Having had but one small glimpse previously of the unearthly delights of THE GREATEST FILM FESTIVAL ON THE PLANET when going to see the fun and functional ‘Fright Night’ remake in 2011, it was with excitement levels turned up well beyond 11 that I approached going to the festival for a whole day and, in my opinion, on the festivals strongest day in the Friday 23rd. This time, not only would I get to wear a shiny wristband and be in and amongst fellow horror fans and the odd celebrity but also I would be reviewing it for a horror film site too! Obviously lacking the possession of a time-turner, I was not able to see everything that was being shown but I could not have been happier with the films I ultimately ended up seeing!
The American Scream
Another documentary from Michael Stephenson , director of ‘Best Worst Movie’, ‘The American Scream’ follows three families in Fairhaven, Massachusetts and the preparation of their ‘haunts’ ie their very elaborate garden displays for Halloween. Aside from ‘V/H/S/2’, this was the first title to catch my interest, being a lifelong fan of Halloween and frustrated with the UK’s overall indifference in comparison to the USA’s deliriously overboard take on the holiday, this documentary was total eye-candy and one that instantly made you want to create your own haunt yourself.
Crucially, however, the film was more than just garden gravestones and intricate electrics, the film’s main focus was on just how it completely dominates the lives of the families, the sacrifices they have to make in order to fund their lofty ambitions and the stress and strain it puts on their relationships. As the documentary unfolds, you genuinely almost feel as if you are a part of each family as you watch their often hilarious and at times troubled interactions, creating a tremendously affective and warming sense of intimacy. Even when events get out of control and the families are under a great deal of pressure and worry, they are all still incredibly likeable, helped in no small part by their often moving back stories but the film never strays into being in any way sickly sentimental, it remains just as heartfelt as the families’ desire to build the best haunt possible, taking no money from guests whatsoever.
Arguably the audience-favourites are the father and son family whose hilarious interactions honestly could form the basis of a sitcom and yet at the same time, their life story is also the most moving, having the majority of the small audience, myself included, almost on the verge of tears. When the film finishes with the grand flourish of going through the haunts on Halloween and a surprise bonus happy ending, it is impossible not to be swept up the real life-affirming atmosphere it conjures up and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the whole film. Funny, sad, moving and uplifting and one of the best documentaries you could ever hope to see. 10/10
Hansel and Gretel: The 420 Witch
Or to give it its funnier title ‘Hansel and Gretel Get Baked’ (gettit?). A modern take on the fairytale, only here instead of a gingerbread house of temptation, the Witch Agnes (a brilliantly game Lara Flynn Boyle) sells the best weed in Pasadena and kidnaps young stoners in order to absorb their life-force to get young again. As you may have guessed, Hansel (Michael Welch) and Gretel (Molly C Quinn) have a hand in her downfall, this may stick rather rigidly to the original tale’s narrative but hey it was still a hundred times better than that other ‘Hansel and Gretel’ film that came out earlier in the year. Things did not start out well for the film as after being enticed by the promise of Cary Elwes, my partner in crime Meg and I were highly disappointed to see him killed off in under 5 minutes in the film’s pre-credits scene and never so much as glimpsed again.
Following the credits with god-awful rap song in tow, we were treated to seemingly endless stoner-based rehashed (if you’ll excuse the pun) jokes that saw a good chunk of the already small audience in the Discovery Screen get up and promptly exit, leaving only a select number of us behind. Since it takes a special level of awfulness to convince me to leave, I stuck with it and ended up pleasantly surprised as the stoner-comedy angle was soon dropped and quite good deal of impressive gore was splattered on the camera.
It was a relief, ultimately, that it became apparent that the film was very ‘knowing’ with winks to the audience but luckily it never became smug, maintaining a fun but forgettable romp that was quick-paced with often laugh out loud moments and ideas such as a maze made entirely of cannabis plants that try to get you high and disorientate you. Whilst the leads were likeable enough and it’s great to see Molly C Quinn of ‘Castle’ fame get a film break, the film hinges on the superb performance from Lara Flynn Boyle with her hilarious dead-pan delivery that lifts the film up when it slumps into the bad habits of over-swearing or getting severely sidetracked by horribly drawn-out or irrelevant scenes. Terrible ending aside, this was a surprisingly enjoyable treat, by no means a classic but a relaxing bit of fun before the assault-course of fear which was soon approaching…7/10
Appearing to receive a Variety Award (which he promptly made to look as if it had been used to stab him with), the Main Screen audience were treated to a brilliant Q&A session with the world’s busiest director in Ben Wheatley. The talk spanned his already widely diverse series of films and Wheatley spoke frankly and honestly about sadly just how difficult it is in this day and age of cinema to get noticed or let alone funded, believing that the critical praise that met his debut of ‘Down Terrace’ was as good as it was ever going to get and not at all envisioning his sudden rise to fame with a trio of total knock-out films. Wheatley when into great detail about the slog of the effort in his gradual climb up the ladder, doing commercials, and small work on TV and encouraging all budding filmmakers that learning to edit your own film was the most important skill you could possibly have to ensure your vision is preserved. It was heart-warming also to get a small glimpse into his special connection with writer Amy Jump, the two of them having written together since they were 16 and now enjoying levels of success they could not have dreamed of. With regards to future films, Wheatley gave little away, but hinted at a move away from the style of his ‘trilogy’ (also claiming ‘Kill List’ and ‘Sightseers’ to be the same film ‘Two people going up and down the country killing people’) and that a future project would be a crime thriller but in typical Wheatley fashion, adding a twist of Chronenberg-style body horror to the mix. Whilst too in awe to approach him directly, when on the microphone I asked if Michael Smiley would continue to star in his films and if he considered Smiley to be the De Niro to his Scorsese. Wheatley explained just how much he like the rest of us are constantly bowled over by Smiley, how his characters are always deliberately written for him, he will continue to write for him but in Wheatley’s modest fashion did not consider himself to be a Scorsese, the one thing which none of the audience agreed with him on! Insightful, modest and honest, may Ben Wheatley continue to amaze us for many years to come.
The very first thing I need to say about this film is that if you are in any way interested in seeing it then stop reading immediately as the less you know about this bolt from the blue chiller the better and I would thoroughly thoroughly recommend it to everyone, horror film fan or no. Still here? Very well then, ‘Haunter’ is the latest film from Vincenzo Natali of ‘Splice’ fame and ‘Cube’ shame. Billed as a cross between ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘The Others’, the story follows Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin), a girl who is forced to live the same day of her life over and over again and she only is the only one who has ‘woken up’ to this fact as her family carry on regardless.
The key hook to the film, is that the day she is forced to repeat is the same day on which she and her family were killed. Now that pricked up my interest immediately and Natali does a marvellous job of very slowly leaking all the details to the audience, withholding key facts to amplify the often very scary set-pieces. It becomes apparent that the film is taking an interesting twist fairly early on which again adds to the film’s great ability to keep reeling you in and when the film’s ‘big bad’ is finally revealed, the actor playing him so intensely unsettling that a fair number of the audience were shrinking back into the safety of their seats. The heavy burden of being the only ‘aware’ character for the majority of the film is carried out superbly by Breslin, acting just as any teenager would and never once hamming up her performance with the terrified shrieks of a damsel in distress.
The only problem with reviewing ‘Haunter’ is that to give too much away spoils its impact, it’s a film full of surprises and moments that challenges you to keep up with the twisty-turny plot. It doesn’t rely on things that go bump in the night, rather it creates the overbearing atmosphere of dread and helplessness with the occasional spooky moment that puts ice down your back, repeating the process before you’ve had the chance to recover from the previous scare. My favourite moment in the film would sadly be giving away a major spoiler, suffice to say that it was brilliantly unexpected and the way Natali chose to film it was nothing short of a masterstroke.
Sadly the film is not without fault, on occasion, it focuses far too much on little details that simply do not matter and add little to nothing to the overall story, dragging the duration out longer than necessary. The biggest let-down comes in the form of the incredibly rushed exposition and discovery when the parents and brother too realise and wake up. Considering the film’s deliberately well slow-paced build up, it trips up on what should be an important moment of realisation and it’s only from the finale’s grand strokes of flourish that the film is able to thankfully pick itself up again.
There is no stinger ending, no ‘ah you thought it was all over!’ twist, just a honest and heartfelt chilling ghost-story with the added spice of a fantastically mind-bending plot device. One of my favourite aspects of the festival was hearing the completely mixed reaction of the attendees as it certainly was a film that divided the audiences. Some like me were absolutely gripped with fear and the intricate story, whereas others, such as fellow UK Horror Scene co-contributor Joey, were fighting to stay awake! The perfect antidote to these copy-paste 15 rated horrors such as ‘Insillious’ or ‘The Conjuring’, if this is released come Halloween, seek it out and support proper horror films for proper horror fans. 9/10
So we come at last to the main course, the reason why I bought my ticket specifically for the Friday. Unlike seemingly a great deal of other horror fans, I was completely blown away by the first film. I’m a big fan of anthology horror films and the intriguing and more realistic VHS style of footage complements the notion of ‘found footage’ far better than the HD gloss of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ style. No matter how utterly bonkers the events depicted, I found I got the illicit thrill of being tricked into believing it could be from the first film and as a consequence was properly full of fright for the first time in a long time.
Naturally, my hopes were high, especially since the majority have been so quick to rate the sequel over the first (not quite sure how up and coming genre maestro Adam Wingard feels about this damning with praise) and with Gareth Evans, co-director of the ‘Safe Haven’ segment with Timo Tjahjanto, introducing the film to a packed-out Main Screen, excitement levels had well and truly reached fever pitch. Is it better than the first one? No. Is it still fan-bloody-tastic? Absolutely! The first thing to say would be that they are both very different beasts despite looking the same. The camera quality is much higher, with the exception of ‘Slumber Party Alien Abduction’, the other three segments go off in fantastically different directions of just how to incorporate a camera and whilst as a result, it loses the grainy rough-edged style of the first film, the scares and thrills are still very much just as effective.
The most surprising new element is that the film was remarkably hilarious, creating a brilliant sense of a roller-coaster horror that has you laughing one minute and gripped in fear the next. The best example of this was in Adam Wingard’s ‘Phase 1 Clinical Trials’, where the director himself is the star, fitted with a robotic eye that starts to have certain ‘glitches’ of ghostly presences in his house. Now naturally this does smack a great deal of ‘The Eye’, however the literally ‘first person’ style, complete with blinking, really puts you right into the film, intensifying the scares as you, like Wingard, can’t look away. Even when faced with terrifying sights, Wingard chooses to keep his incredibly black comedy edge with some killer lines to match the heart-stopping scares 10/10. ‘
A Ride in the Park’ by Eduardo Sanchez and Greg hale, follows with an innocuous start of a guy with a cycle-head ‘Go Pro’ cam riding through the woods, only to suddenly be set upon by a group of zombies. After being bitten, the real fun of the segment starts as we see a unique first person zombie perspective on his quest to get more human flesh. This was by far and away the most fun ‘V/H/S’ segment, the audience was alive with hearty guffaws and applause, especially when the zombies suddenly raid a child’s birthday party. Surprisingly, the short ends on a moving note that was totally unexpected and was a fantastic example of ‘V/H/S’s ability to pull the rug from out under your expectations 10/10.
Whilst I still try and weigh up which of the first film’s segments was my favourite, there is no question that ‘Safe Haven’ is now the benchmark for all future ‘V/H/S’ segments. ‘Bat-shit crazy’ is the best possible phrase to sum up what begins as a seemingly done to death religious evil cult angle and then explodes into a crescendo of terrifying madness with the most laugh out loud ending imaginable. I can’t go into too much detail as the surprise barrage of bonkers moments and endless twists and turns deserves to be experienced, it really takes your breath away, has you covering your eyes and then mouth hanging wide open in shock and awe. The performance of Epy Kusnandar as the cult leader is also of skin-crawlingly fantastic quality. It can only be hoped that Evans and Tjahjanto have another collaboration in future, as this segment just may well be nigh on unbeatable.10/10.
After such an explosive segment, ‘Slumber Party Alien Abduction’ looks quite poor by comparison. Whilst it does have the great notion of a camera tied to the family dog and some brilliant jump-scares at the start (how rare is that?), essentially it just repeats the same trick of having an incredibly loud foghorn blasts from out of nowhere and director, Jason Eisener, is doing his best to give mass audiences motion sickness by at times making it impossible to see what’s going. You have to admire its effort to try and make aliens scary again, but it suffers from the responsibility from closing the film when it should have been used as the opener. 6/10
Luckily the greatly-superior wraparound story of ‘Tape 39’, directed by frequent Wingard collaborator, Simon Barrett, saves the day, concerning two investigators trying to find a boy who has been amassing his own collection of V/H/S tapes and watching footage of the men from the first film.
Whilst I liked the complete befuddlement of what the hell was going on in the first film, this one does work well in that it has a terrifying and head-scratching denouement and leaves you even hungrier for the inevitable third instalment. I do not care how long they drag out the ultimate explanation, all I know is that this is already a fantastic franchise to get behind, encouraging filmmakers to get as stripped-back and raw as possible to keep horror low budget and authentic. Let’s hope in future some big names get attached to see them return to their low budget roots. One lesser segment does not stop this from being an absolute must-see and the highlight of my day! 10/10
And as an added bonus, the Main Screen audience were treated a world exclusive first glimpse of Evans’ follow up ‘The Raid 2: Berendal’. The brief but brilliantly brutal clip featured the debut of long-hyped up new character Hammer Girl. Whilst riding on the underground, we see Hammer Girl remove two claw hammers from her purse and then get stuck in for some ultra-stylish, slick and extreme violence.
Clearly Evans is no one trick pony, the small clip exploding a massive buzz of excitement and impatience until next year and it was wonderful to be in a fully interactive audience all wincing and ooo-ing, proving that Evans’ career is only going to escalate from here. Having met the man himself previously, he is one of the most down to earth and friendly people you could hope to meet and is thoroughly deserving of his success.
So what with being very lucky to pick a series of winners, standing in the same space as Kim Newman and Laurence R Harvey to name but two and just the overall feeling of one big family, ‘Frightfest’ is unmatched in its field. I’m still replaying all the wonderful moments I experienced in my head and rest assured I will move heaven and earth to go for the whole festival next year!