As Film4's annual horror extravaganza gets underway, LWLies presents a guide to the biggest chills in town.
Another year, another FrightFest — although 2013's line-up is particularly strong (and not just in the Martyrs sense of that word). So amongst the great, the good, the gory and the gah!, here are LWLies' top tips for genre films that should not be missed over this long bloody weekend in London's Leicester Square.
Dark Touch (Mon 26 Aug, 11.30am)
Having deployed body horror of a confrontingly realist stamp in her self-harm debut In My Skin, Marina de Van turns to the supernatural in her third feature Dark Touch to limn an Irish community's blindness to the domestic horrors in its midst, and the equally blind vengeance then visited upon it. Beginning as a haunted house picture before quickly (and disturbingly) shifting into Carrie-like territories, this is uncompromising, utterly chilling and actually about something — and the deep damage that it dramatises quickly ramifies beyond the scarred body of its young heroine (played by Missy Keating, daughter of Ronan) into the homes and lives of others. The destructive legacy of abuse has never been depicted so unflinchingly, with eerie beauty to offset its unbearable sadness.
Painless (Fri 23 Aug, 6.30pm; Sun 25 Aug, 10.20am)
In the tradition of Víctor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, Juan Carlos Medina's confidently ambitious debut uses genre to unearth those monsters, whether born or made, who have become buried in the torturous turmoil of Spain's 20th-century experience. A young boy confined and ostracised for a medical condition that leaves him insensitive to pain comes of age during the Franco era. A traumatised doctor in present-day Spain races to locate a compatible donor for the bone marrow on which his life depends. As these two narratives unfold decades apart, a secret history of national suffering is both revealed and then hidden again, with a very nuanced focus on the need for subsequent generations to remember, and sometimes to forget.
Wake in Fright (Fri 23 Aug, 11pm)
Seconded teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) fancies himself the last bastion of civilisation in the arid landscape of central Australia — yet en route to the more urbane Sydney for Christmas, he will become stuck (and unstuck) in the town of Bundinyabba, a sort of outback Bermuda's Triangle where the men gamble hard, drink harder, and bind themselves together in an aggressive yet vulnerable mateship. There, over several days and nights, all John's pretension, vanity, superiority and denial will be exposed by his more openly appetitive host Doc Tyden (Donald Pleasence), leaving room only for self-loathing and despair. Wake in Fright is a savage, booze-soaked descent into a circular hell — like Kafka on a bender down under. Ted Kotcheff's lost 1971 Ozploitation classic has now been rediscovered, remastered, and is back in a cinema where it most certainly belongs in all its widescreen glory
The Desert (Sat 24 Aug, 6.40pm; Sun 25 Aug, 6.40pm)
On paper, documentary maker Christoph Behl's feature debut might sound like a bit of a hard sell for the hardened genre crowd. It is set in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, but features very few of the undead — and if this sounds frustrating, frustration is one of the film's key modes, as two men and a woman, locked together for many months, try (and fail) to get on with each other through rules, routines and games, while releasing their pent-up emotions in supposedly private video diaries. The endless, overamplified buzzing of flies betokens the decaying relationships within as much as the rot without, as this most mannered and claustrophobic of horror films plays out like a post-apocalyptic Sex Lies, and Videotape as rewritten by Sartre. It is a psychologically intense study of a fragmenting ménage à trois, where it is the living who have become the real zombies — which makes The Desert a rare Argentine oasis in the often barren genre landscape, and definitely one to watch.
Banshee Chapter (Mon 26 Aug, 1.30pm)
A novelist mysteriously disappears after filming himself taking a hallucinogen once used in 1960s CIA experiments. Journalist Anna Rowland (Katia Winter), an old college friend of the missing man, starts investigating, and teams up with another novelist, Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), down a long dark road of illicit drugs and secret government programmes to a long-buried truth that is off the planet. The results are a heady blend of bizarre 20th-century realities (the MK-Ultra Programme, numbers stations and 'depatterning') and even more bizarre paranoid fantasy, in a rarefied setting where Hunter S. Thompson can meet HP Lovecraft. It is batshit crazy — but also proper, jump-out-of-your-seat scary — and should have FrightFesters chuckling with fear and trembling with wide-eyed glee. And it's in 3D.
You're Next (Thurs 23 Aug, 11.30pm)
The affluent, retirement-age Davison parents and their four feckless grown-up kin (with respective partners in tow) are all settling in for a rare family reunion when their crumbling country manor comes under attack from three masked killers. Adam Wingard's film is a mumblegore mix of do-it-yourself class comedy and savvy horror, as the trio's maniacal home invasion exposes the generational decline of the American bourgeoisie, and it is left to an outsider — the self-reliant Aussie girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) of one of the sons — to step off the sidelines and into the breach. A title that seems merely to promise generic slasher thrills in fact slyly evokes the issues of succession at the heart of the story — while Simon Barret's hilarious dialogue presents us with believably arrested adults rather than the usual co-eds on the chopping block. This film was first hitting American festivals back in 2011, but the wait has been well worth it.
Frankenstein's Army (Sat 24, 1.15pm)
In a sense Richard Raaphorst's CG-free Nazi-era monster-thon is standing in here for a number of unexpectedly inventive and excellent found-footage features being screened over the weekend. These include Bobcat Goldthwait's long takes and Big footwork in Willow Creek, Renny Harlin's paradoxical (narrative) undressing of a real-life mystery in The Dyatlov Pass Incident, and Christopher MacBride's Grand Masters of The Universe paranoia in The Conspiracy — all titles that I would wholeheartedly recommend. Yet Frankenstein's Army is being singled out here for its unchecked ferocity, its bananas insanity and its utter relentlesness — as well as for its black humour. Once this film hits its stride, its lovingly crafted 'zombot' creatures deliver one crazy in-your-face shock after another — and the festivalgoers in Empire 1 will not quite know what has hit them.
Cheap Thrills (Sat 24, 11.30pm)
The spirit of Faust is alive and well in contemporary Los Angeles, as down-on-his-luck family man Craig (Pat Healy) and his old ex-con buddy Vince (Ethan Embry) fall in with a jaded superrich couple (David Koechner, Sara Paxton) who pit the friends against one another in an escalating series of transgressive, ethics-addling challenges for cash-in-hand prizes. EL Katz's debut is a grimly funny morality play for an economically polarised America in recession, as well as a showcase for some very fine acting in increasingly extreme circumstances. If Craig and Vince are caught in a financial limbo, Colin and Violet's bumfights test just how low they can go — and the results, while not pretty, are deeply confronting.
Dark Tourist (Sun 25, 3.15pm)
Originally known by the far better title The Grief Tourist, Suri Krishnamma's character study follows Jim (Michael Cudlitz), an emotionally aloof, obsessive-compulsive security guard from Yonkers, as he spends his vacation visiting the haunts of a long-dead arsonist and serial killer in a northern Californian town. Along the way, Jim's sexual encounters with widowed waitress Betsy (Meanie Griffith) and motel prostitute Iris (Suzanne Quast) trigger painful memories of his own traumatic history, and we begin to understand, with mounting anxiety, just what it takes to follow in the footsteps of a mass murderer. This, along with the dubstep delirium of Youssef Delara and Victor Teran's Snap, is the very best psychodrama of the weekend. Both are unmissable, if no barrel of laughs.
Contracted (Sun 25, 1pm)
There are not many films that structure themselves around the evolution of a venereal disease — but just as the date-rape infection rapidly leaving its necrotic stamp all over the body of lesbian botanist Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is no ordinary STD, so Eric England's Contracted is no ordinary horror, but exists outside — or perhaps more accurately, before — the recognisable boundaries of genre. For in this film, the morbid metamorphosis of Sam's physical (and latterly mental) state is matched perfectly to the traumatic transitions being faced by the one-time heroin addict in her relationship, her career and her life, so that characteristics usually associated with a rather familiar kind of movie monster are also presented as something more psychosomatic. Here personal drama and body horror merge into one, with the ensuing apocalypse, whether individual or global, left to the film-savvy imagination.
Big Bad Wolves (Mon 26, 9pm)
If Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's feature debut Rabies allegorised the minefield of Israeli politics through a slasher frame and some Coens-style ensemble chaos, their darkly funny follow-up Big Bad Wolves once again shines a light on Israel, via Korea — or at least via twisted Korean revenge movies like Save the Green Planet! and I Saw The Devil. After a series of horrific child abductions and murders, a victim's father (Tzahi Grad) and a driven police detective (Lior Ashkenazi) carry out their own torturous extra-judicial investigation into the prime suspect, a captive religious teacher (Rotem Keinan) who is the prime suspect. Underlining the sociopolitical commentary, events unfold in a 'hellhole' expressly surrounded by Arab villages, while the methods of torture used are — again expressly — borrowed from the Israeli army. Through a series of masterful Hitchcockian twists, the filmmakers slyly interrogate their viewers' sympathies and prejudices, while presenting a scenario in which everyone seems happy to emulate the murderous madness all around.
FrightFest runs 22-26 August in London. For more info head to frightfest.co.uk