My last day at FrightFest, and thanks to living an hour and a half away I was getting up just five hours after getting to sleep from getting in late the night before. I just don’t sleep in hotel rooms, and I have a cat and a rabbit to wrangle in the mornings, but thankfully the Monday commuting option was easier; the lack of a late film meaning I could park up and let the London Underground see me all the way in. I was also quite glad of that given the weather, feeling as if I was driving through a DTV movie about incessant rain, possibly with sharks in it somewhere, and that rain continued to dump itself on London for the rest of the day.
The effect on Leicester Square was dramatic, the hordes of
shuffling zombie undead tourists breaking for cover, and it was actually possible to walk around the square at a speed greater than one mile an hour. That said, after three days there already I’d long since ceased to feel the need to actually shuffle round the square myself, even for food: lunch on the final day is pictured left, on the basis that it was as nutritious and inexpensive as anything else I could find on the Square. The rain eased off enough for me to make it to Chinatown for dinner for a hot and soup with dumplings so spicy that my eyebrows melted off, but other than that I took refuge in the Vue West End for the day.
I used to have this romantic notion of Leicester Square of being some cinematic haven populated by the great and the good. What it actually is for the large part is a depressing cesspool on the face of humanity which sucks in tourists and extracts their money in the most demeaning ways possible, with some expensive cinemas dotted about. But for one weekend, the Vue became an oasis in that unfortunate tourist slum, with reasonably priced tickets (anyone getting a festival pass effectively saw each film for less than £7.50 each over the weekend), a great atmosphere (despite being spread across five screens) and not a single projection issue over the weekend, which for a multiplex in this digital age is something of an achievement. Thankfully the festival has made a seamless transition from the Empire and hopefully will continue to go from strength to strength there in years to come.
My first film of the final day was a take on the story of the real life Honeymoon Killers, split into four acts – one for each of the key women in the story – and updates the tale to the modern day. Lonely mortuary worker Gloria (Lola Duenas) is reluctantly signed up for online dating by a friend, but is soon won over by the smooth charms of her internet date Michel (Laurent Lucas), only for him to do the typical male thing and never call her. In this case, though, he’s absconded after having borrowed money from her, and you know what they say about a woman scorned. Once she’s tracked him down, they form an unlikely alliance, determined to work together on Michel’s future scams but at constant risk from Gloria’s inability to keep her own feelings in check.
The story’s been made before, most notably as 1969’s The Honeymoon Killers, but director Fabrice du Welz brings an operatic quality to proceedings (in one astonishing scene, almost literally) and both plays up the intensity of the relationship that binds these two together and plays down their surroundings. As revealed in the Q & A that followed, du Welz took the decision to shoot on 16mm, providing a grainy texture and further enforcing the mood with dark sets and grim cinematography. Even when Michel and Gloria are first flirting, the over the shoulder camera shots obscure half the face of the person in shot, deliberately keeping both leads in a murky light and the ambiguity of the situation keeps you guessing as to the eventual outcome. It’s delightfully dark and offbeat in tone, a black comedy with plenty of red splashed through it, and with two thoroughly committed performances from Duenas and Lucas, Alleluia is a pitch black treat.
The Score: 8/10
Going to work from back to front on this one. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a great concept then working backwards, and Nymph’s original titles – originally called Mamula, the island on which the second half of the film takes place, and there’s a poster for it calling it Killer Mermaid – strongly suggest the core to the concept, as confirmed by the director at the Q & A which took place after the film. I didn’t stay for that Q & A, partly to stretch my legs but mainly because the film was dreadful in almost every aspect. If you’re going to start from a concept and work backwards, you still need some idea of where you’re going to end up, and there’s a fundamental disconnect in Nymph in that all of the character work ploddingly and painfully set up in the first half of the film is instantly dispensed with when the killing starts; you could start watching close to an hour in and the end of the film would make no less sense. When the characterisations are as trite and poorly expanded as they are here, you’re left to wonder what the point was.
On top of that, the film is trapped in a “tell, not show” mentality, with poor Franco Nero recruited as one of two almost identikit clichéd seamen and forced to rattle off reams of exposition that advance the story, but it did make you feel listening to him recite the phone book would be a more compelling prospect. The killer mermaid is a nice idea, but she’s basically a bit bitey and not much more and her siren-like qualities in seducing men can apparently be overcome by a quick slap around the face. It all takes itself far too seriously, the kills are rote and horror movie audiences deserve better, the cinematography is often cheap (random crane shots so grainy they might even be stock footage, and as soon as anyone starts running it’s impossible to tell what’s happening) and to cap it all off, the director and writer cheerfully took to Letterboxd and announced they were awarding their own film five stars each. Allow me to redress the balance somewhat.
The Score: 2/10
My Nacho Vigalondo weekend continued as I dodged Xmoor in the main screen to take in this alien invasion movie in the Discovery Screen. Extraterrestrial is very much a romantic comedy drama that takes place in the context of an alien incursion; we see very little of the alien presence itself, as Vigalondo is much more interested in using his limited budget to explore the human condition. Julio (Julian Villagran) and Julia (Michelle Jenner) wake up after a hard night of partying in Julia’s apartment. Not only do they not recall how they came to be so drunk, but they also don’t recall the moment when the huge alien spaceship started hovering in the skies over their city. With the streets deserted, Julio decides he’s going to hang around to learn more about Julia, with whom he’s instantly smitten, but will have to contend with the attentions of both a creepy neighbour and also the return of Julia’s boyfriend to complicate matters.
Extraterrestrial’s humour is bone dry, but that dry wit should still appeal to a certain audience. As he did with Timecrimes, Vigalondo has used genre trappings to spin something out of nothing, and the isolated feel provided by the deserted streets and the paranoia gradually imbued into most of the characters is more effective in its own way than any hordes of marauding aliens would be. It never soars, but once again Vigalondo has constructed a satisfying chamber piece that defies expectation, but one that sadly never truly grips or excites.
Vigalondo popped up again at the end to introduce his own Q & A; I think he became a little exasperated at some of the questions, but this is no fault of his, rather that of the dangerous nature of audience Q & As that questions come with no quality filter of any kind. Still, he was as gracious and entertaining as he had been when discussing Open Windows the previous day.
The Score: 6/10
It’s Nacho time again! This time popping up for an intro, rather than a Q & A, Vigalondo had also given his time to the latest in the video-based anthology series. I will confess to having not seen the first two, but I know that contributions from the likes of Adam Wingard and Gareth Evans had been well received. What the first two had in common, which is absent here, is a framing device which had given need for the tapes with the anthology stories to be watched; here, the wraparound story is simply segmented in among the other stories, almost as if you’d found a VHS tape of the main story and someone had taped over it. Consequently there are huge amounts of the video crackle you’d get when transitioning between recordings, and after several minutes of enduring this on a state of the art projection system with the volume ramped up, I’d have cheerfully settled for listening to a thousand demons dragging their nails down a blackboard instead.
There are three main segments within the anthology, and for me the standout was Vigalondo’s, a well constructed tale of a man creating a doorway to a parallel universe with typically unforeseen and horrific consequences. The reveal felt like the most old school horror moment of the weekend and had me whooping with glee inside. Gregg Bishop gives us a tale about a magician who gets an actual magical cloak, but is required to occasionally feed it the bodies of his assistants to keep it happy. It pretty much abandons the found footage gimmick, being more preudo-documentary, but the climax reminded me of Monster’s Inc. in a good way, inventive but not that heavy on the horror. The final main segment is a mess, skateboarders who summon a demon in Mexico is filmed on tiny handheld cameras and skateboard-eye viewpoints and its main achievement will be to give a headache to anyone not already suffering from the framing device. Overall, the V/H/S series would seem to be an interesting way to give life to ideas that would otherwise not stretch to feature length, but you very much have to take the rough with the smooth.
The Score: 6/10 (8 for Vigalondo’s segment, 6 for Gregg Bishop’s, about 4 for everything else)
To close the festival, a film that was barely a horror movie at all, rather a sci-fi with a series of sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a darker horror movie. Students and part time hackers Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are taking Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) on a road trip to California, while discussing the issues that Nic’s muscular dystrophy could present to their relationship. While en route, they get a message from mysterious hacker NOMAD, who’s already caused them problems, and Nic and Jonah determine that they could confront NOMAD with a reasonable detour from their trip. On finding his location is a deserted cabin and then coming under some form of mysterious attack, Nic awakens in a defence facility, seemingly unable to walk, and is confronted by a mysterious scientist (Laurence Fishburne).
This might constitute something of a spoiler, but it’s an oblique one. The film makers have claimed to have taken inspiration in constructing this tale from Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave, but there are a number of more obvious sci-fi influences at work here. What director William Eubank and his crew have done is to weave that tapestry of influences into an intriguing whole, and despite a couple of clunky missteps (the mysterious tattoo on Nic’s arm once he’s been captured, the reveal of who NOMAD is), in general the level of execution matches up to the ideas. Fishburne does what he can with a nothing role, but the younger actors all put in great performances, and Thwaites’ career already appears to be on an upward trajectory. If this is his calling card, then Eubank could be on a similar trajectory, and if he can rein in some of those cheesier impulses and tie his strong visual sense to slightly more polished storytelling, then greatness could be on the cards. But despite a few rough edges, The Signal still proved a very satisfying way to close out the festival.
The Score: 8/10
So that’s it; the festival over for another year. I personally felt that my decision to ramp up from the single day attendance of the two previous years to the three and a half days I managed this year justified itself with the quality of some of the films seen: The Babadook was the standout of the festival for me, but with The Guest, Life After Beth, The Samurai, The House At The End Of Time, Alleluia and The Signal also being thoroughly entertaining, I’ll be aiming for a full festival pass next year if at all possible. Thanks to everyone involved in putting on such a great spectacle, and I hope to see you all next year.