spoofing and superseding the glossy, tech heavy movies it riffs off. Zachary Donohue’s The Den, meanwhile, is told entirely via computer screens as student Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) gets sucked into an increasingly creepy, violent situation while researching webcam users on the titular website. It’s an intriguing, effective movie for the most part, before settling on an obvious revelatory climax seen in a number of movies covering similar themes. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, Jessica Cameron’s directing debut, Truth or Dare, is a nasty, graphic vision of what happens when a Jackass-type group of online pranksters find themselves at the mercy of their, deranged, number one fan. With sequences as wince-inducing and brutal as anything in A Serbian Film, Truth or Dare elicited as visceral a reaction against it from a number of my film critic colleagues. For my money, it may be an exercise in surface shocks but it sure delivers on its premise, if I’m going to watch a movie about unsympathetic, narcissistic characters trapped with a psychopath then I want things to get ugly, and boy do they.

Elsewhere, homoerotic tensions ran riot in the gloriously offbeat The Samurai (Till Kleinert), which examines small town life in Germany in a style that partly recalls Gregg Araki, if he directed a psycho-killer movie steeped in metaphor and drenched in blood. The spirit of Araki is also evident in the disappointing All Cheerleaders Die, Lucky McKee’s latest, which is so clearly aiming for ‘cult’ status that its manic, genre hopping narrative grates rather than thrills. Much more deserving of passionate championing is Hitoshi Matsumodo’s S&M themed, noir tinged oddity R100, where membership to a shadowy gentleman’s club proves to be far more life changing than the emotionally stifled Takafumi (Nao Omori) had bargained for. Kinky, chaotic and meta, R100 is up their as one of the wildest movies you’re likely to see for some time.

Jason Bognacki’s Giallo-inspired witchcraft chiller Another is also worth keeping an eye out for, the oppressive, delirious tone from the get-go unsettles from the off and makes for a disorienting 80-minute excursion into what could have been overly familiar territory. The same goes for Venezuelan supernatural chiller The House at the End of Time (Alejandro Hidalgo), which puts a neat twist onto a haunted house movie in deftly constructed ways that add an element of science fiction to the horror film.

Less impressive were John McNaughton’s The Harvest which, despite a cast including Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton and Peter Fonda, ran out of steam in its latter stages, undoing an intriguing premise and a promising first hour. Similarly underwhelming were rape revenge thriller Julia (Matthew A. Brown), a neon lit tale too heavily indebted to Abel Ferrera’s MS.45: Angel of Vengeance and White Settlers (Simeon Halligan), a by-numbers home invasion thriller starring Pollyanna Mcintosh and set in the isolated Scottish countryside. Likewise, Xmoor (Luke Hyams), The Mirror (Edward Boase) and Deadly Virtues (Ate De Jong) all failed to make their mark, being too uninspired and playing far too safely within genre conventions.

So, that was my first Frightfest, and I’ve come away pretty impressed with the overall standard of the movies I saw. Word of mouth suggests that this year’s line up was one of the strongest yet, so here’s hoping Frightfest 2015 continues in the same vein.