Sadly, doing the whole of FrightFest wasn’t really an option for me this year. Two days after it finishes, I’ll be starting my annual eleven day stint at the Cambridge Film Festival, so there’s only so much annual leave I can spend watching films and that ruled out Friday. Then I also knew I had a choice to make about Saturday, as one of the choirs I sing with when I’m not watching films was doing their annual cathedral visit. The idea is, whenever the regular cathedral choir goes on holiday, then other visiting choirs come in and do the services instead, and this choir was singing at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’ve sung in a whole host of places before, from the Royal Albert Hall to Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral to King’s College chapel, but if I have a bucket list of places left then St. Paul’s was probably at the top of it and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Normally you do these things for your own benefit, as a Saturday evensong at most cathedrals during the summer gets two people and a dog in attendance, but I was surprised to discover that St. Paul’s – being proper famous and all that – had somewhere between three and four hundred people in the congregation. No pressure then. It lived up to my every expectation and I spent three hours practising and singing in one of the finest buildings in the country, and all of the staff there were lovely. Then, as the rest of the choir boarded their coach to head back to Norfolk, I headed down The Strand and towards Leicester Square – I knew I could still get at least two films in when I planned the day, and what better way to finish it up than another dose of FrightFest?
Well, as it turns out there was one alternative: I hadn’t twigged that this was when the new series of Doctor Who was starting when I booked the tickets, so I will now not be seeing that until at least Tuesday. (EDIT: Wednesday now. Still not seen it.) However, on arriving in Leicester Square it dawned on me that not only was the episode on TV, but the whole thing was being shown in cinemas as well – which Leicester Square has in abundance – and the Q & A might even have been hosted somewhere round there. So I waded through the hordes of enthusiastic cosplayers – I counted a First, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor, as well a woman in a TARDIS dress and a multitude of children in various get-ups, including one with a cardboard TARDIS of his very own – and made my way over to the Vue for another night of horror-related film entertainment.
Thankfully it seemed as if the issues over the venue transition were settling down, and I arrived to find a very contented audience at the halfway point of the festival. The afternoon also meant I arrived for the second time at the festival suited and booted, so I shall feel somewhat under-dressed when I rock up in jeans and trainers on Sunday. It also made me realise that, for all of the genres it ends up spanning, FrightFest is actually pretty light on the cosplay. Someone did ask me if I was dressing up for the festival, but I think I’d not be along in thinking that five days sat in a cinema in fancy dress or heavy make-up isn’t the best idea.
(You might wonder why I’m telling you all this; partly because this is a blog, so you get the delight of reading about me and the films in a sort of movie BOGOF deal, partly so you know why I hadn’t given myself over completely to FrightFest when I’m an enthusiastic blogger but also because I think it’s useful for you to know that I live life through a series of rather mundane extremes; knowing that I spend the afternoon in church singing and the rest of the weekend seeking out the most depraved horror films imaginable probably tells you all about me as a person that you need to know.)
Anyway, to the films! Not actually that much depravity here, but certainly a double dose of quality.
Life After Beth
When you think of the term rom-zom-com, you might think (a) is that really a thing?, or more likely (b) Shaun Of The Dead (or, if you’re paying attention, last year’s Warm Bodies). The latest attempt to put a tick in all three boxes of that high concept is a very different spin on each aspect. The “com” is very much in the style of American indie films, not feeling a million miles away from Aubrey Plaza’s earlier film “Safety Not Guaranteed”. The “zom” is also a little different: rather than the world suddenly being swamped with hordes of the undead, we pick up with Zach (Dane DeHaan) mourning the loss of his girlfriend Beth (Plaza) and spending time with her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) in an effort to find peace. Except what he finds is Beth, seemingly returned from the grave and oblivious to her recent untimely death. Finally, the “rom” is also somewhat skewed, for while Beth’s return gives Zach the opportunity to say and do the things he regrets never saying and doing, their relationship was already in trouble and Zach is now left wondering if life with Beth’s death is actually what he wants.
The stand-out performance undoubtedly comes from Plaza, absolutely committed to however zombie she needs to be, but DeHaan is also great as the confused boyfriend trying to work out whether or not he should be using the Z-word about his newly returned girlfriend. The cast is packed full of familiar comedy faces, including Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines as Zach’s parents and Anna Kendrick as an old family friend who catches Zach’s eye, much to Beth’s disgust. The other highlight in the cast is Matthew Gray Gubler as Zach’s unhinged brother, who adds a screwball note to the otherwise deadpan, understated comedy. The laid back nature of Life After Beth might mean it’s not to everyone’s tastes – not a huge amount actually happens – but there’s a lot to enjoy, especially as events pick up pace in the second half; in the words of the immortal Ron Burgundy, “that escalated quickly.” It’s a fun take on an established genre mix that will leave you smiling, with just a touch of poignancy before the end.
The Score: 8/10
Each of the films at FrightFest were preceded by a short selection of trailers and one of a series of films encouraging viewers to “Turn Your Bloody Phone Off”, after years of people not doing exactly than and causing much wailing and general abuse in FrightFest audiences. On Thursday night, one of the films also came with the trailer for The Babadook, which caused at least two people behind me to evacuate their bowels thanks to being generally terrifying.
So there’s two things about The Babadook: first, it’s generally terrifying. The washed-out aesthetic of the family home, full of dark blue hues and lingering shadows may not be the most original horror setting but it’s superbly executed, every dark corner full of constant menace. The Babadook is also a magnificently ominous creation, especially given that he’s a character in (admittedly the world’s darkest and most twisted) children’s book. When the book appears without warning on their bookshelf, mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) think it’s just another bedtime story, but Samuel becomes obsessed with the story. Raising her son without the father killed in an accident seven years earlier is hard enough for Amelia, but as Samuel’s very soul seems to be overtaken by fear of the monster, Amelia also finds herself pushed to breaking point.
The second thing is that there’s more to The Babadook than just some carefully constructed scares. What really makes The Babadook work so well is the level of investment that writer / director Jennifer Kent puts into Amelia and Sam’s relationship and backstory. Both Davis and Wiseman give perfectly pitched performances, Wiseman with the wide-eyed terror redolent of highly strung Danny Torrance from The Shining and Davis visibly fraying at the edges as the stress of her situation continues to pile on, but it’s the accident that took Amelia’s husband that haunts her as much as any fictional character ripping itself from the pages of a book.
Taken in combination, the emotional resonance from the script and the unnerving images of Amelia and Samuel’s gradual haunting produce a gripping story that worms its way into your mind before scaring the living senses out of you. I’ll just say this: it’s my third year at FrightFest, but I’ve been watching horror in cinemas for over twenty years, and yet while I’ve seen and heard people jump countless times in horror movies, The Babadook was the first time I’d heard someone properly scream in a cinema. Twice.
The Score: 9/10
Next time: Sunday, and a full day pass to a half dozen horrifying treats. (I also skived off church. Well, you have to have some priorities, don’t you?)