The fifth and final day of FrightFest wrapped up a packed weekend of festivities in fine style. Monster Squad fans got their fill from the European Premiere of documentary Wolfman’s Got Nards from child star turned director Andre Gower. The UK Premiere of horror anthology The Field Guide to Evil brought together the combined talents of Peter Strickland, Katrin Gebbe and Can Evrenol among others, but on a day packed with highlights, all roads inevitably led to the festival’s final spectacular, the UK’s first look at Gaspar Noe’s disco inferno, Climax.
Crystal Eyes (dir. Ezequiel Endelman, Leandro Montejano, Argentina) - European Premiere
Spun out of a television episode, Crystal Eyes is a passionate ode to Dario Argento and the Italian giallo genre from Argentinean filmmakers Endelman and Montejano. Set in the cutthroat fashion world of 1980s Buenos Aires, the film sees prima donna model Alexis Carpenter use and abuse everyone around her, before dying horrifically in a catwalk catastrophe. A year later, and Alexis appears to return from the grave, in the form of an inanimate designer’s mannequin, and continue her bloody rise to become cover girl for a premium fashion magazine.
Crystal Eyes struggles desperately to recreate a world of opulence and high glamour on its shoestring budget, but what it lacks in resources it more than compensates with its passionate attention to tone and detail. The glamorous cast of young beauties and Argentinean screen veterans add to the high camp atmosphere, but at a time when the global horror scene seems desperate to recapture past success rather than forge a new path of its own, Crystal Eyes feels like a stretch too far.
Even at 85 minutes, one can’t help but admit it might have worked better as an episode of TV, but Endelman and Montejano have certainly done enough to catch our attention.
The Dark (dir. Justin P. Lange, USA) - UK Premiere
A kidnapper on the run with his young abductee, Alex (Toby Nichols), only to encounter Mina (Nadia Alexander) in the woods. The resident of a dilapidated cabin in the woods, Mina rescues Alex, and the pair of desperate, horribly abused youngest, form a kind of co-dependent bond as they struggle to protect each other from violent external forces.
Powerfully acted by the two young leads, The Dark is yet another of this year’s offerings to take place in an isolated location, but pioneers some interesting new territory in its efforts to develop character and build a story of empowerment through desperation.
Ultimately, The Dark does become encumbered by its own ambition and sense of self-importance, and would have benefited from a faster pace and - dare I say - more sadistic sense of fun. As it stands, The Dark broods in the shadows, never quite stepping out into the light.
Climax (dir. Gaspar Noe, France) - UK Premiere
It might read like lazy film criticism, but Gaspar Noe’s Climax is quite literally Fame on acid. Unfolding during a closed-door rehearsal at a dance school, the young nubile students showcase their individual styles and talents for an endlessly roving camera, while steadily revealing an intricate web of relationships and rivalries.
Things take a turn for the psycho-erotic when it is discovered that the sangria which they have all been imbibing has been laced with LSD. As inhibition devolves into paranoid hysteria, friends turn on each other, rivals lash out violently, while lovers explode in fits of psychedelic bloodlust.
Unfolding in close to real time, following a bravura single take opening of some 15 minutes or so, Climax features many of Noe’s signature elements, from spiralling camera angles, to an overwhelming aural soundscape, film credits that permeate the screen throughout its runtime, and a provocatively invasive approach to sex and flesh. Sofia Boutella (Kingsman, Atomic Blonde) is probably the only familiar face on screen, which is otherwise populated by genuine dancers plucked from all over the world, but as the film goes on, they all become part of a writhing, singular experience akin to something from Brian Yuzna’s Society.
Onscreen title cards present something close to a loftier theme, purporting that life is but a fleeting pleasure between the extraordinary experiences of birth and death, but Noe seems more interested in the contorted bodies and minds in front of his camera. The relentless, pounding soundtrack is a who’s who of electro dance pioneers, including Giorgio Moroder, Daft Punk, Aphex Twin and countless others, while Benoît Debie’s cinematography remains an integral facet of Noe’s overall vision.
As with many of the director’s cinematic offerings, Climax is a sensory cinematic experience more than a compelling narrative, but also perhaps his most accessible work to-date. Either way, its all-enveloping descent into hell was the perfect way to bring another fantastic year at FrightFest to its own unholy climax.