Film4 FrightFest

Film4 FrightFest 2014 Day 5: Alleluia, Nymph, Extraterrestrial, V/H/S Viral, The Signal

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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.

Monday LunchThe 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

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)


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

V/H/S Viral

VHS Viral

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)

The Signal

The Signal

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.

Film4 FrightFest 2014 Day 3: Life After Beth, The Babadook

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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?

Me and TARDISWell, 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

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

The Babadook

The Babadook

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?)