Perhaps the most divisive film of this year’s FrightFest was Patricio Valladares’ Hidden In The Woods, billed as based on real events, yet managing to cram into its 97 minutes not just cannibalism, but also rape, murder, hillbillies, incest, chainsaws, mutants, prison breaks, roadside fellatio (in jaw-dropping suck-and-spit montage), and other atrocities against taste, all wrapped in the rough-and-ready handheld sensibilities of Seventies grindhouse.
The Chilean shocker caused many FrightFesters to recoil in disgust from the abject misogyny that it depicted; and while it is not as though this were the only or indeed worst of its crimes against common decency, the misogyny and ‘rapeyness’ of the overall weekend became constant, anxious talking points in the FrightFest foyer, perhaps (as critic Stuart Barr suggested) prompted by Republican Senator Todd Akins’ recent controversial comments on the topic. Yet Hidden In The Woods was also, for me at least, the festival’s most impenetrable offering (despite featuring ample penetration) – a disorientingly wild trip into tonal inscrutability, converting deeply serious issues into genre-bound absurdities, and therefore leaving viewers with the equally uncomfortable options of comedy and horror. Compared to this unapologetically heady delirium, the only other grindhouse-aping flick of the weekend, Michael Biehn’s directorial debut The Victim, was all too transparent in its meandering incompetence.
Besides Hidden In The Woods and Paura 3D, there were several other films that examined the effects on children of exposure to adult monstrosity: FX guru Paul Hyett’s Balkan brothel thriller The Seasoning House (awkwardly hedging its bets between grim realism and genre fantasy); and Jennifer Lynch’s harrowing psychodrama of nature and nurture, Chained – even if Lynch herself seemed not altogether happy with its final, unnecessary and rushed twist. Other human monsters included: the sociopathic stalker in Jaume Balagueró’s creepily Hitchcockian Sleep Tight (a weekend highlight!); the drugged-up ids unleashed one-by-one in Ian Clark’s by-numbers Guinea Pigs; the post-apocalyptic walking wounded of Peter Engert’s surprisingly soulful Remnants; the lone sniper taking out a disengaged, dispossessed estate (non-)community in James Nunn & Ronnie Thompson’s festival closer Tower Block; and the higher-ups and lower-downs clashing for space and escape in Stig Svendsen’s claustrophobic Elevator.
On a different note, Eeron Sheean’s extraordinary Errors of the Human Body is a sombre tragedy (and understated body horror) wherein a unique genetic mutation is the conflicted hero’s salvation and undoing all at once. Best of all, though, was the title character of the Soska twins’ gloriously refreshing American Mary – a Frankenstein’s monster carving up and stitching back together an identity for herself in distorted reflection of an America whose dream of self-realisation has long since gone awry. A surgical strike against the mainstream – and as deeply intelligent as it is entertaining – for me, American Mary represented, along with Berberian Sound Studio, the very best that the weekend had to offer. Reassuringly, both are getting a theatrical release.
There were also less straightforwardly human monsters on offer: the revenant, vengeful clown in Conor McMahon’s impressively gory (if not especially funny) Stitches; the squiddy teetotal invaders of Jon Wright’s utterly endearing Irish comedy Grabbers; the creature in Steven C. Miller’s Under The Bed that, despite its psychosexual trappings, turns out to be disappointingly literal; and the toothy hunter that is most certainly a construct of the mind in Ryan Smith’s Serling-esque romance (with a twist) After. The practical effects and modeling work behind all these on-screen monsters were celebrated in Donna Davies’ Nightmare Factory, a documentary on gore guru Greg Nicotero and his effects shop KNB. Another documentary, Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime!, easily earned its place amongst the best of the fest through its imitative, thoroughly researched and utterly ballsy presentation of an obscure crime subgenre – the Italian poliziotteschi of the 1970s – that will never again be overlooked.
Russell Cherrington’s expanded Cabal Cut of Clive Barker’s compromised Nightbreed (1990) still felt like a turkey, only with almost an hour of extra stuffing – and Empire’s biggest screen did no favours to the new “porno quality” footage, sourced from VHS (!) workprints. Surely its rightful place ought to have been the smaller ReDiscovery Screen, alongside the (frankly much better looking) digital restorations of James Whale classic The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Hammer films The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1967).
Speaking of the different programmes, it is indeed a telling sign of the current horror landscape that Buddy Giovinazzi’s idiosyncratic, charming and utterly original possession freakout A Night of Nightmares was relegated to the Discovery Screen and forced to compete quixotically for attention with the buzzy V/H/S and Chained on the Main Screen, while Ole Bornedal’s entirely derivative and slickly bland studio ‘product’ The Possession won (without in any way earning) its place on the Main Screen, and is now on general release in cinemas. Big things may have small beginnings, but sometimes smaller is better.
Many thanks to FrightFest organisers Greg Day, Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray for making this weekend possible. www.frightfest.com
REVIEW: Anton Bitel