For most people the perfect holiday break consists of seeking out the sun in order to obtain that perfect golden brown colour (although most have to settle for lobster red). For others it’s a journey of discovery, seeking out places of historical interest or natural beauty. For me it’s five days in a cinema watching non-stop horror movies.
FrightFest is the UK’s premier horror and fantasy festival. Started in 2000, its reputation has grown each year. This was my first trip to the festival (in fact to any festival) and the line-up of films had me cautiously excited. The Festival took place at the Odeon West End in London’s cinematic centre, Leicester Square, starting on the evening of Thursday 23 August and finishing late of Monday 27. Showing 26 films plus several short films and with appearances from many of the films' directors, this was heaven for a horrorphile like myself.
Things got underway on Thursday evening with a showing of the New Zealand comedy/horror Black Sheep. It was a fun way to start and the majority of the audience seemed to enjoy this tale of genetically modified killer sheep. I liked the film although many of its funniest moments had been featured in the trailer.
The film’s director, Jonathan King, was on hand to introduce the film and do a short Q&A afterwards. He said he wanted to clear up some doubt about what type of film it was. “It’s a documentary, everything you see is real, New Zealand is a very dangerous place and you shouldn’t go there.” It will be interesting to see how this talented director’s career progresses and if he stays with the horror genre.
Next up was what amounted to a promo for the 28 Weeks Later DVD; a showing of a deleted scene and a few more extra features. The producer fielded some questions, the highlight coming when he was asked if there was any studio pressure to give the film a happier ending. “Happier than infecting the French?” he quipped, to much laughter from the audience.
It was a black double-bill from Down Under with the evening’s final film being the killer croc tale Black Water. I hadn’t originally planed to stay for this as the trailer made it look like a rehash of Open Water with a crocodile instead of sharks. I was glad I did. While it had its faults (some dodgy dialogue being the main one) this was an incredibly tense man versus nature story as three holidaymakers find themselves alone, stranded in a tree surrounded by water with a very hungry crocodile for company. The night-time storm sequence is the film's high spot, using the audience’s imagination and some gruesome sound effects to show that what you don’t see is more potent than what any special effects guys can conjure.
The day ended with a special treat. Neil Marshall presented some footage from his forthcoming science fiction epic, Doomsday. Things didn’t run smoothly – technical difficulties delayed the screening – but for those of us who waited (which was almost everyone) the reward was worth it. Even though the footage was displayed in black and white when it should have been colour this was the highlight of the day and looks like one of the must-see films of next year.
Having read up on the festival beforehand, I’d come prepared with a cushion in my bag, but not seeing anyone else with one and not wanting to appear a wimp I kept it in there for the duration of the first day. I was starting to feel a little numb in the posterior by the time I made my way out of the cinema and I knew Mr Cushion would be making an appearance the next day.
On the second day the cushion was out of the bag and slipped under me in one swift motion in the hopes no one noticed.
I’d skipped the first film of the day, Hatchet, because this was being shown to record a live commentary for the DVD and, as I hadn’t seen it before, I didn’t fancy watching it with someone talking all the way through the film.
So the first film of the day was The Sword Bearer, a Russian fantasy (there were two being shown at the festival, the other being Day Watch) that ended up as the worst film of the festival for me. It’s a love story but one whose central characters we care nothing about. They come across as cold and self-serving, uncaring of the mayhem they leave behind. The score doesn’t help matters, it’s so overblown you’d think you were watching an opera. Stealing from the X-Men’s Wolverine, the sword bearer of the title has a sword that pops out of his arm. Now genre audiences will take a lot on faith, and it’s nice not to have too much spelled out for you, but I think a guy with a sword in his arm needs an explanation. Perhaps Russian cinema just doesn’t translate well to a western audience.
Thankfully the day got better with The Signal, that rare thing – an intelligent horror film. Borrowing from George Romero’s The Crazies, this sees the world’s (or at least the city the story takes place in) TVs, radios, and phones emitting a signal that sends people crazy. This is the set-up but at heart this is a character-based film and as much a love story as The Sword Bearer; the difference here though is we do care about the characters. Broken down into three interconnected tales, the film's high point is its blackly humorous middle section and while the ending of the film verges on pretentiousness it's still an exceptionally well-made low budget feature.
My third film of the day was anything but low budget, in fact Sam Jackson doubtless got paid more for what amounts to just a cameo than The Signal cost to make. 1408 is the highest grossing Stephen King adaptation to date and, as the guy I was sitting next to said after the film, it’s the sort of horror film no horror fans will enjoy. Well made and well acted, this was still a bit of a letdown after The Signal. Jackson steals the film and delivers the best line after which the film pretty much becomes the John Cusack show. Luckily, as he’s onscreen for almost all the film's running time, he’s on good form but the film is let down as it moves from subtle creepiness to overblown Hollywood blockbuster horror, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the beleaguered Cusack.
I missed the next film, Teeth, a last minute replacement for P2 when the print for that film failed to arrive. The idea of a woman with teeth in her vagina sounded a little too silly so I elected to get something to eat instead. By all accounts though the film was rather good, played straight and with a strong central performance from Jess Weixler. This is one I’ll have to track down on DVD at some point.
My last film of the day was All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a film that reinvents the slasher sub-genre for the college spree killer age; this was Friday the 13th with brains. Well-rounded characters, snappy dialogue and riveting direction aren’t things you normally associate with a slasher film. The film also features a star-making performance from Amber Heard, an actress who is destined for big things.
That was the end of the day for me. Shrooms promised another crazed killer but I couldn’t see it topping Mandy Lane so I went in search of sleep.
Still to come – Zombies walk through Leicester Square! Gore galore in Wrong Turn 2! And an appearance from Mr Uwe Boll!Powered by Sidelines