Frightfest 2003 review

Day One
The fourth London Frightfest looks to be the biggest and best yet. The line up of films looks even better than last year’s outstanding offerings and for the first time, every one of the weekend passes has sold out, ensuring that the atmosphere in the balcony of the Prince Charles cinema off London’s Leicester Square should be even better than ever.

By 6:30 on a warm Friday evening, the crowds had already started gathering for the first night’s screenings and expectations were high. There was much discussion as to what the “surprise” film was going to be (everything from the dreaded Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake to Scary Movie 3 were being touted) and there was the prospect of the belated return of Herbert West to look forward to later in the evening. But first, as ever, Frightfest opened with a British film, in this case Marcus (Long Time Dead) Adams’ Anglo-Luxembourgian Octane, introduced by the producer with Adams curiously reticent to say anything to the audience when given the chance. A very dull hour and a half later, it was clear why he might have been staying silent.

There’s a good idea knocking around in Stephen Volk’s script, but sadly it’s been done many times before and usually a lot better than in this rather timid road movie – the “sex-and-splatter rituals” promised in the festival brochure turned out to be rather some anaemic fumbling in a wind tunnel near the end. Madeleine Stowe – almost unrecognisable – stars as a divorced mother driving her sulky teenage daughter Nat home after a visit to her fathers. As the already fractious relationship between mother and daughter falls apart altogether, Nat ends up with a sinister cult of blood drinkers who congregate in roadside service stations over night looking for victims.

Octane begins well, but it soon becomes clear that the good things about Volk’s script (a revisionist take on vampirism, the strange lifestyle of the nocturnal inhabitants of the roadside diners) are going to be glossed over in favour of glib imagery and cliched characterisation. Nothing much happens for the first half hour as we are forced to listen to Nat’s constant whining – one almost cheers when she gets lured away by the blood cult but hopes that her mother might be as sick of her petulant ways and opt to abandon her are soon dashed. The last half of the film is a confusing mess as the main characters, including the mysterious “Recovery Man” – who isn’t important enough to warrant a name but comes in useful for the info-dumps near the end that try to tie up the loose ends – converge on a research facility miles from anywhere. What they’re all doing there isn’t clear, nor is it clear why Jonathan Rhys-Myers has to have pretend sex with Nat in a wind tunnel before slitting his tongue with a razor blade… Dull and predictable, Octane is a disappointment from writer Volk, whose previous work has included Ken Russell’s under-rated Gothic and the outstanding TV special, Ghostwatch.

We should have been watching Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber’s The Butterfly Effect next, but sadly Alan Jones’ enthusiasm for the film has tipped off the suits back in Los Angeles and they’ve decided to hold the film back for Sundance 2004, meaning that Frightfest were barred from showing it. In its place, we got the mysterious “surprise” film – we’d been promised for some time that there was something special in the offing, a first chance to see a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Prior to the event, word had it that it would be the Kate Beckinsale vehicle Underworld, but it turned out instead to be much-troubled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which comes to the UK trailing tales of a fraught shoot with flooded sets and near punch-ups between director and star. And then there are those reviews… In truth, it’s nowhere near the dogs dinner its been portrayed as in the States. It’s no masterpiece to be sure, but get past the fact that it has virtually nothing to do with the Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill comic beyond the title and the very basic plot, and you’re left with a handsomely staged if mindless blockbuster.

Sean Connery – excellent as ever – stars as famed fictional adventurer Allan Quatermain who, in 1899, is recruited by the British government (represented, appropriately enough, by M from the James Bond novels and films) to help combat the menace posed by the mysterious Phantom and his army who are supplied with the most technologically advanced weapons of the day. To help him thwart the Phantom’s plans to sabotage a peace conference in Venice and plunge the world into a devastating war, Quartermain is joined by Captain Nemo and the crew of his submarine the Nautilus; the vampire scientist Mina Harker; invisible petty thief Skinner; the immortal Dorian Gray; American secret Service agent Tom Sawyer; and the scientist Dr Jekyll and his monstrous alter ego Mr Hyde.

Thinking about the plot for more than a few seconds isn’t a great idea – it tends to fall apart the very instant you start questioning how the gargantuan Nautilus can fit into a relatively narrow and shallow river like the Thames, or start marvelling at the film-makers’ obvious ignorance of the culture, history or topography of Venice. But switch the brain off and you’ve got a wonderful looking romp with snappy one liners (when asked what he is by a dying opponent, the bullet riddled but unscathed Gray quips “I’m… complicated”) and great performances. No, it doesn’t make any sense, the action scenes are all edited in that deeply annoying hi-speed fashion that leaves them barely comprehensible and it tends to lose focus once it leaves Venice, but it’s most certainly not the disaster you’d believe if you took the American reviews seriously.

On the way out, I bumped into Ian Rattray for a quick chat and mentioned that Underworld had been mentioned as the possible “surprise” film. He confirmed that the Frightfest trio had wanted it, but the distributors wouldn’t play ball. Ian was also on hand just before the final film of the evening to tell us that another “surprise” film had been lined up for Sunday morning and let slip that it was “British made” – start placing your bets now!

The first night wound down with Brian Yuzna’s belated Re-Animator sequel Beyond Re-Animator, the latest offering from his Fantastic Factory production unit in Spain. Hopes weren’t high – the last time we saw Herbert West was in the disappointing Bride of Re-Animator and that was thirteen years ago. Herbert West has spent that time in prison for the deaths that occurred after his misguided experiments at Miskatonic University got out of hand. He’s not been idle though and thinks he may have found the answer to why his subjects go mad once they’re re-animated in the shape of “nano-plasmic energy” which restores the newly revived to some sort of normality. The arrival of a new prison doctor, Howard Phillips, acts as a catalyst for West who soon finds himself waist deep in zombie rats, revived half corpses, deranged reagent junkies and a re-animated disembodied penis…

The good news is that it’s a lot better than the first sequel – again, it’s not great but it’s a lot more fun than anyone expected it to be. It’s more of a comedy even than the previous entries in the franchise and although not all of the comedy works, there are some very funny sight gags and Jeffrey Combs deadpan delivery is often hilarious. That’s not to say that it skimps on the horror and Beyond Re-Animator is every bit as gory as you might hope for – there’s some computer generated effects here but after the CGI heavy League, it was particularly refreshing to see some outrageously messy 80s style physical effects, courtesy of Screaming Mad George.

Combs is the main attraction here, delivering the dreadful dialogue like he believes every word of it and commendably taking the whole thing very seriously. The rest of the cast are never anything other than merely adequate, except the great Simón Andreu (La novia ensangrentada (1972), Flesh + Blood (1985), Die Another Day (2002)) as the quite mad prison warden, who steals every scene he’s in, even from Combs.

The first day of Frightfest 2003 continued the rather dubious tradition of opening the weekend on a less than spectacular note, though there was nothing here that was quite as awful as last year’s opening film Nine Lives (2002) – this is probably the only place on the net that will claim The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to be the highlight of anything (really, it’s not as bad as they say, trust me…). Tomorrow looks more promising, with the German Se7en clone Tattoo, the French Malefique and the first three of the must-see films, Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher, Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers 2 and the long-awaited first public unveiling of Jim Van Bebber’s Charlie’s Family.

Day Two
Day two of Frightfest 2003 kicked off with the announcement that later in the day we’d be seeing the first fleeting glimpses of the new British horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, by the creative team behind the excellent cult TV hit Spaced. It was then straight into the first film, and the first short of the event, Simon Hynd’s creepy, Ring inspired Virus. Without a single word spoken, this tells the tale of office worker Andrew who, working late one night, tries to contact his girlfriend Amber. Unable to get a reply from her mobile phone he instead gets an email containing an attachment which activates webcams in his office and in Amber’s flat – webcams that reveal a shadowy figure creeping up on her. But why does Amber look so scared? What is she seeing on Andrew’s webcam broadcast? Making maximum use of limited resources, Hynd crafts a genuinely eerie film from the flimsiest of plots and the sight of the ghostly figure rising up behind an unsuspecting Amber provided the first genuinely spooky moment of the weekend.

The day’s first feature was the German Tattoo, a bleak, stylish serial killer offering from Robert Schwentke that has enough original twists and turns to make it the best film of the festival so far. After a wonderful opening shock, rookie cop Marc Shrader is assigned to the veteran, no-nonsense homicide detective Minks, a man with a haunted past, who is investigating a series of killings in which the victims have had elaborate tattoos removed from their bodies.

Deservedly a huge hit in its native Germany, Tattoo is a grisly, compelling policier that isn’t afraid to acknowledge its influences, chiefly David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) which it perhaps occasionally tries to emulate a little too closely. But every time you think that you’ve guessed what’s coming because of its similarity to Fincher’s film, Tattoo catches you off guard with some unexpected twists. The identity of the killer isn’t terribly hard to work out, but the fate of some of the lead characters is unexpected and the final shot adds a chilling wrinkle to the well worn story.

Performances throughout are outstanding, particularly from August Diehl (who went straight from this to Anatomie 2 (2003)) as the immature rookie forced to grow up very quickly as the horrors threaten to overwhelm him, German TV veteran Christian Redl as the depressed, haunted Minks and another TV graduate, Nadeshda Brennicke, soon to be seen in another German serial killer movie, Anti-Matter, as the woman with more secrets than you can shake a stick at. Tattoo has been picked up for UK distribution by Metro Tartan so should be getting a theatrical and DVD release at some point – great news as this a film deserving of the widest audience it can find.

There was more European horror up next as French director Eric Valette stepped up the mic to introduce his Maléfique, which played extremely well with the Frightfest crowd but which left me rather cold. Perhaps it’s my dislike of black magic movies, but there was something about Maléfique – which is exceptionally well made and contains some startling images – that didn’t quite work. Carrère, a businessman accused of corporate wrong-doings, is thrown into a cell which he has to share with pre-op transsexual Marcus, the wife murderer Lasalle and the childlike cannibal Daisy. Hidden in the walls of their cell is a book written in the 1920s by a former inmate, Danvers, who used the black arts to apparently escape from confinement by walking through the walls.

Sadly, it takes forever for the prisoners to work up the courage to actually try out the incantations in the books and lead to the excellent climax which contains all of the film’s best ideas. Valette makes the most of his claustrophobic set and some of the performances – particularly from Gérald Laroche as Carrère and Clovis Cornillac as Marcus are very good. There are some impressively realised and inventive effects too, but one can’t help but feel that this would have been so much more effective as a short where the genuinely good ideas could have taken centre stage.

Outside, I chatted with Frightfest organisers Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray, trying to get out of them the title of the mystery “surprise” film being shown on Sunday morning. Ian’s comment that it was “British made” the night before turned out to be incorrect as Paul revealed – and Alan Jones later announced from the stage – that it’s going to be Guy Maddin’s black and white vampire ballet (no really, that’s exactly what it is…) Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary. Alan later warned the crowd that there was no blood and gore and the announcement was met with a stony silence so it’ll be interesting to see if anyone else actually turns up!

Another short film followed, the British Suspended from Zak Emerson. Inspired by the work of Ambrose Bierce, this atmospheric five minute vignette is set in 1642 at the height of the English Civil war and features a daring escape by a peasant due to be hung from a bridge. But the finale reveals that what we’ve seen may not be quite all it seems.

The first of the weekend’s must-see movies was up next, Cypher which marked the welcome return of Cube (1997) director Vincenzo Natali with a stylish cyberpunk thriller that owes an obvious debt to Philip K. Dick. Jeremy Northam (looking unnervingly like a young Cary Grant) is excellent as the tormented central character, a corporate spy in the near future whose identities keep shifting and changing as he gets sucked further into a complex web of industrial deceit. Employed by Digicorp to record deadly dull speeches at conferences across the country, accountant Morgan Sullivan becomes corporate spy Jack Thursby. After meeting the mysterious Rita (Lucy Liu), Sullivan/Thursby begins to seriously doubt his true identity as Digicorp and rivals Sunway Systems try to manipulate him to their own ends.

Cypher is a film that demands total attention throughout – its complex narrative takes so many twists and turns that letting your concentration slip for just a moment could leave you as bewildered as its protagonist. But it’s also a film that rewards your attention with an absorbing and intelligent SF thriller the likes of which we rarely see these days. Readers of one Philip K. Dick novel in particular will see the twist ending coming very early on, but it’s still effective and the film boasts excellent performances, particularly from Northam in a difficult role. I’m not usually a Lucy Liu fan as she all too often gives the same one-note performance in everything she does, but here she’s perfect for the role of mysterious femme fatale who’s the key unlocking the final mystery.

Natali has barely worked since his brilliant debut Cube in 1997. Apart from the short Elevated and a handful of episodes of the TV show Earth: Final Conflict, we’ve seen nothing of him since. but Cypher shows that he’s lost none of his skills and is still a director whose work will be eagerly awaited by genre fans in the future. Here’s hoping that he doesn’t take another six years before the next one!

After the break, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, writer/star and director respectively of Spaced, took to the stage to introduce a tantalisingly brief 90 second glimpse of their forthcoming romantic comedy/horror hybrid (a “Rom Zom Com” according to Wright) Shaun of the Dead. The trailer had been specially made by Wright from raw footage that hadn’t yet been colour balanced but the blink and you’ll miss it collection of scenes suggests that this is going to be huge fun. Alan Jones announced that he appears briefly in the film as a zombie before introducing the next biggie of the day, Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers 2, a film that Alan has been enthusing about for some time.

In truth, Jeepers Creepers 2 isn’t as outstanding as Alan’s enthusiasm for it would suggest. It’s by no means a bad film, but it’s nowhere near as good as the first film. Set four days after Trish and Darry Jenner met the Creeper, the sequel picks up at the very end of the Creeper’s current feeding frenzy as the creature snatches away farmer Jack Taggart’s (Ray Wise) son in broad daylight before disabling a coach full of high school football players and their cheerleaders. The teens battle not only the Creeper but also their own fears and prejudices as the winged terror picks them off one-by-one, while vengeful Taggart and his other son close in on the the Creeper with a home-made harpoon gun strapped to their pick-up for a final showdown.

In the first film, the Creeper had been a genuinely unnerving monster until Salva decided to show us too much of him. This time, Salva shows us way too much of him, in a series of lingering close-ups that rob him of any air of mystery. His grinning glances at camera run the risk of turning him into the new Freddy Kreuger and subsequently his appearances just don’t seem as scary as they should.

The other major problem here is the collection of idiot stereotypes we’re supposed to be rooting for. A busload of screaming yobs on a bus is really just asking for the audience to cheer on the Creeper, which presumably is what Salva wanted as there isn’t a single likeable character on the crippled school bus. It doesn’t help that the performances are almost uniformly awful, with the exception of the always wonderful Ray Wise who simply doesn’t get enough screen time.

Having said all that, the action scenes are well staged and there are one or two effective scare moments (I actually jumped at one point!) but the Creeper has become just another generic movie monster and no amount of sly references to The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1975) is going to help make him any scarier. There’s a nice coda though which sets us up for a possible Jeepers Creepers 3, though Alan announced before the film began that Salva’s next project will find him stepping into the shoes of Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrara as he tackles the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Day two came to a close with an altogether very different film – instead of the glossy Hollywood sheen of Jeepers Creepers 2, Saturday ended with the long awaited first ever public screening of the finished version of Jim Van Bebber’s Charlie’s Family. A workprint from the late 90s has long been a staple of the fan bootleg circuit for many years but this was the version completed by Van Bebber with the help of Blue Underground, whose producer Carl Daft was on hand to introduce the film.

Not being a great fan of Van Bebber’s earlier work, I wasn’t holding out too many hopes for this documentary style take on Charles Manson and the killings he inspired so was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s an intelligent and gripping debunking of some of the myths that have grown up around Manson and his family over the last three and half decades.

In 1996, a pair of film producers are preparing a documentary on Manson’s followers, his so-called “Family” and are reviewing a mysterious videotape they’ve received containing interview footage with those who were there at the Spahn Ranch in the fateful summer of 1969 as well as shock re-enactments of the murders at Cielo Drive. As they watch a tape which re-enacts the orgies of sex and violence that Manson presided over, they are unaware that a new cult of killers has targeted them for a Tate/LaBiance style execution.

What makes Charlie’s Family so much more than the usual Manson-glorifying nonsense is the way so many films about him have done is the way it focuses less on Manson himself and more on those who fell under his spell. It blows away many of the ridiculous myths that have sprung up around the Family and exposes them as a gang of drug-addled maniacs who were easily manipulated by the deranged Manson.

The film is deliberately shot to look like a 70s low-budget horror, bringing a warm glow of nostalgia to those of us who scoured obscure video shops in the early 80s hunting out exactly those films. But there’s nothing 70s about the provocative and deeply disturbing depiction of the killings, the unflinching depiction of the Family’s drug use and the effects it had on them and the confrontational sex scenes. Make no mistake, this is powerful stuff and not for the easily offended or the weak of stomach. Those with the nerves to take it however will be rewarded with the best film ever on the subject of the Manson killings and the film that finally shows us exactly what Van Bebber is capable of. It’s perhaps an indication of just how galvanising Charlie’s Family is that an appreciative audience sat through it largely in stunned silence.

It was the perfect end to a generally excellent second day. Now we’ve got the hardest part to get through – a 10:30 start and five features on day three, including the Korean Phone, Darklands director Julian Richards’ The Last Horror Movie, Takashi Miike’s Gozu and the highly fancied Cabin Fever. All this and Guy Maddin’s vampire ballet movie…

Day Three
The third day of Frightfest 2003 was always going to be hard work – the extra film added to the programme meant an obscenely early start for a Sunday morning and when I arrived at the ungodly hour of 10:30, not surprisingly the road outside the Prince Charles Cinema was hardly packed. A handful of hardy souls had ventured out, though many of the weekend pass holders opted to pass on the “surprise” movie, Guy Maddin’s extraordinary Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, which is a shame as it’s certainly unlike anything else they were likely to see over the long weekend. Anyone who’s seen any of Maddin’s previous work will know what to expect – he specialises in films that emulate the silent movies of the 20s and Dracula is no exception.

Based on Mark Godden’s ballet version of Stoker’s novel, it follows the basics of the plot fairly accurately, though events are restructures – it begins in Whitby and Jonathan Harker’s trip to Transylvania is dealt with in a quick fire, hallucinatory flashback late in the film. The Chinese Zhang Wei-Qiang is an unusual but effective choice for Dracula, giving the vampire lord an added exoticism that many other adaptations lack. Other cast members have clearly been cast for their dancing abilities though they certainly look the part, even if some of the moustaches are ridiculously fake…

Deanne Rohde’s production design is stunning – the towering, expressionist sets are perfect for Maddin’s warped vision, adding to the hazy, surreal atmosphere. Add to this Mahler’s almost overwhelming music and you’ve got a Dracula film quite unlike any other. Curiously, the ballet seems to have been confined to a number of set piece dances, some of which admittedly go on a little too long and Maddin’s lighting, framing and editing doesn’t always do them justice. That said, it’s still a remarkable film and the perfect start to what’s shaping up to be an excellent third day at Frightfest.

Something of a pleasant surprise was up next – as anyone who has read my previous Frightfest reports will know, I’m not a great fan of the films of Adam Mason. His two features, The 13th Sign (2000) and Dust (2001) were unwatchable, while last year’s short, Ruby (2002) was just plain pretensious rubbish. So I wasn’t exactly relishing the thought of Prey, despite the fact that it only runs for 5 minutes. But surprisingly enough, this is an effective and brutal vignette about a hunter in the snowy wastes of the USA stalking his human prey. Powerful stuff with some excellent and very bloody effects and none of the irritating directorial mannerisms we’ve come to expect from Mason, this was easily the best thing he’s ever screened at Frightfest. The lack of any credits betray its origins as part of an abandoned anthology film to have been made by those other stalwarts of the British low-budget scene, Jack West (Razor Blade Smile (1998)) and Alex Chandon (Cradle of Fear (2001)).

The first “proper” film of the day was Byeong-ki Ahn’s Korean Phone. I’d been looking forward to this as the South Korean industry has been making waves in the genre over the last few years with films like Ring Virus (1999), Yeogo goedam/Whispering Corridors (1998), Yeogo goedam dubeonjjae i-yagi/Memento Mori (1999) and Sorum (2001). Sadly, Phone isn’t in that league – it has its fair share of shocks but is too derivative to be in the first division of Asian horror.

Journalist Ji-Won (Ji-Won Ha) goes into hiding to escape the threats of the men she’s implicated in an underage sex scandal and changes the number on her mobile phone to avoid the menacing phone calls she’s been plagued by. The number turns out to have once belonged to schoolgirl Jin-hie who disappeared in mysterious circumstances – in fact she’s been murdered and her vengeful spirit is using the phone number to try to bring her killer to justice. Unfortunately, she also kills those who own the number. Ji-Won investigates and comes to believe that her young niece Yeong-ju has been possessed by Jin-hie, leading to a plot twisting climax that has the film’s best and most unexpected revelation.

Ahn’s icy, detached direction gives the film a chilly atmosphere and there are plenty of “faces-reflected-in-the-mirror” type scares, but one can’t escape the fact that Phone is little more than an assemblage of everyone’s favourite scenes and ideas from every Asian horror hit of the last decade. It’s now obligatory that Asian horror films are compared to Hideo Nakata’s groundbreaking Ring (1998) and sure enough, it’s the starting point for Ahn’s film, replacing the cursed video with a haunted mobile phone – though accusations that Jin-Hie is a clone of Sadako are perhaps a little unfounded; there were an awful lot of Asian ghosts with long black hair in film, literature and legend long before Nakata’s film made them popular worldwide. There’s no defending Ahn’s shameless plundering of Nakata’s Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water (2002) though, blatantly taking shots of hair leaking from a bath tap from the earlier film.

Phone is a well made film and boasts a fantastic performance from Seo-woo Eun as the diminutive Yeong-ju. Her Exorcist-like outbursts – in particular her observation that Snow White’s happy ending is “shit” – are both hilarious and unnerving, and her attempt to give her own father a full on kiss is simply disturbing – no doubt we won’t be seeing a replay of that scene in the recently announced Hollywood remake.

Next up came the longest of the short films on show, N(eon), from comic book artist/illustrator/photographer Dave McKean, best known for the covers for the Sandman comics and his Cages mini series. It’s no surprise then that N(eon) looks great, but that really is all it has going for it. This dull, affected mess takes an agonising 28 minutes to tell the slight tale of a disaffected middle-aged man who wanders the streets of an out-of-season Venice in search of answers to his meaningless life and encounters a naked Eileen Daly as a ghost who repeatedly appears in a deserted square. The deadly monotone narration from former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale just makes a tedious experience all the more torturous. A truly painful experience.

Of all of the films on offer at Frightfest this year, the one I was least looking forward to, the one I’d rather prejudged despite my best efforts not to, was The Last Horror Movie. I hadn’t particularly liked director Julian Richards’ previous film, Darklands (1997), so wasn’t really looking forward to seeing his latest offering. Which just goes to show that you really shouldn’t judge a film before you’ve seen it as The Last Horror Movie turned out to be one of the best films of the festival thus far.


It begins deceptively, with a young waitress being menaced by a serial killer in a remote American roadside diner. At this point, my heart sank – I was expecting a re-run of Octane, another British film trying to look American and yet another see-it-all-before teen slasher. But suddenly it cuts to British serial killer Max talking directly to the audience, telling them that he’s taped over the film you’ve just rented from the local video shop and the film suddenly becomes the British answer to C’est arrivé près de chez vous/Man Bites Dog (1992). Over the next hour and a half, the witty, intelligent and disturbingly likeable Max (an outstanding performance from Kevin Howarth) leads us through his terrifying world of brutal murder – he’s “done” 50 victims already – as he constantly harasses the audience to examine why they’re continuing to watch even when it becomes clear that what they’re watching is the real thing.

James Handel’s brilliant script – this is by far and away the best written film of the weekend so far – has a lot to say and does it without preaching or getting heavy handed. It’s an uncomfortable film, but a compelling one and that modern day rarity, a horror film that makes you think while scaring the hell out of you. Howarth takes centre stage throughout and is simply amazing as the unreadable Max – he himself admits that he’s not mad, but offers no motivation for why he commits his appalling crimes other than that he wants to create the “last horror movie you’ll ever see.” Howarth was there at the screening and the best seat in the house must have been the one next to his – imagine the growing doubts of the poor soul sitting next to him when he or she realises that the perpetrator of these increasingly brutal crimes is sitting right next to them…

The Last Horror Movie will work even better on video and DVD than it does on the big screen though one has to wonder what its prospects will be. With no big name stars and the still unshakeable stigma attached to British horror films, this could go unwatched by many who would love its perverse charm and uncompromising violence. And that would be a shame as this is one genre film that deserves to be huge.

Curiously, some time ago, Richards told journalist MJ Simpson that The Last Horror Movie would be “about a group of media students who choose a derelict cinema as a location to make a slasher movie. Halfway through the shoot fiction becomes reality when they discover that the building is still occupied by its redundant projectionist who dresses up as killers from the genre’s most frightening films and re-enacts the violence. Shooting will start mid June and the film should be completed by September.” Clearly that’s not how it turned out and it’s possible that this scenario will be one of the slate of films that Richards will be making through his newly formed Prolific Films outfit – all of a sudden, Julian Richards has become a director to watch.

We barely had time to recover from the shock of The Last Horror Movie before we were plunged into Trailer Trash 2, a compilation of coming attractions culled from the depths of Frightfest webmaster Marc Morris’ impressive video and DVD collection. The likes of Invasion USA (1952), Let Me Die a Woman (1978) and Roseland (1970) greatly amused an appreciate audience and warmed us up nicely for the main attraction, the indescribable Gozu, one of the latest offerings from the frighteningly prolific Takashi Miike. This insane, mind-numbing masterpiece sees Miike venturing into David Lynch land in an extraordinary tale of confused identities, yakuza gang politics and bizarre sex.

Yakuza hitman Ozaki is losing it, seeing threats and dangers to his crew boss everywhere – we first see him messily assassinating a Chihuahua he believes to be a “yakuza attack dog”! It falls to another member of his crew, Minami, to deliver him to the “dump”, a car crushing yard in Nagoya. But a freak traffic accident apparently kills Ozaki – whose body then vanishes. This is just the start of Minami’s nightmarish journey through a strange netherworld where elderly inn owners try to make him drink her breast milk, where a minotaur appears in his room and licks his face, where the skins of dead yakuza are hung up on racks like dry-cleaned suits and where Ozaki appears to have been reborn as a young woman. Minami’s climactic attempts to consummate his lust for his reborn “Brother” provided one of the biggest laughs and best gross-out moments of the whole weekend.

A single viewing of Gozu simply isn’t going to be enough for anyone to get a handle on it. It was clear afterwards that just about everyone at Frightfest loved it, but the bewilderment was clear on everyone’s face as they trooped out of the Prince Charles. No-one had a clue what it was all about, but we were mostly united in our believe that it’s a quite extraordinary and brilliant film. It’s one that will surely reveal a lot more layers and subtleties with repeated viewings.

Amazingly, Gozu was made for release in Japan on video only, part of the current wave of “v-cinema” productions. Unlike Western direct-to-video slop, the Japanese are embracing the form as an outlet for talented directors wanting to put out films that probably wouldn’t receive much of a theatrical release. Sadly, Gozu hasn’t received much of a release of any kind – it was due for release on tape and disc in Japan in July 2003 but still hasn’t shown up, despite being screened at Cannes and various other prestigious festivals around the world. When it does finally surface, put this very near the top of your shopping list. It’ll drive you mad, but you’ll love every minute of it.

Day three came to a close with the much fancied and heavily hyped Cabin Fever, preceded by a ten minute video talk from director Eli Roth who comes across as an enthusiastic genre fan who can do a mean David Lynch impression! Roth won over the audience immediately with his nostalgic pining for the genre’s glory days of the 1970s and his criticisms of the recent crop of post-Scream horrors.

The film itself does everything it sets out to do and does it with some style. There’s little here that’s original – it borrows shamelessly from classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Evil Dead (1981) as well as obscurities like The Alpha Incident (1977) – but it’s done so well that it’s hard to resist its grisly charms. Roth set out to revive the look and feel of the 70s and 80s horrors that he grew up on and that much he does exceptionally well – the backwoods setting could have come straight out of any number of rural horrors from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hill Have Eyes (1977) to Just Before Dawn (1981) and Mothers Day (1980), and the gore was strong enough to please most fans.

The audience at Frightfest certainly lapped it up, loving the black humour (it’s not a spoof – it’s a proper horror film that just has some very funny lines) and over-the-top, old school violence and revelling in the chance to show off their knowledge of the genre by spotting all of Roth’s sly references. Somehow, he even managed to get the rights to use extracts from David Hess’ songs from the Last House on the Left soundtrack!

Cabin Fever was an excellent way to finish a very long and tiring day and the majority of Frightfesters went home pleased and geared up for the final day, which offers some very diverse films, from the gore of Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead and Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses to the Spanish sex thriller Between Your Legs and the latest from Pusher and Bleeder director Nicholas Winding Refn, Fear X.

Day Four
Before setting out on the last day of Frightfest 2003 I want it to be completely clear that I’ve enjoyed this year’s event immensely and am hugely grateful for all of the hard work that the organisers put into getting it all together. I mention that now as, to be honest, the final day turned out to be a massive disappointment. The day should have started with the short The Last Dream/Dernier reve which somehow failed to turn up, being replaced instead with a handful of trailers, giving UK audiences their first big screen look at the promos for, amongst other things, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and the new Tarantino, Kill Bill. The first film of the day was Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, a ridiculous adaptation of the video game of the same name.

A group of young 20-somethings arrive on a remote island (ominously known as Isla de Muerte by locals) for a rave party and run into a pack of fast-moving zombies, the result of evil experiments centuries before by a now immortal Spaniard. The survivors take refuge in an old house and prepare for a bloody showdown with the undead.

With a hysterical (in every sense of the word) central zombie killing set piece, loads of inappropriate bullet time effects, some of the worst dialogue you’ll ever here and some crowd-pleasing head crushing and entrails spilling, House of the Dead was a very silly but effective start to the day. Boll and his cast clearly aren’t taking any of it seriously which helps, though Boll should have words with his dialogue / ADR people as their dialogue is often incomprehensible. Boll makes no bones about this being a game adaptation and even edits in brief clips from the game itself to punctuate the mayhem, a tactic which works well enough at first but which soon becomes very tiresome. It’s always good to see Clint Howard and Jurgen Prochnow at work and their performances steal the show, though the script gives them very little to work with. House of the Dead is brain dead sleaze and to be honest I’d be more than happy not to have to see it again – it simply hasn’t got enough substance to make it worth revisiting. But as we’ll see, it’s a masterpiece compared to some of what was still to come…

The real highlight of the day was up next, Martin Gooch’s 10 minute short Arthur’s Amazing Things. This hilarious vignette stars Mark Felgate as the eponymous Arthur, a boring office worker with a crush on one of his co-workers, the frankly terrifying Lindsay Dawn Mckenzie. So desperate is he to attract her attention that he invents a series of useless gadgets before hitting the motherload when he creates a pair of wings that give him the power of flight. His true love is suitably impressed, but for Arthur it’s going to be a short lived triumph which is just going to end very messily indeed…

Very funny stuff, Arthur’s Amazing Things features a marvellous narration from comedy icon Leslie Phillips, some genuinely funny sight gags and a wonderful final shot. Anything featuring an appearance from current EOFFTV fave Emily Booth can’t be all bad and Arthur’s Amazing Things emerged as the unlikely hit of the final day of Frightfest 2003.

Things then starting to go a little awry. Manuel Gomez Pereira’s Between Your Legs/Entre las pienas was promoted in the programme as a “Spanish giallo” and the organisers had made it perfectly clear throughout the weekend that they’d been trying to show the film at Frightfest for the past two years – they’d got it now as it’s about to be released by new distribution company Nucleus Films, created by director Jake West and Frightfest webmaster Marc Morris.

Sadly, the ecstatic build-up for the film from the organisers failed to translate into much audience enthusiasm. Between Your Legs turned out to be an OK (and it’s really nothing more than that) Hitchcockian thriller – what it certainly isn’t is a horror film, a fact which seemed to go down very badly with a large part of the audience. I know that some of the weekend pass holders complained to the organisers afterwards and there were accusations afterwards that the film had been shown simply because the organisers liked it, with no real thought as to whether it was the right sort of film for Frightfest. This may be a tad unfair, but the question does remain what was it doing here? Coming after House of the Dead and before House of 1000 Corpses, it seemed an odd choice for a weary final day audience who greeted the end credits with a stony silence.

Things didn’t get much better with the latest film from Pusher and Bleeder director Nicholas Winding Refn, the disappointing Fear X. John Turturro stars as a tormented shopping mall security guard whose wife has been murdered. Becoming increasingly obsessed with finding out who did it, he pores over hours of security video looking for clues, clues that will lead him from a snowy Wisconsin to Montana where he runs into a police conspiracy.

Fear X was another very poor choice for the final day of a horror festival, a day which really should have been full to the brim with hardcore genre movies to keep flagging spirits going through to the end. This tedious art house film again seemed to be horribly out of place. It takes Refn an hour and a half to tell a story which, frankly, would have had trouble filling a twenty minute short. It’s a painfully slow film and the l-o-n-g gaps between dialogue as characters simply stare numbly at each other for what seems an eternity before responding becomes incredibly irritating before the credits have rolled. Before the film began, Alan Jones promised us that the last ten minutes would “have your eyes out on stalks” – as the crowd trooped out of the Prince Charles Cinema at the end, I wasn’t the only one who wondered if maybe he’d missed something. The last ten minutes are exactly the same as the eighty that went before it before the film finally stops leaving one to wonder what all the fuss had been about.

By now I must confess I was ready to call it a day and head home for some much needed sleep, but there was still one more film to come, Rob Zombie’s highly anticipated House of 1000 Corpses, introduced by the director himself and his girlfriend/star Sherri Moon. The film played very well with the Frightfest crowd who lapped up its delirious, non-stop barrage of surreal imagery and most people seemed to come away from it very well pleased. For me, the film didn’t quite gel – there are lots of great moments and a thunderous soundtrack, but the whole never quite hangs together properly.

Four young people traveling the back roads of America in 1977 fall foul of a bizarre family in a remote house while researching the legend of the appalling Dr Satan and his obscene experiments to create superhumans from mental patients. The travellers join a quintet of abducted cheerleaders in the family’s house of horrors, while various parents, police and other bystanders are slaughtered by the Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired clan.

The biggest problem with House of 1000 Corpses is that it doesn’t seem to have any discernible story beyond the brief synopsis given above. Zombie clearly knows his stuff, but it results in him simply ransacking the best bits from every genre film and TV show he’s ever seen and placing them end to end in the hope that some sort of plot might emerge. It looks to be exactly what it is – it’s what a heavy metal fan/musician things a horror film should be, so we get lots of mad cackling, lots of hairy people shouting at each other and lots of leering over-acting.

That said, some of it shows real promise – Zombie’s going to be a genre force to reckon with when he gets to grips with writing and House of 1000 Corpses showcases his raw talent in some deeply unsettling moments. And that’s the problem really – it’s just a film of “moments.” It’s much better made than I’d feared it would be and it’s perfectly clear why the suits at Universal crapped themselves when they saw it and ditched it – this certainly isn’t your multiplex friendly teen horror and will be a difficult sell to a non-genre loving audience.

So that was it for another Frightfest. 17 features, 5 shorts and more trailers than you can shake a stick at. The general feeling outside afterwards was that this year’s bash hadn’t quite lived up to expectations and wasn’t as strong as last years line-up – there was nothing this year quite as execrable as last year’s Nine Lives, but neither was there anything as good as Frailty, Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water, Jian gui/The Eye and Donnie Darko. There were a lot of fair-to-middling films this year, which isn’t to say that it was a total loss – as ever Frightfest proved itself to be the biggest, best and friendliest genre festival in the UK and I for one will be there next year. To Sum up:

To sum up:

The Good: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tattoo, Cypher, Charlie’s Family, The Last Horror Movie, Gozu and Cabin Fever.

The Bad: Octane, Between Your Legs and Fear X. And a special mention to the unbearably awful short N(eon).

The Indifferent: Beyond Re-Animator, Malefique, Jeepers Creepers 2, Phone, House of the Dead and House of 1000 Corpses.

As ever, it just remains to thank Kasia, Steve, Pete and Dave for their company throughout the weekend and also to thank everyone who came over and said hello between films. And of course a big thanks to Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray for putting the whole thing together. Only 52 weeks to go before the next one…