Below's the second part of my Frightfest 2011 write-up; if you happened to miss part 1, you can find it here.
Sunday's Frightfest session began bright and early - perhaps a bit too early! - with The Divide. I was looking forward to this one, mostly because I'm a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic and you don't get much more post-apocalyptic than a film about a group of survivors holing up in the basement of their building when nukes start raining from the sky.
Sadly, for me anyway, the sci-fi element in The Divide is minimal, little more than a stunning opening shot and a brief interlude towards the midway point. Director Xavier Gens opts instead to concentrate on how his disparate band interact in increasingly desperate, appalling circumstances. As such, there's little here that feels particularly new, but it's definitely effective, more so than many a similar film. You know things are going to get bad for these people, and sooner rather than later, but finding out who snaps and how and why - and just how far they'll go when they do - is compelling nevertheless. Gens directs his cast and claustrophobic location well, and said cast are uniformly great, keeping their characters human even while comitting acts at the far end of the scale from what we like to think of as humanity. A little more invention on the sci-fi side might have made it a minor classic; as it is, if you need your faith in mankind crushing in a gutwrenching manner, you could do plenty worse than The Divide.
Next came Ti West's follow up to The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers. Me and fellow Frightfestee Loz disagreed massively on House of the Devil; Loz loved it, I admired its style but found its substance mostly lacking. But given how promising HotD was, I had sure hopes for better this time around. And at first, it looked like I might even get it. Though a little slow-paced, the opening half of The Innkeepers sets up two likeable characters amidst an interesting premise, as hotel clerks Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, both great) joke around and bicker whilst half-heartedly investigating the soon-to-be-closed-down establishment's history of ghostly goings on. Sadly, the more it developed, the more obvious it got that the ghost story element - the part I really wanted to be impressed by - wasn't half so well thought out as the character drama. And for me, the final few minutes sold both short. That said, Loz loved this one too, and I won't be surprised if many other people do too. In particular, Paxton was a revelation, and it would be nice if this performance helps draw her out of the mire of Z-grade awfulness she seems to have found herself in.
Our third film was the one I'd been least sure of at the bookings stage. A microbudget tale of urban vampirism, Midnight Son definitely had the potential to go either way. As such, it turned out to be one of the festival's nicer surprises that it was mostly a success. Grungy and melancholy, Midnight Son picks at the mythology of vampirism like an old scab, and succesfully finds a little fresh blood waiting underneath.
Okay, it isn't half as original as it perhaps thinks it is, with explanations of and parrallels with vampirism that have all been seen before elsewhere. But it's committed and convincing, and it's been long enough since other low-fi real world takes on vampirism, like Romero's Martin or Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, that it feels a lot fresher than it is. In fact, perhaps its biggest triumph is in daring to behave as though it's just invented the vampire movie, and the meticulous, unapolagetic way in which it reveals the concept afresh is its greatest trick. By the end, I was too caught up to care that I'd already seen a million other vampire flicks. I can see Midnight Son finding an audience, if maybe not a cinema release, and it's easy to imagine writer / director Scott Leberecht going on to bigger and better things.
Lastly came the film that everyone seemed to have been talking about throughout the weekend - or at least wearing the shoulderbag of. Me and Loz were both expecting good things from Kill List, which seemed to be building an astonishing degree of word of mouth support on the barest handful of preview showings.
What I didn't expect was that it would be amongst the very best British horror films I've ever seen. Ben Wheatley has crafted an impeccable mix of character drama, hitman movie and absolutely nightmarish horror, and come up with something so truly original and unnerving that it still has its hooks deep in my brain almost fourty eight hours later. It starts out somewhere between Mike Leigh and David Lynch. Then its gets weirder and darker (and funnier and sadder), through some narrative contortions that I'm still trying to get my head round and some scenes that will stay with me for a long, long time, to arrive at a last act that still feels more like a bad dream than something I actually sat in a room experiencing with other people. Please don't let anyone spoil the plot for you; just take my word for this one. Kill List is rare and brilliant work, and I'll be profoundly impressed if I see a better film this year.
One last thought, then - a conclusion of sorts. Ye gads, that was a good two days of film! My affection for horror cinema has been sapped in recent years, but this one weekend has restored my faith and then some. Granted, most of the films I watched brought strong elements of other genres to the mix, but then, perhaps that's the message to take away; be it Norwegian fantasies about troll hunting, supernatural time-travel thrillers, or nightmare takes on the hitman genre, horror has wide borders. Hollywood may spend its time recycling and sequeling genre classics into so much fertiliser, but elsewhere, brilliant chimeras are being born. If Frightfest is anything at all to go by, horror cinema is in a very good place right now.