02nd Sep2013

Film4 Frightfest 2013 in Review – Part 2

by Jack Kirby

Frightfest-2013

Sunday

Despite a late night, I rolled up to the Empire at early o clock in order to make sure I got a seat for the midnight movie Willow Creek, which had sold out the day before. Fortunately, the organisers had the wherewithal to move the film into a bigger auditorium for Sunday. Being there good and early meant I was well in time to catch Missionary (Anthony DiBlasi). Frightfest doesn’t exclusively screen horror films and Missionary is a well-judged and atmospheric thriller that begins life as a sort of family drama before events begin to turn more and more sinister.

We’re introduced to single mum and son Katherine and Kesley Kingsmen (Dawn Oliveri and Connor Christie) who seem to be getting by whilst trying to reintroduce estranged father Ian (Kip Pardue) back into the family unit. A pair of Mormon missionaries call by one day and the young and charismatic Elder Brock (Mitch Ryan) ingratiates himself into the Katherine and Kesley’s lives leading to an affair between him and the young mother.

Eventually realising her mistake, Katherine calls off the relationship much to the anger of Brock whose methods to restart the relationship and oust Ian become increasingly aggressive. It’s a slow-burning feature and totally compelling for it. Its key strength is in its characterisation. The Kingsmen family feel wholly real and the complex relationship between Katherine and Ian is excellently portrayed. Both are essentially good people who have made mistakes and hurt each other but are trying to make things work. Because you’re rooting hard for the couple to succeed, it means that Mitch Ryan needs only make the most cursory unpleasant movement in his scheme to steal his way into the family for the viewer to be turned totally against him.

Whilst painted in slightly broader strokes than other members of the cast, Ryan’s Brock becomes quietly terrifying presence, whose religious fervour is matched only by his psychopathy. Another key element to the film’s success is its refusal to mock Mormons – indeed, Brock’s partner, played by Jordan Woods-Robinson, is actually a pretty decent guy. Cheap laughs could have been generated by the kookier elements of the Mormon faith but as Missionary chooses not do this, you’re left with a far scarier villain. All in all, it was very pleasant surprise that I got very involved in. Its commitment to realism was commendable. The only real flaw was that its small budget occasionally made the feature look like a well-made TV movie, but in terms of character, story and heart-wrenching twists, it was superb.

Next up was Contracted (Eric England), in which Najarra Townsend plays Samantha, a young woman who contracts something nasty after being date-raped at a party. Over the course of a few short days, she begins bleeding from pretty much every orifice and quite literally falling to bits. Her already fragile relationships with her friends, colleagues and mother (Caroline Williams) also start to break down as she refuses to seek help and becomes increasingly isolated.

The body horror elements were really well done – that is to say, very icky. Cronenberg fans will be well satisfied with the deterioration of the flesh on display here. The film’s portrayal of an insular and personal crisis is well done. Samantha is on a self-destructive path in addition to the horrifying illness she finds herself with. The film is also not as morally conservative as I had expected given its premise, which was pleasing. Less enjoyable was the film’s slight foray into mumblecore territory and some of the acting was quite bad with one character being particularly poorly played.

Despite the lead character being fairly unlikable, it was a good watch with an ending I didn’t quite see coming, which could pave the way for an interesting sequel, if enthusiastic producer JD Lifshitz gets his way. I had a quick chat with him after the screening and it was great to meet someone so clearly happy with their film and was practically bursting with ideas and projects he wanted to get underway.

A change of pace came with Argentinian feature The Desert, which is ostensibly a horror film due to its post-zombie apocalypse setting, but with just one member of the undead having only a small role in the film, it’s actually an intense study of a relationship between three individuals, Ana, Jonathan and Axel (Victoria Almeida, William Prociuk and Lautaro Delgado).

The trio live in a fortified apartment under strict self-imposed rules that aim to keep them together and safe. Ana and Jonathan are in a relationship and Axel is the mostly silent third wheel. As a release, the trio record video diaries which are locked away after their recordings. When Ana discovers Axel has been surreptitiously watching her diaries, the already tense dynamic changes dramatically.

It’s an almost dreamlike, ponderous film with some really good use of imagery. Over time, Axel covers his entire body with tiny fly tattoos, evocative of a kind of dehumanising process he goes through as he feels increasingly isolated from the only two other people he has left in his life. Lucas Lagré’s animalistic and mindless portrayal of the captive zombie Ana names Pythagroas may not require him to do an awful lot, but the character is important as the trio consider whether their current lot in life is actually worse than being like him. The idea of relationships built on snippets of video tape is one I found both sad and quite beautiful too. It’s perhaps a little testing of patience, but The Desert is filled with many little touches of inspiration and tragedy, making it a rewarding watch.

Less magisterial is Antisocial (Cody Calahan) which makes the classic mistake of taking a frothy subject matter way too seriously. On New Year’s Eve, a house party is rudely interrupted by an epidemic which seems to be proliferated via social media. I thought this sounded like a pretty fun concept so was quite looking forward to it. Unfortunately, it’s so po-faced that it took me right out of the film – the more seriously the film takes itself, the less seriously I am able to take it, if that makes sense. And honestly, when you’re dealing with such non-scientific nonsense as Antisocial posits, a little bit of tongue in the cheek would go a long way.

It’s clearly got an idea of what it wants to achieve – the use of rolling news and steady drip feed of information coming in on social media demonstrates just how much of our lives are informed and dictated by screens and proves to be both the cause of and possible solution to the epidemic. There’s also a kind of home-invasion vibe as the young protagonists barricade themselves inside their house only to find the threat is coming from within as one by one the virus infects them. Whilst there’s a lot of potential here, Antisocial doesn’t fulfil it. It’s far too shrill and a lot of its moments of invention are wasted or don’t pay off. Still, the final sequences are very well done. Anything that involves [spoilers!] self-inflicted power-drill brain surgery and an axe-wielding final girl (a la You’re Next) is okay in my book. The narrative is left in a very similar place to Contracted, which if there is a sequel, could be quite interesting.

The last film of the day was Bobcat Goldthwait’s first foray into horror with Willow Creek. I’m a big fan of Goldthwait’s directorial work. Sleeping Dogs Lie, World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America are all fantastic films, wittily written with interesting social commentary. Willow Creek is a different proposition to this trio of scripted and traditionally filmed comedies. It’s a found footage film, but one taken to somewhere approaching the genre’s logical conclusion. It features a young couple, Kelly and Jim (Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson), who travel to the titular location in the hope of encountering Bigfoot on film. Well it’s enthusiast Jim’s hope. Kelly is indulging her boyfriend for his birthday. The film is made up of the couple’s footage as they travel into Californian forestry, encounter locals both endearing and otherwise and eventually set up camp deep in the woods.

Apparently there are only 67 cuts in the entire film. I didn’t count them but I can believe it. There’s a remarkable 19 minute scene which is just Jim and Kelly in their tent unable to sleep as weird noises seem to get closer and closer… It’s a hugely impressive feat to include a scene of this length that not only feels necessary and in service of the narrative but is also very frightening. Goldthwait slowly dials the tension up to and beyond breaking point in a way that’s beautifully composed but also entirely naturalistic. Prior to the hugely unnerving first night, the couple meets a host of characters (most of which were not actors in real life), demonstrating just how big Bigfoot culture is (those Bigfoot Burgers look excellent).

Like opening film Missionary before it, what Willow Creek does best is its strong characterisation of its leads. Of all the protagonists across the festival, these two were perhaps the most sympathetic, due to how well they were portrayed and how simply likable they are. As such, when the Bad Things start happening, it’s so much more distressing to watch. For all the amusement of the first third and the thrills of the second, the final third of the film is simply quite upsetting – not so much because terrible things are happening to the characters, but because you’re worried that they might.

The final scene throws something of a curveball in a single glimpse of something unexpected which I guess will give Willow Creek a little extra re-watchability than your average horror flick. Bigfoot, too is a slightly more unusual choice of subject matter, which adds a little more intrigue, most viewers I assume being less well-versed in sasquatch-lore, than say, vampires or zombies. Goldthwait has delivered spectacularly well with this film and as ever, I’m really looking forward to what comes next.

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