I watched 17 new horror movies in four days at FrightFest 2018 and here's what happened to me

Monday (AKA. ‘A Dark Day of Many Climaxes’)

The last day or so has been a sprinted marathon. Monday’s schedule in particular was relentless, with only half an hour or so between films, meaning oh-dear-Lord lots of coffee in recompense for sunlight. But it has been the best time. FrightFest feels like it started weeks ago. My hazy memories of that first day feel like the formative experiences of a child. I have grown since, and become stronger, and more powerful, and built a merry FrightFest family around me, acting as my bedrock of (relative) sanity as we all drift further away from the outside world together.

FrightFest isn’t just about watching films, you see. It’s as much of a festival as any music-based affair in a field. The community, and culture, and shared heritage of horror fandom bonds and cements all, and ye gods, are my horror people a good people.

In terms of films? This last salvo is an intense and mighty one. Hence the fact that I’m writing this on Tuesday. Monday did not give me a spare minute. But the first (and possibly most important) take-away is this: Christmas zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse is a sweet, sad, laugh-out-loud funny, heartfelt, sincere treasure of a film and I will fight you if you don't go to see it in November.

I cannot emphasise enough what a big-hearted, witty, affecting, and beautifully crafted piece of work it is. However ironically goofy a film its topline concept might imply, you need to recheck those assumptions. Anna and the Apocalypse’s story of high school friends and fragmented families fighting to survive a zombie outbreak in the run up to the holidays might be built on a foundation of winsome charm and laugh-out-loud splatter (seriously, the gore is brilliant), but while witty and hilarious throughout, it also knows exactly how to escalate the pathos and drop the hard emotional gut-punches. The film’s very existence will make you happy from end to end, but at times its story will outright flatten you. 

It’s touring festivals now, but is officially released on November 30. Mark that date. Anna and the Apocalypse has real scope to blow up and become a beloved Christmas horror hit this year, and it absolutely deserves to.

On the other end of joy scale (but still featuring a fair amount of snow), FrightFest 2018 closed with Irreversible director Gaspar Noe’s new one, Climax. On an immediate, emotive, sensory level - and in terms of pure, technical film-making and justified cinematic bravado - Climax is a stunning piece of work. Depicting the descent of a young dance troupe after their post-rehearsal punch is spiked with a strong dose of LSD, its plummet into an isolated, human-made Hell of exploded flaws and fears might not be groundbreaking on a conceptual level, but its execution is a barnstormer.

A dance scene in Climax

(Image credit: A24)

Effectively presenting the full gamut of human experience, from the ecstatic to the erotic to absolute atrocity, and running it all through the amplifier of energised dancefloor id, Climax is an endless rain of experiential body-blows. Exhilarating, beautiful, and horrific all at once, the perpetual musicality of its organic, steadycam direction (coupled with its rager of a techno soundtrack), will have you transfixed and bouncing in your seat even as absolute horror erupts around you. 

Admittedly, a day later, I’m not finding Climax sticking in my head as uncomfortably as I expected. I think that’s because while the film presents a lot of humanity in its purest extremes, it doesn’t actually discuss much of it, bar the blanket statement that sharing the world with other people is both terrible and wonderful and a big old mess. That’s a shame, given the technical and emotive power on show, but while it doesn’t leave behind quite as much substance as you might hope, Climax is still one hell of a film to experience. On a giant screen, with the biggest, most brutal sound system you can find.

Between those two extremes? The last 24 hours of FrightFest delivered plenty of interesting stuff. My favourite would be The Field Guide to Evil, a categorically Not For Everyone anthology of short, folk-horror tales made with arthouse flair for atmosphere, sensuality, intimacy, and shock. 

Pulling together some of the most eclectic and notable international horror writers and directors of the last few years, it’s a fantastic and disturbingly evocative cut back to the roots of the horror genre in the darkness of folklore, with - unusually for the anthology format - there's not a single weak entry among the eight. In fact a few of them – in particular Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Die Trude, and Peter Strickand’s The Cobbler’s Lot – are worth the price of entry alone.

Sticking with a rural horror vibe, The Dark is an intriguing and enigmatic slow-burn character piece with more than a welcome twinge of Let the Right One In. Mina is an undead ghoul, trapped in permanent adolescence and scraping her way through a savage non-life in the remains of her woodland home. Alex is a young kidnap victim whose captor ends up hiding out in that very same house. The two worlds clash, and in the bloody aftermath, the two kids on opposite sides of the grave slowly discover they have a lot of shared experience, and form a friendship that might change everything for both of them. 

Satisfyingly slow and atmospheric, The Dark is a cool, quiet mood piece punctuated by bursts of sharp violence and powerfully emotive moments (all played with immense conviction and maturity by its two leads). While its middle section flags a little as a result of becoming a tad too slow in the run-up to act three, it’s ultimately a very classy and affecting piece of dramatic horror. 

But yes, that’s FrightFest done for this year. By my records I saw 17 films, but really, the numbers don’t matter. What matters is the sheer breadth and quality of what I saw, and the eclectic, creative health horror is clearly in in 2018. It’s easy to lose track of that - even as a lifelong horror fan - in these days of mainstream Blumhouse dominance and ‘80s remakes, when so much of the real innovation in the genre is happening in the indie sphere. But it’s absolutely true. Undeniably so. Away from the slick, safe scares and familiar, reanimated franchises, horror is thriving.

FrightFest is all you need to reconnect yourself with the real stuff. The deeper, darker, smarter, more inventive, profound, and goofily hilarious wonderment that explores all the important parts of the human condition that mindlessly anodyne societal expectations tell you you shouldn’t want to stick your head into. The films and the people abundantly dedicated to experiencing, doing, saying something more. Even if sometimes that’s just ‘But look how hilarious an exploding zombie can still be, if you just try hard enough’. Because that’s important too. 

And so is FrightFest. I’ll be back with a full festival pass this time next year, no question about it.

And if you want more, you can check out the upcoming horror movies we're excited for, and take a look at the full FrightFest 2018 line-up, or poke around the official festival site if you prefer, in preparation for next year.