Film4 Frightfest 2014 Day 4: Open Windows, Faults, Among The Living, The Samurai, The House At The End Of Time, Stage Fright
The Sunday of FrightFest was the first of two full day passes that I’d originally intended to purchase in an effort to up my intake from the previous two years. After getting carried away with the ticket booking, I arrived at Sunday already having seen five films, but with a lovely festival pass stuffed into a lanyard (and if you’ve never roamed a film festival wearing a lanyard, put it on your bucket list right now, there’s few film experiences in life so oddly yet pointlessly empowering) and an anonymous-looking printed voucher with which to collect Discovery Screen tickets, I was all ready to go.
My only problem was getting there. I live an hour and a half from central London, so normally park at the tube station and use my Oyster card – because despite living an hour and a half away, I watch films in London enough to justify me having an Oyster card – but the tube shuts before the last film finishes on a long day and the Nightbus adds an hour to my journey. Additionally, my car had been into the garage twice in the previous week, once for a scheduled service at the company garage where I was hoping a persistent shudder would be resolved, and once into my village garage when the scheduled service made no difference to the persistent shudder.
So I drove into London with the intention of parking at the Leicester Square car park, knowing it would cost a fortune this year without the cheap parking deal of previous years but just glad of the convenience, and gripped by more terror thanks to my juddering car than I was at any time watching films so far – yes, even in The Babadook. It may have been that which caused me to miss my scheduled turning when driving into London, but I suddenly realised I don’t know south and east London half as well as I thought I did, so I quickly fired up the satnav while parked at traffic lights. Its first attempt to direct me asked me to turn left, which I duly did, only to realise I’d just turned on to Tower Bridge heading south across the river, when Leicester Square is resolutely north of the Thames.
You’ve probably heard of park and ride, but what I had to do once I’d concluded my massive detour that took me via Vauxhall to Parliament Square on Sunday was park and run, run across Leicester Square thankfully before the hordes of zombie-like tourists normally shuffling around it had assembled, grab my lanyard and take my aisle seat just as the first film was getting going. I then spent the rest of the day in a panic that I hadn’t locked the car properly, but also feeling I’d come across as neurotic if I went back to check. (Of course, if I hadn’t just told you, no one would have been any the wiser, but hey…)
So the first film of the day was the latest from Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo, a techno-thriller that you wouldn’t be surprised to find the likes of Brian De Palma’s name on. Shot generally from the perspective of someone viewing various windows on a laptop, Open Windows follows the misfortunes of Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood), a webmaster of a fansite for actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey) who believes he’s won a competition to meet her. While watching her press conference via a laptop, Nick is contacted by a man (Neil Maskell) claiming that she’s cancelled their meeting and encouraging him to spy on her via some high tech equipment he’s already put in Nick’s room. Nick is swiftly drawn into a web of lies and deceit that put both his and Jill’s lives in danger and his only hope might be a group of secretive hackers attempting to contact a super hacker who might just be the man tormenting them.
I’ll not beat about the bush: Open Windows is nuts. It’s quickly apparent that whoever’s manipulating Nick has access to some seriously advanced tech, giving him seemingly omnipotent powers in the world of technology that Nick has become trapped in. It’s possible, at least for a while, to read some deeper meaning into the voyeurism that Nick both peddles and that then could become his undoing, but by the end any such hope of a more philosophical or cerebral challenge is lost. Elijah Wood gives good panic-face, but he’s about the only participant called on to do any actual acting. By the third act, as twist piles upon twist and revelations start dropping like flies, credibility has put on its sun hat and short trousers and long since taken a holiday, and the whole thing is as mad as a giraffe in a tutu juggling chainsaws and about as believable. But it is not for one minute dull and I found myself heading out with a big, stupid grin on my face.
After the film, director Vigalondo gave a Q & A where he talked about some of the logistical and technical challenges involved. The highlight was his reveal that he next plans to make the lowest-budget Godzilla movie possible, ideally with a man in a suit and even more ideally with him in the suit. Someone get that man a Kickstarter, pronto.
The Score: 7/10
Next up was the debut feature from Riley Stears, who you’d probably have more idea of if I told you his wife is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Faults concerns a young woman called Claire (Winstead) who’s been brainwashed by a cult called Faults. Her parents approach washed-up author Ansel (Leland Orser) with experience in the field, who takes on the job of deprogramming Claire despite an unfortunate suicide the last time he attempted a similar task. Claire’s parents are willing to pay whatever it takes to get their daughter back, but they’re unaware that Ansel’s debtors have him working under a ticking clock that may make the task that much more challenging.
Faults certainly starts promisingly, with Ansel’s abrasive nature putting him in conflict with almost everyone he comes into contact with; not useful when your only hope of earning money is to run a seminar and to sell books. Ansel feels very much a loser cut from the mould of many of the Coen brothers’ characters, an unfortunate loser frequently caught in meaningless debates about the minutiae of life. The success of the early stretches are making him seem at least competent in his field while managing to fail at almost every other aspect of life. His fraught demeanour is the perfect counterpoint to Claire’s icy collectedness, and the two have an interesting intellectual tussle as he attempts to challenge the ideas that Faults have placed in her head.
There’s no denying that the two central performances from Orser and Winstead are both fantastic in their own ways, that there’s a pleasing collection of oddballs speckling the supporting cast and that the setting, spending much of its time in two hotel rooms, is suitably claustrophobic and Stears keeps the pace gentle while still managing to stir up tension. However, I never quite bought into the transitions that Ansel and Claire undergo through the course of the film, the ultimate resolution feeling just a little too pat and contained and the leaps of logic a little too strained, even within the mindsets of the characters. But if she’s going to deliver performances as good as this, then Stears should continue making star vehicles for his missus, as there’s enough here to suggest a promising future.
The Score: 6/10
Among The Living (Aux yeux des vivants)
The third feature from French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustido, Among The Living focuses on three delinquent teens who bunk off the last day of term to avoid a mutual detention and end up attempting to set fire to a barn before exploring a deserted film studio in the countryside. While there, they happen upon a kidnapped woman, but their attempts to convince the police of the woman’s plight fall on deaf ears thanks to their earlier pyromania. While they are returned to their respective homes, the kidnappers – a father and his deformed son who hides behind a clown mask – determine to hunt them down and ensure there’s no possibility of any further problems from the youngsters.
Among The Living takes the standard tropes of a slasher movie and inserts them into the equivalent of an American teen film. While the youngsters might look fresh faced enough in the picture above, these are three rather unpleasant youngsters and this is no The Goonies or even Stand By Me. In fact, it’s difficult to know where your sympathies should lie: the youngsters are emblematic of the worst excesses of troubled youth but Maury and Bustido also do their best to make the killers unsympathetic. With no one left to root for, the only hope is that the violence itself and that turns out to be, for the large part, desperately dull – only one kill in the final showdown engages the senses and too often the rest of the action feels oddly neutered, despite being often quite brutal. All in all there’s little to excite or engage and Among The Living won’t linger long in the memory.
The Score: 4/10
The Samurai (Der Samurai)
In the words of the Barenaked Ladies in their song One Week, “Like Kurosawa I make mad films; ‘kay I don’t make films, but if I did they’d have a samurai.” A fine sentiment, although samurai films are two a penny and need something to elevate themselves above the crowd. This, however, is a samurai film from Germany that’s distributed by Peccadillo Pictures, the distribution firm that’s made a name for themselves by getting films such as Weekend, Tomboy, Stranger By The Lake and The Golden Dream into cinemas. Michel Dirks is Jakob, a young policeman who’s attempting to track a wolf stalking the woods of a remote German village. But the wolf isn’t what the villagers or Jakob should be most afraid of; a shadowy figure has a package delivered to Jakob which contains a samurai sword, and soon Jacob is drawn into a battle of wills with its wielder, a mysterious man in a full length white dress (Pit Bukowski).
Dirks and Bukowsi have a fascinating and unpredictable interplay, and as their head to head expands into violence and spills out into the community tensions rise and director Til Kleinert uses the night-time forest setting to retain a sense of foreboding throughout. Bukowski gets to give the showy performance (aiming to, and to a large extent succeeding in, evoking Rutger Hauer as he discussed in the Q & A afterwards), but he’s well matched by Dirks’ descent from earnestness into anger as he fights both the samurai and the villagers’ perceptions of him. Kleinert uses the setting and the mixture of elements to create something that resides somewhere between a revenge thriller and a fairytale, and stages his fight scenes and the more gruesome kills stylishly and efficiently. The Samurai is a true original, and if you’re looking for something dark and different then Kleinert may have just the recipe for you.
Following the film, Kleinert, Dirks and Bukowsi attended a Q & A, where Bukowski spend half his time discussing the technical challenges of a shot near the end that were, as they described, the antithesis of all the female flesh on show over the rest of the weekend. Let’s just say it involved a lot of non-prescription Viagra and one fearless actor.
The Score: 8/10
The House At The End Of Time (La casa del fin de los tiempos)
Horror gets everywhere in the world eventually. During the festival there were trailers for the granddaddy of them all, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, which has just undergone a digital restoration, and ninety years on the likes of this festival now encompass films from Europe, Asia, America and Australia, but The House At The End Of Time shows that there are still new corners of the world to be explored, this being the first commercially released horror movie to come out of Venezuela. At first, the story feels generic and unlikely to push many boundaries: Dulce, an elderly woman (Ruddy Rodriguez) is released from prison after thirty years and ends up living under house arrest in the very same house where the murders she is accused of took place. Despite her husband having been murdered with a knife covered in her fingerprints, she claims to have no knowledge of how he came to be stabbed, and her son’s body was never recovered after he disappeared mysteriously in front of her. Only a sympathetic priest (Guillermo Garcia) may be able to help to understand what’s going on before events begin to repeat themselves.
Initially my feelings of optimism around this film were tempered with two concerns: as effective as they were, the opening sequence relies heavily on a couple of jump scares and little else to scare, and some of the visual and practical effects (in particular the old age make-up on Dulce) looked to be of poor quality. The effects actually turn out to matter little as they are offset by the great set design, the split levels of the house interior contributing to the general feeling of unease. Then what happens with the jump scares is even more remarkable: while there are more throughout the course of the film and unsurprisingly their effectiveness decreases over time, you start to see how the events behind them form part of a bigger picture and moments take on an unforeseen poignancy. Overall The House… is an effective mix of emotional beats and haunted house scares, and reveals itself to be something ambitious and rewarding.
The Score: 8/10
As I’d gone to all the effort of driving in and parking up over the road rather than taking the tube, and as the mix of coffee, diet cola and ProPlus in my system were still keeping me relatively awake, I thought I’d take in horror musical Stage Fright. I have to say that, when I came to write up this review, I was looking for a suitable image and found lots of versions of this:
Apparently it’s from an Italian horror by a pupil of Argento’s from 1987, and it looks freaking awesome. Sadly, what I got was a half-hearted mess. Minnie Driver turns up for around one scene, Meat Loaf is in large chunks of the film but gets one short song, and the remainder has been described as Glee meets Friday the 13th. Well, for all its faults Glee is at least two things Stage Fright is not: it’s willing to be funny and bitchy for more than five minutes, and it’s willing to be full of songs. After one great opening number which introduces us to the summer camp, we are then treated to an extended casting sequence which takes up the best part of half the film, during which Stage Fright forgets it’s a musical. Oh, and it also forgets it’s a horror. And it doesn’t have any owls with chainsaws. (Still bitter.) What it does have is one entertaining killing sequence. By the end it’s descending into saccharine sweet and faintly melodramatic, and you can’t make a good horror musical out of one good song, one good murder and a couple of decent jokes (spoiler: someone confuses kabuki with bukkake, and I only mention this because I suspect it’s the only reason that the musical is reworked as a kabuki version). The acting’s nothing to write home about, and I just wish Stage Fright had the courage of its convictions and had either gone more serious or a lot more camp.
The Score: 4/10
Next time: finally to Monday, when I wrapped up my festival experience with another five films, and when the rains came.