Thursday, 17 September 2020

FRIGHTFEST 2020 - The Round-up

Forced to move online after the Covid-19 outbreak scuppered plans for the usual August Bank Holiday horror film extravaganza, this year's Arrow Video Frightfest might have been a compromised experience that missed out on some of the particular joys of the festival (getting to know the people sat next to you far too well, witty horror decal t-shirts, the odour of Lynx Africa), but was still something of a triumph. Here's my thoughts on what some of the films had to offer.


12 Hour Shift

For those who don't have jobs with unsociable working hours the festival started on the Thursday night with an Evolution of Horror presented pub quiz and the premiere of the slightly ropey looking Sky Sharks, but for me the festival kicked off on the Friday with Brea Grant's 12 Hour Shift. Starring indie horror royalty Angela Bettis (best known for May and her lead role in the TV version of Carrie that people forget exists) as Mandy, a tired nurse who supplements her income by selling organs on the black market. On this particular night in question, things go wrong for Mandy when her cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth), in charge of the collection and delivery of these organs, loses a kidney in transit. Rather than sacrifice one of her own to the local crime boss (Mick Foley), Regina returns to the hospital to get a replacement kidney by any means necessary.

12 Hour Shift is a pleasingly over the top 'night in the life of' a bunch of criminals, low-lifes, and people just trying to get by, that takes a simple premise and adds layers and layers of mishaps and unexpected twists and turns to deliver a funny, ridiculous, horror farce with great performances from an ensemble cast. Bettis is solid as the world-weary former drug addict Mandy, but a lot of the film is stolen by her co-star Farnworth, who plays Regina like a prototype Harley Quinn, making the film all the better for it.


The Horror Crowd

Frightfest doesn't just stick to narrative features, and regularly offers up some documentary gems that you won't catch anywhere else. That might sound like a dig, but oftentimes the docs are so niche in focus that they're solely aimed at a horror festival audience. One such example is Ruben Pla's The Horror Crowd, which sees director/presenter/interviewer Pla reach out to the many contacts he's made during his time as a jobbing actor in LA's independent horror scene. For that reason, the level of fame of his interviewees varies wildly, from established directors like Russell Mulcahy and Darren Lynn Bousman, modern horror icons like Lin Shaye, to lower budget filmmakers like Big Ass Spider! and Lavantula's Mike Mendez. In its favour, Pla seems to be over the moon to be acquainted with everyone he talks to, and gives no preferential screen time to anyone.

It's harder to tell this year with the festival taking place in living rooms rather than Leicester Square, but there's an old adage about Frightfest that when the filmmakers appear to introduce their films to an audience, the nicer and more enthusiastic they are in person, the worse their film will turn out to be. I've witnessed this with my own two eyes, but maybe with the social distancing something is off this year, as Pla seems like a genuinely lovely guy, and his film was perfectly decent too. It's not going to win awards for documentary innovation, but it was never striving for that either, with Pla never fully settling on whether his place should be in front of or behind the camera as he works out his style along the way. The Horror Crowd's sole aim is putting a camera in front of Pla's friends and asking them to talk about their experiences working in the (usually low budget) world of horror movie making. That the spectrum of talking heads is so varied gives the film a unique angle, and there's some great insights from filmmakers like Ernest Dickerson, and the producer of the Final Destination, Craig Perry. It might not be the most elegantly delivered film, but a lot of the content is sound enough. It's a bit like Frightfest in that regard - bringing together a collection of oddballs with a shared love of horror and letting them compete over who is the bigger horror nut.


Blind

One of the most hyped films of the festival after the trailer revealed a genuinely intriguing villain in the mannequin-face masked Pretty Boy, sadly Blind ended up being an abysmal experience. When a routine laser eye surgery goes wrong, actress Faye (Sarah French) confines herself to her Hollywood Hills home, unaware that she is being stalked by a masked intruder. Her biggest chance of accepting her blindness comes from her new best friend Sophia (Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2's Caroline Williams) and the kind, mute Luke (Tyler Gallant). Hmm, mute you say? I wonder if that's going to play a crucial part in the story later on.

Blind suffers from a complete lack of research into laser eye surgery, the day to day lives of blind people, and it would appear, scriptwriting, so excruciating an experience this turned out to be. Lead actress Sarah French doesn't appear to have ever seen a blind person, or even another actor ever play a blind person (apart from maybe a guest spot on Saved By The Bell), so poor is her approximation of how she should communicate with others or act in her surroundings. The same goes for Caroline Williams (also a producer of the film) as Sophia, who finds it appropriate to caress the face of a mute man to assess his attractiveness. Add to this Luke's fake-sounding robotic voicebox, a panty-sniffing sushi delivery boy, no attempt at subtlety whatsoever and what you have is a film that defies the possibilities of suspension of disbelief.

As I said, there's something genuinely creepy about the mannequin-faced bad guy of the film, and his actions as he becomes more involved in the story are just plain weird; but even that image becomes neutered by the sheer terribleness of the film and a finale that features the most laughably contrived monologues I've ever seen. Light on horror and heavy on unintentional laughs, the biggest scare is that the film ends with "Blind...Part One." In retrospect I should have heeded the warning of The Greasy Strangler's Michael St. Michaels who appears early on in the film to state "this is bullshit". Right you are, sir.


Dark Place

The last film of Saturday was not a feature film outing for Garth Marenghi, but was a portmanteau collection of horror shorts made by indigenous Australians. Five films all of varying length, the filmmaking style and quality also differed from film to film, from the first short, Scout, a powerful but miserable tale of sex trafficking and the treatment of aboriginal women by white men, to the more comedic and extreme final film, Killer Native, that was like a Sam Raimi re-telling of The Nightingale. Often pulpy, outlandish and playful with genre, it's a nice collection of calling cards for a new generation of filmmakers.


The Clapboard Jungle

Sunday's line-up was an eclectic mix of filmmaking documentaries and topical infection horrors, the day starting with Justin McConnell's behind the scenes diary of the making of his feature film, Lifechanger, that appeared at Frightfest a couple of years back. Like Ruben Pla before him, McConnell has roped in some of his connections to provide heir own insights into the world of movie making, with Guillermo del Toro front and centre to start the film off. McConnell info dumps us at the start to bring us up to where his career is headed at that point, acknowledging that he's "not really anybody" and that there are thousands of other filmmakers like him.

What sets McConnell apart is the sheer amount of dedication he puts into his work, including this film which was shot over a number of years whilst he worked on other things. He comes across as ambitious and driven, but knows the game well enough to know it doesn't always come down to talent, and that a heavy dose of luck is needed. A horror filmmaker himself (as well as occasional film programmer at the Toronto After Dark festival), but the issues he talks about here like the death of cinema and the competitive and over-saturated market are applicable to all areas of the industry. Its biggest value is as a cautionary tale to those bold enough to try and navigate through the low budget film industry, as he takes us with him to try and find backers for his various projects, going through the hell of the sales booths at Cannes and Frontieres at Fantasia Fest, all in the hope that something will gain traction.

There's some absolute gems of interviews from genre filmmakers like Tom Holland (the Fright Night one, not the Spider-Man one), Sam Firstenberg, Richard Stanley, Barbara Crampton and Larry Cohen, who are all candid about their experiences and hopeful that a young filmmaker like Justin can make it. For anyone considering becoming a filmmaker who thinks they've got what it takes to survive in the industry, this doc will be a real eye opener.


Hail to the Deadites

The list of horror film franchises with fervent fanbases is endless, but unlike the attention given to the fans of other genres, such as Star Wars and Star Trek fans, there's not too many documentaries that look into the eccentricities of their most devoted horror nerds. Hail to the Deadites aims to do that with Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, following the experience of a number of fans who tour around the many horror conventions that take place across the United States, all in the hope of meeting their idols - in this case, Evil Dead lead actor, Bruce Campbell.

At first what is most noticeable about HTTD is that it features no footage from the film franchise, but cleverly gets around this expensive road bump by including fan-made animations and recreations of some of the most famous scenes, even taking in a detour to Evil Dead: The Musical (respect to the producer of the show who earnestly states to the cast after a well received performance, "we're changing lives"). There's a sense that this has changed shape from its original form, almost like someone has taken the raw footage collected by someone else and given their best shot at repackaging it into something more palatable (including an incredibly cheesy voice-over), but for what is essentially a fan made movie it makes the most of the access it manages to get (a trip to Bruce Campbell's brother's house proves surprisingly fruitful), even if it is oddly out of date, covering the return of the franchise on TV in Ash vs The Evil Dead in 2015. It by no means needed to be a feature length endeavour and will appeal to absolutely no-one who isn't a mega fan of the Evil Dead films, but has a sweet, go-getter charm to it that gets bonus points for managing to snare the curmudgeonly but playful Campbell for an interview.


Two Heads Creek

On at the same time as HTTD was Two Heads Creek, an Australian set comedy horror that follows a brother and sister in search of their birth mother in a small, stereotypical Aussie town. I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of Two Heads Creek for review, but it's proven a tough nut to crack that I've gone back and forth over a few times. Apparently well received by most that appreciated its comic gore and Shaun of the Dead vibes, for me it proved simply too problematic to enjoy without wanting to call it out on its many transgressions. Yes, I completely dug the over the top gore, delivered by a huge piece of machinery designed to turn people into mulch, and there's a number of witty one-liners, most of which are delivered by co-lead Kathryn Wilder as a pompous princess out of her depth in a country she can't relate to; but where the film proved problematic for me was in its approach to race and where to draw the line at co-opting cultural stereotypes. The film starts in Brexit Britain, making the decision for the two Polish siblings to leave an unwelcoming and hate-fuelled city an easy one, but then leans far too heavily on portraying the Australians as simpletons.

The Outback and similarly secluded Aussie locations have proven fertile ground for horror films like Wolf Creek, feeding off the fears of backpackers entering into the unknown, and Australia has a history of commenting on its own issues with race in films like Dead End Drive-In, and it's fair to say that there's a playful relationship between Australia and the UK where a certain amount of gentle ribbing is allowed. But in its effort to be as shocking as possible, Two Heads Creek often crosses the line between the territories, painting the Australian inhabitants as boomerang throwing, XXXX drinking, in-bred, Australia Day celebrating dimwits, and treating its sizeable asian cast as little more than a punchline.

Following in the muddy footsteps of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of Wax, Deliverance, and other Hicksploitation films, it may not be a sub-genre that's known for its subtlety or for painting non-city dwellers in the most flattering of lights, but aside from the moments of comedy and extreme gore that will appeal to a wide audience, Two Heads Creek ended up having too many issues for it to be a place I'd want to visit again anytime soon.


Hall

It was bound to happen, really. Just as life imitates art, so does art imitates life, and so here we have Hall, an infection horror set in the confines of a hotel. It hardly has the most exciting of titles, but the pared back name brings with it the promise of a no-fuss horror that would make the most of its location. Sadly, this did not turn out to be the case with Hall, which follows the efforts of a battered wife trying to flee her husband with her small daughter, just as the outbreak occurs. Concurrently in the neighbouring room, a Japanese woman is trying to escape from equal danger, stalked by people from her past her want to hurt her.

Firstly, on the positive side there's some decent effects work in Hall that draw you in during the many flash-forwards the film includes in its opening act, and the cast, including an impressive child actor who appears to have been cast based on her resemblance to Heather from Poltergeist, seem well up for a grisly night in the hotel. Unfortunately the filmmakers don't capitalise on the set-up they have, with the film moving at an increasingly glacial pace once the infection sets in. More foreboding than scary, it does offer some jumps in the last 15 minutes as the abusive husband hunts down his wife and child, but a late in the day shot at saying something satirical doesn't really land, and a post-credits TV report hat ups the conspiracy factor is a tedious information dump. A film with promise and some impressive visuals, but without the story to make it into anything memorable.


A Ghost Waits

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Frightfest that endured this year is the word of mouth buzz that accompanies some films. This was the case with A Ghost Waits, which if it had been shown in the bricks and mortar cinemas would have had queues around the block. Originally screened at the Glasgow Frightfest event that took place at the start of the year before Covid, this low budget, black and white love story was brought back to this festival to allow the main festival audience a chance to see it. One of the convenient parts of this year's festival was that films weren't going to reach capacity, and so decisions on which films to see could be made late in the day, which is exactly what I did when I switched my choice over from Aquaslash (great title but apparently terrible), to A Ghost Waits a few minutes before the start time. And I'm glad I did, as it's a delightful film that could warm the cold, dead heart of any hardcore horror fan.

MacLeod Andrews stars as Jack, a building surveyor who crashes at a perpetually vacant property when he finds himself in need of a place to stay. He soon discovers that the reason tenants keep breaking their lease is because of the spectral presence of Muriel (Natalie Walker), who is purposely scaring people away to keep the place empty as part of her afterlife career. Engaging her in conversation when her attempt to spook him out of the place fails, they connect over chats about the afterlife, God, the movie Memento, and Johnny Cash. However, when the spectral agency she works for hear about her failure to remove Jack from the building, they send a ringer to finish the job.

A Ghost Waits might have more in common with a Duplass Brothers film than a traditional horror film, but there's enough horror flavour added to it to give it a unique edge. Sure, it's not perfect and the budgetary restraints are regularly plain to see (Muriel's ghostly make-up is little more than caked on white face paint and heavy direct lighting), but it's sweet as all hell, and in lead MacLeod Andrews has a future star in the making, such is his ability to take what could be sugary dialogue and make it believable and often moving. I'm not sure what the release plans are for it, but it's sure to hit a streaming platform at some point, and is well worth your time.

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And so there you have it. By no means exhaustive coverage of the festival, but hopefully a helpful guide to what to track down when they appear in cinemas, in DVD stores, or online over the next few months. Kudos to the Frightfest team for pulling together a great selection of titles to view, and for how smoothly the whole event went. It may have been missing some of the more livelier aspects that come with attending a horror film festival, but where it counted the most - delivering a memorable array of titles for horror fans to gorge upon - it was a great success. I'll see you next year, Frightfest...


hopefully.


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