Five Things I Learned From Frightfest 2012 (and some questions too)

Tulpa (Federico Zampaglione, 2012, Italy)

The Italian horror renaissance is still some way off

When questioned about the state of his country’s national genre cinema, Friday’s special guest, legendary Italian director Dario Argento, described it as “a sleeping beauty”; from the efforts on display at this year’s festival, it seems that the blood may still have yet to have dried on the spindle. Exhibit A was the Manetti Bros’ PAURA 3D, a quasi-incarceration thriller remarkably devoid of anything remotely approaching suspense, and whose use of 3D seemed little more than a perfunctory means of making the film’s title sound snappier. Also screening was Federico Zampaglione’s TULPA, a neo-giallo whose lacklustre, bilingual (or, more accurately, a-lingual) dialogue and surprising lack of visual ambition will prove depressingly familiar to viewers acquainted with the more recent Argento-directed entries in the sub-genre. To make matters worse, Italy’s rich horror heritage was lovingly paid homage to in Peter Strickland’s superb, Polanskian BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, further confirming the sense that the long shadow of the country’s cinematic output still continues to eclipse the present paucity.

Torture is, mercifully, still off the US film agenda

Two years ago, the likes of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, VILE and THE TORTURED populated the festival’s programme, reflecting the continuing post-HOSTEL, post-SAW vogue for so-called ‘torture porn’ narratives. Last year’s programme saw a decrease in the number of such films, suggesting a decline in their popularity, and this would seem to be confirmed by this year’s selections which were again remarkably free from such sadistic revenge narratives. CHAINED director Jennifer Lynch elucidated the shift most obviously, clearly stating that she had modified the film’s original script in order to divert the story away from the familiar torture porn template. Elsewhere, the Twisted Twins’ AMERICAN MARY (notably dedicated to HOSTEL director Eli Roth) shaped towards such a narrative but pleasingly moved into other territories speedily enough, while other American studio films THE POSSESSION and SINISTER were remarkable only in terms of their sheer inoffensive conventionality. Indeed, it was the Italian PAURA 3D came the closest to broaching HOSTEL-like material, though ultimately contented itself with a handful of relatively restrained sequences of bound sadism.

Franchises don’t have to be formulaic

Most pleasant surprise of the weekend was [REC]³ GENESIS, not just in terms of sheer entertainment value, but also in its refusal to conform to the confining strictures of its own franchise. The sudden shift from the strict first-person perspective of its previous two installments (arguably the single defining characteristic of the series) via a transition marked by a near-iconoclastic destruction of a video camera, led to some viewers crying foul, but the overwhelming feeling was one of liberation, freeing up the storytelling from the gimmicky confines of POV storytelling, the entertainment potential of which had, frankly, already begun to wear thin even before the closing credits of the first film. Like the torture porn setup, which almost always essentially revolves around the same moral framework of ‘bad things can turn good people into evil ones’, there seems a natural limit to what can be achieved with the found footage setup, something which franchise co-creator Paco Plaza seems have acknowledged and attempted to look beyond here. Other franchises – take note.

The Seasoning House (Paul Hyett, 2012, UK)

Very Bad Things are still happening to women in horror films

As the festival progressed the hashtag #rapefest began to be shuttled around Twitter, inaugurated by the critic Kim Newman in response to this tweet by the screenwriter James Moran which decried the apparent ubiquity of sexual assaults on females taking place on-screen, including in THE SEASONING HOUSE, HIDDEN IN THE WOODS and V/H/S on the first two days alone. Women have always had a rough time in horror – the presence at the festival of Dario Argento, a director frequently accused on misogyny in his gleeful mistreatment of his film’s female characters ought to have served as a reminder of this – and one doesn’t need to consult a copy of Carol J Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws to be able to come up with a substantial list of rape-based texts.

There is a wider, more complex debate to be had about whether violence against women on screen represents institutionalised misogyny or just a convenient cinematic shorthand for certain types of vulnerability, but with regard to sexual violence, female sexual assualt seems ultimately still considered something of a ‘safe’ transgression in comparison to that of the male (DELIVERANCE, in this regard, still feels an isolated anomaly rather than a ‘game changer’). Naturally, the context of individual films matters; worst offender this year was the odious HIDDEN IN THE WOODS, which fudged (at best) the issue by falling prey to the same kind of lecherous leering at its young female leads that its narrative was ostensibly critiquing.

Interestingly, two further examples offered differing takes on similar ideas: Paul Hyett’s THE SEASONING HOUSE and Jennifer Lynch’s CHAINED. Both films created hermetically sealed spheres in which women are ritualistically abused: the former set in a brothel during the Yugoslav Wars, the latter in contemporary America, and both viewed through the eyes of young protagonists who find themselves in moral complicity with violent, sadistic patriarchs.

Both are strongly visceral, challenging works, but while they have other significant differences – the former has a more pronounced fairytale-nightmare feel and the protagonist is female, compared to the more brutal-realist latter which centres on a male – what seems most pertinent is the difference in historical context, and it prompts wider questions about the degree to which they are likely to provoke controversy. My impression is that Lynch’s film, because of its more familiar setting, will be the subject of greater problems, the implication being that the ‘otherness’ of Hyett’s film somehow has greater leeway for the atrocities it portrays. Ought this necessarily be the case? Does a context which distances the viewer result in harder content becoming more easily digestible?

Maniac (Franck Khalfoun, 2012, France | USA)

It’s a fine line between stupid and, er, clever

The main talking-point of the festival appeared to be MANIAC, the Alexander Aja-penned remake of the 1980 psycho-thriller, which employed a strict first-person POV virtually throughout. Such an aesthetic choice, coupled with the woozy ambience and particularly gruesome details, appeared to make it the most effectively disturbing film of the long weekend, but also seemed to render the material genuinely problematic.

Subjective viewpoints are, of course, nothing new in horror cinema as evidenced by the post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT vogue for found footage shockers. What makes MANIAC unusual is that, unlike those films, there is no mediation between the audience and the protagonist via the implication of a video camera recording the action; we are (one assumes) sharing exactly the perception of reality which the character is experiencing, placing the film closer to the more ‘purely’ subjective mode which includes Zac Baldwin’s HANAH’S GIFT, Gaspar Noe’s ENTER THE VOID, and even the television sitcom PEEP SHOW.

The urtext for such material in horror is Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (though, once again, its use of POV is restricted to what is seen either through the viewfinder of Mark Lewis’ camera, or on subsequent playbacks of his recordings). The film famously provoked revulsion on its release but has since gone on to inspire countless theoretical analyses, most notably the work of Laura Mulvey, who identifies it as a significant text in terms of the way it plays with notions of spectatorial identification, forcing the viewer into a complicity with its protagonist Mark’s brutal crimes.

The original MANIAC, as noted by Kim Newman, was a retrograde return to the deformed monster meme of early 20th century horror, a mode which PEEPING TOM, and the same year’s PSYCHO, had subverted two decades earlier by presenting its murderous protagonists as somehow sympathetic victims. This new MANIAC, however, is feels more ambivalent. The casting of as unshakeably likeable a screen presence as Elijah Wood would suggest the presentation of the protagonist in a positive light, as do the offered explanations for his actions (uncaring, promiscuous mother; loneliness; gender and sexuality confusion), however simplistic and cod-psychological they feel.

Yet there is a conflict between this feeling of sympathy and the extreme violence which is being presented onscreen. Is this intended as a kind-of absolution for his crimes? There seems no conclusive answer, and intertextual nods to the diverse likes of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, TAXI DRIVER and THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI only serve to muddy the waters, hinting that perhaps he ought to be viewed as nihilistic villain, deluded anti-hero or merely criminally insane. That there appears to be no satisfactory answer to this contradiction at the film’s core makes it unclear whether the questions the POV ploy prompts are there by design, and whether the form single-handedly raises the same schlock content of the original towards something more metaphysically disturbing and challenging for the spectator.

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