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The original plan was that I would be commuting home to Oxford from Frightfest every night. After one night of that, I simply had scrap the plan and find somewhere – anywhere!- in London to stay. Back-to-back horror movies can be quite a tiring experience and staying up afterward trying to make sense of them, and write these posts? Killer.

Having said that, I didn’t skip a single film to sleep, eat or just hide and only missed Black late on Sunday night because it clashed with my short window of opportunity to interview John Landis. The video of that interview will be coming soon, but in the meantime, let’s go over the films I did get to see. Once again, I’ll say that for basic plot and cast or crew details, you’d be better off with the Frightfest programme page.

Dead Snow – dir. Tommy Wirkola

Despite some of the most pervasive hype of the year, at least as far as horror pictures go, this was something of a dud. Frightfest ringmaster Alan Jones promised us that we’d enjoy this if we liked the zombie films of Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi but as much as I love those guys movies (and I probably love them more than anyone you know) I couldn’t see any real connection between their work and this dull headache of a film.

There was one highpoint, there really was. It was the moment in which one of our protagonists attempt to amputate part of their body after a bit. This bid to prevent the spread of the zombie virus is met with an unexpected payoff that was at least as good as some of the worse ideas in the better (ie. mediocre) Raimi and Jackson knock-offs we’ve had over the last few decades.

During the Q&A at the end, Wirkola revealed his concept for the opening scenes of a sequel (which by necessity spoils a little bit of the first film, but anyway, I’ll go ahead and tell you). The one-armed survivor is seen at the end driving away with a zombie hanging on to him through his car window and the sequel would see this zombie’s arm being severed in a car accident and falling into the car. The poor chap would then wake up in hospital to be greeted with the ‘good news’ – “It’s okay, we managed to save your arm and sew it back on”. Sounds faintly amusing, but didn’t Raimi pretty much polish off the whole ‘zombie arm’ gag book in Evil Dead 2?

Overall, I resented this film for treating me like an idiot. I guess a lot of the other audience members are somewhat desensitised to this kind of cultural insult by now because it certainly received a rapturous wave of applause.

Human Centipede: First Sequence – dir. Tom Six

Much of the foyer conversation around this film revolved around how ‘sick’ it was, or how ‘dark’. I heard a lot of claims that it was the most ‘fucked up’ film in the festival. Okay… I didn’t see it that way and I’m sure you’ll judge me how you will.

You need to know the premise here. This was a film about a surgeon kidnapping people and then sewing them together to create a string of folk linked mouth-to-anus, only capable of crawling and, besides the head of the chain, of receiving nutrition from the waste of those in front. That’s a very specific, creative set up, sure, but does that really mean the film is ‘sick’? I think the assumption might be that because Tom Six can create this vision, he somehow has a desire to enact it or finds it tickles his fetish bone. A dodgy assumption, I think.

Being a feature film directed by a fine artist, I was expecting something at once more formally extravagant and less sound in terms of screen language fundamentals than Human Centipede actually proved. I want to stress that there really were none of the quibbles with screen geography or fluid editing that can often plague films by ‘outsiders’ new to film and more interested in ‘expressing themselves’ or ‘creating images’ than actually using the medium in a truly expressive (ie. relatable and comprehendable) fashion.

Coffin Rock – dir. Rupert Glasson

This picture played like a tense, pressurised drama that built to red hot outbursts of material more typical in the horror genre. It did this, however, without ever ceasing to be that tense, pressurised drama – and that is its greatest strength.

I would have recommended a lot of tightening in the edit, and there’s some daft plotting to be overlooked, but I found Coffin Rock to pass the afternoon very agreeably.

I’m hungry for more films that succeed both as entertainments for genre hounds as well as drama for a more ‘casual’ audience. Coffin Rock may not excel as either, but neither did it fail.

Night of the Demons – dir. Adam Giersach

Is this film the sight of Adam Gierasch selling out?

This movie was both bloated and boring, texturally and structurally similar to any number of big-budget studio remakes of 70s and 80s horror hits. It was profoundly redundant and had nothing to say, no reason to exist beyond commercial interest and never even threatened originality of personal vision. This is the Shannon Elizabeth comeback film, the Eddie Furlong comeback film, the weak marketing exercise dressed up as cinema film.

I hated it. But of course, I loved watching it because there’s nowhere in the world like Frightfest for putting some sauce on such bland slop.

Clive Barker’s Dread – dir. Anthony DiBlasi

The absolute diametric opposite to Night of the Demon‘s cynical opportunism is this heartfelt attempt to realise one of Clive Barker’s better loved stories with much sensitivity to subject and subtext. There are structural problems and the pace isn’t always exact, but this is typically balanced with strongly drawn characterisation and atmosphere.

Dread is unique amongst Barker’s works for being a reined-in psychological thriller, so those more familiar with this tales of monsters and the supernatural are likely to be surprised. None the less, some of the scares in the film are violent and vicious and sudden.

All credit to the cast, many of whom are English and performing in passable US accents, and the crew who keep the tech standards high.

And that was the end of Sunday for me. At this point, Trick’r Treat was still the best of the fest. Would any of Monday’s fare challenge this? It wasn’t likely to be the first film, I can tell you that…

Zombie Women of Satan – dirs. Warren Speed and Steve O’Brien

Prior to Zombie Women kicking off, there was a special Frightfest event with audience members joining the lingerie-clad undead stars of this movie in a shuffle around central London. A solid gold reminder of how much people love the zombie iconography.

Is that enduring appeal enough to recommend this low-fi, low-class string of ridiculous jokes, smut and ostentatious make up FX? All I can say, really, is that this film will never find an audience as receptive and enthusiastic as Frightfest offered up. Well, not unless somebody launches a horror film festival in Newcastle.

Strange to see Seymour Mace starring as a perverted burlesque host offing virtually naked Zombies at the same time as he’s really up in Edinburgh presenting a comedy show for young children… or maybe there’s not as much dissonance there as I first suspected.

My enjoyment came from watching the film with a truly up-for-it mob, only indirectly from the film itself. As such, I think every copy of the DVD should come sellotaped to a six pack and a giant pizza. You wouldn’t want to watch a mildly kinky zombie comedy with a Chuckle Vision backbeat all by yourself now, would you?

The House of the Devil – dir. Ti West

Ti West is a beloved young horror filmmaker and has already earned himself a place at the heart of the horror community but judging from House of the Devil alone, you’d think he barely deserves a place under their boots. On the bright side, while this was a tedious, indulgent, pseudo-atmospheric waste of time and money, this wastage was wrought sincerely.

I liked the lead actress Jocelin Donahue a great deal but she had almost nothing to work with, and despite their strong performances, in a scene or two each, cult icons Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace seemed more like acheivement badges of a tedious horror club than casting by necessity.

Controversially, this film was cut by 4 minutes by its US distributor until complaints rang out and those 4 minutes were reinstated. From West’s comments in the Q&A, the censors o seemed to take the wrong 4 minutes because he could actually describe was happening in the snipped scenes. Why on earth didn’t they just cull five minutes or so from endless shots of characters walking all the way down long corridors? At least 15% of this film was literally nothing useful for story, character or theme and should have been shown the door.

Also, during the Q&A, West amazed me by claiming Rosemary’s Baby is only ‘sort of’ satanic (as compared to his movie, which is definitely no more so). He explained that the Lionsgate recut of his Cabin Fever 2 is now complete and that he wishes to disown it. According to him, his edit was like a John Waters or Todd Solondz film (yes, really) and featured heart wipes and star wipes (er…) and that the current version is much less esoteric and idiosyncratic. Yeah, West… but is it any better?

Case 39 – dir. Christian Alvart

The world premiere of Alvart’s long-shelved studio scare ‘em up was not, shall we say, one of the more highly anticipated pictures of the weekend. Nonetheless, it played pretty well and while it is edgeless and polished in a typically perfunctory manner, there were some great moments. It even managed to address one idea about fear, thematically speaking, that was curiously unexplored in Dread.

There were a number of scenes in which child actress Jodelle Ferland blew Renee Zellweger off the screen. Then again, some of Renee’s performance was light enough that a strong cough from the front row would have blown her off the screen too.

Don’t lose all hope for Pandorum yet.

Trick’r Treat showed that long-shelved studio pictures don’t have fritzy, uneven and hard to sell. Case 39 reminded that they most typically are.

Heartless – dir. Philip Ridley

And here we come to the grand gala presentation of Frightfest, the world premiere of the long-awaited third feature from The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon‘s Philip Ridley. I picked this as the most exciting prospect in the lineup once it was announced, and Frightfest’s Alan Jones provided a poster quote identifying it as his favourite film not only of the festival but of the entire year. Could it possibly live up to these expectations?

It was certainly very good, I’ll tell you that. A complex and intricately patterned web of motifs and images that somehow avoided feeling dense or overly-wound, Heartless blends magic realism and social realism in a very seductive and sometimes surprising way. Imagine a story about London teenagers getting in dee with street gangs and knife crime but written by Neil Gaiman and you’ve probably got a loose idea of the tone here.

It’s unfortunate that Heartless has followed in the footsteps of Gerald McMorrow’s Franklyn, with which it shares enough to merit some comparison. More fortunate is that both films are successful enough and well crafted enough that they can each stand that comparison. Pushed to make a selection, though, I’d say that Heartless is ultimately the most successful, both on its own terms and in general.

Jim Sturgess’ starring role in Heartless would confirm his movie-star stature if films this unique and odd and away from the centre ever managed to play as star makers. His performance is not just charm and good looks, however, but as good a piece of acting seen anywhere in the entire festival.

Ultimately, this film may have felt a little more normal, formally speaking, than Ridley’s first two features. I wouldn’t consider this a criticism, mind. The style was perfectly suited to the job in hand.

The Descent: Part 2 – dir. Jon Harris

A witless film that either cheats or blunders on unaware of its own issues, the sequel to The Descent manufactures what feelings of suspense and claustrophobia it manages at all from either the basic premise and location or tired old stings of loud music on the soundtrack.

I could unpick this film for several hours pointing out, for example, the scare that depends upon illogical, sourceless lighting or the reaction shot that comes some seconds too late in the edit or, frankly, any number of other things. Maybe when the DVD comes out, I will, shot-by-shot.

I discussed several of the more obviously imminent turns of plot with the chap sitting next to me. We both saw so much of this film coming that, between us at least, I think we could have written it more quickly than it actually played out. The difference between us, though, is that he was loving these cliches and anticipating them with glee and I was just getting more and more frustrated. It took the energy of the crowd to keep me chugging along, laughing away, just digging the vibe in the room.

Also on the plus side, this was a world premiere of a hugely anticipated film and having seen it ensures a huge measure of bragging rights. Only thing there, of course, is that I don’t want those bragging rights, really.

The Overall Frightfest Experience

How many times I have seen so many films that I have enjoyed so much in such a short space of time? Just this once. Here’s my list of the nine best 2009 Frightfest films – and, heck, I’ll put them in priority order too.

1. Heartless

2. Trick’r Treat

3. Human Centipede

4. Hierro

5. Dread

6. Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl

7. The Horseman

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

9. Beware the Moon

I didn’t include the remastered An American Werewolf in London on the list because that would be cheating. Besides, why tell you what you already know about one of the very best horror films ever made?

Notable mentions go to the thoroughly entertaining Smash Cut and Coffin Rock and the ambitious and interesting Shadow. If you were to ask me, that’s one heck of a good score for a festival.

I’ve got two more updates to come – one on the special clips and presentations and another that will feature my video interview with John Landis.

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