This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 16th annual London FrightFest in Leicester Square. This wonderfully curated event lasts for five days and shows some of the best new genre films, most of them from outside the mainstream (so no Sinister 2). Last weekend, festival programmers served up a whopping 76 feature-length films, 30 shorts and 4 special events, such as an extended Q&A with guest of honour Barbara Crampton. I managed to see 21 features and all of the shorts. It was tough to narrow it down, but here are my top 10 favourites from the festival.
Writer/Director: Liam Regan. UK 2015.
Banjo is a film about meek Peltzer Arbuckle (James Hamer-Morton), a man abused by his boss, coworkers and girlfriend to the extent that he is paid a visit by his childhood imaginary friend, Ronnie (Damian Morter). Ronnie is impulsive, crude and violent, but above all, he wants to break Peltzer out of his funk. He’ll do anything to shake things up, with no regard for Peltzer’s or anyone else’s safety. This is a fun, indie shlockfest with a professional polish, and more people need to know about it. Director Liam Regan works in an office and says he first came to FrightFest five years ago, where he met so many fellow fans and people working in the industry that he felt inspired to scrape together a bit of money and make a film of his own. The result is impressive, to say the least, with a wide variety of settings and an attention to detail that demonstrate the director’s ambition. Fans of Troma and Henenlotter will appreciate the film’s exploitation vibe, as well as a few cheeky inside jokes.
- Scherzo Diabolico
Writer/Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Mexico-USA 2015.
The director of last year’s knockout Late Phases brings us a Spanish-language production about ambition, sadism and revenge. Aram is overworked and underappreciated at his office job, and decides to seek revenge by kidnapping his employer’s teenage daughter. The first half is bleak and difficult to watch, but the film takes an unexpected turn at its midpoint that brings some sick humour into the mix. It is beautifully shot and undoubtedly of a high standard, but it seems to express such a nasty and cynical view of human nature that I can’t help feeling slightly dirty after watching it. But still, it’s a story in which Mozart’s “Turkish March” plays a pivotal role, so it can’t be bad.
- The Hallow
Writer/Director: Corin Hardy, Writer: Felipe Marino. UK 2015
A tree surgeon moves his wife and baby into an old house in the middle of the Irish woods. At first, unfriendly neighbours, windows mysteriously smashing and black sludge seeping through the ceiling are mere nuisances. Soon the family find themselves in grave danger, and with nowhere to turn. There are strange creatures in the woods, and the answers may lie in an old book of Irish folktales. The Hallow is a very competent and well-paced take on what is probably the oldest plot in horror cinema: the haunted house. In this case, it’s the woods surrounding the house that are haunted – but don’t worry; they find a way in. The folkloric mask allows the film to explore some dark and taboo themes and still end up with something I imagine will be quite successful in the international mainstream. It’s an impressive first feature for the director.
- We Are Still Here
Writer/Director: Ted Geoghegan. USA 2015.
A middle-aged couple (Barbara Crampton & Andrew Sensening), grieving the loss of their only son, move into a big, old, New England house to escape reminders of the past. Unfortunately, echoes of the past are exactly what they find. “The house needs a family,” and it’s going to get it.
This is a true, nostalgic haunted house movie and fans of the same from the 70’s and early 80’s will appreciate the film’s self-aware references. There are highly improbable situations and characters, bizarre dialogue and over-the-top deaths that affectionately underscore the ridiculousness of the film’s predecessors without stepping into the territory of overdone “meta” horror. The director himself said he wanted to make a haunted house movie for, by, and about grownups, and that’s exactly what this is.
Writer/Director: James Lei Howden. New Zealand 2015.
Frustrated with small-town life, loveable teen outcasts turn to heavy metal to ease their heavy souls, forming a band by the name of Deathgasm. They uncover an old piece of handwritten music, with accompanying lyrics in Latin, and think they’ve found their first big hit. Unfortunately, the song turns all who hear it into demons, and the boys accidentally transform their small town into a literal living hell. It’s up to Deathgasm to save the world.
Much has been said of the film’s fantastic use of outrageously good practical effects on an indie budget. This is definitely a major selling point. For me, though, its real strength is in the snappy writing and subversive humour. Even when it comes across as immature (which it often is), you can tell that a great deal of love went into making it, and the audience couldn’t help but buy into it and laugh along. If you like metal, you must watch this, and if you don’t, there’s plenty to enjoy besides.
- Nina Forever
Writers/Directors: Ben and Chris Blaine. UK 2015
Holly is working in a supermarket when she falls for her coworker, a brooding romantic who tried to kill himself after his girlfriend, Nina, died in a horrific car crash. The two begin a passionate affair that has potential to turn into something more… if Nina would let it. She appears, in physical form, bloodied and broken, at the most inappropriate moments. The story progresses as the lovebirds try to free themselves from their physical and emotional Nina-baggage.
This is a film that blurs the boundaries of the genre a bit. It’s a unique and bloody ghost story dressed up as an indie romantic comedy. While it may not have much to offer by way of suspense, it makes up for it with depth of character and feeling. There is plenty of dark humour, but a more wry, understated variety than you find in most horror comedies these days. The film’s biggest strength is its three lead actors, who succeed in selling this bizarre love triangle to the audience.
- Turbo Kid
Writers/Directors: Francois Simard et al. Canada-New Zealand 2015.
Born from a short segment in The ABC’s of Death, Turbo Kid is set in a dystopian, futuristic wasteland, which just happens to be in 1997 (although civilisation and industry seem to have ended in the 80’s). It’s been described as Mad Max meets Power Rangers, and tells the story of a young man who dares to stand up to the tyrant Zeus (Michael Ironside), becoming the hero from the comic books he so adores. Along the way, he meets a chipper sidekick called Apple and a tough-guy mentor. Together, they will fight for goodness and equality. Oh yes, there will be blood. And intestines, and severed limbs, heads and torsos – but all in good fun. The result is dark, hilarious and frenetic, with a nostalgic electro soundtrack that will make you feel like your fists could punch rainbows.
- They Look Like People
Writer/Director: Perry Blackshear. USA 2015.
Christian, a young man who has pulled himself out of depression through the magic of self-help dogma and bench presses, receives an unexpected visit from an old friend, Wyatt, whom he invites to stay in his house. While their paths may have diverged, they bond over shared memories. The trouble starts when Wyatt receives mysterious phone calls in the middle of night telling him of a body snatcher-like conspiracy that only he can prevent. As his delusions (or revelations?) progress, Christian and Wyatt’s friendship is pushed to its limits. This is an incredibly profound character study, made all the more compelling by its minimalism and plausibility. The tension increases gradually as the film subtly absorbs the audience into its deceptively simple story before hitting them with unflinching emotional honesty. Both sensitive and terrifying, it moved me in a way no film has in a long time.
Writer/Director: Dominic Brunt. UK 2015.
Two women dream of opening their own café in their post-industrial town, so when they meet an independent lender who offers to front them the cash they need, they think their dream has come true. Unfortunately, this man is human scum, and there is no limit to the sadistic measures he is willing to take to get his money. Not since Shylock has there been such a ruthless usurer. The script is razor sharp and the characters fully realised and human. I have heard the film classified as more of a thriller, but I believe that the pacing and omnipresent paranoia, along with a brutally good finale, reveal Brunt’s true horror allegiance.
- Tales of Halloween
Directors: Many. USA 2015.
The perfect finale to the festival, Tales of Halloween is a mega-anthology film featuring 10 shorts – directed by the likes of Darren Lynn Bousman, Lucky McKee, Neil Marshall and many more – all set on the same Halloween night. It is riddled with cameos and is made with so much affection for the genre that fans will not be able to resist its immense charm. It deserves a spot amongst the most accomplished anthology films ever made. Irreverent humour abounds, but there are some sincere scares, as well, so horror fans will want to get cozy with this warm, fuzzy blanket of a movie.
There you have it. Finally, here’s a list of films (with directors’ surnames) that I unfortunately did not see, and therefore cannot vouch for personally. Still, I have it on good authority that they’re excellent, and will track them down when I get the chance:
Landmine Goes Click (Bakhia)
Shut In (Schindler)
Rabid Dogs (Hannezo)
Road Games (Pastoll)
A Christmas Horror Story (Harvey et al)
Night Fare (Seri)
Body (Berk & Olsen)
Summer Camp (Marini)
I hope each and every one of the films named in this post gets the widest release possible. And if I’ve persuaded anyone to seek out these films, or to come see FrightFest for themselves, then I can finally sleep soundly (just kidding; catharsis experienced through good horror always knocks me out).
Happy viewing, and see you there next year,