I’m taking a brief detour from my top-5 countdown of horror to report on my most recent genre event, and it was a biggie. I’ve just had the immense pleasure of sitting in a cinema, along with hundreds of other fans, for five straight days, watching the premieres of dozens of brand new horror films from around the world. I’m talking, of course, about the 2014 Film4 FrightFest hosted by the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, London. After catching the two-day festival earlier this year in Glasgow, I knew I had to make it to the massive August event. The main festival is spread out across three screens, with two additional discovery screens so that viewers can (attempt to) tailor their festival experience to their unique tastes. All told, 64 feature films were shown, of which I was able to see 25. Out of those, these are my top ten films to look out for this year
10. The Samurai (Der Samurai)
Writer/Director: Till Kleinert. Germany 2014.
A very welcome entry into the disappointingly sparse contemporary German horror canon, The Samurai is a dark, bizarre, and captivating homoerotic fantasy-adventure. A German village is turned upside-down and sliced open when a brooding and volatile stranger comes to town, armed with a samurai sword and utter disdain for the locals’ small-minded categorisations of sex, gender, and species. Jakob is a straight-laced rookie cop who becomes entangled in the samurai’s twisted fairy tale of transformation and transcendence, and is ultimately forced to face the wolf within. The film draws from a different spirit of storytelling that’s definitely not for everyone, but that’s ultimately The Samurai’s strength. It’s really something special.
9. Late Phases
Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Writer: Eric Stolze. USA 2014.
Another great film with lupine symbolism, Late Phases stars curmudgeonly, blind veteran Ambrose who moves into a suffocatingly bland retirement community. Some of his new neighbours come to welcome him to the community, among them an unfriendly eight-foot-tall werewolf. Surviving the first attack, Ambrose has one month to get in peak shape and prepare for the next full moon, all while finding time to unravel the mystery of his claustrophobic community and scare his neighbours by using a shovel instead of a walking stick, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Late Phases is a unique and mature film with an endearingly cranky and unconventional hero audiences will love to root for.
Writer/Director: James Ward Byrkit. USA 2013.
If you’ve ever worried about the exponential and infinite proliferation of alternate realities, Coherence is the film for you. Shot and lit in a style that’s both warm and intimate, it documents an awkward dinner party of sort-of friends that takes place as a comet passes by overhead. Suddenly, all of the houses on the street lose power… except one. And then it’s déjà vu all over again. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that Coherence is an unsettling and mysterious ride through quantum physics that gives full weight to all of the dark and terrifying philosophical problems that come along with it.
7. The Harvest
Director: John McNaughton. Writer: Stephen Lancellotti. USA 2013.
A nostalgic thrill ride that will remind you of the adventures of childhood, The Harvest is a fairy tale with modern concerns and timeless themes. A newly orphaned little girl moves in with her grandparents and explores the new neighbourhood, where she meets a lonely, bedridden little boy guarded by his fire-breathing dragon of a mother. While trying to keep their friendship alive, she discovers the dark secret of why he’s never allowed out of his room, and must fight to make things right. An unlikely and imperfect fable, The Harvest is eerie and irresistibly charming, and probably the only film from the festival that you could safely watch with your mum.
6. Starry Eyes
Writers/Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. USA 2014.
Starry Eyes is a neon parable of Hollywood glory and the sacrifices one young woman is willing to make to see her name in lights. Sarah works in fast food and lives with a half-dozen other aspiring film-types in LA. She thinks she’s found her big break when she gets a callback after a particularly invasive audition. Soon the producer makes some uncomfortable requests of her, and she must decide how far she is willing to go to achieve her Hollywood dream. Sarah knew it wasn’t going to be easy to make it in show business, but she never thought it would involve so much blood. And… maggots. Starry Eyes is a twisted and uncomfortable, if slightly heavy-handed, film that’s all about character development and the seedy, soul-sucking power of Tinseltown.
5. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (Død Snø 2)
Writer/Director: Tommy Wirkola. Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel. Norway 2014.
This is one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original. It feels like a natural follow-up made by people who loved the original and knew how to take its absurd humour to the next level. The story continues exactly where it left off in 2009, with our sinister Nazi zombies ruthlessly invading the world’s happiest country. The sleepy little Norwegian villages never saw it coming! But the movie doesn’t just rehash the original; it adds a mission, a hilarious police force, a loveable trio of American nerds who call themselves the Zombie Squad and – get this – Soviet Russian zombies. If you like pitch-black, no-holds-barred, goofy humour, then you need to see Dead Snow 2.
4. The Babadook
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent. Australia 2014.
Something dire must be going on Down Under, because there’s been a growing and impressive output of Aussie horror in recent years. The Babadook is just one example, and it’s a damn scary one. Widow and single mum Amelia struggles to love and understand her very difficult 6 year-old son. He is convinced that the monster from the disturbing children’s book The Babadook is real, and is determined not to “let him in”. But Amelia feels she’s slipping now more than ever, and the audience can feel the darkness creeping in and taking hold of her. The Babadook is eerie and gorgeous and was a universal hit at the festival. It’s about more than just monsters. It’s about the fear of parenthood, of losing loved ones and of losing one’s sense of self.
3. The Guest
Director: Adam Wingard. Writer: Simon Barrett . USA 2014.
The Guest should be coming to a cinema near you very soon, and it does not disappoint. It’s the sharp and stunning new brainchild of the makers of You’re Next. The Peterson family has just lost a son in combat when an army buddy of his arrives at their doorstep. He charms the family with his good manners and military competence, but soon it becomes clear that the intentions behind his visit are more than just loyal and dutiful, and that he has a secret lurking beneath his steely stare. This is the kind of fun, charismatic action movie that you don’t see much anymore, with fantastic performances, visual style, and loads of wit that elevate and update it to the level of contemporary masterpiece.
Director: Leigh Janiak. Writers: Phil Graziadei and Leigh Janiak. USA 2014.
Honeymoon is a movie that’s not afraid to keep an audience guessing to the point of excruciating discomfort, because that’s what makes the final release that much more haunting. The story follows an obnoxiously adorable pair of newlyweds on their cabin-in-the-woods honeymoon. But the clichés stop there. The intimate camerawork and careful pacing transform the typical slasher set-up into something new and unrecognisable. Something comes between the couple and starts to eat away at their relationship from the inside, but what is it? Distrust and desperation pull the newlyweds apart in ways more harmful and insidious than a masked man with an axe ever could. Don’t watch the trailer, just watch Honeymoon. And then have a good cry.
Writer/Director: Gerard Johnstone. New Zealand 2014.
Now that you’re emotionally scarred from watching Honeymoon, you can lift your spirits with Housebound, my favourite film of the festival. This fun Kiwi gothic is the perfect marriage of spooky tension and comic relief, with razor-sharp wit and wacky plot twists. Rebellious recovering addict Kylie lands herself in some legal trouble and is placed under house arrest and the supervision of her well-meaning but overbearing mother who’s convinced the house is haunted. At first Kylie laughs at her mother’s superstition, but strange occurrences soon change her mind. Or is something else going on in the house? Housebound’s biggest strength is an excellent script chockfull of goofy moments and legitimate scares that any horror fan will appreciate, anchored by the brilliant chemistry between the two female leads.
And those were my favourite films from the 2014 FrightFest in London. If you think there are any conspicuous absences, it might just be because I didn’t get the chance to see them. You can check out the full list of films on the FrightFest website. If you’re located in the UK and want to taste-test the festival atmosphere, keep an eye out for the October event with a half-dozen or so films, details to follow. As always, I love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions, so please keep them coming!