FrightFest 2005 - the 5th Anniversary of London's annual horror festival took place from 26th-29th August at the Odeon West End. Read the review of Day One below or click on the other links to see reviews for the other days.
Music fans have Glastonbury as the highlight every year. For us horror film fans our Glastonbury is FrightFest, held in central London for four days over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Run by the unholy trinity of Paul McEvoy, Alan Jones and Ian Rattray, the festival showcases the best new genre releases from around the globe with previous years featuring the good (Brotherhood Of The Wolf, Donnie Darko), the bad (The 13th Sign, Scary Movie 2), and the just plain crazy (Confessions Of A Trickbaby, Gozu).
It’s also secured personal appearances from the likes of Steve Railsback, Paul W.S. Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, Rob Zombie, Chan-wook Park and Guillermo Del Toro, amongst others. Now in its sixth year, 2005 saw FrightFest raise its profile further by moving from its former home at the Prince Charles Cinema and taking the event across Leicester Square to the Odeon West End.
The whole Eat My Brains team were there for the whole weekend and our regular contributors Soulmining and David Hall were on hand to deliver us this report.
Soulmining intro: I’ve been coming to FrightFest with different friends ever since its inception in 2000 and have sat through every last feature, short and trailer – barring a couple of notable exceptions – and this year my companions were fellow FrightFest veteran Steve, and a FrightFest virgin, Rich who’d previously only attended the one day event back in May. We arrived at the cinema at 11am in time to buy our limited edition Dead Day / FrightFest t-shirts before supplies ran out, something we’d been asking for every year and which hopefully will be repeated in the years to come. After quick greetings with the rest of the EMB team (Rawshark, Jim, Zomblee and David) it was time to take our seats for the first film.
Friday’s films were geared around George A. Romero’s attendance in the evening, so the first three movies screened were his original trilogy of Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead. A dozen or so zombies – made up by the Shaun Of The Dead team – were staggering around the venue to get us in the mood, and after a quick welcome from Alan one of the zombies clambered up on the stage to introduce the first film with a typically undead sounding groan.
Night of The Living Dead
David Hall What’s left to say about Romero’s epochal midnight movie classic? Well, neither age nor a soft, fuzzy print could diminish the primal power of what remains a virtual masterclass in shoot from the hip, less-is-more horror filmmaking, and a reassuringly full Odeon West End opted for the early start to take in one of the great iconic horror films of all time. And Night is resolutely a film of its time, equaled only by Hitchcock’s Psycho in terms of its pervasive influence on the modern horror film.
Romero’s debut carries the additional weight of being his most evidently angry, overtly political work. However, for those who would rather forego heavy sub-text in favour of pure horror thrills, there is so much to enjoy - the relentlessly austere, paranoia-fuelled claustrophobia of the setting, the barely suppressed rage and suspicion that exists between the doomed protagonists, and the simple thrill of enjoying some of the most iconic images of horror cinema on a big screen. And if some of those key moments ("They’re coming to get you Barbara!") have been dulled by over familiarity or pastiche, the overriding sense of impending dread remains thrillingly intact. The relentlessly downbeat ending still shocks the viewer, more than 35 years on.
Soulmining Having seen these films many times before I decided to skip the first two, so had a quick chat with organisers Ian and Paul, then headed back out into the sunshine where I ran right into the pack of zombies and got chased by the evil looking zombie with an axe handle. Thankfully these were proper Romero zombies, so he was slow and easy to dodge. I made my escape and headed towards Chinatown for some lunch and to digest the glossy festival programme and the new Killing Time fanzine.
Director George A. Romero
Cast Judith O'Dea Duane Jones Karl Hardman Keith Wayne Judith Ridley
Dawn of the Dead
David Hall The splatter that matters screened in its American theatrical cut, probably the most enjoyable of the disparate versions available. The longer director’s cut stretches an already flabby mid-section to breaking point, while Dario’s leaner slice; Zombi amps up the pace (and the Goblin soundtrack) at the expense of some of the poignancy.
Dawn remains the best loved among horror fans with its adroit blend of likeable characters, gonzoid comedy and showboating splatter. Although there are stellar performances from Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, and creepy Hugh Lawrie lookalike David Emge, the real star of the piece is of course The Monroeville Mall – a symbol of the rampant consumerist urge, a catalyst for the inherent tensions within the quartet, a fool’s paradise that initially offers the protagonists salvation but eventually becomes their prison.
Curiously Romero’s early appearance in the film passed without so much of a burble from the crowd whereas Tom Savini's arrival as the twitchy, moustache-preening biker brought the house down. The zombies still look shit, mind.
Soulmining I was still AWOL enjoying the bright sunshine and the record dens of Soho. As much as I like Dawn, I’d recently watched the extended cut of the film (before the Dead Day had been confirmed) so didn’t feel the urge to watch it again quite so soon.
Director George A. Romero
Cast David Emge Ken Foree Scott H. Reiniger Gaylen Ross David Crawford
When I arrived back at 3pm it was time to collect our goodie bags (free to all weekend passholders) which this year included a Children Of The Corn DVD box set, a Night Watch t-shirt and a glow-in-the-dark Make Zombies History wristband, amongst its bottomless bounty. How many times did Steve, Rich and I salute our glowing wrists as each film began, like The Three Musketeers? Every single time!
Day of the Dead
David Hall Generally perceived as a compromised work from Romero at the time of release, this looks more and more like a classic with each passing year. There was clearly no place for George's bleakest, most apocalyptic work in the franchise ridden horror-comedy days of the mid-80s, but in our paranoiac, jittery times it plays out just fine thank you very much. Plus it looks the business too, Savini upping the SFX ante big time with a grotesque array of rancid corpses shuffling around in a perpetual state of decomposition. The edgy but comedic banter of Dawn has dissipated into foul-mouthed bickering amongst the survivors and light relief comes only in the unlikely figure of Bub, the ‘human’ zombie with a taste for classical music as well as human flesh.
The biggest audience of the day so far enjoyed this one, with some new converts to a flick that many of us have felt for sometime is the most underrated of the trio. Those FX certainly still rock the house. Indeed it’s a shock watching Dawn and Day back to back, as the earlier film’s smurf-blue faced comic zombies literally disintegrate into rotting, skeletal visages. Choke on ‘em indeed…
Soulmining Historically Dawn was always my favourite of the Dead movies, but as time goes by I find myself preferring the third film, with Day’s dark tone seeming more relevant and enduring when compared to the more humorous tone of its predecessor. It’s a richer film with stronger characters in which Romero is able to develop and expand on the themes from his earlier work, and take them to a chilling conclusion as society breaks down and our motley bunch of survivors turn against one another.
Visually it’s a much more arresting film, from that shocking dream sequence at the start (still a classic, even now), through to the carnage that ensues as the zombies infiltrate the underground bunker. Make no mistake, Day is a blood-soaked experience. I’d always been led to believe that my old VHS bootleg was uncut, but watching this American cut of the film I’m not so sure now; all that finger munching and eyeball ripping, well, I’m sure it wasn’t quite so graphic in my copy. In addition to all the gore on display it’s good to know that a film of this era still has the power to shock, twenty years on. Yes, Steve, I am talking about you - we all noticed you jump out of your seat.
Director George A. Romero
Cast Lori Cardille
Directly after the screening of Day Of The Dead was a demonstration by SFX and make-up legend, Greg Nicotero who showed some unseen footage from his films and displayed some of his zombie heads – an extremely popular appearance from what Steve and Rich reported later. Unfortunately none of the Eat My Brains team were there to see it as we’d all convened upstairs in the bar for the opening night reception.
The zombies were out in force again, posing for photos and doing their best not to break character (although I did spot a couple sneaking a crafty beer). Rawshark and I spotted Chris Smith and chatted to him about his forthcoming film, Severance, and we were overjoyed later when Simon Pegg came over for a quick chat after he recognised Jim, Zomblee and Rawshark from the Shaun Of The Dead shoot.
The centre-piece of day one was a screening of Land Of The Dead, so with George A. Romero now present to introduce the film we settled back for the latest chapter of his Dead-time stories.
Land of the Dead
David Hall Screening the full trilogy prior to Romero’s newbie was a pretty inspired decision (Paul McEvoy of the Cinema Store take a bow) but there was always the possibility that their combined power might overshadow Romero's slightly muted fourth entry.
Indeed, taking in that powerhouse trio beforehand highlights some of Land’s initial shortcomings. It’s probably too early to give an honest assessment of the movie, although Rawshark's excellent review can be found here. For me it feels like a very efficient piece of schlock - no more, no less. It’s certainly not by any stretch of the imagination a bad film, and the streamlined narrative and tight running time means that the flick moves along as swiftly as Dead Reckoning, the zombie-killing vehicle that provided the film’s original title.
But the film lacks character(s). John Leguizamo’s Cholo aside, the protagonists have a slightly flat, one-dimensional flavour - particularly Hopper’s pantomime villain, and there simply isn’t the time for Romero to explore the juicy political possibilities. It’s all enjoyable enough but without the righteous anger of Night, the easy charm and wit of Dawn, or the corrosive power of Day, Land feels… whisper it... slightly unnecessary. An effective little zombie flick for sure, but then so was the Dawn remake - to which Land bears more than a superficial resemblance.
Soulmining I have to agree with David here, Land Of The Dead just didn’t have quite the impact that I’d hoped for. Right from the start of the year this was the one movie that we all wanted to see at FrightFest, but even with a sold out audience of die-hard horror fans, and the director himself in attendance, it just didn’t cut the mustard.
That’s not to say it’s a disaster, far from it, but with its concise running time there just isn’t enough build up or time to get to know the main characters. Leguizamo is definitely the most charismatic of the bunch, so it’s a shame that the weight of the film falls onto the shoulders of Simon Baker, who sadly doesn’t possess the gravitas required to carry off the leading role. Asia Argento looks the part but is given little to do. Again, it was left to Tom Savini to receive the biggest cheer of the evening, although I’m sure Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s cameos would have got a bigger response had anyone actually spotted them (they’re the two zombies chained up at the photo booth, trivia fans).
Land cracks along at a fair pace and certainly looks good on its modest budget. The zombies look the part, and even with its 15 certificate, the film delivers enough blood and guts to keep the gorehounds happy – although of course, there’s always the unrated DVD release to look forward to. Maybe I’ll grow fonder of it over time, but my initial reaction is that this modern take on the zombie film could have come from any Hollywood director, there’s just not enough of George’s personality in this one – and that’s a real disappointment.
Director George A. Romero
Cast Simon Baker
As the final credits rolled George A. Romero, Greg Nicotero and producer Mark Canton took the stage for a short Q&A. If my memory serves me correctly it was Jim who dived in with the first question, and – aside from a lot of backslapping from Canton – they were an amiable panel. The best question came at the end when someone asked whether Romero would consider making a prequel to Night Of The Living Dead (that'll be my flat-mate Matt then - Rawshark); his rather droll reply went along the lines of, “That would be called Normal Life – where nothing actually happens.”
After tracking down James Moran (Severance writer) and introducing him to Rawshark it was back to our seats for the next movie of the evening.
A Bittersweet Life
David Hall After impressing us with his stylish gothic melodrama, A Tale Of Two Sisters, big things were expected from Kim Jee-woon - one of many exciting new talents to emerge from South Korea in recent years. With that film Jee-woon delivered an emotionally and aesthetically satisfying work that sidestepped some of the recent clichés of modern Asian genre cinema. So with this brutal revenge flick, could he deliver 2005’s answer to Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, so rapturously received at last year’s festival?
A Bittersweet Life takes it cue from one of the great B movie staples (worked through with great comic verve by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction) - that of the thuggish hitman hired by the mob boss to chaperone his young wife and check she isn’t fooling around on him. No prizes for guessing things wind up fairly badly for all concerned.
Beautiful lensed and composed, A Bittersweet Life stretches a very simple tale to breaking point over a leisurely 120 minute running time. It has a luscious visual palette (as you would expect), the leads certainly look the part and there’s an effective Morricone style score to keep the film sounding as good as it looks, but the overall work never really hangs together as a cohesive whole. More problematic is the script, which injects little insight or wit into the familiar scenario. Ultimately for a revenge movie it’s really rather dull. Jee-woon will make better films, I have no doubt and this one is probably worth checking on DVD, but it’s no Oldboy, lacking both the intensity and psychological weight of Park’s masterpiece.
Soulmining I had high expectations for this film, coming on a wave of critical acclaim comparing it favourably to Oldboy (probably my favourite movie of last year), and having found A Tale Of Two Sisters to be one of the most original and unsettling Korean horror films of recent years.
The story is surprisingly linear, and once boss Kang has emphasised that it only takes one mistake to cause your own downfall, it soon becomes clear that Seon-woo’s moment of compassion towards Kang’s girlfriend is going to be the one moment that changes his life. His downward spiral into rage and revenge is inevitable, peppered by sudden encounters of ferocity and brutality that will make you wince. The scene in which Seon-woo escapes his attackers (armed with flaming sticks) by crashing through them in a stolen car is one that will stay with you long after the film has ended.
Yet for all of the violence, A Bittersweet Life has little soul. It’s largely emotionless, and without any twists to keep the viewer engaged it’s ultimately an over-long and depressing experience. A few trims here and there would help the pacing, especially in the latter stages of the film which are especially drawn out, but as it stands now this is a bold picture but not quite the masterpiece I’d anticipated.
Director Ji-woon Kim
Cast Jeong-min Hwang
Country S Korea
Just before the midnight screening of Evil Aliens we had our first trailer of the weekend, Broken, the latest offering from FrightFest friends Adam Mason and Nadja Brand. Sadly it doesn’t look like they’ve made much progress since their last feature, Dust, but that remains to be seen. The final film of the night was introduced by Jake West along with Chris Adamson, disappointing a number of male members of the audience who were hoping to see Emily Booth – sadly on holiday in Thailand so we were told.
David Hall The midnight movie slot usually barfs up an amusing schlock gem. Could Jake West’s long planned SF horror parody be this year’s Monster Man? Apparently it’s already been wowing festival-goers worldwide.
The film lays bare (literally) its intentions right from the opening – zooming in on a hairy-arsed local getting jiggy in a Welsh cornfield, before being rudely interrupted by an ‘Evil Alien’ (bloke in a rubber Predator suit) who swiftly ‘probes’ the hapless shagger in a comically gruesome fashion, to loud cheers from a well-refreshed FrightFest audience!
Sadly, that is pretty much as good as it gets. The plot is simplicity itself; a UFO has landed off the Welsh coast and it’s up to a gaggle of really unlikely (and unlikable) characters, including a crop circle obsessed geek and a TV babe (Emily Booth, failing to convince as, er, a TV presenter) to band together and save the day.
The film looks OK and there are a couple of fun moments – a terrifically sick set piece soundtracked by The Wurzels' Combine Harvester worked the crowd – but this is largely grim, unfunny stuff, unless perhaps you are part of West’s coterie, or were involved in making the flick. This is mostly due to the wretched pacing - West appears to have no concept of how to fashion a watchable narrative out of his ragtag of influences, cheap homage (it's chock full of references to films you’ll wish you were watching instead) and anal probe gags.
It would clearly love to emulate Shaun Of The Dead's success but whereas Wright and Pegg expertly juggled cheeky references with pathos, great characters and genuinely inspired gags, Evil Aliens – after establishing a potentially amusing scenario - swiftly disappears to the place where those rubber aliens love to rummage. Arse.
Soulmining The pre-credits sequence with the first anal probe of the evening provided some early laughs from the audience, but then the credits began and the first seeds of doubt started to enter my mind. Jake West’s Evil Aliens you say? I’m sorry, but isn’t it common practice to make at least half a dozen decent quality films before you’re afforded the prestige of sticking your own name above the film’s title? Or is Mr West being ironic here?
Actually, the film isn’t that bad. Once you got used to the idea that this was an amateur piece of film making and was not taking itself too seriously then there was enough going on for the late night audience to enjoy, whether it be gratuitous cleavage shots, the subtitles for the Welsh dialogue, the dodgy alien outfits (think Predator meets Battlefield Earth), or the aforementioned anal probes.
Sure, there are too many ideas lifted direct from other classics (Evil Dead 2, Phantasm), and the CGI shots are poor, but what ultimately lets Evil Aliens down is its shabby conclusion; it's as if the film makers were making it up as they went along and just decided that they ought to kill off as many characters as possible in increasingly silly and outlandish ways.
Director Jake West
Cast Chris Adamson
The move to the Odeon West End was already looking to be a great success, with many positive comments coming in about the quality of the cinema screen (offering a much clearer view than from up in the balcony of the PCC), although some people didn’t find the seats quite so comfortable. The OWE also offers so much more space to move in between the films, with the benefit of the larger bar area and the option to keep the Cinema Store’s stall in a separate location outside the auditorium doors. The Dead Day acted as a fine build up to the preview of Land Of The Dead and whilst many of us were a little underwhelmed by the finished film, it was still a real honour to have George A. Romero with us in person. There were no outstanding movies on day one so I was hoping for the first must-see film to come in tomorrow’s selection.