Five from Frightfest 2016: Review round-up from London's premiere horror festival

And so, Frightfest has been and gone for another year, leaving a pile of bones, pools and blood and various severed limbs on the floor in its wake. The annual festival, which is London’s premiere horror genre film celebration, changed venue this year to the VUE in Shepherd’s Bush, resulting in the Smoke Screen having to slog that extra mile to bring you this review round up after a day spent sampling the delights on offer.

Director’s Cut

Director: Adam Rifkin. 

Cast: Missi Pyle, Penn Jillette, Harry Hamlin, Lin Shaye, Nestor Carbonell.

USA 2016. 90 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Adam Rifkin’s hugely enjoyable meta-horror flick riffs on voyeurism, obsessive fan culture and the cliches of the serial killer/horror genre all at the same time. The film is presented as a piece of ‘found footage’ which is in fact the ‘director’s cut’ of a shitty serial killer movie called KNOCKED OFF which, we are told via an unsettlingly enthusiastic voiceover, is the work of crowd-funder and debut director Herbert Blount (a very creepy Penn Jillette, who appears to us resembling something like Ron Jeremy in a purple tux). Blunt informs us that he has created his own ‘director’s cut out of KNOCKED OFF, having decided that film’s original director Adam Rifkin had failed to create the kind of crime thriller you deserved to see, one which truly does justice to the true object of Blount’s affection: B-movie actress Missi Pyle, one of the stars in the film.

As we watch though, we see that Blount hasn’t just recut and spliced in newly shot amateur scenes into the narrative (along with some witty commentary on the expectations of the genre and movie cliches in general, including such insights as how to spot ‘creepy walking’ that marks out a suspect individual from a crowd), but that in his delusional mind his real-life stalking of star Missi Pyle is actually part of his final cut narrative. We soon learn that Blount has gone even further than a little stalking in his desire to ‘collaborate’ with Pyle to create a true masterpiece.

The film works not just because of Jillette’s alternately amusing/unnerving voiceover, which nails many of the well-worn tropes of filmmaking and the nature of the entertainment biz, but because its scarily possible something like this is going on right now.

The Windmill Massacre

Director: Nick Jongerius. Cast: Noah Taylor, Charlotte Beaumont, Patrick Baladi, Tanroh Ishida, Fiona Hampton, Ben Batt. The Netherlands 2016. 85 mins.

RATING: ★★☆☆☆

The Windmill Massacre is one of those films where, if you went in cold to a viewing of it, you would spend the first twenty minutes or so cringing at the clunky dialogue (the kind which suggests English wasn’t the screenwriter or director’s first language) and the oblivious-to-doom character actions. By minute twenty-three though you’ll realise, with relief, that the director is quite aware of how silly it all is, which helps some, though the whole picture really could have done with a more full-on wacky approach with piles more blood and gore, to fully achieve lift-off. In case you were wondering, a windmill DOES actually feature in the plot, and although that might not seem like a suitable setting for a massacre, Jongerius’s film does at least make said windmill look quite creepy.

The plot is of the standard “a group of unsuspecting and mismatched tourists get trapped in a scenario with a mysterious evil” fare, though the incongruous setting of the pleasant, rolling plains of the Dutch countryside does add to the appealingly quirky vibe the film gives off. A tour of Holland’s windmills goes very wrong for a busload of people as they run into a sinister windmill where, legend has it, a Devil-worshipping miller once ground the bones of locals instead of grain. There are some laughs to be had at the casual racism of one of the doomed tourists, plus viewers can savour the variety of delicious methods the miller-monster comes up with to despatch his victims with scythes and chains, but the film is neither funny, fast-paced or scary enough to feel like the effort was worth it.

Shelley

Director: Ali Abasi. Cast: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Cosmina Stratan, Peter Christofferson, Bjorn Andresen. Denmark 2016. 92 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Shades of Rosmary’s Baby hang over Ali Abasi’s atmospheric and effectively unsettling Shelley, which touches on fears of pregnancy and isolation. It’s perhaps a tad overlong at two hours, and is devoid largely of bump scares and other bloody goings-on, but those who savour slow-burn mysteries should get a lot out of it. It is well-acted too, with a pulsing soundtrack that will set your teeth on edge.

The setting is an isolated villa deep in the Danish countryside, where new-age hippy types Louise and Kasper live, cut off from electricity and modern comforts in their search for a simpler life. Louise is recovering from a horrifying miscarriage that has left her unable to bear children, and in part due to this she and Kasper have asked a new Romanian housekeeper, Elena, to come and work for them. Right away alarm bells are ringing in our minds that such an isolated location, combined with a couple who are into the whole ‘crystal energies’ healing deal, spells doom for Elena. Yet the unfolding narrative continually denies us the certainty that Louise and Kasper are some kind of mad devil worshippers, even when they offer Elena, after she has grown closer to them after months of work, a generous financial deal if she will become their surrogate mother. 

The mystery deepens as Elena’s pregnancy starts to take a toll on her physically, seemingly more than a normal pregnancy should. Her weird cravings and behaviour start to tear at the fabric of the household, she suffers sever pains at night, hears strange noises, and even feels pain when bathwater touches her body. Strange scratches appear on her body, and strange dogs and other animals haunt her dreams at night. Kudos is due to actor Cosmina Stratan for her tragic/disturbed performance as Elena; she truly makes her character look like she has gone through the ringer with the aid of a little makeup and fake pregnancy prosthetics. But it isn't clear if this deterioration is psychosomatic, or something far more ominous, and Louise and Kasper’s desire to keep the baby (which means not clueing in Elena’s family that anything is wrong) means that the scenario subtly slides into something like imprisonment over time.

Red Christmas

Director: Craig Anderson. Cast: Dee Wallace, Sarah Bishop, Geoff Morrell, Janis McGavin, Sam Campbell. Australia 2016. 82 mins.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Director: Craig Anderson’s Red Christmas was the real curio at this year’s Frightfest for the Smoke Screen, a film which runs back and forth gleefully over the line between disturbing, gross-out horror and off-kilter black comedy. Set in contemporary Australia in a rural household during the holiday season, matriarch Diane (genre veteran Dee Wallace) has invited her adult children to celebrate one last Christmas in the spacious family home before she sells up and heads to Europe.

The family and attached partners are, almost without exception, a bunch of misanthropes loaded with complexes and baggage from the past, and even when a mysterious cloaked stranger rings the doorbell and starts killing them all off, the family bitching seems to be as much an issue as the threat of extreme massacre. The killer (which stumbles about in a ragged cloak affecting an accent that makes him sound like a low-rent Elephant Man) is revealed to have both extreme religious motives and a totally insane backstory, which allows the film to slip some abortion commentary into the mix. But this never really gets in the way of the desire to offer up a rollercoaster of splatter-tastic deaths, which includes death via blender to the brain, being cut clean in two by an axe, and at one point, a bear trap to the neck. Irresistibly weird.

Train to Busan

Director: Yeon Sang-Ho. 

Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Choi Woo-sik, An So-hee, Kim Eui-sung, Kim Su-an.  South Korea. 118 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Zombies are the great Swiss Army knife of horror cinema: they can be, and have been, dropped into almost any scenario you could think of. The shuffling, personality-less masses are a great blank slate to project whatever allegory you want on to them. So it is no surprise to see that Korean director Yeon Sang-Ho’s new thriller, Train to Busan, sees the hordes of the undead placed aboard a speeding commuter train during a zombie outbreak in contemporary South Korea. 

This film went down well at its Cannes 2016 Midnight Movie screening, and its easy to see why. Instead of just lazily dropping a bunch of shuffling creatures onto a train and letting the blood fly, Yeon Sang-Ho seems to have actually put some thought into how to use the train’s tight confines, and the fact that it is a high speed moving object stuck on one track, to create tension. These zombies also run, for one thing, which drastically reduces the response time the largely hapless and mismatched group of computers have to react. So beyond cramming into the tiny toilet cubicles to avoid the sniffing zombies and struggling to find ways to block the hordes off from carriages when none of the doors lock, the passengers also have to exploit the train’s interior in more imaginative ways, including crawling in the luggage racks to avoid particularly dangerous carriages.

As befits a film set on a rapid commuter train, the pace rarely lets up. But despite there being plenty of action (including some CGI-assisted ‘horde’ sequences that recall the more effective moments from World War Z, which also showcased running zombies), the film also works in some pertinent social commentary: as certain first class carriages dominated by the wealthy 1% start to cut themselves off from the rest of the train so as to refuse admittance to those they fear are infected. The central relationship between the main characters - divorced, work-addicted fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo Gong)- and his cute, deadpanning daughter could have felt tacked on, but it actually packs quite a lot of emotional heft too. The film walks back and forth over the line between black comedy (much of the laughs are delivered by co-star Dong-seok Ma, who plays the laconic but surprisingly badass zombie-basher Sang Hwa) and high-wire terror, but it plays both cards very effectively. Get aboard this “Snowpiercer with zombies” express special as soon as possible!

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.