Frightfest 2009 Roundup

There are a many reasons why Frightfest is a joy to attend, but chief among them is the chance to watch films with an appreciative, knowledgeable and attentive audience of like-minded horror fans. This struck me most during Saturday night’s screening of Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009), a blisteringly bad addition to the Italian director’s ignoble recent run of duds, when, roughly thirty minutes into the running time, the audience seemed communally to begin to delight in all of its awfulness. In different environs, say at a poorly-attended multiplex showing or a home viewing on DVD, the film would easily be written-off as one of the most poorly-executed thrillers ever made, yet somehow this mass realization allowed the audience positively to revel in its terribleness, rendering it one of the most enjoyable screenings of the long weekend. A unique experience. Readers are advised to avoid the film at all costs, however.

The film of the weekend in terms of sheer quality was undoubtedly Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat (2008), a wonderfully imaginative anthology of five stories set on Halloween night, all delicately woven together in the manner of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). Director Dougherty, a frequent collaborator with Bryan Singer, uses as his starting points different aspects of the traditional Halloween night and weaves them into a series of modern folkloric tales stuffed with viciously black humour, visual grace and storytelling invention, and the result is an absolute joy from start to finish. A genre classic which I defy anyone not to fall instantly head over heels in love with.

By way of comparison, also Halloween-themed and by far the worst film I had the misfortune of watching was Adam Gierasch’s remake of Night of the Demons (2009). The very antithesis of Dougherty’s film: a shallow, hugely unimaginative and derivative snoozefest, apparently swimming in the same sea of retarded sexuality as the songwriting members of Spinal Tap. The only entertainment I could find was in gawping at how, in the 18 years since Terminator 2 (1991), Edward Furlong has managed to metamorphose into K.D. Lang.

British films had a strong showing on the Monday night closing the festival, with two major world premieres. First up was Heartless (2009), the long-awaited new film from The Reflecting Skin (1990) director Philip Ridley; set recognizably in what David Cameron would have us believe is ‘Broken Britain’, the story is of a young man with a large heart-shaped birthmark on his face who is led into a pact with the devil to rid him of it and allow him to fall in love. The film is highly praise-worthy: imaginative ideas, genuine filmmaking flair and a unique, distinctly British feel to proceedings made it a rewarding watch, and festival organizer Alan Jones described it as his favourite film of the year. While I felt that it was not without its clunky moments, it is undeniably a bold piece of work from one of our cinematic national treasures, and for this reason, as well as for a fantastic cameo by Eddie Marsan, I recommend it.

The other major British release, and the one film I went into with most reservations about, was The Descent: Part 2. When it was announced that a sequel to Neil Marshall’s excellent caving shocker was in production my immediate reaction was that it would be pointless, and the double whammy of Marshall relinquishing the directorship as well as the tampering with the haunting ending of the original made me intensely wary of the project. After a worryingly shaky start, however, the sequel proves itself more than a match for its predecessor: taking the Aliens (1985) route of sending the sole survivor back down to locate her missing friends, the film successfully recreates the claustrophobia and character-driven tensions that marked out the original. This is in no small part down to the presence of director Jon Harris, editor and second unit on Marshall’s film, who not only creates a feeling of continuity between the films, but also imbues this one with some cleverly thought-out new ideas and an occasional skilful insertion of black comedy to proceedings. All-in-all a worthy sequel, one as good as a fan of the original could hope for.

Outside of the British and American films, as usual there was an array of interesting international films. The Miike Takashi award for most out-there film clearly would be handed to Dutch filmmaker Tom Six for his truly bizarre The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009). The synopsis tells pretty much all you need to know: a brilliant German surgeon who specialises in separating Siamese twins kidnaps and incarcerates three foreign tourists in the basement of his house with one intention: to graft them together anus-to-mouth to form the titular creation. The implications of such a creature are suitably explored, and though the film may be found to be lacking in a number of quarters, the sheer loopiness of the idea is enough to make it linger unpleasantly in the memory for quite some time.

A highlight for many attendees appeared to be the UK première of Swedish international hit Millennium: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), a more elegant if less descriptive title than the original Män som hatar kvinnor [Men who hate women]. The film, based on the posthumously-published bestseller by Stieg Larsson, is an effective twisty-turny thriller with two likeable, memorable lead characters and tears through its 150 minute duration surprisingly quickly. My reservation would be that there is simply too much typical thriller chaff – hunching over laptops, blowing up photographs, digging in archives – for it to be particularly memorable, but if it sticks to the rules then admittedly it does so particularly well. Already a massive hit all over Europe, the source book’s popularity should ensure crossover appeal when the film is released here in April.

One of the most anticipated films in this year’s line-up was Tommy Wirkola’s Død snø [Dead Snow] (2009) and, after something of an unpromising start, the film delivered enough humour, gore and grisly deaths that one would hope for come the eventual arrival of the promised flesh-eating Nazi zombies roaming around a snowbound Norwegian forest. By contrast, Australian thriller Coffin Rock (2009) was a disappointment: a good premise – involving an infertile couple and an increasingly deranged young stalker – as well as a suitably gritty visual aesthetic set up tension promisingly, but the over-the-top pantomime madness of the villain began quickly to annoy and alienate. Saturday night climaxed with the deliriously unhinged Black (2009), which began as a French heist film, but began dipping its toe into genres as diverse as Blaxploitation, camp sixties thrillers and – amazingly – sci-fi animorphism; audience members fading at the 2am start time were quickly shocked out of their slumbers.

A final word for Dread (2009), perhaps the most divisive film of the festival, which screened on the Sunday night. Based on a Clive Barker short story, it centres on three students who embark on a college project involving video interviews with their peers to investigate the nature of their deepest fears, but inevitably the subject of their investigations begins to turn towards themselves and their own revelations lead to predictably messy consequences. Moving at times at a glacial pace, the film seemed to lose viewers still pumped up from the din of Night of the Demons, but I found it to be an intriguing, unashamedly psychological thriller – not a classic by any means, but in tone reminiscent of Crash (1996)-period Cronenberg and with a satisfyingly bleak denouement. An original story, and one which deserves to find an audience.

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