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FrightFest 2011 Diary: Day 1

First published by Little White Lies

Theater Bizarre 22Diary Day 1 – Thursday, 25th August 

As devotees of dread gather once again in the Empire for FrightFest, now celebrating its twelfth year of gory glory, the construction work still going on outside in most of Leicester Square serves as a model for the state of horror. For this is a genre which is always excavating its past even if only to build something new – and so, with old friends reunited (many for the first time since the last August Bank Holiday weekend), it seems apt that this year’s festival should begin on a nostalgic note, catching up with old times. First up there was a remake, then a sequel, and finally an anthology MCed by none other than genre veteran Udo Kier – and all this after Escape From London, a short comic homage to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York made by Jake West especially for FrightFest. It takes us all back to pleasures past, while laying the ground for whatever shocks and surprises may come tomorrow.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (UK Premiere)

“It’s a throwback to a more classic kind of movie,” says Guillermo del Toro, co-writer and co-producer of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in a video introduction shot for FrightFest. He is not wrong, for Troy Nixey’s feature debut revisits a 1973 teleplay of the same name, and also disinters long-buried tropes from the gothic, the fairy tale and the creature feature. It even opens in a flashback to the nineteenth century, before skipping ahead into a more contemporary scenario where the past will make its inevitable return.

“I accept that my daughter has problems, but they do not involve monsters in the basement,” says distracted architect Alex (Guy Pearce) to his interior designer/new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) about depressed young Sally (the excellent Bailee Madison). Forced to live in the beautiful old mansion that Alex and Kim are restoring, Sally feels homesick and unloved – and starts telling tales (and drawing pictures) of the photophobic creatures living downstairs. Naturally, Alex supposes that these are a product of his daughter’s anxious imagination – but he, unlike us, has not seen the film’s prologue – in which the house’s original designer Emerson Blackwood (Garry McDonald) is snatched away by denizens of the dark. So it is left to Kim to overturn her designated rôle as ‘evil stepmother’and to uncover the mansion’s dark secrets.

Lush production design, grandiose camerawork, impeccably realised CGI ‘homunculi’ and flawless performances all combine here to create an elegantly crafted supernatural psychodrama. Nixey, best known as a comic book artist, puts his own distinctive stamp on this remake with a wonderfully spooky animated title sequence, and a focus on the graphic arts (Sally, Kim and Blackwood are all, like Nixey himself, keen illustrators). Yet in other respects, the film bears all the hallmarks of del Toro, with its child protagonist (as in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth), its vicious variant on the tooth fairy (as in Hellboy II: The Golden Army), its garden labyrinth (Pan’s Labyrinth again) and the high-end production values that lend it a classic feel.

All this is a considerable achievement for a first-time director – but while he makes a convincing mimic of the del Toro style, he fails to import the sort of political allegory that gives the Mexican director’s other works their real substance. Here, one family’s emotional fragmentation is all – but those in search of bigger themes or broader resonances will be left in the dark. This haunted house may be classically structured, but ultimately its corridors, for all their exquisite design, ring a little hollow. A del Toro film without subtext turns out to be just an empty exercise in genre – a throwback, without question, but also a step back.

Final Destination 5 – 3D (UK Premiere)

You know the score. The plot of all five films in the Final Destination franchise is essentially the same. After a vivid premonition of baroque destruction (air crash, motorway pileup, rollercoaster mayhem, racetrack chaos, or in the case of this fifth instalment, suspension bridge collapse), some people manage to evade their fated doom, only for death to come claiming its due in a series of freak accidents that kill the characters off one by one in the order in which they were originally destined to die. It is a thrilling memento mori that plays upon the conjoined comedy and tragedy of human mortality, stripping down the slasher template to the point where the killer ceases to be a character altogether, instead becoming an abstraction defined by the mechanics, manipulations and contrivances of filmmaking itself.

Where some horror is all about the performances, in the Final Destination movies the director is king, cast in the invisible role of a cosmic joker who entraps characters in nothing more than the artifice of elaborate set-pieces – and while viewers already know where the characters (indeed, where all of us) are going, the director must try to stay a step or two ahead with an arsenal of red herrings, bluffs and feints, before finally delivering the spectacular money shot that we both feared and desired all along. It is a formula so winning, ingenious and unique, there is really no need to change it. In these chronicles of a death foretold, the end is a foregone conclusion anyway, and all that counts is the execution.

Thank goodness, then, that director Steven Quale (Aliens of the Deep, second unit director on Titanic and Avatar) proves to be such a capable executioner. Final Destination 5 may be only the latest of many identikit films in its franchise, and may not even take the credit as the first to have been shot in voguish 3D (that honour goes to Final Destination 4), but Quale knows exactly how to toy with the expectations of his victims (and his viewers) before bringing down the fatal blow from an angle that no-one quite saw coming. What is more, he is not afraid to embrace 3D for the tawdry gimmick that it is, putting fatal objects in your face at every given opportunity, right from the bravura stylisation of the opening credits to the final turnaround that takes us right back to the first film, and then a closing-credits recap of the deaths from all the previous instalments (with stereoscopic splatter newly added).

Despite the odd twist thrown in by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (e.g. those destined to die can – maybe – gain the years of anyone that they murder), Quale sticks fast to the received formula, but nails every detail, hook, line and sinker. The result offers unbearably suspenseful, ominous and often misleading build-ups, followed by a (sometimes literally) eye-popping orgy of bodily disintegration that will leave gorehounds in delighted ecstasy (and give health-and-safety officers nightmares). Full of dark humour, body-battering demises and savage ironies, this is probably the best of the series, bar the unsurpassable hysteria of Final Destination 2. Death, you see, never grows old – and always gets the last laugh.

The Theatre Bizarre (European premiere)

When twitchy, heavily mascaraed Enola Penny (Virginia Newcomb) enters the old theatre across the street that she might just have conjured in her own feverish imagination, its puppet master of ceremonies (played by ever welcome horror icon Udo Kier) might just have the perfect part for her amongst his freakish cast of automatons – but not before she has played audience to six short pieces of Grand Guignol. This unsettling narrative frame, directed by Jeremy Kasten, introduces six short films, each with its own director but all linked by a thematic focus on the macabre, that make up the Franco-American The Theatre Bizarre.

As with all omnibus films, this is a mixed bag. The first piece, Richard Stanley’s The Mother Of Toads, is a drearily by-numbers tale about an American anthropology student and his girlfriend lured into a confrontation with local batrachian witchcraft in the French Pyrenees. It is badly acted, badly scripted, badly shot, badly scored, and features the most laughable creature make-up to have been seen since 1970s-era Doctor Who. Sadly, it may put some viewers off staying for the better fare to follow. The film’s only other poor offering is Karim Hussain’s Vision Stains, in which a woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) murders other marginalised women in order to inject herself with the vitreous fluid from their eyes so that she can see (and record) their life stories. There are some interesting ideas here, and more eye-watering ocular penetrations than you could point a stick at, but the protagonist’s irritant voice-over and questionable brand of feminism do not serve well this story about voyeurism, addiction and stories themselves.

The other four shorts, however, are real coups de théâtre. Gore effects maestro Tom Savini’s Wet Dreams is an oneiric (and highly Freudian) play on the sadomasochistic underpinnings of the marital bond, beginning with a crab-like vagina dentata, then working its way through a series of castration fantasies, and ending with a wince-inducing sting in its tail. Similarly, Buddy Giovinazzo’s I Love You is an intense examination of the communication breakdown between a controlling, self-deluding German (André Hennicke) and his promiscuous French wife (Suzan Anbeh), with its setting in a Berlin apartment economically referencing Andrzej Zulawski’s thematically similar Possession (1981). Another kind of breakdown is depicted in David Gregory’s grotesque Sweets, which outdoes Tampopo, La Grande Bouffe and even Feed in using the imagery of consumption to trace the shift of a relationship from sweet to cloying to suffocating to sickening to heart-rending.

Best of all, though, is Douglas Buck’s The Accident – an affectingly lyrical tale of a little girl’s first encounter with death, and her subsequent discussion of the incident with her mother at bedtime. The fairy-tale simplicity and soft-lit idealisation of these bedroom scenes evoke an ambiguity that hauntingly merges life with afterlife, while groping for answers to some of the most childish (and profound) questions about human mortality. Buck’s short alone would make The Theatre Bizarre worth the price of admission.

Anton Bitel

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