The State of Horror Movies – FrightFest 2013 Wrap Up

After five days spent under cooling dark with my twisted brothers and sisters at FrightFest 2013 and a slew of back-to-back horror films it’s as good a question as any to ask just where we see the state of horror movies in 2013.

Some background to kick things off.

The best horror films are the ones suited to voicing some collective fear we have of the time we live in.
Nosferatu, one of the earliest incarnations of horror to be put to film, harks to the dangers of diseases foreigners might bring abroad.

The Universal monsters bring pathos to legends and fairytales; man may have mastered the fear of the dark with the lightbulb, but within him there is a darkness he has yet to reconcile. Pity poor Larry Talbot’s Wolfman.
In the fifties, the post-war generation looks to the stars as the lean towards sci-fi based horrors. The atomic age brings with it radiated threats that curl and twist towards the dark.

By the late sixties and into the seventies, horrors have climbed down form Eastern European castles and lie no further than our neighbours’ front door. It’s people, not monsters, who cannot be trusted.

The 1980s is the industrialisation and commercialisation of horror. Horror motivated by quick profit, cheap production values. Time to market, vitality, multiplicity and brutality and tuning of VHS tapes provide a grim and gritty window.

The nineties see the green shoots of psychological horror – we’re all so much cleverer now, aren’t we?

By the late nineties and chiming us in to the new millennium horror becomes reflexive and self-referential in a way that allows us to enjoy the tropes of horror, while denying its power through irony.

September 11th hits and all of a sudden the horror on TV is more real than the ones in multiplexes. Made for TV terrorism provides all the realism we need; is horror still relevant?

Like the roller-coaster ride, we still need to feel the thrill of danger without the threat. The SAW films showcase an altogether existential and yet primal motivation: how do you handle your final hours?

Post-2010 and we see horror falling back on itself and referencing itself. Sequels, remakes and cash cows whose udders are milked use convention and clichés to satisfy the lowest common denominators of horror fans.

Make no mistake; these films would not be made if the morbid curiosity of fans disposed them towards tilling the golden rut that was laid by the film’s predecessor or original.

You’re a horror fan, take what you get because you’re not worthy of any deeper consideration than a tramp looking for his next drink, says Hollywood.

This then is the nightmare scenario: that horror films become about themselves, about conventions, about gore, about tits and about the elements that are replicable by 101 studios and indie filmmakers that have seen John Carpenter’s
Halloween and thought, I could do that. No problem.

I’m writing this at a time of economic uncertainty. The institutions that supposedly provide stability sit idly by while genocide occurs across the world. Population growth is increasing at exponential rates and yet global marketing departments champion the cause of the individual, the offbeat and the supposed special.

The psychopath hiding in the dark with an axe may now be carrying out an act of mercy in dispatching us as the structures and organisations we once felt protected the world are shown to be ineffective.

We’re not promised tomorrow and yet we’re lulled into believing that a world without us is unthinkable. Who will manage my facebook page once I’m gone?

If Western horror is to advance it must, on pain of death, decouple itself from what has come before.

It’s going to take film makers with an axe to grind and not adherence to the turn the volume up, make’em jump conventions that will see truly original and terrifying works produced.

And as horror fans, we’ll be out there, ever loyal, in dark, waiting to pounce.

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posted by JP at 9:38 pm  

Big Bad Wolves Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

Film, as with any other form of creative media, is about provoking a reaction in the viewer.

The difference between a good film and a bad film usually depends, in part, on the intention the filmmaker has in provoking reactions in the audience.

This doesn’t mean that every film has to get people thinking about race relations, the environment, politics, etc., but beyond the mechanics itself of provoking reactions a coherent idea of what the filmmaker is trying to achieve or say with the piece needs to emerge.

This is especially important in horror films where the opportunities to make dull, empty-headed and gratuitous work over works of substance are many.

Digressing for second, Pulp Fiction is one of my favourite films. Every element in the film is carefully arranged to provoke a reaction. But ultimately, it’s a well-made film about nothing. By comparison, a film like Psycho (also one of my favs) is also about provoking strong reactions, but it does so to service an overall story about suspense and works on a number of levels.

The above preamble is necessary when talking about Big Bad Wolves – the closing film at this year’s FrightFest.

The story centres around the disappearances of young girls in town. The lead suspect is brutalised by police officers before being let go, the cop in charge is suspended and the father of a girl whose body is partially recovered wants revenge – and he’s not concerned about having proof before enacting revenge on the suspect.

The lives of the three characters converge when the father captures the suspect along with the cop in order to find out the location of his daughter’s remains through SAW-style interrogation techniques.

If this all sounds a bit grim, it shouldn’t. At least the filmmakers don’t think so.

Underscoring every scene in Big Bad Wolves is a line of jet black humour as the foibles of everyday life interrupt the father’s interrogation of the suspect. Imagine a version of SAW where Jigsaw’s mom turns up halfway through and you have an idea of the comedy boards the film treads.

There are exchanges and glances between characters that provoke laugh-out loud moments from the audience and from a comedy point of view, just as with Pulp Fiction, the performances are spot on.

The humour however, sits awkwardly with the narrative of the plot, which is ultimately about a father trying to find out the whereabouts of his daughter’s remains.

There is a thin theme about children and their visibility among parents in the film and how focusing on revenge obscures their view.

The chief of police’s infant son is with him when he’s bollocking the cop who carried out the brutal attack on the suspect and mimics the father’s words. The cop’s daughter is heard at the beginning of the film after he provides her with a mobile phone for safety. The suspect’s daughter is kept away from him after the allegations about him emerge. The victim of the father out of justice is seen, gruesomely, after the fact. Later it emerges he was having an affair with his secretary when the kidnapping took place and so feels guilt over her loss.

The strong line of dark comedy and suspense works in making the viewer complicit in forgetting about children for a large part of the film.

I won’t spoil things by giving away the ending, suffice to say the final image in the film brings the story back to the idea at the beginning of the film of children being hidden from view at the cost of revenge.

However, the film ultimately left me uneasy and not in a good way.

A large part of the film is built around comedy and suspense. The theme of children not being in sight and neglected at the cost of revenge seems subordinate to getting laughs from the audience.
There are couple of obvious plot holes and false motivations, which again, leads me to believe the film is more about its effects than provoking any long-term thought.

Had the film measured out the laughs against its message, its effects would have stayed with you long after the movie finished instead of simply pushing buttons for the duration of the film.

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posted by JP at 12:21 pm  

Odd Thomas Film4 FrightFest 2013

“I may see Dead People, but by God I do something about it.”

When a film voices its own proposition through its lead character in a knowing way, it endears you towards it right from the start.

Odd Thomas lives up to the central’s exclamation: a guy with the power to see dead people uses his gift to bring justice to the undead.

The film is themed like a super-hero movie but avoids the cliches: Odd (that’s the character’s name) works with the police who are aware of his gift. His girlfriend (he has one at the start of the film, so none of this let the hero come out and you’ll pull crap) is also aware of his powers.

Narratively, it cuts the need for explaining who he is and allows us to just get down to the fun stuff.

Odd has a premonition that the town is about to suffer a huge attack that will leave large scores of people including his main squeeze as permanent members of the afterlife, unless he can piece together a developing mystery and stop the villains.

The film is mixed-parts Zombieland, Donnie Darko and Famous Five and keeps you engaged for while it’s on screen.

The film is based on a story by Dean R Koontz and while the novel would work better at steering us through the thoughts and emotions of the character, the film is compromised between keeping the visual action flowing and keeping you emotionally centred.

The film doesn’t explore the relationship between Odd and his girlfriend to any emotionally mature satisfaction and at the same time doesn’t go far enough in its action pieces.

Odd Thomas would perhaps work best as a TV series where it could achieve the above. Indeed, the ending suggests the film was made as a sort of extended TV pilot – setting up the emotional backstory and world of the lead character to be explored.

As a film, it’s entertaining while it runs, but diluted to have any lasting impact although miles more original than R.I.P.D.

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posted by JP at 7:34 pm  

Dark Touch Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

Is a child capable of evil?

If you’ve dined in a Wagamama recently and had the misfortune of sitting next to parents who think that their children flinging miso soup around is “adorable” and that the waitress can clean it up because “that’s what they’re paid for,” you’ll know the answer is very much yes.

Horror films, however, tend to take a more judicious approach towards investigating the relationship between children and evil than I do.

The genre does this in two ways; children can be outright monsters (which highlights the parental fear that, despite our best efforts, children can be influenced by other nefarious things and how a parents denial of the child’s problem only sustains this) or they can become evil after a fact (in this case, the transformation of the child usually highlights neglect or lack of awareness on the part of the parent).

Ideas such as the above are still relevant and worthy of exploration today, especially given the range of devices and fancies that compete for children’s attention over that of their parents.

The film Dark Touch, however, is complete bereft of any ideas whatsoever but still feels it’s OK to show children in extended scenes of distress.

The plot consists of a young girl with Carrie-like powers being taken in by a couple after her house burns down in not-so mysterious circumstances.

There is almost no attempt to address any of the genuine emotional issues a child in such circumstances would have to get through or provide a means for a child to cope with trauma a la Pan’s Labyrinth.

Characters in the film literally narrate what they’re doing or about to do, although given this is a film without any subtext, this is perhaps appropriate.

Moments that are meant to be poignant and dramatic simply provoked laughter form the FrighFest audience I watched it with as the film botched a concept it didn’t have the mental bus fare to handle in the first place.

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posted by JP at 7:08 pm  

The Conspiracy Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

“If you stare at something long enough, you’ll see what you want to see.”

So says one of the characters in Christopher MacBride’s The Conspiracy. The story concerns a group of documentary film makers interviewing a leading conspiracy theorist.

When their interviewee mysteriously disappears they decide to pick up the last threads of his research. This leads them to the doorstep of a mysterious and powerful group and that’s where the trouble starts.

The narrative of the film is made up of three different styles; there’s the narrative part of the film which shows the interactions between characters, there’s the documentary footage they film themselves which sits alongside narrative, there’s research clips and archives with voiceovers and finally there are a series of “post-film ending” interviews done with characters who are talking retrospectively about what eventual happened at the end of their film.

If the above sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

While the mixture of styles used to tell the story could be making a point about truth (Which strand of the narrative do you choose to believe? Which is the most objective and honest?) the approach prevents you as a viewer from fully investing yourself in the story itself.

The final 30 minutes of the film is filled with tension as the film makers infiltrate the group they’ve been investigating. Told from hidden camera point of view angles, you experience the noose tightening around the lead characters. But this then is spoiled as it reverts to its “documentary footage film within a film”.

The Conspiracy is an interesting idea and the finale is tension-filled but you’re never fully allowed to invest yourself in what’s happening as cleverness and manipulation of the context of what you’re watching consistently switches.

Had The Conspiracy just been a film about people investigating a cult, it would have been more effective than trying to raise questions in the mind of the audience about what “the truth” is and what you can or cannot believe.

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posted by JP at 10:18 pm  

In Fear Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

In Fear is a British film by director Jeremy Lovering based in the “Wrong Turn” sub genre.

Wrong Turn is one of the harder films to make simply because there are so many of them and the plot conventions they rely on (taking a wrong turn, phone and sat nav cutting out, violent townsfolk or even more violent mutants) can end up riddling the entire story with cliches.

Although In Fear relies on two of those conventions, it bucks the trend by focusing on the terror of the couple being lost for a large part of the film. This is refreshing as so often in this type of film the fear of being lost gives way to bigger threats that aren’t nearly as scary and diffuses any sense of tension or suspense. In Fear is effective in holding back; for the first 40 minutes the viewer and the lead characters are united in a relatable everyday fear of being lost.

Lovering also uses the landscape to ratchet up the tension, rather than rely on the presence of aggressive locals or gratuitous POV through the bushes shots. Branches which encroach, long winding roads and silent forests leave the viewer as stranded as the couple. As unlucky incidents occur you’re kept off-kilter. Is there somebody out there? Is it a haunted forest? We know something’s up but not exactly what and In Fear keeps you guessing.

Lovering explained during the introduction that he issued the actors with no script and that events unfolded to them as they happened to provoke natural reactions. While this makes for shaky performances at the start (the actors seem to be unsure of how their characters are supposed to relate to each other) by the time the couple find themselves lost, you’re with them 100%. Both actors do an incredible job of holding up the movie through natural and escalating performances.

However, the problem with making a film that relies on uniting the viewer and characters in guessing what will happen next in almost real time comes when you eventually reveal the reason for the strange occurrences. It makes or breaks the film and this is where In Fear falls down.

After being lost for ages and after a failed abduction by a nondescript assailant, the couple decide to take on board a passerby who they may or may not have hit with their car.

It’s at this point that you lose any willing suspension of disbelief.

To wit: if you were lost and had been the victim of an attempted kidnapping and you knew something was out to get you, would accept a stranger into your car even if you suspected they were in need?

It’s this break in logic that harms the naturalistic performances and the world the film has spent so long setting up and took me out of the picture.

Lovering explained at the Q&A that the passerby was the only actor who had full details of how the story would play out in advance. This may have worked against the piece as had the part of the passenger been played with greater ambiguity the film could have maintained the suspense it established in the first half.

By the time the passerby is in the car he may as well have introduced himself as Rutger Hauer.

And it’s from here onwards that the film then resorts to non-sensical plot points. For example, there comes a point where the perpetrator leaves the couple in the car and walks away, apparently just giving up. Rather than run him over in the car, the guy gets out of the car and fights him hand-to-hand. What’s more, the girl just stays in the car and watches.

This conveniently extends the plot but broke the authenticity of the film. From this point on I was aware I was actually watching a film play rather than being invested as I had done from the start.

By comparison, one of the reasons the Blair Witch project worked so well was because it maintained its tone and approach to scares right until the end. It doesn’t explain and that’s why the ending stays with you.

Overall, In Fear delivers an excellent and suspenseful first-half without relying on cliches, but trades this off in the second half with the need to explain and forced decision-making.

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posted by JP at 5:29 pm  

Cheap Thrills Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

The last film each day at FrightFest is always a gamble: stay for it and you have to procure the night bus home, or cut and run and get a few extra hours sleep leaving you all the fresher for the next day.

The choice is influenced by how well you think you’re going to enjoy it and whether extra sleep will offset people telling you the next day that you missed a gem. Word of mouth was extremely strong on Cheap Thrills in advance, so whatever terrors awaited me on the night bus they could have at me.

The story centres around two old friends who have a chance reunion in a bar and who are both down on their luck financially. It’s when the friends encounter a mysterious couple looking for fun and who press them to engage in a series of increasingly dangerous dares for money that their friendship is tested to extremes.

Cheap Thrills has shades of Roald Dahl’s “Man from the South” – one of my all-time favourite short stories. Indeed, there’s even a scene where the loss of a little finger is the subject of a high-stakes wager.

The temptation with a film like this is to let the ever-sickening bets take centre stage and lose focus on the deteriorating relationship between the two friends. However, Cheap Thrills admirably maintains the balance between sickening scenes and the narrative drive.

The film also does a great job of addressing a pet peeve of mine in horror movies, namely, what allows the action to continue? As the bets become increasingly turn dark the characters are given genuine reasons for staying and seeing things through to the bloody end.

Kudos has to go to the ensemble cast who each bring just the right amount of energy and tone to a piece that is largely set in one location. David Koechner steals the show as the creepy yet likeable Colin and keeps the viewer off balance while at the same time providing darkly comic relief.

Coming out of the age of SAW films, Cheap Thrills doesn’t take the easy option of relying on, well, cheap thrills to carry its story through. Well constructed and acted, with genuinely gross moments and a line of jet black humour, Cheap Thrills provides thought-provoking kicks and suspense throughout.

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posted by JP at 11:14 am  

R.I.P.D Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

Fantasy as well as fear plays a big part at the FrightFest.

Relief is often required between extended rounds of full-on horror if only to act as a palette cleanser so that you can resume watching more horror.

And what better way to do that then with a supernatural cop-buddy movie?

Mixing equal parts Ghost, Robocop and Men in Black, RIPD follows the high-concept of supernatural cops fulfilling a period of repentance before being let into heaven by hunting down the souls of bad guys that have made their way back to earth.

With Jeff Bridges acting as the very southern veteran and Ryan Reynolds playing the recently deceased cop and ghost rookie out for revenge, we have our odd couple and the game gets afoot.

RIPD follows all conventions you’d expect from a buddy-cop movie; the mentor showing the new guy the ropes, the rookie fucking up and then turning in something good, a chase scene and a shootout, the cops being taken off the case but not getting off the case.

In fact, RIPD follows conventions a little too closely. In addition to the above touch points, we have the way overused “villain surrenders halfway through” scene (last seen in Skyfall, Star Trek 2 Into Darkness and The Avengers).

Indeed, there’s very little to mark out RIPD with any real distinction. Good enough for while it plays and little more.

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posted by JP at 3:55 am  

No One Lives Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

The first notable thing about No One Lives struck me before the movie started.

The WWE Studios logo, a diversified subsidiary of the American wrestling company, made its way across the screen. Part of the studio’s remit is to produce films which feature its wrestlers.

This presumably allows an already-established fan base of young males to follow wrestlers through to more mature territories that exist out of the confines televised wrestling.

It’s a smart move: as the your audience gets older, you provide them with extensions to cater for more mature tastes, keeping them engaged with the brand and ensuring the dollars roll in.

The above rambling is not meant to be dismissive or sound snobbish of any films produced by the studio, but it does help to explain a couple of core themes that left me uneasy with No One Lives.

The film opens with three seemingly unconnected sequences; a girl on the run in the woods, a couple travelling with a secret and a family of thieves brooding after a botched heist.

The set-up of No One Lives is muted and measured and for the first 20 minutes you feel you’re in store for a simmering thriller. However, when the worlds of the family and the couple collide, the tables get turned, and the family of criminals find themselves the hunted and on the receiving end of bloody revenge.

The bad meets super-evil premise of No One Lives is a strong one, however its subsequent use and application of violence and treatment of women completely wiped it of any credibility and enjoyment.

A scene involving the father of the family and a wood-chipper is long and drawn out, with mild torture being applied throughout. The scene is played out with pleas of mercy and faux bad guy distance. It has all the hallmarks of grudge-style match where two wrestlers meet to settle differences amicably without violence only for one to bluff and hit the other with a chair.

A scene where the killer sneaks his way back to the family’s house through highly inventive means reminded me of the The Undertaker (a wrestler) coming back to life after suffering a particularly bad blow. Again, for a film that sets itself up as a taut crime thriller, the theatrics of wrestling are used as a spectacle throughout.

Guns and knives are the weapons of choice for the most part of the film, but this doesn’t stop the two women of the family having a brawl with one body-slamming the other through the coffee table. As I understand it, female wrestling is now a core part of the WWE, with divas in skin-tight lycra slapping the crap out of each other. Quite what the appeal to teenage boys would be of this I have no idea.

However, my biggest issue of the film is its treatment of women and in particular their relationship to the film’s major bad guy. We’re shown scenes where female kidnap victims develop feelings for their captor and their captor reciprocating, fulfilling a dark male fantasy.

Another woman, again a victim but with breast implants, is strangled in the shower and put on display (as wrestlers are want to do when humiliating an opponent) in a quite frankly shocking display of sexualised violence.

Although I enjoyed the first 30 minutes of the film, I found the increasing undertones of juvenile and sexualised aggression distasteful.

What’s more, the fact that No One Lives is being used to graduate fans of wrestling to a more explicit and yet similarly-themed form of entertainment strikes me as insidious.

Like copies of Zoo and Nuts magazine, No One Lives is perhaps best left on the shelf.

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posted by JP at 2:58 am  

Frankenstein’s Army Review Film4 FrightFest 2013

Horror films are notorious for using titles that grab you and sell the concept of the movie.

Some may argue that films that use these sorts of titles are appealing to the lowest common denominator, while others see it as being genuinely helpful.

While the practice of killer titles isn’t exclusively the preserve of horror films (Driving Miss Daisy is a film about Miss Daisy being driven, plus, you know, deeper stuff), horror films with high-concept titles take the Ronseal approach and deliver little else beyond what they know a punter is actually picking up the title for.

Don’t be disappointed when you pick up Strippers vs. Werewolves and find it isn’t a metaphor for pay differentials between male and female employees doing the same job in Britain today. You get strippers and you get werewolves; that’s it.

And granted, if the film has enough verve and invention, then films based on their titles can be an awesome distraction for 90 minutes.

So when you come across a film called Frankenstein’s Army with accompanying Hellraiser-esque monsters themed around World War 2 on the posters, you want laughs, scares and every bloody variation on a monster slicing their way inventively through the hapless troops.

The problem with Frankenstein’s Army is that rather than accept it should be balls-mad from the beginning, it instead decides to spend the first 30 minutes following a bunch of troops you could care less about discovering “clues” about the monsters they will inevitably meet.

Cue pointless scenes of them discovering open graves, burnt skeletons with prosthetic appendages and lines like: “Who could have / what could have done this?” to which you feel like shouting: “Frankenstein’s Army!”

It’s only when the monsters start attacking – and the design of them is pretty cool – that you wake up. But this is short-lived as the final 30 minutes of the film is a boring exchange of words between the one survivor and the creator of the monsters. For a film that lasts 86 minutes you probably get 26 minutes of quality monster chase and scare action.

Had Frankenstein’s Army been a short film it would have been as punchy as its title.

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posted by JP at 4:37 pm  
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