And so continues my blow-by-blow account of Film4 FrightFest the 13th at the Empire Leicester Square (23-27 August, 2012). Click here to read Part One.
Day 3 - Saturday, 25th August
Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The 70s (Dir. Mike Malloy, USA)
There have been a spate of documentaries in recent years - think Mark Hartley's Not Quite Hollywood, Jake West's Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape and Alex Stapleton's Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel - that appear to crack open the fabric of the known cinematic world and expose a gaping wound literally oozing with rough, rewarding gems about which you previously knew almost nothing at all. As was especially the case with Hartley's film, Malloy will have you reaching for a pen and paper and frantically scribbling down titles of obscure Italian police thrillers - or poliziotteschi - that you now simply MUST SEE, like right now!
Structured around a series of frank and often hilarious interviews with pillars of the genre, including John Saxon, Henry Silva, Richard Harrison et al, the film explores how the genre emerged from italian cinema's history of apeing hollywood trends and cloning them to death, how productions often employed a skeleton crew that filmed without audio, without permits, and often even without scripts. Also, the film goes into some detail about how the industry accommodated, associated and even benefitted on occasion from organised crime - specifically the Camorra from Naples. But while the film certainly has intelligence and Malloy has clearly done his historical research, Eurocrime never forgets to thrill and entertain in the same brash, exploitative and often dangerous ways its subject matter did. The chapter on stunt work alone justifies this film's existence. Perhaps not a horror movie per se, Eurocrime was a real jewel in the FrightFest line-up.
Inbred Live Commentary (Dir. Alex Chandon, UK)
Only last month I had the opportunity to discover this delightfully twisted horror comedy when it played at PiFan. When writer-director Alex Chandon mentioned he would be returning to FrightFest with the film, which had received its World Premiere at the event last year, to record a special commentary track for Anchor Bay, I had no choice but to attend. And a wise decision it turned out to be. Not only is Chandon's film, about a group of troubled teens and social workers who come to darkest Yorkshire for a team building weekend, only to be set upon by the yokel locals, imminently rewatchable, but Chandon's insightful, unashamedly honest and often hilarious commentary helped me to appreciate the film on a whole other level. Most impressive was how the film avoids almost any use of CG effects, instead relying on compositing and in-camera trickery to stage all number of bloody encounters. Ww also learned how Chandon & Co. were embraced by the village of Thirsk, the film was unanimously supported by the community, despite its dubious depiction of the residents, and myriad other tales, all regaled in Chandon's unapologetic and self-deprecating style. A genuine one-off film-going event that was a joy to experience.
Yellow (Dir. Ryan Haysom, UK/Germany)In a weekend where numerous films were being touted as revivalist giallo thrillers, it was Brit Ryan Haysom's half-hour short, Yellow, that stood out as the best of the bunch. A reclusive detective scours the deserted streets of an unnamed metropolis, stalking a ruthless serial killer who has been preying on a string of young women. The killer taunts him with phone calls, urging him to keep searching, convincing him that these two different people share a common passion - the thrill of the hunt. There is blood, nudity, a wonderfully eerie synth score from Antoni Maiovvi and beautifully cold, calculated photography from co-writer Jon Britt. Fans of 70s Italian cinema will see plentiful references to the horror films of Argento & Co, as well as nods to Bunuel, Dali, the poliziotteschi cop thrillers and much more besides. I can't wait to see this team get to work on a feature film, because Haysom, Britt and their crew have clearly got talent to spare and are just getting started.
At a festival positively bursting with guests and in-attendance talent, perhaps nobody matched the reception that welcomed make-up impresario Greg Nicotero. He had been invited to FrightFest for a live on-stage interview about his work and career, as well as to receive a special Variety award, which was presented to him by actor Simon Pegg. While this live event actually took place in the main theatre later on the same afternoon, it seems appropriate to mention it now. Again, I chose to sneak away from the main screen - where a screening of the Manetti Brothers' new film, Paura, apparently failed to impress, despite lengthy scenes of gratuitous female crotch shaving in 3D - to instead catch Ryan Haysom's Yellow (see above) and the documentary Nightmare Factory! - an in-depth look at Nicotero's effects company, KNB, from inception to the present day.
Needless to say what followed was an exhaustive procession of interviews with Nicotero, Robert Kutzman and Howard Berger, about how they started out in Pittsburgh on the set of Romero's Day Of The Dead, and from there made the decision to move to Los Angeles (Nicotero turned his back on his unfinished degree in Medicine) and start their own business. Everyone from John Landis and Romero, to Robert Rodriguez and a surprisingly derogatory John Carpenter is given screen time to discuss their working relationships, all accompanied by a cascade of behind the scenes footage from dozens of productions, as well as footage from KNB's workshop floor. As someone who is highly appreciative of their work, while not an out & out fanboy, I found Nightmare Factory exhaustive to the point of being exhausting, without much of a narrative thread or hook to differentiate it from a feature-length DVD extra. I heard rumblings from some of the hardcore fanbase that the film skipped over a number of topics, projects and pivotal events that shaped the careers of these three undeniably talented artists, but for my money, I got more than enough.
Under The Bed (Dir. Steven C. Miller, USA)
In the run-up to FrightFest, one event that always proves popular, while quickly separating the men from the boys, is the ritualistic sleepy queue. On the eve of weekend passes going on sale, the die-hard fans begin to congregate outside the Empire Leicester Square, for what they know will be a 24-hour (or longer) wait before the box office opens. Over the years, the camaraderie has grown and the Sleepy Queue has become an event in itself, to the extent that the festival organisers make a point of dropping by and joining in the drinking, card games and marathon movie bickering, and even put on a special screening to reward those who spent the night on the pavement. This year, it was a screening of Steven C. Miller's The Aggression Scale - a film I have yet to see but by all accounts is a fairly vicious and bloodthirsty reinterpretation of John Hughes' Home Alone. Apparently it went down a treat with the sleep deprived yet newly gratified FrightFest pass holders and so the inclusion of Miller's brand new follow-up, Under The Bed, was being touted as one of FrightFest's big ticket screenings. Oh how wrong they were.
The film follows a young lad, Neal, as he returns to his suburban family home after two years of imposed exile. While details are vague, apparently he started a fire at the house which killed his mother, and he has spent the past two years receiving psychiatric help. He returns to find his father newly married and his younger brother, Paulie, struggling to overcome terrifying nightmares. Soon it becomes apparent that whatever had been tormenting Neal turned its attention on his younger brother when he was sent away. The big question hanging over all this, however, is just how much of their experience is real, what is imagined, and what is simply a manifestation of their anxiety about their mother's death and having such a douchebag for a Dad? Tonally, the film is a complete misstep. As the title might suggest, the main dramatic drive of the film rests on the fact both boys believe there is something under the bed - something monstrous, demonic and deadly - but then attempts to sell this as an adult's horror film. Unsurprisingly, it just doesn't wash. Audience members over the age of 12 simply aren't going to accept this kind of ridiculous narrative hook. The film is crying out to be treated in the same way as Poltergeist or Joe Dante's recent The Hole - genuinely scary movies, but ones that recognise they are playing to a younger audience. Under The Bed's insistence on taking itself so seriously, and as a result being so violent, po-faced, and self-aggrandising, just serves to make the whole experience a frustrating affair that invites ridicule.
Tulpa (Dir. Federico Zampaglione, Italy)
Speaking of which, the first ever public showing of Zampaglione's Tulpa proved to be the most memorable screening of the festival - but sadly, it was for all the wrong reasons. Sold as the renaissance of classic Italian giallo cinema, Tulpa tells tells the story of Lisa (Claudia Gerini), a high-flying career woman whose job is on the line following the economic meltdown. She deals with her high-stress job by visiting a private underground sex club, called Tulpa, where a Tibetan guru who looks like a petrified Cher and speaks in the ridiculous whisper of a nonsensical pseudo-mystic, instructs her how to explore her sexuality - basically by having anonymous sex with other male and female members. However, horniness turns to horror when she discovers that her last three fuck buddies have all been brutally murdered in a series of grisly attacks across the city. But rather than just getting the hell out of there, Lisa enlists the help of her best friend (Michela Cescon) and they start investigating the killings for themselves, while her latest Tulpa pal urges her to break the rules and see him outside of club hours.
While not particularly ground-breaking, the film has potential to be a knowingly sleazy, kitsch and fun homage to the glory days of the giallo movement. But it quickly becomes apparent that Zampaglione and his cast aren't in on the gag. Tulpa is genuinely striving to be a serious thriller - it thinks it is scary, it thinks it is sexy and thinks that the decision to dub its Italian cast into English was a smart and dramatically augmentative move. But in fact it is quite the opposite. The sex is laughably cheesy in a soft focus 70s porno kind of way, any tension is lost through poorly staged chases, kill scenes and pacing, while every performance in the film is instantly hobbled by gratingly flat, lifeless post-synched English dialogue. Cescon, in particular, is rendered imbecilic by her overly expository, ludicrously unaware line-readings. My heart really does go out to Zampaglione and his cast, who were given a fabulously glitzy, red carpet welcome before the film, only for the audience's good intentions to turn to frustration and finally, at about the hour mark, devolved into mockery. As if in unison, the 1300-strong crowd turned on the film and for the second half, Tulpa became a comedy, and every bad line reading, clunky piece of exposition or even slightly misjudged dramatic moment was met with riotous laughter and applause. It was savage, it was brutal, but truth be told, it was thoroughly deserved. For all its good intentions, Tulpa is a disaster.
Maniac (Dir. Franck Khalfoun, France/USA)
As we settled in for Saturday's midnight screening of Maniac, we were first treated to a new indent for FrightFest's "Turn off your bloody phone!" campaign - and this is what happened.
I came to Khalfoun's remake of Bill Lustig's landmark sleazefest, Maniac, with a pretty open mind. I must confess that I've still not seen the original version, and had heard less than enthusiastic things about this remake emanating from its premiere in Cannes earlier in the year. It was late in what had proved a long and punishing day, and my tolerance levels had already been tested a few times. What a pleasant surprise it was, therefore, to discover Khalhoun's film to be inventive, creepy and perverse in just the way a late-night first-person serial killer flick should be. There were serious doubt's that the diminutive Elijah Wood had what it took to play the demented and depraved title character, but he succeeds - perhaps in large part because he's not actually on screen for much of the film. Khalfoun's film is shot from the perspective of Wood's character, Frank, and we only see the actor in reflections or photos - save for a couple of "out-of-body" experiences. Clearly channeling what he first explored in Sin City, Wood is actually pretty convincing as the quiet, unassuming psychopath with a penchant for scalping beautiful young women. The real discovery for me, however, was French actress Nora Arnezeder as the young innocent photographer who wanders into Frank's mannequin store and becomes the target of his murderous fixation. It's a beautifully restrained performance and the juxtaposition of watching her while listening to Frank's bloodthirsty inner monologue helps give the film a particularly unsettling and sleazy feel.
Still to come: Sunday, Monday and my final thoughts on the best of FrightFest 2012