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Film4 FrightFest 2013: Sunday and Monday

Posted on Wednesday August 28, 2013, 09:13 by Owen Williams in Under The Radar
Film4 FrightFest 2013: Sunday and Monday

Sunday is a day of subdued slow-burners in the Empire Leicester Square's main screen. Maybe the assumption was hangovers after Saturday night. Fair enough, actually. Kick-off then is Missionary by Anthony DiBlasi (Dread, Cassadaga), which we're told began its conceptual life as a slasher film, but has reached the screen as something more interesting. Mitch Ryan stars as Elder Kevin Brock, a Mormon-in-training who develops a fatal attraction for Dawn Olivieri's single mom and her young son. Cue a tense escalation of stalkerish behaviour, which starts with an innocuous football game, takes in a beheading, and climaxes with guns in a scrapyard. The Mormon set-up is interestingly handled: careful not to demonise the entire religion, and taking time to make its elders likeably normal (Jordan Woods Robinson is seen sneaking out to a forbidden baseball game, for example). Even Ryan initially seems like a guy you wouldn't particularly mind finding on your doorstep with a Watchtower. It all goes a bit here's Johnny at the end, but it's very much not the "Godsploitation thriller with a splatter-day saint twist" that the FrightFest booklet paints it. Recommended.

I'm kind of baffled by some of the love I've seen for In Fear. It got a glowing introduction and my Twitter feed lit up afterwards with people apparently blown away by it. Names dropped in the Q&A included Hitchcock and Sartre. The film I saw was an unremarkable British quickie knocking off Deliverance and The Hitcher. Set in Ireland but shot in Cornwall, it's about a newly-forged couple (celebrating their two-week anniversary) getting lost on windy, woody country roads on their way to a remote hotel that may not be the paradise claimed by the website. An incident in a threatening country pub sets the uneasy tone, leading to a journey in which signs direct them in circles and glimpses of a masked man become more frequent. Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert are the increasingly and believably stressed-out lovebirds, and Allen Leech is, shall we say, someone else they encounter later on. There's an ambiguity about whether anything supernatural is happening (some of the antagonist's achievements seem impossible otherwise) which adds to the efficient air of WTF. But the film's great weakness is the exasperating ineptitude of its protagonists, who at various points wander off and leave each other in the woods in the dark; leave the keys in the car; never lock the car when they leave it; and never lock themselves into the car when they're in it. As with The Blair Witch Project, debut director Jeremy Lovering didn't tell his actors much of what was happening, leaving them to go through their ordeal as much "for real" as possible. The problem with that approach, again as with Blair Witch, is actors left to their own devices doing really stupid stuff. If it was scripted this way it's even worse. I quite liked the end. I liked it more the first time I saw it with Rutger Hauer.

Much better, though a tough watch, is Dark Tourist (known as The Grief Tourist until recently). Hard to talk about without getting into spoilers, but in a nutshell it involves Michael Cudlitz as a severely OCD security guard taking his annual vacation to the stalking ground of a famous serial killer (the type of tourism the title alludes to). This year he's chosen to walk in the shoes of mass-murderer Carl Marznap - played in flashbacks and psychological reveries by a toad-like Pruitt Taylor Vince - but finds himself struggling more than usual with the psychic baggage of his itinerary. It's very much an actor's film, and Cudlitz towers over it in a performance that encompasses touching vulnerability, dry humour, disturbing mania and brutal violence. But he's more than ably supported by the aforementioned Vince, Suzanne Quast, and of all people, Melanie Griffith, whose final scene with Cudlitz is heartbreaking (and not in the way you might assume). It never descends into histrionics, and there are subtleties - like the disappearing voiceover, replaced in Cudlitz' head by other voices - that might only occur to you when they creep up on you afterwards. Not for everyone, but a journey worth taking.

I couldn't get to much on Monday, unfortunately, but timing did allow Marina de Van's Dark Touch in the morning. I was willing this to be better, but it didn't often comply. A supernatural abused-child revenge thriller, it's about 11-year-old Niamh (Marie Missy Keating, daughter of Ronan no less) who seems to be being plagued by poltergeists until it's revealed (reasonably early) that the casue of the unquietness is her own psychokinetic ability, brought on through stress and upset. When she kills her own family in her remote Irish countryside home, she goes temporarily to live with a foster clan nearby, but their apparent kindness doesn't quite quell her rage. There's good stuff here - a surreal tableux of a family sitting at a burning table; a superbly eerie scene of an entire village of children silently heading to an empty school in the middle of the night - but it's mostly swamped by hamfistedness. It takes an inordinately long time for anyone to twig that Niamh might have been abused, despite the fact that she's been caught running away from home sporting various injuries and seen screaming for escape at the windows of her bedroom. Maybe the idea is children not being heard, and that adults can be and often are this dense. If that's the point, there were better ways of making it. There are other problems too, mostly to do with the film taking itself so seriously as to provoke unintended laughs. A revenge/rescue of two other zomboid kids (including Game of Thrones' Art Parkinson) from their cartoon Waynetta Slob mother is a prime example. I'll come to the defense of Charlotte Flyvholme's Miss Honey-ish child counsellor though, who I think is intentionally funny. I spoke to people afterwards who disagreed. In short, this is well-intentioned but cackhanded, and better when it's trying to be John Wyndham then when it's trying to be Stephen King. But it won top prize at the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival, so there are people out there who like it a lot.

Finally for me this year, there was Banshee Chapter, a loopy lo-fi conspiracy horror by first-timer Blair Erickson. Based on the US government's MK-ULTRA drug experiments of the 1960s, it's about a journalist (Katia Winter) on the trail of her missing friend who was last seen on a videotape unwisely ingesting a top secret mind-altering hallucinogen. It's not entirely found-footage, but has that grainy vibe, which sits oddly with the pointless 3D. Plot-wise it's all over the place. The drug, which comes directly from the human pineal gland, somehow opens people up as "receivers", which means they can be taken over by... what exactly? Something that makes their eyes go black and elongates their faces. HP Lovecraft's From Beyond is explicitly referenced by one character, so maybe we're talking about the Great Old Ones here, although I'm unclear why their arrival is heralded by the tune from an ice cream van on short-wave radio. Bonkers enough to be worth a look though, especially for a hilarious turn from Ted Levine, essentially playing Hunter S Thompson. Spoiler: there are no banshees.

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