FrightFest 2018 review roundup

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Frightfest, the UK's premier horror film festival, is done for another year, and the Smoke Screen has stumbled out of the auditorium, wiped off the blood and brain matter, and got down to work writing up some of this year's highlights


Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Rock Steady Row

Director: Trevor Stevens

USA 2018. 77 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

I am always likely to respond well to the promise of a genre mashup that manages to somehow gel A Fistful of Dollars, Mad Max, West Side Story, and the aesthetic of comic books into one commentary on Trumpian times. That is what Rock Steady Row, from debut director Trevor Stevens, delivers over 70 highly-stylised, synth-inflected minutes. This cheeky dystopian delight is set in a future world where America has collapsed in all sorts of ways, one of those ways being that tuition has now become so unaffordable that student communities now resemble a wild frontier town in a post apocalyptic nightmare land, where lack of resources means that cruel fraternities have formed to control what little is left. The action takes place in one such hellhole - the war zone-like campus of Rock Steady Row - where two warring fraternities have taken over the ruined campus dorm house row, and bicycles dominate the campus economy. No one can afford a car, and public transport is a long-forgotten dream, hence freshmen and the generally unlucky will grovel to get their Schwinn out of protective custody. The established order gets upset when one newcomer, a man-of-few-words freshman called Leroy, decides to play both rival fraternities against each other, Man With No Name style, when his BMX gets stolen. Leroy handily has a sweet line of martial arts superpowers, which get enhanced when he has 80’s power chords and synth beats blazing from his walkman. Lead Heston Horwin makes for an appealing main man, managing to pull off the requisite balance of emitting wiry toughness whilst winking at the audience, and has buzzy chemistry with co-star Diamond White (playing student journalist Piper, doing her best Lois Lane in the face of the world’s end). Logan Huffman as fraternity godfather and main villain Palmer channels Heath Ledger’s Joker (Palmer uses pencils as weapons for one thing, pencils being another item in short supply) like his life depended on it. Some wacky fights and appealingly bizarre visions of how a post apocalyptic student community would function keep Rock Steady Row a short, sweet treat.


Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: The Dark

Director: Justin P. Lange

Austria 2018. 94 mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Dying as a result of a sexual assault and murder by her mother’s abusive boyfriend turns out not to be the end of for lonely American teen Mina (Nadia Alexander), as she is reborn mysteriously as an undead flesh-eating ghoul, cursed to haunt her childhood woodland home out in the rural midwest. After crawling out of her grave to wreck vengeance on her family, her hunting territory develops a local legend over the years after as ‘The Devil’s Den’, and her old house falls into a state of eerie disrepair. After presumably a decade of hunting human prey with her mother’s old axe and her ghoulish nails, Nina comes across Alex, an abused blind boy left in the car trunk of the very abuser who we witness ending up as Mina’s recent meal in the film’s opening ten minutes. After killing his obnoxious companion, Mina for some reason lets Alex live, an action that eventually allows her human side to re-emerge as he two bond, though not without the film eventually settling into a path already well-trodden by the likes of Let the Right One In. Exactly how the mythology behind Mina’s supernatural transformation isn’t made entirely clear, and the narrative drags out revealing Alex’s background without offering up a payoff that satisfied me. Still, young star Nadia Alexander leaves a lasting impression under all that putrefying makeup, as does the lensing of atmospheric rural locations.


Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Climax

Director: Gaspar Noé.

France 2018. 95 mins.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

A case of spiked sangria makes things get very, very crazy for a Paris-based dance troupe locked away in their studio, in wild child director Gaspar Noé’s throbbing, hypnotic, but sometimes frustrating style exercise.  Set in just one location, a young dance troupe led by Sofia Boutella’s lithe Selva are seen rehearsing for an upcoming American tour in a dingy school assembly hall before being allowed to ease into the snack trolley and punch bowl off to one side, but even before the wacky wine starts causing things to go VERY off kilter, Noé is giving us quite the technical showpiece; with extended takes allowing the agile cast to bust out some mesmerising choreographed dance routines. A pulsating, near-deafening score of the finest EDM beats combined with gliding steadicam shots that seem to ignore no possible angle of view creates quite the bewitching effect on the viewer, although I found most of the dialogue sequences in between the moments of dance sublimity kind of interminable: consisting mostly of men talking shit about women and women complaining about said shit talk. Perhaps the inanity is the point: maybe people should just shut up and dance if they’ve got nothing to say.


Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Anna and the Apocalypse

Director: John McPhail

UK 2017 107 Mins

RATING: ★★★★☆

It was only just a matter of time before someone mashed up Glee with a zombie movie. In fact, given my limited knowledge of horror movies, it is entirely possible I’ve been unaware of this having already been done, so I won’t say that the sassy, loopy zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse, from director John McPhail, is the first of its kind. But it certainly gets the essentials right: actually have characters who are charming, funny, and whose journey you can invest in, and have the songs be both foot-tappingly decent whilst serving the plot. Star Ella Hunt is a smart, sympathetic and relatable lead as high-schooler Anna, looking forward to the end of high school so she can start jet-setting around the world to experience life before settling down. Problem: a zombie apocalypse has just engulfed her sleepy Scottish town, forcing Anna and her amusingly mismatched group of friends (plus the school jock who teams up with them) to baseball bat their way to freedom. In between the song and dance numbers set in the mundanity of a ‘bog-standard comprehensive’, the screenplay and performances muster up some surprisingly poignant moments, and I was kept on my tones by the cheesier beats always being counterbalanced with some genuinely funny scenes (many involving today’s teens being super nonchalant about a zombie apocalypse; they’ve all seen the movies and its somewhere in the middle of their priority list) followed up by some pretty merciless outcomes for the teenybopper lineup.


Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Crystal Eyes

Director: Ezequiel Endelman, Leandro Montejano

Argentina 2017 83mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

This neo-Giallo may not be particularly surprising in how it plays out, but it sure looks and sounds the part (think lots of stained glass windows in chintzy corridors with shafts of purple light shining through, and ketchup blood oozing everywhere). The setting is the world of high-class modelling in Buenos Aires, 1985, and it is the first anniversary of the death of Alexis Carpenter, the unstable supermodel who died tragically in a horrendous catwalk fire. Fashion editor Lucia L'uccello wants to honour Alexis in a commemorative issue of her magazine. But the night before the cover photo shoot, Alexis' original dresses are stolen and staff members begin to disappear at the hands of a sinister silhouette in a long black leather raincoat. Is someone seeking revenge? Well...obviously!


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.