Wednesday, 31 August 2011

FrightFest 2011 Part One

I know I said I would be back on the blog yesterday, but I was just too weary and bleary-eyed after this latest marathon of horror viewing; I needed the extra day to collect my thoughts.   Of a possible 27 viewing slots, we took in 24 films out of the thirty-odd available.  Over a four and a half day period, I reckon that is pretty good going, especially with all of the added and often unexpected short films, trailers, and sneak-peaks that preceded some of the showings and the Q and As that followed them.  (We skipped most of the latter, prefering to use the downtime, such as it was, for hurried nourishment -- no leisurely meals this year.)

The fest has now been running for twelve years and this is my seventh summary since I started  blogging in 2005, although we were regular attendees before that. Where does the time go?  Don't answer that!   Anyhow, rather than report my reactions chronologically film by film as I have done previously, I shall try to group the features into several categories in the hope of getting through the reviews in two extended blog entries:

The kick-off opener:  "Don't be Afraid of the Dark" came with a lot of baggage in tow since it was produced and co-written by genre fave Guillermo del Toro, who claims that the original 1973 television movie scared him rigid and deserved a big screen resurrection.  If I ever saw the TVM, I certainly don't remember it, so I came without any preconceptions.  What we have is divorced architect Guy Pearce (phoning in his performance) and new squeeze Katie Holmes (in her secondary role as an actress rather than her main role as a celebrity wife) renovating a 19th Century New England mansion in the hope of making a financial killing.  His young daughter -- a fine performance from youngster Bailee Madison -- comes to stay and soon unearths the fearsome miniature, malevolent gremlins that lurk behind the grate in the basement.  These hobgoblins want her for their own, as they claimed the house's previous inhabitants, and are vicious in their pursuit.  While the creatures are very well-done with the CGI tools now available, the movie itself is something of a drag and a little short on shocks and starts.  Only the heightened sound effects manage to contribute to the occasional foreboding.  First-time feature director Troy Nixey tries his best, but I can't help thinking that it would have been a better film if Del Toro had taken over the reins.

3-D horror: Like too many other recent American releases, this technology, now beginning to fade in its audience appeal, has been brought to the horror movie: "Final Destination 5 - 3D" and "Fright Night 3D".  These two movies actually showcase 3D's strengths and pitfalls.  Its use in the fifth 'Final' film has actually revitalised the franchise; the splatter and pointy weapons are displayed with verve and humour.  The set pieces of Death catching up with those who have cheated him are as inventive as usual, but all the more effective with the dangers literally 'coming at you'. The remake of the 1985 classic however would have been no better or worse in the usual two dimensions.  The original featured two timeless performances from Chris Sarandon (given a cameo in this version) and Roddy McDowell, but Colin Farrell as the vampire next door and David Dr. Who Tennant as the would-be vampire killer do not quite cut the mustard, while the young lead Anton Yelchin is only adequate.  His nerdy ex-best friend Christopher Mintz-Plasse, vampirized early in the procedings, is pretty good value.  The movie was too dimly lit in places for the 3-D to be effective.  As for the 're-imagining' itself Farrell's is a far nastier and less charismatic vampire than Sarandon's and all the flashy special effects in the world do not make up for the differences between the two films.

Foreign Horror: One of the treats of FrightFest is the culling of suitable movies from around the world.  There was a dearth this year of entries from the Far East, but there were interesting selections from Norway ("Troll Hunter"), Germany ("Urban Explorers"), Holland ("Saint"), Switzerland " (Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps"), and Israel ("Rabies").  It is particularly interesting that the last two films are the first-ever genre productions from these two countries and that even 'foreign' horror films have never previously found an audience in Israel.  The Norwegian and German movies were passing fair but not great, although the formidable trolls in the first film's 'found footage' were well conceived; the German film started off as English-speaking as some adventurous tourists pay to explore Berlin's underground tunnels, but then moved into German dialogue (and the production company omitted to send a print with subtitles!).  The Dutch movie from Dick Maas, the man behind "The Elevator" and "Amsterdamned", turns the Netherlands Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, into a murderous fiend, a bishop-turned-pirate, who kills adults and abducts children when there is a full moon on his December 5th Saint's Day, aided by his zombiefied Black Peters. Well done gory fun!  The Swiss film was something well out of the ordinary based on folklore.  When lonely mountain men crave female companionship, they can build their ideal woman from a straw broom and some rags. Lo and behold, a desirable beauty appears, but they find that she will take her murderous revenge for the crimes against her kind over the years.  As for the Israeli entry, the story has nothing whatsoever to do with rabies, but rather with the rabid and irrational behaviour that can manifest itself in the most ordinary of folk; most of the ten main protagonists (two yuppie couples, a park ranger and his girlfriend, an incestuous brother and sister, two mismatched cops) meet bloody and unexpected ends, while the local maniac-at-large is not responsible for their deaths and is one of the few characters to walk away from the debacle.

The Israeli film was actually one of the alternatives from the fest's small 'Discovery' screen and proved so popular a selection that a third screening had to be scheduled for the first time ever.  We watched three other movies at this venue for independent cinema and they were a mixed bag, although all had something going for them.  "A Horrible Way to Die" should have been subtitled 'A Horrible Way to Make a Movie';  its director took what was actually a very clever premise of an escaped serial killer's ex-girlfriend trying to build a new life under the witness protection programme and Alcoholics Anonymous, but finding that there are those who actually revere the prowess of her former boyfriend, and weakened the narrative by employing some artsy-fartsy camera shots through fairy lights. "My Sucky Teen Romance" was an accomplished bit of  mayhem comedy written and directed by an 18 year-old Texan gal; while obviously extremely low-budget filmmaking, she successfully captured the yearning and traumas of teenaged infatuation, especially if your crush is on a newbie vampire. "The Caller" was an an interesting American indie set in Puerto Rico of all places (home of dengue fever -- in joke!).  Strongly cast with Rachelle Lefevre, Stephen Moyer, and Luis Guzman, the newly-divorced heroine moves into her new apartment and starts receiving threatening phone calls from someone's past; we gradually discover that it is impossible to work out what constitutes her reality and what is the product of her overstressed imagination.   All well done -- but why Puerto Rico for a largely non-ethnic cast?

Guess what...I've run out of steam.  I had intended to include two compendium movies in today's digest, but will hold these for my second summary, along with three jokey horror movies, and the remaining eight assorted American and British premieres.  In the words of you know who, I'll be back...
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