The Best of FrightFest: Glasgow 2014

As promised, here is my personal ranking of the films from the 2014 Glasgow FrightFest, from worst to best. Bear in mind, I found something to enjoy in every single film, and I thought the festival as a whole ranged from decent to excellent. But enough of that, time to get mean and cut the wheat from the chaff. I should know, after all; I’ve got my own blog! Hold on to your hats…

11. Almost Human

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The first feature-length effort from writer/director Joe Begos, Almost Human is a micro-budget horror about a man from small-town Maine who is abducted by aliens, only to be returned two years later with some new homicidal tendencies and, ahem, appendages. The film is clearly made by people who love horror and are determined to make their first steps into the genre count. Joe Begos and actor Josh Ethier were at the festival to introduce their film, and encouraged the “polite” Glaswegian audience to yell and interact with it, adding that it was the kind of film to watch while drinking. Clearly the audience hadn’t drunk enough, because the vibe was a bit… awkward. The intention was clearly to be an over-the-top shockfest like Dead Alive, except that the finished product lacks both gore and humour. The result isn’t particularly shocking or original, and draws a little too obviously from films like Slither and Fire in the Sky. One scene in particular, reminiscent of a certain tree scene from The Evil Dead, falls uncomfortably flat. However, Begos himself acknowledges some of the film’s shortcomings, explaining that writing dialogue is not his strong suit and that the film was financed with credit cards. I’d say there’s definite potential in this uneven production, and the ending is surprising and got a genuine laugh from the audience. I’ll be excited to see what Begos-Ethier do next.

10. The Scribbler

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The Scribbler, which made its world premiere at the festival, was directed by John Suits and written by Daniel Schaffer, who adapted the screenplay from his graphic novel of the same name. In it, Suki, whose mind is home to multiple personalities, moves into “the psychiatric version of purgatory”, a halfway house for recently released mental patients. As she undergoes a new form of shock treatment that burns away her unwanted identities, she has a series of bizarre encounters with neighbours, blackouts and hallucinations. Also, people keep mysteriously jumping out of windows. Unable to distinguish her hallucinations from reality, Suki goes head to head with “the scribbler”: one of her personalities that possesses her hand to write cryptic messages backwards and all over her apartment.

This one had the most mainstream stars of the festival, featuring Eliza Dushku and half of Michelle Trachtenberg’s face. There’s atmosphere to spare in this stylish film, but little to sink your teeth into. There are plenty of “deep” one-liners, like, “When you’re crazy, you sometimes have to let your hands do things for you”. I don’t like comic book adaptations in general, and this one is over-the-top and incoherent (fitting, I guess, considering the subject matter), with a twist ending that’s more offensive than revelatory. That said, there are some interesting performances and engaging acts of weirdness. The talking bulldog is an especially nice touch.

9. Savaged

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This rape-revenge flick, directed by Michael S. Ojeda, has been called “The Crow meets I Spit on Your Grave”. In it, a deaf mute woman travelling alone across the American Southwest is abducted, brutalised, and left for dead by a gang of racist thugs. A shaman finds her just in time and performs a ritual that lends her dying body the strength (and motivation) of an Apache warrior spirit. Baby got an axe to grind.

I kind of have to admire Savaged for having the guts (and hopefully not just lack of self-awareness) to be boldly offensive to nearly every group of people. The result is a lot of guilty, I-can’t-believe-they-went-there laughs. The violence is deliberately ridiculous, the music melodramatic, the dialogue dreadful, the CGI obvious, and the sound effects gooftastic. But the whole theatre was in stitches, especially as it swelled to its corny finale, with two characters facing the camera, staring into the middle distance and endlessly spewing trite proverbs on life and death.

8. Torment

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This Canadian feature, directed by Jordan Barker and starring the lovely Katharine Isabelle, is typical home invasion fare. A young family head out to their vacation home in the woods in hopes that some time away will help the annoying little boy bond with his new stepmother. But things go horribly wrong when the boy is kidnapped by a family of freaks wearing the heads of stuffed animals. The trip that was supposed to bring the family closer soon finds them banding together to fight for their lives.

I was very excited going into this film, mostly because it stars Katharine Isabelle and Stephen McHattie, but I was disappointed to find both actors were criminally underused in the script they were given. The movie looks great and has some good performances, but the story is just not very good. Everything happens too quickly for any tension to really build, and the script is incredibly repetitive. I swear, Isabelle rolls around on the floor with a masked villain while fighting over a weapon on at least three separate occasions. And the “twist” at the end is not very significant to the story. That said, it’s competently made and the masks look awesome. It may not have the tension of The Strangers, but at least it’s not as frustratingly sparse.

7. Mindscape

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This US/Spanish production, directed by Jorge Dorado, probably differs the most from the other films at the festival. It sets itself in a world where detectives can enter people’s minds to uncover the truth of their memories. One such mind detective finds himself engaged in a battle of wits with a brilliant but troubled teenage girl. As he enters her mind, the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred, and he must decide whether she is an innocent victim or a sociopath before any more mysterious “accidents” occur.

This cerebral thriller is a feast for the eyes. It’s dark, sexy and dangerous, with the kind of tightly scripted dialogue that you need in a film that largely consists of tense conversations between very intelligent people. The film is never scary but is occasionally disturbing. Taissa Farmiga is perfectly cast as the genius teen who’s all purity and roses on the surface, but with a dark flicker in her intense stare (Dorado said she never blinked on camera). Did I mention the whole thing looks absolutely gorgeous? It’s an enjoyable watch, even if it doesn’t always make sense. The strangely Hollywood ending is unexpected in a film that feels so thoroughly European. Also, more films should have a Noah Taylor ex machina moment.

6. Video Nasties: Draconian Days

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This film is the follow-up to the FrightFest brainchild Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, and is essentially a continuation of the same theme. This is not a horror film, but a documentary about the dark age of the Video Nasties, from the early 80’s until the end of the millennium. As a Canadian, this gave me some fascinating insight into an area of recent British history I knew very little about. The film charts events such as the Video Recordings Act, mass censorship of video releases and the banning of obscene video material. It explores the polemic themes like the imitability of violence in the media and the imposition of a moral agenda on creativity. The documentary makes its point through interviews of people from both sides of the issue, archival footage, and myriad gory, too-shocking-for-video scenes. We hear first-hand accounts from horror movie smugglers who had their collections raided by police, of the illicit trade networks and private screenings that brought a generation of British horror enthusiasts closer together. Video Nasties’ editorial stance is clear, but its treatment of the facts is fair. It made me grateful to live in a time and place where, as an adult, I have the right to freely seek out adult entertainment that suits my tastes, whatever they may be.

5. Wolf Creek 2

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We had to wait eight years for it, but Greg McLean finally gave us the nasty sequel a film like Wolf Creek deserves. Much like the first installment, our charismatic Crocodile Dundee from hell continues his murderous rampage, this time involving an adorable German couple and a charming British guy. But don’t get too attached to them…

I loved the first film and I love its sequel just as much, if not more. The premise is similar, but McLean gets the chance to play with more money this time around, and he puts it to good use. It’s just as dark as the first but has a lot more humour, which works fantastically at some points but falls flat at others. It’s pretty clear that we’re supposed to root for the deranged killer, at least in the beginning, but  when his violent acts become increasingly despicable, the result is… uncomfortable. There were some moments that hurt my soul a little bit. But it’s all worth it for one 15-minute scene that is one of the most hilarious, tense and original things I have ever seen in horror. At one point I was so absorbed that I couldn’t feel my legs. Everything about John Jarratt is absolutely terrifying, and ultimately it’s his performance that made this the scariest film of the festival for me.

4. Afflicted

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In this Canadian/US found footage film, two 20-something best friends (played by directors Clif Prowse and Derek Lee) embark on a journey around the world, vlogging their adventures as they go. But within a couple of weeks, Derek starts behaving strangely. Normally full of joie de vivre, he’s sleeping all day. He’s starving but can’t keep any food down. And then things start to get superhuman.

This film is A Canadian Vampire in Paris with a dash of Chronicle. What’s not to like? I’m not even particularly fond of found footage, but the set up for this one makes sense, and the characters are likeable enough that I would happily watch them gallivant around Europe, even on a good day. They react believably as a couple of nerdy extroverts suffering from an increasingly bizarre and inescapable affliction. The basic set-up feels familiar, but there is enough humour, shock and heart along the way to keep the story engaging.

3. Killers

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The Mo Brothers, who once taught us that L is the most disturbing letter of the alphabet, closed the festival with the UK premiere of Killers. The film chronicles the unlikely collegiality between a sadistic snuff filmmaker in Tokyo and a vigilante journalist in Jakarta who develops a taste for murder. Very soon, however, our journalist gets far more than he could have expected from the online friendship.

Killers is a mercilessly brutal, exquisitely shot, no-holds-barred film that reminded me of a more sophisticated I Saw the Devil. The film makes a powerful and worrying statement about the forces that drive people to commit despicable acts of violence, and the morbid curiosity that causes people like me to watch it on film. We want murder and mayhem, but only if we can keep our conscience clean (and thank God for that, too). It’s when we lose that human empathy that all hell breaks loose. The Mo Brothers explore this idea with style and unparalleled grace (and gross) in a movie that feels shorter than its 140-minute runtime.

2. Proxy

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In Proxy, which made its UK premiere at FrightFest, writer/director Zack Parker takes us past the white picket fences of Richmond, Indiana, where twisted minds and unspeakable tragedies await. It begins as a pregnant woman is horrifically assaulted in the street in an anonymous, seemingly random attack, causing her to lose her child. While recovering, she attends a support group where she befriends a fellow grieving mother. However, nothing is as it seems as the two women’s fates become intertwined, with perverse, tragic results.

Proxy is a beautiful film with compelling performances and complex female characters, and it had me captivated for each of its thoroughly disturbing 120 minutes. The narrative is split into two distinct parts, each indispensable to the other, in a novelistic structure that felt like a maternal version of The Place beyond the Pines. It approaches topics such as grief and mental illness with maturity and restraint, while still managing to provide some sexy and violent thrills. This is a film that knows when to take its time, knows how to show (rather than tell) the darker recesses of the human mind, and cares enough to revel in the beautiful detail of its scenery. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

1. The Sacrament

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I mentioned last time that there would be shameless Ti West fangirling, but rest assured that it is completely deserved. The Sacrament is West’s creative reinterpretation of the Jonestown massacre of 1978. Shot in a mockumentary style, it follows a brother who, out of concern for his runaway sister, travels to Eden Parish, a kind of hippy cult commune in the South American jungle, with a reporter and camera man in tow. At first the parish appears to be a heaven on earth, free of discrimination and modern anxieties, but it soon becomes clear that “Father”, the man who runs the show at Eden, wields a disturbing amount of power through clever discourse and turn of phrase. But is that power in responsible hands?

West explained that he made the film in an effort to bring a human face to a historical event that is too often trivialised in contemporary pop culture. Not only is he successful in this aim, producing a beautiful and wrenching film about the dangers of groupthink, but by making the media the reason behind the parish’s downfall, he effectively implicates the audience as voyeur in the tragic outcome (see Killers). The film has its questionable moments, but such is the nature of risky filmmaking. It gets a tremendous boost from Gene Jones’ phenomenal performance as Father. He helps keep things unsettling as the movie builds to its horrifying and sublime conclusion. One particular scene involving a brother and sister, left bare and uncut, was one of the most emotional moments of the entire festival.

So, there you have it, my ranking and rationale for all 11 films of the 2014 Glasgow FrightFest. Leave a comment if you feel so moved, and subscribe to my blog to be the first to know about my horrific encounters in the future.

Thanks for reading,

Iota

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