30th Aug2013

Film4 Frightfest 2013 in Review – Part 1

by Jack Kirby

Frightfest-2013

Opening Night and Saturday

Frightfest 2013 opened on Thursday evening with Howard and John Ford’s The Dead 2: India, a sequel to their previous Africa-set zombie flick. To be honest, it wasn’t the most auspicious start to the weekend. A zombie epidemic reaches the Asian subcontinent and American engineer Nicholas (Joseph Millson) attempts to cross the country to reunite with his Indian girlfriend Ishani (Meenu Mishra), aided only by plucky orphan boy Javed (Anand Gopal). I didn’t catch The Dead, so the novelty of watching a Zombie film set anywhere other than Middle America (or Crouch End) was not lost on me.

The various locations around rural India are occasionally used rather well. Nicolas’s introductory scene is a slow pull out from extreme close up to a panoramic shot of him dangling from a wind turbine, which works really well and there several nicely implemented vistas. Much of the film takes place during the daytime, which is a pleasing exception from the accepted norm. The incidental music was also atmospheric. Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to say of note about The Dead 2. The film is the same zombie feature you’ve seen dozens of times before with nothing new brought to the table other than location. The acting is somewhat subpar and the script is nothing special. A call-back to an Indian legend at the film’s conclusion attempts to wrap things up pithily but feels half-hearted. Still, as the opening film, it seemed to ride something of a wave of goodwill but I imagine if it was shown in the middle of the day on a smaller screen, it would have made little impression on anyone.

Commitments to the day job meant I couldn’t stay late on the opening night, but having seen it previously, I can assuredly say that You’re Next (Adam Wingard) is a wonderful film and the general opinion of Frightfest attendees after its screening seemed to confirm this. I’ve reviewed it here in full, but in short, it’s a home invasion film that wittily toys with the conventions and tropes of the genre with an outstanding central performance by Sharni Vinson. It’s tense, funny and full of gore and you should go see it as soon as possible.

I was also unable to attend the festival on Friday, but I returned early on Saturday to see Stalled (Christian James), another zombie film set in a less than usual location – a ladies toilet block on Christmas Eve. This was very much a comedy film. Well it would have been if it were a bit funnier. Hapless caretaker WC (Dan Palmer) finds himself trapped in the restroom when a zombie outbreak occurs at the office Christmas party. Using the few wits he has, WC attempts to escape, survive and rescue the girl trapped in the other cubicle further down the row.

I generally quite like single location films and it’s difficult to be too harsh to ultra-low budget, well-meaning knockabout British comedies, but it is pretty ropey. The gender politics are very questionable, the acting stilted and the dialogue poorly written. There’s some serious padding involved too – none more evident in the final sting, which the filmmakers themselves admitted was included to get the running time up.  Still, it’s not unimaginative and there are some creative bits in it. The final line is very good – though I slightly suspect the whole film may have been written around it.

As Willow Creek tickets were snapped up literally a moments before I reached the head of the queue (the Sunday night showing was upgraded to a bigger screen to accommodate its popularity which I gladly got into), I went to see Bring Me the Head of Machine Gun Woman (Ernesto Díaz Espinoza) instead. This proudly claimed to be a ‘LatinXploitation’ flick and as such was a Chilean take on the grindhouse revival movement. Starring Matías Oviedo as a hapless young DJ who rubs his gangster boss the wrong way and becomes forced to track down the mysterious, deadly and sexy assassin known only as Machine Gun Woman (Fernanda Urrejola), which is a little more than he is likely to be capable of.

The whole tongue-in-cheek, ‘it’s so bad it’s good’, deliberately rubbish thing has gotten a little tired I’d say, but I generally rather liked Machine Gun Woman. It didn’t outstay its welcome and the titular character is a fun creation though the film would have benefitted from having her on screen a little more frequently. It also had a Grand Theft Auto-aping narrative structuring device. Scenes were followed by text on screen announcing missions completed or failed; this videogame aesthetic extended to the final shootout set piece which looked for all the world like your typical third person shooter. Again, this has been done before but I rather enjoyed it anyway. It didn’t take itself too seriously and delivered some thrills and fun shootouts, which was pretty much everything I expected from it.

After taking a much needed break around the 3pm round of films, I returned to the cinema to catch the documentary Rewind This! (Josh Johnson). Taking the VHS medium as its subject, this proved a thoroughly entertaining and really very interesting film. I guess it’s a pretty clever subject to pick if you’re looking for something that huge numbers of people will be able to relate to. I remember the stacks of VHS tapes we had in our home when I was a kid. We’d get all the Disney classics when they came out and my mam had a collection of Friends tapes that began as a hodgepodge of random episodes before the entire saga of Ross and Rachel was purchased in full (with an eventual mixture of tapes and later series on DVD). I remember pre-ordering The Phantom Menace on video and being almost tearful when I couldn’t find my Woolworth’s proof of purchase that fateful Monday it was finally released. I was 11, okay.

My point is, the film taps into this well of nostalgia that most people will have for the format. It does so in a way that isn’t cheap, that provides some interesting insights into the influence a medium has on the art form it carries and demonstrates just how truly massive VHS was. DVD and Blu-Ray ain’t got nothing on the format in terms of proliferation and variety of titles. It was also a very funny film, due in no small part to some of their weird and wonderful fans of the format, from those who file the collections by spine colour (as reasonable system as any if you ask me) to those with VHS ink. It should also be noted that Brian Behm’s retro titles are totally boss.

So whilst I enjoyed the first clutch of films I saw at Frightfest to varying degrees, I noticed that I hadn’t watched anything that was out and out scary yet (a comedy, an action thriller and a documentary aren’t places to look for scares I guess). Thank goodness then, for Elliot Goldner’s The Borderlands. A deacon from the Catholic Church (Gordon Kennedy) and a sound engineer (Robin Hill) are dispatched to a small and ancient church in rural England to verify the claims of miraculous occurrences. They are later joined by another church official (Aidan McArdle) as shit goes from mysterious to frightening to crazy. I was at first a little disappointed to see the film was another found footage affair but it more or less serves the narrative – the team are obliged to record as much material evidence of potential miracles as possible but why this extends to the characters recording themselves in their holiday cottage and at the pub is questionable.

However, I soon got over the slightly Peep Show-look the film had due to the head cams and started getting totally absorbed by its plot and characters. The testing of faith is a major theme of the film and its depiction of quiet, rural evil evokes a kind of modern day Wicker Man (directly referenced by Hill) or Kill List, only with a coherent and satisfying conclusion. The film is impressive on its own terms too, with its slow burn build-up of terror and its drip feed of plot detail keeping the viewer wanting more. I really loved the film – it was sublimely atmospheric, genuinely quite disturbing and at times very scary. The final scene delivers the kind of gut punch that leaves you slightly ragged of breath. Definitely a festival highlight.

The last film of the evening was Cheap Thrills from director EL Katz, which for a debut feature felt something like a tour de force. It portrays a financially down on his luck schmo (Pat Healy) who runs into an old friend (Etham Embry) whilst drowning his sorrows in a bar. They are accosted by a stupidly wealthy couple (Sara Paxton and David Koechner) who are looking for a good time. Koechner eggs the pair into drinking with them, offering cash to whoever downs shots the quickest. Seeing this as a way to support his young family for a little while, Healy’s character reluctantly joins in the game with Embry’s more enthusiastically taking part. This escalates into a series of dares for money that quickly turn to weird and eventually sinister.

Though I liked it a lot, Cheap Thrills is a challenging film; often I was seeing things I really wasn’t happy with and it demands a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. The tone I felt was a bit inconsistent – it’s hard to mix moral quandaries and thought experiments with humour, no matter how black. The characters occasionally felt a little more cypher-like than human beings with lives and backstories but this wasn’t too often. I was also a little concerned about the ending as I’m not sure some characters really have to deal with the consequences of their actions, which is a bit of a cheat. However, this over-analysis of the film’s flaws is in the face of what is a very well made picture. Its strengths were in its grim watchability and its cutting social satire – as an allegory of how the rich take advantage of the working classes (at times quite literally screwing them over…) it works devastatingly well. Cheap Thrills is a compelling and emotionally draining watch and was great main screen closer for my first full day.

Stay tuned for further Frightfest coverage soon!

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