The best of FrightFest 2015

From a primeval Steve Oram to Miike Takashi’s metacinematic kabuki adaptation and a docu-nightmare about sleep paralysis from the director of Room 237, this year’s horror fiesta is more stacked than ever. Anton Bitel previews nine of the best.

Anton Bitel
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Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

With the nights growing longer again, it’s once again open season on horror cinema, as the UK’s genre-oriented festivals shuffle along in rapid succession – Manchester’s Grimmfest (1-4 October), Whitby’s Bram Stoker International Film Festival (22-25 October), Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams (23-25 October) and Aberystwyth’s Abertoir (10-15 November). Yet earlier and bigger than all of these is London’s Film4 FrightFest, showcasing an unprecedented 76 horror titles over the August Bank Holiday weekend, and setting the agenda for the rest of the year’s thrills, chills and ills.

Plenty of the films on offer will merely play a slasher’s numbers game, going through the familiar motions and modalities of horror without much advancing the genre or taking viewers out of their uneasy safety zones – but here is a selection of outré, extreme or otherwise odd titles from this year’s FrightFest that are set to redefine the margins of this marginal niche.

Aaaaaaaah!

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Steve Oram is an actor best known for gadding about the periphery of genre, whether as the serial-killing caravanner Chris in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (2012) – which he co-wrote – or as the grizzled copper in Ivan Kavanagh’s meta-cinematic ghost story The Canal (2014). Now Aaaaaaaah!, his feature debut as director, writer and editor, guarantees him a place not only at the top of any alphabetised film list, but also at the forefront of a peculiarly British strand of filmmaking (associated with Wheatley and the production house Rook Films) that merges the banally accessible with the wildly experimental.

Oram plays Smith, a stranger who emerges from the woods with his subservient companion Keith (Tom Meeten) in tow, and disrupts the already fragile dynamics of a family living on the city’s edge. Playing out like the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey with a side serving of Battenberg cake, or like Teorema (also 1968) with added atavism, this primitivist film, set in contemporary (if 70s-worshipping) times, goes ape on modern living, reducing all dialogue to grunts, gibbers and squawks, and all human behaviour to its most animalistic level.

It’s a funny, shocking call to devolution, revealing us all for the domesticated but barely civilised creatures that we are. With its irreverent, unsettling social satire and much monkeying about, Aaaaaaaah! first dismembers and then reassembles the primeval drives of patriarchy in its own singular way, and will no doubt elicit from viewers plenty of ooooohs, hahahas and even the odd ‘huh?’.

Curtain

Curtain (2015)

Curtain (2015)

Director Jaron Henrie-McCrea has a bit of a thing for Alfred Hitchcock. His 2012 feature debut was called Pervertigo, and his follow-up Curtain uses a New York apartment’s bathroom – and more specifically its shower, that key location for horror ever since Hitch’s Psycho – as the launchpad for some bizarro multidimensional madness.

After the strange death of its former occupant, ex-nurse Danni (Danni Smith) moves in, hoping for some independence from her uncle (Rick Zahn) and maybe some distance from a past mental breakdown – only to discover, once she has started cleaning up the place, that the bathroom has a habit of eating any shower curtain she puts up. This mystery will take Dani and her whale-obsessed colleague Tim (Tim Lueke) on a journey, via different routes, to a hidden portal in the woods of New Jersey where their nightmares – but perhaps also their wildest dreams – will be monstrously realised.

Curtain is a self-consciously low-budget affair, with Dani’s domestic redecoration matching Henri-McCrea’s DIY approach to filmmaking and special effects; it has the feel of a calling card. (“Who knows what doors this curtain thing is going to open up,” as Tim declares.) But it’s also endlessly inventive and ambitious, blending the lo-fi creature effects (and 80s sensibilities) of Basket Case with the high-concept oddity of Being John Malkovich. Charming and weird enough to get away with its rough edges, it can along the way seem a bit meandering, especially in its focus on Tim’s Save the Whales fixation, but in the end every (narrative) hook on this Curtain fits neatly into place.

Landmine Goes Click

Landmine Goes Click (2015)

Landmine Goes Click (2015)

A landmine is all latent potential. It lies hidden, sometimes for years, and then when triggered brings indiscriminate death and devastation to all caught in its vicinity – which also makes it a horrific device for cinematic suspense, as well as a powerful metaphor.

Landmine Goes Click, from Georgian director Levan Bakhia (247˚F), may have a title that seems staggeringly literal, not least since in its opening act American tourist Chris (Sterling Knight), out hiking in the Georgian mountains with his best friend Daniel (Dean Geyer) and Daniel’s fiancée Alicia (Spencer Locke), steps on an explosive device. Yet as Chris must stay immobile for fear of releasing the kill switch, local man Ilya (Kote Tolordava) arrives and spots an opportunity for some sadistic sexual power play – which will end with all the collateral damage and unintended consequences of a real landmine, except that this one is purely figurative.

Landmine Goes Click begins as a variant on Hostel, with Americans abroad finding themselves entrapped in foreign hostility – but by the time it has twisted its way to the bitterest of conclusions, a horrid symmetry of experience has been imposed on the host country, and Chris is left frozen and wrong-footed by the explosive aggression that he finds within himself.

Trace the blast pattern to its source and you see a causal chain leading all the way back to a ticking time bomb of errant masculinity, exposed for all its emptiness. This makes for very uneasy viewing, as every female character becomes a pawn in these men’s vicious Funny Games. By the time Chris says to Ilya – but also direct to the camera, and therefore to us – “Do you like this? Do you like seeing this?”, the film’s confronting tensions have come full circle, and Bakhia delivers the terrible, violent detonation that we have been dreading (but also desiring), right from the moment we saw the film’s title. Its payload is powerful enough that no one can emerge looking pretty or feeling comfortable.

The Lesson

The Lesson (2015)

The Lesson (2015)

With his mother dead, his father abroad and his older brother Jake (Tom Cox) eager to kick him out, Fin (Evan Bendall) is unloved, unsupported and in with a bad crowd of sexist, delinquent peers. On his sixteenth birthday his disgruntled English teacher Mr Gale (Robert Hands) finally cracks, and decides to teach Fin and his friend Joe (Rory Colhart) a hard lesson in the history of education, ethics and humanity. Fin and Joe’s survival is the carrot, and a range of domestic tools the stick – even as Jake’s Polish girlfriend Mia (Michaela Prchalová) alone looks for the missing teenager.

Binding didacticism with torture porn to nail home its points about the civilising role of pedagogy, Ruth Platt’s low-budget labour of love is so very smartly written, and so slippery in its message (given the psychosis of the messenger) that you can forgive the longueurs that bookend Gale’s captive class. A lament for lost potential and a plea for personal and national improvement, it delivers its themes in the key words that Gale makes Fin look up in the dictionary – and Gale’s disciplinarian extremity yields unexpectedly rapid results in a pupil with a hitherto untapped intelligence. Somewhere in this stinging dialectic we viewers too are confronted and tested to the limits on the value of literature and learning in a deprived, often depraved society.

The Nightmare

The Nightmare (2015)

The Nightmare (2015)

The first thing we see in The Nightmare is the darkened interior of what will turn out to be a TV studio. As ‘Chris C.’ describes how, when he was just five, he saw a news anchor address him directly by name through the TV screen, the camera tracks from the shadows to the news desk, and the anchor does just that, even as a little boy stands before an old television set, watching (as we do).

This disorienting introduction, combining an interview (with a real, if partially anonymised subject) and a stylised, literally mediated reconstruction of what he is saying, turns out to be programmatic for the latest feature from the maker of Room 237. For as eight people are interviewed about the sleep paralysis that has long afflicted them, director Robert Ascher (himself a sufferer) also reproduces their described experiences on screen, blurring the boundaries between documentary material and vividly, often terrifyingly realised horror tropes.

“It’s a kind of horror that is worse than in the movies,” comments Connie Y. – and yet Ascher’s interviewees keep returning to horror films (in particular A Nightmare On Elm Street, Communion, Jacob’s Ladder and Insidious) as analogues, even inspirations for their nocturnal hallucinations. The result is an unusually frightening documentary – and given the insistence of Jeff R. that sleep paralysis is a “sleep-transmitted disease” that you can contract (as he did) merely by being told about it, Ascher’s film holds out the sinister promise of triggering a new outbreak amongst its own viewers.

Over Your Dead Body

(Kuime)

Over Your Dead Body (2015)

Over Your Dead Body (2015)

“Sometimes I wish that the play was my real life,” says husband and father Jun (Ito Hideaki). “I don’t,” replies Miyuki (Shibasaki Ko), who is playing the wronged wife Iwa in a production of Yotsuya Kaidan, even as she suspects that her lover (and co-star) Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) is, like the immoral samurai Iemon whose part he is rehearsing, about to abandon her for a much younger woman (played both on and off stage by Nakanishi Miho). A supernatural comeuppance awaits both Iemon and Kosuke, for whom the fourth wall will present no barrier.

Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s 1825 kabuki play Yostuya Kaidan first appeared as a film in 1912, and has since been adapted more than 30 times for the big screen, most famously as Nakagawa Nabuo’s The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959). Yet with Over Your Dead Body (Kuime), Miike Takashi brings this stately tale of conjugal treachery and ghostly revenge right into the 21st century – without ever forgetting its roots.

Half the film is a gorgeously shot dress rehearsal of the play in a stylised period setting on a state-of-the-art rotating stage, while the other half shows more or less the same drama unfolding in Miyuke’s elegant, minimalist home – and these two parallel narratives bleed into one another in a deeply irrational manner, blurring the boundaries between theatre and film, antique and (post)modern, actor and character, the living and the dead. Miike builds to an unnerving and horrific third act in which a phantom pregnancy engenders something strange and monstrous – while he also reinvents the menacing heroine of his first horror film, Audition, which screened at the inaugural FrightFest in 2000.

The Rotten Link

(El eslabón podrido)

The Rotten Link (El eslabón podrido, 2015)

The Rotten Link (El eslabón podrido, 2015)

“Welcome to El Escondido” reads the wooden sign which snaps off its supporting chain and brains Roberta (Paula Brasca) at the beginning of The Rotten Link. The rest of the film will be a chronicle of a death foretold, showing the loose links in the chain of events that lead to this accident and its bloody aftermath, as the delicate balance of an isolated Argentine village is upset by small-town superstition, forbidden desire and the community’s own rotten core.

In El Escondido (aptly named after the Spanish for ‘hidden’), everyone has their assigned role, local politics are conspiratorial and secrets and lies remain behind closed doors. Roberta, a town prostitute, lives with her dim-witted woodcutting brother Raulo (Luis Ziembrowski) and her half-clairvoyant, half-demented mother Ercilia (a formidable Marilú Marini).

Foreseeing her daughter’s doom, Ercilia warns Roberta that there must always remain one man in town with whom she has not slept. But Roberta’s resistance to the lustful Sicilio (Germán De Silva) sets the family at odds with the other townsfolk, who need Sicilio sweetened for a plan (to quote the prophetic words of the priest, played by director and co-writer Valentín Javier Diment) “to give what we have to offer to other towns, to get people to come here”.

This little village of the damned and the dead is like the mythic Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez’s writings – an allegorical zone where the human condition plays itself out as dark, transgressive fable. The movie is all the better for lying off the grid of horror’s usual map while still holding on to the genre’s toolkit.

Sun Choke

Sun Choke (2015)

Sun Choke (2015)

The setting is a luxurious, sun-dappled, peaceful home and garden on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but with the strange, strained relationship between its two female residents gradually coming into focus, Sun Choke also proves to be, as its title implies, a suffocatingly claustrophobic film.

As Irma (Barbara Crampton) manages and monitors the (adult) “little girl” Janie (Sarah Hagan) in a strict daily routine of children’s colouring-in exercises, yoga, hypnotherapy, physical check-ups and medication, we are left to wonder whether this regime is, as Irma insists in her calm tones, a “protection” to help Janie “get better”, or an abusive, invasive measure of sadistic imprisonment. Where Irma imposes order, the slyly resistant Janie introduces chaos. Finally granted day leave as a reward for perceived improvement, Janie leaves the uterine safety of the home to transfer her emotional imprint onto a female stranger (Sara Malakul Lane) – and to unsettle the fragile balance that Irma has created for her.

A subjectified portrait of a woman whose emergences have always been messy, Sun Choke is, in keeping with a protagonist who comes in more than one ‘version’, a disorienting, dissociative affair, reminiscent in parts of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009) – and all beautiful, tense, hallucinatory and deeply disturbing. In his second feature, writer/director Ben Cresciman (Negative Space) has the confidence to unfold his richly heady narrative largely through suggestive symmetries and recurring motifs (eggs, water, blood). Here motherlessness and madness are portrayed inside and out – and the result is a puzzling, perplexing kind of perfection, with the flaws built in from birth.

III

III (2015)

III (2015)

“Where am I?” asks a man near the beginning of Pavel Khvaleev’s directorial debut. He’d been a patient in quarantine at a clinic, but has now resurfaced in the middle of a mist-filled lake, as disoriented as the viewer. Before his removal from the clinic, three streams of blood were seen dripping down its tiled walls, in a visual reference to the film’s title.

That title, like the film itself, comes with mysterious, ritualistic resonances. Three is the number of shamanic journeys that Ayia (Polina Devydova) will eventually take into the troubled subconscious of her ailing sister Mirra (Lyubov Ignatushko), in the hope of saving her from a deadly disease that is plaguing the town’s population (and has already killed the girls’ mother). Yet the title seems also to involve a pun on the English word ‘ill’ (much as the film also plays at one point on the similarity of Mirra’s name to the English word ‘mirror’).

In this dreamy space of free associations and interlinguistic slippage, Khvaleev has crafted a confusing, contradictory world where a hallucinatory alternative universe exists in parallel to the town’s reality, where an electro-industrial score modulates the community’s at times medieval-seeming present, and where Christian and pagan commingle uneasily – especially in the ambiguous person of the local priest, played by Eugeniy Gagarin. Despite its odd anti-clerical, anti-authoritarian streak, the film may ultimately feel abstract to the point of emptiness, but it is an aesthete’s wet nightmare. Like Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, or Christopher Nolan’s Inception reimagined by Andrei Tarkovsky, III’s vision is beautifully, headily captivating.

 

Corrections (27 August 2015): this article originally credited the direction of III to Aleksandra Khvaleeva, who in fact is its screenwriter; the director is Pavel Khvaleev. This has now been amended.

The image used to illustration Over Your Dead Body was originally a still from Miike Takashi’s Yakuza Apocalypse. This has now been changed.

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