FrightFest 2013 Day 3: The Dead 2, Willow Creek, Hammer Of The Gods, Rewind This!, R.I.P.D., Cheap Thrills
The first year I started writing this blog (2010), it drove me to want to widen my cinematic horizons, taking in not only regular films, but also exploring what festivals had to offer. So that year, for the first time I attended both my local film festival and also a London-based event in the shape of Empire’s Movie-Con. Empire haven’t run the event for the last two years, so I’ve diverted some of the finances I used for that event to attending a day at that longer standing London institution, Film 4 FrightFest. A five day festival of horror films, documentaries and other offerings with a loose horror connection, it started in the Prince Charles Cinema in 2000, and has expanded significantly over the years. The increasing size took it across Leicester Square to the Odeon West End in 2005 and then in 2009 to the Empire Leicester Square, where the 1,330 capacity main screen makes for a fantastic atmosphere, and this year films were showing on a total of four different screens for the first time.
As I live in Cambridgeshire, circumstances sadly prevent me from attending for more than a day but I enjoyed my Saturday last year – even if the quality of the films was somewhat mixed, Saturday’s line-up being perhaps the weakest of the five days of 2012 – but I was also hamstrung slightly by being stuck in the main screen. The Empire Leicester Square is an odd cinema, in that six of the other seven screens outside the main screen have less than 100 seats, so consequently demand for the other screens is at a premium. Thankfully this year I managed to secure three films in the smaller screens to balance the fare in the bigger screen, and overall managed to up the quality of the films I saw compared to 2012.
So here’s a brief summary of the films I managed to catch (more detailed write-ups may follow for any that get wider release or other screenings near me).
I always worry slightly when seeing a sequel at an event like this that the lack of knowledge of its forebear will hamper my viewing pleasure, but this seemed to be fairly self-contained. What hampered my viewing pleasure in actual fact was the quality of some of the storytelling and acting – it’s Meenu Mishra’s first film and while she seemed lovely at the in person introduction, she and her opposing lead Joseph Millson had less chemistry than most arranged marriages. Anand Gopal was sparkier as the young Javed, but what mainly keeps The Dead 2 watchable is the Ford Brothers’ eye for an image, using the natural scenery of rural India, and getting the most out of it with some crisp digital cinematography and an effective use of aerial shots. It doesn’t really add anything new to the zombie genre, but there’s some general shifts in tone and a couple of effectively tense moments that make it oddly watchable. The Score: 6/10
The latest movie from Bobcat Goldthwait, who has gone a long way to putting his past as the guy who talked funny in the Police Academy movies behind him, except when idiot bloggers like me keep bringing it up so you know who he is. This is the latest exploration of the found footage genre, in this case taking a trip into Bigfoot country. The first half of the film mixes local scenery with real people, in an admittedly gentler approach than the likes of Sasha Baron Cohen but it’s still gently and repeatedly humourous. The second half then takes a turn to more traditional horror, venturing into the woods on the trail of Sasquatch, and the commitment to the found footage conceit is admirable (mostly on-set sound, with Goldthwait telling us at the Q & A afterwards he directed the driving scenes from the trunk of the car, and only 67 cuts in the whole running time, including one 19 minute unbroken take), if occasionally making it a little unwatchable through too-much shaky cam. Not quite as effective as some of Goldthwait’s earlier work such as World’s Greatest Dad, but continuing similar themes, this is more funny than scary but still reasonably watchable. The Score: 7/10
I then managed to sneak into a Discovery Screen to catch short film Shell-Shocked, My mother has been recommending the director to me since she knew I was going to last year’s FrightFest, mainly because he was Paddy off of Emmerdale in a former life and not for any horror connections. His horror short is brief but effective, and shows signs of a talent in the making.
Director Farren Blackburn has made his name in British TV with the likes of The Fades, Doctor Who and, er, Doctors, but this is his first big screen outing. He’s assembled a cast of lesser known faces and filled the background with cameos from the likes of James Cosmo and Glynnis Barber, but for most of the feature what we get instead of a satisfyingly cheesy hack and slash is a turgid exploration of some of the duller issues in the Viking / Saxon conflict, with a willingness to kill off characters as soon as they become interesting – or at least shout lively nonsense – until we’re left with the turgid anticlimax of two men wrestling in a dark cave. Descending into mysticism and poorly-handled plot contrivances, it’s got all the excitement of men walking over hills from the Lord Of The Rings movies with none of the excitement of any of the rest of the Lord Of The Rings movies. Avoid. The Score: 3/10
I’ve recently been reflecting on why it is that there are so many gaps in my film knowledge, as I attempt to plug as many of them as possible before I turn 40. This documentary may go some way to explaining that, as while I’ve never seen many Westerns or any of the French New Wave, I’ve seen a disturbing amount of the trash on display in this often hilarious journey into the history of VHS, the cult that now surrounds the dying medium (although not dying as quickly as you might expect) and into some of the more obscure ventures that the cheap option into the home market presented. Containing testimony from collectors to film directors, this is a nostalgic drip into the darkened basements full of VHS cassettes that occupied such a large part of my mis-spent youth, and has sent me scuttling to eBay to see if I can pick up some of the more oddball taps on offer here. Essential viewing for anyone that grew up on VHS. The Score: 8/10
Before the main film of the evening, viewers in the main screen were treated to the 13 minute stop-motion animation Raging Balls Of Steel Justice, which might just be the funniest thing I’ve seen all year. The story of a cop from 1986 who doesn’t play by the rules and his robot sidekick who humps just about any round metal cannister he can lay his robot hands on, it’s inventive and thoroughly entertaining and I hope leads to much bigger and equally good things from Mike Mort and the Immortal Pictures team.
This was the big Saturday night crowd-pleaser, and it pleased the FrightFest crowd a lot more than I was expecting based on the initial buzz. It might feel like yet another Men In Black movie, copying almost every trope and most of the sets from the Smith and Jones alien movies, in this case there’s enough fresh elements to keep this bumbling along in a moderately entertaining fashion. Ryan Reynolds gets stuck in the straight man mould and isn’t quite allowed to have enough fun, but Mary-Louise Parker are clearly enjoying themselves and there’s a few decent set pieces and some original gags before it all descends into an overly-CGI finale. The 3D is also worth a mention, as director Robert Schwentke has worked out that your eyes need longer than an average cut in an action movie to focus on the perspective, so adjusts his technique accordingly and if you’re a fan of 3D, then you should take this option. It’s a difficult movie to hate, but also a difficult one to feel that anyone genuinely needed or wanted. The Score: 6/10
Last year, the Elijah Wood remake of Maniac turned out to be the highlight of my day, and once again they saved the best for last. The promotion likened E.L. Katz’s directorial debut to Haneke, and while this doesn’t possess the judgemental nature on the viewer of the likes of Funny Games, it is equally concerned with morality and humanity, pitching Pat Healy and Ethan Embry against each other in a battle to see just how far they’ll go for money. David Koechner (pictured at the top) is in what could be a career-defining role here as the man casually and callously pulling the strings, and what could have turned out to be a predictable genre entry is instead a darkly comic delight that has tension aplenty and had a large FrightFest audience on the edge of their seats and gasping regularly. Twitter buzz after the screening backs up that you should catch this if you get the chance, and as the gore is kept to a minimum this could well find a home outside of genre festivals. The Score: 9/10
My cinema experience: The overall festival was even more enjoyable this year, and it’s one of the most friendly and chatty festivals I’ve ever been to. The enclosed foyer of the Empire, with the merchandise stalls and the regular queues for concessions, helps to foster that atmosphere, and when luminaries such as Empire horror maestro Kim Newman and even living legend Terry Gilliam are in attendance to take in the odd film, it’s an experience unlike any other. The projection is generally good; I saw The Dead 2 in the basement Screen 2 and that’s by far the best screen that the Empire has to offer, with the most comfortable chairs and the best equipment.
The main screen had an upgrade to Dolby Atmos last year, but the cavernous screen can still cause some of the quieter dialogue to get lost in the sound mix. I’d hope that the organisers get to deploy screen 2 more next year, to give more chance to give tickets to the eager hordes wanting to pick up some of the Discovery screen delights. (The one other observation is that, despite a competition which runs before each screening called Turn Your Bloody Phone Off, in each of the three films I saw in the main screen, someone got shouted at to turn their bloody phone off. Disappointing.) I also took the £10 parking deal, enabling me to park just one street away, and the early morning and late night drives in and out of central London were a lot easier than I expected (except when the satnav got me lost around Trafalgar Square). Roll on FrightFest 2014!