Saturday at FrightFest was my longest day at the festival: I caught a total of four films, choosing to miss PAURA 3D and get completely soaked by a passing thunderstorm instead (a decision that proved to be a surprisingly astute one, by all accounts).
It’s a day that I won’t soon forget, for a variety of reasons: here’s how it played out.
EUROCRIME!: THE ITALIAN COP AND GANGSTER FILMS THAT RULED THE ‘70s
Here’s a film I had really been looking forward to, after recently going through a heavy period of watching nothing but poliziotteschi, the Italian genre of cop/crime movies that went through its heyday in the 70s and has recently been going something of a revival, with the release last year of an acclaimed Blu-ray box set from the master Fernando Di Leo (and you check out the Cigarette Burns screening of Di Leo’s brilliant MILANO CALIBRO 9 on Sept 9, if you live in the London area). Italian superstar Franco Nero says in the film that there is ‘something in the air’ regarding a poliziotteschi revival, so this documentary is a timely look at an Italian genre that as yet doesn’t have the recognition of fellow Italian cinematic innovations such as giallo and the spaghetti westerns.
Arriving on a wave of festival hype comes this found-footage anthology movie, partly funded and created by the minds behind of one of the web’s most prominent horror sites, Bloody Disgusting. This esteemed background combined with its status as the annual Sundance film to have induced fainting fits in audiences (a title inherited from last year’s punishingly intense THE WOMAN), meant V/H/S was Frightfest’s most buzzed about film, becoming the first showing to sell out and the only film showing on the main screen to be afforded a second screening due to demand.
So how does it stand up to all the hype? Very well, as it turns out. As with any anthology piece, the chances of a 100% success rate are slim, and V/H/S doesn’t quite manage the home run that has, in fairness, eluded most of it peers up until now. However, of the five stories (six, if you count the framing device), I loved four of them and thought only one was outright duff, a very impressive success rate considering that even the best entries in the genre suffer from inconsistencies.
Unfortunately the aforementioned wrap-around story is one of the weakest aspects of the film – directed by Adam Wingard (YOU’RE NEXT, which I’ve heard fantastic things about and was vaguely surprised not to see in attendance at FrightFest), the story follows a bunch of delinquent youths who pass their time by harassing girls and smashing up derelict buildings (while videoing their exploits, natch). When one of them is offered a ’job’ to steal a videotape from an abandoned house with the promise of more criminal work in the future, the gang enter and discover a dead body lying by a pile of VHS tapes. This story, which we return to in between the shorts, is fine, but lacks resolution and the real scares found in the the discovered 'tapes'.
The first such tape is David Bruckner’s Amateur Night, a story of a night out on the pull amongst some fairly repugnant bros - the night wraps up when they retreat to their motel room with only the freakiest girl at the club left to party with. Unbeknownst to her, the shyest of their number has a hidden camera in his glasses, and is goaded by the others to film a gang bang that they’ve all spent the night angling for. Needless to say, things don’t quite go to plan (Let’s just assume this sentence should conclude all V/H/S plot synopses from now on). It’s the perfect way to start the film, as it has pitch of intensity that lets the audience know what they’re in for straight away. It’s technically excellent, with some impressive effects, and uses the potentially dodgy hidden camera conceit to interesting and powerful effect, particularly in its concluding stages.
The next segment, Second Honeymoon, follows a couple on a trip to the Grand Canyon. While out there, the pair have a strange encounter with a hitch-hiker, which haunts them for the remainder of the trip. This is definitely a Ti West movie – by far the quietest, least flashy of the stories, it uses the long silences and slow-burning approach that characterized HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS, only within the confines of the ‘found footage’ format. West finds really interesting ways to play with this style, which can so often feel forced and unrealistic. Often in Second Honeymoon what we don’t see once the camera is off is almost, if not more important than what we do. It’s also one of the most narratively satisfying story of the bunch for me, with a proper end and a good twist.
Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th was the only short not to do anything for me – a group of teenagers go to the woods and get stoned, where they eventually attract the attentions of a serial killer. The twist here is how the serial killer responds to being filmed, but there’s really nothing to this piece – it’s gory, silly and not scary, with nothing to really say as a pastiche of slasher tropes, and worse still it completely lacks an ending. That said, there are a few nice touches and interesting ideas that elevate it above a bog-standard slasher, and for the pacing of V/H/S as a whole (which is surprisingly excellent) it’s a necessary entry to adequately bridge the gap between the shorts it precedes and follows. Also, as V/H/S is clearly aiming to be a not just an anthology but a best-of, love letter to 80s video horror, there needed to be a slasher segment in there somewhere. It’s just a shame it’s so inconsequential.
Next up is The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, which is arguably the most talked-about of all the V/H/S segments, filmed as it is as a Skype conversation between a couple who suspect g there may be a supernatural presence in the woman's house. There’s no denying that there’s something inherently creepy about the Skype format, and director Joe Swanberg (HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, also the star of Second Honeymoon) uses his microbudget indie credentials to wring some good scares and a lot of humour out of a potentially constricting filming template. Some have said that filming a Skype conversation is cheating the V/H/S concept, but it’s not something that particularly bothered me – although after a very strong start I found the final twist and resolution to the story a little unsatisfying, at least on first watch.
Rounding things up is 10/31/98, a short about a group of fratty guys (yes, another group of fratty guys) who go to a Halloween party only to find it empty. OR IS IT? This short, directed by the up until this point largely internet only video collective Radio Silence, is probably the most enjoyable of the five, and really sends the film out on a high note of genuine horror. The intensity is ratcheted up to an impressive fever pitch, and the ingenious use and combination of in camera effects and CGI make it one of the very best examples of its particular genre I can think of – to say which genre, would be spoiling things, however.
V/H/S is vaguely remarkable in how well everything comes together – according to Glenn McQuaid, there was no collaboration between directors during the project, with only a few guiding rules and notes from the producers to go on. Nonetheless it’s a coherent, compelling work, if not exactly consistent in its quality– at its best, it provided some of the scariest and most memorable moments in the whole of FrightFest, but even at its worst it still has a number of aspects to commend it. All of the directors are to be praised for trying something different with their segments, and the producers should also be hailed for bringing together a horror anthology that in terms of ingenuity, storytelling, and just plain fun, earns to right to be mentioned alongside the likes of CREEPSHOW and DEAD OF NIGHT as the very best examples of screen horror anthologies.
[REC] 3: GENESIS
It’s always interesting to see how the context of a film festival or even a screening dominated by a particular demographic can impact a reaction to a film. [REC] 3 came to FrightFest with an ugly advance word, with a string of middling to bad reviews and a general sense that Paco Plaza, director of [REC] 3 and co-director of the first two [REC] movies, had outed himself as the less talented of the pair (Jamie Balguero, the other mind in the [REC] brain trust, would attend the festival a few days later with the critically vaunted SLEEP TIGHT). The film is currently ‘rotten’ on Rotten Tomatoes, and is only receving an extremely cursory release in UK cinemas, before going straight to DVD/Blu-ray a week later (a worrying trend for horror releases in the UK that I’ve discussed before in my review of the excellent THE INNKEEPERS).
Funny, then, that [REC] 3 would emerge as one of the generally most well-received and popular films at the festival. Sure, there were a few grumblings that this isn’t a ‘proper’ [REC] film - take your pick either between because it abandons its found-footage conceit about twenty minutes in (acknowledged with some clever meta commentary from a pompous cameraman who discusses the importance of ‘cinema verite’); or because it abandons the atmosphere of unyielding terror that characterized certainly the first film, and half of the second (before those awful kids showed up and ruined everything).
Frankly, if you take this kind of rigid attitude as a horror fan then you deserve the interminable, lifeless retread sequels that characterise most franchises in the genre. Plaza took two big risks with [REC] 3 which in my opinion payed off handsomely. This is a really good example of comedy-horror - along with THE CABIN IN THE WOODS one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and far more interesting than the largely risible [REC] 2.
A prequel of sorts to the original [REC], [REC] 3 takes place a few hours before the initial outbreak, at a wedding and reception for Klara (the stunning and excellent Letitia Dolera, off-screen wife of Plaza) and Koldo (Diego Martin). A reveler, initially dismissed as a drunk uncle, is discovered to be infected after attacking the other guests– soon the grounds of the hotel are locked down, the remaining wedding attendees are forced to fight off legions of the undead horde, and Klara and Koldo, separated by the initial attack, attempt to make their way through hell and re-unite with one another.
We all know by now that the [REC] series is excellent at bringing the scares, but Plaza shows a surprisingly deft touch for comedy, too – aside from the usual gooey splatter comedy that you’ll find in any zom-com worth its salt (the gore effects here are varied, and excellent, incidentally), there are some genuinely funny gags, including one inspired running joke focusing on a children’s entertainer dressed as a certain popular children’s cartoon character, who cannot be named for copyright reasons.
The storyline, such as it is, is surprisingly involving. Dolera makes her blood-spattered bride a memorable heroine, and the way the central romance is woven into the [REC] mythology is clever - I was worried how the story would unite these two seemingly tonally disparate elements at the film’s conclusion, but the way it is resolved I felt was very satisfying.
Moving away from found-footage also proved itself to be a blessing – this is a really good-looking film, leagues above your standard straight-to-video fare, and even better than 90% of theatricaly released horrors, with Pablo Rosso (who also acted as DOP on the first two [REC] films and Balageuro’s SLEEP TIGHT) photographing the carnage with a crisp, lurid clarity.
This is undoubtedly a film that works best with a crowd – it’s an entertainment machine, laying on laugh on top of fright on top of dismemberment across the course of a brisk 80 minutes with barely a moment to take stock. Ignore the critics, then – while it’s (unfortunately) unlikely you’ll get to see [REC] 3 on the big screen, try and watch it on the biggest, loudest TV you can find, with a bunch of like-minded friends, and you’re sure to have a great time with it. And for those after the paralyzing fear offered by the earlier films, you don’t have to wait long: Balageuro’s concluding entry in the series [REC] 4: APOCALYPSE promises a return to stark, bleak horror. But for now, this most unlikely of successes should be heralded – a zom-com that’s well-made, scary, and actually funny.
THE SEASONING HOUSE
This grim revenge-thriller was a bold choice for a opening film for this year’s festival, and not one that was particularly well-received in some quarters. In retrospect I think he film’s subject matter – it focuses on a group of barely pubescent girls held captive, drugged, raped and abused in a Balkan brothel – set a slightly uneasy tone for the rest of the festival, and inspired heated debates among critics and attendees across the course of the weekend over what felt like a proliferation of rape, misogyny and sexual abuse in this year's films.