By Jonathan Bygraves
Having last year made the smooth transition from its old home of the Empire Leicester Square to the neighbouring VUE West End, FrightFest’s sixteenth edition continued the festival’s outward expansion to encompass nearly eighty feature films across six screens in its five day duration. As ever it remained a snapshot, however impressionistic, of the current state of the horror genre, and if there was ultimately no single stand-out film, then it must be said that the overall standard was higher than usual, with fewer outright turkeys than I can remember compared with recent years.
The absence, too, of any obvious tent-pole titles in the main programme, coupled with the choice from up to four films playing at any one time, made picking which films to see a more agonising proposition than in previous festivals. Small changes from last year’s model of acquiring tickets for the smaller screens also made certain films difficult to get into, most notably Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah! (2015) which ideally should have played across the larger main auditoria, but this was only a minor niggle about the overall festival experience.
As ever, the main programme delivered a diverse selection of scream-laden offerings, running the gamut across the porous genre boundaries of what one might term ‘horror’. The only questionable inclusion this year was the largely uninspiring Enragés (2015), a remake of Mario Bava’s poliziotteschi Rabid Dogs (1974), which appeared to my eyes to be firmly in fairly conventional policier crime thriller territory. Elsewhere, though, there was a strong showing from (semi-)Francophone titles with French-British co-productions Road Games (2015) and Night Fare (2015), the latter superb as an energetic, taut, crescendoing chase film, only somewhat cheapened by a last act down-shift into flashbacks and moralising.
Other international highlights were the unpromisingly titled Jeruzalem (2015), a solid Israeli found footager which made excellent use of its eponymous location, though another work illustrative of limitations of the form, and Adrián García Bogliano’s tonally distinctive and decidedly offbeat Scherzo Diabolico (2015), which subtly recast the revenge drama as a mischievous, dreamlike farce. New Zealand heavy metal-themed comedy Deathgasm (2015) was popular with the festival attendees, though while frequently amusing it proved to be too ramshackle and formulaic to be anything more than intermittently satisfying.
Demonic teenage pregnancy drama Cherry Tree (2015), from Wake Wood director David Keating, proved something of a drab, damp squib of a festival opener, and was comprehensively shown up by Pontypool director Bruce McDonald’s Hellions (2015), which used a similar setup as a platform to conjure an expressionistic, near-psychedelic visual and aural state of psychosis. Other British films fared better, with Bait (2015) a surprisingly successful marriage of soapy bonhomie and stony-faced brutality, and the Blaine Brothers’ strikingly idiosyncratic Nina Forever (2015), a profound, yet also absurdly comical, meditation on grief and the inescapability of memory.
Two films in the main programme highlighted the continued resurgence of the portmanteau format: A Christmas Horror Story (2015), with its interwoven segments featuring demonic elves, a vengeful Krampus and an increasingly inebriated William Shatner, perhaps didn’t quite hit the Trick ‘r Treat anthology gold standard of structural elegance, but it was an uproariously entertaining watch nevertheless. Tales of Halloween (2015) meanwhile boasted segments from the likes of Lucky McKee and Neil Marshall, and while rather patchier was still a considerably more enjoyable watch than the obnoxious V/H/S films which the festival has played host to in recent years.
Hitting bum notes in the festival were the bland, unimaginative creature feature Stung (2015), Blumhouse thriller Curve (2015) which appeared to be entirely reconstituted from elements of other films (most obviously Buried, 127 Hours and Saw), and the odious Landmine Goes Click (2015), a repetitive and borderline misogynistic revenge drama entirely devoid of the suspense that its setup might suggest. Meanwhile, Turbo Kid (2015), originally intended as a segment for The ABCs of Death, ultimately felt like the expansion of a short film that it was, its somewhat amusing vision of a 1980s-styled post-apocalypse weighed down too heavily by a messy flashback structure clearly designed to pad it out to feature length. Equally unfortunate was grisly Australian kidnapping drama Inner Demon (2015), which worked well while in subjective survivalist mode, but suffered a catastrophic collapse when it eventually got around to delivering on the paranormal promise of its title.
Some Kind of Hate
More praiseworthy, however, were a number of films which displayed a certain ambition with regard to established genre codes. Some Kind of Hate‘s (2015) intended reconfiguring of the paranormal slasher film was interesting conceptually (though its portrayal of self-harm was in morally questionable territory), even if its clichéd indie drama aesthetic ultimately proved enervating. The Diabolical (2015) similarly over-reached in attempting to fuse the paranormal with an ambitious sci-fi conspiracy plot, but nevertheless its fingertips skimmed some effectively melancholy notes. Agoraphobia-themed home invasioner Shut In (2015) made some particularly nimble about-turns in spectatorial identification in its first half, deflated only by an overly convoluted and explanatory denouement.
Most pleasant surprise of the festival was perhaps the James Wan-produced Demonic (2015), as slick and finely-honed as one might expect and with the infuriatingly well-marshalled jump scares present and correct, but also impressive in its seamless blend of genres and forms. Slumlord (2015), whose synopsis and promotional poster suggested unbearably prurient sleaze, surprisingly emphasised its domestic drama over its lecherous landlord setup with considerable restraint, while psycho-nanny drama Emelie (2015) was even more impressive as an exercise in sustained, quietly insidious transgression, if one wanting for a few more modulations in pace and tone.
Director Bernard Rose made a welcome return to the festival this year with Frankenstein (2015), which relocated Mary Shelley’s novel in modern-day Los Angeles. Fine as a visceral, and decidedly Oedipal, nature/nurture reclamation of the emotionality of the original material, it was an intriguing halfway house between the two poles of the director’s recent work, though the contemporary setting was perhaps not quite as resonant as has been in his Tolstoy adaptations. Meanwhile, Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here (2015) served its purpose as a pastiche-cum-homage to the Fulcian tradition, even if its curiously leaden pacing sometimes felt at odds with its contemporary indie horror sheen.
The festival was inevitably coloured by the announcement on the Monday morning of the death of Wes Craven, whose work undoubtedly helped to cultivate the horrorphilia of several generations of attendees. As such, it seemed the best conceivable place to be to receive and reflect on the sad news: surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate fans ever keen to discuss the finer points of the genre’s variegated linga francas, as well as a place to reflect both on the contemporary state of the art and the rich traditions of its past.
Nina Forever (Ben Blaine & Chris Blaine, 2015)
A Christmas Horror Story (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban & Brett Sullivan, 2015)
Night Fare (Julien Seri, 2015)
Bait (Dominic Brunt, 2015)
Emelie (Michael Thelin, 2015)