United by an insatiable thirst for unbridled gore and spine-chilling scares, horror hounds and sick puppies from all corners of the country have returned to Leicester Square for another annual round of carnage candy. It's scarcely four pm, but the gilded and crimson-carpeted halls of the Empire cinema are already abuzz with excitement as the salivating hordes gathered here swarm toward the main screen in hot anticipation of Guillermo del Toro's 'Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark'. Regrettably, Spain's premier master of horror fails to put in an appearance but delivers an amusing on-screen introduction to this stylish old school chiller. On remaking the 1973 TV movie original, del Toro reveals, “It's a movie that I love deeply that I saw over thirty years ago when I was a wee lad. It scared the crap out of me – but don't worry, I still have plenty of crap left,” he jests. “My version is a throwback to a classic, haunted house style of movie. I should add that it's not gory, so I'd like to apologise for that.”Film4 FrightFest 2011
But for all his humble, understated apologies, Guillermo's latest offering is a deliciously gothic, claustrophobic feast for the senses. And despite being sparse on blood, it's the Hitchcockian suggestion of carnage that's tailor-made to shred the nerves thanks to a wealth of grisly sound effects. Centred on troubled eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison), the story plays out within the dreary confines of a nineteenth century mansion that's been restored by the girl's father and his much-resented new girlfriend. Having been foisted off onto her father by a negligent mother, Sally quickly discovers dark forces at work within her gloriously creepy new home. Twisting the once-innocent tooth fairy fable into a ghoulish horror bearing “wrinkles, claws and teeth,” this is classic del Toro that, like 'The Orphanage' and 'The Devil's Backbone' before it, is loaded with dark atmospherics and tense, edge-of-seat shocks. Convincingly petulant throughout, Bailee Madison puts on an impressively organic show, while Katie Holmes delivers a dynamic performance as a compassionate character determined to rescue young Sally from her fiendish tormentors. And in typically bleak del Toro tradition, there's no trace of a happy ending in this grim, beautifully rendered modern fairytale.
Bailee Madison In 'Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark'
An altogether lighter proposition, 'Final Destination 5' is a merciless exercise in splatter that's positively crammed with intricate, yet frequently unlikely death sequences. Furnished with a generous dash of dark comedy, this big-budget shocker features just about every imaginable method of meeting one's maker, including an unexpectedly perilous acupuncture session. With additional box office gold in the form of the series' much-loved coroner and “creepy guy” extraordinaire Bludworth (Tony “Candyman” Todd), it's a vast improvement on the franchise's fourth outing. But however big the budget that's been quite literally splashed around, much of the menace and realism of the first 2000 instalment has been undeniably diluted. Most particularly, leading man Nicholas D'Agosto is a painfully two-dimensional, clean-cut substitute for the depth and edgy outcast charm Devon Sawa evoked as the series' original reluctant psychic. But be sure to leave your brain (and any other such vital organs) at the door, and there's plenty of gory thrills to be had from start to epic, ultra-violent finish.
'Final Destination 5'
Featuring the finest directorial names in underground horror, The Theatre Bizarre rolls up and rounds off FrightFest's opening night in sinister, stomach-churningly explicit style. Bound together by a longtime love of Grand Guignol theatre, seven cutting-edge filmmakers set out on a mission to shock that's triumphantly accomplished with a total of six, deliciously twisted little tales. But besides the movie's much-publicised shock factor, each individual short makes for an intriguing glimpse into mankind's darkest, most desperate hours. As the pre-movie introduction reveals, this very human angle appears to have been an utterly coincidental move. Lead director David Gregory reveals, “Funnily enough, quite a few of the stories are about relationship breakups, even though we never actually discussed this theme beforehand.” On Tom Savini's ('Night Of The Living Dead') anticipated short, 'Wet Dreams', David continues, “Tom was yearning to direct again. Horror fans from our generation grew up loving his work so it was a privilege to work with him on this project.” Taking the mike, fellow filmmaker Karim Hussain speaks briefly on creating 'Subconscious Cruelty'. The notoriously edgy director laughs, “Well, I really love women and I really love eyeballs so I figured maybe the world needed this. It was one of those things that was steaming away in the drawer for a long time and I'm so glad I finally had the chance to do it.”
The Theatre Bizarre
Among the most memorable segments of this creepy compilation, Richard Stanley's The Mother Of Toads kicks off with a slimy little number inspired by the works of horror legend HP Lovecraft. Set in the majestic peaks of the French Pyrenees, the story follows a once-happy tourist couple torn asunder by a lusty witch whose amphibious minions prove unexpectedly predatory. Dripping with sex, slime and haunting nocturnal scenes of decay, The Mother Of Toads strikes an artful balance between gross-out gore and arresting, supernatural chills.
With intelligent nods to Freud's castration anxiety, Savini's 'Wet Dreams' cleverly blurs the boundaries of reality with a string of gore-soaked, deeply disturbed dream sequences. The distinction between Savini's dream world and reality may be confusingly unclear in places, but, with nudity and grisly torture in spades, the piece snags a riotous round of applause.
But by far the most depraved outing on offer here is David Gregory's 'Sweets', in which a confectionery fetish spirals into increasingly twisted, nauseating territory. Flecked with achingly gaudy, candy-coloured visuals, its gory and ghoulish climax comes off as sickening and bitter as bile on the tongue. Concluding this veritable orgy of sex, violence and the supernatural, 'Sweets' is the ultimate in uneasy viewing.