FrightFest 2012: After, Chained, The Possession, Tower Block
Posted on Tuesday August 28, 2012, 00:10 by Owen Williams in Under The Radar
FrightFest ends as it began, with another world premiere of another British film with Paul Hyett’s name in the credits (though further down than in his own The Seasoning House from Friday). Before Tower Block though, the rest of the day in Screen 1 at the Empire Leicester Square is a mixed bag.
Ryan Smith’s After is a modest supernatural mystery, about Anna and Freddy, who meet on an otherwise empty bus and strike up an awkward conversation, just before an apparent crash that blacks them out. When they wake up, both in their respective homes, some weeks appear to have passed, the world has emptied of any other people, parts of their small town seem to be reverting to the past, and there’s a dense black cloud covering all the town’s exits and gradually encroaching towards the centre. Steven Strait and Karolina Wydra are likeable as the two leads, and the film as a whole has a pleasantly unassuming indie slacker vibe. The central what’s-going-on mystery is good too, despite being a reasonably familiar set-up (it’s a bit like Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth, for example, and there’s a lot of Stephen King in there too). As is often the case though, that mystery is far more interesting when it’s still a mystery than it is when it’s answered. At least we get an answer, rather than some cheap ambiguity, but it’s not quite as moving or touching as it would like to be, and After was eliciting the wrong sort of laughs from the FrightFest crowd by the end. Cynical bastards.
Jennifer Lynch is on-hand to introduce and discuss the dispiriting Chained, her fourth feature as director following the recent Surveillance, Hisss, and her Film That Shall Not Be Named from the ‘90s. That early farrago has echoes in Chained, with its focus on a character’s captivity, but the similarities are basically superficial. What we have here is a towering performance from Vincent D’Onofrio as the hideous Bob, a taxi-driving serial murderer of, of course, women: damn there’s been a lot of rape and abuse at FrightFest this year. When he snatches and kills Julia Ormond (who was also in Surveillance) he gets the un-planned-for bonus prize of her nine-year-old son. He re-names the boy Rabbit and decides to keep him around the house as a slave boy, but also, gradually, as a surrogate son, to teach in the ways of killing women. The central Bob/Rabbit relationship is an intriguing one, but it’s surrounded by a film that’s perhaps actually even more worthless than Hidden in the Woods (see Friday) because it’s labouring under the delusion that it’s saying something profound. It isn’t. “I wanted to understand why Bob is the way he is,” says Lynch. Spoiler: Daddy was mean. That’s as psychologically deep as we go. If Rabbit ever genuinely began to buy into Bob’s world, that might have been something, but there’s none of that, and it turns out that Rabbit’s chief virtue is patience. That and a preternatural learning ability: there’s some nonsense about Bob being fascinated with anatomy, which leads to the ludicrous notion that the older Rabbit (his captivity lasts nine years) can somehow become medically proficient through studying complicated textbooks, despite his education having been arrested when he was still at primary school age. The final twist also smells distinctly of bullshit, although it is just about prefigured in the film, and Lynch says there’s more of it to come in her director’s cut: the end has apparently been truncated to meet a contractual time limit. That might help, as, perversely, might a repeat watch: foreknowledge of the twist will make this quite a different film, should you ever feel inclined to revisit.
Lynch wanted to call Chained “Rabbit”, which would have been a much better and more interesting title. She was vetoed by the studio though, in a similarly witless decision to the one that means "Dybbuk Box" is now called – yawn – The Possession. The Danish Ole Bornedal is the director of this mainstream chiller, but it’s producer Sam Raimi whose name is all over it, and there are more than a few of his fingerprints too. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is rumpled but determined in the lead as a father who buys an antique wooden box for his daughter at a yard sale, and ends up wishing he hadn’t. The film’s glossy and entertaining, with the odd mild scare and a few chuckles, but the only really new aspect – the dybbuk box itself: a Jewish artefact containing a trapped demon – is kind of irrelevant. This is a pretty standard little-girl-needs-exorcising tale, despite the quirky details. It’s never as goofy or gross-out as Drag Me to Hell, but it’s structurally pretty similar – histories must be learned; experts must be consulted – and there are scares, like the ghostly fingers appearing where they shouldn’t, that seem recycled from previous Raimi-produced horrors like The Grudge. Still, as a Morgan-starring scare-fest it’s just about good enough to erase the memory of The Resident. And we do at least learn that dybbuks show up on MRI scans. True story.
And so to Tower Block, written by the ever-reliable James Moran (see also Severance and Cockneys vs. Zombies) and jointly directed by first-timers James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson. Moran, in a hilariously rambling intro, suggests that this is a better film the less you know about it, which is certainly true. Suffice to say then, that it’s set in a block of flats in London, only the top floor of which is still occupied, pending the remaining residents’ relocation, after which the site will be redeveloped. Then Bad Stuff starts happening, and said inhabitants need to find a way from top floor to ground level with as few casualties as possible. It’s nothing like The Raid: no berserk martial arts, and the opposite trajectory. But it is a bit like the Paul McGann-starring DownTime, another British, urban, block-under-siege story, variously described as a sort of Ken-Loach-Directs-Die-Hard. The lifts are kind of out of bounds in this one though. Moran is great at transposing these well-worn genre ideas to crap British settings: he turned the slasher-in-the-woods scenario into a dismal corporate paintballing weekend for Severance (dismal for the characters, not the audience - Severance is great!), and here we’ve got all the Towering Inferno disaster movie character tropes in a grimey London tenement. It’s all brilliantly controlled and tense, with eye-watering FX from Hyett and crew, but it’s the dialogue and performances that elevate it from merely efficient to properly stonking. Sheridan Smith gets to be heroic; Jack O’Connell gets to be funny; Russell Tovey gets to be heartbreaking; and Ralph Brown gets to be patriarchal and stoic. Credulity is a bit stretched here and there, and the final whodunit reveal is a bit of a let-down, but the destination’s not so important when the journey’s a blast.