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The Best of FrightFest: London 2018

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Bleary-eyed and sore-bottomed, Frightfesters awoke this morning to begin the zombie-shuffle back into real life after four and a half days feasting on fresh genre films. It was a bit of an odd year, with several entries that can’t really be classified as horror (or even thriller or sci-fi), but you won’t hear me complaining; good cinema is good cinema. Over the course of the festival, I took in 22 feature-length films. Of those, here are my top ten favourites.

  1. The Golem
    Director: Doran and Yoav Paz. USA 2018.

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This unique horror film, set in a Lithuanian shtetl, is billed as a ‘Jewish Frankenstein’. To protect her community from outsiders, Hanna uses a Kabbalah text to conjure a golem, with predictably Promethean consequences. It’s a familiar story set in an unfamiliar context, and unlike Frankenstein’s monster, it’s put together well and looks beautiful.

  1. The Devil’s Doorway
    Director: Aislinn Clarke. UK 2018.

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In a 1960s Magdalene laundry, ‘disgraced’ women live in servitude under abusive circumstances. To make matters worse, paranormal disturbances plague the house, prompting two priests to lead an investigation, faithfully recorded on 16mm. This is an impressive film that does a lot with very little and manages to bring home the true horror of these real-life institutions without falling prey to too many found-footage pitfalls.

  1. The Most Assassinated Woman in the World
    Director: Franck Ribière. Belgium/UK 2018.

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Compared to the outrage that violent horror films can provoke, the theatre is often viewed as more artful, sophisticated and restrained. However, such a view ignores the graphic on-stage brutality that took place each evening at the Grand Guignol Theatre in 1930s Paris. Paula Maxa was its most celebrated star, having been murdered 10,000 times in over 60 different ways, and not a single scar on her. This film, coming soon to Netflix, tells her life (death?) story faithfully, while taking some entertaining liberties with the facts.

  1. Braid
    Director: Mitzi Peirone. USA 2018.

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When would-be drug dealers Tilda and Petula get busted, the two fugitives hide out in the mansion of childhood friend Daphne, who never stopped playing make-believe and tea parties. They are forced to play along with her delusions, no matter how twisted. This is a strange and divisive film, but I loved the baroque, feminine aesthetic – all rosy hues, lace and cracked bone china – and it was just shocking and original enough to make me overlook some of the more questionable plot choices.

  1. Anna and the Apocalypse
    Director: John McPhail. UK 2017.

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It’s a zombie-teen-comedy-Christmas-musical. What more do you need to know? Unless you love musicals, you’ll have to be patient during the first half hour, but charismatic characters, great gags and heartfelt moments ultimately make for a satisfying dose of holiday cheer.

  1. Piercing
    Director: Nicolas Pesce. USA 2018.

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Plagued by urges to use an icepick for more than just bartending, a family man decides that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. However, his plan is thrown off course when the escort whom he intends to pierce has some surprises for him. The film lacks the psychological insight and weighty themes of Ryu Murakami’s novel, but compensates with a strong neo-giallo style that complements the confusion that results from removing characters’ inner monologues. This is a rare case in which I’d recommend seeing the film first and then reading the book for maximum enjoyment of both.

  1. Upgrade
    Director: Leigh Whannell. USA 2018.

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In a future where technology controls every aspect of life, Grey, newly quadriplegic, is implanted with a computer chip that bridges the gap between brain and spine, reviving his former strengths and then some. Of course, he soon discovers that being an übermensch has its drawbacks. It’s like a wittier, more self-aware Minority Report.

  1. Bodied
    Director: Joseph Kahn. USA 2017.

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I did not expect to leave FrightFest claiming a 2-hour non-horror movie about battle rap as one of my favourites, and yet here we are. It’s about a graduate student who is writing his thesis on the poetry of battle rap and decides to try spitting some bars of his own, provoking admiration and outrage in equal measure. This audacious film entertains and educates while taking a bold, honest look at both racism and PC culture.

  1. Summer of 84
    Directors: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell. Canada 2018.

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The team that brought you Turbo Kid is back with another festival favourite, in which normal-kid Davey comes to believe his next-door neighbour is a notorious serial killer and enlists his crew of misfit friends in his investigation. Sure, it might ride the Stranger Things wave of eighties horror nostalgia, but dammit, I refuse to accept that as a criticism. It’s sweet but not cloying, and even has some dark surprises.

  1. What Keeps You Alive
    Director: Colin Minihan. Canada 2018.

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Jules and Jackie are celebrating their one-year anniversary at a cottage in the tranquil forests of Muskoka where Jules spent her childhood summers. When an unexpected visitor reveals clues to Jules’ past, Jackie quickly realises how little she knows about her wife. Fear is personal, and this film is my number one pick because it is exactly the kind of story that will have me white-knuckling my armrest every time. Once it gets going, it never lets up. The scenery and cinematography are gorgeous, and the two lead performances are strong enough to support every twist in plot and character.

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West End Thrills: Ghost Stories

Lest you think me narrow minded for relying solely on films to get my horror kicks, I thought I would share with you a recent theatre-going experience I had in London’s West End. I’m not talking about Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black, which I’ve also seen and whose perennial popularity I can confirm is entirely deserved. No, I’m talking about a smaller, more recent original production on at The Arts Theatre until the get-your-keister-to Leicester-Square-before-it’s-gone 15th of March: Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories was written by Jeremy Dyson, a co-creator of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen who went on to adapt Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales for the West End, and Andy Nyman, an actor and magician with roles in Severance and Death at a Funeral. It premiered in February 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse, and has since terrified audiences in London and even (briefly) in Toronto. There have been whispers about the play extending its reach to the USA this year.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Ghost Stories, you’ve heard the gimmicky, almost William Castle-esque taglines: “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending”. The play also takes a couple of leaves out of Hitchcock’s book by forbidding (re)admittance to the theatre after curtain time and imploring patrons after curtain call to “Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories”. I will honour this request by attempting to reveal as little as possible about the play while still communicating why I think you should go see it.

Walking into the theatre, you feel the hum of nervous anticipation emanating from your fellow patrons. The unnerving cocktail of ambient sounds – water droplets, echoes, rumblings – cuts through banal chitchat. The theatre is “decorated” with black bin bags and yellow caution tape, which suggests that the performance to follow will be similarly frugal and minimalist. Never fear (at least, not about that); the story starts off slowly before revealing its technically impressive, expressionist set pieces, all superbly lit to maximise tension. The sound crackles, whistles, booms and screeches. Packed into tight seats, you feel trapped in an immersive environment of dread. Even your sense of smell is eventually turned against you.

Overall, Ghost Stories can best be described as an experience: a ride, almost. The quality of the acting and direction surpasses the admittedly thin script. None of the three stories is particularly groundbreaking and each relies on ready-made archetypes (and the fantastic atmosphere mentioned above) to create suspense quickly. This means you probably won’t spend the next few days thinking about the stories, and you definitely won’t be saving them for your next campfire.  Genre fans, in particular, may find this disappointing. That’s not to say that the script is flawed, merely that narrative novelty is not its raison d’être. The surprise ending I’ve been asked to protect is, well, surprising, but it’s not what you will remember about Ghost Stories. You’ll remember the sense of intimacy created both on stage and within the stalls and circle, thanks to the care and attention to detail that go into one sumptuous, satisfying, 80-minute feast.

“Thank you and sleep well.”

Iota