For most people the end of summer is a time of BBQs, pool parties and getting ready for the new school year. However, for British horror fans it means another thing, and that thing is FrightFest.
Once a year, all things horror-tastic take over London’s Leicester Square to terrify and delight audiences with some of the best and most interesting new horror out there. But how did the ladies fare in this celebration of the macabre? Did the scream queens retain their crown? Or did it all just descend into cliché-ridden victimhood?
On the behind the scenes side of things, less than five of the over fifty films were directed by women. There were a number of female-directed entries in the short film competitions, however, including one directed by Doctor Who and Oculus star Karen Gillen. Unfortunately, one of the few female directed features was also easily the worst film I saw at the festival: paranormal investigation film Farhope Tower, directed by and co-starring April Mullen. The film follows the worst paranormal investigators ever as they explore an evil skyscraper in the abandoned part of town. Forced acting, horrendous production errors and a general sense of pointlessness left me feeling disappointed and vaguely annoyed.
The final film of the festival, the delightful and fun anthology film Tales of Halloween, may have also lacked female directors, but was the brainchild of actress/director Axelle Carolyn. Hopefully should Tales from Halloween become a franchise (something that Carolyn hopes will happen), there will be the opportunity for more female directors to take the wheel.
One of my favourite tropes in horror to examine is that of the final girl, and this year we got to see some really interesting subversion. I didn’t get a chance to see the Abigail Breslin starring Final Girl, because I lack the time travel capabilities to see everything at the festival (the Doctor didn’t pick me up), but I do intend to track it down as I enjoy seeing the boys run screaming from the cute girl. What I did get to see, though, was Suspension and Last Girl Standing, two films that focused on the questions of what happens to the final girl after the film credits finish rolling.
In Suspension, we meet Emily, a teen outcast whose father went on a killing spree ten years ago. One night when taking care of her mute little brother, it seems that Emily’s dad is back to finish what he started. There were some nice ideas here, and a few visual cues to Halloween, which I liked, but the end result was a little thin. It also tried to play something off as a big twist that is howlingly obvious from the first five minutes. It just didn’t live up to the potential.
Last Girl Standing, on the other hand, more than made up for it, as it executes the premise much better. It opens like a classic style slasher film, as some teens are menaced by a masked killer that comes to be known as The Hunter. Years later, lone survivor Camryn is trying to live as quiet a life as possible in Austin, but still struggles with her physical and mental scars. A new co-worker reaches out to Camryn and it seems as though she might be moving to re-enter the every-day world, but there are signs that The Hunter isn’t quite gone, which makes her worry that history will repeat itself.
From there, Last Girl Standing becomes closer to a quiet drama about the aftermath of trauma and dealing it PTSD. We even get to see Camryn’s issues in context with another person’s more real-life trauma recovery. It was a really effective mixture and it never felt jarring having the more realistic drama next to flashbacks of the attack that Camryn survived. It all built to a climax that is as satisfying as it is emotional. I highly recommend tracking this one down. I also had an opportunity to talk to director-writer Ben Moody and producer Rachel Moody about the film and they were very passionate about the project and telling Camryn’s story.
Subversion was also the order of the day in Shut-In, a home invasion film with a difference. Anna hasn’t left her house in several years, her only human contact being her dying brother and the guy who brings her meals on wheels. After a tragedy, a group of men break into the house to find a hidden stash of money, but Anna isn’t quite as helpless as she initially appears. This film was very well done with a very strong central performance from Beth Riesgraf, but personally it wasn’t to my taste. If home invasion is your thing though, I would say check this out.
Of course what is a horror festival without some lady villains? The festival’s opening film Cherry Tree had some potential with a coven of witches in a small Irish town, and the young girl who makes a pact with them to save her beloved father’s life. However, what sounds like it could be an interesting folklore-inflected horror descended into something of a weak Rosemary’s Baby type narrative, and ended on a eye-rolling last-minute jump scare.
Emelie, meanwhile, was a tight and solid thriller, with a great and creepy performance from Sarah Bolger. A group of children are left with a woman who has taken the place of their teenage babysitter, and as the night develops, it becomes a cat and mouse game between the oldest of the children and the sinister sitter. It was very unsettling, but never went too far for the sake of meaningless shock value. Some of the plot points were a little on the predictable side, but it’s worth a look if you want a thriller with a slightly different flavour.
Every year there is guest of honour at FrightFest and this year it was Re-Animator, From Beyond and You’re Next star Barbara Crampton, who had three films in the festival this year: We Are Still Here, Sun Choke and Road Games (along with a cameo in Tales of Halloween). Speaking in conversation with FrightFest organiser Alan Jones, Crampton talked about her career and her life, and commented that she is happy with the title of “Scream Queen,” when used in a positive manner. She also talked about how much she enjoyed the collaborative experience on the set of You’re Next, her recent acting roles, and how she feels going into producing.
We Are Still Here was also probably my favourite film of the festival. A ’70s set haunted house chiller, it follows a married couple who move into a new house after the death of their son. Excellent, mature and emotional performances from Crampton and the rest of the cast are the core of the film, and really worked alongside atmospheric, creative and actually quite scary moments.
Overall, I would say that whilst not wide-spread, the female presence in the FrightFest line-up this year was an interesting one. Subversion of old tropes and complex characters make for very interesting viewing. It would be nice if we saw more women in the directing and writing roles in the festival’s line-up, but I do believe that the festival organisers are committed to finding more new talent in the horror genre, and that will include more female creators in the future. Other films that were fun and worth a look include what looks like ’80s Mad Max on a sugar high (Turbo Kid) and the New Zealand metal head horror comedy Deathgasm.
I loved my FrightFest experience this year. It is great to be in that environment and surrounded by a community of horror fans. And it’s just a wonderful opportunity to see some of the new blood in horror that isn’t part of the Hollywood jump scare machine.