Perhaps reflecting our more economically-uncertain times, this year’s Frightfest felt a little quieter than in recent years. Not in terms of turnout – which seemed another increment on the festival’s upward spiral of attendees – but in terms on the films on offer: fewer world premieres than we’ve been used to, and no defining stand-out film around which things felt centred. But if there was a more low-key feeling to the programme, then it ought to be said that this was also a more fun year than has been had in recent festivals too: yes, still the residual dregs of unpleasant torture porn films which had appeared to be on their last legs last year, but also signs of a new playfulness in both US and European horrors. While not necessarily offering anything from major household-name directors, the presence of mature works from two significant young auteurs also offered hopeful signposts for genre filmmaking.
The opening and closing films proved something of a disappointment. Opener Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) offered further evidence of diminishing returns from the “Guillermo Del Toro presents…” stable, failing to decide whether it was a serious or silly examination of childhood fears, and ending up being effective in neither regard; a Joe Dante would have made a much more effectively creepy film for kids AND grown-ups, while still ducking under the PG-13 bar that this film tellingly didn’t limbo underneath in the US. Closer A Lonely Place to Die (2011) offered some viscerally exciting location-based thrills while still abseiling around the Scottish Highlands in its first half, but badly mishandled the use of its villains, and its increasingly colander-like plot ended up in an unsatisfying heap by the end.
Other British offerings this year also seemed intent on making the countryside seem so macabre as to make those planning their holidays forgo a staycation and fork out for the extra airfare to get to the safety of the Seychelles. The Holding (2011) played like a gloomily-lit blood-soaked episode of Emmerdale, replete with a suitably theatrical soap-opera-deranged villain, but despite an effectively moody tone and visual style, ultimately was let down by a babbling, uninteresting plot. Inbred (2011), by contrast, offered over the top splatter and crass humour against the same backdrop of tractors and livestock, but a hokey script, sloppy direction and barn-full of derivative sub-League of Gentlemen cliches were redolent of its general air of laziness. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree (2010) at least had a sense of camp in its transporting of Bible Belt missionaries to a remote village in the Borders, but couldn’t quite seem to sustain any kind of tension for its duration. Most solidly-satisfying was A Night in the Woods (2011), which transcended its logical inconsistencies and familiar Blair Witchiness with its well-drawn Polanskian trio of mutually-suspicious protagonists and an interesting play on notions of spectatorial identification in such found footage matter.
The two other, more significant British films both attempted part-satires of the current recession with their focus on upwardly-mobile but underlyingly-insecure protagonists. The Glass Man (2011) saw its lead character mysteriously lose his job for unspecified transgressions, making his precarious financial position even worse, threatening everything he has based his superficial bourgeois life around. Likewise, Kill List (2011) saw a suburban, comfortably middle-class former hitman forced to take another mysterious new job when his money dries up. Both films overlap in their delineation of a deeply-complacent milieu driven to despair, violence and fantasy worlds by financial ruin, though diverged in tone: the former’s increasingly mysterious but strangely offbeat feel is matched only partially by a rather threadbare narrative ultimately short of enough ideas – essentially an over-stretched short film. The latter exhibits Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley’s unique gift for capturing an offbeat naturalism seldom seen in anywhere else in British cinema, but its narrative twists ultimately feel undeserved and unsatisfactory. I have no doubts he will one day make an outright masterpiece, but this isn’t it.
The American offerings this year were noticeably lighter in tone than last year’s, and captured a real sense of fun in the genre. Final Destination 5 (2011) proved to be the most confidently relaxed, assured of the franchise, offering expected but still entertaining Heath Robinson-like convoluted schadenfreudic silliness, even if the films have now ended up playing more like workplace hazard identification training videos than anything genuinely terrifying. Fright Night (2011), an unpretentious modern update of the Eighties classic, was more enjoyable a remake than expected, with terrifically good supporting work from both Colin Farrell and David Tennant, while DeadHeads (2011), a sweet-natured and even strangely poignant “good zombie” take on the rom-zom-com was only let down only by a slightly lacklustre, unfocused narrative. Best of all was Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010), not the “Deliverance with dick jokes” that I had initially feared, but instead a playfully subversive flip of urbanoia cliches, illustrating that rednecks are in fact loveable and misunderstood rather than murderous monsters. Y’all.
Amidst this light-heartnedness, torture did still remain on some filmmakers’ agendas: Rogue River (2010) was a predictable rural-incarceration-by-numbers thriller, though did have an air of mischief with regard to its more transgressive content. Urban Explorer (2011) disappointingly threw away its promising strangers-down-a-drain conceit to veer into over-familiar Hostel territory, but the director does manage to sustain an admirable air of tension with such material. Panic Button (2011), a British internetsploitation took aim at zeitgeist-y Facebook-related business, but a promising, witty start swiftly descends into unimaginative turgidity. Vile (2011) at least aimed for Cube-like social comment with its setup of strangers forced to torture each other in order to escape a preposterous predicament, but the script sees them far too quickly and eagerly turn to barbarism, making it seem that the they must already have been predisposed towards particularly creative sadism, or at very least adept at finding new uses for mundane items such as cheese graters.
The midnight movies, usually a personal festival highlight, proved something of a disappointment this year. Two were anthologies: The Theatre Bizarre (2011) barely sketched its wrap-around storyline, and its individual segments were on the whole fairly dire, though Douglas Buck’s asynchronous The Accident episode was moving and lyrical enough to be a standalone piece. Better was Chillerama (2011), which had a stronger framing story and much better ideas, including the entertaining high-concept likes of “Anne Frankenstein” and “Wadzilla” – a giant killer spermatozoon. Inexplicably popular was Detention (2011), an incessantly irritating pile-up of pop culture name-dropping, its razor-thin superficiality apparently protesting some kind of postmodern profundity. Operating at such a frenetic pace that makes Hausu look like it was directed by Béla Tarr, character and plot ended up playing less second fiddle than fourth triangle to the relentless referential landslide. Is this where cinema is headed? If you want a picture of this future, imagine a 1992 Smash Hits annual slapping into a human face – forever.
Three mainland European horrors coincidentally all offered mythologies relocated to the present day as means to torment their characters. Best was TrollHunter (2010) in which a Norwegian documentary crew tail the titular character who, it turns out, is employed by the government to keep the existence of trolls a secret; a little too episodic, but it eeked out plenty of fun toying with the various aspects of this folklore, as well as poking fun at bureaucratic red tape and incompetent civil servants. Dick Maas’ Sint (2010) was an enjoyable-enough yarn suggesting what St Nicholas is really after when he comes down Dutch chimneys at Christmas, while first-ever Swiss genre mouthful Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps (2010) by contrast used an old myth to perform a more serious examination of patriarchy and the idealisation and subjugation of women. Handsomely shot amidst stunning Alpine scenery and warmly-inviting interiors, only an over-long running time and a needlessly convoluted non-linear narrative marred the effectiveness of its moral message.
The major highlights of the festival, though, were two offerings by two young, distinctive American auteurs. The Innkeepers (2011) proved to Ti West’s best directorial effort to date, a creepy old hotel film more in keeping with is-it-or-isn’t-it-real likes of The Haunting and The Innocents, and boasting some superbly warm, endearing character work from its two leads. But the pick of the festival was Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011), a tremendously potent blend of suburban satire, darker-than-dark fairytale and mischievous black humour whose cumulative power was so strong it left me something of a wreck by the time it had reached its poetic, if horrifying, denouement. Perhaps not a surprise that the director of the still-astonishing May could create something so simultaneously beautiful, utterly horrifying and emotionally wrenching, but that makes it no less of an achievement; the best film of this Frightfest, or any other for that matter.
Five to watch:
The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011, USA)
The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011, USA)
Tucker & Dale vs Evil (Eli Craig, 2010, USA | Canada)
TrollHunter (André Øvredal, 2010, Norway)
Fright Night (Craig Gillespie, 2011, USA | India)