It was in the stars that insomniac addicts of the occult and the agonising were bound to be in for something very special indeed at this year's FrightFest all-nighter. After all, it is a rare celestial confluence that makes the annual event at London's ICA - traditionally held on a Saturday evening (and Sunday morning) - coincide with the actual date of Samhain. So come the witching hour, when exhaustion starts to set in and put the audience in that vulnerable, slightly manic state so perfectly suited to the reception of horror, there was an additional Halloween vibe in the air, haunting the cinema with a tangible vibe of festive menace. Dark times were a-coming - but let's not get ahead of ourselves, because...
7.00pm Umbrage ...just as last year's all-nighter had its Gnaw to open proceedings with a whimper rather than a bang, this year's began with another worthless piece of rubbish from the UK. Drew Cullingham's Umbrage was not only enjoying its first public screening anywhere, but quite possibly its last, too, judging by the muted response it received from the very audience at which it is most likely to be targeted. Excuses were made by the director. Apparently it is not quite finished yet, we were seeing a temporary colour grade, and hearing a soundtrack that had not yet been mixed into surround sound – but the problems with this film run much deeper than that.
It is simply too late at the post-production stage to tinker with a leaden, witless script, non-existent characterisation, piss-poor acting (even Doug 'Pinhead' Bradley phones in his performance), and a mood-destroying choice of country-rock songs for the score. There is potential, no doubt, to be found in a crossover of oater, vampire flick, dysfunctional domestic drama and Old Testament Apocrypha – but it is potential that this film fails in every respect to meet.
It was not supposed to be this way. Originally Taiwan's first ever slasher, Invitation Only, had been scheduled for this slot, until a clash with the Leeds International Film Festival caused that title to be pulled. So instead they gave us Umbrage – and that is what most of us took. The most frightening thing about it was Cullingham's talk of a sequel.
9.30pm George A Romero's Survival Of The Dead
Second of the night was the UK premiere of George A Romero's latest instalment in the zombie genre that in effect he single-handedly created back in 1968 with Night Of The Living Dead – and apart from the blip that was Land of the Dead (2005), there is still evidently plenty of life left in his long-running (or should that be slow-shuffling?) franchise, which still proves to be more intelligent and politically engaged than any of the countless undead imitations out there.
Indeed, Survival Of The Dead manages to reference key moments or motifs from each and every one of Romero's previous zombie films, before going on to do very much its own thing. So there are the zombie lynchings from Night Of The Living Dead, the automatic behavioural patterns from Dawn Of The Dead (1978), the zombie training (and island refuge) from Day Of The Dead (1985), the evolving zombies from Land Of The Dead, and an actual overlapping scene from Diary Of The Dead (2007) – and yet Survival Of The Dead plays out like an Irish western, in which a Delaware island that should be a utopian haven from the zombie outbreak instead becomes a living dead hell because of the intransigent feuding of its two resident clans. As always, Romero uses his zombie framework to expose the monstrousness of the living, in this case focusing on the (self-)destructive human need for divisive lines in the sand.
There is plenty of shock and gore to be found here, as well as some sly comedy, and a final image that captures rather beautifully the absurdity of two tribes still at war long after the relevance of their respective causes has well and truly died. It is a film very much for these times of entrenched, polarised ideologies. Our world might still look, much as it did at the end of the Sixties, as though it is headed for ruin – but Romero is still surviving rather nicely.
Midnight - Paranormal Activity
Building on the festival buzz that this ultra-low-budget debut has been generating on the festival circuit since 2007, Paramount first considered remaking Paranormal Activity in its entirety, before finally deciding to stick with Oren Peli's original, while re-recording its soundtrack, and adding a few extra scenes and an all-new ending (the latter at the suggestion of one Steven Spielberg).
The studio's clever viral marketing campaign and calculated initial release of the film into a limited number of cinemas have no doubt contributed to its phenomenal box office success in the US - and Icon's absolute insistence that the film be shown in the magical midnight slot at the Halloween FrightFest suggests that these shores will be seeing similar promotional gimmickry. Still, there is far more to this film than mere hype.
Granted, it is a derivative, subtext-free merger of Blair Witch-style faux 'found footage' with the tropes of the haunted house movie (and plenty of 'gotcha!' moments), but Peli exhibits paranormal skill at escalating tension, so that even the most banal visual elements (like a couple asleep in bed or even just a camera's ticking time code) quickly become associated with unbearable menace and foreboding.
Every time the green-monochrome night vision came on, you could discern a collective intake of breath in the cinema. Some people could even be heard muttering "no!" or "don't do that!" in certain scenes – and there were many moments where the audience jumped as one. So as a communal cinematic experience, Paranormal Activity pushes all the right nerves - and given the film's setting within the claustrophobic confines of a domestic space, one can only imagine how much more unsettling it will prove to be when viewed in the 'comfort' of one's own home.
It is also, of course, a couple's movie, guaranteeing a broader audience than horror typically commands. Viewers typically allied their sympathies either with Micah (Micah Sloat) or with his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston), as the former keeps insisting on documenting, encouraging and even provoking the demonic presence that is plaguing their home, while the latter just wants her partner to stop filming and their supernatural intruder to go away. In truth, however, both their positions form an uneasy kind of synthesis in the viewer, who wishes on the one hand for all that unendurably visceral terror to end, and on the other for it to continue, and even intensify. As we watch the relationship between Micah and Katie fall apart in face of the irrational, we are also witnessing the paradox of our own divided desires and dreads.
2am Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead
Rob Schmidt's Wrong Turn (2003) was a dumb-assed rip-off of the least interesting elements form The Hills Have Eyes (1977), pitting mutant hillbilly cannibals against only slightly less gormless urban co-eds. Joe Lynch's superior, self-parodic sequel Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007) upped the ante several notches by introducing a brainless reality TV show to the backwoods, and letting an amped-up Henry Rollins run riot through the already chaotic mix of sensibilities.
Unfortunately, with Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead, we are heading back towards square one. You can't blame director Declan O'Brien for trying his best. There is toplessness (of a hilariously gratuitous variety) within two minutes of the film's opening, and a legion of gory deaths to follow – but there is also, alas, little here that we have not seen before. Just about the only novelty is that most of the folk lost in the woods this time round are bad-ass prison escapees and their captive guards, as hell-bent on picking each other off and running with the money as avoiding the locals' cooking pot. Yet amid all its man-traps, macho posturing and monetary moralising, this is an overfamiliar exercise in by-numbers filmmaking that always seems merely to be coasting on auto-pilot. No wonder it took the wrong turn...
4am Jennifer's Body
Originally this pre-dawn slot had been rather cleverly reserved for the Spierig brothers' vampire apocalypse Daybreakers – until that film was pulled by distributors apparently concerned about uncontained pre-release chatter. Jennifer's Body was brought in at the last minute as its replacement, and let's just say that expectations were not exactly high. Ever since her Oscar-winning success with Juno (2007), screenwriter Diablo Cody has been suffering from the sort of online opprobrium, if not outright character assassination, that only a rapid rise to fame can elicit – and so the knives were out for her next project.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to see this whip-smart postmodern tale about the horrors – both physical and psychological - of female adolescence. After a sacrificial ritual gone wrong, demonically possessed Jennifer (Megan Fox) is transformed seemingly overnight from a sexually aggressive alpha girl into, well, a sexually aggressive alpha girl – except that now, whenever that time of the month comes round, nothing quite re-energises her like a bit of literal man-eating. Meanwhile Amanda Seyfried (currently establishing, with this film and Chloe, a reputation as the go-to girl for lesbian lite) plays Jennifer's nerdish best friend Anita 'Needy' Lesnicky, at first reduced to looking on in horror from the sidelines, until it gradually becomes clear that the two girls' roles are neatly reversing, and that it is Anita who is truly becoming empowered by her own teen metamorphosis.
Occupying similar territory to Heathers (1988), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Teeth (2007), Karyn Kusama's film is sharp, witty and diabolically funny – and just about the only thing louder in the cinema than the audience's laughter was the raucous snoring from the intoxicated gentleman in row two. Too bad he did not know what he was missing.
The final film of the night opens with old vacation footage of brothers Brian and Danny and their parents clowning on a beach. We then cut to the adult brothers who still seem very much on holiday, speeding along the coast with a pair of pretty women for company and some surfboards strapped to their car's roof. Yet from the moment they encounter a second vehicle blocking their path, it becomes apparent that they are in fact refugees from a deadly pandemic virus for which there is no cure.
There are signs here and there suggesting other post-apocalyptic films: the slogan Road Warrior has been painted over the bonnet of their car; the infected are not always as dead as they look, recalling any number of zombie movies; and our four fellow travellers are fond of making 'rules for survival' and treating their depopulated world like a theme park, much like their comic counterparts in Zombieland (2009).
Yet as Carriers goes on, it abandons these models of action, comedy and the supernatural, preferring instead to root its horror in the grimly realistic human drama of four random wanderers gradually losing everyone and everything that they hold dear. Ultimately even bleaker than John Hillcoat's The Road (2009), Carriers neatly merged the end of the FrightFest all-nighter with the End of Days, and on that bum-note sent the numbed survivors spilling out into a chilly Pall Mall that was otherwise as eerily devoid of cars and pedestrians as the streets just seen in the film itself. It was a moment of blissfully downbeat perfection.