That sounds like an insane amount of horror movies, right? But it’s par for the course for visitors to Frightfest, by far the UK’s biggest horror film event. I went along to find out whether this level of horror exposure would cause some kind of terrifying permanent personality disorder… or just be good old-fashioned blood-soaked fun. Which outcome prevailed? Let’s find out!
(Imagine a foreboding Amityville-style title card, as we enter…)
DAY 0: WEDNESDAY
There’s a pub quiz. Various cast and crew members of festival films mill around happily downing pints. Most prominent is Heather Buckley, producer for the opening film The Ranger, thanks to her spectacular haircut and leather jacket combo. Andy Nyman (Ghost Stories) hosts, though I fail to recognise him with his statement glasses on.
My team correctly names not one but both films that are set in Hobbs’ End (Quatermass and The Pit, and In The Mouth of Madness). We end up winning a DVD of The Lost Boys.
We are off to a good start.
DAY 1: THURSDAY
I arrive at the Leicester Square Cineworld to be given my festival pass and a goody bag containing (among other things) David Cronenberg’s Shivers on blu, The Villainess DVD, The Ghoul DVD, Hounds of Love DVD, and the book All the Colours of Sergio Martino. I do like Shivers and The Villainess, so this is a good start. (I’ve never seen The Ghoul, but I do like the other horror films that have emerged so far from the old Ealing Live! crew, so I figure I’m predisposed to like this one too).
In the Cineworld foyer a number of stands are selling t-shirts, posters, DVDs, blus and books. I make a mental note that the Arrow video stand is selling Night of the Comet for £5.
People with weekend passes are based in the IMAX screen, so we head in. Speaking of Ealing Live! alumni, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe arrive, enthusiastic and possibly slightly tipsy, to give a meandering yet heartfelt welcome to “the people who make the festival!” (e.g. the audience).
The cast and crew of The Ranger are brought out for a quick intro, the lights go down, and a stern message appears on screen: “This film has not been formatted for IMAX ™ and is not the IMAX ™ experience.”
With that, the festival is underway.
Movie 1: THE RANGER
This was a good solid old-school slasher with a park ranger theme and a big dash of 80s punk references. Having seen producer Heather Buckley’s haircut and jacket, it’s clear why she’s a producer on this. The best aspects of this movie were the lead performance from Chloe Levine (best ‘panicked eyes’ of the fest), the period costume details, and of course the ranger-themed kills. Particularly the bear-trap. Loved that bear trap.
Movie 2: SUMMER of 84
Again, we are informed that this film is not the IMAX ™ experience.
I super enjoyed this Goonies-do-The-‘Burbs (or, if you prefer, Stranger-Things-With-a-Serial-Killer) romp, which has a kind of edgier, more downbeat version of the old Amblin vibe. Thoroughly charming, genuinely tense, and full of fun early-80s references: Return of the Jedi, Space Camp (remember Space Camp?)… they even drink from a bottle of “MacReady’s Whiskey”! Not to give anything away, I particularly liked how downbeat they took the ending, too. Recommended!
Movie 3: MEGA TIME SQUAD
This is not the IMAX ™ experience, barks the automated ident. The crowd are now giggling every time they hear this.
“Goofy New Zealand criminals bickering” will always have a certain charm, and this had a handful of good character moments. It’s all yoked to a ramshackle variation on the old Predestination/Primer/Triangle/Timecrimes time travel plot. That’s one of my favourite plots, to be honest, but the details here are fairly forgettable, and the joys of the film, such as they are, lie in watching idiots get themselves into trouble they have no hope of comprehending. The best line is in the trailer – after meeting multiple versions of the hero, one of the villain’s henchmen says excitedly “Wait’ll I tell my mum about this!”.
DAY 2: FRIDAY
So far, so good. No lurgy. The Arrow video stand has taken Night of the Comet off special and replaced it with Madman. I ask nicely and get NotC for £5 anyway. Result. Next up: MORE FILMS.
Movie 4: THE CLEANING LADY
Not the IMAX ™ experience. I had forgotten this. More good-natured titters from the crowd, who have thinned out a little from the day before, due to the early hour (11:30 am). My compatriots in seats H34 and H36 are nowhere to be seen, allowing me to slump happily in all directions.
The Cleaning Lady provides classically-structured stalker/killer fun with strong themes of feminism and Freudian abjection. A physical therapist with a slightly barbie-doll aesthetic (and a secret lover) gets in a new cleaner to help keep her home/studio in spotless condition.
The cleaning lady provided by her super turns out to be a painfully shy lady with severe burns to the face… who develops an interest in the perfect face and ‘perfect life’ of her employer. That’s alongside her pre-existing interests in putting rats in a blender, and different types of acid. But what will happen when she discovers that her idol has such bad habits as adultery and (gasp) smoking?
This film was a little roller coaster of thrills. It just completely works.
Is it ableist? Yeah, maybe. For discussion. They do make the titular Cleaning Lady very sympathetic, right up to the point where she gets her acid out.
Movie 5: BRAID
NTI(tm)E. “I want my money back!” shouts one wag.
There are a couple of good ideas/good moments in here, but boy oh boy does it feel like someone learning as they go, and getting all their worst directing/editing impulses out of their system. Hopefully they will have learned from this the importance of telling a story with clarity. This felt like a student film, and was an early and extreme example of a key theme of the festival: UNRELIABLE TRAUMATISED NARRATORS.
Time and time again, we saw movies who play games with reality and invite us to be uncertain about what we’re seeing, typically because the protagonist has been traumatised in childhood. A little goes a long way with this kind of stuff, and Braid gave us a LOT of it.
Fun fact: this was the first film in history to be financed by cryptocurrency. There you go. If you didn’t have a reason to dislike cryptocurrency before, now you do.
Movie 6: PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH
Craig S. Zahler made a splash with his enjoyably macho (but sometimes racially questionable) films Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. At the time of writing, hes in the process of debuting his enjoyably macho (but sometimes racially questionable) film Dragged Across Concrete at TIFF. But in between he took a break from directing in order to write the eleventh entry in the Puppet Master schlock horror series about evil puppets telepathically controlled – via combination of science and magic? – by a vaguely undead Nazi (Udo Keir). I had never previously seen any entries in this series.
“This film has not been formatted for IMAX, and is not the IMAX experience!” chants the crowd.
I found this film to be enjoyably macho, although sometimes racially questionable.
Top four moments:
- “Why would ANYONE make… Nazi puppets?”
- [While pulling a Hitler-headed baby doll out of someone’s stomach] “Oh no, it’s Junior Führer!”
- [While throwing Junior Führer into an oven] “Let’s see how YOU like it!”
- Charlyne Yi really spectacularly breaking her back.
Later, I grabbed a photo with star Barbara Crampton (Body Double, Re-Animator, Castle Freak, etc), because, well, who wouldn’t?
Movie 7: ONE CUT OF THE DEAD
My pre-festival research had already earmarked this as one of the must-sees of the festival, so I was pretty energised for this. It was also my first film of the ‘fest to not be screening in the IMAX. Instead it was showing in one of the ‘Discovery’ screens, in this case Screen 1 at the Prince Charles Cinema. Goodbye to the ‘this is not the IMAX ™ experience’ ident, hello instead to John Waters shouting at us to turn off our phones.
One Cut of the Dead was great. I’m not going to detail it here, because I recommend going in knowing very little. It’s a very meta zombie comedy/satire of low-budget film-making. It even contains a film within a film within the film.
An absolute crowd-pleaser, very funny, and hugely recommended. The third act, in particular, played like absolute gangbusters – cheering and laughing from a crowd that were delighted that their Discovery Screen gamble had paid off.
Movie 8: INCIDENT IN A GHOST LAND
Back to the IMAX-experience-less Cineworld IMAX for some emotionally exhausting torture porn, and fairly transphobic torture porn at that – the two villains are a giant dumb ogre-esque guy, and a witchy transwoman, neither of whom have any kind of backstory or indeed any significant dialogue.
This was effectively made, true: the first half works well, and the movie had the best example of subjectivity-due-to-trauma in the festival. But it certainly wasn’t worth accidentally lacerating a young actress’s face over.
Avoid avoid avoid.
Movie 9: BOAR
At this point my focus was leaving me, and I drifted through the screening in a daze. The screen says something about IMAX, and someone in the crowd feigns outrage.
This Ozsploitation creature feature was notable mainly for its giant Boar puppet and for showcasing the pig-punching and Ice-Ice-Baby-rapping skills of Nathan Jones (Rictus Erectus from Mad Max: Fury Road). That guy definitely deserves to be a cameo henchman in a Marvel movie.
Best line: when the kindly American step-dad looks up to see a boar the size of a truck staring at him from behind a tree. Before he is charged down and eaten, he simply chuckles to himself “Heh… that’s insane.”
DAY 3: SATURDAY
Definitely feeling punch drunk by now.
Movie 10: RAVERS
A contaminated batch of energy drinks is mistakenly dispatched to an illegal warehouse party, where it turns everyone into a selfish zombie hedonist (SATIRE).
Can a germophobic undercover journalist get herself and her friends out of the rave from hell? This low-budget British effort got props for:
- Saving its best, gnarliest special effect for the last 15 minutes: that was some great makeup work.
- The best ever cinematic deployment of Toto by Africa
- The way it skewers “underground culture meets late-stage capitalism” hypocrisy.
Also, it just goes to show you can make Wales stand in for the US if you employ a couple of Americans, get everyone else to vaguely attempt an accent, and set your film almost entirely inside a warehouse.
The IMAX crowd shouted something ironic about Christopher Nolan.
Movie 11: HERETIKS
The ident provokes another audience IMAX quip, probably, plus the sort of cheer you get in a pub when someone drops a glass.
This Nunsplotation flick had a lot of nuns but not enough ‘sploitation. It would’ve worked better if they’d leaned into the inherent campiness a lot more. As it was there was a one goofy kill a fan action movie style quip at the end that I enjoyed. Apart from that… All the gloom strained my eyes.
When it comes to Nunsploitation you want, at the very least, a decent performance from the Mother Superior, and this movie did at least have that. Plus Michael ‘Scanners‘ Ironside and his eyebrows, in precisely one scene.
Movie 12: THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY
Across to the PCC again!
Found footage movies are the crack cocaine of horror. This one delivered a decent number of scares: hands over my eyes more than once. Nothing too memorable, but in the moment it manged to turn my knuckles white. Plus it’s always nice to signal the arrival of the third act by having your kindly priest character… dun dun dun… starting to swear.
My second evil Mother Superior in a row too. This one had the “patronising chuckle” down pat. Vastly superior, in fact, to Heretiks.
Bonus surprise: a scene from OVERLORD
Back in the IMAX screen, they unexpectedly showed us an entire scene from JJ Abrams’ zombie Nazi movie Overlord (making this the second thing I saw today to feature zombies and Nazis).
If you’ve seen the trailer, it’s the one you briefly see shots of where a guy says “WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME?” followed by another shot where his head flips back with a gruesome crunch.
Bottom line: this movie looks like a lot of fun.
Film 13: WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE
Festival mid-way point alert!
I really enjoyed this isolated location psychopath-thriller… at least, right up until it kinda derailed itself in the last 20 mins via the classic method of TERRIBLE PROTAGONIST CHOICES.
Still very good though, overall. Visceral, and superbly acted – deserves to be considered in the same breath as Dead Calm, Pacific Heights and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.
Film 14: UPGRADE
This was great! Like the Sam Raimi Dr Octopus meets Robocop. Doesn’t have the savage social satire of Verhoeven, but does have wonderfully distinctive fight scenes. Choreography is superbly crafted. Logan Marshall-Green does great physical acting… and yes, he looks like Tom Hardy.
When asked in the Q&A what movie franchise he’d like it to cross over into, the director expressed a dislike for shared universes… before relenting and agreeing that Scanners would be pretty cool.
“Surprise! We’re in the Scanners universe now!”
Film 15: FRIGHT FEST (not named after the festival)
I feel bad giving this a review when I bailed after 45 minutes, but… god this was incompetent and dull dull dull. The basic setup (Fright Fest, a kind of immersive theatrical horror experience in an abandoned asylum, is invaded by actual psychotics when a bus from the new asylum crashes) could work, but no one behind the camera seems to know what they’re doing.
Random cutting, no sense of rhythm to support any jokes or scares, nothing is scary, almost nothing is funny, there’s no atmosphere whatsoever, and the under-lit lighting is so bad that they clearly just cranked up the brightness in post, giving many of the visuals a noisy, static-filled low-contrast feel.
Two bright spots: the acting by the guy playing the mayor, who conceives of the Fright Fest idea to get himself re-elected (???), is so bad, and the conception of the character so nonsensical, that it briefly achieves a kind of John-Waters-esque trash grace. Also, the director watching things go to hell while he munches confusedly on ‘shrooms in his control booth was kind of a gonzo image. Well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
This was 45 minutes of mostly garbage, and if the rest is any better I apologise.
Of all the films I saw, this is the one that was furthest from the IMAX experience ™.
The good news was: I made it to Charing Cross station in time for the last train home!
DAY 4: SUNDAY
Let’s be clear, I’m barely aware of what day it is. I celebrate my rapidly disintegrating sense of reality and humanity by purchasing the book “Philip K Dick on Film” from the Arrow video stand. It seems thematically apposite.
I then shuffle confusedly into the IMAX screen with a Pret flat white in one hand and a Pret orange juice in the other.
Film 16: HELL IS WHERE THE HOME IS
A home invasion thriller – or, to be more precise, an AirB&B-invasion thriller. The first two acts were great, in which the increasingly paranoid renters start to turn on each other, unsure of whether or not their holiday pad is under threat or not,
Things kind of deflated in the the third act, in which the villains finally arrive only to reveal themselves as pretty underwritten. At this point it descends into running and screaming.
Another downside: the Mexican gang imagery (presented without context beyond OH NO SCARY MEXICANS) could be seen a little bit racist, too. I think there were maybe better ways to go in today’s loaded times.
Nonetheless, overall it was a lot of fun, with lots of twists and turns. The best aspect, however was that Fairuza Balk is in this, as a creepy neighbour! (Or is she…) And she was wonderful!
Film 17: THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT
This was indeed surprisingly heartfelt but also quietly eccentric. It has its campy moments, but… mostly not deliberately? Sam Elliot is great, as ever. It has an exploitation movie aesthetic in places, but not consistently. It’s hard to properly communicate how loopy this movie is, whilst also making it clear it’s not actually that interesting.
Oddly, once gets to the end of the story it keeps going for another 20 mins.
Film 18: BODIED
Back to the PCC. Of all the new movies showing at FrightFest this one had the highest score on Letterboxd. Yes, that’s why I chose it, and what of it?
“We don’t need Macklemore, we need Mackle-less.”
Oh my goodness. This was remarkable. Battle Rap madness, like Creed for rapping, plus a satire of campus politics. NUTS.
An amazing crowd movie – riotous, exhilarating fun. Although not a horror per se, this was a great, transgressive crowd pleaser that achieved a very horror-esque audience reaction: gasps, shouts, cheers, laughter, and the guy next to me sinking into his seat, clutching his head and whimpering “no no no NONO”.
Director Joseph Kahn (Detention) joined us for a Q&A, and told us that distributors are so scared off by this film’s content that our cinema screening was the ONLY one planned for the WHOLE OF EUROPE. Insane.
US people, this film limited-drops in November… then on YouTube Red.
Film 19: AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS
Staying in the PCC, Await Further Instructions was basically a feature length Black Mirror episode (a compliment, love a bit of Black Mirror) with on-the-nose Millgram experiment and Brexit satire themes.
The cast was mostly good – David Bradley, as you might expect, is the standout as the racist bully grandfather, though Grant Masters does good work as the officious dad slowly going bonkers.
As with many high-concept sci-fi mysteries: strong first two acts, slight drop off for the big showdown
I dug it.
Film 20: TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Still in the PCC. Starting to miss the IMAX indent.
I bumped into the director, Issa López, on the way in. She was lovely.
TaNA looked like it should absolutely be my kind of thing – a tale of Mexican street kids caught up in gang warfare, hiding from the thugs looking to threaten them and drawing upon magic to protect themselves – magic that may prove to be even more dangerous than the gangs.
This had some strong thematic links to Guillermo Del Toro’s work – especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both of which I really liked. Some of the people around me were in tears by the end, yet somehow it didn’t quite land for me as it did for them. I was mostly caught up in the gang warfare side of the story, whereas the magical side was less interesting to me – and instead drawing me in, the magical-realist aspects left me feeling vaguely disconnected. Maybe I was just in the wrong frame of mind.
Great performances from all the kids, though, and I applaud its politics. Plus Issa’s Q&A was delightful, and I’m genuinely looking forward to what she has next (a Del Toro-produced period horror monster movie… “about a curse”).
DAY 5: MONDAY
I can barely remember my own name.
Film 21: OPEN 24 HOURS
We were intrigued by the fact this film listed ‘Selina Kile’ as a guest. Was she named after Selina Kyle, Catwoman herself, we wondered? No. Turns out it was a typo for Selina Giles.
The basic setup of this had promise, the cinematography and set design great, performances solid. But like a stand-up comedian who stumbles over their own punchlines, this movie was rendered largely ineffective by pacing and rhythm issues within key scenes.
Plus, when you have a heroine who hallucinates a serial killer stalked by that actual serial killer for real… there’s only so many times you can go to that “it’s not real! Or perhaps it is! OR IS IT?” well before audiences will start to tune out.
It looked great though, and if you like “serial killer rain” as an aesthetic they went the whole hog here and actually called the villain “The Rain Ripper”.
Despite the fact he uses a sledgehammer.
Film 22: THE FIELD GUIDE TO EVIL
Every horror movie festival needs an anthology film, and here it is.
Well, the Peter Strickland entry was last and best (a kind of fairytale Murnau pastiche that left me more excited than ever for his upcoming In Fabric). The gonzo charms of the American entry (“BEWARE OF THE MELONHEADS”) also got some good laughs from the audience. Otherwise this was mostly a slog.
Film 23: POSSUM
Back to the Prince Charles!
Possum is a little like Cronenberg’s Spider meets Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio meets the decaying circa-1980 hometown vibe of Scarfolk. Really dug the aesthetics & imagery. They even got in The Radiophonic Workshop. Sean Harris really gives it his all, and Matthew Holness has conjured up the most unsettling puppet you’re likely to see for a while.
Sadly, for me it suffered from the same thing Spider did: it gives such a strong sense of subjectivity, hallucination and psychological dislocation from the beginning that the whole thing felt like a dream, and I ended up emotionally disengaged. Yes, another example of a traumatised, subjective, unreliable protagonist.
But the terrifying puppet design (partially from a cast of Sean Harris’s actual face) is GREAT.
In the bar afterwards Mathew Holness was lovely.
Film 24: BLACK SITE
Black Site is some sort of Lovecraftian Guantanamo Bay. Got to admit, I watched this mainly on the basis of its fairly punchy/provocative tagline: DEPORT ALL GODS.
Respect to the indie filmmaking fire of writer/director/editor Tom Paton: delivering a John Carpenter meets HP Lovecraft cheesy 80s aesthetic on a very tight budget. Even did all the effects shots himself. A real example for the get-off-your-butt-and-do-it school of filmmaking. 3 films in 3 years.
As for the results: the Carpenteresque touches, the key effects shots and the martial arts fight scenes were all decent. The plot and acting, not so much. (Both sides of that are perhaps to be expected when you cast martial artists).
But I applaud the ambition and the fact he got it made. Plus, I was never bored.
Film 25: CLIMAX
Once more unto the IMAX. There are rumours Gasper Noé is amongst us, moving through the crowds like a insane French shadow. Suddenly he emerges below, to waves and cheers. This film is based on his favourite club in Paris, he tells us. The club was “very black and very gay”. He hopes we enjoy it.
Then the lights go down and for the final time in the festival we are warned, sternly, that Climax is not the IMAX ™ experience. Climax begins.
It’s absolutely mental.
In true Gaspar Noé style it’s also very much an immersive sensory experience. Opinions will vary, but I was on board for most of the ride (only slipping after the first five minutes of the extensive upside-down action near the end). Definitely reminded me why I don’t go clubbing much. Sofia Boutella aces it, giving it the full Isabelle-Adjani-in-Possession hysterical writhing.
I applaud this bold FrightFest finale! And with that, the festival is at an end.
There are drinks somewhere until 2am, but I simply need to get home and go to bed. Frankly I can’t image who’d want to go out and get blitzed after watching Climax.
Five days, 24.5 films (sorry, “Fright Fest”, I couldn’t managed more than 45 minutes of you.)
There was something I liked about all of these movies, even Fright Fest, and as a whole the experience was remarkable.
But these are my top seven, and I heartily recommend them all:
- One Cut of the Dead
- Summer of 84
- What Keeps You Alive
- The Cleaning Lady
As for what it was like overall: exhausting, fun, exhilarating, and very very friendly. Everyone in the main screen got to know everyone around them, shared their thoughts on each film, asked returnees about what they’d seen in the Discovery Screens, and added each other on social media. If you want to meet the UK’s horror film nerd community, FrightFest is where they are… and I can confirm they’re a very nice bunch.
Thank you FrightFest, and may we meet again on a windswept moor…
Until then… remember… this was not the IMAX experience.
(Distant howls, camera pans up to full moon, an uncanny cackling grows louder and louder…)
Or was it?
[Postscript: I spent most of Tuesday in bed with the lurgy.]