I've now lost count of the number of annual Frightfest events I've attended. I'm not always quite as hardcore as The Moran, who goes for the whole damn five-day shebang every year with his good lady Jodie, but I always want to stick my head in and watch a few films. This year, the excellent Edinburgh TV Festival kept me away from the event for most of the Bank Holiday Weekend, but me and my young lady managed to see a couple of horrific delights.
Well, I say delights... but they weren't, particularly. The thing with Frightfest is, it's a superb event with bags of atmosphere and added value, but can only reflect the best of what's going on in horror around any given August. And things being reflected were the very nub and gist of Mirrors, the latest film from Alexandre Aja. Like many, I was looking forward to this one. I loved Switchblade Romance (originally Haute Tension in its native France) which Aja co-wrote and directed, then the man's gutsy remake of The Hills Have Eyes. The recent P2 bore Aja's name as executive producer, and was merely okay - a good slashery effort with obvious flaws in the departments of pace and especially repetition.
Mirrors sees Aja back as co-writer and director, so excitement was high as the film began. And it's ludicrous. Okay, let's get this straight, because Aja deserves the clarification: the idea is sound and potentially quite scary, with the titular shiny surfaces harbouring demonic forces which can turn your own reflection against you. The problem is the script.
Especially towards the end, when presumably the script's redrafting ran out of time, there were lines and moments which had the Frightfest audience hooting with laughter. I really felt for star Kiefer Sutherland, who was acting his boots off, attempting to imbue the foolish dialogue with conviction, but being saddled with lines like "Don't make me threaten you!" and, best of all, "You've gotta be careful of the water. It creates reflections!", which was still being quoted in a nearby Wagamama, half an hour after the end credits rolled. Mirrors isn't without merit, with some nice moments, but I'm really starting to suspect that Aja should perhaps focus on direction, which is where he truly excels.
The other film I caught was The Disappeared, a British ghost story. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian, who spent several years developing it with producer Neil Murphy, it stars Harry Treadaway as Matthew, a council estate teen traumatised by the disappearance of his younger brother Tom. When Tom apparently starts communicating with Matthew via TV and a ghetto blaster, Matthew starts to doubt his sanity - especially as he's just got out of mental care. He also starts to doubt his own father, who seems to have a real anger management problem.
An undoubtedly classy piece of work, well directed, The Disappeared unfolded its mystery a little too slowly for me. Treadaway is very good in the lead role, even if the subsequent onstage Q&A session confirmed that 'council estate' is indeed not his natural accent. The Disappeared's main problem, though, comes with its twists: I could see them coming from so far away, they may as well have been riding in day-glo hot-air balloons. It reminded me that twists are dangerous affairs: make them too obvious, and present them as a big hey-got-you-there deal (one twist ends the film) and the audience will feel gravely under-estimated.
As Frightfest always likes to give you extra, in a Halifax bank stylee, each film was preceded by some fun stuff. Charlie Brooker bounded onstage to swear a fair deal and present clips from his forthcoming E4 drama, Dead Set, which combines Big Brother with zombies. I'm so over the current post-28 Days Later zombie rash that you wouldn't believe it, and Dead Set sadly seems to be working within similar parameters, right down to the annoying use of jerky-cam when the undead bastards attack. Still, it's great to see a six-part horror serial on TV, and perhaps the magic of Brooker can exhume the maggot-riddled zombie sub-genre.
We were also shown a clip or two from Lesbian Vampire Killers, which clearly could never live up to its title, no matter how good it is. The clips suggested a fairly decent spoof comedy-horror job, boosted by the appearances of Gavin & Stacey stars James Corden and Mathew Horne.
The next day, I went to a press screening of The Strangers, a Frightfest inclusion which I'd missed. Despite sitting next to an overgrown child who insisted on chewing and slurping over his pen throughout much of the film, I really enjoyed it.
As the prominent UK TV trailers have suggested, it's a real white-knuckler which manages to genuinely give you the creeps on several occasions. At heart a '70s exploitation movie like The Last House On The Left, right down to its opening 'true story' screen-captions, read in a sinister voice, it centres on a couple (Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler) whose crisis quickly elevates from 'relationship drama' to 'we're about to be horribly murdered'. Three masked freaks turn up at a house where they're spending the night, knocking on the door, murmuring ominously and generally messing them about. Then the intimidation and intrusion gets worse and worse...
The Strangers is a little like a more commercially-minded Funny Games, even if it's not quite as consistent in pitch. Somewhere around the two-thirds mark, the taut tension simply can't be sustained, and characters start doing rather silly things. There's also a pretty major plothole involving a 911 call. The climax, though, is a brilliantly unflinching piece of work, despite having attracted criticism from the lily-livered.
One Frightfest film I'd already seen is Time Crimes, a Spanish gem which, as it title suggests, concerns time-travel. Very complicated, mind-bending time travel which might give even Steven Moffat a migraine. I forget the exact plot set-up as I saw it last October, but suffice to say that the central character ends up tied up in timey-wimey knots, meeting various versions of himself. Truly ingenious, mad stuff which will hopefully gain a distributor over here.
These days, it's generally held to be true that films don't suffer from censorship nearly as much as they used to. By and large, this is the case and is something to be celebrated, compared to the dark days when moralistic, Daily Mail-fuelled witch-hunts led to so-called video nasties being confiscated from rental shops and people being prosecuted for peddling motion pictures (see my feature on video nasties here).
Films do, however, still get snipped from time to time - or even banned outright. A US serial killer film called Murder Set Pieces, for instance, was quite recently refused a certificate by the BBFC. Admittedly, it's an unusually nasty piece of work and seriously grim, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend it if you prefer your brain unscarred. Still, Murder Set Pieces is a perfectly well-made, toiled-over piece of 35mm fiction by director Nick Palumbo and I support its right to exist and be seen by consenting adults. Nevertheless, the BBFC have decreed that you're not allowed to legally watch it in the UK. Wrong, wrong, wrong. While the BBFC is full of perfectly sensible, nice folk who in some cases are genuine horror fans, it's important to realise that we're not quite out of the woods just yet when it comes to our celluloid-centric liberty.
If you're curious about what else falls under the censor's machete these days, I thoroughly recommend the magazine Is It Uncut?, not to be confused with the unappealing music monthly. A glossy, professionally printed mag, it runs plenty of detailed horror/SF/action movie reviews and painstakingly lists BBFC cuts to films (mainly, it has to be confessed, porn). The current issue features the blood-splattered heroine from Frontiers (another fine film, incidentally) on its cover, and is available from Midnight Media, who also publish Slash Hits, an excellent run of slasher movie encyclopaedias. Lovely.
"To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it" - Michel de Montaigne
"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it" - Mark Twain
Frightfest Update: You can see The Amazing Trousers, one of the shorts shown at Frightfest, on YouTube here. Starring Kris Marshall, it's quite the rib-tickler.