SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

LONDON FRIGHTFEST 2014: A MAD, BAD FRIDAY ~ A double bill of head-spinning, ear-numbing horror with 'Julia' and 'The Canal'!

Is a sunny Friday afternoon in a bustling London the wrong time of day to be watching horror movies that include some of the most retch-inducing moments you may ever get to see on the big screen?

Hell, no - it's Film4 London FrightFest time, and anything goes!

The festival is located in a new cinema home - the perfectly horror-like warren of screens that make up VUE cinema in Leicester Square, just a few metres away from where the festival used to live at EMPIRE Leicester Square (until they tragically split in two the wonderful one big screen they used to own - the one where FrightFesters spread themselves out like the kings and queens of gore). The first full day of horror premiers included the likes of Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund's latest 'stuck in a cinema with a madman' concept freak show - 'The Last Showing', as well as big screen cannibal revival, Eli Roth's spine-splitting 'The Green Inferno'.

I chose to head to a couple of lower fanfare offerings, not just because they were showing in the usually eclectic Discovery screens, but because they sounded genuinely original, provocative and good. I was right. On all counts.

JULIA (2014) / World Premier / Director: Matthew A. Brown
* Some spoilers may be breaking through the crack in the wall below - watch before reading! *

This started off as a rape revenge thriller with an almost indecently subtle, respectful approach. Julia works as an assistant at a plastic surgery clinic and meets a client who takes her on a date that culminates in a glass of spiked champagne and a visit from his friends who (we presume) rape the girl as she lies in a paralysed but conscious state. No detail is shown, many would say thankfully - but actually, playing around with the rules like this and restricting any glimpse of the real-life horror being played out, makes the subsequent revenge saga as Julia tracks down her assailants across the dive bars of New York, less clear and tepid. It almost trivialises the brutality of the crime. Almost comes across as a last word on the stupidity of censorship that cuts brutality and renders it as a thing with less threat, less awful and uncomfortable; with less anger felt.
Which doesn't mean that every film showing rape has to play out crime to levels where exploitation takes hold. But like a murder committed off screen, or a passionate affair depicted under the covers, or bullying behind closed doors - is some crime and behaviour worthless when depicted on screen without some evidence of the fact to feel enraged (or in the case of consensual sex) convinced about.

Only a few years ago, the film I Spit On Your Grave (a remake - 2010) was shorn of scenes to the central, traumatising, revenge-spawning rape itself, removing not so much the aggression as the nudity due to BBFC rules about mixing sex and violence in the same shot. This had the perhaps expected effect of toning-down the scene and sanitising something which many would say, shouldn't be sanitised.
Whatever your point of view, 'Julia' is a film that doesn't hold to any such subverting of expectation (of toned-down extremes) promised by a fairly restrained, if unnerving, opening; an about-turn shows the crime in some horrendous detail and the need for revenge essential.

Julia meets a like-minded woman-with-needs in a neon-lit bar, one of many that she now frequents; her femininity now replaced with something less 'defensive' and of the kind that a woman  (Julia says) is expected to have. A huge generalisation - and many would say stupid too, but it's how Julia is. And is not, anymore. Julia's new high-booted, leather-clad, kick-ass (or 'kick and then saw something else off') friend has details of a new kind of therapy, from a doctor she knows, that is heavy on payback - but cuts out the need to make it the more personal kind.

Julia breaks all the rules. The payback she wants - needs - has to be personal. The rules are not allowed to be broken. Something horrible is bound to happen - and it does. But the question is - to who, or to how many.
This is a film that features an enthralling soundtrack (primarily of tracks from Vuvuvultures and Lark) almost more important a player as direction, script, acting. Like one long languid banned music video, the sound perpetrates every scene - there is rarely silence (usually when we meet the 'Doctor Death' figure who remains, most of the time, hidden from view, like the monster in an old episode of Doctor Who - only revealed at the very end).
Hooded figures, almost supernatural in tone, certainly quite occult, forewarn of the presence of their clinical master - the man behind the therapy. When he does appear, even in shadow, the music falls silent. Soft ballads are cut mid-beauty when something terrible happens, to a deafening silence. Club scenes thud with excited dirty beats as Julia and Sadie loiter in neon-lit (and neon colours in this movie are a work of some art, recalling of course Argento's classic of 70s colour-drenched excess - Suspiria). Only occasionally does the soundtrack sound inappropriate to some scenes - one buzzing beat is replaced with a jauntier pop song in a seedy bar that doesn't seem a likely blend. But then - this is a film that often counters the expected with some glee, and embraces lack of convention.

Inspired by classics of the revenge genre, especially Lady Snowblood, 'Julia' is a finely crafted dirty horror with scenes that anger or annoy at times (the whole ridding of femininity in the face of assault and turning to drink and bars, revenge and another woman for sex instead - and the teasing of men as all dick and no brain, is at times either deliberate homage to 70s rape revenge flicks or a bit too male to be taken seriously).

While the severing of body parts is horrible enough without being explicit - it gives the sense of boundaries being pushed, even when they aren't. This is stylish, unexpected, sound and vision-driven horror-making that delights in never staying still; staying nightmarish. The introduction of an almost mythical group of hooded 'creatures of the night' is very welcome as are the lack of sequences where surgery of some kind plays a part - the threat of punishment and severing of skin is teased from the start in snippets. That, is cruel.

Ashley C. Williams (best known for a lead role in good taste-baiting horror movie 'Human Centipede: First Sequence' from 2009) as Julia conveys quiet, simmering passion; plays both brutal and delicate with perfectly judged precision that appeals to the senses. Julia's revenge has a faltering conviction that isn't a sign of weakness; it's a signal of gathering strength. Oh, and there's a surprise appearance (in the role of Dr. Sgundud) from one of the redneck maniacs from Kurt Russell's Breakdown (1997) - yes, it's Billy, and he's back! He was also Randy in Idle Hands. One strange kid.
Taking much inspiration from Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 nihilistic neon masterpiece 'Drive', the film 'Julia' is - we are told by director Matthew A. Brown at the Q/A after the FrightFest screening - inspired by his own breakdown after coming out of a traumatic relationship and the therapy he subsequently received. It was a time during which he felt, literally, castrated (and that's a really key word in this movie). Nothing I saw up on screen today makes me think he is lying.

THE CANAL (2014) / English Premier / Dir: Ivan Kavanagh

* Some spoilers may lurk with abandoned prams in the murky water below - watch before reading! *

Director Ivan Kavanagh is asked to sum up his thoughts on the movie that has just screened to a fairly astounded London FrightFest crowd: "I wanted it to be like a nightmare". Having just witnessed one of the most disturbing scenes of childbirth in the history of cinema, I will be the first to hand the man a cigar and congratulate him - 'The Canal' is a nightmare movie that induces thoughts of rage, arousal, fear and anger.
Irish horror at the annual Film4 FrightFest gathering has always fared well. Last year's event screened the excellent 'Dark Touch' from director Marina de Van that starred a young Missy Keating and creeped the calm right out of me with some deliciously lurid and effective scares. 'The Canal' is even more effective, going from slow burn sinisterism to full-on supernatural creature frights. To be fair, the film throws in pretty much everything to the mix, from old abandoned graffiti-ridden public toilets by the canal, to ancient film footage and archaic cameras, things behind the wall, ghosts behind the bed and kids that - no, wait. That would be telling. You need to not know too much about this movie as it's the kind that spoilers will kill, effortlessly, in their sleep. Like a nightmare visit from a murderous Victorian/ Edwardian with an axe.

We follow, from the start, the gradual disintegration of film archivist David (Rupert Evans) who suspects pretty, vivacious career-obsessed wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra - brilliantly sexy, crafty and mesmerising) of having an affair with one of her 'clients'. At one awful moment, when Alice slips up on a reason to be meeting her 'client' for another late night session, David picks up on her mistake and the woman's face reddens - her skin looks suddenly sweaty and her eyes go wide and drenched. I think - in terms of 'being caught out' - it's the best 'being caught out' acting I've ever seen in a movie.

The character of Alice is almost too likeable, despite her cheating ways, for us to want her to meet a nasty end. So, when she disappears by the canal after one late night (fairly explicitly shown - deliberately so, as it's what David sees too and is meant to shock) tryst with the young, handsome and trendy (well - 'with designer ponytail' kind of trendy) Alex, we hope for the best instead of, like in most horror movies - the worst.
David's best friend at work, where the archiving of tape takes place (and nothing more tangled than that - although you kind of hope these two get it together), is Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes - just as delicious, kooky and simmering as she was in the outstanding Kelly + Victor from 2012). Claire is increasingly (rightly) certain that David, with his wife 'missing after getting some action', is cracking up. Trawling through old film, David has found out that a 1902 murder of a family by the man of the house took place in the same road where he lives with Alice and their son Billy (a captivating and studied portrayal of quiet confusion from such a young actor - Calum Heath, who I'm sure will be seen in many more films as he grows up, on this evidence).

As David becomes convinced that an evil entity is out to kill his son and nanny (but, strangely enough - not him) there are fears that history, once evidenced on old tape reel, is very much a threat to the present as well . .

'The Canal' is a film that wants to scare you - and does. But it's not just fast food fear for the soul and at the heart of this paranoia is a love story and the fallout from an affair - and what it does to a partner who finds out.

It's also a love story about old film footage. A camera from the turn of the last century was used to shoot the vintage footage; various old-school effects in film technique also employed to grime and muddy some scenes - that authentic 70s horror movie feel. Such vintage horrors as 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Shining' (original 'Amityville Horror' too I thought most often) were an influence, we are told at the Q/A with director and crew after the screening. Also - towards the end, there's a touch of the old 'Ringu'.

The man who portrays the historic axe murderer was, apparently, an actor chosen "for his face" and something of an enigma - the crew barely even understood what he was saying when he spoke to them. He was, apparently, very at home with an axe. They may have been joking, but probably not - as nobody on stage can even recall the elusive chap's name.

Sound throughout, is loud and excessive - film reels clicking, spooling and threading, zips fastening, you name it, you get it; it all creates a blatant sense of unease. The fear of sound never so obvious in an enclosed space. There are jump shocks galore, many would say resorting to obvious target practice techniques - but who cares, the shocks are great!

With a charming, unnervingly calm (at first) nanny (played by newbie Kelly Byrne with a confidence and seriousness that clearly shows a career of some note on the horizon) running scared in her bathrobe through a haunted house as something evil breaks through the plaster and a sardonic law enforcer with acid reflux (Steve Oram, who when asked why he was in the movie at the Q/A replied: "Because I was asked" - proving he's as laidback in real life as he is on screen) as well as something nasty in the cellars (and the local toilet) - this is a horror movie for people who like horror movies.
Some scenes, such as the overly traumatic, highly explicit 'bad birth' (detailing another kind of canal - the birth kind, up close; maybe as some kind of metaphor for the rebirth of a broken man, or maybe that's a critique too far) or the lack of child protection around David's son (though this is explained, not entirely convincingly, and maybe deliberately so - the news is always full of similar 'overlooks' so the big one made here, perhaps not that unrealistic) and the film's last final reel of acrid ambiguity, may be a weakness - or an annoyance, for some.

But there are too many good things on show here to complain or be petty about any smaller failings the film may or may not have. The surprise ending is a genuine surprise and prompted gasps in the audience. The affair (of Alice) is torrid and appealing, despite knowing it shouldn't be - as we view the unfolding betrayal through David's eyes only, we also feel his anger. This sense of absolute loss exists throughout, with overriding anger building up into something almost unspeakably bleak.

A nasty, cruel and constant threat to a child (as worrying as it was in 'The Shining') that doesn't ever relent makes this a serious entry in provocative, scary horror cinema. Look, this film is supposed to be a fun ride. If it doesn't break any plot boundaries and stays within the fence, it doesn't matter all that much. It's loud, occasionally horrific and (at its best) seriously bloody unhinged. Like horror cinema used to be. Among the director's next projects, we are told, is a western. Seriously - I actually dread to think.
words: mark gordon palmer
@ Film4 London FrightFest 2014, VUE CINEMA Leicester Square.


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