By Cleaver Patterson.
All good things, as they say, must come to an end. Film4 FrightFest has, since its inception fourteen years ago, built a reputation on showcasing an eclectic mix of stylish horror and bizarre fantasy, and in the process have shown that fans of these genres can have as an eclectic and broad taste as many more conventional audiences. The final day of the festival proved just this with three films that, while all falling within FrightFest’s general remit, were individually as different as day from night.
Highlights from Day 5
Dark Touch (Directed by Maina De Van): Finding a film, particularly within the genre of horror, which maintains brilliance throughout is a nigh impossible feat in modern cinema. Occasionally one turns up that manages to hold the viewer’s interest throughout, though such works are increasingly few and far between. More often than not, as with other art forms such as novels and plays, a film that starts with the flash of brilliance required to draw the public in, seems to believe that once they have their audience hooked their work is done and it doesn’t really matter what happens later. Frequently by the middle of such films, any initial magic is long dead and by the end there is a feeling that the filmmaker has lost their way and simply wants to get the whole business over so that they can wind up for the day and go home. Such is the case with French director Maina De Van’s Dark Touch.
Following a bizarre accident at her family’s remote home, which results in the deaths of her parents and younger brother, Niamh (Marie Missie Keating) is taken in by her parents friends, Lucas (Padraic Delaney) and Nat (Marcella Plunkett). The couple put Niamh’s initial shyness and withdrawal from those around her down to the trauma of recent events. However, as time progresses and a series of horrific and inexplicable events take place wherever the young girl goes, they begin to realize, to their cost, that there is nothing innocent about the tragic young orphan they have unwittingly taken into their home.
Having watched the film, one can soon determine why it goes so drastically off the rails. All the elements for a taut supernatural thriller may be in place, but the film fails to utilize them to its best advantage. The settings, though many of which are visually stunning—Niamh’s family home where the opening and closing catastrophes play out is particularly breathtaking with its air of clinical modernism—often miss out on making the most of their main assets. To the point, Southern Ireland is overladen with historic locations steeped in lore and legend. Yet in the main, apart from the occasional nocturnal trip through the woods or wander down a desolate lane, this film could have been shot anywhere, and what could have been an atmospheric asset ends up criminally underused.
The other most glaring shortcoming in the film is the characterization, or perhaps that should be lack of it. One of the main points that could have made the audience feel sympathy for Niamh and the situation in which she finds herself, is her relationship with her parents and how it leads to the tragic situation which befalls the family. However, instead of this element being investigated within the film, it is on the whole left enigmatically unexplored. So much more could have been made of this, if for no other reason than to help explain the young Niamh’s reclusiveness and hostility to those around her.
Aside from a standout performance from Irish crooner Ronan Keating’s daughter Missie in the lead role, this beautifully visualized and initially promising tale of dark family secrets and telekinetic powers, set against a background of contemporary rural Ireland, ultimately lacks the soul to make the viewer believe or ultimately care about what is going on.
Banshee Chapter 3D (Directed by Blair Erickson): There are films that, virtually the moment they are over, you cannot for the life of you remember what happened in them. Take, for example, Banshee Chapter 3D, the new American conspiracy theory thriller, which is quickly forgettable mostly likely because nothing really happens in it.
After the disappearance of her friend James Hirsch (Michael McMillian), who was using mind-altering drugs similar to chemicals used in mind control tests by the US government during the 1960s, journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter) decides to dig deeper. With the help of tripped out pulp novelist Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), Anne discovers a mysterious abandoned research center deep in Nevada’s Black Rock desert, which may hold the secret as to why the government has been so keen to discourage anyone from finding out about what they were actually doing half a century ago.
I suppose a storyline built around inexplicable occurrences resulting from experimentation with illegal substances was always going to be a grey area on which to base a film. However, this exercise, which plays out like an extended episode of the 90s television show The X-Files, surpasses expectations with its banality and complete lack of cohesion. After a promising opening, during which James disappears following his use of the drugs, everything goes downhill—very quickly. Once his friend Anne hooks up with druggie novelist Thomas—who initially supplied James with the drug—in order to investigate James’ disappearance, everything simply becomes a confused mishmash with little substance (legal or otherwise).
With the majority of the action playing out in semi-darkness, the result is a disappointing mixture of unexplained occurrences and substandard shocks. Considering that, for most of the time, the central characters are on a perpetual high from the use of various artificial stimulants, the viewer in the end is left questioning whether many of the occurrences in the film actually took place or more importantly, by the end, whether it matters.
Odd Thomas (Directed by Stephen Sommers): If ever a film lived up to its name Odd Thomas does, as it is as bizarre and hard to define as it is glossy and over the top. Reminiscent of such high-octane Hollywood sci-fi fantasies from the 1980s as Ghost Busters (1984) and Gremlins (1984), this thriller starring Anton Yelchin, Willem Dafoe and Addison Timlin, often shocks but never scares in the crass manner many modern fright films do.
Odd Thomas (Yelchin) is, quite literally, odd. Ever since he can remember, he has been able to see dead people, and as a result has taken it upon himself to avenge victims by going after their murderers. All of which pleases the local police chief Wyatt Porter (Dafoe)—it makes his job much easier after all. However, when Odd meets a strange customer one day in the diner where he works, he knows there’s trouble coming. The stranger is surrounded by numerous bodachs—spirit creatures who appear in the vicinity of someone whose death is imminent, and which for some reason only Odd can see. Convinced that some disaster is about to befall the inhabitants of the Californian town of Pico Mundo where he and his girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn (Timlin) live, it’s up to Odd to save those he cares about most from what could quite literally be a fate worse than death.
This film is clearly the product of its author, the bestselling chiller writer Dean Koontz, whose series of stories featuring Odd Thomas form its basis. Though Koontz has built a reputation since the 1970s for novels with a strong emphasis on the macabre, his books take a much less visceral approach than those of other horror authors such as Stephen King or Clive Barker. His characteristic sense of unpleasantness approached with a lighter, frequently humorous touch, is clearly evident in Sommers’ no-holds-barred, big screen adaptation of a story that involves everything from gun-toting madmen and mischievous spirits to supernaturally endowed heroes and doomed young lovers.
Visually stunning, the film (shot in New Mexico) captures the essence of small town America that Koontz so magically brings alive in his novels. It is also this feeling of community which makes the characters that people the story come alive, resulting in the viewer actually caring about what happens to them as the film unfolds on the screen.
It’s difficult to reveal too much about the film, without spoiling its magical qualities. However, it won’t be giving much away to say that—though littered with plenty of opportunities for jolt inducing shocks and a genuinely tense, twist filled ending—this film is one that depends as much on its humanity and surprising depth to create a lasting impact, as it does on its eye-popping effects and often cartoon-like violence. Suffice it to say that there really is something for everyone in a film that ends wide open, allowing for numerous followups, as well as finishing on a note that will have all but the stoniest of viewers unashamedly reaching for the tissues. Few recent Hollywood films, fantasy or otherwise, can claim that.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.