2013's Film4 FrightFest kicks off on Thursday night with an impromptu introduction from Bobcat Goldthwait, here with his film Willow Creek, playing on Saturday and Sunday. "Most of you thought I was dead," he says. "The rest of you are trying to figure out who I am." Not true, Bob. We loved God Bless America. "All stories are horror stories," he goes on, citing the New Testament and Grown Ups 2 as examples. "Lincoln is about a guy getting his brains blown out," he points out, "but they cut away before the good part."
The Dead 2: India, the fest's opening movie, does not cut away from the brain splattering, but like its predecessor, also written, directed and produced by The Ford Brothers, it's got a lot more going for it than that. Cards on the table: zombies bore the arse off me, so I didn't come to this film predisposed to love it. That said, I did really like The Dead, beautifully photographed in vast African expanses and for long stretches so wordless that it's reminiscent of Luc Besson's Le Dernier Combat. The Dead 2, as its sub-title suggests, shifts the action to India as the undead pandemic begins to spread, and is a generally faster-movng and more action-packed affair. It still has long stretches out in the wilderness however, and its central hook - a white westerner who joins forces with a local - is similar. Joseph Milson is the stranded alien this time, trying desparately to get to his pregnant girlfriend Meenu in Mumbai. His guide is nine-year-old Anand Gopal, who gives a precocious but impressive debut performance. The film is never really scary, but it is tense, and the filmmaking-as-extreme-tourism approach of the production team bleeds well into some nailbiting sequences, even if the zombies can be walked away from (see pic above) and at one point seem to have a Dalek-like problem with stairs.
My Friday started with Dementamania, the daft exploito-title of which belies quite a clever little British psycho-thriller directed by Kit Ryan. Sam Robertson is the office suit going into meltdown after being stung by an enormous mutant wasp, the appearance of which leaves him suspiciously unphased. It's then a downward spiral into paranoia and disturbing fantasies where we're never sure what's real and what isn't, least of all the frequent appearances of a seemingly omniscient Vincent Regan. Dementamania wears its influences on its sleeve - David Lynch, David Cronenberg, American Psycho, characters called Arkham (Lovecraft) and LeMarchand (Clive Barker) - but remains unpredictable. I especially liked the understated way in which the film's London reflects Robertson's mental state, starting out as the shiny modern city and gradually becoming more like Victorian Whitechapel. The meat of its final revelation is arguably obvious, but it's doubtful many people put together all of the smaller details on first viewing, so it's definitely one to revisit. And it's funny too.
Away from the Empire Leicester Sqaure's main auditorium, the French Sadik 2 was carving up one of the two Discovery Screens. There isn't a Sadik 1: the title refers to a film within the film. Said torture horror is the sequel to a notorious original which urban legend suggests is a real snuff movie that somehow got into the mainstream. Turns out, of course, that the rumours were true. What's weird and disappointing about this film is that its really detailed and likeable set-up leads to almost nothing at all. It's unremarkable cabin-in-the-woods stuff on paper: five teens (three guys, two girls) shack up somewhere isolated for New Year to get loaded and watch horror films (on ye olde video: a recurring hobbyhorse at FrightFest this year), but the performances lift it above the material. Even before the killing started I found myself really rooting for those kids, all of whom have a background in care (the suggestion, never really made explicit, is that this sets them up for easy disposal), but once the first housemate turns victim it gets very dull very quickly. Sadik 2 (the fictonal one) is being made on the premises. Kidnappings happen one-by-one. Protracted murders happen, some of which are coyly out of focus or off-camera, while others are up close. There's not much drama here: no great fightback, and a sudden "twist" ending that's both cursory and hugely over-familiar. Director Robin Entreinger was on-hand but didn't hang around for an audience Q&A, leaving everyone to sit in awkward silence for a while and then shuffle out like Indian zombies.
I had no intention at all of seeing Hatchet III, but for some reason it seemed to have started really late. I stuck my head in thinking I'd missed the first 45 minutes, but found it was only just kicking off, so I stayed for the whole thing and - happy surprise - had a great time. There's not a great deal to say about the Hatchet series. They're gleeful throwbacks to the slasher heyday of Jason and Freddy and Michael, with a central monster in (ahem) Victor Crowley, who haunts the voodoo swamps of Louisiana and can re-spawn every night, making him impervious to even the most violent dismemberment. A character in this film, on hearing the story so far, calls it "idiotic and contrived" (cue a look askance from cameoing writer/producer Adam Green). The ground is clear. Danielle Harris is back as the exceptionally kick-ass scream-queen with a family connection to Crowley, and - horror celebrity cameos being a thang in this franchise - she's joined this time by Zach Galligan (yup, from Gremlins) and Caroline Williams (from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie films) shows up too, as do Derek Mears (all sorts), Sean Whalen (The People Under the Stairs) and Diane Goldner (Feast). Easily the best of the (so far) trilogy, Hatchet III moves at a breakneck pace, is immensely violent, and is dumb as fuck while simultaneously remaining witty, sharp and self-aware. Massive crowd-pleaser.
And I really wanted to see Juan Carlos Medina's Spanish Civil War horror Painless, but it was packed to the rafters. Even a press pass can't magic an extra seat. So I ended up with Vincenzo Natali's Haunter. Turned out I didn't mind too much. Not a scare-fest by any means, it's neverthless nicely atmospheric, and has a great central performance by a goth'd up Abigail Breslin, who I think must be in every single scene. Big weight for young shoulders, but she seems to carry it pretty effortlessly. The Groundhog Day-ish premise has her reliving the same 24 hours, the only member of her family "awake" enough to notice. She gets alarmed when events begin to subtly alter, she starts getting answers on her Oujia board, and Stephen McHattie arrives to be be craggy at her. Haunter harks back to Natali's much earlier Nothing, taking place in a house surrounded only by void, but it's primarily, of course, a ghost story, with shades of (as a random recent example) The Others. I liked it, but it wasn't universally loved by the FrightFest audience, garnering only polite applause and some discontented mutterings in the exit aisles.