For the most part, Saturday was the big day for this year’s FrightFest, which is exactly what you might expect. Several of the most anticipated screenings of the festival took place and, for those who were unable to book five days off from work to watch horror films, it was also the most practical day to attend.
Abbatoir is the latest film from director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV, Repo! The Genetic Opera), and his best and most accomplished to date. Based on his own comic book series, the film is a daring genre blend, cinema history’s finest Stephen King-tinged real estate serial killer noir haunted house mystery. Its plot sees journalist Jessica Lowndes and detective Joe Anderson, playing off each other with a fully intentional Bogart/Bacall reminiscence, investigating the disappearance of the “murder rooms” of several houses; rooms in which slayings and other grisly deaths have occurred are being literally ripped out for God knows what purpose – or, I should say, Satan knows. The film’s concoction of weirdo concepts, highly stylised dialogue, and chocolate-box visuals won’t be for everyone, but those with a taste for something a little different will find this one a rare treat indeed.
Short Film Showcase One
I always make sure to attend FrightFest’s short film programmes; shorts are where up-and-coming directors cut their teeth, and are often more packed with more inventiveness in their short runtimes than several features put together. The first such programme kicked off with “Gwilliam”, a very sick, very silly short about a recently-released convict looking for a good time. This was followed by “Connie”, the longest and most complete of the first programme, in which an aspiring stand-up teams with a ventriloquist puppet who has a mind of her own. Featuring a number of solid laughs, a plot that is neither too thin nor too ambitious for its runtime, and a “very, very special guest appearance” from Kim Newman, this one was a highlight. Next was “Blight”, more an effects team’s calling card than a short, light on plot but featuring some extremely impressive digital effects that actually resemble the practical effects of The Thing or The Evil Dead. “The Stylist” is an exceptionally well-realised, darkly humorous short that might do for haircuts as Psycho did for showers or Jaws for beaches. “Neck and Neck”, an animated interpretation of Othello, was an odd choice for a horror programme, but really nails Shakespeare’s themes and is a pleasure to watch. “The Garden”, a science-fiction short, suffers from being set in one of the generic dystopias in which SF shorts always seem to take place, but manages some rather beautiful dance scenes. The final short of this set, “Bow Wow Bow”, is a Korean oddity, again not much of a horror, but it does feature a brilliant shock moment in the form of a monstrously-sized penis which, if it isn’t a prosthetic, surely holds some kind of record.
The Master Cleanse
Meet Johnny Galecki, playing even more of a loser than he does on The Big Bang Theory. His fiancée has left him, he appears to have no friends, his career is going nowhere, and he spends his evenings eating chocolate and browsing the Internet. So when he happens to catch a late-night infomercial detailing a free mountain retreat that purports to cleanse those who undergo it physically, mentally and spiritually, he’s all over it. But the specifics of that cleanse turn out to be rather darker than imagined, as all the subjects’ negativity is realised in physical form after its purging. Thematically Cronenberg is an obvious reference point, but the warm, deeply human style is his antithesis. Presumably too strange and genre-bending to find a mass market, The Master Cleanse certainly deserves to become a modern classic – it’s already quite literally a cult film.
Beyond the Walls
As a bit of a break from all the films, why not enjoy a full screening of a brilliant French miniseries? Over three 50-minute episodes Beyond the Walls tells the story of a house that, beyond its walls, houses a nightmare dimension of endless, windowless, corridors and rooms. Our hero Lisa inherits the house from a long-dead neighbour that she never even knew and soon finds herself trapped within its terrifying living architecture, avoiding its ghoul-like Other occupants while trying to comprehend its secrets. The screenings served a promotional purpose for the soon-to-launch horror TVOD service Shudder, who have demonstrated absolutely impeccable taste by choosing this as one of their launch titles. It’s the most original take on the haunted house – not to mention on Lovecraft – in years and years.
The Love Witch
Ahead of the festival, this was one of the films I had my heart absolutely set on, based on almost nothing other than stills from the film in all their Technicolor glory. The project is the brainchild of Anna Biller, who worked as writer, director, producer, editor, composer, production designer, costume designer, and – who knows? – probably took charge of catering, security, transport, and finance while she was at it. The result is a hypnotic vision that’s difficult to describe; during a Q&A, audiences identified influences including Argento, Russ Meyer, The Wicker Man and Hammer horror, but Biller herself denied any particular connection with genre history, instead citing melodrama, second-wave feminism, and the Golden Age of Hollywood. However you choose to look at it, there’s no denying that the film is as beautiful and captivating as its instant star Samantha Robinson. It achieves the rare distinction of every frame being worthy of framing and hanging on your wall, and manages to balance its strange brew of playfully kinky sex, occultism, “women’s lib”, humour, and supernatural horror but it must be said that, for all its splendour, it suffers a little from a repetitive plot and a runtime (120 mins) that can’t be justified by pitch-perfect homage alone.
Sadako Vs. Kayako
Going in, this was the big film of the festival for me. Evidently I had failed to learn from history, as my 13-year-old self spent a year or so breathless with excitement for Alien vs. Predator; I vividly remember declaring that “there’s no possible way it can be bad”. However, as with King Kong vs. Godzilla, Freddy versus Jason or Batman v Superman, it was a disappointment and a cop-out to boot. Crossing over the Ringu and Ju-On franchises, twin giants of J-horror, seems like a natural proposition, given their shared themes of curses, revenge, wrongfully killed women, and – which one did it first again? – long, prehensile black hair. On the other hand, the first few Ringus and Ju-Ons were handled by Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu, respectively, both of them geniuses of horror direction, and in their absence both series have churned out awkward, CGI-heavy, utterly unscary pieces of pure product. Sadako Vs. Kayako suffers from a similar drought of genuinely shudder-worthy scenes, and remakes the mythology of both series to its own ends, not always wisely. But, it has a certain madcap, manga-esque charm to it, and its first forty minutes lean heavily on some self-referential humour that, while it constitutes something of a travestying, is undeniably jolly good fun.
Did you attend this year’s FrightFest? What were your thoughts on these three films? Let us know in the comment box below!