Disclaimer: I only made it to Thursday, Friday and Monday of Horror Channel’s eminent festival of screams. But holy hell, do they know how to pack in those pictures (and the after-boozing, hence posting this late).
For those not in the know, FrightFest – now in its 18th year – is a five-day horror movie festival chock full of world and european premieres, sneak-peeks, short films and guests galore. Think of it as Cannes with chainsaws (and not just me).
There was a lot to see, a lot to drink, and I even had enough beer in me to drum up the nerves to pipe up during one of the many post-film Q&As.
Here’s what I saw!
THURSDAY: CULT OF CHUCKY, DEATH NOTE, PSYCHOPATHS
Cult of Chucky 
Dir: Don Mancini. Stars: Brad Dourif, Fiona Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Alex Vincent, Summer H. Powell.
Having never seen a Chucky movie (I was too little, and a newspaper tried to ban it after it was incorrectly said to inspire one of the UK’s most notorious homicide cases), I fear my opinion means very little. That said, it was a delightful introduction to everyone’s favourite murder doll, with enough creative gore, trash-talk and colourful set-ups to make for a wickedly fun first festival film.
Death Note 
Dir: Adam Wingard. Stars: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Willem DaFoe (voice).
Fucking hell. How long have you got for me to tell you how bad this is? Never mind that Wingard gave us the rather brilliant You’re Next, or DaFoe’s genius casting. Let’s focus on how you can take a mind-bending game of cat-and-mouse between two hyper-intelligent, cool-as-cucumber characters, and wilt it into an icky mess about a pathetic emo virgin (a horribly miscast Wolff) who only uses the titular death note because he’s pussy-whipped by Evil Sexy Psycho Cheerleader (Qualley), and repeatedly double-crossed by death god Ryuk (DaFoe), who seems to be acting like the anime’s lying, evil, bizarro twin. Occasionally hot on his heels is supposedly brilliant-but-unorthodox cop L (Stanfield, who is actually brilliant elsewhere) but he, too, throws his character origin’s toys out of the pram and ends up coming off as a hot-headed version of how 4chan might write an insultingly autistic Sherlock Holmes. There is some pleasing photography, but both the plot and the characters’ emotional arcs veer so rapidly all over the place that it’s hard not to see the whole thing as a parody. This is a Death Note movie in name only. Everyone in this, including Wingard, deserved better.
Dir: Mickey Keating. Stars: Ashley Bell, Angela Trimbur, Mark Kassen, Ivana Shein.
I trust Larry Fessenden, who executive-produced this and makes a split-second appearance as a cackling serial killer on TV. I also thoroughly enjoyed Keating’s gem Darling (largely due to Lauren Ashley Carter‘s deliciously unhinged performance).
But Psychopaths missed its mark. I’ll have to admit, the vibrant neon poster and FrightFest programme write-up implied we’d be in for a more linear comedy – psychopaths each trying to get their kills done in one madcap night. Instead, this is more of an unfocussed shoegaze collection of vignettes, self-indulgently under-edited, and strung loosely together by an unnecessary voiceover that feels like more of an afterthought.
FRIDAY: FREEHOLD, SEQUENCE BREAK, RADIUS, LEATHERFACE, DEATH SHACK
Dir: Dominic Bridges. Stars: Mim Shaikh, Javier Botet, Mandeep Dhillon.
When you’re horribly hungover, the last thing you want to see is a gangly homeless man (Botet), so repellent in appearance you can smell him through the screen, take an entire drawer of cutlery, throw it in the toilet, piss all over it, and then put it back in the drawer to dry. This, and other things, he does for revenge during 2/3 of thoroughly disgusting gross-out black comedy Freehold. In my opinion, it’s the worst thing he does, but there’s genuinely enough transgressions for you to pick a favourite. The literal toilet gags threaten to make this one-note as the film draws to its inevitable conclusion, but a charming cast and some mini rails against the state of the housing market elevate this a smidge. Also: sort-of talking pigeons.
Sequence Break 
Dir: Graham Skipper. Stars: Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, Lyle Kanouse.
Want to see a vintage arcade joypad have sex with a man’s hand? It’s not as camp as it sounds. Moody, full of spectacularly horrific special effects and nightmarish visuals, and with a suitably eerie industrial soundtrack, this sci-fi/horror about an insidiously possessed gaming console was an intriguing reunion for half the cast of John Dies at the End.
Dirs: Caroline LaBrèche, Steeve Léonard. Stars: Diego Klattenhoff (what a name), Charlotte Sullivan, Brett Donahue.
[argh! no trailer to be found!]
This bleak sci-fi mystery had me from the beginning: car-crash victim with amnesia discovers that anyone within a 50-foot radius of him turns white-eyed and drops dead. I’d rather not spoil it, but it actually gets far more interesting after this as the story unfolds. Expertly acted and tautly directed, be forewarned, though: it’s not one for the light-hearted.
Dirs: Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury. Stars: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Nicole Andrews, Sam Strike, Sam Coleman, Vanessa Grasse.
Anyone who knows me and wonders how I got the name ‘Chainsaw Phil’, well – you must not know me that well, because The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of favourite horror films. Don’t tell, but I quite liked the 2003 remake, with its gritty, sepia, industrial colour palette, attention to grotesque set decoration, and overall tone so mired in backwater that it’s literally dripping from every ceiling in the Chain Saw family house. So I’m happy to say that it looks like L’Interieur directors Bustillo and Maury must have thought the same thing, because while it is indeed a prequel, it’s also a love letter to Chain Saws past.
Die-hard TCM fans take heed: this is more of a teen road horror movie than the origin film you might have been expecting. Strong performances from Taylor as the fiercely overprotective clan matriarch and Dorff as a grieving, deranged Texas ranger boost this beyond forgettable genre fare. And hey, spot Iron Fist! Almost everyone but the kidnapped mental hospital nurse (Grasse) is some flavour of antagonist, making the final reveal that much more tragic: Leatherface doesn’t put on the mask because he wants to; but what else is there when even moonshine you found next to a rotting corpse won’t take the hillybilly pain away?
Dead Shack 
Dir: Peter Ricq. Stars: Valerie Tian, Donavon Stinson, Lizzie Boys, June B. Wilde, Matthew Nelson-Mayhood, Lauren Holly.
Despite being so knackered that I struggled to stay awake, Death Shack was the epitome of ‘fun horror flick’. Want hilariously over-the-top but realistic gore? Zombies? Hick horror? Mysterious killer/kidnappers? Have it all in one film, in which a group of teens try to save themselves and their drunk, stoned parents from a geared-up psycho and her zombie family. By turns very violent and very funny (the drunk dad is the best thing on screen), the film takes an jarring, abrupt turn in its final moments that seems at odds with its overall tone. Still, a mightily enjoyable ruckus.
MONDAY: STILL/BORN, LOWLIFE, BETTER WATCH OUT, THE TERROR OF HALLOW’S EVE, TRAGEDY GIRLS
Dir: Brandon Christensen. Stars: Christie Burke, Jesse Moss, Rebecca Olson.
For fuck’s sake, I just couldn’t with this film. First off: the title. There is NO NEED for the forward slash to be there. It is a real word, and it is an event that occurs at the beginning of this film. Secondly, I was impressed by how easily the movie takes a scenario for which even my Vantablack heart would feel sympathy and make me actively root against the character to triumph. Here’s how: new mother Mary (Burke) spends her days caring for her surviving newborn twin Adam (really?) while her husband Jack is off at work. Deliberately isolating herself from her caring husband, mother and neighbours, Mary makes a series of embarrassingly poor decisions that, if there were a Darwin award for ‘you shouldn’t be a parent’, she would be presenting all the trophies. There are one or two decent bits of atmospheric dread, but they’re burnt out by shoddy hysteria acting and reminders that we’ve spent the majority of the film trying to care about a woman who drinks out of mason jars and owns a daybed. A fucking daybed. And if you don’t feel sufficiently insulted after the groan-inducing, predictable climax, you can dissect the final shot in which Jack slowly looks into his baby’s crib to see the black end-credit scene. Fuck you, movie. I could have had an extra two hours in bed.
Dir: Ryan Prows. Stars: Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Shaye Ogbonna.
The second I saw an ICE agent acting like a total scumbag, I knew we were in for some fun. Harking back to the Pulp Fiction days when ribbons of grubby people’s lives were entangled, this might not be everyone’s bag. There’s a LOT of plot, all of which would have bordered on convoluted had it not been such an accurate portrayal of desperate Los Angeleans living below the poverty line. There are enough visuals, plot strands, and solidly-imbued, blackly humourous characters for you to scoop up and make your own movie with, but I’d say my favourite was El Monstruo, a thug-for-hire who never takes off his legendary late father’s Mexican wrestling mask and who seems to have wandered in from a far more intense film.
Better Watch Out
Dir: Chris Peckover. Stars: Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Patrick Warburton.
I am so happy to have seen a horror film that was heavily influenced by Home Alone – to the point of aggressively referencing its visual gags and even namechecking it. Babysitter Ashley (DeJonge) already has her hands full with her swooning charge Luke (Miller) while his parents are at a Christmas party. But soon they find themselves stalked by a mysterious intruder, who looks nothing like Santa, except maybe in Detroit.
Without spoiling things too much, Better Watch Out deftly unfurls into a movie you might not have seen coming, with buckets of bloody humour and fatalities that would make Mortal Kombat blush. Pair with Krampus for a frightful festive treat.
The Terror of Hallow’s Eve 
Dir: Todd Tucker. Stars: Caleb Thomas, Sarah Lancaster, Doug Jones.
This year’s answer to Trick ‘r’ Treat, The Terror of Hallow’s Eve has ticks all the boxes to earn a place on your Hallowe’en movie party night playlist: unique creature design (courtesy of Tucker’s pedigree as an makeup and props artist), 80s character archetypes, a cautionary running tale, gore that doesn’t hold back and, of course, a Hallowe’en night setting, complete with plenty of jack-o-lanterns. The only downside for me is that the scenes felt too dark, and I could tell that, if Tucker had more money at his disposal, the SFX would have been spectacular.
Tragedy Girls 
Dir: Tyler MacIntyre. Stars: Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Hutcherson.
[no trailer! boo.]
If Mean Girls were even meaner, this black comedy about two social-media-climbing BFFs was so good at being viciously satirical that I didn’t care that my own fixation over follower counts was caught in the crossfire. Shipp and Hildebrand play two high school crime bloggers who have no problems using their pet serial killer as a mentor to boost their web presence, and they’re everything that teenage girls are known to be: shallow, fashion-frenzied, energetic, backstabbing and forever falling in and out of friendship. Well-paced and funny enough to bear repeat viewings, the dialogue stays just on the right side of Diablo-Cody-tryhard to cement this as a fiercely bitchy cult classic.
And that was my second FrightFest! Hopefully I’ll get to do the full weekend next year, but I might have to work my way up to it. God, I wish this was my job.
My Top 5 for FrightFest 2017 (Thur/Fri/Mon):
- Cult of Chucky
- Tragedy Girls
- Better Watch Out
- Death Shack