Killers, clowns and retro found footage abounds on the second day of this year's FrightFest.
For here, the victims are seven volunteers trialling a new pharmaceutical product (called PRO-9) in an isolated clinic, and over one long, very dark night, all will succumb to its deleterious side-effects (nausea, disorientation, inflammation, psychotic violence) according to the precise order in which the drug was administered to each of them. Save for those 'controls' lucky enough to have received placebos, these 'guinea pigs, injected at precise one-hour intervals, will all transform, one by one, into rampaging trippers, a danger as much to themselves as to others.
If, in being the first feature to have been produced through the micro-budget Vertigo School Project (designed to launch the careers of National Film & Television School graduates), Guinea Pigs is something of a pioneering experiment not unlike the prototype drug at its centre, its release history also mirrors the PRO-9's delayed onset. For Ian Clark's film, originally scheduled to premiere at FrightFest 2011 but pulled owing to its incompletion, has been a long time coming to the horror festival – and whether the wait has proven salutary is debatable.
What with the obnoxious behaviour of several of the trial subjects, it perhaps takes a while to come into focus, but the real villain here is Big Pharma, whose duty of care is found to be in conflict with the need for profit. Accordingly, we are shown a slick, secretive operation, kept far away from public scrutiny, that is all too happy to exploit the "weak and vulnerable" for a little cash, and to cover up any fallout or even fatalities that might ensue.
These are weighty themes if set on a global scale, as in The Constant Gardener, but when they are confined to a facility in the English countryside, and reduced to the slash and dash of genre, they become a little harder to take seriously, especially when the somewhat trite message "corporations are bad" becomes implausibly embodied in an individual named Toby (Jack Doolan). The issue is bigger and more complex than the film can properly accommodate.
The performances here are fine, and the odd thorny moral dilemma is thrown up along with the contents of the patients' stomachs, but amidst all that running about in the dark, very little real light is cast on the film's putative subject matter. Everything else is strictly by numbers.
*And ReDiscovery Screen 13:50 Monday 27
It may have been written and directed by the man whom none other than Stephen King called "the future of horror", but it is still okay not to like the original Nightbreed. Sure, Clive Barker came to it fresh from his transcendent feature debut Hellraiser, and sure, it may still occupy a warm and fuzzy place in the memories of those who were impressionable adolescents when it came out back in 1990. Yet both its 'beefcake' protagonist Aaron Boone and the actor who played him (Craig Sheffer) fail spectacularly to engage despite being on screen for most of its 102 minutes – and, in what has now become horror legend, producers Morgan Creek, nervous about the film's commercial prospects, required the director to do extensive reshoots and then, much like villain Dr Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg, in scene-stealing minimalist form), took a knife to Barker's deviant vision and slashed its bleeding heart out. Barker never liked the final cut that hit cinemas, so what remains is a sort of palimpsest: a compromised piece that allows us to reconstruct – and idealise – what might have been.
Until now – sort of. For Russell Cherrington has managed to unearth much of Barker's original footage, long thought lost, in two VHS (yes, VHS) workprints, and has devoted painstaking effort to remixing all this material into various versions that came closer to Barker's original conception. It is Cherrington's fifth version, the so-called 'Cabal Cut', that had its European premiere at FrightFest, with a relatively restrained running time of two and a half hours (vers. 1 was a whopping three hours, and included several key characters dying more than once!). Still, two and a half hours is more or less an hour longer than most genre movies can sustain, and while the original Nightbreed's emphases are tweaked a little here, and the ending is rather different, the improvements are insufficient to make up for what Cherrington calls the "porno quality" of the new footage (although actually, porn looks and sounds better).
Cherrington is so keen to get his new-found footage on the screen that he replaces entire, perfectly good sequences from the original with rankly inferior alternate takes that, paradoxically, leave you yearning to watch the 1990 version again instead. Certainly for its first half the 'Cabal cut' seems like redux for the sake of redux (apart from one touching nightclub sequence) – a showcase of Cherrington's curatorial fervour, but with little reward for anyone interested in just watching the movie.
The second half is different – various characters are more developed and nuanced, there are genuine shifts from the original's plot, and the monstrous Nightbreed are painted more as victimised, misunderstood X-Men (although this theme was already present in 1990). We get a little more Decker, and a quite a bit more redneck rampaging – but there is also, inevitably, a whole lot more Boone. Longer does not equal better, especially in horror, and all this extra stuffing does not stop a turkey being a turkey. So perhaps this is best watched as a different kind of palimpsest: a study in the obsessiveness of its restorer, always returning to Midian in search of the immortality buried deep below the world of the visible. The 'Cabal cut' is strictly for angst archivists and nostalgia nuts – but then, that is probably half the audience for horror.
The directorial debut of Eron Sheean (who scripted Xavier Gens' apocalyptic The Divide), Errors of the Human Body crossbreeds the speculative trajectory of genetic research with the eternal complexities of interpersonal relations to create a coolly sombre tragedy with a hint of Cronenberg (body horror and 'new flesh' in a clinical setting). Shot in part at Dresden's Planck Institute, the film perfectly matches its wintry locations to Geoff's sense of alienation and isolation, contrasting these to a series of much more warmly lit flashbacks, before hybridising past and present in a horrifying dream sequence. Yet for the most part the film's greatest strength is its understatement, as grand 'theological' themes of transformation and miraculous transcendence are cultivated within the secular petri dish of science, engendering a very human story of loss and harrowingly belated redemption. This chilling drama of flaws as much psychological and spiritual as corporeal was one of the Discovery Screen's genuine highlights.
It is a suspicion that has already been confirmed by the title sequence, a juddery montage of newspaper clippings, missing persons files and photos that openly mimics the beginning of Se7en (right down to the accompanying industrial soundtrack); by the familiar subtitle "based on a true story", with the word "not" materialising in front of it in self-conscious breach of the po-faced spell; and by an opening scene in which stripper Mary (Danielle Harris) is first shown unenthusiastically allowing herself to be taken from behind over a woodland rock, and then having her neck snapped by her dissatisfied suitor Harrison (Ryan Honey).
As Mary's friend (and fellow-stripper) Annie (Jennifer Blanc) flees the murderous Harrison and his reluctant accomplice Cooger (Dennny Kirkwood), and seeks refuges in the cabin of retiring loner Kyle (Biehn), all five characters will have their loyalty and trust challenged as lies compound and civility clashes with bestiality in the middle of nowhere.
All this tells us, loud and clear, that we are in a world of pure, tawdry entertainment that is detached from any kind of (non-cinematic) reality. Crooked cops, serial killings, moral chaos – The Victim has all the right ingredients in place to be the next Surveillance, but unfortunately Biehn has neither the directing nor writing skills of Jennifer Lynch, let alone of Quentin Tarantino (whose Pulp Fiction is also expressly referenced), and so material that might have really got cooking is allowed merely to sputter and die out.
Even that sequence, near the film's beginning, of Kyle's SUV traversing the endless hinterlands, plays out at such an aimless pace that, for all its inherent mobility, it brings the narrative to a shuddering halt – and this is long before we have seen the same plodding journey made for the fourth or fifth time in the film.
By the film's second half, despite the supposed nocturnal setting and the precarious quality of the roads, no-one seems to drive with their headlights on – and when Annie and Kyle are left in a car (with the keys in the ignition) by their clearly ill-intentioned captors, they do not think just to drive off. Of course these are merely quibbling details in a film that makes no real claims on verisimilitude, but with so many longueurs, meandering repetitions and futile flashbacks, you will easily find yourself drifting, no longer seeing the trees for all the wood – and wooden acting.
The biggest draw here is Biehn himself, yesterdecade's star of James Cameron blockbusters The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss – and while there is no doubt that The Victim is something of a vanity project, there is also a strange, nostalgia-tinged melancholy to be found in the scene where young, buxom Annie (apparently no longer traumatised by her BFF's very recent death) beds Biehn's Kyle every which way in a softcore-graphic manner harking straight back to Biehn's Eighties heyday (complete with rocking score).
"You look good for 54", Annie asserts post-coitally, "and you fuck good for 54." Yet if Biehn is determined to show us he has still got it, perhaps he might do better than trying to keep his film's many shortcomings afloat under the 'grindhouse' flag of convenience. This is a relatively low-budget, independent film whose cast and crew clearly had a lot of fun – but that never quite translates into fun for the viewer. Still, even Biehn's mentor Cameron started his directing career on Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, so the only way for Biehn is up.
*And Discovery Screen 21:35pm Sunday 26
Cramming into a single, sweaty space a multi-millionaire investments executive (John Getz), his bratty granddaughter (played by Amanda & Rachel Pace), two ambitious underlings (Christopher Backus, Devin Ratray), a retired stakeholder with a heart condition (Shirley Knight), a reporter (Tehnina Sunny), a pregnant office worker (Anita Brien), an Iranian security guard (Waleed Zuaiter) and a neurotic Jewish comedian (Joey Slotnik), Elevator feels not unlike one of the old-school jokes that this last-named passenger might tell in his unreconstructed stand-up act – although before any of them has even stepped into the lift, an impressionistic prologue shows the acquisition of a small but lethal explosive device, ensuring that all the film's dark comedy is headed, whether up or down, to a story of deadly seriousness. And, as even the 1960s Batman knows, "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb."
In fact, stuck-in-a-lift flicks form their very own subgenre, from the 1974 telemovie The Elevator through Abwärts to Devil. So while Elevator's relatively brief duration (84 minutes) and near unity of time and place keep its ensemble drama ticking over tautly, there remains the sense that it is just running through routines seen many times before. What is more interesting, however, is the way that it merges the suspense inherent in its set-up with tensions of a more contemporary geopolitical variety, ringing the changes on our post-millennial anxieties.
If the bombmaking prologue, the title montage of the New York highrise, and the comedian's immediate, prejudicial 'joke' reference to 'Bin Laden' from the moment he first meets the Middle-Eastern security guard, all point to the early Noughties' obsession with 9/11 and al-Qaeda-style terrorism, then the focus of Elevator will gradually shift towards the aftermath of the 2007 Credit Crunch and a more general preoccupation with questionable corporate conduct.
Suspended on the 47th floor, this lift will stage an uneasily volatile collision of the higher-ups and lower-downs, all caught in the glare of a sensationalised, uncaring media. Which is to say that, clichés and all, Elevator is about us today, going down.
*And Discovery Screen 18:35pm Monday 27
"The following story is based on actual events," announces the all-too-familiar title at the beginning of Patricio Valladares' Hidden in the Woods (aka En las afueras de la ciudad) - and on stage at FrightFest, the director confirmed in person that about "70%" of it comes from a true Chilean story. If it really is a true story (and significantly, Valladares failed to provide any detail), it is nonetheless written in the language of pure genre, with its realities deriving entirely from the closed grindhouse of cinema rather than from any world beyond.
Within just the first few minutes there is domestic murder, drug-dealing, child rape, incestuous birth, a flesh-eating mutant and "hillbilly" chainsaw deaths, before the film moves on to cannibalism, a prison shower scene, trigger-happy badass thugs and an iconic 'cabin in the woods'. And if the plot, in which a trio of siblings are left to feed themselves in the absence of their abusive bearded father, is strongly reminiscent of Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are, it defiantly lacks even a hint of the Mexican film's allegorical engagement with sociopolitical realities. All the misogyny and bestiality on display here are in the service of nothing but themselves and exploitation thrills, and are shot in a jarring mode of inconsistently lit handheld and rough-and-ready Seventies stylings. creating a claustrophobic world that entraps viewers as much as characters in a labyrinthine forest of cinematic references.
Every man here is a violent or treacherous pig, every woman a receptacle for cum or bullets – and if the characters and themes are not unpleasant enough, the film is also riddled with a sly humour that maximises our discomfort precisely by concealing itself. When the older (but still teenaged) sister's entry into roadside prostitution is presented as a mechanical montage of fellatio and follow-up spits, it is difficult to know whether to turn away in horror, or howl with laughter – and the latter option can only come with extreme unease. Indeed, Valladares' whole strategy is to throw one grittily outrageous depravity after another at us, while challenging us to take any of it at all seriously (and keeping his own smile well-hidden in the woods). The result, though not exactly (or even at all) fun, is certainly disorienting.
Of course, the independent horror directors contributing to this portmanteau film would all have been weaned on the genre back in the VHS era, and so the artificial incorporation of tracking problems, poor resolution, stretched tape and in-camcorder crash edits reflects a formative way of seeing horror, dripping with nostalgia, that ironically brings new, postmodern life to the otherwise increasingly moribund trope of 'found footage'.
The sheer variety of the stories on offer here is part of their appeal. In 'Amateur Night', directed by David Bruckner, three young men hoping to make their own covert pornography via a tiny camera hidden in a pair of glasses bite off more than they can chew when they pick up wide-eyed Lily (Hannah Fierman) in a club and take her back to their motel room for a midnight feast of flesh.
There is similar feminist table-turning in 'Second Honeymoon' (dir. Ti West), albeit without even a hint of the supernatural, as cleanfreak couple Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), on a road trip to the Grand Canyon to revitalise their flagging relationship, are filmed as they sleep by a knife-wielding stalker with an agenda that you are unlikely to see coming.
'Tuesday the 17th' (dir. Glenn McQuaid) introduces an evil avatar of VHS glitchiness to the classic 'co-eds in the woods' formula, ambiguously negotiating a lakeside path between paranormal phenomena and schizoid murderousness, where, as in Lovely Molly, the camera is either recording an uncanny reality or merely reflecting a fractured psyche.
'The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger' (dir. Joe Swanberg) plays a similarly schizophrenic game with his its form, as self-harming student Emily (Helen Rogers) Skypes her long-distance boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman) in the hope of getting him to witness the strange goings-on in her apartment at night. Merging the webcam alienation of The Collingswood Story and the spectral invasions of Paranormal Activity, before deviating in a different direction entirely, this is the film's creepiest, slipperiest episode.
'10/31/98', made by the four-director collective Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villela), manages to combine a haunted house, cultish torture porn, ghostly witchery and 'Owl Creek Bridge' motifs into a Halloween cracker, with some hauntingly surreal imagery.
Each of these short films has something striking and twisted to offer, yet unfortunately they are all linked together by a frame story – 'Tape 56' by Adam Wingard – that fails either to satisfy in itself, or to provide a satisfying shape, leaving the overall film with a flawed, artificial structure. So in the end, the bloody parts of V/H/S are better than the whole – but still, with the many talents at work here, this may just be the retro-future of horror.
"We were terrorised by spirits," adds Ginger (Elissa Dowling), seated beside Mark on the sofa, "The dead owners Cliff and Ruth Tanner. Hopefully when you find our bodies we won't be partially eaten."
Although we do not yet know who Mark and Ginger (let alone Phil, Cliff and Ruth) are, there is something about the combination of this couple's bizarre, ominous words and their strangely relaxed delivery that feels unhinged, crazy even – and crazy is exactly what, one way or another, director/co-writer Buddy Giovinazzo will deliver over one long, dark (and darkly funny) night of the soul.
Wind the clock back, and we discover that Mark Lighthouse is a geeky LA vlogger specialising in "alt high-risk undiscovered music", and that Ginger is the latest obscure singer to be interviewed by him for his online show 'Mind Mutations'. Ginger is really 'out there': not just because she lives in the middle of nowhere, in a desert cabin rented from old widower Cliff Tanner (who regularly calls Ginger's cellphone with homely advice); but also because she is wackily eccentric.
In particular she sends out wildly mixed sexual messages to her guest. For while she drops an early, pointed reference to a 'boyfriend' who "might stop by later", she also casually declares that she found Mark's website while "surfing for porn", she laces her conversation with racy innuendo, and she even exhibits her 'secret mole'.
Mark may reckon Ginger's isolated cabin to be "very Chain Saw Massacre-y", but persuaded by Ginger that the only nearby motel is a place where you "wouldn't let Janet Leigh stay", he agrees to spend the night in Ginger's spare room. The two quickly hit it off, bantering like a couple in "a bad sit-com" – but things gradually, inexorably start going bump in the advancing night.
The "weird stuff" in New York that had led Ginger to flee to the California hinterlands re-emerges violently from the shadows in the menacing form of Phil (Jason London). Then, as Mark and Ginger wait for the police to arrive, an increasingly inexplicable scenario (despite Mark's persistent attempts to rationalise) takes shape around and within the couple, haunted as they are by their own – and others' – pasts.
Stating anything more about the plot would spoil the expert way in which Giovinazzo constantly wrongfoots viewers with one uncanny twist after another. For this is a sinuous, disorienting narrative that turns on a dime – or, more accurately, on a penny, like the ones that Cliff has over the years collected in a tin for small change. Suffice it to say that A Night of Nightmares is one of those modestly budgeted films that, like the recent works of Ti West, always keeps its (maybe) supernatural mechanics secondary to strong characterisation and nuanced dialogue.
Far from being a tiresome, shock-a-minute showcase of (rapidly dating) FX, this is an intimate, exploratory two-hander that builds slowly towards its freaky intrusions, along the way getting us fully on side with its amiably goofy leads (who are obviously made for each other). Meanwhile even the most innocuously casual-seeming lines ("Somebody is trying to fuck with us!", etc.) come to resonate in unexpected ways.
The fact that Mark's broadcasting surname Lighthouse is a pseudonym, that Ginger's name too is an alias, and that they both share for dessert a resold cake inscribed to 'Irving', might seem like no more than incidental detail – but taken together they point to a fluidity of identity that will prove important thematically in a film where psychosis and metempsychosis make strange bedfellows. On top of all this, A Night of Nightmares is that rare thing, a horror movie with real charm, well earned by its two principals – yet just when you are smiling along at the development of Mark and Ginger's weird romance, Giovinazzo throws a creepy curveball, and another penny drops...
A Night of Nightmares is indeed alt, high-risk, undiscovered – and well worth tracking down. One of the best films in this year's Discovery Screen strand.
*And Discovery Screen 15.20pm Monday 27
We then see the wedding itself as it is being recorded, not only by professional – and absurdly pretentious – cameraman Atún (Sr. B), but also by Koldo's cousin Adrian (Àlex Monner) and even by Claire's little sister Tito. "I'm going to film everything, I swear," declares Adrian, practically announcing this film's continuing fidelity to the 'first-person digicam' aesthetic that, along with clever subgenre blending and multi-story tension, elevated the first two [Rec] films way above your average zombie flick.
Yet once, some 28 minutes into the film's duration, jolly Uncle Victor (Emilio Mencheta) has started rapidly spreading his dog-bite virus, and all hell breaks loose amongst the drunken wedding party, Atún's camera is both literally and symbolically smashed, marking the point at which Génesis breaks away from shakicam verité for an altogether more 'objective' – and conventional – mode of filmmaking.
In terms of the [Rec] franchise, this represents a bold departure – as does the change in setting from the previous two films' claustrophobic apartment building – but in terms of the horror genre as a whole, this apparent innovation is in fact just a reversion to tired old tropes, stripping the franchise of precisely what once made it seem so distinctive.
There is a children's entertainer in Génesis who, though dressed (more or less) as SpongeBob Squarepants, insists instead on being called 'John Sponge'. "Well, you see, there was a copyright problem," he explains. "We are talking about a character that's got nothing to do with the one you're talking about." Génesis itself suffers a similar anxiety over its identity.
Through its title, its use (early on) of handheld footage, and a few oblique nods to its predecessors' plot features, this third instalment happily dons a guise associated with the [Rec] brand, but is in fact its own, essentially standalone zombie movie, resembling a little too closely too many other, bogstandard zombie movies to establish its own individuality within the genre. Génesis acknowledges the increasing stalenesss of 'found footage', but fails to find anything new with which to replace this format, while also jettisoning the genuine frights of the earlier [REC] films for a not altogether successful blend of black comedy, Eighties-style gore and, yes, romance.
Romance? Well, Génesis never quite forgets its initial promise to be "A Wonderful Love Story", tracing its marital pair's undying love (amidst the undead), and even allowing Koldo to transform into a chivalrous knight (complete with shield, sword and full suit of armour) while Claire becomes a wrathful, chainsaw-wielding bride ("This is my day!", she repeats furiously, bloodily dispatching yet another shuffling wedding crasher). Yet this too merely reduces the film to rom-zom-com, which is a long way from [Rec] and [Rec]2, but not so very far from Return of the Living Dead III, My Boyfriend's Back and Boy Eats Girl.
Meanwhile, Koldo and Clara's dilemma as a couple – stay or split? – is reflected in the fact that this is the first film in the franchise to be directed only by Paco Plaza, while his regular co-director Jaume Balagueró will return to helm solo the franchise's fourth and final entry, [Rec] Apocalypse. Still, judging by this tepid outing, there may not be so many keen viewers left to see the franchise through to its end time.
When, however, we first meet Richard 'Stitches' Grindle (Ross Noble), he is in the process of drunkenly taking a woman from behind in a dingy, cliff-top caravan as she cries, "Fuck me, clown!" This lecherous, foul-mouthed jester comes straight out of Shakes the Clown – but when he arrives late and the worse for wear at a hellish children's birthday party, a sequence of unfortunate events will lead to his bloody demise, as well as the ongoing trauma of birthday boy Tom.
Six years later, teenaged Tom (Tommy Knight) is still taking anxiety pills and quietly mooning over his emo neighbour Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux), when his sixteenth birthday party attracts an unwelcome guest, rising from the grave and out for vengeance in outsized shoes and a fright wig.
"It ain't '92," comments Tom's camp, corpulent friend Bulger, bitching about the beardy outmodedness of one of his fellow partygoers. There's a double-irony here: first, because the object of Bulger's derision is played by none other than director/co-writer Conor McMahon in cameo; and second, because Stitches is a supernatural slasher so stuck in the kill-count aesthetics of the Eighties that 1992 seems less behind the times than way, way ahead. 'Stitches' refuses to die like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and quips away like Freddy Krueger, while dispatching his adolescent victims in suitably clownish ways (rabbits down the throat, eye-skewering umbrellas and balloon pumps to the brain) that push the limits of defiantly pre-CG splatter.
Indeed, it is for the over-the-top inventiveness of its latex gore effects that Stitches is most memorable. Unfortunately, though, despite the best efforts of its young cast, the film is more crude and mean-spirited than ever actually scary or funny. The level of humour here is typified by the sequence in which a kid is seen using a social networking site called 'MyFace', as a set-up for the line, "You invited everybody to come on MyFace."
It is a contrived gag that might just work for viewers as adolescent as the principal characters (i.e. viewers prevented from seeing the film by a likely 18 certificate), but will be less amusing to anyone older. Perhaps that is the intended effect: for Stitches, with all its retro Eighties sensibilities, seems designed to appeal more to the teenagers that we once were than to the adults that we have since become. Meanwhile the Irish setting brings a new accent to an otherwise rather old and tired mode of horror.
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