All good things come to an end and FrightFest was no exception and on the final day I planned to see all five films before heading homeward.
Zombies! Getting off London’s Underground it was soon evident that something a little strange was going down in Leicester Square — the place was overrun with the walking dead! Still these were the friendliest flesh-eating ghouls you could ever hope to meet.
They were gathered to celebrate the début screening of the low budget British film The Zombie Diaries, and to try and beat the world record for a zombie gathering. They fell a little short of the record, but with 600+ it was a great effort. Some of the make-up on display was very impressive (as good, in fact, as the film we were about to see) and the zombies were truly eclectic. Race, sex, and age, all were united in their love of the living dead.
I managed to make my way through them and into the cinema in time for the film. The Zombie Diaries was Night of the Living Dead meets The Blair Witch Project (the directors were more than happy to own up to their inspiration in the Q&A after the film) and what it lacked in finesse it made up for with enthusiasm. Telling three separate stories or video “diaries,” the film details the start of the zombie outbreak and the aftermath for the few survivors. A neat twist shows that zombies aren’t the only monsters around, with man every bit the undead’s equal. Never less than entertaining, the film showed that ideas are more important than money. There were some structural elements to the story that could have been improved and the film should have finished a little earlier, with a wonderfully bleak ending diluted somewhat by a tagged-on appearance by the army, but all in all this was a very promising first effort.
The day’s films were all from different countries and we headed down Mexico way for our second film, KM 31. This was a ghost story that had been very successful on its home turf but didn’t really cut the mustard with the FrightFest crowd, at least if those who stayed for the director interview after the film is anything to go by. It was well made and featured some excellent cinematography but lacked anything original. The story was based on the Crying Woman legend that has been the inspiration for several Mexican films in the past. Here it was merged with some very Asian-style scare tactics, including that Japanese favourite, the creepy kid. Not a bad film but very pedestrian compared to what we’d been treated to over the weekend.
Things picked up with Spiral, the new film from Hatchet director Adam Green. A left field love story about one of life’s misfits, the film may not seem like FrightFest fare but Green imbues the film with an element of menace, to such an extent that even when it’s at its sweetest you’re gripped because you know it won’t last. It’s the sort of film that only pays off right at the end and even then it’s subtly done, but it shows Green is a talent to watch and far more than the one trick pony Hatchet might suggest.
Green proved to be a FrightFest favourite, receiving the warmest welcome of any of the filmmakers on hand for the weekend and he certainly knows how to handle a crowd. As well as answering audience questions he regaled us with his inspirational Twisted Sister story, a version of which will appear on the Hatchet DVD.
In the Wall came next, the sort of story Edgar Allan Poe might have created had he been around at the time of EC Comics. This was the best, and best looking, short film of the festival, with plenty of talent displayed on both sides of the camera.
Russia had already been responsible for the festival’s worst film (at least of the ones I watched) and next provided the biggest disappointment. Day Watch is the sequel to the Russian smash Night Watch but fell into the Hollywood trap of putting lots of big explosions on screen in the hopes of masking the film's inadequacies. Far too long, badly paced, and just downright silly in parts, the film failed to work as a whole, even though its climax was impressive. Maybe Russian cinema just doesn’t translate for a western audience; it certainly didn’t for this audience member.
One of the festival's organisers, film journalist and author Alan Jones, had been hyping The Orphanage since day one and the film lived up to that hype and then some. Getting its first screening outside of Cannes, this was another ghost story but unlike KM31 this one showed how it should be done.
Guillermo Del Toro’s name appears on the film as producer and there are obvious Del Toro influences but this isn’t Pan’s Labyrinth 2, although it does make a nice companion piece to that film, a dark Peter Pan to Labyrinth’s Alice in Wonderland. Juan Antonio Bayona involves us with the characters just as Del Toro did with his Oscar-nominated foreign film but the fantasy elements of that film are replaced with a traditional ghost story. One member of the audience would later remark that it had similarities to Poltergeist, and while that’s true from a story perspective, in atmosphere it's far closer to the classic The Innocents.
The film’s real ace though is Belen Rueda as Laura. It was revealed by the director after the film that she had shared a similar experience to the character she plays and she must have used that in her performance. Near the end of the film she lets out a cry of such tortured anguish that it was still reverberating in my head days later and the thought of it still has the power to move me to tears. To say too much about this film would spoil it but it delivers more shocks than any other film in the festival (it made the FrightFest crowd jump and that’s no mean feat) and yet shocks aren’t what it’s about. It plays with your emotions, not just your fears, and that’s what stays with you long after the movie has finished.
I stayed for the Q&A session after the film. I shouldn’t have, I needed to get to catch the coach home, but it just seemed rude to get up and walk out after seeing such a powerful film. Luckily my coach was delayed or I’d have been stranded in London overnight.
Looking back on the festival my fondest memories are of two films – The Orphanage and WAZ - and two filmmakers – Adam Green and Uwe Boll. It was a wonderful, if tiring and bum numbing, experience and I’ll be doing it all again next year.
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