Frightfest 2004 review

WARNING: By necessity, this page contains a number of spoilers

Day One
There’s been something of a tradition at past Frightfests to kick proceedings off with a British film – sadly, for the most part they’ve been disappointments and usually got things off to a very dodgy start, a fact admitted from the stage by Frightfest co-organiser Ian Rattray. In the past we’ve been subjected to Lighthouse in 2000 (an under-achieving slasher), The Bunker in 2001 (the best of the bunch), the truly excerable Nine Lives in 2002 and the not-much-better Octane in 2003.

For 2004, however, the fifth anniversary of Britain’s most engaging genre festival, the tradition was wisely ditched in favour of a screening of the astonishing Korean thriller Oldboy, directed by Chan-wook Park of Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA/Joint Security Area (2000) and Boksuneun naui geot/Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) fame. The director was on hand to introduce the film via a translator, apologising to those who’d turned up expecting Hellboy and further apologising for offering up such a “weak” film!

Weak is certainly not a word anyone could ever use in connection with Oldboy. The plot is as outrageous as it is enthralling, skating dangerously close to the ridiculous but just about staying on the tracks thanks to excellent performances and expert scripting – In 1988, Oh Dae-su is snatched from the street while on a drunken night out with his best friend and imprisoned by unknown captors. 15 years later, he’s unexpectedly released and he sets out to find out who stole his life, murdered his wife and orphaned his baby daughter and why.

Brutal, raw and uncompromising, Oldboy is the most savage revenge thriller in years – not even the excellent Kill Bill (2003-2004) comes close. It develops and builds on the themes that informed Boksuneun naui geot but takes them off in entirely unexpected directions, featuring some of the most unsettling scenes imaginable – don’t expect to be seeing the live squid eating scene survive in many territories! When the big twist comes about three quarters of the way through, it’s devastating, one of the most shocking reveals I’ve seen in many years – the implications resonate right through to the very last line of the film (“I love you”) which itself is deeply unsettling in its implications.

The key to the film are the outstanding performances – Min-Sik Choi (recognizable to knowledgeable fans from the excellent Swiri (1999)) is brilliant as the tortured Oh Dae-su, his haunted eyes speaking volumes as the overwhelming tragedy unfolds around him. It’s an emotionally draining performance as he roars through every emotion imaginable, from righteous anger, through terror and self-doubt right through to abject despair and self-loathing and Choi pulls it all off brilliantly. Wonderful though the direction, scripting, sound design and music are, Oldboy would be a much lesser film without him.

He’s given sterling support from Ji-tae Yu (from Natural City (2003) and Geoul sokeuro/Into the Mirror (2003)) as the “villain” of the piece who plays it to perfection, transforming a potentially clichéd role into an ambiguous turn that manages to beg our sympathy as much as our revulsion. In the pivotal role of Mido, Kang Hye-Jeong is excellent, her relationship with the other characters giving the film its queasy, unsettling undercurrent. Oldboy has been championed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth and it’s easy to see why. It’s further proof – if any where really needed – that South Korea is the place to watch in Asia at the moment – and confirming the brilliant Chan-wook Park as one of the great contemporary directors.

Inevitably, there was a nagging fear that after such a stunning opening, things could only go downhill from here. Thankfully, that proved not to be the case. Next up came the highly fancied French slasher Haute tension, playing here under its nonsensical English language title Switchblade Romance. For the most part, it’s an astonishing film, stylish, brutal and relentless, taking unexpected twists and turns as it plays out every cliché of the slasher genre but gives them enough deviations to keep you off guard. Largely shot without dialogue after the first 20 minutes or so, it’s a stripped down, in-your-face and classy crowd pleaser.

Students Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) arrive at the remote country home of Alex’s family to catch up on their studies only to fall foul of a psychotic killer who turns up in a rusty old van. The family is slaughtered, Alex is abducted and its up to the terrified but resourceful Marie to rescue her. But not everything is as it seems… Aja clearly had a lot of fun thinking up ways to wrong-foot a knowledgeable audience, never quite doing what we expect he’s going to do – he endeared himself to Frightfesters by not skimping on the gore and the slaughter at the farmhouse drew an appreciative round of applause for its sheer audaciousness.

But it derails somewhat when we reach the twist ending – the revelation that Marie is actually the killer doesn’t quite hold together and certainly doesn’t gel with everything we’ve seen throughout the rest of the film. It’s also distracting that although both the audience and Alex now knows that Marie is the killer, we still see “him” represented on screen, from the viewpoint of Alex, as the male killer. Superficially, it’s a clever twist – I for one never saw it coming – but it doesn’t really work. Still, until it happens, Haute tension is a brilliant piece of work, bloody, tense and well acted and one can only hope that Aja makes more of the same, but without the need to play M. Night Shyamalan at his own game.

Finally, an excellent first night was rounded out by Toolbox Murders, a film I had few expectations of – it was made by Tobe Hooper, whose career certainly hasn’t suggested that he’s up to much away from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre franchise, and was a remake of a film I think is pretty awful so what were the chances that it’d be any good at all? Well surprisingly, despite once again proving that Hooper is a one-trick pony, it was a lot better than it had any right to be. It’s certainly a lot better than the original, a rather dull and prosaic slasher best remembered for the admittedly brutal nailgun attack on Kelly Nichols.

Teacher Nell (Angela Bettis) and her doctor husband Steven (Brent Roam) move into a new apartment in the run-down Hollywood hotel Lusman Arms. Surrounded by a fine collection of eccentrics and weirdos and distressed by the poor state of the currently under-renovation building, Nell becomes increasingly unhappy. But things are about to get a lot worse when a masked killer begins using the contents of his toolbox as weapons on a mass-murder rampage.

Hooper does well to give his remake a genuine 70s feel and its by far and away his strongest film in years. There’s plenty of gore, tension by the bucket load and some very witty shocks, Hooper cleverly deflecting his audience away from where we think the scares are coming from and springing them on us from an altogether unexpected direction. Hooper makes nods to former glories (the killer favours power tools as weapons and turns out to be a hideous freak closely related to the monstrosity that haunted The Funhouse (1981)) and keeps the action moving even when the script (from the writers of Spiders (2000), Crocodile (2000) and Crocodile 2: Death Swamp (2002) – hardly an encouraging pedigree) takes a turn for the predictable near the end. The occult nonsense is poorly thought out and doesn’t really add anything to the film, but Hooper makes what he can of it and keeps the violence and shocks coming thick and fast.

Toolbox Murders went down well with an appreciative crowd, bringing to a successful close the best opening night that Frightfest has put together so far. It bodes well for the rest of the weekend and if the next couple of days can live up this excellent beginning, we’re in for an excellent weekend. Fingers crossed…

Day Two
After an outstanding first evening, expectations were running high on the morning of Day Two, which kicked off with a rare opportunity to see Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso/Deep Red on the big screen, a chance I passed on in favour of more sleep! The film was being screened as a tie-in with the launch of Alan Jones new book on Argento, Profondo Argento, a stunning piece of work crammed full of some astonishing pictures and drawing on Jones’ long relationship with the director. It’s well worth £30 of anyone’s money and can be ordered online direct from publishers FAB Press.

I arrived in time to see writer/director Don Mancini and editor Chris Dickens (Shaun of the Dead (2004)) present a rough-cut trailer and fragment from Seed of Chucky (2004), the latest in the killer doll franchise. If this is anything to by, they could be onto a winner – the Britney Spears gag alone is probably going to be worth the price of admission, but add Jennifer Tilley playing herself and John Waters as a sleazy tabloid photographer and we’re looking at a potential cult classic. Where else are you going to see a doll masturbating into a beaker so he can use his sperm to impregnate a Hollywood actress?

My first film of the day was Oxide Pang’s The Tesseract, an adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel that I’d listed as being non-genre on the initial list of Frightfest films but which turns out to have enough outré fantasy elements to qualify it for inclusion here after all. Sadly, the film didn’t go down at all well with the crowd and by the end it seems only the EOFFTV contingent had anything good to say about it! Oozing style, the film’s fractured narrative and dreamlike ambience is hypnotic and both the photography and sound design are amazing. In a Bangkok hotel, a dying female assassin (Veradis Vinyarath), a thirteen year old bellboy/thief (Alexander Rendel), a reluctant English drug runner (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and an English child psychologist doing field research (Saskia Reeves) find their lives inextricably interwoven as they move inexorably towards a tragic and violent meeting in a remote town.

The plot demands constant attention as Pang and co-writer Patrick Neater skip backwards and forwards (and even sideways) in time to catch each of the subtle interactions between the four protagonists, most of them not even noticed by them, that will eventually seal their collective fates. The whole thing is glued together by Pang (working without his brother Danny this time) with considerable style, employing every visual trick in the book. This is what seemed to annoy so many Frightfesters, an apparent emphasis of style over content. But there’s much more to The Tesseract than bullet-time effects, fast cuts and oddball camera moves – it’s a compelling tale of fate, of possible supernatural forces at work in the lives of humans who seem completely oblivious to the fact that their lives are already mapped out for them.

The weakest link in the film is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers who seems to be comatose through most of the film, only really giving a performance towards the end as he frantically searches for his stolen consignment of drugs. Reeves is much better as the sympathetic psychologist who tries too hard to help the kids she’s researching and ends up paying the ultimate price, but the real star of the show is the amazing Alexander Rendel, a brilliant child actor with none of the limitations that so hamper the performances of so many kid actors. If he can keep this up, he’s going to be a real talent as he matures and gets more experience.

It was a brave decision by the Frightfest organisers to go with The Tesseract, a film that was almost guaranteed to split their audience straight down the middle. But given the very real possibility that we’re never going to see this on the big screen ever again, it was a wise one – it may not have been to everyone’s tastes but those of us who enjoyed it appreciated the chance to see it as it was intended.

Far more traditional – though no less impressive – fare was on offer next. Director Paco Plaza and an unannounced-in-advance producer Brian Yuzna turned up to introduce the the latest offering from Yuzna’s Fantastic Factory imprint, Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt, by far and away the best film the Spanish company has produced so far. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of Manuel Blanco Romasanta (Julian Sands – no, stick with it, he’s not that bad in this one!), a travelling handyman in 1850s Spain who murdered a series of men, women and children in Galicia and using their body fat to make soap. The real Romasanta was imprisoned in 1853 after failing to comvince the court that he was a werewolf who committed the murders with an accomplice, Antonio. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Queen Isabel II after she received a letter from a scientist, Dr Phillips, who despite not having been anywhere near the case, was able to convince her by letter that Romasanta wasn’t as guilty as he seemed. While waiting a pardon in prison, Romasanta died in mysterious circumstances.

Plaza and his writers Alberto Marini and Elena Serra use this unlikely story as the basis for a fabulous, Hammer-flavoured thriller that never explicitly claims that Romasanta really was a werewolf but never quite denies it either. The period setting, created by Baltasar Gallart and atmospherically captured by photographer Javier G. Salmones, made for a refreshing change from the relentlessly contemporary feel of the festival so far and provided some of the most beautiful and memorable images of the weekend so far. In the Q&A afterwards, Plaza deftly sidestepped accusations that the film bore too strong a resemblance to Le pacte des loups/Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) (despite the director’s protestations, it does, but that’s no bad thing) and was flattered by comparisons to Hammer films.

In their Q&A afterwards, Plaza and Yuzna expressed surprise that Julian Sands is so disliked in his native land but on the strength of his turns in Warlock (1989), Tale of a Vampire (1992), The Tomorrow Man (1996) and Argento’s terrible Il fantasma dell’opera (1998) it’s not that hard to understand. Here though, he’s OK – he still gives his usual non-performance but he rises adequately to the demands of the role without really making much of an impact. He’s acted off the screen – as is everyone else – by Elsa Pataky, so much better here than in last year’s Beyond Re-Animator (2003), who gives an outstanding performance as Barbara, sister of one of Romasanta’s victims, who determines to track down her killer. If there’s any justice at all, it should give her a much higher profile and will hopefully lead to even bigger and better roles in the future.

Boasting one of the most inventive werewolf transformations ever – the lycanthrope transforms back to human form as torrential rain washes away his fur – and stunning, award winning photography, Romasanta was a real surprise – I hadn’t expected very much from it but it delivered big time and marks Plaza as a genre name to watch – in the Q&A he announced that he was off to the Isle of Wight to lead the second unit on Darkness (2002) director Jaume Balaguero’s latest Fragile (2005) with Calista Flockhart

The I Inside, written by Identity (2003) scribe Michael Cooney, was getting its British premiere eight months before its official release, and proved to be an edgy, time-hoping head-scratcher. Packed full of twists and unexpected developments, it’s an ambitious and beautifully shot piece that may well need several viewings to pick open and absorb its many complexities. Simon Cable (a good turn by Ryan Phillippe) wakes in hospital with amnesia after being involved in a near-fatal car accident. He things it’s the year 2000 but in fact it’s two years later and Cable is soon, like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, “unstuck in time”, bouncing backwards and forwards between 2000 and 2002 as he tries to figure out who he is and rebuild his complex relationships with his brother, wife and lover.

The disconcerting leaps backwards and forwards in time are well handled by director Roland Suso Richter who commendably keeps a tight grip on the potentially confusing and bewildering script. Unlike many time travel movies, The I Inside manages to remain constant throughout, never cheating the audience on its way to the revelation of what’s really going on.

The I Inside was another brave choice for Frightfest – it’s another one that seems to have divided the audience but it’s very likely that anyone alienated by it this time around could well find more to enjoy the second time around – one suspects that it’s going to be one of those cult films that flops at the box office then makes its mark later on DVD. It certainly deserves it, being a well acted, intelligent thriller that sees Cooney taking a quantum leap forward from the under-achieving Identity, one or two reservations about the climax not withstanding. Great too to see some familiar British faces in supporting parts – Stephen Rea turns up as a sympathetic doctor in 2002 while Peter Egan unexpectedly shows up as a less sympathetic doctor in 2000.

The big Saturday night film, and allegedly the first sell-out crowd for this year, was a chance for UK fans to see Hellboy a week early. We already knew in advance that director Guillermo del Toro was going to be on hand, making good on a promise to visit Frighfest after being unable to attend a screening of El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone back in 2001. What wasn’t advertised though was the fact that del Toro was bringing with him his three main stars, Rupert Evans, Selma Blair and the man himself, Ron Perlman!

I confess that Hellboy was the Frightfest film I was least looking forward to – don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge del Toro fan and have been since being bowled over by the wonderful Cronos (1993) but I hadn’t enjoyed Blade II (2002) and was expecting more of the same. Instead, Hellboy turned out to be a fun, fresh and inventive blockbuster, let down by some rather tired and unconvincing CGI (am I the only one who things that with each successive blockbuster, CGI is looking more and more passé?) but given a huge boost by del Toro’s energetic direction and Perlman’s wonderful turn as Hellboy.

Towards the end of World War II, the Nazis team up with Grigory Rasputin to open a space-time portal which will allow a race of ancient Gods of Chaos to enter our world and destroy it. Their plan is foiled by a troop of American soldiers and Professor “Broom” Bruttenholm who close the portal but not until after a child demon has passed through. Years later, Hellboy as he’s known, has grown into a huge, red, tailed monster who works for Broom at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, preparing to take on old enemies who are still trying to allow the Gods of Chaos into the world.

A great cast (Perlman is just brilliant!), a witty script and a dark, gothic look conspire to make Hellboy a cut above the usual big-budget knockabout fare. The pace never slackens, del Toro’s own script paring the story back to its absolute basics to great effect. He cleverly introduces the Hellboy universe to those of us unfamiliar with the comic without a lot of the messing about that bogs down too many origins stories. As you’d expect from del Toro, it’s visually stunning, each frame crammed full of unusual designs, oddball characters (the clockwork driven Nazi agent Kronen was a particular favourite) and inventive camerawork. All-in-all, a real surprise and I for one will be looking forward to the promised Director’s Cut due on DVD later this year. I for one can’t wait for Hellboy 2 due in 2006.

After the screening, all four of the guests stayed put while everyone who wanted something signed got what they wanted, despite the lateness of the hour – they didn’t finish until well after midnight meaning that the start of the final film was much delayed. Monster Man looked like one of the least enticing offerings this year but has turned out to be one of the best so far! Throwing political correctness to the wind, this deranged blend of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jeepers Creepers (2001) and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) is a laugh a minute gore fest that had the exhausted late night survivors in uproar throughout.

Student and terminal virgin Adam is on his way to the wedding of his true love to finally express his desires with his boorish, arsehole of a friend Harley stowing away for the ride. They pick up sexy hitch-hiker Sarah who relieves Adam of his virginity, but fall foul of a mutant psych in a huge monster truck who pursues them across the desert until he corners them in his run-down house – and that’s when things start to get really complicated and really, really sick.

A far better film that I think anyone at Frightfest was expecting, this is huge fun – director Michael Davis had previously directed light comedies and who knew that he had this kind of mayhem in him? Riotously funny, flowing with gore and slime and guaranteed to have something to offend just about everyone, this was perfect late night viewing, just the thing to lift flagging spirits and keep sleep at bay for another hour and a half.

The less you know about Monster Man the better as it comes at you with so many unexpected takes on established genre tropes and keeps you unsure about whether your next reaction will be to flinch, laugh or throw up. Fabulous stuff, due for a US DVD release in October 2004 and with two sequels already in the works. A bad taste masterpiece.

So how’s this for a turn-up – the end of the second day and not a bad film so far. OK, so The Tesseract pissed off a lot of people, but I loved it and it highlights the sheer variety of the films on offer during the day, from the intellectual twists and turns of The I Inside to the lowbrow knockabout of Monster Man and all points in between. Roll on tomorrow!

Day Three
The third day of Frightfest 2004 kicked off with a screening of the latest offering from Dario Argento, Il cartaio/The Card Player. It’s a film that has divided Argento’s fans like few of his other films, many being alienated by the lack of on-screen violence, muted photography and hysterical, over-the-top finale. I loved it, finding it a major step forward from the wonderful Nonhosonno (2001) and proving that il maestro hasn’t lost his touch just yet – in fact on this second viewing, it seemed even better.

Originally conceived as a sequel to La sindrome di Stendhal/The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) but changed when Argento fell out with daughter Asia, Il cartaio follows the efforts of Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) and Irishman in Rome Inspector John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) to track down a serial killer who slaughters his victims after challenging the police to a game of video poker – if they win, his potential victim is freed; if they lose, he kills them.

Certainly it has its faults – the dialogue (much of it improvised by the cast, and boy does it show) is ridiculous and the Perils of Pauline style finale (complete with a ludicrous coda that had the audience in uproar) is Argento’s most insane ever. But where it’s good, it’s very good indeed – the performances from Rocca and Cunningham are excellent, there’s unbearable tension during the poker scenes (the police are forced to watch the victim via webcam while trying to concentrate on the game) and Claudio Simonetti’s electronic score is excellent. Add to all this plenty of those floating Steadicam shots that we’ve come to expect from Argento, the obligatory black gloved killer and a squirm inducing examination, in hideous close-up, of every facial orifice of one victim on a mortuary slab and you’ve got a film that’s a long way from Argento’s glory days of the 70s, but which still has much to enjoy. It’s certainly not his worst film, as Alan Jones claimed from the stage afterwards (he’s even told Argento that!), being a lot more enjoyable than the drab Trauma (1993) and the unspeakable Il fantasma del opera (1998).

Continuing Frightfest’s long tradition of showcasing the best in Asian horror, the next film was the bizarre Thai horror comedy Buppah Rahtree (2003) directed by Yuthlert Sippapak, director of Meu Beun Lok Pra Jun/Killer Tattoo (2001). It begins as what seems to be a serious drama – shy student Buppah Rahtree is approached by the rich and spoilt Ake who seduces her and gets her pregnant. It turns out that Ake and his boorish friends had placed a bet that couldn’t sleep with her and he abandons her to have an abortion alone, a procedure which ends up killing her when it goes wrong. The film then takes the bizarre turn for the comic when Buppah returns from the dead to torment the oddball inhabitants of the apartment block she’s haunting while awaiting Ake’s return.

Completely mad and often hysterically funny (the whole Exorcist sequence is wonderful), it’s a cut above some of the Thai horrors we’ve seen lately, beautifully shot, well acted and full of glorious sight gags and in-joke references to other hits. The characters are what make the film work, though ironically the title character is perhaps the least convincing of them all – but there’s plenty of serious oddballs propping up the supporting cast to make the film constantly watchable – Dave, the Downs Syndrome shop assistant; a pair of hideously obese cross-dressing hairdressers; a fake priest who dances wildly and makes noises like a chicken while running a scam with the apartment’s landlady; the real priest and his assistant Damien who try to exorcise Buppah with constant references to William Friedkin’s blockbuster; and the rude shop owner who dismisses a pretentious, ghost story hating wannabe scriptwriter and his sycophantic girlfriend with a succinct “Fuck off!”

“You won’t have seen anything quite like Buppah Rahtree before” promised the festival brochure and they weren’t far wrong. It’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes but anyone with am interest in the more bizarre strands of Asian horror out there could do a lot worse than to track down this wholly unique and utterly deranged offering, deservedly a massive hit in its native Thailand.

The inclusion of short films in the Frightfest programme had always been an important element of past weekends and this year, a decision was made to lump all of the shorts together as an international showcase, another innovation this year that proved popular. Seven films from seven directors (some of who were on hand to introduce their work) from seven countries, they were generally an excellent selection, though one of them did provide the first disappointment of the weekend.

Alexander Woo’s Rex Steele Nazi Smasher (2004) is an animated spoof, riffing on the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons and loaded with references to every pulp serial from the 30s. It’s lightweight stuff but great fun. The Italian Xchange (2004), directed by Giovanni Pedde (who attended the festival) and Vittorio Testa was intended as a trailer for a longer work, one which now seems to have found a backer. A strange, haunting story about dreams being passed from one person to another like a virus, it’s strange, stylish and compelling if ultimately rather slight. It bodes well for the feature version though which could be one to watch for.

Mexican Ezzio Avendano Lopez was on hand to introduce Otro ladrillo en la pared/Another Brick in the Wall, his hilarious, crowd-pleasing homage to George Romero zombie movies that culminates in the most amazing sequence of the massed undead (raised by the chant “suspiriorum, tenebrarum, infernium!”) dancing the Macarena! It’s a wild and inventive short that had an appreciative audience screaming for more by the end credits – definitely the best of the bunch and a tragedy that were probably never going to see it ever again, such is the fate of most short films.

Tez Palmer, special effects technician on 28 Days Later… (2003), and former sound engineer Matt Johns were on hand to introduce their Brit short Who, a clever, twisty tale of a man who wakes in a desolate moor with no memory of who he is or how he got there and the terrible truth he uncovers as he backtracks his steps. Intended as a calling card for their production company, Pseudo Productions, it’s a good sign of what we might have to come from the company who have been set up to produce new horrors.

Jaime Alonso de Linaje turned up to introduce the Spanish Êla guarida del ermitaño/In the Hermit’s Lair (2003), a film he made at film school in which a man’s jealousy manifests itself as a murderous monster. Defiantly old school in look and feel, it’s another fine calling card for a director who may well prove himself capable of bigger things in the future.

It’s black and white, it’s stylish, it’s about unfaithful lovers… it’s got to be French. L’autre/The Other (2004) is a slight but very, very moody piece about a woman suspicious about her boyfriend’s behaviour who follows him and finds that her worst suspicions were correct – he’s got a lover, but it’s not at all what she was expecting. This one didn’t play quite as well as some of the others with the rest of the crowd but I thought it was excellent – atmospheric, creepy and oozing style.

The showcase ended with the Brazilian Amor Só de Mãe/Love from Mother Only from director Dennison Ramalho who gave me my first sense of disappointment so far this weekend. I’ve yet to see a Brazilian horror film that I’ve liked and this was no different – it’ll come as no surprise to learn that Ramalho is working on the new Coffin Joe film as this muddled, pretentious mess looks and feels exactly like one of Jose Mojica Marin’s much over-rated monstrosities. Filho (Everaldo Pontes) lives with his mother (Vera Barreto Leite) but lusts after Formosa (Debora Muniz), a local sexbomb who turns out to be a Satanic monster who wants him to murder his mother and cut out her heart to prove his love for her. Dull, confusing and oh so desperate to shock, Amor Só de Mãe was frankly unwatchable rubbish that brought an otherwise fabulous weekend back to earth with a bump.

Another regular fixture of previous Frightfests had been the Trailer Trash feature, a compilation of ageing trailers, adverts and other ephemera dredged up from the vaults of the Prince Charles cinema. This year, sadly, there wasn’t going to be one, despite it being advertised – instead Ian Rattray presented us with a ten minute extract from Alien vs. Predator (2004), still unreleased here in the UK. I can’t say it made me any less cynical about the film, but it was much appreciated by the audience.

Things got a lot better with the next feature, Michael Winterbottom’s excellent near-future love story Code 46 (2003). In a future where genetic engineering has become commonplace, Code 46 is the international law regulating the natural birth of children to ensure that the parents aren’t too closely genetically related. Travel is restricted by the terms of an individual’s papele, a combination passport/ID card, some of which are being forged in a printing plant in Shanghai. Married family man William (Tim Robbins) is sent to investigate but finds himself falling in love with his chief suspect Maria (Samantha Morton) with disastrous results.

Wearing his influences proudly on his sleeve (Code 46 bears all the hallmarks of both Philip K. Dick and William Gibson), Winterbottom has created one of the best science fiction movies in years – beautifully shot, brilliantly acted (Robbins and Morton are outstanding) and shot through with so many inventive ideas, it’s going to be looked back on in years to come as being right up there with other classic near future thrillers like Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997), mark my words.

Winterbottom cleverly conveys the future setting in the most economic ways imaginable – the technology is disarmingly simple but effective, the exotic locals of Shanghai and Jebel Ali give the film its otherworldly ambience and the copious use of loan words from a dozen different languages suggest that language has evolved. All great background texture, the likes of which is all too often overlooked in lesser genre movies, all adding immeasurably to the believable background against which Winterbottom sets out his genuinely moving love story. It’s probably best to know as little as possible about Code 46 before you see it so as to get the full effect of this remarkable film. It again divided the Frightfest crowd but trust me, this is going to be seen as a classic one day – get in now before everyone else discovers it!

Delicatessen meets Deliverance” was how Alan Jones described Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire/The Ordeal (2004), the bonkers tale of a young cabaret singer, Marc (Laurent Lucas) who finds himself stranded at a remote inn as Christmas approaches and at the mercy of both the mad innkeeper (who thinks Marc is his wife Gloria who left him years ago), the mad village idiot (who things he’s his missing dog Bella) and the inbred morons from the nearby village (who just want to gang rape him).

Shot through with a vicious streak of black humour, Calvaire flip flops backwards and forwards between full-on humour and confrontational shock scenes, all cannily directed by du Welz and brilliantly shot by Irreversible (2002) photographer Benoit Debie, who also shot Argento’s Il cartaio. The village dance scene is utterly hilarious, one of the funniest things we’ve seen all weekend and all the talk outside afterwards was of this truly inspired moment of madness. There were some Frightfesters who compared Calvaire to the appalling Dust (2001), the film that prompted the mass walkouts at the 2001 event (come on guys, nothing’s that bad!) which seems a little harsh…

Day three came to a close with the third and latest in the Ginger Snaps series, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, an interesting and very enjoyable take on the franchise that takes the story back in time to a remote fortress outpost in 19th century Canada besieged by werewolves. As their numbers dwindle and racial tensions run high, the troops inside find themselves sheltering sisters Ginger and Brigitte (Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins) who have been orphaned and stranded in the snowy wilderness.

Although it’s little more than a minor variation on the first film, Ginger Snaps Back still has much to offer – the unusual setting is well realised, the acting is excellent and the werewolf attacks are well staged. If there are faults, they are that the film isn’t really as creepy as it could have been and that the script insists on giving the two lead actresses dialogue and attitudes that doesn’t seem terribly 19th century. It dispenses too with much of the black humour that informed the first film, but the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere adds a darker edge to the proceedings that works very well.

The film was introduced by director Grant Harvey, producer Paula Devonshire and original film director John Fawcett who spilt a few beans about his new film, currently shooting in Wales. He didn’t give too much away but did seem very proud of his sheep actors and plugged the mysterious promotional website, the intriguingly named whatisannwyn.com. He also revealed that next year the UK would get an exclusive, limited edition Ginger Snaps DVD box set containing all three of the films along with plenty of extras.

So there it was, another excellent day in what was shaping up to be the best Frightfest so far. The day again emphasised the variety of films on offer and although not everything on show was to everyone’s tastes, there was guaranteed to be something for just about everyone. Will the fourth and final day live up to this? We’ll see…

Day Four
And so to the fourth and final day of Frightfest and, as ever, a certain amount of fatigue is setting in. But there are still some interesting titles to come and spirits are still high, despite the lack of sleep! First up today is Jian gui 2/The Eye 2, the Pang Brothers follow-up to their amazing 2002 ghost story, shown to great acclaim at a previous Frightfest. Advance word on the film wasn’t great – in fact many of the reviews were damning and there was a very real fear that this sequel simply wouldn’t live up to the original.

And it didn’t, though it’s certainly not as a bad as some of those reviews would have us believe. Pregnant and suicidal Joey (Shu Qi, from Feng yun xiong ba tian xia/Stormriders (1998), Office yauh gwai/Haunted Office (2002) and The Transporter (2002)) fails to take her own life in a drug overdose and in the aftermath finds that she can see the spirits of the dead awaiting reincarnation. As she becomes increasingly unstable, she starts to fear for the safety of her unborn child who may be under threat from the wife of her former lover.

Having nothing whatsoever to do with the original film, The Eye 2 has lots of good moments (the first appearance of the floating ghost during a delivery in an elevator, the unexpected arrival of the ghosts of a father and son who died after falling from a building, Joey’s own attempts to leap from a hospital building in a last suicide attempt) but sadly not enough of them. It’s not a patch on the original, lacking the pace and the inexorable build-up to a major pay-off finale and, worst of all, it’s just not scary. It looks no different to any other of the higher end Asian horrors we’ve seen recently and we’ve come to expect a lot more than that from the Pang Brothers. Ordinary is the word for The Eye 2 and frankly that’s just not good enough after all of the amazing Asian horrors we’ve been exposed to of the last few years. It was a disappointing start to the fourth day and the first film of the weekend that I felt cheated by.

The next film was so much better however. One Point 0 was one of those films that turns up at Frightfest with no fanfare, little advance word and consequently absolutely no expectations. And in this case, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend, a brilliant science fiction thriller full of unexpected twists and turns and dripping with paranoid tension.

Lonely computer engineer Simon J spends all his time in his grim apartment working on some mysterious code that he doesn’t really understand. He starts to receive mysterious parcels, placed in his apartment and apparently empty. Trying to find out what’s going on, he reluctantly makes contact with his strange neighbours and starts to suspect that someone’s out to get him – but who, and why? The revelation is as exciting as it is unexpected, making One Point 0 another welcome addition to a recent glut of intelligent science fiction films that eschew CGI action in favour of well developed and intriguing ideas.

Claustrophobically directed by first-timers Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson, it bears traces of David Cronenberg and, like Code 46, the work of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson in it’s dark and deeply paranoid exploration of the misuse of emerging technologies and the tricky nature of perceived reality. Excellent performances are the icing on the cake and its always a pleasure to see Udo Kier and Lance Henriksen doing their thing, even if it is supporting roles as small as these. It’s a slow moving film, but there’s nothing wrong with that – Renfroe and Thorsson, who also co-wrote the script, take their time developing the plot and the slow-burn leads to an effectively chilling and downbeat pay-off that more than rewards your patience. A wonderful film that marks Renfroe and Thorsson as huge talents for the future, One Point 0 disappointed some Frightfesters but enthralled just as many. Definitely one of the highlights of the weekend so far – but make sure that you read as little about the plot as possible before seeing it!

Previous Frightfests had acted as the launch platform for the first two instalments in a serial killer trilogy from Britain’s Tartan Films, Chuck Parello’s Ed Gein (2000) and Matthew Bright’s Ted Bundy (2002), both of which I’d disliked immensely. So I wasn’t really looking forward to the final part of the trilogy, The Hillside Strangler (2004), screening here in its uncut form and introduced by producer and Tartan main man Hamish McAlpine.

Again directed by Parello, this account of the activities of Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, a pair of rapist killers who stalked Hollywood in the late 70s, was sold to as being deeply shocking but anyone who grew up watching 70s exploitation will find nothing new here. As with the previous films in the series, it’s a dull, blandly directed effort which, apart from the violence, could well have been made for TV. Performances are passable but, like the previous films, you never get the feeling that you’ve learnt anything new about these killers or why they were doing what they did – which begs the question, why bother making the film at all? None of the Tartan serial killer films seem to take a point of view on their subject and, while trying to remain objective and non-judgmental might seem a good idea in theory, in practice it results in a film that’s uninvolving and pointless. Done right – as in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), still the yardstick by which this sort of thing is measured – it can be fantastic, but here, it’s just irritating.

The Hillside Strangler is certain to offend some with its unflinching portrayal of Bianchi and Buono’s depravations, but the more hardened will simply find it dull. It distorts the facts, fails in McAlpine’s stated aims to portray the killers in an unsympathetic light (like the previous films, which McAlpine admits got him into some trouble, it seems to invite identification with one of its killers, Bianchi) and ends so abruptly that one can’t help wonder if the producers simply gave up on it. I can’t say I was disappointed as I wasn’t expecting much, but this was certainly one of the lowlights of the weekend.

Next up came Casshern, one of the films I was most looking forward to all weekend. Much has been written in recent years on Japanese horror, but the equally impressive and prolific science fiction genre hasn’t fared quite so well in the West. Sure, we get the Godzilla movies, loads of anime and the bastardized Hollywood remixes of costumed superhero shows, but we rarely get to see the more ambitious live-action SF movies that proliferate every year.

So Casshern was hotly anticipated – and it didn’t disappoint. Despite the epic 141 minute running time. this was a hyper-paced crowd pleaser, brimming over with more ideas, visual poetry and massive scale action than a whole years worth of western SF movies. The plot is busy and full of incident: in the aftermath of a devastating war, the Earth is dying. Scientist Dr Azuma develops a technique to allow human bodies to regenerate using “neo-cells,” though deeply suspicious political leaders are reluctant to support his plan. Instead, he gets funding from a shadowy military faction. But an accident at his lab creates a group of mutant humans, reborn from the severed limbs of fallen warriors, who dub themselves neo-sapiens and determine to destroy the human race. The only thing that stands between them and the fall of Mankind is Azuma’s son, Tetsuya. Killed in the war, Tetsuya is revived as the super-warrior Casshern and takes on the neo-sapiens and their robot army…

Mere words can’t convey the mind-boggling complexities of Casshern – in his introduction, Alan Jones suggested that we don’t worry too much about the plot (it’s been condensed down from the 48 episode TV show Shinzô ningen Kyashân (1973)) and simply revel in the film’s look, promising us a visual experience unlike anything else we’d ever seen. And he wasn’t wrong! From its opening scenes with their towering, jaw-dropping set design, through the kinetic, bewildering battle scenes (one particularly brutal and breathless Casshern/robot army smackdown drew an appreciative round of applause from an enthralled audience) to the pastoral epilogue, this film simply oozes style and visual invention from every frame. It makes something of a mockery of my claim from a couple of days ago that CGI was becoming passé – when it’s as good as this, it still has the power to impress and amaze.

With such visual overload, acting almost doesn’t get a look in, though everyone acquits themselves well enough, The music perfectly complements the visuals, full of bombastic fanfares, grinding guitars and pounding rhythms. But this is a designer’s film and the grandeur of the sets and old-school anime mecha designs are a joy to behold – the outrageous flying machines often recall the Heath Robinsonesque work of anime god Hayao Miyazaki. Former music promo director Kazuaki Kiriya (making his feature debut here) marshals his design, editing and effects teams perfectly, even throwing in a few traditional anime snippets as a nod to the story’s roots while gleefully laying waste to entire cities in the kinds of nuclear obliteration rarely seen outside anime.

Bold, brash and quite brilliant, if there’s any justice Casshern should do for Japanese SF what Ring (1998) did for J-horror, with only its extraordinary length and – to Western eyes – unconventional story-telling alienating the multiplex crowds. Casshern is slowly infiltrating Western markets in this newly minted subtitled version, making its debut at Frighfest – make sure you catch it as soon as possible.

Finally, the main event came to a close with another hotly tipped entry, The Machinist. Director Brad Anderson’s last film had been the excellent, creepy ghost story Session 9 (2001) and much had been made of the extraordinary lengths that star Christian Bale had gone to to lose weight for his role, so my interest had been piqued as soon as the film had been announced as Frightfest 2004’s closing film. The first shock in this brilliant tale of amnesia, paranoia and guilt is indeed Bale’s astonishing appearance – his skeletal frame and haunted, sunken eyes rob him completely of the good looks that had prompted many to tip him as the next James Bond, and it’s a queasy, upsetting sight.

Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a Los Angeles blue collar worker who hasn’t slept for a year. Distracted by a sinister newcomer, Ivan at the grimy plant he works in, Reznik causes an accident which leads to one of his colleagues, Miller, having his arm amputated. Haunted by strange notes that appear in his apartment, obsessed with the mysterious Ivan who seems to be following him and torn between a hooker he frequents and the waitress he visits every night at an airport coffee bar, Reznik finds his life falling apart as repressed memories start to resurface with terrifying consequences.

The big twist bears more than a passing resemblance to that in another film that became a cult favourite a few years ago (to name it would be to ruin the surprise here, but once you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean – if you really want to know what it is, click here) but there are still enough fiendish twists, directorial flourishes and outstanding performances to make Anderson’s film distinctive. Bale steals the show in a tour-de-force performance that must rate as one of the best of his career so far. He runs the whole gamut of emotions from fear to anguish to guilt in a performance worthy of the highest praise and any awards that might be passing – I’ve been a fan of Bales’ since his amazing turn in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) at the age of just thirteen but this beats everything he’s done to date.

Anderson fills out the supporting cast with some familiar faces – John Sharian (seen as Antonio in Romasanta), Jennifer Jason Leigh as hooker-with-a-heart Stevie, Michael Ironside as the hapless Miller and, in an extended cameo, Brithorror fave Anna Massey as Reznik’s landlady. But the real star of the show is scriptwriter Scott Kosar whose complex plot is a lot more satisfying than the script he wrote for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, one which keeps you guessing at all turns, keeping his cards close to his chest until the big reveal. His vision is brought to life perfectly by Anderson who proves that Session 9 was no fluke – his dark and moody mise en scene is the perfect representation of the darkness in Reznik’s mind, and his clever use of Barcelona settings never once fails to convince you that you’re actually almost 6000 miles away in Los Angeles, a quite remarkable achievement.

Anderson was on hand afterwards for a lively and informative Q&A and then… that was it, it was all over for another year. My personal favourite Frightfest will probably always be the 2002 event – although we had to endure the likes of Nine Lives (it pains me even to think about how awful that one was), Halloween Resurrection, Swimfan and Ted Bundy, we also had such gems as Donnie Darko, Frailty, Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water, My Little Eye, Spider, Katakuri-ke no kôfuku/Happiness of the Katakuris and Jian gui/The Eye. But in terms of sheer consistency, 2004 could prove hard to beat. I usually close these overviews with a listing of the good, the bad and the indifferent, but this year that seems pointless – only The Hillside Strangler and Amor Só de Mãe were truly bad and The Eye 2 disappoints only by comparison to its predecessor and the other Asian horrors we’ve seen lately. Otherwise, this was an outstanding line up and it’s hard to know how they’ll top this next year.

So instead, a few random observations: in almost every respect, Frightfest 2004 was a quantum leap forwards from previous shows. The newly revamped programme/brochure was their best yet; the goodie bag given away to the weekend pass holders surprised everyone, stuffed as it was full of t-shirts, the Bizarre magazine Frightfest tie-in, lots of bits and pieces, a horror trailer DVD and, astonishingly, the newly released Wes Craven Collection DVD box set, courtesy of Anchor Bay UK (thanks guys!); the line-up of guests was amazing, particularly the outstanding Hellboy panel which for many people will be the highlight of the weekend. There was just so much that was right about this year’s show that one’s in danger of simply gushing. But it really was an excellent weekend and all praise to organisers Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian rattray for getting it all together.

And that was it – Frightfest 2004 was all over.

Except for…

Frighfest Extra
Like a good DVD release, this year’s Frightfest came with its own extra, one last film on the Tuesday night that they hadn’t managed to get into the main line-up but which they really wanted us to see anyway. And as it was the latest in the current wave of Brithorrors, Christopher Smith’s Creep, I certainly couldn’t turn it down.

Despite the rigours of a long and tiring weekend, there was a good turn out for what proved to be a fantastic, energetic debut from Smith that recalls Death Line (1972) but which took its own path into darker, even nastier territories. Franka Potente stars as a young woman, Kate, who finds herself stranded on Charing Cross tube station one night after a chance to meet and try to pull George Clooney goes horribly wrong. Attempted sexual assault from a drugged-up work colleague is just the beginning of Kate’s problems as she and a handful of London’s marginal night people (a pair of homeless junkies crashing in a disused access tunnel, an uptight security guard, a captured sewer worker) fall foul of the Creep, the shrieking mutant product of unstated medical experiments, trapped for years in a secret, long-walled-up bunker – and now he’s loose and on the rampage.

Though it takes a bit of a leap in these security conscious times to accept that someone could find themselves locked in over night in a London tube station (as many Londoners will tell you, getting into the stations is often much harder than getting out!), Creep is still a great debut for Smith. He wisely doesn’t get too bogged down trying to explain the lab and what went on there, dropping just enough clues to let us piece it all together for ourselves. He makes great use of the Underground setting, perfectly capturing the grimy claustrophobia of tube travel in London while adding a powerfully spooky edge with the truly appalling look and actions of the Creep. There’s a magnificently squirmy torture scenes, a nasty piece of business with a broken fingernail, far too many rats for a rodent phobic like me to be truly comfortable with and a fast and furious pace that never lets up. The hilarious final shot manages to capture the downside of London life brilliantly.

Smith and Potente were on hand to answer questions from an appreciative audience who seemed to love the film, and it was one of the best Q&As I’ve ever seen. Smith is hilarious, self-deprecating and honest about both himself and his film, quickly admitting to the obvious influences (the tube station scene from An American Werewolf in London (1981) and the aforementioned Death Line – Alan Jones jokingly warned us against saying “Mind the doors!”) before explaining more about how the film was made, dropping a few hints about his next project, a psychological horror set on a boat, and bantering endlessly with Potente. She entered into the spirit of the thing with stories about dying rats and misbehaving dogs and they both seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. All-in-all Creep was the perfect epilogue to Frightfest 2004 – instead of opening with a crap British film, the ended with a great one, proof positive that Brithorror is still alive and well!