Despite a tepid ending, siege thriller Tower Block brings this year's festival to a close on a fittingly nerve-shredding note.
American Mary opens with fragmented images of a turkey. If this is a self-conscious expression of anxiety from writers/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, whose amiably grindhouse-aping debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk might easily have been overlooked as pure turkey, the twin sisters can put their worries to rest. For American Mary, though similarly transgressive in spirit, is miles ahead in its quality and craft.
Of course, the turkey is also an iconic symbol of America's foundational values – although here the bird is not in fact being sliced up for a Thanksgiving dinner, but stitched back together into an avian Frankenstein's monster. Likewise the Soskas are taking a knife to the corpus of American myths, and perversely modifying the different severed parts into a wholly new kind of cinematic creature. American Mary may be very entertaining, but it also leaves viewers with plenty to dissect, right from the first word of its provocative title.
The person reconstituting the turkey is Mary Mason (the astonishing Katharine Isabelle), a medical student in Aberdeen, Washington, who is practising her surgical skills at home. In many ways Mary embodies the American dream, warts and all: on the one hand, she is hard-working, ambitious, talented and naturalised (her family comes from Budapest); while on the other she is debt-ridden, and entering a male-dominated professional world that regards her merely as a plaything for abuse and exploitation. Unable to pay her mounting bills, she turns to the seedy Bourbon-A-Go-Go to get work as a stripper – but seeing her résumé, club owner Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo) instead offers her a one-off, cash-in-hand gig to perform some illegal surgery down in the basement.
Soon Bourbon-A-Go-Go dancer (and surgically enhanced Betty Boop lookalike) Beatress (Tristan Risk) is introducing Mary to Ruby RealGirl (Paula Lindberg), a wealthy fashion designer who desires "an unconventional operation... for cosmetic purposes" – and so Mary discovers the murky community of extreme body modification fanatics. Horrifically objectified and betrayed by her more 'respectable' medical fraternity, Mary begins, not unlike the Soskas themselves, to carve a niche for herself in an alternative, underground movement that gradually allows her to achieve independence.
When Mary cuts a deal with 'the demon twins of Berlin' (memorably played by the Soskas themselves), she makes her fortune but also seals her fate in what is a sort of Faustian pact, and the film takes on a decidedly Lynchian vibe. Mary metamorphoses visually into Laura Palmer (or is it her 'twin' Maddie Ferguson?), even as the dark, abusive underside of smalltown America is exposed – just like in Twin Peaks. Mary has realised her aspirations, but they come at a heavy price to her physical, mental and moral integrity - and some wounds may never heal.
"Surgeons don't have the luxury of being sorry," Mary is told by one of the teachers on her medical course. "You're gonna be a great slasher!", says another. Ever the good student, Mary absorbs their words - with a vengeance. If she is a somewhat schizophrenic character – a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde, split between the old-world, good-girl values of which the phone calls from her Hungarian 'Nana' are a regular reminder, and the coldly torturous vindictiveness that Mary will quickly embrace – that is only because she is learning the contradictory lessons of her environment, transforming (as actress Isabelle previously did in Ginger Snaps) into a monster of aggressive self-determination, even as she struggles to sew back up her eviscerated sense of identity.
Mary is on a strange, twisted journey, reinventing herself and reconfiguring others – and her very elusiveness as a character, expertly modulated by Isabelle, is reflected in the film's chimerical form, lopping off the extremities from romance, revenger's tragedy, body horror and road movie (or at least the itinerary from a road movie), and stitching them all back together into a feminist rite of passage and a satirically surgical strike against the American dream. And here, as in Tod Browning's Freaks, 'normal' society is shown in a rather dim light from the perspective of the sideshow attractions.
American Mary is one of the very best films at this year's FrightFest, and practically guaranteed a lasting cult status. It is not only one of the few scheduled films directed by women, but also a refreshingly original take on the genre. In other words, while no turkey, it certainly has wings. Cannot wait to see where the Soskas will take us next.
As a coach travels through the January night, its only two passengers start chatting awkwardly. While they are strangers, it turns out they have a lot in common. Both live not only in the same town (Pearl) but in the very same street, both are loners, and both are artists manqués: Ana (Karolina Wydra) is a hospital nurse who scribbles obsessively into notebooks (and had aspired, aged 11, to being a playwright), while Freddy (Steven Strait) supplements his amateur passion for comic-book illustrating by working days as a cinema projectionist.
Projection, it turns out, will play a key role in Ryan Smith's After. Once the coach has crashed, and the two characters wake up in their own homes to find Pearl eerily abandoned, they will gravitate both towards Freddy's projection booth and a second theatre located in Ana's memory, all in a struggle to escape both their present, paradoxical predicament and a monstrous burden of guilt from a briefly, fatefully shared past.
Much as these two characters find themselves on a home turf that has been defamiliarised by the absence of other people, Smith places viewers in a terrain recognisable from the post-apocalyptic genre, and then exploits our familiarity with similar films as much to confound as to confirm expectations.
When, lost in this depopulated twilight zone, Ana is heard shouting "Hello?" first in a hospital's echoing corridors, and then in an empty urban street, there is a clear allusion to the undead outbreak of 28 Days Later... – and Freddy himself, evidently thinking the same thing, suggests that their fellow townsmen are "probably holed up in a mall somewhere, Romero style." Meanwhile, the gigantic wall of dark fog that is encircling the town evokes the Lovecraftian horror of The Mist, while a terrifying encounter in the local school building references the parallel realities of Silent Hill.
Monstrous creatures, the walking dead, alternative dimensions – these are indeed all keys to what is going on (and one of the film's most striking images is a massive pile of keys), but they are only a partial fit for a solution that in fact has more in common with Rod Serling (or a host of films that it would be criminal to name). Aware that his twist is not exactly original, Smith toys with viewers only for the film's first half, before revealing the mystery and shifting his focus to the developing relationship between Freddy and Ana.
To find the right key for a future together, Ana and Freddy must first take a painful stroll down memory lane, leading either to romance and redemption or to oblivion – for it is this couple's evolving, cross-fertilising psychodrama that carries the film through to its end. In other words, the SF and horror here come thoroughly grounded in character, and even the hellhound that plagues this locked-in pair is, for all its toothy immediacy, a very personal demon. And so After is ultimately a twisted tale of boy meets girl, in a neat merger of boyish comic-book fantasy and girlish fairytale dress-ups that all unfolds in the barren mindscape of a less imaginative adulthood.
Jennifer Lynch's Chained begins where her previous psycho-pulp Surveillance ended: with a child being damaged, perhaps irreparably, by forced exposure to the psychopathic behaviour of adults. After seeing an illicit horror film together, nine-year-old Tim (Evan Bird) and his mother Sarah (Julia Ormond) take a cab home – but they never get there, as crazed taxi driver Bob (Vincent D'Onofrio) abducts them to his remote farmhouse. There Sarah is quickly killed, while the young boy is effectively imprisoned and enslaved.
Now renamed 'Rabbit', he is tasked with keeping the house clean, serving Bob his food, and helping archive the driver's licenses of Bob's many female victims as well as any newspaper clippings on their disappearances. "I didn't ask for you," declares Bob, recalling Eraserhead's reluctant father Henry (made by Lynch's own father when she was only a small child, and in which she had her first on-screen appearance), "but since you're here I'm going to make the most of it."
Years later, man and boy (now in chains) have settled into a horrifically dysfunctional family unit, their 'odd couple' status only emphasised by the stark contrast in their physical appearance. For beer-drinking Bob is all portly and pot-bellied, while the now teenaged Rabbit (Eamon Farren), fed only on scraps, is an emaciated Laurel to his captor's Hardy.
Bob is a murderous monster, but impressionistic flashbacks suggest that he too, along with a younger brother, had to endure an unimaginably abusive upbringing, making him what he is now – and in his own disturbing way, Bob exhibits a genuine tenderness towards his captive, as well as an interest in his education. "You don't want to be shackled to this house for the rest of your life, do you?", asks Bob, resorting to a formula familiar to many a parent – except that in this case, 'shackled' is no metaphor.
It is when Bob starts taking an interest in Rabbit's sexual development, and determines to help the adolescent get his first "taste of a woman", that Rabbit must grow up quickly and decide whether to follow in the footsteps of his 'father' or to fly the nest once and for all (if the latter option is even possible). And so Lynch's brutal 'buddy pic' takes some very dark turns, culminating in a walloping twist of a coda. Whether that twist is actually necessary or relevant – and I'm still undecided – this is a bleakly claustrophobic film about the ties that bind, with a closing credits sequence that uses sound alone to summarise perfectly all the preceding tensions and ambiguities about nature and nurture.
There must be something in the air – for these themes have been similarly explored in The Seasoning House, Paura (both of which also screened at this year's FrightFest) and Stevan Mena's Bereavement, all of which feature children brutalised by the adults who have power over them.
Perhaps, in the light of the credit crisis and environmental degradation, Chained is dramatising the hellish world that we are all both creating for and bequeathing to the next generation – or perhaps Lynch is just getting back at her own father for the anxieties that he expressed in his debut about children like herself. For, given the oppressive and not altogether loving milieu in which it was briefly raised, who knows what the baby from Eraserhead might have grown up to be?
"Built for affordable living after the Second World War" (as the text at the film's beginning informs us), tower blocks were once "popular places to live" but, neglected, became "a breeding ground for crime and violence", now targeted for redevelopment. Indeed, these urban islands might be regarded as a microcosm of island Britain, and of the nation's shift from post-war socialist principles to harsher individualist policies, with subsequent reforms squeezing out society's least protected sectors.
The top-floor residents of Serenity House are isolated even within their own tower block – the last hold-outs against their building's demolition, and virtual prisoners in their separate apartments from an environment of aggression and intimidation. When a terrified 15-year-old boy is beaten to death at their doorsteps, all – apart from Becky (Sheridan Smith) – ignored his pleas for help, and even she refused subsequently to talk to the police about what happened ("I never saw anything," she insists).
Three months later, a mystery sniper from the opposite building starts taking the residents out one by one, and as they face bullets from without, booby traps within, and their own marginalisation from an oblivious world, a new-found spirit of community, forced upon them by circumstance, might just also be their saving grace.
A thuggish extortioner (Jack O'Connell), an alcoholic (Russell Tovey), an aging couple under siege (Ralph Brown, Jill Baker), a mouthy single mother (Montserrat Lombard), a first-person-shooter obsessed teen (Harry McEntire) and his indignant mum (Julie Graham), a pair of on-the-make drugdealers (Nabil Elouahabi, Kane Robinson) – these characters are defined by all their irresponsibility and insularity, but also redefined by their potential to get on together and rebuild whatever might survive the fire.
Debut directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson know when to show – and when to cut away from – all the high-impact corporal devastation, with their DP Ben Moulden using an inventive array of camera angles and movements to get the most from the film's claustrophobic locations.
Look carefully, and you can glimpse in the background of one scene a poster for Cockneys vs Zombies – also penned by James Moran, also set in an East End undergoing transition, and also marrying its genre trappings to a genuine social engagement. Tower Block, however, is eventually undone by its own gravity, coming back down to ground level with a decidedly tepid ending.
For more on this year's Film 4 FrightFest visit frightfest.co.uk