And… over to Mike.
The film that got us underway, Axelle Carolyn’s feature film debut Soulmate (2013), was actually the one that stood out the most for me. That’s not to say it was the best film of the night, or the most enjoyable – although I did like it quite a bit – but because it felt slightly out of place kicking-off a program of horror films.
Soulmate was more immersed in the traditions of Gothic and Romantic literature – with its central transgressive, unrequited love and the stunning untamed Welsh countryside – rather than the sort of splatter and anxiety that the horror geeks packed into Screen 7 might have expected from FrightFest.
Soulmate was an atypical ghost story, actively rebelling against the zeitgeist of Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013) or Paranormal Activity (2009). It eschewed terror and jump-scares in favour of being a more considered, deliberate story about grief, loneliness and recovery that was charming in its sincerity. For a first feature, it was distinctive and assured, although there were a few pacing issues and the script was too keen to explain itself, rather than leaving the audience to work out things for themselves. Still, I suppose these were minor quibbles over a film that I found refreshing in its eccentricity, and one with such a strong lead performance from Anna Walton. It was also great to see a female director at one of these things too. More of that, please.
There were breaks in between each film that lasted roughly half an hour. During the first break I saw Neil Marshall, executive producer of Soulmate and Mr. Axelle Carolyn, at the bar talking to some people. To add some context here, Neil Marshall is one of the reasons I’m so keen on film. When I was about 11 or 12 my dad showde me Marshall’s film The Descent (2005) on DVD. Because he’s irresponsible. In many ways it ignited my curiosity and was one of the first films I remember wanting tell everybody about. It’s also one of the few films that has genuinely haunted me. So, when the man who was pretty much responsible for my being at this event is just a few feet away, I should talk to him, right? Maybe say Thank You or something like that?
Well, instead, I basically foamed at the mouth and ran away downstairs so my friend could get his bag from the box-office. That was definitely a low point.
Anyway, before the second film, the eagerly anticipated remake of Patrick, we were shown a short film by Ben Wheatley collaborator Nick Gillespie, called Samuel and Emily vs. the World (2013). It was basically just another post-apocalyptic zombie story, but it felt a bit more twisted than most, with two lead characters eating the dead and blurring the line between zombies and humans. It did subvert our sympathies rather cleverly. Apparently made for just £500, the film’s world was nonetheless convincing and Gillespie might be a name to look out for in the future.
If I had to name a ‘hit’ for the night it would be Patrick (2013). The reaction from the audience was more than enthusiastic – it was gushing, adoring. Lead actress Sharni Vinson (of You’re Next fame) took part in a Q&A session after the film and every question was prefaced by how much the questioner loved the film.
I can sort of see why: Vinson was a fine Final Girl who carried the film, Charles Dance played a wonderfully surly doctor who did things with frogs that I’ll never forget, the film has plenty of fun with telekinesis and there were some really funny moments. Overall, though, I wasn’t so convinced.
Patrick was similar to a film that would play later in the night, Discopath (2013), in that they’re both extremely genre-literate homages to a bygone era. Patrick was influenced by giallo, Hammer and Ozsploitation films of the 70s, and Discopath by the slasher films of the 70s and 80s. But I think the latter was more of a parody, whereas the former wanted to be filed alongside the films it was referencing. In that respect I found Patrick a bit too try-hard and not particularly scary. For example, getting Pino Donaggio – the man behind the scores of Carrie (1976), Don’t Look Now (1973) and Piranha (1978) – to score the film must have been a coup for director Mark Hartley, but the score was bombastic and intrusive, it totally undercut the tension.
Moreover, any visual horror was often tempered by some really, really – and I mean really – awful CGI. It just couldn’t look scary even though it really wanted to.
Now, the major film unveiling of the night was arguably Arrow Films’ uncut restoration of the infamous Mark of the Devil (1970), with director Michael Armstrong there to introduce it in person. Unfortunately, this is a film with a rather substantial reputation – which is to say, it comes with a lot of baggage. Although I hadn’t seen it before FrightFest, I had heard of it; heard of the furore it generated when it was released, heard of the vomit bags handed out before screenings, heard of the ‘V for Violence’ rating, heard of the unbearably convincing scenes of 18th century torture. The wonderful Alan Jones, who interviewed Michael Armstrong before the film, referred to it as “The most controversial film ever… or one of them.” And when Armstrong dropped the bombshell that this screening could be the first ever public screening of the film fully uncut, my expectations couldn’t have been higher. When the lights went down, I was sort of dreading the film – in a good way, in a state of nervous anticipation.
When the lights came up, however, I wasn’t sure of what I had watched. At all. To be honest I’m still not. Mark of the Devil has to rank among the most bizarre, surreal experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. See, I’m almost certain that it’s a bad film, even though that’s likely considered blasphemy among horror fans – it’s cheesy, camp, hammily acted, badly dubbed and awkwardly edited, among other things. I was neither scared nor particularly disturbed, save for a few brief moments of torture (the tongue). I did, however, laugh a lot. So did most of the audience, and I’m pretty sure they were laughing at it. Laughing at the the awkward crash zooms; laughing the music that sounded halfway between something from a softcore porno and something you’d hear in an elevator; laughing at the the goofy romantic subplot. The film is quite honestly ridiculous, and I can’t quite discern whether it’s a naff attempt at being a serious piece of cinema about state oppression, hypocrisy and evils committed by those in power, or if it’s intentionally silly – maybe to highlight the ludicrous nature of corrupted religious violence?
From Armstrong’s passionate and effusive introduction, I’m suspect he intended the former. Either way, I found it utterly charming in its weirdness. As a piece of historic horror cinema, Mark of the Devil let me down, but as whatever-the-fuck-it-is – Carry on Witch-Hunting or whatever – I was strangely entertained.
Whereas Mark of the Devil amused me because it was confused, the next film, Renaud Gauthier’s Discopath (2013), was my favourite of the night because it was so sure of itself and confident to be knowingly absurd. I mean, it’s called Discopath and it’s about a man who has murderous impulses when he hears disco music: it’s a joke, but it’s a funny one.
I can’t really think of a more appropriate film for the FrightFest crowd. Where better to show a niche exploitation film for genre nerds that lovingly throws back to Canadian slasher films such as Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and Terror Train (1980), and other genre classics like Halloween (1978)? It’s so steeped in the world of the late 70s and early 80s and the films of that era and Gauthier uses our current feelings on that time period – ie. that it was kind of silly – to further the joke. He even got a Russian anamorphic (wide-angle) lens from the 70s to authentically achieve his grindhouse aesthetic. It was a real labour of love.
Like disco music itself, Discopath was completely overblown and loads of goofy fun – the climactic chase was set to the Kiss song I Was Made for Loving You and it was beautiful. But none of this got in the way of the film having a really unsettling streak throughout. For all the glorious novelty of the conceit, this film was by far the goriest of the night, with people being cut open with broken records and severed heads being thrown about the place.
Gauthier struck a nice balance between dumb pastiche and troubling horror, and lead actor Jeremie Earp-Lavergne played an imposing creep rather well. Perhaps most importantly, Discopath never outstayed its welcome. Because it ran for a mere 81 minutes, the film had this propulsive energy that meant the joke had no time to become stale. It went in there, made its point viciously, preposterously and quickly, and I couldn’t help but love it unconditionally because of that.
During Renaud Gauthier’s Q&A after Discopath, an old man came out of the audience to breakdance. Words really can’t do it justice, but it was an Important moment in all of our lives and was definitely a high point.
After that, however, the whole sleep deprivation thing really started to kick in. Dosed up on ProPlus, my brain was in a state somewhere between wakefulness and drowsiness while also being aware that both sides were locked in mortal combat. I think that was the best way to enjoy the penultimate film of the night, The Station (2013). Essentially Austria’s take on The Thing (1982), I found The Station to be an undemanding, competent, by-the-books creature feature about the effects global warming. I could easily sit back an lap up the gorgeously filmed scenery of the German Alps and admire how the various creatures were designed.
Despite not being particularly scary – although certainly dour and needlessly worthy at times – some of the imagery on show was striking and, in some cases, quite distressing in a David Cronenberg kind of way. And, to the film’s enormous credit, it also contained the only scene of the night that got the crowd cheering and applauding during the film. I await the inevitable American remake.
Once The Station had finished I bought a naff hot chocolate for £3.05 to try and give me a kick. Another low point.
By the time the final film, the UK premier of Anthony Leonardi III’s Nothing Left to Fear (2013), finally rolled around at around 5:35am, my critical faculties were frankly exhausted. I was tired; I hadn’t heard good things about the film and unfortunately couldn’t properly engage with it. It’s better to be honest about these things. I mentally checked out of the film quite early on when it became apparent that I was watching yet another “Rural Town with a Dark Secret” story with no obvious ambition. That’s not what I wanted at nearly 6am. I wanted to be grabbed, to be forced to engage with the film and to be scared. Unfortunately, Nothing Left to Fear is lifeless when it tries to be atmospheric, soulless when it attempts to add character and derivative when it wants to throwback to films such as The Wicker Man (1973) and Children of the Corn (1984).
I had no idea what was happening, why it was happening and more importantly why I should have cared – this sentiment was shared by quite a few people as we were making our way out of the screen. The novelty of Nothing Left to Fear is that it’s the first film from Slasher Films, a production company founded by Slash from Guns n’ Roses. As such it’ll most likely get a decent distribution deal, it will stay in multiplexes for about a week or so and then fade into an utterly deserved obscurity.
Thanks again to Mike for his recap. I’m certainly more keen than ever to see Discopath now, though I can’t say he’s blunted my enthusiasm for Patrick.
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