I attended my first FrightFest this past month in London and was treated to five full days of horror from around the globe. The festival, happily celebrating its 13th year, packed three theaters at the Empire Cinema (including one glorious 1400 seat venue) with rabid genre fans. The U.S. may dominate the world film market but here it took a supporting role to smaller countries like Spain.
Here are the top five films that I saw. (Disclaimer: there were three theaters running films simultaneously for five days so I might have missed some other films that were also noteworthy.)
1. 'Sleep Tight' (Spain)
© MPI Media Group/Dark Sky Films
director Jaume Balagueró returns to feature film directing with this perfectly calibrated thriller. This is not horror of a conventional kind, but it is seriously disturbing. Luis Tosar plays César, a concierge who confesses to us in a voiceover narration that he's simply not happy. But what might distracts him from his unhappiness is to make everyone around him miserable. His main target is a cheerful young woman (Marta Etura) who lives in the apartment building where he works. Since he has keys to all the apartments, he sneaks into her room every night, sedates her, and sleeps with her.
The clever twist in the film is that Balagueró perversely and against our will makes us side with César. So when he's trapped in the woman's room and trying to sneak out, we are on the edge of our seat hoping that he escapes. It's like watching Norman Bates clean up the shower in Psycho
; we want him to mop up every drop of blood. In both cases, the directors give us so much detail that we can't help but feel engaged in activity we condemn. It's brilliant. This is horror at its smartest and classiest.
2. 'American Mary' (Canada)
© IndustryWorks Pictures
The terrifyingly talented twins from Canada, Jen and Sylvia Soska, deliver the most original film of the festival with American Mary. Their first outing, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, was a raucous, DIY, violent action film, but for their sophomore effort they deliver a radically different and even more impressive product. If Dead Hooker was all raw, wild energy, American Mary is all about cool, subtle control.
The story involves a med student (the glorious Katharine Isabelle) who grows disillusioned with her male-dominated profession and ventures into the world of underground surgery. The film is stylish, assured, darkly comic, and at times horrific...but not in the way you expect. It's also loaded with top notch effects by Todd Masters that make you look at surgery in a whole new light.
Universal just picked up the film for distribution in the United Kingdom. Hopefully, the enthusiastic response the film got at FrightFest will convince Universal to distribute it in the U.S. as well. This film drips with talent, and the Soskas, who arrived at the screening in adorably sexy black vinyl aprons loaded with surgical tools, prove they are as skilled at showmanship as they are at filmmaking.
3. '[REC]³ Génesis' (Spain)
Now in its third installment, [Rec]
is a franchise that has re-invented itself with each new film so that it never gets old or stale. The first Rec
was a found footage, infected people tale; the second switched gears and made it about demonic possession; and the third one drops the found footage trope in the opening sequence and then delivers the best rom-com horror flick since Shaun of the Dead
. Leticia Dolera and Diego Martín are the adorable couple getting married when the infection begins to spread.
Although this is the third film in the series and carries the subtitle Genesis
, it occurs chronologically at the same time as the first [Rec]
and cleverly includes details from it. The tone and style, however, are completely different...and hilarious. There are also references to other zombie
films like Dead Alive
and Army of Darkness
. A wicked delight from start to finish.
4. 'Stitches' (England)
© MPI Media Group
British comedian Ross Noble makes his narrative feature film debut as Stitches, a clown who dies horribly midway through a children's party and then returns years later from the dead to exact revenge on the kiddies who gave him such a hard time. Noble is hilarious. His kills are some of the cleverest
of any film and tailored to each victim. The film has perfect comic pacing and each time you think a gag is done... wait a beat... and there's a kicker to make the punch line even better.
5. 'Sinister' (U.S.)
© Summit Entertainment
The surprise of the festival was Sinister
. It looked like one of those dime-a-dozen Hollywood produced PG-13 horror flicks designed to grab an opening weekend crowd and then fade away. But it wasn't. First of all, it was rated R and, second, it didn't wrench an "everything's gonna be okay" or dumb twist ending out of its supernatural tale. It starts badly with pained exposition to set up why the writer, played by Ethan Hawke
, has moved his family into a house where people were horribly murdered. But once over this expository hump, director Scott Derrickson
and writer C. Robert Cargill settle into a truly creepy little ghost story with great comic relief by James Ransone
as Deputy So and So. At the screening, Cargill revealed that Derrickson wanted him to create a demon and not use one from existing folklore or mythology because he didn't want to piss a real one off. Not a great film but very nicely crafted and with some genuine scares. Great use of super 8 found footage, too. Honorable mentions:
I also wanted to acknowledge FrightFest's commitment to older films. The festival showed Cabal Cut
, the restored cut of Clive Barker's 1990 Nightbreed
, and a day's worth of Hammer classics, the highlight of which was Terence Fisher's 1968 film The Devil Rides out