After mutant members, machete maidens and a most random revenge saga, where would Frightfest take its loyal followers next? The main day revved up with the only telekinetic tyre film you'll ever need, Rubber. An undeniably attention-grabbing calling card for debut director Quentin Dupieux (more familiar to many as French electro legend Mr Oizo), the film plays like a rubber monster movie where the monster is actually meant to be a piece of rubber. Its surreal intentions are made clear by Lynchian framing episodes, where we meet a pontificating sheriff and play privy to a bizarre 'test screening' in the desert. The subject of the audience's attention turns out to be a discarded tyre, submerged in the sand. Its birth pangs and baby steps are sweetly comic: rising up and shaking itself off, rolling a few feet before falling back onto its side. We follow as it explores its environment, amusingly twee music and the jaunty camerawork giving these early scenes some real bounce. Its first encounter with another inanimate object is handled with real charm, the tentative attempts to communicate with a plastic bottle eliciting an unforced mirth you wouldn't imagine possible in depicting the interaction of two pieces of trash. However, the sentient ring soon reveals a darker nature, the discovery of its own destructive power dawning on it as it crosses paths with other denizens of the dustbowl.
At first, the tyre seems like it could be an animal, or even a child, but as its exposure to humans increases, the film mines a rich seam of humour from its gradual anthropomorphing. The style and conventions of both monster and serial killer movies are hilariously adopted, with the tyre stalking females in Psycho-style motels and sneaking around the fringes of the frame, looming large in some shots so that its markings resemble the skin of a Godzilla-like Goliath. All of this is coupled with arrestingly gorgeous cinematography and excellent sound design; the first time you hear the noises building up to the tyre's attacks, you're guaranteed to be crippled with laughter.
The soundtrack (partially by the director under his Mr Oiza alias) manages to make the film endearing early on, skilfully building to satirically menacing stabs of electronic noise. However, all of this is increasingly undermined by the postmodern intrusions of some of the characters: their presence is initially quirky enough to work, holding a mirror up to ourselves and the movie-making experience, but they start to detract from the 'story' around the midway mark. Even though the thrill of watching people's heads explode wears thin eventually, the ironic asides grow even more teeth-gnashingly grating and threaten to overwhelm the audience with their 'nudge nuge wink wink' smugness. The film recovers from these particular indulgences towards the end though, with a wonderfully cheeky climax, ending the film on a suitably apocalyptic and somehow absurdly cute note. Many will fell Rubber is a short student film stretched to breaking point and past it, but if you can tune into its whacked-out world-view it should have you smiling all the way through. It's definitely worth staying for the credits as well, not only for Oizo's joyously unhinged electro finally taking full flight, but to see how its 'star' is represented on the cast list...
With the whimsy out the way, it was now time to get down to some real horror. French-Canadian border patrol nightmare Territories is indeed a very real brand of horror; a psychological headfuck mining recent political concerns for its nerve-fraying premise. A carload of amiable youths returning to the US is accosted by a couple of power-hungry patrolmen, their situation going from bad to worse as unfounded allegations fly and tensions simmer over into violence. They are taken into custody, but not the kind that allows them a call home: their captors turn out to be intent on a different sort of punishment, one where the psychological torture is worse than any physical pain they could hope to endure.
Territories is apparently going to be renamed 'Checkpoint' for its UK release, but its original title gives better indications of director Olivier Abbou's intentions. Taking its cue from perhaps the most powerful horror film of recent years, Martyrs, this is a gruelling experience that forces the audience to look at events in today's 'liberated' world and consider the cost for those directly involved. Parallels to Guantanamo Bay are specifically drawn, and the film takes us through the stages of suffering that notorious facility inflicted on its detainees. To its credit, the film also examines those perpetrating the punishment, throwing up some uneasy insights into their frame of mind. The plot references Frankenstein in the somewhat tragic relationship between creator and creature; the US government is shown to have repeatedly dumped this generation of war-hardened veterans it has engineered. There are also parallels to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not only in the backwoods setting and the dysfunctional 'family' dynamic, but in the way the film reveals redundancy to be such a damaging force.
The acting is uniformly excellent, with the detained convincingly cycling through believable emotional states, from defiance to defeat. Moments of survival-motivated admission are especially harrowing, where truth is left discomfortingly ambiguous. The captors are also rendered as layered characters both threatening and pathetic, Roc LaFortune giving a particularly nuanced performance. An unexpected character drifts into the film late in the game, adding another layer of complexity and emotional investment to the climax, veteran character actor Stephen Shellen almost stealing the film from under everyone's noses. But overall, it is debut director Olivier Abbou's unflinching handling of the traumatic subject matter that stands out, managing to be thought-provoking without being overbearing with his message, right up to the crushingly bleak denouement. Territories isn't as violent as you might expect, and it even manages to throw in some uncomfortably cruel humour, but it is a deeply upsetting experience. A difficult watch but a worthwhile one.
The Shrine is the latest offering from Jon Knautz, director of the CGI-free Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. An admirable attempt at a 'straight' horror film after the clowning around of his debut, it is unfortunately undone by both the same flaws of his previous feature as well as the very things it tried to avoid. Concerning an investigative journalist's attempts to locate a missing American in Eastern Europe, the film starts well with some well-timed jolts and the air of mystery effectively maintained. Dragging her cautious boyfriend and eager-to-please assistant along, she starts to explore the Polish village of Alvania, finding there's more than a frosty reception from the locals to contend with in its idyllic woodland setting. They stumble upon a mysterious mist, visible even in broad daylight, that seems isolated to a particular spot. When a creepy kid leads them unwittingly to the titular place of worship, a battle for survival commences that could consume their souls.
As the plot thickens, the effectively established atmosphere dissipates due to hopelessly threadbare sets, embarrassingly inept CG and the sort of over-done lighting you normally find in children's TV shows. The acting is also frustratingly variable; Aaron Ashmore is admirably committed to his reluctant hero schtick, but Cindy Sampson fails to appeal in the lead role and don't get me started on Megan Heffern as her trusty sidekick. The Polish locals also strike a bit of a bum note, not being menacing enough to instil any kind of fear in the viewer, and just becoming annoying as their part in the plot increases. Initially, is understandable that they shouldn't be subtitled, as it puts the audience in the same confused state as their victims, but by the end, it's like watching a foreign language film without subtitles: they practically take over the film and leave you wondering what the hell they're babbling on about. Admittedly, it probably wouldn't be anything you haven't heard before, but it does get irritating when the hero is sidelined for the majority of the climax and you're left watching sub-par re-enactments of several better films without dialogue you can even understand. There is some reasonably effective demonic imagery, a smattering of decent gore effects and the whole thing is energetically mounted, but it's hard to recommend other than as a DVD for a rainy day. Hopefully Knautz can realize his potential more fully with his next project.
Mother's Day marks a coming of age for Darren Lynn Bousman, director of some reprehensible Saw sequels and Repo: The Genetic Opera. A loose remake of an obscure Troma flick, the plot follows a murderous family's clash with a group of young yuppies in a home the criminals thought they still owned. A hostage situation goes from dangerous to deadly with the arrival of the psycho clan's matriarch, whose conviction that her home's new owners have been receiving cash in her name leads to a standoff that brings tensions to the surface on both sides. Bousman's film is bloody and visceral, but wisely works mostly on the level of neo-noir, the family setting up a series of perverse challenges for the captive group as relationships are tested and secrets come to the surface. The film gets going quickly and never lets up for a second, moving at such a lick that you're never given time to question the plot's twisted machinations. It's as sharp as an unexpected tack on your seat, Bousman expertly turning the screw on the audience as the violence escalates and the cops start to close in.
What really marks the film out though is its ingenious manipulation of the audience's sympathies. We first meet our heroine in tears as she prepares to host a party, her emotional trauma distinguishing her from her off-puttingly affluent and self-absorbed friends. At the same time, their captors are shown to have a really strong family dynamic, their attachment to and love for each other making them impossible to dismiss as simple villainous thugs. As their 'Momma', Rebecca De Mornay blazes back onto the screen with an intensity that even eclipses her unforgettable breakout turn in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Like her character in that film, she manages to be terrifying and tender, her own inner damage emanating from behind that mad-dog stare. Her initial appearance and unfettered concern for her children almost brings a tear to the eye, and then the next minute she is seizing control of the situation with a mixture of deceptive hospitality, double-edged wisecracks and menacing dominance. It is an awesome, career-resurrecting performance that Tarantino himself would be proud to have marshalled.
There are many almost equally impressive performances from some familiar faces, all the actors selling the situations as they grow more painfully intense. Warren Kole is especially impressive as the family's ticking time-bomb, his energetic crowd-pleasing efforts a world away from his unappealing central role in Tron: Legacy. Jaime King also brings some real emotional weight to her part, and crucially convinces in her eventual shift to ass-kicking retaliation. All credit must go to Bousman though for managing to keep control of this increasingly convoluted thriller. His miniscule budget may be evident in some iffy lighting and the limited locations he has set for himself (the script could easily and effectively be staged as a play), but he delivers a relentlessly efficient thriller that manages to be funny and frightening, with a set of memorable characters and performances that do them justice. Mother's Day is a cracking film that deserves to find as wide an audience as possible.
The evening drew to a close with young Canadian upstart Jason Eisner's Hobo With A Shotgun, an expanded trailer a la Machete that harks back to the VHS punk-apocalypse movies of the Eighties. Introduced by the amiable Canuck in his underwear, it's an uproarious starburst of cartoon gore and debauched laughs. Rutger Hauer stars as a grizzled wino trodden down too low, whose despair at society's ills sees him take to cleaning up the streets 'one shell at a time'. Like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, he's a fabulously empathetic creation, embodying all of our frustrations and delivering the sort of cathartic chaos that the Eighties-staple one-liner was made for. Hauer is fabulous, veering between shambolic and righteous as the street gangs light his fuse and then turn the people he crusaded for into vigilante mobs intent on his destruction themselves. At one point he is acting through a hole the size of a letter-box, and still manages to be deliriously entertaining.
His co-stars can't quite bring the same knowing grace to their roles, but they still go for broke; it's a surprise there's any scenery left with the way these guys are chewing on it. The film is filled with nice touches, from the local press's gloriously brazen headlines to dialogue that references Youtube faves like Street Trash and Silent Night Deadly Night ('Garbage day for street trash!'). Eisner floods the screen with the sort of over-saturated colours and garish lighting he obviously loved as a child, rendering his hometown of Nova Scotia as a scrappy cyberpunk comic-book creation. Graffiti is everywhere, urban squalor fills the frame, and lots of little details show the love and care that obviously went into the production. His camerawork and editing are authentically gonzo, but the overdriven style can be a little wearisome at times. The sheer mess of noise can also detract from the action; there are times when it's impossible to hear some of the characters with all the guns blasting and music blaring in the background. But the film has charm in spades, and is loaded with style and invention. Eisner's debut is an outrageously audacious ode to the no-budget garbage he grew up on, guaranteed to raise the roof wherever it plays to a late-night crowd. It's the sort of movie that Rob Zombie should have made by now and will no doubt wish he had. It's cheap, it's childish, but you wouldn't want it any other way. A fitting closer to a fantastic Frightfest.
Those who stayed to the end were rewarded by a Q&A with the irascible Eisner, still in his boxers and showing a real affection for both his inspirations and his audience. Throughout the day, there had been many giveaways, with fans swagging everything from DVDs to Drive Angry casino chips and glowsticks. The weekend ended on a real high, with the general consensus being that the lineup had been excellent across the board. Many hung around to harangue the stars and debate their favourite films; there really was something for everyone. One thing that was reassuring was the dawning realisation that there's a whole plethora of new genre stars who obviously have an affinity for these kinds of films, and strive to transcend any limitations their material may have with every performance. Mother's Day alone boasted reliably excellent turns from Frightfest faves Jaime King, Briana Evigan and Shawn Ashmore. The genre seems to be finding its feet again after a spate of trends (remakes, torture porn, J-horror) that we won't have seen the last of, but which threatened to turn familiarity into contempt. Hopefully this weekend was an indication of further good things to come!