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The Last Grouch On The Left: Josh Saco On The End Of FrightFest
Josh Saco , August 31st, 2010 22:14

Our tattoed man of horror throws himself into another weekend of guts and gore at the Film4 FrightFest

Primal

Once again Film4 Frightfest cuts its way through London to land in Leicester Square's Empire Theatre. The fans have been counting days, eagerly researching films, twittering each other in anticipation for another blood soaked bank holiday weekend. Boasting one of the most independent line-ups in recent years, it appears to be off to almost too good a start even as you cross the square in the misplaced November rain that has invaded our British summer.

Sitting in the comfort of the digital age, the time of the video nasty, horror's darkest days, the long lost age of Mary Whitehouse and her reactionary actions seem to be something from a different time. We are now far enough removed from such censorious times that we can reflect on them. Which is exactly what Frightfest is doing this year as they premiere Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape as Monday's opening film. So we horror fans, are safe in the knowledge that there is nothing left that can shock _us_, and no more for us to fear from the BBFC.

Those days are gone. We have have entered the age of Torture Porn. Our films are now safe.

Yet rumours have been circulating for a week or so… two of the most rabidly anticipated films of the festival look like they themselves are going under the knife. The much talked about A Serbian Film, so shocking people refuse to tell you what it's about, has caused people to storm out of the cinema. Those that hadn't vomited or fainted first at least. Referred to as this year’s Antichrist, Frightfest was set for it's UK premire, until...

Westminster Council stepped in, referred it to the BBFC and the 80s are back in full swing, the Tories are back in power, the poor are shafted and A Serbian Film loses nearly four whole minutes of running time.

This inevitably leads to disappointment and outrage as a film that has been screened in several other festivals, uncut, has effectively been trimmed down for British sensibilities.

The Frightfest organisers, conclude that what is now a castrated film, lacking the power and punch that made it notorious in the first is not a film they want to show. They stick to their guns and pull it. There is no official word as to what will replace it, just a white sheet of paper taped over its name in the running list in front of the Empire.

As if that wasn't enough, the much debated I Spit on Your Grave remake has also fallen victim to the censors, losing 45 seconds, yet supposedly still managing to maintain the full impact, this show will go on but nevertheless, this all adds up to a severe blow in the hours leading up to the opening evening.

Dead Cert

Now in its 11th year, Film4 Frightfest has become one of the world’s leading claret carnivals, helping to gain respect for genre films with audiences beyond the normal mouth breathing, fanboy, cellar dwellers that you'd expect. [Don’t be so hard on yourself Josh, Ed] Each year it grows, bringing in bigger names and bigger films. It allows British genre fans a chance to see films on the big screen that they would only get to see on DVD, or they might pass up all together, always chock full of premieres, special events and surprise screenings, it is for the dedicated as much as it is for the poor tourist who gets trapped in by a group of trench coated black leather cowboy hat wearing denizens of the depraved.

This year’s opening film is by Frightfest favourite, Adam Green and his return to form Hatchet II. Green's homage to the 80s slasher film is a film for geeks by geeks. Full of nods, winks and laughs for the initiated, one fears it might not play as well to a larger audience, but here, at its spiritual home, it goes down a treat. The Australian infection monster film Primal follows complete with a witty script and some vicious high speed fight scenes. Frightfest seems off to an interesting start.

I skipped the last film with Danny Dyer. It started at 11.30pm and starred Danny Dyer.

Primal

Friday 27 Aug

The screen at the Empire is gargantuan. It demands your entire field of vision and distorts your sense of reality - something which is something that acclaimed genre master, and the first of Total Film's Total Icons, Tobe Hooper knows a little something about.

In Hooper's honour, the day opened with his long lost psychedelic classic, Eggshells. Filmed in 1969 and released on fifty screens, he defends it meekly with a "...it did well at campus's." It is what it sounds like, and will suffice as a curio or something for completists. Positioned as a response to the socio-political issues of the day, it was a far cry from the film that would eventually launch his career and alter the face of horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Hooper's love of film began early: spending time in local picture houses, he watched and absorbed so many films that even now he mixes his real life memories with films he saw as a child. When asked where his affinity for horror came from, he tells a lovely tale of being a 3 year old boy and switching on the flickering florescent lights to find he was in the backroom of a funeral home, surrounded by child sized coffins! Makes you wonder what is and isn't real.

The beginnings of Chainsaw can be traced back to his childhood as well, long country trips on roads cutting across the vast expanse that is Texas, mixed with the tales of a local boogieman near his relative’s home in Wisconsin. Though the stories alone were enough to inspire, it would only be later, after Chainsaw, that he realised that boogie man was actually real and was Ed Gein.

Hooper wanted to create a splash, he knew the tropes of horror and wanted to challenge audiences’ expectations. He could never have guessed what an influential and ultimately successful film he would create: spawning 3 sequels, a recent remake and a prequel. When asked what he thought of the remake, his response was that it lacked “context”, though he did enjoy watching Jessica Biel's bum as she was chased by a chainsaw wielding manic.

Jessica Biel's bum

Frightfest is a funny beast and you never know quite what to expect from one film to the next. You must suspect that with the loss of KABOOM a month or so ago, followed by A Serbian Film , it left slimmer than usual pickings for our mighty organisers. Finding 30 new and interesting horror films is never going to be an easy task, but this year they seem to have amended the definition of horror to allow films featuring “bloodshed” to qualify - as was the case with two of the remaining three films of the day.

Isle of Dogs

A British gangster flick, totally drowned out by it's own soundtrack, meets Tarantino, with a giallo plot, is pretty much the best way of describing the confusingly named Isle of Dogs. There were no islands, and not even any water; no element of the film ever explicitly took place in a city, let alone London in which you could at least pretend that you were down at the Den about to get glassed by Danny Dyer (the film is set in a posh manor house in the countryside); and the only dog is killed fairly quickly. Filled with striking images and a witty script, it was let down by slow pacing and an overbearing, repetitive soundtrack.

F

Isle of Dogs was well paired with the following film, F, starring David Schofield and Eliza Bennett, a gritty and tense British horror film that pulled few punches. Well crafted and beautiful at times, director Johannes Roberts certainly drew on his love of Italian genre cinema for both the Suspiria Goblinesque score and the nods to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, in this story of a loosely knit group of people who are trapped in a school and besieged by a group of hooded, spectral assailants. Bold and disturbing, F received a well deserved round of applause.

Rounding up the evening was the new Australian film, Red Hill, starring Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse in True Blood) as a big town cop who's moved to the outback to find some peace and quiet for his pregnant wife. Red Hill is an updated version of no holds barred Ozplotation with a healthy helping of neo-Western thrown in for extra randomness. Car chases, shoot outs, breathtaking shots of the country side and a fairly pointless black panther made it one of the best films so far.

Red Hill

I skipped Alien v Ninja, a mental Japanese treat in the vein of Tokyo Gore Police, mainly because it didn't star Danny Dyer in the role of a ninja.

Saturday August 28

The day breaks and another day of horror awaits.

Two films fill the air, command and own the weekend.

We are biding our time.

Along the way we need to entertain ourselves, so perhaps we pass time with Christopher Roth and his Misery style approach to the writer's relationship with his fans, expanding into what is and isn't reality - watching our hero fall into a trap or into something he's laid for himself?

On the rare occasion that you find yourself face to face with a lycanthrope, you might ponder, what happens when we decide to gather five british teenagers in a house over night and lock them in with a werewolf? What happens is 13hrs, in which five of the most irritating teenagers ever are given screen time. We want, beg and plead for them to die. They can't drop off fast enough. In an attempt to add a new aspect to the werewolf folklore, 13hrs has reinvented the werewolf, and going down a slightly logical route have removed all the werewolf's hair. Humans don't have hair, so why should they when they transform into a wolf? Probably because skull caps look cheaper than wigs?

13hrs

The time comes for the film. THE film. A film that carries with it such a burden that few can even say they "like" it, let along enjoy it.

I Spit on Your Grave was a Video Nasty that few would actuallly contend. A rape revenge thriller that has no equal. Not a film you can sugar coat, or even pretend you have never seen as it seers its way into your head. Why of all films would you remake this? Why? What can you add that is not in the original.

This film has been tucked behind peoples porn films with a sense of guilt. This is not a date film, this is a film with 50 minutes of rape and abuse. Harsh and hard. Yet lo and behold there is the remake. Why?! Again we ask, why?

Westminster Council have trimmed 45 seconds out of the film, mainly revolving around the abusers reliving their crime via their camcorder; the censors have removed little of the horror of this film, and what is lacking in the remake that was there in the original is the relentlessnes of the crimes. But it is a fully updated, 21st century appraoch to a 70s rape/revenge exploitation film. True to the original in every way. And yet, not nearly as brutal. This is a film you might take your girlfriend to see. The original, you wouldn't. Ever.

I Spit on Your Grave

I spit on Your Grave's cinema silencing was broken by the beauty of Monsters. Presented by Total Film, Monsters is a road trip film, a love story, and a commentary on America's imperialism, not the film you would expect from Frightfest. Its beautiful locations and sensitivity are the perfect mind cleansing antidote to the horrors of I Spit on Your Grave and the audience adores it. Director Gareth Edwards reportedly made the film for a measly £12k and added all the special effects on his laptop from the comforts of his home. It's not got the intensity of District 9's high energy prawn assault, but rather the gentle slow burning fluidity of an octopus crawling across the ocean floor. Setting up the world around it in a Children of Men style, relying on the background elements, letting you read into events and piece it all together, Monsters is a film your girlfriend would take you to, and you would thank her for it.

Sunday August 29

Sunday opens with La Meute (The Pack), a French film about a girl who lets the fates take her where they will. Where they lead her is to a road side tavern which hides a dark secret. Belgian comedienne, Yolande Moreau, stars as La Spack, the mad proprietor who lives to feed the earth she lives on. A strange mash up of horror tropes and drawing on Assault On Precinct 13 and Night Of The Living Dead, The Pack is a fun ride filled with smart jokes and subterranean monsters.

Continuing the international theme of the day, We Are What We Are is a Mexican film about a family who is coping with the loss of their provider. A dark and bleak approach to what happens to a family of the death of a loved one. In this case their loved one supplies the daily meat which happens to be human flesh. As the family stuggles to maintain order we see that ultimately no one is innocent and inevitably, we are what we are.

What we are and what we can deal with is thrown in our faces when nine o'clock rolls around, people have now heard that A Serbian Film has been cancelled due to the BBFC's over exuberance with a pair of scissors. Slicing nearly four whole minutes out of this film, the organisers chose not to show it, saying that it was no longer the film they picked and all impact and context had been removed. Speaking with The Quietus, the director Srdjan Spasojevic insisted that it was not torture porn and hardly a horror film, but rather a film about the realities of life. Undeterred by the controversy surrounding the film, he will start working on a new film within the week, Spasojevic struggled to specify what kind of film it would be, but stated that it would still be a genre film.

A Serbian Film

In place of A Serbian Film, Icon Pictures stepped forward and offered Frightfest their newest thriller, Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds - a daring claustrophobic film about an American contractor kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq and buried alive. With only two hours to come up with the ransom money, the entire film takes place six feet under in a cramped box. Invoking the style of Saul Bass, it is amazingly shot and incredibly moving. This fast paced thriller leaves you gasping for breath and quite literally unable to see clearly. Along with Monsters, Buried has been referred to as the film of the festival.

Buried

Monday Aug 30

Across five days, Film4 Frightfest screened over 30 film to in excess of 2000 people. Along the way there were sneak peeks and interviews, sharing drinks with various icons and meeting up with old friends. Such is the allure of Frightfest: wrapped up inside what appears to be a weekend of terror and depravity is a sense of community, familiar and friendly faces who share a common interest. Not everyone wants to see blood spilled, some merely want to experience the physical joys of hair standing on end, or the more visceral pleasures found in that terrifying anticipation of something lurking in the dark depths of a blackened room. It is as much about the films as it is about what organiser Alan Jones refers to as the “Frightfest family”. Sit back, enjoy and chat to the person next to you - you'll be together all weekend.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and the Videotape, a documentary about the 80s scandal, and its accompanying panel discussion became a much anticipated event in light of the BBFC's decision to cut both I Spit on Your Grave and A Serbian Film. A first for Frightfest, now in their 11th year.

Director Jake West, whose previous endeavours include Razor Blade Smile and the Danny Dyer classic Doghouse, tracked many of the key figures involved at the time, including ex MP Graham Bright who spearheaded the Video Recordings Act 1984. The act forced video to carry a classification and so placed these films in front of the BBFC for the first time, resulting in 72 films being banned, and slews of people facing criminal prosecution for merely owning titles such as Blood Feast or The Last House on the Left.

It was not to be...

On the panel, West was joined by, among others, Tobe Hooper, Prof Martin Barker and a representative of the BBFC to discuss the long term implications of the Act as well as the state of film censorship today. While it was pointed out that the BBFC was irrelevant in an age where everything is available online, Barker felt that it was important to remain vigilant about decisions the BBFC makes on our behalf, such as cutting of two of the festival's films, under the guise of “moral watchdog”.

The Dead

Sticking to a British theme, the Fords Brothers feature début, The Dead, is a well measured trek across zombie infested Africa. We follow an army engineer as he tries to get to the safety of a base on the other side of the African wastelands. With the film's slow methodical pacing we get a sense of scale of his task. The first third of the film is nearly dialogue free, so it really is all about the journey. Let down by stiff acting and questionable story choices, the breathtaking locations and clean crisp camera work sadly are not enough to save what could have been a great addition to the Zombie genre.

Red, White and Blue

The penultimate film of Frightfest saw the return of Simon Rumley, and his bleak, realistic American indie style, with Red, White & Blue. This desperate tale of revenge is heartbreaking and devastating, leaving little in its wake. Weaving three troubled peoples lives together in the underbelly of Austin, Texas, Rumley invokes the spirit of Michael Haneke and leaves the audience traumatised as we watch the sad lonely Erica (Amanda Fuller) seek comfort in any bed she can. Iraq war veteran and loner creepy guy Nate (Noah Taylor) casts a protective eye over her as she spirals further down. When one of her previous sexual exploits comes back to haunt her, things go from bad to cataclysmic. Red, White & Blue is certainly not for the faint hearted, but it's dark tones and edgy subject matter make it one of the most mature films of the festival.

Closing on a high, Frightfest hosted the UK première of The Last Exorcism, introduced by the suave producer himself, Eli Roth, along with key cast and crew. The Last Exorcism looked set to steal the crown. Another in the ever growing line of cinéma vérité horror, we accompany an evangelical preacher and self confessed charlatan Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) with a documentary team as he reveals his tricks of the trade. Picking a random letter from a stack, Cotton and the film crew set out to a farm house in Louisiana. It becomes obvious that the preacher’s faith is questionable when he defers to science when his tricks fail. But Cotton is clearly out of his depth and the young Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) becomes more and more violent. The Last Exorcism contains all the elements of a Hollywood horror film, aside from jump scares. First time director Daniel Stamm successfully builds the tension until you are searching for a hand to gasp. By the end, you become aware that later in the evening, you will be turning out the lights to go to sleep, and it's not a comforting thought. But the end is the problem - Last Exorcism clangs to a screeching halt and nearly becomes another film altogether. Roth scrambled for excuses during the subsequent Q&A session, claiming the idea was to leave the entire film open to interpretation. When asked why the film poster plainly contained an image that was nowhere in the film, Roth again replied with a defensive "...well that's down to marketing". The Frightfest crowd are passionate and knowledgeable, trying to pull one over on them is a mistake, as Roth and company quickly learned.

Eli Roth

Overall the UK première horror movie festival contended with new controversies and a broadening of the remit. We can only hope that next year sees more scares and chills and less thrillers and cuts. Though cuts may very well become a regular thing as the head has poked above the parapet and Westminster Council are notoriously hack happy. Fingers crossed.

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Josh Saco runs the incomparably weird Cigarette Burns Cinema night in London, N1.

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