With eleven films showing over just two days, FrightFest Glasgow is less gruelling than its southern counterpart, but only just. Not that any of the several hundred fans who gathered at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 28 February and Saturday 1 March would complain. Along with the primary festival in London, and various all-nighters across the country, FrightFest Glasgow is the place to be in order to catch the latest hot tickets in horror cinema. With a friendly, inclusive audience, it’s also one of the best crowds to watch a horror film with. Although it would take a hardy soul indeed to claim that sitting in a cinema for that length of time is anything less than hell on the knees.
This year’s festival kicked off with Savaged, written and directed by Michael S. Ojeda. Zoe (Amanda Adrienne), a young deaf mute girl, is driving cross-country to meet her boyfriend when she encounters a group of redneck criminals persecuting and murdering two Native American men in the Midwestern desert. Zoe’s efforts to intervene result in her capture, rape and murder at the hands of the rednecks. Left for dead in a shallow grave, she is discovered by a shaman who attempts to bring her back from the dead. Of course, she does not come back alone, and powered by a vengeful spirit, she sets off to track down her murderers.
A supernatural spin on the usual rape-and-revenge film, Savaged is to be commended for avoiding the exploitative excesses of its peers, such as I Spit on Your Grave. We see enough to understand Zoe’s ordeal, but not so much that it begins to feel misogynistic. Zoe herself is a likeable enough heroine, her attackers genuinely hiss-able villains, and their eventual confrontation is filmed with some verve. Unfortunately, Ojeda seems unaware of just how goofy his premise is, and several of the movie’s more dramatic scenes come over as overwrought and po-faced, leading to moments of unintentional hilarity. The scenes between a slowly disintegrating Zoe and her boyfriend (“Baby, we need to get you to a hospital!”) raised several chuckles from the FrightFest audience, and the final moments coaxed outright guffaws – probably not what the writer/director was aiming for. Despite these faults, however, Savaged was never boring and its hour and a half flew by. Overall it was a good appetiser for the rest of the festival.
Zack Parker’s Proxy will likely get a lot of attention for its striking opening moments in which Alexia Rasmussen’s heavily-pregnant Esther is brutally attacked by a hooded assailant in an alleyway. It’s a startling opening to a film that continues to twist and confound throughout its running time. There are shades of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club as Esther attends a support group for bereaved parents and befriends pretty, blonde Melanie (Alexa Havins). As their friendship blossoms, however, it becomes clear that each woman has a secret, and neither is quite the victim she initially appeared to be.
A film of forever shifting sympathies and viewpoints, Proxy is best experienced with little or no foreknowledge of the plot. Information known to the characters is cleverly held back from the audience until absolutely necessary, resulting in several powerful and surprising moments, and the three lead actresses (Rasmussen, Havins and Kristina Klebe) give committed performances. The influence of Kubrick is present in the distance the director places between audience and characters, as well as several slow reverse-zooms, and Lars Von Trier’s ghost hangs over one remarkable, sustained moment of extreme slow-motion. But this is very much Zack Parker’s film, and marks him as a talent worth watching.
Director Ti West is very much a favourite of FrightFest, having brought House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) to previous festivals, so anticipation for The Sacrament was high. The opening sequence, introducing us to three young journalists (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley) setting off to visit a remote ‘clean-living’ compound in the jungle run by the enigmatic ‘Father’ (Gene Jones), suggests an interesting riff on the infamous Jonestown Massacre. Sure enough, on arrival at the compound, the three journalists find an apparent paradise – a self-sustaining community seemingly free of crime or racism or want – but before the end of the first night, cracks begin to show. The trio are approached by a woman and her young child, who want the journalists to take them away, and it appears that the avuncular ‘Father’ may not be the benign leader he presents himself as.
If you are at all familiar with Jonestown – the settlement in Guyana where over 900 members of the People’s Temple committed suicide in 1978 by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid at the behest of their leader, Jim Jones – then you probably have an idea where this is going. Indeed, you know exactly where The Sacrament is going. If that’s a spoiler, then so be it. West sticks slavishly to the facts of Jonestown to the extent that The Sacrament is entirely devoid of shock, surprise or tension. Events play out almost beat for beat as they did in 1978, except West has made the inexplicable choice to both modernise the story and tone down the extent of the massacre. When quizzed about this after the showing, the director claimed that he did not feel he could deal with the complexities of the true story at feature length, and that trying to do so would diminish it for screen. Unfortunately, by making a film that sticks so closely to what really happened while simultaneously ignoring its real-life inspiration, diminishing it is exactly what he has done.
In many ways it’s a shame West did not decide to put his own spin on the material, as he has proven in the past that he is a talented filmmaker, and The Sacrament has a great cast. Gene Jones is a chilling surrogate for his real-life counterpart and both AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg are agreeable leads. Unfortunately, they are let down by a script with no ideas of its own and a found-footage conceit that, while making sense in the context of the film, is unnecessary, especially when you consider that Ti West has shown previously that he is a fine, assured director. Hopefully he can recover from this misstep.
Also shown on Friday were Wolf Creek 2 and Afflicted.