Video Nasties: Draconian Days
Saturday morning started with Video Nasties: Draconian Days, Jake West’s follow-up to his 2010 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, which covered the original video nasties scare of the early 1980s. The sequel takes us from the mid-eighties all the way up to 1999, taking in the rise and fall of BBFC head honcho James Ferman, the fanzine-based trade of banned films and the second wave of hysteria following the murder of James Bulger and the subsequent scapegoating of the wholly inoffensive Child’s Play 3. Like the first film, this is a wide-ranging documentary told with a sense of even-handedness and flashes of humour at the absurdity of it all. Of particular interest was the reaction of the non-British members of the crowd, including a Swedish woman who could barely believe what she had seen. “If I did not know this really happened, I would have thought it was a mockumentary,” she exclaimed afterwards. If only it was.
The Scribbler is something of an oddity. Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Schaffer, it concerns a young woman named Suki (Katie Cassidy) who has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital and given a room in a tower block used to house ex-inmates who are not yet ready for the big bad world. Upon arriving, Suki narrowly avoids being struck by a young woman who has jumped from the roof. Stepping inside, she encounters – variously – a girl who refuses to wear clothes and pads the corridors naked, Gina Gershon’s carnival snake lady, and the block’s only male resident, Hogan (played with gormless aplomb by Garret Dillahunt). These quirky characters are only part of Suki’s problem, though. She is in possession of ‘The Machine’, a portable ECT device intended to burn out her multiple personalities, but which releases the worst of them – The Scribbler – who may be responsible for the death of some of her fellow residents.
Despite some strong casting (Dillahunt, Gershon, small roles for Buffy alumni Eliza Dushku and Michelle Trachtenberg, as well as Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos), The Scribbler is hard to enjoy. Pantomime tough-girl Suki is an unlikeable protagonist, and although John Suits’ direction is flashy, it feels shallow. Are we now starting to see a run of young directors inspired by Zack Snyder? Chillingly, The Scribbler suggests so. Still, the bonkers plot and efforts of the supporting cast help carry the film to its mildly deranged conclusion, and it is certainly an original effort, if not an especially enjoyable one.
If the makers of The Scribbler can be criticised for trying too hard, the makers of Torment must be hammered for not trying at all. That generic title (entirely interchangeable with something like Sinister or Insidious – both vastly superior films) is the first indication that you’re dealing with an utter dearth of inspiration. This carries through to the opening home invasion, which plays so by-the-numbers (“That dog won’t stop yapping. I’ll just step outside in the dark to shut it up. Oh, it’s gone quiet rather abruptly. I wonder… WHAT THE—?”) that it contains no suspense whatsoever. From there we are introduced to a young family consisting of Robin Dunne (Species III), his new wife Katherine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps, American Mary – deserving of so much more than this dreck) and son Peter DaCunha (the actually rather good Haunter), who are travelling to his remote country house for a weekend of bonding. Unsurprisingly, their house is next on the list for the local home invasion crew, who dress like a group of mangy furries. Cue idiocy and screaming and a revelation so obvious from the first scene that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered keeping it back from the audience.
The only word for a film like Torment is ‘functional’. It has a beginning, middle and end. The characters have ‘arcs’. It looks like a movie in that it has opening credits and end credits and scenes in between, but everything else is so blandly executed that it actually begins to fade from the memory before it’s even over. Talented actors like Katherine Isabelle and Stephen McHattie are horribly underused. The scares are pedestrian and the overall impact is zero. Despite a late effort at a twist, the only enduring mystery Torment leaves us with is why it was made in the first place, especially when You’re Next has already skewered the home invasion movie. Presumably, the intention is to give it a single-weekend theatrical release then cast it into on-demand oblivion for the rest of its life. Certainly that’s all it deserves.
Thankfully, the festival bounced back with Mindscape, very possibly film of the weekend. Mark Strong is John, a ‘memory detective’, able to enter and observe the memories of others due to his possession of a particular kind of ESP. Returning to work following the suicide of his wife, John is assigned what seems to be the simple case of Anna (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story), the sixteen year-old daughter of rich but dysfunctional parents. Anna is almost a recluse, and has recently been refusing to eat. Her parents want to know why. Upon meeting Anna, John finds her bright and stable, but as he delves into her memories, he begins to discover layers of abuse and death beyond anything he has previously encountered. He must also face up to his own memories, and the possibility that he is being played by Anna, her parents and his own superior officer (an understated Brian Cox).
Mindscape is Jorge Dorado’s first film as director, but he has worked as a second unit and assistant director under luminaries such as Pedro Almodovar (Bad Education, Talk to Her) and Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone). The experience shows in this assured debut. Mindscape is a lush, handsome film, full of clever motifs and visual trickery. Dorado and writers Guy and Martha Holmes make great use of the layers of memory through which John and Anna travel, but never in a way that feels showy or gimmicky. Both leads give strong performances and play off one another wonderfully. There is a real emotional engagement with their story missing from many of the other films shown at the festival. One of the more pleasing aspects of Mindscape is its trust in the intelligence of the audience. It does not overplay its twists or its concepts. Nor does it fall back on obvious clichés (most filmmakers would take their memory detective and immediately put him up against a serial killer). Instead, it focuses on telling a taut, smart story, and does so with no little success. One that will reward repeated viewings.
Before Almost Human, director Joe Begos and actor Josh Ethier took to the stage and set out their stall: all they wanted to do was make a low-budget splatter film in the vein of Bad Taste or The Evil Dead. To the credit of both, they’ve given it a good stab, but the end result lacks the verve, outlandishness and raw talent evident in those earlier films.
Ethier plays Mark, who is abducted by aliens and returns two years later with a mission to cocoon and convert the inhabitants of his small town. Graham Skipper and Vanessa Leigh are former friends out to stop him. All give decent performances, but they don’t have much of a script to work with. True, the same could be said of Peter Jackson’s early efforts, but both Bad Taste and Brain Dead compensated for their storytelling shortcomings with slapstick humour and ridiculously over-the-top gore, areas where Almost Human fails to compete. The practical gore effects deployed here are decent enough, but sparing and brief, and the script is played predominantly straight. Still, it seems churlish to criticise what is obviously a labour of love. Credit is due to Begos for going out there and making the film he wanted to make; his direction is solid enough to suggest that with a better script and increased effects budget he could make a really fun horror film. He’s not quite there yet, though.
Over the last couple of years Timo Tjahjanto has made a bit of a splash with his contributions to anthologies The ABCs of Death (2012) and V/H/S 2 (2013). His contribution, ‘L is for Libido’, was by far the most shocking and unsettling segment of the former, and his collaboration with Gareth Evans (The Raid), ‘Safe Haven’ was the undisputed highlight of the V/H/S sequel. Here he shares a directing credit with Kimo Stamboel (as ‘The Mo Brothers’), with whom he directed Macabre (2009). So although Killers is not strictly a horror film, its creators have form, hence its presence in this year’s FrightFest Glasgow line-up.
Oka Antara is Bayu, a disgraced journalist who is obsessed with a snuff-video website. When he accidentally kills a would-be robber and his accomplice, he is drawn to record their dying moments and post it on the site. This puts him in contact with Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura), the charming psychopath responsible for the majority of videos. Goaded by Nomura, Bayu embarks on a spree of vigilantism, with the aim to take down Dharma (Ray Sahetapy, The Raid), the crime boss responsible for his disgrace. Meanwhile, Nomura is finding that his own American Psycho-style life of slick slaughter is beginning to collapse…
Darkly humorous and often very violent, Killers is quite the demented ride. For the first half hour or so the tone is erratic but eventually settles. The contrast between Bayu’s passionate ineptitude and Nomura’s empty efficiency works well and the relationship between the leads is grimly compelling. Antara has the showier role and neatly essays Bayu’s jittery disintegration; Kitamura, on the other hand, plays Nomura with a cold, feline calm, always watching, always recording. Both carry the film’s slower moments, of which there are several. Indeed, at two and a quarter hours, Killers – which started at 11:15 on the Saturday night – was a stern final test for the FrightFest audience. However, the majority managed to stick around for the inevitable bloody finale, a testament to how grimly entertaining Killers is.
So ended FrightFest Glasgow 2014. The event may only have lasted two days, but once again Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Ian Rattray managed to put together a selection of films that perfectly illustrated the breadth of horror and cult cinema in 2014. The Glasgow Film Theatre is a fine venue, the staff helpful, and the auditorium well-raked and comfortable. To begin with at least. Then you feel the tightening of the muscles at the back of your legs. Then your kneecaps begin to throb. Your legs stop working. You can feel nothing below your legs except two throbbing knobs of pain. The knees. By god, the knees…