Given the programming at this year’s Frightfest not only of a documentary about the political crackdown in the 1980s on the so-called ‘video nasties’, but also a remake of Meir Zarchi’s infamous I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and the presence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper, it seemed appropriate that the main talking-point of the festival should be the subject of film censorship. Unfortunately, the issue was raised not by what was screened but rather what was not screened: Srđan Spasojević’s extreme shocker A Serbian Film (2009), one which has played at festivals all around the world, was the subject of a query by Westminster Council who demanded that the film be sent to the BBFC for classification. The resulting judgement was that the film would require 49 cuts – amounting to nearly 4 minutes of footage – in order for it to be passed with an ’18’ certificate, a concession which the festival organisers refused to bend to, reluctant to have to be the only festival to screen an inferior, compromised version of the film.
This absence of the planned centrepiece of the Sunday evening – and arguably the entire festival itself – led to a feeling of disappointment with the programme as a whole; as much as Frightfests are remembered and talked-about for being the UK’s first-glimpses of instant classics such as Let The Right One In (2008) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), they are remembered as much for those more outré films which up-the-ante and leave festival-goers gleefully recounting to their fellow genre fans about what extreme experiences are to come – without A Serbian Film, there was to be no Martyrs (2008) or The Human Centipede (2009) equivalent this year.
Nevertheless, the festival still provided its usually eclectic abundance of splatter, shrieks and chuckles, and there were fewer complete duds this time around than I can recall in previous years – only Damned By Dawn (2009) stood out as the programme’s only completely unmitigated train-wreck. Opening film Hatchet II (2010) proved to be a suitably entertaining crowd-pleaser, a no-brains splatter-fest considerably improving on the general incompetence of its predecessor, while straightforward genre fare was also taken care of by Primal (2010), an Australian virus-in-the-wilderness film which handily reminded viewers that if one’s partner has turned into a flesh-eating monster one ought to reconsider one’s emotional attachments to them. The Dead (2009) was a grim, suitably tense and very handsomely photographed zombies-in-Africa piece which allowed the viewer a certain degree of freedom to draw allegories both to the continent’s AIDS epidemic and its sorry history of bloody civil wars, though its final reel lurched far too close to we-are-the-world sloganeering for my liking.
For those that wish to use the term (which is not to my liking), the ‘torture porn’ strain of US mainstream horror seemed to have reached a dead-end with some of the films this year. The remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010) was a predictably pointless update of what was a fairly pointless original, and served not to convey any moral message but instead a limp excuse for gang-rape victim Jennifer to serve up some stupidly exotic ways of enacting her revenge on her assailants. Worse though was The Tortured (2010), a morally idiotic story about a couple whose child is murdered and who decide to enact their own punishment on the perpetrator when the law appears to them too lenient on him. An awful sub-TV-movie opening makes way for some dreadful moralizing, the film labouring under the impression that no-one has ever considered that ‘violence-begets-violence’ could possibly not be such a perfect moral schemata. Should be avoided at all costs.
By comparison, the other US offerings were so benign as to inspire little other than indifference. The Eli Roth-penned The Last Exorcism (2010) proved to be a mildly-diverting mock-doc-shocker about a charlatan exorcist whose fraudulent operation is tested by what could be a genuine case of demonic possession in a young girl. Buried (2010), the last-minute replacement for A Serbian Film, was a sometimes blackly-comic slice of Iraqsploitation consisting of Ryan Reynolds trapped underground in a coffin-like box, and proved to be an entertaining-enough 90 minutes of high-concept which one ought not to have too many complaints about, save for the obvious observation that it doesn’t hold a candle (or indeed Zippo lighter) to the sheer terror of the similarly-themed albeit brief coda of George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (1988).
The late night films – whose chief demand at the end of the long day of screenings is largely to keep the viewer awake – were as appropriate as ever, though I admit didn’t stay around for opening night’s Dead Cert (2010) for fear of glimpsing everyone’s least-favourite Zoo lifestyle columnist Danny Dyer. Alien vs Ninja (2010) was a suitably barmy and self-descriptive Japanese martial arts/monster flick replete with Roger Corman-esque extra-terrestrials, while Hong Kong film Dream Home (2010) was basically a warning not to place too much stock in property ownership unless one is prepared to go to extreme measures to ensure a reasonable asking price. The real highlight was The Loved Ones (2009), a superbly trashy Australian horror-comedy about a young girl who, spurned by her choice of date for the high-school dance, goes to extreme measures with her father to ensure she has her desired night to remember. A memorably gaudy colour palette and a wonderfully demented lead performance from Robin McLeavy helped make this a strong festival favourite.
A mixed bag from the British films present in this year’s lineup; I didn’t stick around for 13Hrs (2010) or Dead Cert but was led to believe that neither was in any way remarkable. Isle of Dogs (2010) for its first half looked like being an awful London gangster film but oddly began to veer off in many different genre directions past its midpoint; ultimately it was largely ill-conceived and executed, but carried a strange charm with its idiosyncrasies. More convincing was Cherry Tree Lane (2010), Paul Andrew Williams’ home-invasion thriller. Unfolding in real-time and firmly grounded in tough realism, it successfully evoked a feeling of terror, and yet on reflection I felt it to be a rather empty, purposeless exercise; perhaps this was the point. Best of all was F (2010), which director Johannes Roberts described best as a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) relocated to a British secondary school; what I perceived as a slight lack of suspense within it was more than made up for by a superb, richly-detailed script and a host of pitch-perfect performances from its cast.
A large number of festival attendees were very taken with Monsters (2010), a concoction of bug movie, travelogue and romance story, but personally I found its characters to be disinteresting and any political subtext was diminished by a rather touristy, romanticised view of Latin America. A better examination of the region was provided in Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), a downbeat story of an impoverished family of cannibals subsisting in a Mexican city, and which payed much more attention to their internal familial dynamics and socio-economic milieu than the grisly details of their feeding habits. Also worthy of note was Red White & Blue (2010), a revenge drama set in Austin, Texas which also ran at a genre-defying stately pace and pushed character to the fore in a way that was admirable, if not always successful.
My favourite film of the long weekend proved to be the terribly-titled Bedevilled (2010), a superb revenge shocker from first-time director Jang Cheol-so. Bearing similar hallmarks to those of his South Korean compatriot Bong Joon-Ho – in particular the heavy influence of Imamura Shōhei – the film carefully illustrates the cultural differences between the very modern Seoul and a nearby secluded, pre-industrial island through the behavioural disparities between two long-separated childhood friends, Kim Bok-nam and Hae-won. Both, though, suffer victimisation at the hands of men, clearly showing the enduring subjugation of women in the country, in spite of its economic progress. The film becomes less interesting as it progresses towards a straightforward revenge narrative and the framing story of Hae-won is somewhat ineffective, but on the whole the storytelling is exquisite, and it proves to be yet another example of why we must continue to look eastwards for many of the best shockers around.
Five to watch:
Bedevilled (Jang Cheol-so, 2010, South Korea)
The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2009, Australia)
F (Johannes Roberts, 2010, UK)
Red White & Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010, USA)
Somos lo que hay [We Are What We Are] (Jorge Michel Grau, 2010, Mexico)