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 Three below or click on the other links to see reviews for the other days.
A regular feature of the FrightFest programme is the selection of short films. This year’s shorts were all concentrated over the final two days and the standard was pretty high. The first to be screened on Sunday, before The Collingswood Story, was Brendan Muldowney’s The Ten Steps about a girl who is forced to go down to the cellar after a power-cut whilst her parents are out having a business meal.
It was a simple idea, superbly executed and afterwards we all agreed that this was by far the most effective – and creepy – ten minutes that we’d seen all weekend. Definitely one to look out for!
The Collingswood Story
David Hall When I wound up back at my flat in the early hours of Sunday morning it was already getting light outside. Clearly the first film of the day was off the agenda. Looks like I missed one of the surprise gems of the fest…
Soulmining Well David, if you’re referring to The Ten Steps then yes you did. As for The Collingswood Story, well that one was more of an audience splitter; some people really liked this small-scale film whilst others found it to be a one-trick pony. For me, I fall somewhere in between the two camps.
You see, the unique hook of this film is that it all takes place on webcams. We’re not talking My Little Eye, with hundreds of different cameras all linked up together, here it’s just Johnny and his girlfriend Rebecca (away at college), with occasional appearances from Johnny’s mate and a psychic called Vera Madeline, whom Johnny contacts to perform a reading for Rebecca. When Vera gets a dose of the heebie-jeebies Johnny starts to do a bit of research on Rebecca’s new lodgings, and before you can say “Blair Witch” we’re looking at kids getting drowned in a bathtub and an ancient cult that originated in Lyon – although quite whether Rebecca’s pronunciation as “Lions” was intentional is unknown. Whilst comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are all too obvious, it’s actually closer in tone to BBC’s drama Ghost Watch in the way it investigates the paranormal and addresses its audience through the medium of the protagonist’s camera.
With such a narrow scope the writing and performances need to be strong and they’re pretty solid. The narrative engages and draws you in, whilst the two main actors keep things from getting overly theatrical. Of course the advent of broadband makes some of the technology issues feel outdated, and the viability of Rebecca wandering around her attic with her laptop requires some suspension of disbelief, but it still manages to create a chilling atmosphere towards the end and certainly gave me a few chills. And after Eat My Brains’ running gag of the “twist” ending during last year’s festival, The Collingswood Story was the first film to utilise such a twist this year – although you’re bound to see it coming.
Director Michael Costanza
Cast Stephanie Dees
The screening of Marebito was preceded by another short film, The Victim by Robert Grieves, a bright animatic homage to Hitchcock’s best-known films.
David Hall Asian horror buffs tired of the glut of reductive J-Horror flicks need to check Marebito. Shot digitally in 8 days by Takeshi Shimizu, director of Ju-On and its American remake The Grudge, it was the first film of the weekend to seriously creep me out. It proves Shimizu is a director capable of creating and sustaining an atmosphere of total evil. I loved every warped minute of it.
Fellow director Shinya Tsukamoto plays Masuoka, a freelance TV cameraman who captures an appallingly gruesome suicide on video. The footage shows the victim stabbing himself in his own eye with a knife, all the while staring intently ahead like a man possessed. But possessed by what exactly? Masuoka becomes obsessed with this image and the idea that the victim is confronting some kind of evil force. Desperate to confront this kind of fear himself, he begins to actively seek out confrontation and danger - whatever the price. It’s at this point that Marebito takes an even weirder turn, as Masuoka’s quest leads him into a hellish netherworld beneath Tokyo, where he discovers a beautiful, seemingly primitive young woman who he takes back to his apartment (as you do). To explain or rationalise what happens next would be foolish and frankly time consuming - suffice to say things get a lot weirder.
For a digital quickie, Marebito looks terrific and although it gets a little hard to follow in the latter stages it sustains an atmosphere of controlled freakiness throughout. At times it reminded me a little of Takeshi Miike's hideous incest-themed horror comedy Visitor Q, but Shimizu has a style all of his own, and anyone familiar with the original Ju-On will know he can do scary very, very well. And fellow director Shinya Tsukamoto (who knows all about disturbing films since he directed the warped Tetsuo) really gets into his role as Masuoko, proving the old Peeping Tom adage that all this filming really can’t be healthy...
Soulmining "What the F***?" said Rawshark as we caught up after Marebito, and his exclamation pretty much says it all. Yes, this was another selection that divided opinion, with Masuoka’s descent into the underworld and his mutterings about "deros" (detrimental robots – don’t ask) sending Steve scurrying for the exit long before the end. Which is a shame, because Marebito turned out to be the most original piece of filmmaking on show this year.
That’s not to say that I understood any of it; at times the film is quite impenetrable, but it’s the images and themes of Shimizu’s work that shock and seduce in equal measure. Like the suicide captured on Masuoka’s videotape, there's an underlying undercurrent to the film telling you that you really shouldn’t be enjoying any of this, yet you can't take your eyes off the screen. Maybe I'd sat through too many strange movies, or maybe the director was tapping into my most subconscious desires, but the idea of this feral young lady ('F' – played by the gorgeous Tomomi Miyashita) who only feeds on fresh blood, well, it really turned me on.
Bolstered by a bravura performance from Shinya Tsukamoto (is he really acting, or is he genuinely barking mad?), Marebito is Japanese cinema at its bonkers best, and the closest we got to a Takashi Miike experience all festival. Just don’t ask me to explain it to you afterwards…
The middle film of the day was supposed to be Anthony Ferrante’s Boo, alas the print didn’t show up so Wes Craven’s new thriller Red Eye was drafted in as a late replacement. This provoked a interesting discussion about Hollywood’s inherent knack of greenlighting a number of similar projects, what with Jodie Foster in Flight Plan and Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes On A Plane to follow – and I had to convince a number of friends that yes, the latter movie really does exist! Actually, after so many low budget or Asian movies it was quite a relief to have a bit of Hollywood gloss to watch, even if Red Eye was only a 12A certificate – as Rich exclaimed loudly, to much laughter.
We also had a few trailers to enjoy before the feature, including A History Of Violence, King Kong and Serenity, the latter getting a huge round of applause. Paul later revealed that Fox wouldn’t let FrightFest screen the finished film as they didn’t think we were the right kind of audience. I hope the bigwigs at Fox take note.
David Hall When it was announced that Boo was to be replaced by Craven's high concept airbound thriller there were a few hissy fits and disconcerted rumblings - seems there isn't much love these days for the Wesmeister from the fanbase. (Hardly surprising after Cursed – Soulmining) Yet despite the 12A cert, Red Eye is a fun Hitchcockian nerve jangler that stays in tightly wound suspense mode for the best part of an hour. After which it veers spectacularly off course in a final 15 minute schlock fest that will have audiences rolling their eyes, along with lead actor Cillian Murphy in full-blown psycho mode. Even then though, it's all handled with such élan that you're happy to roll with the sub-Scream schtick.
As a two hander for the most of its running time, and with a reliance on close-ups in a claustrophobic setting, Red Eye needs good performances and gets them; cute-as-a-button McAdams and the glacial, fascinating Murphy are right on the money. There's an immediate spark between these two which makes it easy for Craven to ramp up the tension and tap into everyday fears about flying, intimacy and claustrophobia. The knowing dialogue is clever without succumbing to smugness, and there’s none of the draining self-referential nods that we associate with a lot of Craven’s recent work.
Total hokum of course, but I doubt there will be a more enjoyable mainstream thriller this year, and at just under 85 minutes Red Eye checks in nice and early.
Soulmining The last minute inclusion of Red Eye turned out to be an astute piece of scheduling in the end, as a fun, lightweight thriller was just what our Sunday afternoon needed. If you don’t know any better – or if you’ve only seen the first half of the film’s trailer – then you could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to shape up as one of those rom-coms, with Lisa (McAdams) and Jackson (Murphy) first meeting at the check-in desk and then discovering that they’re coincidentally seated together on the same flight.
But of course with Wes Craven at the controls this bourgeoning relationship is about to hit turbulence – yes, Jackson is a few bread rolls short of an in-flight meal (it’s in the eyes you know), and Daddy’s going to die unless Lisa does exactly what he tells her. Unfortunately this is where Red Eye became Shut Eye for me, and the next thing I knew relations had soured to the point where Lisa was giving Jackson her pen - and it sure wasn’t for the purposes of getting his number.
After the confined setting of the aircraft, the final part of the film - back on terra firma - is less successful, dispensing with the cat-and-mouse antics between the two leads in favour of more wham-bam action scenes, but at least Brian Cox is given a bit of screen time. Where you might have expected the director of Scream to throw in a boatload of red herrings, Red Eye is surprisingly tight and uncomplicated, and is certainly Craven’s most mainstream film to date. And with a running time of under 90 minutes it’s not going to give you DVT either.
Director Wes Craven
Cast Rachel McAdams
When Alan announced that there would then follow a satellite link-up with Ring director Hideo Nakata, to tie in with the UK DVD release of The Ring 2, I think we all secretly knew that things wouldn’t go to plan. And so it proved. We waited and waited for Nakata to make contact, whilst Alan advised that we weren’t allowed to ask any questions about his current projects.
When the director suddenly appeared on the big screen it was clear that he didn’t know we were watching, and we eavesdropped on a candid conversation between him and an unseen figure as he blatantly slagged off the remake of The Eye which he’s making (four writers and counting… doesn’t bode well). His sad demeanour provoked one member of the audience to yell “cheer up,” but of course he couldn’t hear us… and then we lost the satellite link altogether! Ian did manage to get hold of him a few moments later on his mobile, but Stephanie – a student doing her dissertation on Japanese directors – was the only one to actually talk to him, whilst the rest of us were left completely in the dark. It didn’t really matter, the absurdity of the situation amused the majority of us and it was yet another moment that truly captured the spirit of FrightFest.
Fox’s strong-arm tactics meant that security was tight for the Night Watch screening, with the queue to get inside the auditorium snaking right down to the front entrance as we patiently waited to get searched and be relieved of our mobile phones. Quite why anyone would be filming on their mobile, especially with images already all over the internet and the film available to import on DVD, I don’t know. But it didn’t delay the start of the film too much, thank goodness.
David Hall Based on a trilogy of best-selling novels by co-screenwriter Sergei Lukyanenko and already a monster hit in Russia, Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch is a sometimes bewildering, occasionally maddening, mostly entertaining mish-mash of SF/Fantasy influences both old and new that left me feeling simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation.
The film opens with a disarmingly simple prologue detailing how the world is divided ‘Matrix’ style into humans and supernatural 'others' - the others consisting of two factions; those who serve the forces of Dark (vampires, appropriately) and those who represent the forces of light (magical shape-shifters). After a lengthy battle many years ago, these two groups agreed to draw up a truce to co-exist and split up the guardianship of the human world, thus forming the ‘Night Watch’ and the ‘Day Watch’.
Night Watch is ostensibly the tale of how that truce winds up being threatened by a young boy who - it has been prophesized - will break this equilibrium. Enter fallen 'other' Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), a mystic and member of the Night Watch who must rescue the boy from the forces of dark.
With its dark, gritty city-scapes, a netherworld normal people can't see, characters wearing sunglasses at night and slow motion fight scenes Night Watch often seems indistinguishable from most US blockbuster SF - this ain't no Tarkovsky-style philosophical endurance test. But it's not all generic cut ‘n’ paste. Hero Anton is a flawed figure, slightly chubby and slobbish, and director Bekmambetov breaks up the intensity with moments of whimsical eccentricity - one comic set piece is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet at his most playful. And there is no Hollywood product that could ever look this good on such a meagre budget - a paltry $5 million.
Night Watch plays a canny emotional trump card in the third act that - although you can see it coming a mile off - injects some much needed emotional gravitas into the proceedings. The opening film in a trilogy must ultimately be judged on how much you are looking forward to the follow-up. I'm definitely interested in seeing how things shape up in Day Watch, but I'll need to check this installment out again first, perhaps on the back of a decent night’s kip...
Soulmining I’d been drooling at the prospect of seeing Night Watch ever since the trailer screened at the one day FrightFest in May when Paul announced it as the first confirmed film for August. The opening instalment of a proposed trilogy of films (Day Watch is slated for release in its native Russia this October), this promised to be everything that The Matrix trilogy wasn’t. Let’s just hope it lived up to expectations or else there’d be a lot of promotional t-shirts for sale on eBay on Tuesday morning!
After a short videotaped introduction from director Timur Bekmambetov, we were pitched straight into this all-time highest grossing Russian adventure. The plot in a nutshell; it’s good vs. evil, humans vs. vampires. There’s a truce between the light and the dark with the ‘Night Watch’ (human) and the ‘Day Watch’ (vampire) squads bound to keep the balance. Except now is the time of ‘The Great Other’ and his choice is set to determine which side will win the final battle. Quite where this will lead us over the remaining films is uncertain, but suffice to say that by the end of Night Watch I was already gagging for the next chapter.
With shades of Highlander springing to mind, this is a time-travelling, magic carpet ride of a movie, full of shape-shifters, sword fights, a supercharged yellow truck, and everything else you’d associate with a glossy fantasy epic bar the proverbial kitchen sink. Visually it’s stunning – hell, even the subtitles drip blood red across the screen – with some stunning slo-mo effects and camera wizardry. Stand out for me is the journey of a small bolt as it falls from an airplane, down through the night sky until it eventually comes to rest in someone’s cup of coffee! With the arrival of Night Watch it’s clearly time for Lucas, Jackson and the Wachowskis to look over their shoulders – there’s a new trilogy in town and it kicks cinematic ass!
Director Timur Bekmambetov
Cast Konstantin Khabensky
The final break of the evening was put to good use in trying to complete round two of the inaugural FrightFest quiz, with today’s part focussing on the past five decades of horror. There were some mighty tough questions and even the combined knowledge of the Eat My Brains team couldn’t get every answer. “I went to bed in my shithole apartment and woke up in an actual shithole!” That was a line from which 2004 movie? Okay, I know the answer now, but at the time… (it was from Saw by the way!)
Before Sunday’s closing film we had time for one more short, postponed from yesterday, in the shape of Dominic Hailstone’s The Eel. This was another popular one with the audience, coming across like an Aphex Twin video crossed with The Thing. The fact that Dominic filmed it all himself on a budget of just £300 is all the more remarkable.
Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist
David Hall Social engagements meant me giving Dominion a miss. Can’t say I was too upset…
Soulmining Just what were the suits at Warners thinking when they scrapped Paul Schrader’s intelligent meditation on good and evil in favour of Renny Harlin’s shlock tactics which resulted in last year’s Exorcist: The Beginning? Thankfully FrightFest afforded us the opportunity to witness Schrader’s original vision as he intended it to be seen – but is it an improvement?
The answer is a resounding yes, although that won’t come as much of a shock to anyone who sat through Harlin’s execrable version. The seeds of a decent story were there all along, and thankfully Schrader tackles the subject with greater care; starting with one of the few scenes which made it intact to Harlin’s remake, we see Father Merrin (the excellent Skarsgard) questioning his faith as ten random POWs are murdered in cold blood in front of his very eyes. The main difference with this film is that it’s a boy, Cheche (pop star Billy Crawford) who’s possessed this time around, and we get to see more involvement from the British soldiers. Out goes the tacky love interest (hurrah!), out goes Alan Ford’s woeful character (an even bigger hurrah!), and in comes Ralph Brown – third billed (I think) on Harlin’s film, yet I dare you to spot him in more than one single scene of that film!
Merrin’s battle with his faith has far greater resonance here, but it’s worth mentioning that we’d always been led to believe that this encounter with ultimate evil nearly killed him; if that’s the case then the final conflict is sadly disappointing and far less epic that you’d anticipate – either that or Merrin’s just been boasting to his mates and bigging himself up. It’s not without flaws – the make up veers right across the scale (with Cheche’s bulging skull covering his hairline a glaring sight) and some of the CGI looks unfinished, if barely started at all! So, Schrader’s Dominion is a curate’s egg, perhaps for Exorcist enthusiasts only, but it’s still a better film than Harlin’s theatrical release. Maybe now Warners will go back and let us see the original cut of Legion: Exorcist III? One day…
Director Paul Schrader
Cast Stellan Skarsgard
At last, a wholly satisfying day! The films were better, the shorts were excellent, there were brand spanking new trailers to cheer, and finally that special FrightFest atmosphere was back – as evident during the farcical Hideo Nakata satellite link-up. After a shaky start the festival had turned it around and was now firmly back on track. With tomorrow’s tantalising line-up to look forward to it looked like the event was going to finish on a real high.