FrightFest 2011 appeared to have one of its strongest line-ups for years, and after five days of intensive horror viewing in the country’s largest cinema I can confirm that it did not disappoint.
Despite the handicap of having Leicester Square being dug up for refurbishment ahead of the London Olympics in 2012, which meant horror fans could not flood out into the famous London landmark to socialise between screenings, FrightFest 2011 still had its trademark atmosphere created by the organisers and genre fans who love the festival so much.
Even the weather, which was typically British, could not dampen the spirits of the 1000-plus horror fans who gathered in the heart of London to see the best of brand new horror cinema at The Empire, Leicester Square.
Unlike all the following days, Day One of FrightFest doesn’t start until the evening. As we gathered in the massive Empire Screen One to take our seats the buzz and excitement was palpable. Eventually the house lights dimmed to a rapturous applause and we were treated to a “welcome to FrightFest” short-film based on Escape From New York, which was the first of many homage’s over the weekend to the works of John Carpenter. After this had got everyone in the mood the festival organisers, lead by the inimitable Alan Jones, took to the stage briefly to welcome us all to 5 days of horror, and introduced the opening film of FrightFest 2011.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (UK Premier) was a solid enough opening to this year’s festival. A typically strong performance from Guy Pearce and also from the child lead (Bailee Madison) combined well with exceptional creature effects to make an atmospheric offering. Although it was co-written and produced by the legendary Guillermo Del Torro it contained the hallmark of the great filmakers style, but lacked the uniqueness of his directorial pieces. None-the-less director Troy Nixey did a good job of reimagining the 1973 original; and was perhaps judged by higher standards due to del Torro’s involvement.
Next up was the UK Premier of Final Destination 5 – 3D. Being in 3D and the fifth movie in an extremely homogenised franchise (I don’t have to run through the plot, do I?) – I wasn’t expecting much from this film. How wrong I was!
As predicted the plot had not so much been recycled, rather completely reused, from previous entries to the series; but this was thoroughly enjoyable, brainless, fun. Perhaps it helped being surrounded by the fantastic FrightFest crowd who cheered every kill like a score at a sporting event – but I enjoyed every minute of Final Destination 5 – 3D. This was the movie 3D was made for; usually surplus to requirements the 3D here was well done and creatively used. It was even subtle in places, adding depth of field and interesting reflections.
The opening “disaster scene” was amazing to behold, and the imaginative deaths – the trade mark of this series – did not disappoint. This is a perfect film to switch your brain off for a bit, have a couple of beers, and just enjoy the bloody carnage!
Day One closed disappointingly to the poorly conceived anthology The Theatre Bizarre (European Premier). Having read the synopsis I was looking forward to this one, but the lack of cohesion and loose editing on the overly-long and not particularly engaging stories saw me literally fall asleep at one point – although that could have been more to do with a combination of rum and the post-midnight timing! The directors stated that they did not confer when scripting their individual stories for the anthology – and it showed.
As the lights of London flashed by through my taxi window after Day One, I considered the irony that the one film I wasn’t bothered about on Opening Night was my pick of the day. Sometimes being a horror addict is all about switching off and having fun – tonight was a perfect case in point.
Having not got into bed until 3am, Day Two of FrightFest 2011 started sedately! After a great veggie breakfast, the only decent thing to do in order to prepare for a big day of movie action was to get into one of the many pubs on Leicester Square for a few rums. Once properly lubricated, we joined the FrightFest faithful for the UK Premier of Urban Explorers.
Set beautifully within the claustrophobic catacombs under Berlin Urban Explorers starts promisingly enough following a group of young adults who get their kicks investigating the hidden areas of the urban environment. Hooking up with a guide they found via the internet, they travel deep into the tunnels in search of a wartime Nazi bunker. So far, so good. Sadly after the initial set-up, this film became rather standard fare once the explorers start getting picked off by a murderous German living underground. Not without its merits, and the villain was interesting – but some of the characters were a little one dimensional and behaved in an unrealistic manner. Had the director made better use of the setting and delivered more empathetic characters, this film might have elevated itself beyond the average offering it became.
A quick stop for refreshments, and we’re straight into the World Premier of Crisitan Solimeno’s The Glass Man. Starring FrightFest favourite Andy Nyman and also Neve Campell sporting a just passable English accent; The Glass Man shows us the despair of Martin Pyrite (Nyman) who has lost his job and has spiralled into debt, the shame of which leads him to keep the desperate situation from his wife (Campbell). Just as the situation starts to completely unravel, a menacing stranger arrives who appears to offer salvation, if Martin will do his bidding for just one night.
The acting throughout was excellent, especially Nyman’s performance, but whilst the film started strongly it dissipated once it became clear that the movie was employing a trope which is starting to become clichéd now. I won’t spoil what it was, as there is a lot to be enjoyed with this movie – but I for one was left feeling a little empty at how events unfolded.
Is this the year of horror comedy done well? If the preview screening of Tucker & Dale vs Evil is anything to go by, it certainly could be. The titular Tucker and Dale are two hillbilly types who only have desires on renovating their cabin in the woods. When vacationing college kids arrive misunderstandings lead to a rapidly rising body count. Hilarious and gory in equal measure, this one was thoroughly enjoyable and went down a storm with the FrightFest crowd.
Day Three of FrightFest 2011 began with a morning preview screening of Troll Hunter. This Norwegian film has been gathering a decent following around the film festival circuit and prior to FrightFest it was certainly one of my “must see” movies on this year’s schedule. I was not disappointed. Fantastic in both senses of the word, Troll Hunter was impressively made and every bit as entertaining as you would hope from a film with a title like that! The CGI trolls were convincing and imaginative, the acting was solid and the humour was sprinkled throughout the script with an effectively light touch. A great start to the day.
Despite the allure of the pub doors having long since opened and the desire to pig-out at the nearby Maoz Falafel restaurant, we decided that no serious horror fan could miss the 30 year follow-up to The Wicker Man, presented by director Robin Hardy himself at this European Premier of The Wicker Tree. Well, we could have and we should have.
As the aged Mr Hardy graced the FrightFest stage and introduced the cast of The Wicker Tree, one could feel the warmth of the assembled crowd towards him. The Wicker Man is one of the greatest films of all time and a reference point for all serious students of horror cinema. I was not going to delude myself; I knew that there would be little point in comparing Hardy’s latest film to his 1973 classic – I resolved to watch it for what it was, in isolation, and not in comparison to its legacy. Even on that basis, The Wicker Tree was a terrible disappointment.
An evangelist, who is also a famous singer, travels as a missionary to preach Christianity on a Scottish island. Clichéd and riddled with holes, the plot – such as it was – trundled along getting further bogged down by performances that were either instantly forgettable or unbelievable in their delivery of the sub-par script. On the closing credits, we retired quickly to a local bar as I’d have felt embarrassment watching Robin Hardy talk about his film we’d just witnessed. I chose to remember him for his excellent previous achievements.
After lunch we returned to The Empire for a preview screening of Fright Night 3D – a reimagining of the 80’s vampire classic. I had my reservations about this one, the original is a film I remember fondly from my childhood, and I’m no fan of 3D. Although it did nothing to change my opinion of 3D cinema, Fright Night 3D was well paced and competently delivered. It chose not to get too laboured with the issue proving the existence of vampires, and got straight down to the action. David Tennant’s was amongst the strong performances that had all but the ardent opponents of remakes thoroughly entertained and ironically, for me at least, it breathed a bit of new life into the tired vampire genre.
The evening spot on Day Three was taken by the UK Premier of Lucky McKee’s The Woman. Notorious after an offended individual at Sundance had to be removed (such was his upset at the movie), it was clear the FrightFest audience was up for this one – even Mr McKee conceded that the Sundance punter had “made the movies trailer for him!”
The Woman is the kind of sensational, high quality, boundary-pushing filmmaking that makes thousands attend FrightFest every year. This film was moving, intelligent, insightful and, yes, brutal. It is not, however, a movie designed to shock or repulse. Co-written by the author Jack Ketchum and director Lucky McKee The Woman delves deeply in the nature of abuse and abusive personalities, how this affects others and society. It deals with the hubris of those who think their version of civility and existence is the one true way and what happens when they seek to enforce their world view on others. This movie could be seen as a metaphor for the attitudes such as those behind British Colonialism and also the current American foreign policy. It is also a story of personal empowerment, and how power can be used, abused or denied. The Woman tells the story of a father who encounters a feral woman whilst out hunting. He captures her and imprisons her in order to “civilise” her; a task in which he involves the whole family.
Lucky McKee manages to avoid the potential pitfalls that lesser talents might have fallen into with such a premise and also coaxes brilliant performances out of his cast, not least the mesmeric Pollyanna McIntosh as “The Woman”. Ms McIntosh’s portrayal of untamed femininity was so powerful it was almost unnerving to see her on stage for the post screening Q&A session, during which she divulged that she spent several days living wild to prepare for the part.
After such an intense movie experience we called it a night (after the obligatory trip to the bar) in preparation for Day Four of FrightFest 2011.
Day Four started well, and early, with a preview screening of Xavier Gens’ new work The Divide. What began as a rather standard example of survivors in a post-apocalyptic setting elevated itself rapidly via some interesting character development; culminating in a tense, claustrophobic and violent payoff.
We ducked out for Andy Nyman’s Quiz From Hell, I’m sure Mr Nyman was as entertaining as ever – but we needed some liquid refreshment and there is no way we’d have been able to outscore the more knowledgeable FrightFest horror die-hards. We made sure we were back for this year’s International Short Film Showcase – after the high standard in 2010 I was really looking forward to this. It’s a dozen or so short films from up-and-coming directors, and whilst the standard wasn’t as high this year, there were still some real gems on display. For sheer over-the-top comedy gore, my pick of this year’s entries was Brutal Relax from Spain, directed by Adrian Cardona. Where other than FrightFest will you see a sea monster get beaten to death with a dead baby!?
The afternoon spot was filled by the UK Premier of Ti West’s The Inkeepers – this turned out to be another fantastic movie. Having first captivated the audience with the interaction between well developed and likeable characters, West begins the slow-burn of a haunted hotel story which leads to a fulfilling conclusion. I really enjoyed West’s previous offering House Of The Devil, but some people found the ending to be unworthy of the build up, I disagree – but I’d urge such people to give him a second chance with The Inkeepers; he directs with a competent hand and crafts the story in mesmerising fashion. I was particularly impressed with his sterling demonstration of how to create a proper jump scare (as opposed to a cheap smash-cut) – I actually left my seat, and enjoyed it because I hadn’t been cheated.
The 9pm evening spot was taken by the much-hyped UK Premier of Kill List, which followed the exploits of two hitman carrying out their work. It was a reasonable effort which quickly descended into a farce of ambiguity. It is a fine line to tread when trying to inject a story with plot points from the leftfield, and if you don’t feed the audience some point of reference earlier in the piece – it will fail, as it did for me with Kill List. Still, the acting was strong, and it wasn’t without its merits, it just fell well short of its hype due to a poorly constructed final act.
The final day of FrightFest, and therefore tinged with sadness, expectation and no small degree of tiredness!
First up on the main screen was the UK Premier of the zombie-comedy Deadheads. This really didn’t work, but I’m no fan of the “told from the zombie perspective” sub genre so it was perhaps wasted on me. Two zombie friends go off in search of a girl whom one of them is in love with. Yes, really!
All hail Alex Chandon for coming to the rescue with the World Premier of Inbred. Seemingly with a bigger budget than his previous films and with a great cast, Inbred follows the story of a group of teens and their youth workers who end up staying in an isolated village in rural Yorkshire. Sadly (for them) the locals are all sadistic cannibals! Served up with Alex Chandon’s trademark blend of dark humour and explicit gore, Inbred entertained from the start and refused to compromise to the very end. Distinctly British, and distinctly Alex Chandon, Inbred is the kind of film that beats at the black heart of FrightFest and it was a distinct pleasure to see it on the giant Empire screen with over a thousand cheering horror fans.
With the alcohol and blood sugar levels dropping, we grabbed some dinner and drinks before rushing back to catch the closing movie of FrightFest 2011 – the UK Premier of A Lonely Place to Die. With beautiful cinematography, a stunning location, excellent acting (particularly from Melissa George) and a sensational premise: climbers find a young girl buried in an underground cell in remote wilderness – it was hard to understand how the original promise was allowed to slip away. Eventually too many suspensions of disbelief were asked, and a plot which got sillier by the minute resulted in a missed opportunity to build on a good start and create an excellent film.
As ever FrightFest provided five wonderful days of horror cinema, spanning the entire genre from tense supernatural thrillers to in-your-face gore films. The organisers provided something for everyone, and such was the quantity and quality of the films on display it really didn’t matter if a particular title wasn’t to individual tastes as something else exciting was always around the corner.
Frightfest is more than just the films though; it is the people who attend that make it something special. Everyone is friendly and wanting to chat about what they have seen; the organisers mix with the fans, and the actors and directors are always milling about between screenings. Long may it continue, and see you in 2012!
The Unofficial Transgressive Cinema FrightFest Awards 2011
Ti West, for The Inkeepers.
Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee for The Woman.
Pollyanna McIntosh for The Woman.
Andy Nyman for The Glass Man.
Gymnast in Final Destination 5 – 3D.
Male ghost in torchlight, in The Inkeepers.
Chainsaw and wasps nest in Tucker & Dale vs Evil.
Shot in the head, Inbred.