As many a seasoned FrightFest veteran will know, the annual Film4 sponsored horror and fantasy festival, held at the Empire cinema in London's Leicester Square, showcases a heady mix of genre films that are often good, sometimes bad and occasionally very, very ugly. In previous years the event has served up films that have gone on to be considered classics of the fantasy or horror genre, pictures that have emerged from the dark shadows of the screening schedule, crept up on an unsuspecting audience and delivered to them a vampire's kiss of shuddering delight. Movies such as Pan's Labyrinth, Donnie Darko, Old Boy, Martyrs, Time Crimes and Let the Right One In have all had their UK premieres here and emerged triumphantly into the daylight, imperious, peerless and magical.
Some of the rest have, quite frankly, stunk like a week old corpse. For every Pan's Labyrinth there has been a Dead Cert (but credit to that film's producers for their onstage apology last week) and this year's event, held over the August Bank Holiday weekend, was no different. Once again, FrightFest 2011 provided a comprehensive picture of where the contemporary horror scene is at and was particularly notable for illuminating a couple of positive trends.
Firstly, the number of British films being screened was up on previous years. In all, from amongst a two screen schedule showing 37 films, almost a third were UK productions, featuring themes as diverse as mental illness, hit men for hire, pagan cults, northern (in)hospitality and the effects of the UK credit crunch.
Secondly, an improvement in female roles in horror films was apparent, there being a distinct lack of the screaming airhead sort who regularly gets served up as a whetstone for the psycho's blade. Instead there were a refreshing number of gals (Urban Explorers aside) that eschewed the lazy stereotypes of so many horrors and instead demonstrated considerable testicular fortitude. Films such as Rogue River, The Holding, Don't Be Afraid of The Dark, Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps, A Lonely Place to Die, Kill List, The Divide and of course The Woman, all featured strong, resourceful female leads who were more than capable of giving as good as they got. And while the quality of each of these titles may have varied to a degree, if these films are indicative of a general improvement in the kinds of roles being written for women these days then that can only be good news for the genre and the audience.
Add to both of these developments the continually evolving strength of the Discovery screen line up and it's fair to say that this year’s event, although by no means a classic, did provide an array of films of sufficient breadth and quality as to please even the most demanding of horror fans.
As ever, from out of this writhing mass of celluloid emerged a number of films that are destined to join the ranks of some of the very best that this event has served up since its inception in 2005.
So without further ado, here then (and in no particular order), are my top 5 picks of the festival.
The Glass Man
Starring festival regular Andy Nyman, this low key thriller was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. Telling the story of a man on the brink of financial ruin who is forced into carrying out of job of dubious legality by one of his debtors, The Glass Man features an excellent performance from Nyman and wonderful support from James Cosmo. And in an era when it seems that many filmmakers attempt to deliver twists and turns just for the sake of it, Director & Writer Cristian Solimeno’s movie includes one of the most meaningful twists of recent years. It not only takes the characters and the story in an interesting new direction but also imbues this tale of a once successful man struggling to survive with an even greater sense of poignancy. Although low on gore and chills it nonetheless features one of the most excruciating scenes that was on show over the whole FrightFest weekend, its depiction of a mugging carried out with nothing more than intimidation being one that both boils the blood and breaks the heart.
Tucker & Dale vs Evil
Strange as it may seem to the uninitiated but one thing you're never short of at FrightFest is laughs. As frustrating as it sometimes is that some horror films go for the giggle rather than the gasp, a genuine all out comedy is a welcome addition to any FrightFest line up. Tucker and Dale works on the brilliantly simple premise of a group of college kids on holiday in the mountains mistaking the every action and utterance of the well meaning and affable Tucker and Dale for those of a couple of old school back woods psychopaths. When one of the girls is saved from drowning by the pair, her friends mistake the rescue for an abduction. Their plans to rescue her result in confusion, carnage and the increasing bewilderment of the redneck duo. Delivering laughs and gore in abundance, Tucker and Dale cleverly brings something new to the horror-comedy genre now that the post modern stylings of Scream have been done to death. It also features one of the great comedic misunderstandings of all time courtesy of a chainsaw, a beehive and a kid who’s watched far too many horror movies.
The found footage genre of film making has been rather overdone in recent years, festival director Paul McEvoy even going so far as to bemoan how many films of this type he and the other guys have to wade through each year when looking for films to select. If only they were all as good as this. Exploring the idea that the Norwegian government covertly employs a gamekeeper to hunt down any errant trolls when they leave their territory and endanger the local population, it follows 3 college students working on a film project who follow the man in question, initially under the mistaken assumption that he is a bear poacher. When he begrudgingly introduces them to his real line of work we are treated to some wonderful CGI effects that serve up a variety of trolls that are both convincing yet reassuringly old school (anybody with Norwegian blood in the family will definitely have one of the little fellas sat on a shelf or book case somewhere at home). Featuring a jaded but likeable hero, an engaging documentary crew and some thrilling encounters with the stars of the show, Troll Hunter also boasted one of the loudest soundtracks of the weekend, the FrightFest crowd pinned to their seats by the wall of sound that accompanied the climactic encounter with a 200 foot tall mountain troll. Oh and look out for a great gag featuring the Norwegian Prime Minister at the end.
In case you should think it was all fairytales, comedies and gore free thrillers, next up is Lucky Mckee’s controversial The Woman. FrightFest doesn’t do headliners but if it did McKee's viscerally intense drama would have been listed as one of this year's marquee titles and for many attendees it was the highlight of the weekend. Showing what happens when an all American sociopath finds a wild woman while hunting in the forest and then brings her home to the family he already terrorises on a regular basis, the Woman is a movie that, for all the carnage of its brutal final act, exhibits remarkable constraint. Focusing on character dynamics rather than unremitting torment the early part of the film paints a bizarre picture of domesticity that is punctuated by occasional bursts of violence as we see the gradual repercussions of the father’s actions on everyone around him. It then takes the template of the rape/revenge movie and actually applies some intelligence to it, serving up a tale that is less a realistic depiction of domestic abuse and more a metaphor for the dark waters that lurk beneath the surface of an idealised western patriarchy. But if you think that's a pretentious load of old bollocks it has a great scene where a man's heart is pulled out and wolfed down like a big Mac. Now chow down on the metaphor in THAT.
Bloody hell! For a film that came with considerable hype, the pressure was really on for Ben Wheatley's Hit Man horror fest to deliver and for many it did, lingering in the mind long after viewing and couching its narrative in subtle ambiguities that tantalise but don't frustrate. It’s by no means perfect and the final act may not work for everyone but of all the films screened over the 5 days this was the one that largely justified the hype. Bleak, funny, brutal and strange, it depicts a world of banal evil in which man is ultimately condemned by the savagery of his own nature. It's about two hit-men taking on one last job for that big payday and that's probably all you need to know, other than the fact that it included one of the most violent scenes I've seen in a cinema for a long time, a scene that has already precipitated walk outs in the film's opening weekend in some London cinemas. Therefore probably best you don't take your Nan.
Honourable mentions go to Midnight Son, Rabies, Final Destination 5 (no I couldn’t believe it either), The Innkeepers, Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, that last one if only for finally reuniting Mike and Jim from ‘Neighbours’ on the big screen.