Tuesday, 26 August 2014

FRIGHTFEST 2014: THE TEN BEST FILMS



Film4 FrightFest is over for another year. The line-up for 2014 was particularly strong, I found, with a fine balance between gory delights and psychological terror. Now that the dust has settled and I've managed to sleep for more than three hours - seriously, I never sleep during the five days the festival runs - I thought I'd cobble together and share a top ten list movies that really impressed me. Take a look and feel free to share and comment...


#1 The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent)




I was mightily impressed with Jennifer Kent's debut feature, The Babadook. How often is it that horror films move you to tears? Like, never. A striking movie with an outstanding central performance by Essie Davis, what makes this one work ever so well is the devastating emotional core and subtext. Actually, the least interesting aspects of the movie are the haunted house elements. The Babadook is so much more than that. What a debut! 

#2 Starry Eyes (dir: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer)




My second favourite of the festival was Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's Starry Eyes. Tales of Hollywood's dark side are ten-a-penny, but what the pair did with such old-hat material was genuinely surprising and directed with a subtle hand and eye. Alex Essoe's performance as a desperate actress willing to sell her soul for stardom is extraordinary. 


#3 Alleluia (dir: Fabrice du Welz)


I'm sensing a theme, here. My top four movies (see below) all feature exceptional performances from actresses. Often in horror, female roles usually extend to 'naked chick running around woods while being chased by a psycho killer'. What a refreshing change, then. Fabrice du Welz's Alleluia, a new interpretation of the famous Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez story, is fronted by Spanish actress, Lola Dueñas. She and her leading man, Laurent Lucas, are so wonderful together. A demented tale of love and obsession if ever there was one, Dueñas owns movie just as her insane character, Gloria, owns her beau, Michel (Lucas). 

#4 Faults (dir: Riley Stearns)


The best horror movies, for me, are the ones that skirt on the edges of genre. I like a common-or-garden slasher or haunted house fright as much as the next fan, it's 'comfort horror' as critic Alan Jones once stated, but the best stuff - the titles that stay with you - play around with genre expectations and tropes. Faults, you might say, isn't a horror at all. But that's exactly why it *is* a horror film! Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Claire, a young girl dragged away, by force, from a cult that has brainwashed her. She is set to be deprogrammed in a hotel room by Ansel (Leland Orser). Or so it seems ...

Winstead and Orser are excellent together. He plays an arrogant but troubled man deeply invested in his work and rational beliefs. She is the victim of an apocalypse cult named 'Faults', a group that rejects near enough everything about contemporary western lifestyles and embraces supernatural powers via transcendental meditation. Or so it seems...

#5 All Cheerleaders Die (dir: Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson)


This entry is kind of a cheat. I saw it at the London Film Festival, last year. What I really like about All Cheerleaders Die, sitting down for another viewing, is the love story at its centre. Sure, it comes off as an X-rated take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, certainly the type of teen-focused genre work of Joss Whedon, but among the jokes about necrophilia - "I was all up in that sweet, sweet freezer" - and hot babes in cheerleader outfits, the film is a beautiful narrative about true romance and defying the laws of the universe to save the one you love. If you get past the blood and guts, there's a soft, chewy centre. 

#6 The Harvest (dir: John McNaughton)


John McNaughton doesn't make enough movies. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Wild Things are both fantastic films, for example. He even worked with Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman and Bill Murray, in 1995's Mad Dog and Glory. The Harvest is a YA tale of two kids, played by Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, who become friends. Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon lead the cast, but it's the two kids that impress the most. The film is only let down by Morton's OTT shenanigans in the final scene. Still, this is a very unusual and gripping psychological thriller with two exceptional plot twists.

#7 Lost Soul  (dir: David Gregory)


David Gregory's documentary on Richard Stanley's nightmare production of The Island of Dr. Moreau is fascinating and bonkers. There is no other way to describe it. Well, there is, but 'fascinating and bonkers' encapsulates the doc in succinct fashion. Lost Soul - The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Dr. Moreau details everything from the concept of the movie to Marlon Brando acting like a nutter and Val Kilmer coming across as a truly awful person to be around. Stanley was eaten alive by Hollywood and his dream was left in the hands of John Frankenheimer, a director with no feel for the project at all. Interestingly, after that debacle he went on to make one of his greatest pictures: 1997's Ronin. Stanley, however, hasn't made a feature-length movie since.

#8 The Guest (dir: Adam Wingard)


Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett continue on their charted course to the big time. The Guest is a very amusing and playful action-slasher-thriller. Dan Stevens also manages a very difficult task. A wee bit like Robert Mitchum, in The Night of the Hunter, it's a role that demands for a touch of charisma and charm as much as menacing physicality. That Stevens pulls it off with aplomb and such vim ensured that The Guest worked a treat. 

#9 Coherence (dir: James Byrkit)


Like Faults, The Harvest and a few other movies at FrightFest 2014, some of the best films weren't horror movies. You can go with the whole 'cosmic horror' angle if you want to with Coherence, and it would work, but it isn't a sci-fi horror escapade with killers, jump scares and gory effects. James Byrkit's debut is a very smart low-budget sci-fi movie about a dinner party that turns very strange. 

Starring Buffy alumni Nicholas Brendon, director Lorene Sciafaria and Barney the empath demon from that cool episode of Angel season 1, Coherence is absolutely guaranteed to fry your brain or your money back! 

#10 Wolf Creek 2 (dir: Greg McLean)


Aussie serial killer, Mick Taylor, is back in a belated sequel to the 2005 Ozploitationer, Wolf Creek. The sequel ramps up the comedy as much as the gore effects. Some will hate it for doing so, but the switch in style has allowed McLean to make a satire about Aussie xenophobia. It's a very political movie and it looks a beaut with McLean's widescreen photography rendering the Outback a perverse and terrifying space. Wolf Creek 2 is much better than I ever expected. 


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