By Cleaver Patterson.
Is it done intentionally? Are film festival programmers that creative? Well, assuming they are, those behind 2016’s FrightFest clearly put quite some thought into the films showing at the Vue cinema in Shepherds Bush, West London, over the recent August Bank Holiday weekend. Though the films showing this year—the festival’s 17th—came from around the world, and encompassed the many vagaries of the horror genre. A number of those screened fell into quite succinct pairings: from European based gorefests, through films featuring bizarre alternate health methods, to good old fashioned torture porn. The result was a virtual Smörgåsbord of nastiness to suit everyone’s taste.
Who would believe that something as innocent as Dutch windmills could provide the backdrop for an onslaught of blood and guts carnage. Clearly director Nick Jongerius did, when he co-wrote the imaginatively entitled The Windmill Massacre with Chris W. Mitchell – the writer behind the recent nightmare hit Frankenstein’s Army (2013). The result is a gloriously bloody ‘stalk’N’slash’ confection which harks back to 1980s and 90s genre classics, with more than the hint of a dreamy Old Master painting. The film follows the misfortunes of several unsuspecting tourists who take a bus tour of the windmills in the countryside surrounding Amsterdam. After their bus breaks down the group—all of whom have dark secrets they’d rather keep to themselves—take shelter in a dilapidated barn in the shadows of a gloomy and apparently deserted windmill. Of course it’s not empty, but inhabited by the ghost of a miller who, centuries before, made a pact with the devil promising to protect the mill which stands over a gateway to hell. Which is exactly what breaks loose when the stranded travellers decide to explore their surroundings further. Analyse Jongerius’ chiller closely and there’s little original in it as far as its slasher aspects go: face it, there isn’t much you can do with the basic format which has remained pretty much unchanged since Mrs Voorhees put it on the map when terrorising Crystal Lake on that fateful day in 1980. What marks out each venture into this genre however, and gives this new entry a feeling of freshness, is both the setting for and reasoning behind the killer’s rampage. Here the Dutch landscape – which hasn’t seen such carnage since Dick Maas cut up the capital city in the marvellous Amsterdamned (1988) – takes on the faded air of a Vermeer painting executed in blood red, whilst the killer himself remains a hulking mass of rotting rags and maggot ridden flesh, simply adding to his genuinely disturbing image, and that of the film which is guaranteed to reignite your interest in the ageing slasher genre, though will be unlikely to do much for the Dutch tourist trade.
Travel further south and the Swiss mountains are alive with the sound of screaming in the darkly humorous, visceral onslaught of the undead which is Austrian director Dominik Hartl’s wonderfully over-the-top Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies. The film sees a group of ski mad kids holed up in an Alpine bar when they are stranded at the end of the season, and left with no way down from the mountains. Meanwhile some scientists have invented a snow making machine which inadvertently contaminates the area making zombies of the local populace. And so starts a night of mayhem from which few of those present will escape unharmed. Take the source from the scientific mismanagement of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974) and the slapstick gore from Dead Snow (2009) and what you get is this exercise in comic carnage, where any sense of storyline – as with the best of this kind of horror film – is jettisoned in favour of the grossest visuals and imaginative use of skis and snowboards the filmmakers could think of to finish off the flesh eating hordes. If one was being picky there would be enough plot holes here to fill a slice of Swiss cheese. However as the main aim of this type of film is merely to outgross what went before it’s safe to say that Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies does just what it says in the title, and all against a backdrop of some of Europe’s most stunning Alpine scenery, resulting in a true slay ride to remember.
Some films—and My Father Die and 31 which screened at this year’s festival are two prime examples—are just nasty, pure and simple. The truth is, though filmmaker’s can dress them up every-which-way, when it boils down to it they have few, if any, redeeming qualities. Twenty years ago Asher (Joe Anderson) witnessed the murder of his brother Chester (Chester Rushing) at the hands of his violent father Ivan (Gary Stretch). Just for good measure Ivan also gave Asher a good thrashing, resulting in the boy loosing his hearing. At the time Ivan was locked up for his misdemeanours. But now he has been freed and is heading home. Asher however never forgot what his father did, and twenty years has been a long time for his hatred and resentment to fester. The fact that My Father Die is a beautifully atmospheric and wincingly realistic film to watch, does not detract from the fact it is also an intensely disturbing piece of cinema. At a stretch you can see what was, one imagines, director/writer Sean Brosnan’s aim—to highlight Asher and his family’s predicament and the lengths he is pushed to for retribution, when faced with the extreme brutality of his father. However one can’t help question the legitimacy of this as a piece of entertainment which is, after all, what horror cinema really is. You also wonder whether Brosnan would have got his carnage ridden homage to America’s deep south past the drawing board, if his father – a producer on the film – didn’t happen to be called Pierce, a fact which merely emphasises that nepotism is alive and well in Hollywood.
My Father Die may, at a stretch, be seen as having some degree of legitimacy through it’s theme of justifiable revenge. 31, the new torture porn trip by the king of such distasteful movie fodder Rob Zombie, on-the-other-hand, cannot lay claim to any such admirable ends. His one hundred and two minute exercise in gross degradation and shlock has no redeeming features whatsoever. Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and her band of misfit friends are meandering through the deserts of America’s no man’s land with their makeshift travelling show. Ambushed by a group of backwater psychotics, the unfortunate gang find themselves the human prey of ’31’, the annual big game hunt with only one aim – to survive by any means possible. Forget the fact it is marvellously filmed in a muted and dreamy palette of bleached desert browns and tones of bloody red. Or that it contains some of the most bizarre characters you will have seen since—well, probably Zombie’s last film—brought vividly to life by an impressive array of talent including Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Zombie’s ubiquitous wife Sheri Moon. Anything 31 may have had going for it is soon forgotten as you drown, even before the opening credits, in a cesspool of unrelenting slaughter and bloodshed from which there is little hope of escape. Here is a film which, though it will doubtlessly be lapped up by Zombie’s legions of fans, will be of little interest to anyone with even an ounce of love for the medium of film, no matter what genre that should fall in.
People will say, of course, that violence and carnage are all part and parcel of the horror film package, particularly where modern genre entries are concerned. However, if you want to make material which will last, instead of that which gives an instant hit and is then forgotten again just as quickly—much like My Father Die and 31—some degree of subtlety, even in horror, is more likely to mark your work out for the long haul.
It seems, if filmmakers want to bring the inexplicable to life, a ‘New Age’ sensibility can cover a multitude of sins. Take, for example, writer/director Bobby Miller’s brilliantly disturbing, yet darkly comic fantasy drama The Master Cleanse. Featuring Angelica Houston in a bravura, show stealing performance as a wacky spiritual guru, the viewer is treated to an arresting experience, both trippy and thought provoking. What goes on at the rural retreat deep in the American heartland, will likely prove as shocking for viewers, as it is for social misfit Paul (Johnny Galecki) and angst ridden Maggie (Anna Friel), who go there for an intense course of purification treatment. With results which have more than a nod towards ‘Cronenberg’ body-horror The Master Cleanse, though not perhaps doing much to forward the argument for detoxification, certainly brings a whole new meaning to the expression ‘getting in touch with your inner-self’.
Perhaps not as viscerally shocking as The Master Cleanse, Realive is none-the-less a mesmerising and thought provoking piece of cinema. English actor Tom Hughes features as Marc, a successful business entrepreneur who, having been kept in frozen suspension following his premature death, is resuscitated in the year 2084 to a world where he is both studied and revered as a scientific and medical marvel. Things though are not as clear cut for Marc, especially when he discovers that Naomi (Oona Chaplin), the girlfriend he left behind, also made a decision which had life-changing effects not only for her, but possibly him as well. Revolving around the age old idea of being kept in suspended animation following your death, until scientists can find a cure for your ailments and bring you back to life, the visually stunning Realive, by Spanish writer/director Mateo Gil, plays out as a moving yet disturbing vision of what can happen if man tries to play God by recreating human life. Nothing new there you may think – this fantasy has been the goal of both scientists and the rich and famous for generations. Have we however ever really considered the horrors – both physically and mentally – which our new new existence would bring if the process was ever to be achieved? Here the quandary is answered with a mesmerising, enchanting and ultimately heartbreaking depiction of the effect earthbound ‘immortality’ could have on mankind, with the results not necessarily being as wonderful as we imagined. You have been warned.
Pairings aside, the best of the rest at the festival saw a host of superior chillers from as afar afield as Brazil, France and South Korea. For horror with style, subtlety and atmosphere, you are increasingly having to steer clear of mainstream studio films, looking in particular to continents like South America to produce something truly original. Take for instance Through The Shadows, a retelling of the chiller The Innocents (1961), which so effectively brought M R James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw to life on the big screen. This time round the action is transferred from a Victorian English country house to a Brazilian coffee plantation circa 1930, whilst still managing to retain the original’s power to shock.
If you thought no one could better Herschell Gordon Lewis’ notorious 1963 gorefest, then you’d be right. German director Marcel Walz’s Blood Feast remake transfers the action from Miami to suburban Paris, but everything else stays more or less the same, and is every bit as bad as the original, in premise, acting and effects. However that is, as with Lewis’ schlock masterpiece, what makes this film such fun, and a sure fire future camp classic. Just don’t eat anything before watching it. And finally if you thought Kim Jong-un was the only scary thing to come out of Korea, think again. Train to Busan, the new zombie epic from South Korea is without doubt one of the most original, adrenalin pumping shockers you are likely to have experienced—ever. If you want to see the zombie movie which World War Z (2013) should have been, Train to Busan is it and hands down the best film of FrightFest 2016.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. News Editor for the Flickfeast website, he contributes to a number of other websites and publications including Scream and Film International. His own film blog can be found at: www.screenandgone.com.