By Cleaver Patterson.
FrightFest, the London based film festival which takes place each year at the end of August, prides itself in showcasing the best of horror, both international and homegrown. This year’s event was no exception, with more films than ever before showing in this its fifteenth year. With such an array of material it was inevitable there would be some misses as well as hits, though none of the films shown could be said to have left their audiences anything less than moved.
All types of war, and their aftermaths, served as fertile inspiration for several films at this years festival. Two in particular, though taking very different approaches, used battle scarred fighters to create dramatic and visually startling cinematic experiences. Considering modern filmmakers penchant for plugging into current sociological issues for inspiration for their latest projects, it was only a matter of time before one decided to explore further the deep psychological and emotional effects modern warfare has on soldiers and their families. In his new horror/thriller The Guest, director Adam Wingard does just this – exploring a subject which effects everyone in modern society to some degree – with edgy and disturbing effect.
The Peterson family are struggling to come to terms with the death of their older son Caleb in the war in Afghanistan. When a young ex-soldier called David (Dan Stevens) appears on their doorstep one morning claiming to be a friend of Caleb, the family find a sense of connection and peace by welcoming the stranger into their home. But David is not all he seems – a fact the Petersons soon discover, after a terrifying turn of events has deadly consequences for them all. Downton Abbey‘s heartthrob Stevens is marvellously creepy in his first major big screen role as the outwardly benign David, who hides disturbing tendencies beneath a caring and courteous facade. Maika Monroe, last seen in the gritty drama Labor Day (2013), also creates interest as Anna, the suspicious Peterson daughter, into whose affections David insidiously worms his way, before she realises his true intentions.
Rural America, and the claustrophobia felt by its it small town inhabitants is believably visualised, its intensity merely highlighted by the arrival of the charismatic David, and heightens the film’s sense of mounting unease. The Guest is more than competently executed by all those involved – Wingard in particular comes up trumps with some smart twists which give more than a faint nod towards the nostalgia of the 1980s slasher/teenager in peril genre. The film, however, raises thorny questions in relation to the boundaries of taste – namely the wisdom, or otherwise, in using sensitive subject matters (in this case the possible future advancements in technological warfare) – as a basis for entertainment. Mind you, as the horror genre has never been known for diplomacy in dealing with controversial issues, such moral points are unlikely to play greatly on the consciences of the film’s core audience of thrill seekers.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, director Tommy Wirkola’s follow-up to his 2009 smash hit starring Vegar Hoel and Ørjan Gamst, is the ultimate in gross-out horror and side-splitting humour. Picking up where the first instalment (which it helps to have seen) ended, Martin (Hoel), the survivor of the original zombie massacre, survives a car crash along with nothing but the severed arm of Nazi Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) lying on the floor beside him. Waking in hospital several days later, Martin is told by the police that he is being held for the murder of his friends. Worse comes when a doctor explains how they managed to save the arm which they found in his car, and graft it back on his body. Slowly realising who the real owner of his new arm is, and that the zombies he thought he’d destroyed are now within a day’s march from the town where he is now, Martin again finds himself in a Nordic nightmare from which there’s no hope of waking.
Only the bravest of filmmakers would be foolhardy enough to take on the unsavoury task of fusing Hitler’s most feared followers with the undead. However, as far back as the early 1940s, Hollywood has been doing just this by was combining these feared elements in films like the John Carradine vehicle Revenge of the Zombies (1943). Most of the resultant films featuring the German undead, which periodically reappeared over the following years, took a serious approach. Few flavoured the carnage with any degree of humour, at least until Wirkola’s headliner appeared. This humor is what makes his original work, and its sequel, stand out. Everyone knows good horror is like a roller-coaster ride – it may terrify you, but you come out at the end smiling and with an insatiable desire to go through it all again – and that is exactly the way you feel with Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. Though peppered with its fair share of weaknesses, including a human cast with as much life as their zombie co-stars, the film manages to fill the cracks with enough comic gore for you to forgive such shortcomings, leaving you with a ravenous craving for the next inevitable episode.
The festival’s examples of homegrown horror – whether found in the claustrophobic confines of a city apartment block, or rural isolation of the open countryside – displayed British filmmakers’ strong interest in what is often seen as a niche market within the wider film industry. The Mirror is the perfect example of what’s wrong with modern films that try to pass themselves off as horror. This (supposed) chiller by British director/writer Edward Boase, featuring Jemma Dallender, Joshua Dickinson and Nate Fallows, has all the finesse of an amateur dramatics production without the appeal which allows you to overlook such flaws. To enter a $1 million competition to prove the existence of paranormal activity, three friends – Jemma (Dallender), Matt (Dickinson) and Steve (Fellows) – buy a supposedly haunted mirror on eBay. Setting out to record their findings, their discoveries are more shocking than they could possibly have imagined resulting in devastating consequences for them all.
Haunted mirrors are nothing new in horror. From Ealing’s Dead of Night (1945) and Amicus’ From Beyond the Grave (1974), to the recent Oculus (2013), looking glasses have terrified cinema goers by means of their everyday normality: here is something everyone has at home and can hence relate to. All of which should bode well for Boase’s film – and would most likely have done, in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker. The Mirror, however, is only Boase’s second feature as director, and it shows. Shot in the now passé ‘found footage’ format, the result lacks any real soul or imagination. With a clearly limited budget, the action takes place mostly within the confines of a flat which looks expensive but bland and soulless – a good way to describe the overall film. Who, for instance, are the trio of twenty-somethings at the centre of the plot? However, as all three are obnoxious and foul-mouthed, it’s doubtful you will concern yourself greatly over such apparently insignificant details. With so many would-be filmmakers out there, who could surely produce more original work if they were given the opportunity, it’s frustrating that films like The Mirror get further than their initial pitch. If this is a reflection of the current state of independent filmmaking, we can only hope things get better.
The best horror is often found locally, or, in the case of the chilling White Settlers, just north of the Scottish border. Director Simeon Halligan’s creepy excursion to the ‘Land of the Brave’ proves that man’s most basic fears are often found in reality rather than the imaginary. Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) have left the London smog for a fresh start in Scotland. What begins, however, as an idyllic new life in an isolated homestead, turns into a terrifying fight for survival as the couple discover that the locals are not as hospitable to strangers as the tourist brochures would want you to believe. The idea at the heart of White Settlers is nothing new, with outsiders attempting to establish roots in hostile new environments long being a fright film staple. Since the earliest Hollywood horrors, innocent visitors foolish enough to try and ingratiate themselves with the natives, have often been greeted by suspicion and distrust. More recently though, what may once have appeared as mere unfriendliness, has begun to manifest itself in a more physical manner.
In the 1970s, British films like Sam Peckinpah’s notorious Straw Dogs (1971) and Robin Hardy’s disturbing The Wicker Man (1973) portrayed unflinchingly how those who lived in rural isolation often reacted with violence to anyone straying innocently onto their home turf. White Settlers gives the subject an added topicality, considering the rising tensions as the vote on Scottish independence draws ever closer, as well as instilling an air of realism by achieving its violence through totally credible means. The fear is intensified as it’s never revealed who the perpetrators of the aggression against the newcomers really are, or how they hope to get away with their plans in the modern twenty first century. Like in The Wicker Man, the viewers, as well as the victims, cannot quite believe what is actually happening. That the end finishes ambiguously simply intensifies its sense of remoteness, which adds to the film’s charm as well as its unpleasantness. McIntosh and Williams are perfect as the idealistic ‘settlers’, whose initial enchantment with their new surroundings gives way to mounting hysteria as they find themselves fighting for their lives against a violent and pernicious environment. Though the film’s message is open to various interpretations, a better tool to deter the English from settling north of the boarder would be hard to find.
X Moor follows Georgia (Melia Kreiling) and her boyfriend Matt (Nick Blood) as they join forces with big game hunter Fox (Mark Bonnar), who is determined to prove the existence of a mysterious beast which roams the wilds of Exmoor in South West England. As they search the moorland wastes, and night closes in, they begin to realise there might indeed be something out there. Though an atmospheric attempt to spice rural horror with heavy doses of suspense, there is something none-the-less missing from director/writer Luke Hyams’ heavy handed and gratuitous chiller. What starts promisingly enough begins, like the trio at the centre of the story, it looses its way the deeper they get off the beaten track and nearer to their would-be quarry. John Landis’ classic An American Werewolf in London (1981) managed to capture the feeling of creeping unease and isolation felt in the lonely, open spaces of rural England. Hyams, on the other hand, though evoking a suitably eerie sense of the wildness of England’s West Country (an accomplishment in itself considering the film was shot in Northern Ireland), destroys any potential horror by restricting most of the action and resultant horror to the confines of a large expanse of forest. That the eventual ‘monster’ and its actions are revealed to be more unpleasant than horrific, and that the whole thing is captured in the now outdated mode of found footage, is something of a disappointment in a film which had the potential to be, if not a classic, then at least something with curio appeal.
There is truth in the old adage that, ‘they don’t make them like they used to’. The perfect example of this is a film that celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this year with a special screening at FrightFest, followed by a Q&A with its star, which proved a highlight of the festival for many. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) remains a truly unique experience. Director Wes Craven’s masterpiece, which introduced the world to horror icon Robert Englund and perennial heartthrob Johnny Depp, is one of the few movies that needs no introduction due to its fame and notoriety. The film that saved its production company New Line Pictures from bankruptcy is still as shocking as when it was first released thirty years ago.
Original and controversial, not only could the bogyman at A Nightmare On Elm Street‘s centre kill you in your dreams (the one place most people feel truly unassailable), but he had also been a child murderer before meeting a fiery death at the hands of a group of vigilante parents. It was Englund’s performance however, as old pizza features Freddy Kruger, which elevated the film to cult status. In the same way as Boris Karloff will always be Frankenstein and Christopher Lee be Dracula, Englund will forever be Freddy. A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s success is also due, in some degree, to its timing. Horror film’s popularity is cyclical – Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ during the 1930s, Hammer in the 1960s and the popularity of ‘Hometown American’ horror from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Films like Halloween (1978) and Poltergeist (1982) were popular in part because of the familiarity of their settings: they took place in towns and homes similar to those of the audiences who flocked to watch them. So it was with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nancy and her friends were dealing with typical teenager’s problems: school woes, overprotective parents and the fear of growing up. The film’s ‘ordinariness’ was its appeal. The everyday suburban quality of Elm Street, the familiarity of Nancy’s school and the easily recognisable police lockup governed by her father, simply emphasised the unreality of Kruger’s terrifying dreamland.
Actors indelibly linked to iconic roles, often grow to resent them. Not so with Englund, who still happily acknowledges the positive effect Freddy has had on his career. After all, how many actors can claim to have had roles which have played such an intrinsic part in the formation of cinema history as we know it.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.
Details of all FrightFest‘s events throughout the year, can be found on their website at: http://www.frightfest.co.uk/#