Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 17 
4 Nov
2002

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Jan Svankmajer's Jabberwocky (1971) HORROR
Tales from the darkside
The international horror market flexes its muscles at the 3rd Lupo Frightfest Film Festival in London

London's Lupo Frightfest is fast gaining a reputation as "the place to be" for fans of the genre as well as for those looking to discover the latest trends in world horror cinema. Simon Wilkinson reports on the hits, the misses and everything in between.


London's Leicester Square, August Bank Holiday 2002 saw Frightfest reach its third consecutive year at the Prince Charles Cinema. With past previews and premieres including such high calibre titles as Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2001), Takashi Miike's Odishon (Audition, 1999) and Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers (2001), expectations were naturally running high as organisers Alan Jones, Ian Rattray and Paul McEvoy sought to deliver a line-up that would surpass or at least equal those of previous years.

In promoting diversity as the key festival feature, world horror cinema was admirably represented in a programme conspicuous only by its reluctance to rely on direct-to-video fare in favour of A-list stars and acclaimed directors within the genre. And so, from early evening Friday through to late night Monday, audiences were privy to an exceptionally eclectic line-up guaranteed to satisfy even the most discerning viewer through sixteen features, five shorts, two on-stage interviews and one sneak preview.

Working throughout the weekend, organisers introduced and eagerly sought out audience responses to the range of genre product on offer, while distributing such diverse movie merchandise as Donnie Darko masks and XxX condoms. With the majority of weekend pass holders segregated and secure in the superior balcony, the atmosphere was one of friendly familiarity and great expectations that throughout the course of the festival were most certainly delivered.

No life after death?

Completed just prior to Frightfest, Andrew Green's distinctly (anti-?) British Nine Lives (2002) aspires to rework the serial murder mystery whilst injecting the formula with a large dose of the supernatural. This initial premise is crafted around the reunion of a group of estranged college friends, naturally evoking Kenneth Branagh's Peter's Friends (1992) whilst utilising the same grand location as Robert Altman's (who cares) whodunnit Gosford Park (2001).

Failing to overcome the difficulties involved in establishing nine distinct characters through lengthy exposition, the crux of Nine Lives' narrative rests on the "awakening" of an ancient, soul-hopping evil, hell bent on revenge as the cast rapidly descends into paranoia (stop me if you've heard this before). Unfortunately, such familiar themes and fears were far better employed in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and John Carpenter's The Thing remake (both 1982, thus celebrating their 20th anniversaries this year), with Nine Lives ultimately failing to bring anything new to the overtly similar set-up and consequently failing to win over the expectant audience.

"Real" techno-terrors

Over the course of the weekend, Frighfest offered up a trio of reactionary techno-phobic thriller hybrids in a similar vein to Series 7: The Contenders (2001) and Battle Royale (2000). Indeed, such a trend shows no apparent sign of abating, with the recently released FearDotCom (2002) and Slashers (2001) continuing this current genre preoccupation.

First off was Rick Rosenthal's second stab at the Halloween franchise, Halloween: Resurrection (2002), which supposedly marked the exit of Jamie Lee Curtis and a return to the old dark house in which a young Michael first demonstrated his own unique brand of fraternal love. With Curtis despatched without delay and H20's climactic decapitation "explained" away via an old fashioned cheat, one could almost hear old Annie Wilkes declaring that the film hadn't played fair; not that realism or continuity has ever been high on any horror franchise agenda. Director Rosenthal attempts to inject ingenuity into this concept via the introduction of a live reality TV broadcast (Dangertainment) from the Meyers house on Halloween. Once our obligatory college kids are introduced, the operation, master-minded by Busta Rhymes' unscrupulous producer, rapidly descends into the standard stalk-and-slash treatment we've all come to expect.

Despite a relatively novel premise, Rosenthal's film fails to fully exploit its concept and seeks sanctuary in such formulaic hallmarks of the genre as the "Final Girl," self-reflexivity and standard slasher scares. The film's conclusion, having undergone multiple changes to resurrect wannabe action-hero Busta Rhymes, leads us to the expected "shock" epilogue, bringing this eighth entry to a close.

Although Marc Evans' My Little Eye (2002) boldly follows its story to the logical conclusion, much to the alleged displeasure of distributor Universal Pictures, this next old dark house tale aspires to present itself as the genre's answer to Big Brother. Wannabe contestants/future celebrities audition to spend six weeks in a remote hideaway with strategically placed cameras recording their every move for the benefit of the presupposed viewing public. Far superior to Nine Lives and boasting a concept that schlock-meister William Castle would have been proud of, the film examines and maximises the voyeuristic nature of reality TV, along with the motivations behind both spectator and participant. The participants' combined thirst for fame and hunger for money blinds them to the true "reality" of the situation. A technically ambitious approach to capture the action wholly on fixed cameras serves the story well, despite its tending towards an over-reliance on the post-Silence of the Lambs (1991) infra-green inspired scenes towards the end.

Last up was John Polson's Swimfan (2002), an antithesis to the majority of screenings throughout the weekend in that it has been designed, delivered and distributed solely for teen audiences. Marketable as a cautionary tale in the Fatal Attraction (1987) / Misery (1990) mould and boasting some strong performances, the film almost transcends its limitations through strong direction and choreography to deliver an above average addition to the teen stalker market. However, this cautionary tale for testosterone-motivated teens garnered a rather tepid response from the audience on account of its derivative concept and formulaic structure.

Much darker "states"

A clear reflection of its strong line-up, Frightfest unveiled a much darker and prestigious lineup than has been seen in previous years, one that boasted several A-list performances and adult horrors. This potentially reactionary approach to the genre is an effective foil to the plethora of teen-orientated slashers and received a warm welcome whilst producing some of the most diverse and perplexing pictures of the weekend.

Locating evil in the most unlikely of places, Bill Paxton's directorial debut Frailty (2001) wisely adopts a minimalist approach to its carefully crafted scares whilst focusing on generating an effective atmosphere through audience anticipation. The film is a viciously compelling tale of family loyalty and sibling rivalry in which the father receives word from the Father to do "God's work." A reluctant unholy trinity is formed in which the filial unbeliever is ultimately cast as the demonic and thus is persecuted and punished until his apparent conversion. This heavy dose of Southern Gothic is wrapped up in a twist-heavy plot that offers no easy answers or solutions to the events it depicts. In portraying religious fascism/fanaticism and child abuse within the microcosm of the family, Frailty's effect is compounded, although it has been criticised for its absence of female characters or influence. Morbidly dark and nihilistic, Paxton's film arguably marks one of the most promising debuts of recent years and a significant attempt by Hollywood to produce intelligent horror for its more mature audiences.

The second serial killer bio-pic in a proposed trilogy, and the festival closer, Matthew Bright's Ted Bundy (2002, starring Michael Reilly Burke in the title role) relentlessly documents Bundy's decent into depravity and his fondness for brutal sex attacks and necrophilia. Set to a Boogie Nights (1997)-inspired seventies soundtrack and approached with chilling candour, the film facilitates a morbid curiosity rather than any interest in plot, style or structure. None too surprisingly, controversy has arisen in relation to the film's depiction of Bundy's incredibly naïve victims, its unflinching violence (which at times evokes Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) and the refusal of the film-makers to merely demonise their subject.

Generically elusive and resolutely outside the mainstream, Donnie Darko is the fiercely original and complex brainchild of writer-director Richard Kelly. Set in the small town suburban environment favoured by David Lynch, the story charts the experiences of an emotionally disturbed teen who is visited and influenced by a menacing six-foot-tall rabbit. As the veneer of idyllic Americana is stripped away, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and those around him are all tainted and transformed by the events that transpire. With an effective soundtrack reminiscent of the time (the film is set in 1988), Kelly's film seamlessly weaves satire, schizophrenia and profound social commentary through its carefully constructed plot, effective performances and surprise cameos. Leaving audiences baffled and bemused, but by no means bored, Donnie Darko sees destiny, time travel, true love and a turbine all dramatically collide in the shattering climax to this powerfully compelling debut.

Mark Romanek's starkly disturbing One Hour Photo (2002) stars Robin Williams in what is perhaps his darkest and finest role. Morally ambiguous and understated, the film puts forth a compassionate yet chilling portrait of one man's consuming loneliness and his desire to belong. When the nationally-cherished family unit is exposed, Williams' Sy Parrish becomes a self-appointed moral guardian who intends to heal the fractured family unit at all costs. The film exploits our paranoid fears of security, privacy and the people who indirectly touch our lives as Sy ingratiates himself into a delusional ideal that cannot but end in disappointment. The film's strength lies in its subtleties and willingness to eschew formulaic traditions in favour of a hauntingly realistic reflection of one man's psyche.

Williams' darker side also surfaces, albeit in what could be considered a supporting role, next to the magnificent Al Pacino, in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia (2002). Itself a remake of a Norwegian chiller with the same title (directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg), Insomnia continues Hollywood's welcome fascination with moral ambiguity and strong characterisation. Despite a familiar "cop on the trail of a killer" scenario, Nolan's film adopts a more introspective stance to explore the complex moralities and emotional frigidity of its characters in the wake of a brutal crime. The film's refusal to demonise or declare a true hero with whom we can wholly identify made for compelling viewing; a sentiment echoed by Frighfest festival-goers who were invited to take part in a Q&A session with director Nolan after the screening.

Of American dissent

Hollywood has often come in for criticism when adapting European films for US audiences, with most ranging from the sub-standard to the sacrilegious; in this respect, Nolan's aforementioned Insomnia stands as something of an exception to the rule. Having traditionally turned to European genre cinema for inspiration, particularly when it came to the adoption of specific themes and structures for successful scares, Hollywood has now had the tables turned by the following pair of Frightfest favourites.

Provocatively and purposefully irreverant, and promoted with the tagline "Fuck Evil," Julien Magnat's Bloody Mallory (France, 2002) acutely reflects the director's fascination with the female action hero in a fantastically surreal and comic book-esque environment. As the head of an Anti-Paranormal Commando Unit consisting of habitual body thief Talking Tina (Thylda Barès) and feisty drag queen-cum-explosives expert Vena Cava (Jeffrey Ribier), Mallory's (Olivia Bonamy) troop of Demonbusters—with more than a hint of Priscilla—must rescue the Pope from Monsterland. Wittily scripted, gratuitously violent and highly stylised, Bloody Mallory proves a worthy successor and foil to such comparatively plain protagonists as Buffy, Xena and Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the lucrative Alien franchise.

In much the same way that Bloody Mallory takes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pedro L Barbero and Vincent J Martin's widely acclaimed Tuno Negro (Spain, 2001) liberally combines the success and excess of post-modern slashers like Scream (1996) and Urban Legend (1998) with the popular gialli of Italian cinema. Home to Brian Yuzna's Fantastic Factory studio and host to the Sitges Fantasy Film Festival, Spain continues to reassert its position as a driving force in the evolution of European horror cinema. In Tuno Negro, films such as Scream, Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) are embraced and emulated in a plot combining the social, cultural and historical aspects of its locale with the now standard techno-terror and cautionary tale elements contemporary horror viewers come to expect. Tuno Negro also relishes the opportunity to depict outlandishly creative deaths whilst successfully eschewing an adherence to the Final Girl convention propagated by its American ancestors.

Cronenberg's web of sin

David Cronenberg's Spider (2002) is perhaps further proof of the director's abdication as the alleged King of Venereal Horror. Since his early works such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and Videodrome (1983), the director has indulged in original projects, remakes and adaptations from novelists including Stephen King, William S Burroughs and JG Ballard. Now we have Cronenberg taking on Spider, the complex product of London novelist Patrick McGrath's "beautiful mind." Indeed it was McGrath who kindly appeared at Frightfest to both introduce the film and take part in a fascinating Q&A session.

The tale of a recently released psychiatric patient struggling to get over the death of his mother, Spider's skewed narrative deliciously serves its story as we, the audience, learn to mistrust our narrator and discern that what we are seeing may be real, distorted or pure invention. Offering a restrained and clinical psychological portrait, Cronenberg's adaptation, originally linked to Stephen Frears, is invested with an assured realism and steady pace, and is supported by outstanding performances from both Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson.

However, the film fiercely divided Frightfest audiences who, perhaps more accustomed to the visceral horrors and expectations of what a Cronenberg film should deliver, either applauded or were appalled. With detractors finding the film dull, depressing and unduly included in the line-up, supporters argued that Spider could be Cronenberg's answer to Psycho (1960) with the Canadian auteur returning to Dead Zone/Dead Ringers (1983/1988) territory.

Asian extremes

The theme of diversity was exemplified in the quartet of Asian horrors offered up by festival organisers over the four consecutive days. From the atmospheric chills of the Pang Brothers' The Eye (Hong Kong, 2002) and Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (Japan, 2002) through to the futuristic fight-fest of Sato Shinsukes's The Princess Blade (Japan, 2001) and the high camp musical numbers of Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), Asian horror demonstrated its dominance and dedication to innovation in the international horror market.

In its favour, Friday night's The Princess Blade's elegantly staged fight scenes were constructed around a plot stooped in political commentary whilst also adhering to the formulaic conventions and conflicts often found in (melo)dramas. Such concepts as revenge, retribution and honour combined in an occasionally melodramatic piece set in a futuristic yet feudal Japan. Propped up by its poetic violence, however, the story, in which our female protagonist must reclaim her birthright and avenge the death of her mother, is seldom raised from the ashes.

Saturday's English premiere of The Eye was a suspenseful and effective shocker that raises the bar on the supernatural phenomenon as depicted in such recent Hollywood films as The Mothman Prophecies (2002) and The Sixth Sense (1999). Taking the oft-filmed premise of a transplant beneficiary's post-operative experience, as seen in films from Body Parts (1991) to Heart Condition (1990), this Japanese incarnation endows its once blind protagonist with a tragic clairvoyance and ability to (fore)see what those around her cannot. Infused with tragic irony, the film's characterisation complements rather than compensates for scares as we are drawn further into the mystery surrounding the identity and demise of the donor. The film plays to its inevitable conclusion, in which history is doomed to repeat itself, as the "female prophet outsider" is one again derided and dismissed to the detriment of the hundreds of potential victims.

Ring (1998) director Hideo Nakata's decidedly overlong Dark Water ultimately fails to live up to his previous success but does manage to deliver more scares and suspense then the majority of the competition along the way. With the general feeling being that the film would benefit from a further edit, and thus losing around fifteen minutes of footage (particularly in the overstretched epilogue), Nakata's film charts the breakdown of the family unit and its consequences. Death, desertion and divorce inform the plot's gradually development in which traces of Kramer vs Kramer (1979), Communion (1976) and Don't Look Now (1973) become increasingly apparent. Although by no means the next Ring, Dark Water remains a worthy addition to Nakata's increasingly impressive resume.

Not since Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983) or Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles (1989) has the horror genre and the musical so comically collided as in Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris. Appropriately categorised as lying somewhere between Madame Butterfly (1995), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Sound of Music (1965) and Shallow Grave (1994) by festival co-organiser Alan Jones, Miike's latest offering continues to demonstrate his diversity of tone and development of certain techniques and traditions previously established in Audition and Dead or Alive (both 1999). We are left with a picture that works hard to guarantee a future cult reputation, as rock ballads and family sing-a-longs bind together this Japanese version of the Waltons. Retiring en masse to a remote part of the countryside, the Katakuris clan's hopes at a new beginning are compromised at every turn as their luck goes from bad to worse and the body count begins to rise whilst father Jinpei (Tetsuro Tamba) struggles to keep his family together.

Shorts and the sneak preview

In addition to the sixteen feature-length films, Frighfest also screened eight separate shorts over the four days, often introduced by their directors and once again demonstrating a healthy diversity. Beginning with Jim Solan's hilarious crowd pleaser Piss Boy, featuring an incontinent loan shark in a love triangle, the shorts ranged in their style, content, length and tone with each adopting its own distinct agenda. Other notable stand-outs included Jake West's Whacked, Whistle by Duncan Z H Jones and The Cicerones from the team behind British television's The League of Gentlemen. Other festival highlights included the first twenty minutes of Danny Boyle's apocalyptic London-based zombie film 28 Days Later and a hilarious compilation of trailers and commercials from yesteryear that defied not only logic but all barriers of taste.

And so, having begun with Nine Lives and concluding with Ted Bundy, Frightfest's success at representing and reassuring horror fans of the healthy state and future of the genre was both warmly received and whet the appetites of the audience for what will now be next year's programme. Charged with such an imposing task are the trio of accomplished organisers whose shared excitement and enthusiasm will, one hopes, allow Frightfest 4 to scale even greater heights.

Simon Wilkinson

Also of interest
About the author

Simon Wilkinson is a PhD candidate in American Film at the University of Hull whose research interests include representations of gender and sexuality on film, censorship, film adaptation and reception theory. His thesis is a critical analysis and evaluation of the role, responsibilities and experiences of the film director within the Hollywood horror franchise.


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