London FrightFest 2018 has just ended. I know because I was there, and I already miss it deeply. A long-weekend film festival showcasing the best and most exciting horror from around the world, now closing in on its 20th year, FrightFest, frankly, is a vitally important event if you even remotely care about about the genre. I live and breath this stuff, so FrightFest is basically my movie Christmas. As such, I have spent four days wallowing in every dark, sticky, putrid delight the festival had to offer, and in the snatched moments between incoming new terrors, I have written up how it all went down.
What you're reading, this is my FrightFest blog, which I've stuffed full of my impressions, experiences. It's a diary of dread that takes in the entire event, from Friday morning to late Monday night, relating tales of ghosts, grue, grimness, the bloody lovely people who love them all. So let's just back in time a few days, to where the nightmare started.
Friday (AKA,'It Begins')
Okay, FrightFest 2018 has opened strong. Jenn Wexler's The Ranger is a grinning, weapons-grade hoot of a thing. Exactly the kind of punchy, energised, witty, charismatic splat-storm that you need to open a festival like this. The tone, my friends is set.
Telling the tale of a bunch of delinquent but winsome punks hiding out in one of those cabins in Most Certainly Those Kinds of Woods after a drug bust drives them out of town, The Ranger's tone is brilliantly balanced. It's super self-aware without being ironic. It's deliberately fun (and funny) as hell, while still taking itself and its story seriously. It takes the time to set up a whole lot of genuinely human, likable characterisation and intriguing (and meaningful) background before it starts letting things that should be inside human bodies start ending up outside of them, but nevertheless it clips along with a pace and economy that thoroughly honours the lean, energetic ferocity of its gleeful punk soundtrack.
And ye gods, it's colourful. The Ranger basically dances along a whole bunch of tightropes at the same time. It's a fizzing, upbeat slasher with exuberance to spare, but also has plenty of substance alongside the substances. I'm a fan.
And then, by somewhat of a tonal contrast, we have this morning's The Cleaning Lady. A slower, deliberately meandering tale punctuated with economical, wince-inducing bursts of deliciously grim violence and grue, it's not too far off a two-hander, character-based story, made of steadily spiralling chaos. Alice is an (would-be) recovering love addict in the midst of her latest unhealthy relationship. Shelly is Alice's new cleaner and eventual friend. Carrying severe burns from an incident years prior, Shelly seems sweet, subdued, and submissive, always looking into Alice's could-be-perfect life from the outside. But it's increasingly apparent that Shelly is very aware of all the specific imperfections, and has a powerful drive to fix them.
Naturally, things get dark. This is a film that opens with mice in a blender and then revels in stepping up the pained-intake-of-breath factor every time it drops another short, sharp slap of nasty. It delights in slow, unravelling inevitability, but punctuates each pronounced step down into its dank basement with a distinct moment of 'OOF'. Your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for 'Disfigured abuse-survivor as villainous backstory' tropes, though The Cleaning Lady definitely plays on the more theatrical end of the genre, and its twin leads are never anything less than strong-as-heck.
And rounding off my first barrage of films, we hit the charged, art-horror delirium of Braid. I'm going to be processing Braid for a while, and but I think I love it, and I really want to see it again as soon as humanly possible. Part psychodrama, part fairytale, part audio-visual poem drifting between linear narrative, hallucination, and dream-logic on a whim, it's one of the most arresting things I've seen in quite a while, and - while it occasionally trips in the rush to add one too many visual gimmicks - frequently a beautiful film to behold. Amid all the spatter, of course. Actually screw it, the spatter is beautiful too.
The nutshell (not that a plot synopsis really serves any purpose in encapsulating a film like Braid) is that two childhood friends, Petula and Tilda, on the run after a drug bust, decide to hold up at the mansion of their estranged childhood playmate Daphne. The complication is that Daphne is deeply disturbed, and still fixated on the kind of make-believe role-playing the three partook in as kids. To gain sanctuary, they'll have to play along, and both are relatively willing at first. But, well, reality can be inconveniently subjective, can't it? To get the most out of Braid, you (like its protagonists), need to accept that this is a place with its own rules, which can and will change in a moment. Don't try to make sense of it in a traditional sense, but instead, feel your way through it. If you can do that, it's a fantastic place to get lost.
As for me? I'm feeling pretty triumphant so far. Fuelled largely on coffee and adrenalin at the moment, I've notheless hit the ground running like so many machete-dodging teenagers, and feel in fine form. I've also had a bloody brilliant chat about all things 2018 horror with Paul Rascid, director of political sci-fi horror White Chamber, which is screening on Sunday. As such, I'm thoroughly pumped for the rest of FrightFest. Though I've now dropped back into my hotel room for a good sit down and a nice reboot before tonight's onslaught. That onslaught includes the new one from the director of the notoriously harrowing (and brilliant) Martyrs, and an Australian film about a killer pig. And you just know I'm am 100% onboard with both of those ideas with every fibre of my being.
Saturday (AKA, 'Escalation')
Australian Tremors with a giant pig, anyone? Yeah, I thought so. That's how I rounded out last night, and ye gods, was staying up for that near-midnight screening of Chris Sun's Boar a great idea. How much of a great idea? This film features a scene in which Nathan Jones (Mad Max: Fury Road's hulking Rictus Erectus) fist-fights a wild boar the size of a car.
Boar knows exactly what it's about, and it executes the loveable nonsense of its conceit perfectly. Its concept is embraced with ridiculous, b-movie fervour. Car sized bush-pig splatter-kills the hell out of a small town, while somehow occasionally employing giant bush-pig stealth for the purposes of hilarious surprise attacks. But smartly, it's all grounded in relentlessly likable, beautifully human, no-shits-given characterisation. Virtually any of Boar's ensemble could carry the film on their own, and Boar seems to know it. Plenty of dialogue scenes go on minutes further than they technically need to, seemingly just to let the cast bluntly give each other good-natured shit for a little longer. The result is a laser-guided, late-night schlock delivery system with a heart as big as its monster.
Skipping forward to today, Bernhard Pucher's Ravers is the latest in what's turning out to be a steady stream of assured, witty feature debuts at this year's FrightFest. Telling the tale of an illegal rave gone wrong by way of a case of defective, mutant-spawning energy drink, it achieves that holy grail task of making its zombies different without making a posturing statement about, well, making its zombes different. Splicing zombie tradition with some sly, cheeky satire (these zombie ravers are basically happy in their own, hedonistic bubbles until they're disturbed or the high starts running low), Ravers also keeps things punchy with seriously tight audio-visual choreography. The director used to be a DJ and, in the dextrous editing of the film's banger of a trance and techno-fuelled soundtrack, it really shows.
All of which is a pre-amble to my looping back to last night's screening of Pascal Laugier's Incident in a Ghostland. The reason for this diary entry's chronological breakdown? It's taken me this long to process Ghostland. Not in a 'Not sure how I feel about that' capacity, you understand, but in the sense that only now do I feel about to write about it without just ALL CAPS SCREAMING about how damn good it is.
Sharing some spiritual DNA with the director's ferociously upsetting (and fantastic) Martyrs, Ghostland is much less viscerally gruelling (for all that it still trades in real, impactful trauma and unflinching emotional beatdowns), and somewhat more refined in its relation of a home invasion with lightly fairytale overtones. It also has a distinctly playful sense of humour, amid all of its inventively affecting atrocity. Beyond that though, I can say no more, for the sake of spoilers. Just see it as soon as you can. It's brilliant.
And in terms of the experiential ride of FrightFest? Things are getting somewhat more intense as interview schedules mingle with screening times mingle with the need to actually stop and eat at some point (disappointing as it is, one cannot sustain oneself on fun and adrenalin alone, which is a shame as otherwise I'd be invincible right now).
But as things become slightly more hectic, resolve of course rises. Just ask any Final Girl. You've just got to grasp the machete and get on with it. And hey, those interviews are proving an invigorating good time in themselves. I've just had a great chat with The Ranger director Jenn Wexler about all kinds of genre matters and the shared cultural history of horror-nerds and spooky kids everywhere. And really, that stuff is the hot-pumping lifeblood of FrightFest. Onward once more!