FrightFest Presents 2005 – review

As if putting together the full four-day extravaganza over the August Bank Holiday weekend wasn’t enough, FrightFest organisers Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray cooked up another helping in the one-day shape of FrightFest Presents on Saturday 28 May 2005. Built around a preview screening of The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005), this was a six film show that perfectly demonstrated the diversity of the average Frightfest bill.

The day kicked off with a retrospective screening of the best of the Amicus anthology films, the wonderful From Beyond the Grave (1973). Sadly, it seems that no 35mm prints exist and the only 16mm print they could get their hands on was splicey and incomplete. So the film was projected from a DVD copy of the laserdisc release – the picture was smeary and prone to freezing and skipping, but it didn’t take anything away from this fabulous example of 70s British horror.

A first rate cast (Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, David Warner, Ian Ogilvy, Lesley Ann Down, Ian Banne, Ian Carmichael, Diana Dors…) give it their all in a quartet of tales from the pen of R. Chetwynd-Hayes.It was heartening to see it so well received – the Prince Charles Cinema was frequently in uproar at the hilarious dialogue (some of it intentional, some of it not) and the general perception seems to have been that it was the perfect way to kick off the day. From Beyond the Grave was introduced from the stage by the great Mark Gatiss who regaled us with tales of working with David Warner on Apocalypse and of how he accosted Marcel Steiner (the face in the mirror who menaces Warner in the first story of From Beyond the Grave) in Edinburgh.

The first new film of the day was the latest in the current crop of Korean horror movies to reach the West, Su-chang Kong’s R-Point. Alan Jones introduced the film by suggesting that it was “Apocalypse Now meets The Thing” which may have set up too many expectations that weren’t going to be met in this slowly paced and atmospheric creepy. Anyone expecting the platoon of hapless Korean soldiers looking for their lost comrades in a remote part of Vietnam (the film revolves around the little-known fact that Korea had the second highest number of troops on the ground in Vietnam after the USA) to come face to tentacle with some shape-shifting monstrosity was bound to be disappointed.

Instead, it’s a moody ghost story which boasts an excellent and unsettling score (by Pal-lan Dal, composer of the score for Sungnyangpali sonyeoui jaerim/Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002)). The unusual locations help, a craggy wilderness built over a lake resulting in constant mists which hide all manner of nasty things. Su-chang Kong, writer of the thriller Telmisseomding/Tell Me Something (1999), does a creditable first job as director, creating some spooky business out of a graveyard that seems to appear out of nowhere, a radio that bleeds and a mysterious temple. R-Point was an odd choice for FrightFest – it’s a very Korean film and anyone without a passing knowledge of the country’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict or of the earlier French Indochina war might have found some of it puzzling. Not the best Korean horror we’ve seen recently but still a worthy addition to a growing catalogue of Korean chillers that still knock the socks off anything currently being made in the West.

Sheldon Wilson’s Shallow Ground (2004) was the big unknown of the day – it’s been doing the festival circuits for some time and there were some good vibes emanating from those scattered screenings. But for some reason, I’d convinced myself that I was going to get something very different to what the film actually delivered and I still don’t know if I like what I got. It begins brilliantly – an entire small American town is being shut down after the completion of a dam building project when a naked teenage boy, covered head to toe in blood, stumbles into the police office, apparently catatonic. For burnt-out sheriff Jack Sheppard it reawakens the case of a young girl he’d failed to safe from a brutal killer in the woods a year earlier…

For some reason I was expecting to see a serial killer movie – what we got instead was a sort of low-rent X Files with Mulder and Scully replaced by less appealing investigators. The rest of the film never really matches up to the first ten minutes and the central section in particular drags, with uninteresting characters doing not much of anything interesting. The supernatural explanation for the weirdness and bloodshed is rather well done and the finale picks up steam again for a gore drenched confrontation between the mysterious blood-soaked boy and the real villain of the piece. The very last twist seemed rather gratuitous though and we could have done with seeing more of the events happening elsewhere in the country that are only hinted at in brief dialogue exchanges. Not entirely terrible, but frustratingly not quite living up to the tremendous potential of its central premise.

Next up came a pair of trailers for The Descent (2005), the new film from Dog Soldiers (2002) director Neil Marshall who then took to the stage with cinematographer Sam McMurdy and one of the stars (whose name I didn’t catch I’m afraid). Marshall promised that the film – about six female potholers meeting something nasty in a network of caves – will be a no-holds-barred gorefest.

The next film was what Alan Jones aptly described as the worst kept secret of the day, the big “surprise film.” So many hints had been dropped over the past couple of weeks that surely no-one could have been too surprised to find that it was Robert Rodriguez’ incredible adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City comics. Far and away the best new film of the day, Sin City was everything I hoped it would be and more – the much vaunted green-screen filming results in some of the most astonishing images you’ll ever see, some of them torn straight from the pages of the comic itself. The once-in-a-lifetime cast are uniformly excellent, though Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, a silent Elijah Wood (playing Harry Potter as a cannibalistic psycho killer) and particularly Mickey Rourke are the standouts.

We’ve been luck lately to have a string of comic book adaptations that have been a credit to their much loved sources – the Spiderman and X-Men films are excellent and, although I can’t see the appeal, the Blade trilogy has legions of admirers – but Sin City tops them all. If the future of film really does involve copious use of CGI and green screen technologies, thank God we’ve got the likes of Rodriguez, Miller (who co-directed) and Quentin Tarantino (who rates a special guest director credit for helming the scene in which Clive Owen’s Dwight drives the body of bent cop “Jackie Boy” Rafferty to the tar pits) are around to show us what can be done with it – the perfect rejoinder to the soulless tech fetishism of George Lucas’ Star Wars pantomimes. Even if you’re not a fan of comic books, Sin City is well worth your time and money – all too often we hear that this film or that film is “like nothing you’ve ever seen before.” Trust me, in this case it’s absolutely true.

After a short break (and my only complaint about the day overall was that the breaks between films were rather short, usually no more than half an hour leading to rushed meals and drinks being gulped down with one eye on the clock) we were back in our seats for the star attraction, the first big screen outing for the League of Gentlemen’s carnival of grotesques, briefly introduced by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse is a bit of a mixed bag – when it’s good, it’s outstanding, easily the measure of the first two series of the TV show (we’ll discretely ignore the disappointing third season for now…), but there are moments which drag and even one or two gags that just don’t work. One can’t fault the audacity of the script however – the monstrous residents of Royston Vasey learn that they’re all fictional characters and that their world is about to be destroyed now that the League are moving on to pastures new. Psychopathic butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss) forces “worst pun in history” Herr Lipp (Pemberton) and boorish businessman Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) to join him in the real world to persuade the writers to change their minds after an earlier attempt by Edward and Tubbs Tattysyrup and Papa Lazarou has failed. Along the way, the Royston Vasey characters abduct Pemberton (Herr Lipp takes his place and has to learn how to deal with kids…), end up in the League’s new film, the historical horror epic The King’s Evil, and do battle with Ray Harryhausen inspired stop-motion monsters.

There’s no doubting that it’s a very funny film (Dr Chinnery’s unfortunate encounter with a giraffe is one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year) but it does rather run out of steam halfway through. The historical scenes, despite the presence of such luminaries as David Warner (giving the best performance in the film as the evil Dr Pea), Victoria Wood, Bernard Hill, Peter Kay and Simon Pegg aren’t nearly as funny as they should be. But the scenes in the “real” world are marvellous as the League paint themselves as arrogant arseholes so obsessed with a charity appearance that they can’t even see that Lipp has replaced their colleague of over ten years standing. And ever time Papa Lazarou appears, the film kicks into a higher gear – the furballs scene is simultaneously side-splitting and almost unbearably gross.

After the film, Pemberton and Shearsmith returned to the stage with Jeremy Dyson (who, strangely, doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the film beyond a vague “consultant” credit) for a Q&A session. Gatiss had gone home earlier in the day having apparently cut himself shaving that morning and causing a mole to bleed copiously – though I still think he slunk off to watch Doctor Who! The team seemed relaxed and as funny in person as they are on screen though it didn’t go unnoticed that at least one of them – no names, no pack drill – was rather patronising in his answers to some of the questions. Maybe he thought he was being funny, but it didn’t really come across that way.

The final film of the day was the one I’d been dreading. I hadn’t been a fan of Rob Zombie’s tedious House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) but I’d heard that his sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, was an improvement. And when Alan Jones announced it as being one of the two best films he’d seen this year (the other being Sin City, and he’d disliked House of 1,000 Corpses too) I hoped that maybe Zombie had learnt from his mistakes and could this time make a proper horror film, not a film that looked like a heavy metal fan’s idea of what a horror film should be.

!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!

Well, it is better, but as I thought House of 1,000 Corpses stank in almost every respect that’s not much of a recommendation. The paper thin plot (the surviving members of the Firefly clan torture some people in a motel then get shot) is buried beneath a confusion of messy, fast-cut editing and headache-inducing shay camerawork and the violence isn’t anywhere near as shocking as Zombie clearly thinks it is – The Devil’s Rejects so obviously wants to be The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) (it features a small role for Michael Berryman) or Last House on the Left (1972) but doesn’t even come close to any of them. Like House of 1,000 Corpses, the dialogue seems mostly to consist of characters screaming “motherfucker” and “fuck you” at each ad nauseum and the plot is such a mess that psycho-clown Captain Spaulding disappears from it for ages and another Firefly clan member Tiny just pops up when Zombie needs him.

The cast is the best thing about The Devil’s Rejects – 80s porn starlet Ginger Lynn turns up in a tiny role as the hooker of Spaulding’s dreams; Dawn of the Dead‘s (1978) Ken Foree is on hand as a motel owner sympathetic to the murderous Fireflys; William Forsythe and Steve Railsback turn up as God-bothering sheriffs; and Halloween (1978) victim P.J. Soles is in a small role. But even the pleasure of seeing these old genre hands – alongside a wasted Berryman – wears thin after a while. As indeed does that threadbare plot – by the climax, Zombie has to resort to padding as he stages a slow-motion shoot out to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird – all nine minutes of it…

Not the best way to end the day then, but it was a small price to pay considering the other gems on offer – for all their faults Shallow Ground and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse were at least original and the failings they had were down more to over-ambition than anything else; R-Point broke no new ground but it reworked old soil with considerable style; Sin City could just about be the best thing ever; and From Beyond the Grave was always a classic and any chance to see it again was to be welcomed. Maybe The Devil’s Rejects would have looked better in lesser company. Though somehow I doubt it, though others seemed to have enjoyed it a lot more than did and I’ve no doubt it’ll be another hit for Zombie, who does show some talent as a director – if only he could learn how to write a halfway decent script…

All in all, a fine day’s entertainment and it bodes well for the August bash at its new home in the Odeon, Leicester Square. The only titles we know of so far are the new Dario Argento TV movie Ti piace Hitchcock?/Do You Like Hitchcock? (confirmed according to Nick Dawe’s excellent Argento site Dark Dreams) and the highly anticipated Russian vampire movie Nochnoy dozor/Nightwatch (2004), as announced by Alan Jones.

Roll on 26 August!