The Zone Horror Frightfest 2006 review

Day One
It’s that time of year again as hordes of horror fans descend on London’s Leicester Square for the annual Frightfest, four days of horror, science fiction and all round weirdness on the big screen. Like last year, the event is being held at the Odeon West End and again like last year, the 2006 Frighfest kicked off with a trilogy of archive screenings. Last year it was Romero’s Dead trilogy to tie in with the screening of Land of the Dead (2005). This year, it was a trilogy of Hammer films.

At first there seemed no particular reason for the screenings, billed as a Homage to Hammer, but in fact all three films have been doing the rounds in newly struck prints. It was this more than anything else that eventually persuaded me to go along – I had originally planned to start this year’s Frightfest with its official opening night film but the chance to see three vintage Hammers on the big screen proved too strong a lure.

The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss was on hand to introduce the Hammer retrospective and as ever he was witty and full of interesting observations, his very clear love of British horror shining through bright and clear. The day and indeed the weekend kicked off with The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hammer’s 1959 adaptation of the classic tale that still manages to rattle the cages of Conan Doyle purists everywhere. And it still holds up remarkably well after all these years, despite the odd questionable performance. Bernard Robinson’s sets are astonishing given how little money he had to work with, and Terence Fisher’s direction is every bit as assured and inventive as we’ve come to expect from the Grand Master of British horror. It may take liberties with Conan Doyle (who surely would have approved of the tarantula, if not the human sacrifices), but it still has so much to offer, not least the excellent performances from Christopher Lee (who, as Gatiss noted, gets a rare chance to kiss the girl!), Peter Cushing (brilliant as Holmes who he would revisit almost a decade later in TV’s Sherlock Holmes to equally impressive effect), Andre Morell as Watson and a lovely turn from Miles Malleson as an eccentric bishop.

Next up came one of Hammer’s least effective films, the frankly rather tedious Countess Dracula (1970). I have a pretty long and strange relationship with this one – I still have very distinct memories of being eight years old, way back in 1970, and going to the cinema with my film-loving mum and seeing a trailer for Countess Dracula. God knows what film she’d taken me to see, nor why the cinema had chosen to show this trailer with what I assume must have been a kid-friendly film. But I can still distinctly remember being awe struck by this rare glimpse of an adult world that I was only dimly aware of – the X certificate seemed exotic and tantalising even then and the image of the hideously aged countess led my impressionable little brain to believe that this was going to be the best film ever made.

Sadly, when finally got to see the actual film itself years later on late night television it was a major disappointment – slow, dull and lacking the oomph of director Peter Sasdy’s other films of the time, notably Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1971). Every Hammer film had its share of naff performances, but Countess Dracula is nothing but bad turns. It really needed someone of with the presence and authority of Peter Cushing to give it some gravitas, though even he would have been defeated by Jeremy Paul’s poorly written script.

Much better was Twins of Evil (1971), John Hough’s rollicking vampires-vs-witchfinders romp, the final part of their Karnstein trilogy which began with The Vampire Lovers (1970), faltered with Lust for a Vampire (1971) and finished with a bang here. A gaunt and haunted looking Peter Cushing makes the most of a villainous role, with little to chose between his hate-filled puritan Gustav Weil and dapper vampire Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) in the audience hate-figure stakes, and a young David Warbeck hangs around in the wings waiting to step in and play the noble hero.

But the show is stolen by Maltese Playboy playmates the Collinson twins, Mary and Madeleine, who, although sometimes noticeably dubbed, give wonderful performances as the good-girl-bad-girl leads. There are some moments of embarrassing juvenilia (most awkwardly Kata Wyeth’s suggestive stroking of a candle) and Warbeck’s song is just horrible (though certainly no worse than the legendary Strange Love from Lust for a Vampire), but overall Twins of Evil is great fun, well directed by Hough and crammed full of 70s Brit-horror starlets – Wyeth (Hands of the Ripper, A Clockwork Orange (1971), Burke & Hare (1971)), Judy Matheson (Crucible of Terror (1971), The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), Scream – And Die! (1973)), Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire, Vampira (1974), The Devil’s Men (1976)) and Kirsten Lindholm (Crescendo (1970), The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire) among them.

All three of the Hammer films looked simply stunning in their newly struck prints, showcasing once again just how far the company could make their meagre budgets stretch. As Frightfest co-organiser Paul McEvoy noted at the start, this was the first time the films had been seen on London West End screens for decades and it was a joy to revisit films that I’d only seen on the small screen in all their glory.

After a welcome longer break, Frightfest proper began with the film that I was most looking forward to. I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro since Cronos (1993) and have loved just about everything he’s done since (the only exception being Blade II (2002)) so the chance to see the first ever public screening of his latest, El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) was certainly going to be a highlight of the weekend. When it had its last airing, at the Cannes Film Festival, Laberinto was rewarded with an astonishing 20 minute ovation from the crowd it was being hailed by many, including co-organiser Alan Jones, as del Toro’s masterpiece.

They’re not wrong. In his introduction (which he shared with one of his producers, Alfonso Cuarón, director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Children of Men (2006)), a clearly excited del Toro told how people had wondered if Frightfest was the right place for Laberinto and certainly it’s not a conventional horror film – in fact it’s very difficult to pin down exactly which genre it belongs in. There are certainly some highly effective horror moments but the film is just as much a war movie, a fairy story, an exploration of the causes and effects of Fascism and so much more besides. But a masterpiece it certainly is, a worthy companion piece to del Toro’s brilliant El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2002) with which it shares a background set against the Spanish Civil War and its immediate fallout.

It’s far too early in the morning to do justice at the moment to the thematic complexities of Laberinto, a film that virtually demands a repeat viewing as soon as the end credits start to role – it will need careful re-examination to unpick the many strands that run through the brilliantly written script. Laberinto looks at Fascism, the effects of war, divorce and remarriage on children, the potency of a child’s imagination and the enduring effect that folk tales have on all of us.

Del Toro gets superb performances from all involved, particularly from Sergi Lopez as the brutal but never stereotypical Fascist army captain Vidal and Doug Jones (Abe Sapien from del Toro’s Hellboy (2004)) as the faun Pan (though he’s never actually referred to by name throughout the film) and the wonderfully disturbing Pale Man. But the real find is Ivana Baquero as the young heroine Ofelia – she gives one of the best performances from a child actor that I’ve seen since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999).

During his brilliant Q&A after the film (del Toro is one of the nicest, funniest and most infectiously enthusiastic directors currently at work in our genres), del Toro asked that if we love El laberinto del fauno as much as he does that we spread the word as far as possible. So that’s what I’m doing here – if you see only one fantasy movie this year, this is the one to see. Deeply moving with out ever being sentimental, laced with some shocking violence and proudly sporting a densely layered and rewarding script which mixes H.P Lovecraft with Lewis Carroll, this is genre film-making at its absolute best. Do yourself a favour and be the first in the queue when it opens near you. And read as little as you can about it first – come to it unprepared and with your mind wide open and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best films of the millennium thus far.

So how on Earth were they going to follow that? Rather well as it happens as director Adam Green took to the stage to introduce his hilarious retro-slasher Hatchet (2006), an outrageously violent mix of low brow humour and hardcore gore. Green admitted that he wanted to return to the heady days of the 80s slasher movie, but wanted to bring the red stuff back to a genre that had become too PG-13 oriented since it was reborn in the post-Scream (1996) era. And he succeeded with a crowd-pleasing blood-fest that gave us some brilliantly over-the-top violence, cameos from some of the genre’s best-loved stars (Robert “Freddy” Englund, Tony “Candyman” Todd and four-time Jason Vorhees Kane Hodder as the Elephant Man lookalike killer) and a wonderfully funny script delivered to perfection by a well-chosen cast.

Defiantly – and proudly – old-fashioned (the poster tags promise us that it’s “not a remake. It’s not a sequel. And it’s not based on a Japanese one”) Hatchet is something of a dream for those who hanker for the old days of 70s and early-80s American horror. The climax explicitly quotes from both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Friday the 13th (1980) but although Green quite obviously knows his genre well, he refrains from too much slavish recreation of former glories, preferring instead to keep his audience off guard with a series of well-staged shocks and jumps that had everyone in the Odeon gasping.

For those who miss the days when American horror films were just plain old gratuitously violent, Hatchet is a dream come true. Green’s effective directorial sleight-of-hand misdirection, John Carl Buechler’s old school gore effects (I doubt you’ll see this much blood in any other film this year!) and the wonderful cast make Hatchet a must-see – and Green, as much an over-enthusiastic fan as the rest of us, announced during his Q&A that it was about to get a North American theatrical release means that Hatchet, and its monstrous maniac Victor Crowley, are coming to a screen near many of you soon. Make sure you see it!

As day one started to draw to a close and tiredness started seeping in, we were given the first of this year’s short films. As I say every year, the shorts are often among the highlights of any Frightfest and this year we’ve got a bumper crop. Sadly, the first one, Gasoline Blood (2006) left me a bit cold. Introduced by writer/director David Pope and some of his cast and crew, Gasoline Blood was a fairly generic zombie movie, dressed up to look like a lost 70s movie (complete with added film grain and a fake 1979 copyright date) and seemed rather pointless. The “plot” just has a trio of film-makers scouting locations falling foul of a pack of zombies – and that really is it. No back story, no explanations, just zombies eating people. Which is fine as far as it goes – but it doesn’t really go all that far.

Much better was the final film of the evening. I had some doubts as to the wisdom of showing a subtitled film so late in the day as eyelids were starting to droop and thoughts were turning to bed. And it’s always difficult to know how to approach any film that’s being hailed as a “first” as there are no frames of reference. Frostbiten/Frostbite (2006) is being trumpeted as the first Swedish vampire movie – and on the strength of this one I for one can’t wait to see many, many more. Extremely funny, adding a few new wrinkles to vampire lore and packed to the gills with genuinely oddball moments (reluctant young vampire Sebastian (Jonas Karlström) can understand what dogs are saying to him – and it’s usually not very nice!), Frostbiten is a real find, a completely out-of-the-blue experience the likes of which we rarely get these days.

The somewhat eerie Swedish settings (night last for a month and the whole film is shot in gloom of an unsettling half-light) give the film a look that you won’t find anywhere else and the strange sense of humour is refreshingly original. Great performances all round help and director Anders Banke (making an astonishingly assured debut) avoids the usual clichés, though the vampires themselves were, disappointingly, from the Lost Boys/Buffy strain of the undead. That said, they’re still fun – the demon vampire leader is a bit naff, but the teen vampires are hilarious and the climax is first rate as the strangest family unit ever seen in a horror film head off into the darkness.

God alone knows if Frostbiten will get a release that we can actually access – just how marketable is a Swedish vampire movie? – but do whatever it takes to track down a copy, especially if, like me, you’ve become a bit jaded by identikit vampire movies over the last few years. This one might just be enough to restore your faith and is certainly the first film in ages that I actually want to see a sequel to. Fantastic stuff that played extremely well to an appreciative Frightfest crowd.

And so Day One drew to a close and what a day it was! Tomorrow we’ve got a real mixed bag, everything from Irish horror to documentaries about the made up Klingon language, from another slasher to an anthology movie starring Snoop Dogg…

Day Two
It might be a bit early yet to be celebrating a “boom” in Irish horror, but given last year’s screening of Dead Meat (2004) (now available as a Frightfest Presents DVD) and the zombie comedy Boy Eats Girl (2005), the arrival of Isolation (2006), the first of Saturday’s six features, gives hope that there might at least bee a blip in horror film-making from the Emerald Isle. Unlike the two afore-mentioned films, Billy O’Brien’s Isolation plays everything completely straight – no cheap gags, just a solid, unpretentious horror film that riffs on themes from Alien (1979) and Shivers (1975) but comes up with something completely fresh and original.

The plot sounds utterly ludicrous when reduced to its component parts – genetic experiments on a remote Irish farm leads to the birth of a calf which is itself pregnant with six mutant creatures, one of which lives long enough to wreak havoc and kill just about everything and everyone it comes into contact with. But daft as it sounds, it works. O’Brien’s direction is moody and confident, the score is excellent and the ensemble cast is outstanding. Bob Keen’s special effects are kept out of view for most of the time which adds greatly to the suspense though O’Brien, in his Q&A that followed the screening, wished that he’d been able to show more of it. Playing on still very real fears about mad cow disease, Isolation proves to be a disturbing and unsettling experience that marks out O’Brien as a talent to watch for in future.

Nicholas Rucka’s Out of the Darkness (2006) was Frightfest 2006’s second short film and it was a lot better than yesterday’s disappointing Gasoline Blood. Shot in black and white, it’s a neat reality-bending ghost story which keeps the audience as off-guard and bewildered as its protagonist. Look out for a couple of unforgettably scary images near the end. Second feature of the day was one I wasn’t completely sold on prior to its screening. Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water (2005) is a documentary about, of all things, the wholly made up Klingon language, developed by Mark Okrand for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and now studied and further refined by devotees all around the world, put particularly at the Klingon Language Institute under the directorship of Dr Laurence M. Schoen.

Earthlings initially looked to the least attractive of the weekend’s offerings and I know that a number of the regulars at the Frightfest Forum were planning to skip the film in favour of lunch – indeed Alan Jones commented in his introduction that he was surprised that as many of us had stayed for it as we did, and the crowd in the Odeon was certainly notably thinner than it had been since the weekend kicked off. Those who chose to skip Earthlings missed a real treat – alternately hysterically funny, deeply sad (in every sense of the word), unnerving and flat-out terrifying, it’ll be one that will rattle the cages of Star Trek fans everywhere as it homes in on some of the franchise’s more obsessive devotees and pokes not-too-gentle fun at them. There are some extraordinary characters here – the Denver linguist Dr d’Armond Speers who spoke exclusively in Klingon to his son from birth to the age of 3; knobbly forehead wearing musician Rick Yampbell (aka Captain Krankor), composer of the Klingon anthem; people who are dedicating their lives to translating Shakespeare into Klingon. Even Michael Dorn (the Klingon Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)) is on hand looking faintly bewildered by it all, but the real star of the show is lovelorn postal worker Michael who you didn’t know whether to take great pity on or simply slap around the head with a Shatneresque cry of “get a life!! There will be those who will hate Earthlings for its mocking stance, but when your subject is something as ridiculous as the made up language of a fictitious alien race (worryingly one contributor refers to Klingon as “hypothetical aliens” while another believe them to be “mythical”) from a television show, what other stance is there to take?

There’s no escaping the fact that UK cable TV station Zone Horror (formerly The Horror Channel) are the headline sponsors of this year’s event – giant projected Zone Horror logos crawl around the auditorium walls between films and occasionally a trailer for their forthcoming releases pops up before a screening. At this point, I should perhaps mention something that I forgot to talk about yesterday – the quite brilliant Zone Horror trailer featuring the animated protagonists of the Charley Says… public information films (this bit will mean nothing to anyone outside the UK I’m afraid) which features Charley the cat coming to a very nasty end at the hands of the Grim Reaper!

This year, Zone Horror, along with Frightfest and Ghost House Mobile sponsored the Cut! short film competition which gave viewers the chance to submit a two minute film to be judged by Frightfest’s own Alan Jones, Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman and Sam Raimi associate Rob Tappert. Part of the prize was to have the short-listed films shown at Frightfest and ten of them were up next. As you’d expect from what are, essentially, amateur films made with severe restrictions placed upon them, the quality varies from the achingly pretentious through the “what-the-fuck-was-that-all-about” experience to the genuinely rather good. Pick of the litter were A Very Grimm Fairy Tale (in which a cruel father terrorises his young son with the nastiest bedtime story ever), The Fall Down (which managed to cram into 2 minutes what appeared to be the contents of an entire 90 minute movie) and the eventual winner, Kasting (a nasty take on the audition process).

The next feature was The Marsh (2006), introduced by its youthful director Jordan Barker but not by his leading lady Gabrielle Anwar who was supposed to be here but was prevented from attended by work commitments. The Marsh proved to be the first disappointment of the weekend. It’s not particularly bad – it’s very well made – but it’s not terribly good either. Alan Jones introduced it as “traditional horror” and therein lies its problems – there’s nothing in The Marsh we haven’t seen before in many, many better movies.

The story, though seemingly complex at first, just turns out to be another ghostly revenge story with the now regulation little ghost girl joining a glowing eyed teen in terrorising children’s writer Claire Holloway (Anwar) in a spooky old house next to a marsh. The climax ties itself in knots as it tries to make a straightforward story that bit more interesting (it fails) and the performances are merely so-so, even from the usually great Forest Whitaker. Effects overkill eventually robs the film of the eerie atmosphere that Barker seemed to be striving for though there are a few decent shocks, albeit very mechanical ones signalled by deafeningly loud music stings in case the visuals don’t have the desired effect.

Barker – also an actor – shows some talent as a director but really needs a better script in future, one that doesn’t rely on cranking out the clichés and has better drawn characters reciting interesting and believable dialogue. Between film conversation suggested that disbelief suspension had failed to be achieved as most of us were just wondering why Claire didn’t move out of her short-term rented house the very second the spooky stuff started. In the end, The Marsh is very glossy but completely disposable – I doubt any of us will remember much about it once the weekend has ended.

After a short break, organisers Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Paul McEvoy took to the stage for the annual Frightfest quiz and managed to turn the potentially dull reading out of a series of questions into a light hearted interlude with much banter with the audience (kudos to the guy who brought along his previous Frightfest brochures and a copy of Jones’ Rough Guide to Horror Movies from where many of the questions seem to have been drawn!).

With that out of the way, it was straight into See No Evil, a wonderfully messy splatter opus from former porn director Gregory Dark (director of the classic Traci Lords vehicle New Wave Hookers (1985) among much else). The “return to basics” theme that has been running throughout Frightfest’s selection this year continued with a film that harked back to the slasher movie heyday of the 80s but also dipped into the Texas Chain Saw Massacre bag of tricks for some of its atmosphere.

Like Isolation, a brief attempt at a synopsis might put you off but bear with me: a group of young offenders (four boys, four girls of course), none of them particularly likeable, are taken to help clean up a ramshackle hotel by former cop Williams (Steve Vidler) who had his arm ripped off by hulking maniac Jacob Goodnight before gunning the killer down. It’s not really giving anything away to learn that Goodnight survived and is now lurking in the burnt out penthouse suites looking for some hatchet action.

Despite the fact that script makes very little sense, that there’s really no-one here you feel like rooting for and that the plot has been before the camera so many times that it feels like a very old friend who has outstayed their welcome, See No Evil amazingly works very well. The violence is frequent and gory as hell, World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Kane (the film is a WWE co-production) is fantastic as Goodnight and the last minute plot twist works quite well. Dark refuses to take the easy option, using some very clever misdirection techniques to wrong foot audiences and the fate of Williams is refreshingly unexpected, leaving viewers completely unsure as to what’s going to happen next. Another winner and one that played extremely well with the ever-vocal Frightfest faithful.

One of the great highlights of previous Frightfests were the Trailer Trash compilations, something that was very much missed at last year’s event. Thankfully, they were back for what would turn out to be a triple bill this year and the first batch kicked off with a crowd-pleasing ad for Enzo G. Castellari’s 1990: I guerrieri del Bronx/Bronx Warriors (1982), during which Fred Williamson got a hearty cheer and round of applause. There was also a trailer for a martial arts films (possibly Er long zheng zhu/Karate vs Tiger (1974) but it was difficult to tell what the title was amid the many strange captions reading “excellent” and “bloodthirsty” and an absolutely riotous one for Sergio Martino’s L’isola degli uomini pesce/Island of Mutations (1979) under another of its alternative titles, Island of the Fishmen.

And with that out of the way we were onto film number four for today, Adrift, known just about everywhere else as Open Water 2. Made with German money, it has very little to do with the original indie hit beyond a similar premise and, having now seen it, I’ve decided it really isn’t a genre film and doesn’t deserve a place in EOFFTV. Which is just as well as I now don’t have to watch it ever again…

The basic premise of Adrift is very sound – a group of people on a yacht miles from anywhere foolishly all go swimming at the same time without lowering the ladder that will allow them to get back on board again. Unable to climb the sheer sides of the yacht and with no hope of rescue, the stranded holidaymakers descend into panic and paranoia while Amy tries to overcome her fear of water and find a way to reach her infant daughter who is still on board…

After the initial set-up is accomplished, things start to fall apart very quickly. The characters are some of the most stupid and irritating ever seen in a film – when the first victim succumbs to drowning you have to stifle a cheer as they are deeply annoying and whiney. Their attempts to re-board the yacht are inventive but ruined by their rank stupidity – having made a “rope” from their own swimming costumes, one of the men is sent to climb it rather than one of the much lighter women (one is near-anorexic and probably weighed significantly less than the “rope” itself) with predictable results. And when the survivors do finally make it out of the water, it’s by using a method that most of us had thought of very early on.

Add to this annoyingly intrusive music and a strange and inconclusive ending (just what was going on there? Had anyone really survived? If not… well, see it for yourself if you must) and Adrift is a deeply frustrating experience. There are some lovely shots here – particularly one very eerie one of a drowned body floating serenely down into the depths – and the handheld camerawork does impart some of the sense of urgency that the piece required, but with characters that you didn’t so much not care about as came to actively dislike, Adrift is an emotionally unengaging film that doesn’t do justice to the genuinely terrifying Open Water. Director Hans Horn was supposed to be here to introduce the film but didn’t show up.

With the day drawing to a close, we were due for another short film, Toll, but it didn’t turn up either so we got another collection of vintage trailers, much to everyone’s delight. This time we got a couple from The Exorcist (1973), one from Alien (1979) and one for Demon!, which turned out to be Larry Cohen’s retitled God Told Me To (1976).

The final film of the day was the anthology Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror (2006) and the title tells you all you need to know. Those with a love for and interest in “urban music” (a particularly stupid label as most popular music is made in an urban environment) will probably love. Personally, as a middle-aged not-so-ex-hippy I barely understood a word of it. Snoop Dogg is the Devil (I think) who talks nonsense as he introduces three variable tales of terror. The first is a slight story about a female “tag artist” who is given the power to erase violent gang-bangers by crossing out their “tags” with a demonic spray can. It ended with the tale of a ruthless rapper whose determination to get to the top backfires in spectacular fashion.

The best story is the middle one, which takes some of its basic ideas from the Blind Alleys episode of Amicus’ much-loved anthology classic Tales from the Crypt (1972). Anson Mount is hilariously appalling as racist white trash scumbag Texas Jr who, which is dim-witted but scheming eye-candy girlfriend Tiffany (Brande Roderick) moves into a homes for Vietnam Veterans that he inherited from his father and promptly sets about trying to get rid of the four black former soldiers who still live there. Much squirm-inducing fun is to be had from Texas’ terrible racist outbursts and the final revenge evoked by the soldiers brings a grisly sense of satisfaction.

But overall, Hood of Horror was pretty poor stuff – some neat gore scenes help a bit but nothing could overcome the fact that it gives the impression that no-one involved in was really interested in what they were doing. It’s listless, poorly written and often just plain dull, with some not terribly good animated inserts separating the stories. Although he mostly talks rubbish, Snoop is actually very good as the host, having more charisma in his extended little finger than the rest of the cast put together. But did we really need him rapping some forgettable piece of tat at the end over a compilation of clips from the film we’d just sat through? But then I don’t suppose a middle aged white man is who director Stacy Title was aiming at here. It may well play better with a younger audience more in tune with rap culture than I, but it just left me completely cold and uninterested for most of the time, something that the 70s Blaxploitation horrors rarely did.

And so to bed after another long day in preparation for what looks like it could be one of the most intense and gruesome single day line-ups that Frightfest has ever presented – British violence and psychological horror, French stalkers and demons, German cannibals and an American indie adaptation of a Jack Ketchum all await us tomorrow…

Day Three
Sunday looked set to be a day of extremes, of dark and intense films that could be the most challenging single-day line-up that Frightfest has ever attempted. As I’d already seen Adam Mason and Simon Boyes’ excellent Broken (2006) – you can find a full review of it here – I decided to reluctantly pass on its Sunday morning screening in favour of getting a bit more sleep. Sadly, it also meant missing the short film Snatching Time but at least when I turned up in the early afternoon I felt properly awake and alert for the new British psychological horror The Living and the Dead (2006) from director Simon Rumley, who was on hand to introduce the film, one of the most distressing and uncompromising that Frightfest has ever shown, one that gets right under your skin and stays there showing no intention of relaxing its grip.

Set entirely within a crumbling stately home where reclusive Lord Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd Pack) lives with his dying wife Nancy (Kate Fahy) and mentally ill son James (Leo Bill). When Brocklebank is called away to discuss his dire financial situation, James, desperate for his father’s approval, locks his mother’s wife out of the house and tries to care for her himself, setting in motion a series of events that culminates in almost Shakespearian tragedy.

Brilliant shot (it makes the most creative use of accelerated motion since Koyaanisqatsi (1983)), The Living and the Dead careens through the implosion of the Brocklebank family in considerable style, blending dazzling hallucination sequences with intense personal drama and disorientating timeframe jumps. In his intro to the film, Rumley agreed with Alan Jones’ assessment that The Living and the Dead was a challenging film and he seemed unsure about how a horror audience would react to its artier aspirations. He needn’t have worried – it’s a brilliant, intense and deeply disturbing movie that was received, for the most part, extremely well. Rumley seemed visibly relieved when he returned to the stage with actress Kate Fahy for an enjoyable Q&A.

Before we resumed the day’s entertainment, there was some sad news – the Pang Brothers’ Gwai wik/Re-Cycle (2006), which I’d been very much looking forward to, had arrived without any subtitles and given its supposedly complex storyline, the organisers decided to replace it with the Thai Ghost of Mae Nak (2005), whose director, British born Mark Duffield, will be in attendance. Spirits were lifted immeasurably by the ever-wonderful David McGillivray whose double-act with Alan Jones are fast becoming a Frightfest highlight. And McGillivray was on excellent form as ever, sharp, witty and self-deprecating as Alan looked on slightly nervously as though dreading what the Brit horror legend would come out with next!

McGillivray was here to introduce the latest in his Worst Fears series of short films, In the Place of the Dead, his script directed by his regular director Keith Claxton and featuring McGillivray in a small role in the tale of an ancient djinn loose in the streets of Marrakech. The small cast of Anthony Wise, ex-Eastender Nabil Elouahabi and Holly de Jong are all excellent and the final payoff, though slightly predictable, is certainly satisfying.

The next feature of the day was the French Ils/Them (2006) and in his introduction, Alan asked us not to give away the ending and cautioned that as a consequence, reviewing it might be hard work. He has a point – although there isn’t a twist as such, the final revelation is a surprise and under no circumstances let anyone tell you what’s going on, but do make sure you see it. Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, it stars Olivia Bonamy (from previous Frightfest choice Bloody Mallory (2002)) and Michaël Cohen as a French couple working in Romania who find themselves terrorised by a group of strangers who invade their home and pursue them in a nerve-wracking game of cat-and-mouse.

By far the tensest and scariest film so far this weekend, Ils is a real find, another of those never-heard-of-it-before gems that works best if you know as little about it as possible about it beforehand. The directors make great use of shadowy, barely glimpsed figures, indistinct shapes moving in backgrounds and bizarre noises to wrong foot audiences, setting up all sorts of possibilities as to what’s going on (thoughts of both ghosts and aliens ran through my mind during the film) before the disturbing truth is finally revealed.

Almost entirely blood-free and surprisingly low on violence, Ils instead opts for almost unbearable tension and suspense which the directors maintain brilliantly throughout. Once the weirdness begins (with a strange, incomprehensible phone call), it simply never lets up. There’s little here that’s new (it takes cues from Haute tension/Switchblade Romance (2003) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) but the strength of the direction helps to keep it fresh and the uncertainty as to what’s actually going on ensures that interest never falters for a second. Ils was the first film of the weekend to rival the mighty El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth for the coveted film-of-the-weekend honour.

As ever with Frightfest, the organisers try to cram in as many unannounced extras as they can. Today they had director Chris Graham on hand to introduce a promo for his forthcoming British/New Zealand co-production The Ferryman (2006) which sadly looks like it could be a generic slasher set on a yacht, with some talk of “an evil as timeless as fear itself” thrown in for good measure. Maybe it’s just the context of it being shown amid so many great genre films, but this short taster did absolutely nothing for me I’m afraid. Much more fun was a brand-new trailer for Hot Fuzz (2006), the new comedy from the Shaun of the Dead (2004) team, with director Edgar Wright on hand to introduce it. The new trailer features just the one scene but as it’s a hilarious riff on a gag from Shaun it was greeted with uproarious laughter and certainly makes this send-up of cop shows seem even more enticing than it had before.

Another guest was composer Simon Boswell (Phenomena (1985), Demoni 2 (1986), Deliria (1987) and lots more) who was here to promote his forthcoming album Close Your Eyes, a collection of songs built around fragments from his film scores. He brought with him the first promo video from the album, Tripping the Dark Fantastic, directed by Richard Stanley of Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992) and featuring Boswell’s partner, actress Lysette Anthony (who was in the audience) and Italian horror legend Dario Argento – who proves conclusively that he’s a far better director than he is an actor!

Next up, another instalment of Trailer Trash and easily the best so far – alongside the likes of Demon Seed (1977), the Blaxploitation Exorcist clone Abby (1974) and Brit-horror giallo Assault (1971), there were two more insane Hong Kong offerings – one for the sex/horror/comedy hybrid Liu zhai hua nong yue/Home for the Intimate Ghosts (1991) and another for a film I’m now madly in love with and want to see right now – Jiang shi fu xing zi/Vampire Kids (1991) featuring a pack of tiny hopping vampires and the astonishing violence meted out to them! Wonderful stuff…

Onwards and upwards to the fourth film of the day, the German Rohtenburg (2006), advertised in the Frightfest publicity as Grimm Love but bearing the on-screen title Butterfly: A Grim Lovestory. Based on the notorious Armen Meiwes and Bernd Brandes case, the film has been banned in Germany, allegedly as the courts have ruled that the film infringes Weiwes’ human rights! What could and should have been a straightforward study of one of the most bizarre crimes of recent years – in 2001, Meiwes advertised on the internet for a willing victim to satisfy his cannibalism fantasies – turns out to be something of a mess. The scenes of the fictionalised characters of Oliver Hartwin (Thomas Kretschmann in the Miewes role) and Simon Grobeck (Thomas Huber) is well done, though perhaps predictably it offers little insight into why these men committed the crime that they did, but for reasons not entirely clear at the moment writer T.S. Faull and director Martin Weisz opted to tack on a major sub-plot about American student Katie Armstrong (Mission: Impossible III‘s (2006) Keri Russell) researching the case and searching for the videotape that the men made of the incident.

The film moves back and forth between the two storylines but the thread starring Russell seems entirely superfluous, adding absolutely nothing to the story at all – indeed we never even get a resolution to Katie’s story. The film would have been a lot better without her (Kretschmann and Huber are excellent and the “murder” itself grew the loudest and most agonised audience groans of the weekend) and it seems so strange that the makers thought this storyline would add anything to an already macabre and fascinating tale. Perhaps they had an eye on the US market (the film appears to have been shot in English) and felt that they needed a recognisable American star to help sell it there. Who knows…? A disappointment then, albeit a rather well made one that would benefit from some extensive re-editing to remove the student and concentrate exclusively on the two men.

Chris Sivertson’s The Lost (2005) is the first attempt to film the work of Jack Ketchum (real name Dallas Mayr), the cult horror novelist (who turns up in the small role of a bartender near the beginning of the film) and his based on his 2001 book of the same name. Marc Senter stars as small-town psychotic Ray Pye who leads his friends Tim (Alex Frost) and Jennifer (Shay Astar) in the senseless killings of two young women camping in the woods (one of them softcore porn star Misty Mundae acting under her real name Erin Brown). Four years later, the two cops who investigated the case are still convinced that Pye was the killer but can’t find enough evidence – until Pye meets new girl in town Katherine (Robin Sydney), setting in motion a chain of events that will end in some of the most intense violence so far this weekend.

The charting of Pye’s descent from madness into something altogether more disturbing is brilliantly handled by Sivertson (editor of the wonderful May (2002), whose director Lucky McKee acted as producer here), taking time to establish the characters and allow Senter – who gives an extraordinary performance – enough space to create a well-rounded portrayal of psychosis the likes of which we haven’t seen on screen for a very long time.

The finale is jaw-dropping – at some festivals, the forced removal of a foetus prompted walkouts but it’s just a part of the most in-your-face and extreme sequence I’ve seen in a while. But the film has more to offer than just confrontational violence and the script stays remarkably close to Ketchum’s multi-layered original, making it as satisfying emotionally and intellectually as it is viscerally. It makes no excuses for Pye’s behaviour, refusing the safety net of a back story telling of how he was abused or witnessed a traumatic event – he’s just a psychotic who gets off on the way he behaves, making him a far more unsettling character than any of those in most films of its ilk.

Unrelentingly dark and upsetting, The Lost might struggle to find an audience – it won’t play well at your local multiplex and sadly one suspects that its destined for a few more festival screenings before DVD beckons. I’d really like to be proved wrong as this is one of the best American horror films of recent years and deserves the widest possible audience. Fans of Ketchum will need no persuading to see it – but for those unfamiliar with his work, if you have a taste for the furthest extremes of screen ultra-violence do whatever it takes to see this masterpiece.

The Lost is a tough act to follow, but Kim Chapiron’s Sheitan (2006), the second French film of the day, was more than up to the task in hand. Completely mad from beginning to end, it’s hilarious, shocking and deeply weird – in other words, the perfect way to finish a Saturday night (although thanks to an earlier signing by the ever-enthusiastic and accomodating Guillermo del Toro events were overrunning and it was more like Sunday morning when the film began). A group of clubbers find themselves being invited to the remote country home of a young girl they pick up in a bar and fall foul of the very strange family they find there.

No synopsis will ever do this crazy gem justice – the story jumps around all over the place, constantly springing surprises and skating along the edge of cliché while just avoiding crossing that line. Totally unexpected and never predictable, it’s a wild blend of humour (Vincent Cassel is hilarious as jovial hick Joseph), surrealism and hardcore violence. Some of the material is likely to cause jitters among various censorship bodies (the astonishing moment when local girl Jeanne (Julie-Marie Parmetier) starts masturbating a dog is unlikely to survive in many prints!).

The script pitches in with some barbed banter between its Muslim, Christian and Pagan protagonists and there’s a handful of references to classical Greek mythology – the nightclub is called Styxx which, like the mythical river, here acts as the main character’s entrance into the underworld (the plot is set in motion by an attack on teenager Bart at the club) and when the group arrive at the remote house where their fates will be sealed, they meet a dog named Cerberus, guarding the gateway to the underworld into which they are about to be immersed.

Sunday more than lived up to its promise as being the most intense of Frightfest 2006’s four days with only Grimm Love disappointing. It’s raised the bar for the final day which will have a tough job living up to all this – but with Spanish serial killers, Thai ghosts, British horror, American mockumentaries and Korean monsters on offer, it might just do it.

Day Four
The fourth and final day of Frightfest 2006 kicked off with a strange British short film, Missed Call. An exercise in sustained suspense, it does well creating and maintaining a sense of unease and dread as a young woman finds herself being stalked in her own home and finding that she can’t rely on or even trust her two-timing boyfriend, but it’s let down by an inexplicable ending. Well made but in the end rather pointless.

Next up came a screening of the confrontational new Spanish film H6: Diario de un asesino/H6: Diary of a Serial Killer (2005), a first feature from artist Martín Garrido Barón. Fernando Acasco stars as Antonio Frau who, after serving 15 years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend, is released and embarks on a new campaign of terror, capturing and torturing prostitutes and junkies in the run-down boarding house, a former brothel, that he’s inherited from his aunt.

Maybe it was just the Frightfest Fatigue that always hits me on the Mondays, but H6 left me completely cold. It’s certainly full of some of the most aggressive and shocking images that we’d seen all weekend (the rape and torture scenes are deeply disturbing) but it seems devoid of any kind of emotion or sense of purpose, thus robbing it of the impact that it should have had. One gets the impression that Barón set out to be as deliberately shocking as possible and in the process forgot to engage his audience on any level other than disgust, and consequently it was very difficult to give a damn about anyone in his film.

A late twist works very well, though it’s one of the few really original moments in a film that seems content to merely recycle images and ideas lifted from other films. It looks great, thanks to the photography of Sergio Delgado, but just feels empty and uninvolving. Perhaps seeing it again under less tiring circumstances may make a difference but somehow I doubt it.

One of the little surprises in this year’s “goodie bag” was a DVD copy of Mike Mort’s 5 minute short Deadly Tantrum (2006) which I hadn’t had time to watch – and I’m glad I didn’t because it played so well in front of an audience that it would have lost a lot of its impact if I’d watched it alone. Mort came on stage to introduce the film, explaining that it was shot over a single weekend but you wouldn’t know it from what you see on screen – a hilarious send up of slasher movies, it’s all set in a single barn-like setting where masked and deformed maniac Geoffrey has rigged up a ridiculously elaborate death for his latest victim. But the day may be saved by the timely arrival of a cop who races against time to save the woman while fighting a running battle with Geoffrey and his collection of power tools. Before H6, Alan Jones had promised that Barón’s film would wake us up, but it was really Mort’s film that blew the cobwebs away. A non-stop barrage of gags and cleverly spoofed slasher moments, Deadly Tantrum was an absolute riot and a much needed lifting of the spirits after the relentless grimness of H6.

As a huge fan of the Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide, I was really looking forward to seeing their latest Frightfest offering Gwai wik/Re-Cycle so was very disappointed when the print turned up without subtitles and had to be cancelled. In its place came Ghost of Mae Nak (2005), a British/Thai co-production introduced by its director, Mark Duffield. Based on an old Thai legend (which has been filmed several times already) it sets out to see what would happen if the spirit of the vengeful ghost Mae Nak was still active in modern-day Bangkok. Ghost of Mae Nak has plenty worthy of praise – it looks good and presents a view of Bangkok that doesn’t just opt for the lazy “it’s-full-of-sex-tourists-in-sleazy-bars” stereotype which simply isn’t representative of the city at all. And the ghost of Mae Nak herself is a suitably creepy presence throughout the film.

But… Haven’t we seen this story, or a variation on it, enough times already recently? Many times throughout the film I was convinced that I’d seen Ghost of Mae Nak already though I’m sure that’s just down to the fact that the story is one that’s been so over-used of late that all of the films that use it have merged into one. The only really distinctive feature of Ghost of Mae Nak are the inventive gore scenes, including one involving a sheet of falling glass that went down very well. But if you really want to see a decent version of the Mae Nak story, you’d be better off watching the film that seems to have inspired Duffield, Nonzee Nimibutr’s Nang nak (1999).

Every year at Frighfest, I keep telling myself the same thing – that I shouldn’t try to prejudge a film based on my own preconceptions and each year I do it (I’m only human…) and find those preconceptions well and truly shaken. Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water had already done it for me once this year, and Hadi Hajaig’s amazing Puritan (2006) did it for me again. I don’t know why I was so pessimistic about this one before it started but I had one of those odd, irrational feelings that it wasn’t going to be for me. How wrong I was.

It’s virtually impossible to do Puritan justice here as director Hajaig asked that no-one give away the ending, which is fair enough, but it does make it hard to talk too much about why the film is so good. Nick Moran stars as down-on-his-luck writer Simon Puritan, battling alcoholism and making ends meet by staging phoney “readings”, sessions where he tries to help the bereaved by posing as a medium. One day a horribly disfigured man turns up on his doorstep claiming that a woman is going to enter his life shortly and giving him the details he needs to make his “reading” seem real…

And to say much more would be doing the film a grave disservice. The plot twists and turns, neatly developing into an engaging mystery with a pay-off that may be obvious but is still satisfying. Hajaig’s script is clever, literate (not many other genre films of this or any other year will make references to Nicholas Hawksmoor, Aleister Crowley and 60s psychedelic rock bands!) and above all else intelligent. It’s a film that demands close attention and Hajaig keeps the plot’s many machinations moving along so well that one’s attention never drifts once.

Hajaig joins forces with cinematographer Peter Ellmore to create one of the best looking films of the entire weekend. The sets (by Stéphane Collonge) are gorgeous and Ellmore lights them perfectly – in his Q&A session, Hajaig refused to disclose how much the film cost but given its fiercely independent roots it won’t have cost much but you’d never know that from the way it looks. It sounds fabulous too thanks to a truly wonderful score from Simon Lambros (The Last Horror Movie (2003)).

Completing the package, the cast are all outstanding – Moran is great as the morose Puritan falling in love with Ann Bridges (Georgina Rylance) who in turn turns out to be the wife of dangerous right-wing self-help guru/aspiring politician Eric Bridges (David Soul). All three actors joined Hajaig onstage after the film for a fun Q&A (Hajaig was filming everything from the stage for use in his DVD extras!). Soul was celebrating his birthday and was presented with a huge card signed by all the Frightfest attendees and Nick Moran (who ran into a sticky moment with one questioner who wanted to know the name of the American “piece of shit” he was working on in Russia but diplomatically refused – not so diplomatically I suspect it might have been Silent Partner (2005)) led the crowd in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, much to Soul’s obvious delight and embarrassment. All four hung around for a signing afterwards.

Hajaig has achieved some excellent results with his first film, but he’s to be admired even more for his devotion to the project. The film was funded by the writer/director creating a partnership and getting investors to pitch in what they could (a huge list of names appears in the end credits) and the film was made totally independently. Now, he plans to continue in the independent spirit by distributing the film himself. It’ll be hard work, but he deserves success – look out for Puritan at an arthouse cinema near you sometime soon, and make sure you pop along for one of the most engaging supernatural mysteries in years.

With director Scott Glosserman not able to fly in from the States to introduce his film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon because he’d broken his leg, the slot his introduction would have occupied was now filled with another dose of Trailer Trash – there were promos for Red Sonja (1985) (which snapped in the projector!), Death Race 2000 (1975) and some others I mostly can’t remember (there was a hilariously awful one for Amin: The Rise and Fall (1981) at some point but they’ve all blurred into one by now…)

It’s a shame that Glosserman wasn’t able to make it to hear the uproarious reception that his film received. It begins as a mockumentary, shot in that shaky, handheld style familiar from The Blair Witch Project (1999) and its many imitators, as a group of media students follow up-and-coming serial killer Leslie Vernon as her prepares for his first rampage. Set in a world where Freddy, Jason and Michael are all real people, it brilliantly deconstructs many of the slasher clichés as the charismatic Vernon explains his methods and techniques, demonstrating how serial killers can chase running victims while simply strolling along, how to chose the right group of victims and the importance of The Survivor Girl (in this case he’s got his hopes pinned on the virginal Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson) and the Ahab, the character obsessed with tracking down the killer and ending his depredations – in this case Robert Englund in a fantastic cameo as he channels the spirit of Donald Pleasance.

The film switches mid-way through to a “proper” film but it doesn’t jar the way a similar change of viewpoint came close to ruining The Last Broadcast (1998). Instead, Glosserman uses the switch to then mount a slasher that uses all of the rules that he’s just established but cleverly inverts them (Kelly turns out to not be as virginal as she seems, all the tricks Vernon taught the camera crew are used against him and the Survivor Girl turns out to be… well, you’ll need to watch it and find out for yourselves).

Playing to a crowd that had grown up watching slasher movies, Behind the Mask proved to be one of the best received films of the whole weekend. Every joke hit its target, the cameos (Zelda Rubinstein from the Poltergeist films, Glosserman himself and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Kane “Jason” Hodder as a resident of Elm Street!) were a nice touch and the script sparkled with clever dialogue. You’ll find plenty of gushing reviews on sites across the internet – and this time you really can believe the hype. You’ll find yourself squirming in delight as your favourite slasher movie clichés are mercilessly skewered and make sure you stay through the credits for a final “shock” that is completely obvious but somehow just so right.

Maintaining the high from Behind the Mask was a tall order but Gwoemul/The Host (2006), the final film of Frightfest 2006, made that tricky task look ridiculously easy. Like El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth, this wild Korean monster movie from Joon-ho Bong (Salinui chueok/Memories of Murder (2003), Namgeuk-ilgi/Antarctic Journal (2005)) was the talk of Cannes and it’s not hard to see why. Mixing humour and giant monster action it pits the residents of Seoul against a mutant tadpole that emerges from the Han River after feeding on discarded formaldehyde and goes on the rampage. It abducts the teenage daughter of the dim-witted Gang-du (he’s so dim even a lobotomy doesn’t slow him down) and he teams up with his much more resourceful family to find her before it’s too late.

From the jaw-dropping first appearance of the tadpole-beast (it lays waste to a riverside picnic site in a fashion that would have Godzilla glowing radioactive green with envy) to the rather tragic finale, Gwoemul is wonderful. The creature, mostly CGI but very well done, is an unusual beast, swinging along by its tale under bridges and snatching passers-by with its prehensile tail. Like a lot of the director’s previous work, it shifts back and forth from deadly seriousness to the blackest comedy in the bat of an eyelid and isn’t ashamed to tug at the heartstrings at the end. Bong doesn’t take the easy option, recognising the giant monster movie clichés and deftly sidestepping them at every turn – every time you think you know where he’s taking his complicated story, he decides to veer off in an entirely different direction. Audience recognition characters are killed off, others are side-lined for great stretches and the notional hero is a man who ignores the needs of his teenage daughter, eats endlessly and can barely stay awake even when the family are in their greatest peril! With the exception of some noticeably terrible fire effects near the end, the effects are generally excellent too.

This version of Gwoemul is allegedly the longest available and I know that some found it a bit too long, but I could take as much film as the brilliant Bong can deliver so the longer the better. Personally, my attention never wavered for a second, no mean feat after 20 plus films in four days! It was the perfect end to the weekend and a film that I’ll be queuing up to see again as soon as it gets a wider release.

And that was that – another Frightfest, another cracking line up of films. Before the now traditional round-up of the Good, The Bad and the Indifferent, a few thank yous: to JP (creator of the Frightfest brochure comic strip) and Stuart for making the between-film chats so interesting and hilarious; to Greg Day for his part in sorting out the ticketing for me; to Kim for making me feel guilty that I was enjoying myself when I should have been doing an EOFFTV update (cheers Kim!); and of course to Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy and Alan Jones for another fantastic weekend’s entertainment.

And so, the final assessment:

The Good: The Hound of the Baskervilles; Twins of Evil; Pan’s Labyrinth; Hatchet; Frostbite; Isolation; Earthlings; See No Evil; Broken (I know, I wasn’t there to see it but I had seen it before and loved it so it still counts!); The Living and the Dead; Them; The Lost; Sheitan; Puritan; Behind the Mask; The Host

The Bad: Countess Dracula (sorry, I know it has its fans but I just can’t see the appeal…); Adrift; The Ghost of Mae Nak

The Indifferent: The Marsh; Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror; Grimm Love (it might have made it to “good” if they’d ditched that stupid American student storyline); H6: Diary of a Serial Killer