Monday, 29 August 2011

Film Ramble: Frightfest 2011 (Part 1)

I've gone a few days without a post here, but for once I've a very good reason: I spent every possible spare moment of the weekend watching horror movies in a cinema with my mate Loz, at this year's London-based Frightfest festival.

We caught a little of last year's Frightfest, but a lack of planning on our part, coupled with bad luck and bad timing, meant we only managed to make three movies, and those ranged from the merely okay down to the preposterously terrible.  This year, we were determined to do better.  There was heroic talk of doing the full five days, but that was soon dismissed as craziness, and our final compromise was to catch as many of the weekend showings as we could without risking exhaustion or knowingly putting ourselves through anything that was too unlikely to reward our efforts.

The end result was seven movies over two days, three on Saturday and four on Sunday.  And this time, there was no question of bad planning, let alone luck or timing.  We had our tickets booked well in advance (and even won a few for good measure), and everything we saw, with one sorry exception, was above average.  Not only that, we were lucky enough to catch a couple of stone-cold classics days before they get a general release.  In fact, almost everything we saw was a premier of one sort or another - which, by the way, is my excuse from yet another diversion from my self-imposed mandate for this blog.  Hopefully I can tip you off to some impressive movies you might otherwise miss, while steering you away from that one depressingly awful car crash of a picture.

Saturday began on a high note that looked set for a while to dwarf everything I saw for the remainder of the two days, in every possible sense.  Believe the hype, believe the splendid poster, for Troll Hunter is wonderful.  A horror-comedy fit to be mentioned alongside classics like An American Werewolf in London, it combines a dry but fundamentally silly sense of humour with much exciting (and sometimes awe-inspiring) action, all in service of a concept so basically demented that even the smallest slip in tone would have sent it spinning.  The greatest success of Troll Hunter is that it never slips, or never more than slightly.  It treats its central premise - that trolls are real and living hidden alongside us, kept secret by the government and a handful of individuals like the titular hunter - with just the right mix of playfulness and gravity, whilst constantly undercutting one with the other at just the right moments.  No one we spoke to had a bad word to say about it, I came out wanting to watch it again immediately, and all in all I'll be amazed if it isn't the huge international hit it deserves to be.

My fears that Troll Hunter was going to be the indomitable highlight of our mini-festival were only heightened by our next film: Robin Hardy's long awaited follow-up to his classic horror oddity The Wicker Man.  We knew the odds of it being remotely as good were slim, but nothing quite prepared us for how lacklustre, misjudged and all-round clumsy it turned out to be.  Half remake, half sequel, almost all bad, it confirmed  the vague impression I've always had that Hardy achieved Wicker Man's improbably successful combination of scares, comedy, eroticism, mythology and folk music more by luck than judgement.  The Wicker Tree is too lacking in tension to be frightening, too sleazy to be sexy, and despite the comedy being far more foregrounded this time, it's never particularly funny.  The folklore feels hotchpotch and unconvincing, much as it did in the (sad to say, barely worse) Neil LaBute remake.  Only the traditional songs really stand out, and those are cut away from far too quickly, as though Hardy no longer trusts his audience to stand for such things.  If only he'd paid so much attention to the average viewer's tolerance for predictable plotting, scant characterisation, bad jokes and seventies-style sexism...

Fortunately, things picked up straight away, as we moved over to the discovery screen for low-budget gem The Caller.  Its concept - a woman moves into a new apartment and starts receiving decidedly odd phone calls from a past tenant who, amongst other suspect traits, considers the Vietnam war current affairs - sounds hokey when you say it like that, but director Parkhill makes the right call in playing it straight and keeping character drama front and centre.  Rachelle LeFevre holds things together more than capably in the lead, playing one of the better-written female protagonists I've seen this year, and gets strong support from the always-great Luis Guzm├ín and a likeable Stephen Moyer.  More thriller than horror, it nevertheless offers a few effective and imaginative shocks.  Maybe more rewarding in the long term, though, is how it all adds up to a poignant study of how we define and are defined by the past, and of the cyclic, inescapable-seeming nature of abuse.

And that was saturday.  One classic, one well-above-average indy horror thriller, and a semi-sequel that would have done well to stay on the drawing board forever.  

Next post: Sunday.  The Divide, The Innkeepers, Midnight Son and Kill List fight it out in a big (cinematic) pit!

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