04th Sep2013

Film4 Frightfest 2013 in Review – Part 3

by Jack Kirby

Frightfest-2013

Monday

The fifth and final day of Frightfest mercifully began a little later than the preceding days, a boon to many now slightly flagging and delirious film fans. Unfortunately, the first film on the main screen was the single worst feature I caught at the festival. Dark Touch (Marina De Van) features a French crew and an Irish cast and one wonders if something drastic was lost in translation. It’s the story of an eleven year old girl called Niamh (Marie Missy Keating) whose parents and baby brother are killed when household objects seemingly begin to attack them of their own accord. She goes to live with family friends but the mysterious occurrences start to happen again.

It’s apparently a film about child abuse but it misjudges its take on this very difficult subject so badly, it’s borderline offensive. It’s also just stupid. If I were a professional actor asked to deliver a number of the lines in the script, I would want to speak to my agent (assuming of course, I hadn’t read the script prior to signing the contract and thrown it out after a cursory skim). The dialogue is achingly bad at times (“We can look after her – we have a spare room!”) and jumps tonally from line to line and sometimes part way through sentences. It caused the auditorium to laugh repeatedly and loudly at many clankingly bad exchanges, many involving the kindly school counsellor, who is just terrible.

The single redeeming aspect of the film was an impressive shot of a school collapsing, but other than that, it was a morally dubious, amateurish production that really doesn’t need to be troubled by anyone seeing it again.

Much, much better (at least in my opinion) was The Banshee Chapter (Blair Erickson). It’s about a journalist, Anna (Katia Winter) who is investigating the disappearance of her friend James (Michael McMillan). James has been experimenting with strange drugs that the US military used in realif life experiments in the 1960s. These experiments had very weird and sinister results, of course, so as Anna goes about her investigation, weird and sinister things begin to happen to her too. I really liked this. It’s got quite a bit going on, including but not limited to archival footage both fictional and real, strange referencing of real life cultural figures (more soon) and Lovecraftian horrors from beyond the veil. As such, it was a little unpredictable, which I liked. Whilst we know what beats and tropes to expect from a film involving zombies or creepy children or vampires, there isn’t really an established dialogue for military experiment gone wrong/Lovecraftian horror films. So that was something a bit new. I also liked its approach to found footage, recognising the method as a filmmaking tool, rather than a canvas on which to paint an entire picture. Found footage is used (archive, video diaries, camera phones footage, etc) in conjunction with traditional filming to great effect; that is to say the footage is found by the characters, not the audience, which seems a much more realist approach. It also creates a kind of collage effect, which again, I liked.

There were only two problems I had with the film. Firstly, it was in 3D, which I’m not particularly bothered about generally, but is totally unnecessary and fourth wall-breaking when presenting film that’s supposed to look like footage from the 1960s or as if it was shot on a camera phone. Secondly, The Banshee Chapter presents a character, Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine) that is supposed to be Hunter S Thompson. I mean totally and entirely. As in, if he were still alive and willing, they would have got him in. This not being the case, he is imitated entirely by Levine, who recreates something between Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam. The costume, the house, the speech patterns, the fictional backstory which includes a mayoral campaign by Blackburn no less, is all HST. Now I’m a huge fan of Thompson and if your movie references weird drugs taken in the sixties in Colorado it kind of makes sense to involve him somehow. But to make an uncanny proxy Thompson and to make him your second main character is a bold and odd decision. It’s one that took me right out of the narrative flow of the film as my head readjusted to what I was watching.

So in conclusion, The Banshee Chapter was a strange, unusual and very enjoyable film, but not without some significant flaws. But that’s okay – I like flawed films.

I began the home stretch with what felt like Frightfest’s marquee film – a sort of but not really remake of We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, director of the excellent Stake Land), an English language take on Jorge Michel Grau’s film about a family of cannibals. I’ve not seen the original. This version is set in a rainy and forest filled area of the US and features a family unit consisting of a father (Bill Sage), two sisters in their early and late teens (Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers), a baby brother (Jack Gore) and a mother who dies at the beginning of the film. Being fairly old-fashioned, this requires the two sisters, Iris and Rose, to take responsibility for the continued functioning of the family. Unfortunately, this extends to food preparation which for this family means people.

This was a really great film. It takes its time to tell its story, but not a minute is wasted. It’s beautifully shot and the rain drenched environs of the film are a perfect foil to its sombre and melancholic tone. The performances from the central trio of father and daughters are absolutely outstanding. Sage’s portrayal of Old Testament rage and wounded masculinity is as frightening as any slasher or ghoul and Garner and Childers are perhaps even better, their incredibly mature and measured portrayals belying their youth. It should be noted that the cannibalism aspect is if anything underplayed. It’s a testament to the strength of its plot and characters that you kind of forget that you’re watching a film about people who eat people and are instead totally involved in their relationships and development.

Tonally, it had that same brooding feel as something like There Will Be Blood, with a similar broiling tension waiting to burst. It wasn’t without humour, which is good as the pressure of the atmosphere might just have been too stifling if this wasn’t the case. I can imagine that some would find the already sparingly implemented flashback sequences that shed a little light on the Parker family history perhaps unnecessary but I didn’t mind them too much. The ending is brilliantly well judged and for once, not entirely possible to see coming. We Are What We Are is fantastic piece of modern American gothic cinema that was both one of the most disturbing and moving films of the festival.

It was a shame that Frightfest didn’t close on it. The final film of the festival was Israeli black comedy thriller Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Kehales and Navot Papushado). It’s the story of a police detective (Lior Ashkenazi) who is tracking down a suspected murderous paedophile (Rotem Keinan). The father of the latest victim (Tzahi Grad) takes it upon himself to capture and torture the suspect and ropes in the slightly out of his depth rozzer for the journey.

It does what it sets out to do fairly well and is technically well made, but I just wasn’t comfortable with it at all. There’s something about watching Israeli cops torturing people that I just can’t view as a viable source of humour. Well not in the way this film portrays at least. I don’t think there should be ‘things people can’t joke about’ necessarily, but I think tone, taste and context are always important and I don’t believe Big Bad Wolves gets this stuff right. A good friend of mine whose opinion I value came out thinking very differently and viewed it in a more satirical light; I won’t say this wasn’t there, but even if the film’s intentions were satire then I still don’t think it struck the correct chord.

I imagine that the filmmakers would love to see Big Bad Wolves mentioned positively in the same sentences as stuff like Headhunters or the Coen Brothers canon, but I believe it’s quite far off the mark in this respect. Ultimately the humour is played far too broad and is married to some unnecessarily horrific violence and I left with a fairly unpleasant taste in my mouth. A disappointing end to a Frightfest otherwise filled with highlights.

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