FrightFest Halloween All-Dayer 2017: seven flavours of fear

Variety was the spice of fright at this year’s Halloween horror marathon, with a mix of features approaching horror from all possible angles. That’s what made it such a thrilling celebration of the genre.

Anton Bitel
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The Owlman circles in Lawrie Brewster’s The Black Gloves, an old-dark-house noir that’s ‘self-consciously old-fashioned in form but not at all so in its gender politics’ 

The Owlman circles in Lawrie Brewster’s The Black Gloves, an old-dark-house noir that’s ‘self-consciously old-fashioned in form but not at all so in its gender politics’ 

For this year’s Halloween All-Dayer event, FrightFest moved into new, bigger digs – the Empire on Haymarket, London – and treated those attending to an eclectic mix of seven features, whose very variety (from making-of documentary to crazy genre pot-pourris to self-conscious slashers to post-apocalyptic romance to haunted retro noir to Lovecraftian psychodrama) was key to their collective appeal.

 

Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

Gary Doust, UK

“What I don’t want to be is the guy who dies not having done what they should have done. So I’m going to make a movie – about an aborted foetus that survives its abortion and grows up and kills its family.”

So, with hilarious self-awareness, says TV comedian/director Craig Anderson at the beginning of this documentary from Gary Doust, which follows Anderson’s efforts to make Red Christmas (which screened at FrightFest in 2016) on a very tight budget and schedule, to keep veteran scream queen Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) happy, and to learn the hard way how film marketing works. Typically making-of features are relegated to the extras on a home video package, but then, they rarely get such intimate all-areas access to their director. Perhaps because of his inexperience in the film world, Anderson is disarmingly frank, talking openly not just about his frustrations and self-doubt as a filmmaker, but also about his physical discomfort from a recent circumcision.

The production plays out like an anxiety-riddled comedy of errors, while Anderson’s confidence and talent gradually emerge, as seen, for example, in his sensitive direction of star Gerard O’Dwyer (who has Down’s syndrome) during one emotionally harrowing scene. This all serves as a thoroughly charming backstory to the ordinary – and not so ordinary – people behind the kind of films that play at FrightFest.

 

Hostile

Mathieu Turi, USA

2017 must be the year when women with histories of addiction get stuck in the post-apocalyptic desert with only their emotional baggage and a male zombie for company. First there was Colin Minihan’s It Stains the Sand Red, and now Mathieu Turi’s feature debut Hostile. While out on a scavenging mission, Juliette (Brittany Ashworth) is left trapped by an accident in her upended truck, with a crippling compound fracture, and an aggressive creature (Javier Botet) circling outside. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Juliette flashes back to episodes of her pre-apocalyptic heroin dependency and her star-cross’d relationship with Jack (Grégory Fitoussi), the white-knight gallery owner whose specialty is (or was) the beautiful monsters painted by Francis Bacon – until these two timelines merge into a single story (albeit in two genres) of isolation, desperation, pain, ruin, perseverance and love.

Beautifully shot by Vincent Vieillard-Baron with two very different lighting schemes (richly coloured past, arid present), this is a strange coupling of romance and horror, with Juliette always trying to make it through the long dark night even as her past seems destined to catch up with her. It is perhaps a little overschematic in its time-switching match cuts, and is constantly flirting with an element of strong cheese (quite literally, in one early scene), but it builds to a climactic confrontation between heroine and monster that is both surprising and moving.

 

It Came from the Desert

Marko Mäkilaakso, Finland

“To me it really embodied what those movies should be about,” comments Lisa (Vanessa Grasse). “The stunt work and the ridiculous plot, combined with the increased budget, really gelled.”

Lisa is talking about movie-within-a-movie Eradicator 3, a cheesy, schlocky SF action pic – but she might as well be summarising her own cinematic adventure in this self-knowing piece of termite art from director/co-writer Marko Mäkilaakso. Here improbable hybridity is the name of the game: a film set in the New Mexican desert, but shot in Almeria, Spain and Turku, Finland, about monsters merged from the DNA of fire ants, tarantulas and fallen aliens. It is freely adapted from the 1989 video game It Came from the Desert, which was in turn adapted from Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954), and has along the way amassed new intertextuality with Eight-Legged Freaks, Starship Troopers, Marvel’s Avengers (especially Ant-Man), The Lord of the Rings, Army of Darkness and even Deep Throat.

Its own plot is utterly disposable, but offers plenty of opportunity for brainy young bike mechanic Brian (Harry Lister Smith) to come of age while destroying giant invertebrates and getting the girl. The ants themselves chuckle along gleefully, modelling the ideal viewer response. Its sensibilities were all a bit too adolescent for my tastes (and age), but for those still fixated on brewskies and formication, It Came from the Desert is a monstrously fun ride.

 

Beyond Skyline

Liam O’Donnell, USA

Similarly silly is this sequel to Skyline. The Strause brothers unleashed the original in 2010 on a barely approving public (although I was a fan of the paternal anxieties that formed its subtext), showcasing the work of their own VFX house Hydraulx as they presented a Los Angeles apartment’s view of a full-scale invasion of Earth by brain-harvesting aliens – with a batshit ending that left everything literally up in the air and begging for a sequel. Now, seven years later, the original film’s co-writer Liam O’Donnell steps up to the mark with his directorial debut, at first retelling the original’s LA invasion from street (and underground) level, and then borrowing from the follow-ups to The Purge both lead actor Frank Grillo, and a see-what-sticks approach to sequel making.

So it is that after a middle section aboard the same alien spaceship where Skyline ended, events somehow shift inexplicably to Laos (or Indonesia doubling as Laos) – a convenient (and picturesque) buffer zone between the film’s Vietnam guerrilla warfare themes and its casting of Indonesian actors Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (The Raid) for some human-on-alien martial arts action. There are also evocations of both the Predator and Transformers series, and an ending near identical to that of fellow-travelling sequel Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) – and even clown-to-camera bloopers over the closing credits. Whether any of this amounts to very much is open to question, but it never takes itself seriously, and is just crazy enough to divert the attention for its duration, before probably being forgotten for ever.

 

The Black Gloves

Laurie Brewster, UK

After young patient Susan (Briony Monroe), fleeing in terror from a figure she calls the ‘Owlman’, plummets to her death in a manner that evokes Vertigo, her guilt-ridden psychologist Finn Galloway (Jamie Scott Gordon) heads out to the remote Baldurrock Estate in pursuit of Elisa Grey (Alexandra Nicole Hulme), an ex-ballerina with a similar background and psychological profile. There Finn falls under the spell of Elisa’s peculiar and domineering ballet mistress Lorena Velasco (Macarena Gómez), and finds himself in a scenario more akin to a different Hitchcock film, Rebecca – with a bit of Swan Lake, Livid and Black Swan thrown in for good measure – even as the Owlman circles with an ominous presence that is all his own.

In fact The Black Gloves is a loose prequel to director Lawrie Brewster and writer Sarah Daly’s debut feature Lord of Tears (2013), with which it shares its location, several cast members (in different roles) and its Moloch-based mythology – but this new film’s setting in the 1940s brings with it period-appropriate stylings that make the film an old-dark-house noir, with canted angles and chiaroscuro shadowplay all wrapped up in monochrome presentation and a wonderfully melodramatic score.

The shrill hysteria of Gómez’s performance perfectly modulates the tone here, which is knowingly funny, but still always unnerving. The film looks glorious – and though self-consciously old-fashioned in form, it is ultimately not at all so in its gender politics, as Elisa, controlled and victimised, must choose what she really desires, and what she is prepared to sacrifice for it. This was one of my two favourite films of the weekend, along with…

 

Housewife

Can Evrenol, Turkey

Like his 2015 feature debut Baskin, writer/director Can Evrenol’s Housewife opens with a primal scene of domestic trauma. In a snowbound mansion, after praying to the portrait of her mother and playing host to invisible ‘visitors’, a deranged woman drowns her menarcheal older daughter in the toilet and, as her husband intervenes to save the life of their younger daughter Holly, cuts his throat before the traumatised little girl’s eyes.

Decades later, Holly (Clémentine Poidatz) still lives with the ripples of that childhood nightmare – wary of toilets and reluctant to have her own children, even as she tends house for her husband Timusin (Ali Aksöz), an occult writer and painter. When ‘dream-surfing’ Bruce O’Hara (David Sakurai) and his ‘family’ roll into town to win over new recruits to their apocalyptic cult Umbrella Love and Mind, Holly falls under his mesmeric influence and is either confronted with her dynastic destiny or triggered into a psychotic episode.

As we try to find our way back through this psychological labyrinth to some sort of reality, we are never quite sure whether what we see unraveling in Housewife is Holly’s legacy of matrilineal madness, or the advent of transdimensional visitors ushering in an unnatural birth and a tentacular doomsday. It is probably best, as Bruce tells Holly, to “accept the mystery” – but take some time along the way to savour Antoni Maiovvi’s synth-and-choir score, and Tayman Tekin’s Dutch angles and giallo-esque gel-filtered colourings. For Evrenol has crafted another elegant homage to Lucio Fulci’s more feverish imaginings, in a landscape that is as much mental as material. This beautifully disturbing vision of family perverted is a Lovecraftian psychosexual snowglobe of a film, like a fairytale fantasy dreamt up by a child – or by an arrested, damaged adult.

 

Terrifier

Damien Leone, USA

The event’s midnight-hour closer opens with a staticky TV showing an interview with the sole, horrifically disfigured survivor of a massacre perpetrated exactly one year earlier by a man in a clown costume, now missing and presumed dead – only for a figure to smash the old TV in anger and put on clown makeup while loading his bag of tricks with tools and weapons. For on this Halloween night, Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) will return to repeat his rampage of bloody terror – and will turn his mindless slaughter into an expression of performance Art.

Damien Leone’s film is a return in more ways than one. Not only is it revisiting the killer clown from his earlier shorts The 9th Circle (2008) and Terrifier (2011) and his feature debut All Hallows’ Eve (2013), but it is also, with Paul Wiley’s pounding synth score, its incredibly gory practical effects, and the silent, unstoppable killing machine at its centre, a throwback to the slasher sensibilities of the 80s (despite its present-day setting).

Thornton brilliantly stays in rôle throughout as a fun-loving mime artist, ensuring that all his slayings involve an unnerving combination of predatory sadism and popular performance. This of course makes him a perfect vehicle for the paradoxes of horror entertainment – and of horror as entertainment. At one point Art also paints his own name in shit on a toilet wall, in what is another self-conscious reflex for the genre’s admixture of high and low.

If all this Art-ful nastiness is a subtext-free thrill-and-kill ride which openly advertises the sheer senselessness and gratuity of all its on-screen cat-and-mouse deaths by numbers, it is also an unapologetically ‘pure’ genre entry, confronting – and amusing – us with all the sinister masked vicariousness of the Halloween spirit that in fact this entire FrightFest event was celebrating.

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