FrightFest Hallowe’en 2011: tricks but not enough treats

Emerging from the horror specialists’ annual all-night marathon, Anton Bitel wishes he’d only survived til 5am.

Anton Bitel
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Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Livid (2011)

Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Livid (2011)

This year’s FrightFest Hallowe’en event took place twice – first showcasing six new horror features at London’s Vue Leicester Square, then again six days later at Bristol’s Watershed, minus Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Livid (Livide).

It was a significant omission – for while this year’s slate was rather disappointing overall, Livid proved not just the best film of the (first) night, but also a genre highlight of the year. As trainee carer Lucie (Chloé Coulloud) and two male friends break into the mansion of an elderly, comatose patient on Halloween in search of hidden treasure, they are drawn into a supernatural scenario that combines a unique spin on the vampire myth with the fairytale surrealism of Lewis Carroll (via Svankmajer’s Alice), the danse macabre of Coppélia (via Argento’s Suspiria) and the imagistic poetry of Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Matching its repeated narrative surprises (rooted in a sustained irrationalism) to a striking visual beauty, Livid is the prefect Hallowe’en film, never requiring its viewers to choose between trick or treat.

Still, the evening’s centrepiece was definitely a centipede – namely the UK premiere of Tom Six’s The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), still riding on the notoriety of the BBFC’s decision (recently repealed) to refuse it a certificate. Introduced live by Dieter Laser in character as the first film’s arch-villain Dr Heiter, the sequel dramatises the very censorship debate that would surround it through the postmodern device of an antagonist whose obsession with the first film inspires his deranged actions (or fantasies?) – even if his abusive background and oppressive environment are equally marked as influences.

The Human Centipede II (2011)

The Human Centipede II (2011)

Though certainly not for everyone, the film went down a treat with this self-selecting audience, impressed not just by its all-round ickiness but also by Laurence R. Harvey’s mutely Buster Keaton-esque performance as worm-that-turned Martin, by some unexpected humour amidst all the depravity, and by the monochrome mise en scène and surrealist flourishes more reminiscent of Eraserhead and Bad Boy Bubby than of anything in conventional horror.

Six, his producer (and sister) Ilona and most of the cast were on hand for a lively Q&A in which BBFC-imposed cuts and the film’s broader significance were discussed. Harvey went so far as to suggest that by showing the consumerist message of the original here literally coming apart at the seams, Six had made a timely comment on the current state of the economic food chain.

Other films were less memorable. Opening the event in its world premiere, Lulu Jarmen’s Bad Meat offers the sort of rarefied cult appeal that can only come with copious amounts of on-screen vomiting, but its story – a minor variant on the standard zombie plot, as food poisoning makes a boot camp’s sadistic staff turn hungrily on their teenage wards – clunks to a confused stop near its end. The hastily rewritten hospital-set introduction and coda don’t bandage over so much as exacerbate the film’s narrative incoherence. Screenwriter Paul Gerstenberger, who brought along tales of a shoot severely compromised by financial woes, struggled to contain his own horror at the finished product, which he was seeing for the first time.

Julien Magnat’s Faces in the Crowd is a giallo-esque murder mystery in which Anna (Milla Jovovich), the only witness to a serial killer’s identity, also has prosopagnosia. This rare condition, rendering its sufferers unable to recognise faces, is vividly realised on screen by having each individual character played by a whole host of actors – but the film is barely distinguished by its premise from other thrillers with visually impaired protagonists (Blink, Julia’s Eyes, etc), and suffers from an over-obvious solution, some overblown melodrama in the final scenes and a central performance not quite strong enough to win Jovovich recognition as a dramatic actress.

Cold Sweat (2010)

Cold Sweat (2010)

Better was Adrián Garcia Bogliano’s Cold Sweat (Sudor Frío), in which a young man in search of his missing girlfriend meets a pair of geriatric throwbacks to Argentina’s troubled past. Convinced that their ultra-nationalist terror missions did not end in 1975, the pair have continued their campaign of abduction, torture and murder from an ordinary-looking residence in Buenos Aires, with acid and liquid nitroglycerine their inventive weapons of choice. The ensuing intergenerational clash is a highly volatile mix of The Wages of Fear (1953) and ‘torture porn’ tropes, with an uncomfortable grounding in political reality.

Unfortunately, dawn was ushered in with a feeble whimper of a film. Matt L. Lockhart’s The Watermen comes with two unique selling points that, upon examination, are neither so unique nor so attractive. First, its headline star Jason Mewes (of Jay and Silent Bob fame) proves so irksome a presence that his character’s early death comes as welcome relief. Second, in resetting the tropes of the 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre amongst the threatened fishing community of Chesapeake Bay, the film merely repeats what was already done – with far greater sensitivity to what made Tobe Hooper’s original so frightening – in Júlíus Kemp’s Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009).

For those ticket-holders not left sleeping with the fishes, all that Lockhart’s anodyne amalgam of angling and anthropophagy could do was ruefully recall, by way of contrast, FrightFest’s 2007 Hallowe’en event, when closing film Inside (À l’Intérieur), the debut of Livid directors Maury and Bustillo, provided a much more satisfyingly arresting wake-up call.

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