Peter Strickland's supreme giallo-tinged meta-horror is not just one of FrightFest's finest, it's one of the year's best releases.
We should probably start with a spoiler alert. It has been six years since Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores (known collectively as 'the Butcher Brothers') brought us The Hamiltons, their low-budget mash-up of tropes from the domestic psychothriller, 'torture porn' and, er, one other subgenre, but if you do not know what that 'other subgenre' is and do not want the surprise ruined, then best to catch up with the The Hamiltons before reading on or indeed watching this sequel.
That said, the Butchers have written The Thompsons in such a way that no prior knowledge of its central, name-changing clan is required. Opening in medias res with sensitive protagonist Francis Hamilton (Cory Knauf, who also co-wrote) trapped alone in a dark, claustrophobic box, the film (guided by Francis' dry narration) flashes back to a series of criss-crossing Tarantino-esque episodes that explain who Francis and his siblings are, why they have fled their native America, and how Francis himself has come to be reprising a scene from Buried near the English town of Ludlow.
After an unfortunate chain of events in the Mojave desert exposes their vampiric predations and leaves youngest brother Lenny (Ryan Hartwig) severely injured, the family flees the US for Europe, in search of sanctuary and their late parents' roots. While the eldest, David (Samuel Child) looks after Lenny in London, and the twins Darlene (Mackenzie Firgens) and Wendell (Joseph McKelheer) stay in Paris for a taste of the nightlife, Francis follows a lead north to Ludlow (?!), where he meets the Stuarts – a similarly cursed/gifted family of bloodthirsty killers whose plans for their long-lost American relatives are not as benign as they might first appear.
Meanwhile Francis, the only Hamilton who struggles to accept his murderous identity, finds a kindred spirit in Riley Stuart (Elizabeth Henstridge), estranged from her own heritage by a lack of bloodlust (although she is still handy with a knife).
If there is no greater shorthand signifier of the difference between Americans and the English than the condition of their respective teeth, then sure enough, the Hamiltons' twinned fangs show all the signs of orthodontic perfection, while the Stuarts sport multiple jagged canines in uneven rows. That, however, is not the only Anglo-American contrast drawn between these two clans.
For while the Stuarts are a monstrous incarnation of the British landed gentry, obsessed with bloodlines, 'breeding' and the hunt, and desperately struggling against their own extinction, the Hamiltons are 'colonial' upstarts, rootless, fugitive and constantly searching for (or inventing along the way) their own sense of belonging. And so The Thompsons involves a clash not just of family values, but also of broad trans-Atlantic stereotypes, where the Hamiltons, far from their birthplace and out of their league, discover there is a reason their parents turned their back on the 'old country'.
The ensuing battle between these two cross-breeding genealogies sees the tables turned on the Hamiltons, who now find themselves in the same position as their prey from the first film: overpowered, hung up and exploited by a clan that kills without compunction.
This is an irony to be savoured – but at the same time the Hamiltons' new status as victims, as well as the odds relentlessly stacking against them, never allow us to feel much unease about what they do to survive as a family. Where its predecessor unpeeled the Hamiltons' dysfunction and depravity layer by horrifying layer, here their aggressive antics are presented as cosy, lovable quirks – no longer atrocities so much as old, familiar tricks being wheeled out once more as entertainment alone.
Indeed, now that Francis has become more comfortable with his cold-blooded legacy, the film too shows a little too much affection for the Hamilton clan. By way of compensation, the storytelling is more ambitious both in its geographical scope and its chronology-leaping structure, and the overall tone comes far closer to comedy – but the final showdown between the Hamiltons and the Stuarts falsely resolves the film's many tensions in a disappointing free-for-all of snarls, red-flashing eyes and sucker punches, while leaving things wide open for a second sequel.
Released (at least in its native Germany) just two years after Let the Right One In, Dennis Gansel's We Are the Night is another attempt to reinscribe the vampire mythos upon modern Europe. After a montage of images (from colour and then black-and-white photographic stills to paintings) depicting key moments of Berlin history in reverse order, with the same blonde woman always eerily present in the background, we cut to a plane's interior, and there she is again, surrounded by dead passengers and crew, as well as by her two undead companions.
For Louise (Nina Hoss) is on an eternal quest for lost love that is as impossible to slake as her thirst for human blood. The first woman Louise turned, the silent-era starlet Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich) who in one scene we see cleverly composited into Dr Mabuse: The Gambler, has never recovered from having to abandon her beloved daughter for a decadent lifestyle with which she has long since grown jaded, and annoys Louise with her ceaseless melancholy; and while Nora (Anna Fischer), Louise's relatively fresh pickings form the Love Parade, is more fun than Charlotte, she is also less sophisticated.
So Louise is looking to expand her vampish coterie, and her drifting eye soon falls upon Lena (Karoline Herfurth), an ex-con pickpocket with a countercultural look (hoodie, nose ring, spike dyed hair, tats) and insolent attitude that are pure Lisbeth Salander.
Once turned, Lena transforms into a pretty princess (expressly compared by Louise to Cinderella) – yet despite all the attractive perquisites of vampirism ("we eat, drink, sniff coke and fuck as much as we like," as Nora puts it, "but we never get fat, pregnant or hooked – enjoy it"), Lena can neither reciprocate Louise's love nor countenance killing others, while her growing interest in Tom (Max Rienelt), the policeman pursuing her for more than just legal reasons, runs counter to the gynocratic coven's distrust of the living in general and of men in particular.
While the plot of We Are the Night is a familiar enough mix of elements from The Hunger and Near Dark, an assortment of seemingly throwaway details ensures that the film always remains intriguing around the edges. We learn, for example, that only those with 'the gift' can be turned, and that male vampires – "too loud, too greedy and too stupid" – have been thoroughly wiped out by both humankind and their own female counterparts.
The result is an odd – and therefore interesting – blend of genetic elitism, feminist emancipation and rave-culture hedonism, where oldworld bloodlines leave a trail imprinted in the postmodern age, and where for every unreconstructed, aggressive misogynist (e.g. the loathsome Russian pimps) there is also a decent, respectful 'new man' (like Tom). It helps that Gansel wraps all these stimulating contradictions in a slickly stylish audiovisual package.
*And ReDiscovery Screen 11:15am August 27
It is not difficult to see why the wilfully amateurish first-person mode of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity seems such an attractive option for the budding, cashless moviemaker – after all, such films can be shot on home digicams, any cinematographic infelicities and dodgy performances can easily be assimilated to the overall pseudo-realist vibe, and those two films famously made a mint at the box office.
Yet you need only see a few inferior imitators of these (and there are hundreds of them) to realise that the format works only in very talented hands, and that its (typically first-time) directors might sometimes actually benefit from the greater discipline demanded of a larger production. So it has become something of a cliché amongst horror critics to groan about the oversaturation of the 'shakicam' market every time yet another low-to-no-budget 'found footage' film comes along hoping to cash in on the phenomenal success of its predecessors with rapidly diminishing returns.
The Inside bears all the hallmarks of a debuting director's lurching folly – and yet this is not in fact the first time that actor Eoin Macken (Gwaine in TV's Merlin) has directed, shot, written, edited or produced a feature, so that its problems cannot simply be reduced to the filmmaker's inexperience. Opening with a po-faced text concerning the thousands of young people who go missing each year, the film focuses on a digital camera found at a pawnbroker's by a lonesome man down on his luck.
As he views the camera's recorded footage with curiosity and growing horror, we see what he sees: six ill-fated Dubliners filming their own break-in at an (apparently) abandoned backstreet building, where they encounter first a trio of rape-minded thugs, and then something equally murderous but altogether more supernatural.
If on paper some of the victim's names (Cora, Corina; Sienna, Sian) look similar, the personae who inhabit them are hardly more distinguishable on screen, as all attempts at characterisation quickly get lost in the dark. Early scenes of social and sexual betrayal are unengaging and go nowhere.
The second act, in which the girls find themselves trapped, menaced and eventually assaulted by male persecutors, are genuinely upsetting to watch – but all this good work is undone once things start going bump in the night and the film reverts to the tried-and-trite shakicam tropes of terrified semi-innocents running, running, and running some more, in an interminable cat-and-mouse where each doorway promises something new that is never actually delivered.
Macken puts far too much faith in the intrinsic scariness of his interior locations (grubby rooms, underground cellars), while forgetting to have much of interest happen in them, and the satanic antagonist – essentially a naked bloke – never comes into either literal or metaphorical focus, proving an abstract anticlimax to all the laughing aggressions of the three abusers. It may be unusual to see 'found footage' actually being found, but this film's opening and close have the same cheap look as the digicam material that they frame.
The Inside offers a stale vision of inescapable entrapment that you too, like these hapless partygoers, will wish would just end – and then suddenly it does, in a manner that is both arbitrary and unsatisfying. It is all rather dull to look at, and there is not much going on inside either.
*And Rediscovery Screen 18:30 August 27
Much like Jaume Balagueró's telemovie Films To Keep You Awake: To Let and his shakicam shockers [Rec] and [Rec]2 (both co-directed with Paco Plaza), Sleep Tight concerns characters locked in an apartment building with an unwelcome presence – only this time round, the focus is less on the perspective of the victims than of their persecutor, a frighteningly human kind of monster whose intrusive voyeurism (and worse) we are rather uncomfortably made to share.
Recently hired as concierge to an affluent residential block, César (Luis Tosar, in riveting form) cuts a depressive figure, incapable of happiness – but in the radiant Clara (Marta Etura), one of the few occupants who ever smiles at him, he has found a reason to go on living. Waking up by her side early in the morning, he sneaks out so as not to wake her, and heads downstairs to man the lobby desk, before heading out to visit his invalid mother (Margarita Roset) in hospital and tell her about his day and about Clara.
It will quickly emerge that all this is an illusion. His relationship with Clara is entirely one-sided, and when it is noticed at all, is certainly not welcome. He pesters her anonymously with 'poison pen' letters, e-mails and text messages, and sneaks into her room every night to drug her in her sleep, so that he can satisfy his errant desires unnoticed. Indeed, so slippery is this sociopath that viewers may even question whether the woman in hospital really is his mother, or is just some random mute patient that he has selected to victimise with his spiteful narratives.
It is an inestimably creepy set-up – reminiscent of the 'lost' John Carpenter thriller Someone's Watching Me!, the made-for-TV Through the Eyes of a Killer, and of course The Resident, released internationally in the same year as Balagueró's film came out in Spain – and it somehow becomes even creepier as we realise that César's objectives are not entirely sexual, even if he uses sex to attain them. It is a cruel game of misanthropy and self-loathing that he is playing, and yet, as in The Talented Mr Ripley, much of this film's suspense comes with its own sadomasochistic quality, generated from the conflict between our revulsion at what César does, and our desire that he not be caught – despite the odds stacking against him.
So well-performed, finely crafted and classically constructed is Sleep Tight that it seems hard to accept that its every twist and turn is leading up to a chillingly sick joke – but in fact all these aspects, including the dark humour, contribute to its decidedly Hitchcockian flavour.
It is the kind of film that gets viewers simultaneously to thrill at the manner, sometimes calculated, sometimes improvised, in which its anti-hero effects his wayward plans, and to question nervously the trustworthiness of other people or the security of even their own beds. Viewers, especially although not exclusively female viewers, are unlikely to sleep tight after this.
No-one saw it coming.
Defying all predictability, Peter Strickland's debut Katalin Varga was an English film telling a Romanian (and Romanian-language) rape/revenge story set to eclectic soundscapes by Nurse With Wound. Now, just as improbably, his follow-up is a bi-lingual tale of two halves (still with the odd snatch of Nurse With Wound for the sharp-eared) set in the claustrophobic world of audio post-production for a 1970s Italian horror – except that Berberian Sound Studio is itself dressed in the same vividly hallucinatory giallo stylings, with a Lynchian twist.
Berberian Sound Studio opens with a reel-to-reel tape player starting up, except that only the sound is sharp, with the impressionistic images taking their time to come into focus. Here, as in The Exorcist, The Conversation, Blow Out and Écoute le Temps, acoustics – and the ambiguities associated with them – will come to the fore, as sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) mixes the ADR, foley work and musical score for a brutal and clearly misogynistic film that we constantly hear but almost never see – even if the garish black-and-red opening credits to this film-within-a-film replace Berberian Sound Studio's own title sequence.
It will not be the first time that the boundaries between film and 'reality' are breached – and the 'Silenzio' sign that repeatedly flashes red whenever recording is taking place serves as a clear indicator, at least to those familiar with Mulholland Drive, that there will be more to this film than at first meets the eye (and ear).
Like the heroines of the Suspiria-like film he is working on, Gilderoy is lost in an environment that he does not fully comprehend. More used to children's television and local documentaries, he is the archetypically reserved Englishman out of his depth in Italy, with linguistic isolation adding to, even crystallising, his sense of alienation.
Exploited by his hard-nosed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), manipulated by the lecherous director Santini (Antonio Mancino), and treated with officious contempt by the production's secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou), Gilderoy soon wearies of having both to listen to, and to help create, endless recordings of female suffering, and is sustained only by his mother's letters from their home in idyllic Dorking – yet as the audio from one scene starts bleeding crosstalk into the next, and as the technician's life and the film on screen begin to merge, what Gilderoy sees, dreams and overlooks all blur into one paranoid nightmare of uneasy complicity. He may want out of the picture, but as Francesco insists, "It is just a film – you are part of it."
With all its classic giallo trappings, right down to the unseen projectionist's black leather gloves, Berberian Sound Studio seems to have an inevitably murderous narrative trajectory, but as its sensory overload never quite gives way to the expected sensationalism, Strickland disorients viewers with a sly meta-horror that reflects upon both the artifice that goes into genre films, and the uncomfortable reality that can underlie their vicious depiction of women.
Layering its narrative strands to the same unsettling effect as its retreating anti-hero mixes sounds, this film of psychedelic aesthetics and psychogenic fugues is the disorienting giallo that Lynch might have made – and one of the absolute standout films not just of FrightFest, but of the entire year.
Just when you think the whole shakicam subgenre has come to its natural end, 'found footage' finds a way to haunt its viewers (both internal and external) afresh. Like Lovely Molly before it, Sinister does not comprise first-person footage alone, but rather includes some 'home movies' within its more conventional 'objective' camerawork. In this way, it makes the preserved medium of film itself a reflex for the ghostly entities that (maybe) inhabit its story, as though to suggest that merely watching this 'moving picture' (which begins – and ends – with a family moving house) may be enough to entrap anyone with their eyes on those flickery images, leaving no possibility of escape.
Over a decade ago, Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) hit the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for a true crime book – and ever since he has been vainly trying to repeat this success, even as his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) would prefer him to focus more on his family life with son Trevor and daughter Ashley. Following a horrific case in which four members of a family were hanged from a tree in their own garden (while the youngest daughter vanished without trace), Ellison moves into their Pennsylvania house to research the story, not letting on to his own family that their new home is the very location of this murder spree.
Discovering in the attic a box of Super 8 reels with a projector, Ellison sets up a theatre in his office, and quickly realises that every reel records a different domestic slaying, widely separated by time and geography but connected in other ways. Horrified by these eerie films but also excited by the prospect of a new, lucrative publication, Ellison starts working – and drinking – late into the night until, disturbed both by strange happenings in the house and hidden images in the reels, he becomes gradually convinced that the pagan cult of child-eating demon Bughuul may be behind the killings, with his own family next in line.
As with his previous horror film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, director/co-writer Scott Derrickson plays upon the conflict between rationalism and the supernatural, and if once again the devil gets all the best tunes (realised with some astonishingly creepy sound design), this time the hot potato of Christian faith is removed from the equation. Far more attention is paid to the mental fragmentation of the protagonist, who, with his reprehensible mendacity, alcoholism, obsessive work ethic and neglect of loved ones, not to mention his habit of haunting the house's corridors by night with a baseball bat or kitchen knife, seems a Jack Torrance in the making.
Indeed, Sinister is constructed around repetitions – not just the knowing echoes of previous family psychochillers, but also the bizarre serial nature of the murders themselves, immortalised in that boxed row of similar-looking film cans. Yet if you think you have seen it all before, the terrifying meta-filmic lesson here is that watching can in itself be dangerous, even deadly.
And yet there we are, peepers wide open, staring at the screen (and the screen within the screen), ignoring all the warning signs, watching someone watching horror and reaping the awful, inevitable consequences, one way or another, of curiosity. It is an ingeniously plotted film, luring us along with Ellison into its ineluctable trajectory, before leaving us to stare, eyes agape, at our own complicity in the taking of innocence.
Look at the evil in the centre of this film, and it looks unblinkingly right back at you. Just as well, then, that there are enough mounting tensions and jolting jumpshocks here to have many viewers averting their eyes in sheer fright.
From its original 'Japanenglish' title to its focus on a homegrown comestible "known around the world", Iguchi Noboru's Dead Sushi seems determined, quixotically, to export its local fare to international plates. Anyone familiar with the previous works of its writer/director, or of fellow 'splattercore' compatriots Nishimura Yoshihiro and Sakaguchi Tak – all three of whom collaborated on Mutant Girls Squad – will know what to expect here: faux-naïve characterisation, insane narrative leaps, low-budget CG body horror, lurid colour, breezy sexual perversion, gratuitous dancing and geysers of blood, all choreographed with postmodern improbability to a soundtrack of cheesily upbeat J-pop.
Daughter to an overexacting master sushi chef (Bu Jiji) who believes there is "a similarity between sushi making and the martial arts", Keiko (Takeda Rina) has been reared to feel inferior – so she flies the nest and takes up a waitressing job at the Karinoyu Inn. On Keiko's first night working there, a group from a pharmaceuticals company comes to try the Inn's famous sushi, secretly followed by their former colleague Yamada (Shimazu Kentaro) who is now hell-bent on giving the firm that turfed him out a taste of its own experimental medicine. Soon the Inn has been taken over by a flying squadron of zombified sushi, with only Keiko, the fatherly ex-chef Sawada (Matsuzaki Shigeru) and a friendly egg roll to stop all the raw carnage.
"Things have reached the point where they no longer make any sense," exclaims one character, articulating a suspicion that most viewers will long since have felt for themselves. For between the salacious salarymen, the arrogant chefs and the sashimi that bite, rut and occasionally even sing with gusto, Noboru's film serves up a whole lot of crazy, seasoned even more bizarrely with didactic information on the proper preparation and consumption of sushi.
It is fun enough while it lasts, but also utterly inconsequential, if not to say forgettable, and as hit and miss as a cheap mixed platter. This is no easy sell for a mainstream English-speaking audience, but anyone with an adventurous palate – and a tolerance for highly artificial colours and flavours – might fancy a sample from this wilfully tasteless menu. Dead Sushi melts on the mouth, without leaving anything to chew on – but overall, it's a bit of a damp squid.
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