It’s quite amazing just how quickly Film Four FrightFest seems to come around every year. Now in its sixteenth year, the London based film festival is still going from strength to strength, and this year it proved to be bigger than ever, boasting an incredible number of horror and genre premieres, previews and retrospectives from around the world.
Day one of the five day festival saw things get underway at the Vue cinema in Leicester Square with three tales of witches, BMX riding heroes in a dystopian wasteland, and giant killer wasps!
Outsider schoolgirl Faith (Naomi Battrick) finds her world turning upside-down when she discovers that her father (Sam Hazledean) is dying of a terminal disease. Very much lost, Faith finds some solace in her alluring new field hockey coach Sissy Young (Anna Walton), but things take a bizarre twist when Faith discovers that Sissy is in fact the head of an ancient coven of witches, and is offered a pact that she cannot refuse – Sissy will use her magic to save the father if Faith will bear her a child in exchange. Faith agrees and her father appears to recover, but when she discovers that Sissy’s end-game for the child could mean the end of the world, she has to try and stop the coven before it’s too late.
While the opening scenes that sets up the idea of a centuries old coven that worship beneath the gnarled roots of the films titular tree certainly kicks this Dennis Weatley-esque story of witchcraft in an Irish school off to a promising start, in the end Cherry Tree proves to be a bit of a mixed bag that ultimately fails to deliver on this initial promise.
Undoubtedly the biggest issue at play here in this David Keaton directed chiller is the script. Cliché ridden, it holds little in the way of substance, solid characterisation, or indeed genuine scares (unless you are particularly afraid of centipedes), and it soon feels stretched beyond its basic premise as it becomes more and more muddled into its third act.
It is a shame really because there are some good things to be had here. The film looks fantastic and the strong cinematography is undoubtedly Cherry Tree’s strongest point – the gothic feel it captures working very well for the story at hand. Acting too is decent for the most part given what the actors have to work with – Naomi Battrick doing a fine job as the desperate Faith and Anna Walton playing the sensual Sissy with relish as they play the opposite ends of a the story’s central Faustian pact.
When it comes down to it though, no amount visual style, solid acting, or indeed decent moments of blood-letting here and there can make up for what’s an undeniably poorly scripted and disappointing let down.
‘This is the future… this is the year 1997’ announces a voice over Turbo Kid’s opening images of a broken, desolate wasteland. It’s a pitch-perfect, and knowing start for this superbly over-the-top, ultra-violent comedy ode to 80’s exploitation films the likes of Mad Max and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.
We join our BMX riding hero The Kid (Munro Chambers) as he scratches out a life in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future where deadly bicycle riding gangs rove the dusty, ravaged landscape. Little fresh water exists, and what remains is controlled by the wonderfully overblown Michael Ironside as brutal overlord Zeus, who keeps control of the townsfolk in hilariously bloody fashion.
It’s a lonely existence for the Turbo Man comic obsessed orphan, but things start to change for him when he meets, and then can’t seem to shake off, the wide-eyed, super-enthusiastic Apple (brilliantly played by Laurence Leboeuf). Initially annoyed by Apple, her infectious happiness means that they soon strike up a relationship, and when The Kid finds Turbo Man’s power glove, a prop that looks suspiciously like a repainted NES power glove, both of them join with bar-room arm wrestling champion Frederic (Aaron Jeffery), and together they decide to take on the tyrannical Zeus.
Perfectly aping the kind of films that directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whisselluse obviously have a lot of love for, Turbo Kid takes a typically nonsense B-movie plot, a brilliantly realised 80s electronic soundtrack and retro visuals, and then throws a whole slew of hilariously scripted moments and limb-ripping gore into the mix. Heads go flying, guts are tied to the wheel of a bicycle and are pulled out, bodies explode in a shower of limbs and half torsos land over the top of gang members heads, and all the while victim-turned-hero The Kid deadpan delivers some hilariously cheesy one liners and a pantomime Michael Ironside brilliantly hams it up as the eye patch wearing villain Zeus.
It’s brilliantly funny stuff, but it has to be said that the star of the show here is unquestionably Laurence Leboeuf. Her turn as the forever excited Apple is both funny as it is at the same time innocent and heart-warming. As she excitedly runs wide-eyed into battle with a huge grin on her face and a garden gnome taped to a wooden club (that she enthusiastically christens her gnome-stick) flailing above her head, you just can’t help but to take her to your heart as you laugh yourself stupid.
Nostalgically self-aware, awash with comic book ultra-splatter, but still with warmth at its core, Turbo Kid is stupidly funny and just screams out to be watched with some of friends and a bunch of beers on a Saturday night.
Stung has a pretty basic setup: Mrs Perch is throwing one of her annual garden parties at her remote country home, but it’s not long before both her and her guests find themselves under siege from an attack of deadly mutant wasps. As the bodies start to pile up, it is up to caterers Julia and Paul to try and save the day.
Anyone who regularly watches genre films in particular knows that you generally have to sit through a hell of a lot of rubbish before you get to see the odd gem here and there. Unfortunately though, Stung pretty much falls into the prior category.
More than anything else that is wrong with this film, Stung is simply boring. A cliché riddled script and lackluster direction means that it drags. A monster mayhem film really shouldn’t drag, but it does. It drags, and then it drags some more. Granted, there are a few decent moments of horror to be had as the wasps attack the hapless party, the Aliens-esque scenes of wasps bursting out of their victims in particular working pretty well, but even these moments cannot really make up for the boredom of the ponderous scenes that surround them.
It has to be said that the large majority of performances from the cast here are not great either, and even with the terrible extras aside, the very hit-and-miss acting certainly does not do this film any more favours. Even the usually reliable Lance Henriksen seems to be doing little but think of his paycheck as he phones in his lackluster performance. To be fair, Jessica Cook and Matt O’Leary as caterers Julia and Paul do a fine job on the whole however, and their natural on-screen relationship is unquestionably the best thing on offer throughout the film, but even they can’t really do anything to make up for what surrounds them.
You can see what the makers of this tongue-in-cheek modern throwback to 1950s giant killer monster flicks were trying to do, but in the end it just fails to hit its mark on every level.