Horrothon 2009: The Festival that Rose from the Dead

Grace

The 12th annual Horrorthon at the IFI demonstrated the power of a genre in resurgence. Niall Kitson conducts a postmortem on some outstanding debuts, and looks towards the future of the art of darkness.

There aren’t many occasions where the phrase ‘is this a dubbed movie or is it subtitled’ becomes a moment of comic genius in the IFI. As a fixture that unashamedly embraces fair to middling movies, the Horrorthon is a much-needed cinematic powerchord in a calendar dominated by chamber music. This is not An Education. This is indoctrination.

While the Hororthon formula, now on its 12th outing is a reliable bouillabaisse of shock, schlock and a few outliers worth a punt, it’s only fair to say the execution has been somewhat amiss in recent years. A reliance on revival screenings, some dubious anniversaries (did Jaws 2 really need the 70 mm treatment?) and a surprise movie slot with more than a hint of ‘hit and hope’ about it would be taken as evidence of a genre in danger of overindulging in post-modern spoofery at the expense of real chills.

Thankfully, 2009 saw a noticeable return to form with, arguably, one of the strongest programmes yet; a smattering of low-key character pieces proving more than an ample riposte to mainstream horror dominated by torture porn (the unstoppable Saw franchise) and Michael Bay-produced retreads for retards like Friday the 13th and the forthcoming A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Given such a backdrop of big budget conservatism, it was heartening to see horror movies haven’t become a mongrel concern, shuffling dead-eyed through the multiplexes and onto the home entertainment market, but still has the power to challenge without resorting to gothic fantasy and CGI-drenched hokum.

As opening movies go Jennifer’s Body wasn’t a half bad choice. A sassy, if slight, horror-comedy about friendship and demonic possession, Juno writer Diablo Cody’s exploration of friendship and adolescence tries and fails to wring a few scares out of a familiar rite of passage. In this case it’s the inevitable schism between geek next door Needy (Amanda Seyfried) and her smokin’ hot best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox) that becomes exacerbated when the latter falls prey to a trendoid emo band seeking to plug their talent deficit with an entirely different kind of performing art. Before you can say ‘enter succubus’ the group are charting and Jennifer has turned into a literal man-eater. Beyond that there’s not much else to tell. The set pieces are poorly paced and the characters too amplified to come across as anything other than objects of ridicule.

Perhaps the main stumbling block to the film’s success is director Karyn Kusama’s (Girlfight, Æon Flux) apparent lack of interest in horror canon or convention. Cody’s trademark dialogue provides the occasional barb and enough honesty to dent men’s belief in the fairer sex forever, but unsure of whether it’s a send-up of high school social hierarchy or of horror movies themselves, it fails at both. Not quite Heathers, not quite Buffy the Vampire Slayer this is fairly limp fare, but hey… Megan Fox.

Closer to home, The Disturbed marked the directorial return of Conor McMahon. Last seen behind the camera for zombie flick Dead Meat, McMahon’s difficult second film owes more than a little to the Dogme95 school, opting for a stripped down approach relying on a loose treatment for guidance. Another touch is the actors retaining their own names. Shot over a five-day period, it’s an exercise in torture porn with a supernatural twist. Starting out a typical weekend in the country, Dubliners Clyde (Mowlds) and Stephen (Murray) reveal an unwilling passenger in the shape of Sarah (Carla McGlynn) – a girl they have more than a few plans for. What follows isn’t quite in the same league as Funny Games for intensity or intellectual exploration. An element of scanger banter and some in-jokes from ‘the scene’ (Stephen Foy and McMahon himself have cameos) lighten the mood but none of it convinces. The limitations of working without a script leads to some fairly stock plotting and the deus ex machina ending will have screenwriting buffs gritting their teeth. It’s an uneasy mix and one wonders if McMahon was really serious about this project or just wanted to vent his frustration.

Of much greater interest was Grace, a body-horror film with a difference. The debut feature from Canadian Paul Solet elaborates on the plot of his six-minute short of the same name.

Obsessed with starting a family, anodyne couple Michael and Madeline resort to the aid of a new-age midwife to guide them through pregnancy after a series of failed attempts. When Michael is killed in a freak car accident, Madeline is rescued in a state of bloody distress. A brief examination reveals the child has not survived the crash. Refusing to give up on her child Madeline carries the baby to term only for the little tyke to pipe up and take in her first breath. Immediately named ‘Grace’, all seems well until the child reveals a craving for something her uber-liberal mother cannot conscience: human blood.

An examination of the clash between conservative family values and pampered bourgeois idealism, Grace is a deliberately paced (some might say slow), occasionally uncomfortable experience. Some of the most tense scenes are overtly polite moments: a mother-in-law offers some parenting advice based on her own experience; a couple share dinner at opposite ends of a huge dining room table, preferring soy milk to the real thing; Madeline’s obsession with animal documentaries. All of these elements create a pristine world of insipid liberalism and well-intentioned meddling with a hint of psychopathy. As a film, Grace feels every bit as fragile as its struggling protagonist. The set pieces are finely constructed and the biggest squirm of the evening came not from something played for shock value but for a moment of introspection as Madeline’s busybody, menopausal mother-in-law comes to terms with her aging body. While things do get a little Thelma and Louise at the end, the main problem is the leaden progression. Coming from an idea explored in just over five minutes, the film, expanded to 90 minutes, labours its points a bit too much for mainstream acceptance. Pun intended.

Also of note is another debut feature: Gerard Johnson’s portrait of a serial killer, Tony. Played by Peter Ferdinando, the eponymous anti-hero is a dowdy non-entity, the kind of weather-beaten extra walking everywhere, going nowhere. Rarely without a pair of shopping bags at his sides, Tony strolls aimlessly through the city streets, pausing to strike up awkward conversations with strangers. He’s inept, piteous and a prolific killer. Where Grace limped along, Tony ambles through its short running time. Johnson’s film is a series of random encounters where we learn of Tony’s yen for 80s action movies, his extensive VHS collection, and his flat, which has a funny smell masked only by a bowl of rotting bananas. The film is held together loosely by the disappearance of an 11-year-old boy, and the week-long period in which Tony goes from local curio to figure of suspicion. This could have ended up a rather drab piece of social realism in the mould of Alan Clarke’s Elephant but for some blackly comic moments involving a chance meeting with some junkies and, later, a less-than-successful encounter with a homosexual at a gay bar. Not to mention a cringeworthy scene at a job centre and a brothel, where it turns out cuddles are not on the menu. Caught somewhere in time between Roy Cropper and Ed Gein, Tony is a fascinating character and a captivating film. Cult status beckons.

While other entries over the weekend did enough to push boundaries as well as buttons (The House of the Devil, Resurrecting the Streetwalker, Black and concluding film The Descent Part 2), the tail end of the festival was well foreshadowed by another debut, Steven Kastrissios’ The Horseman.

A rape and revenge tale of a most bilious kind, The Horseman comes from a line of father and daughter thrillers typified by the likes of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and Deliverance. Here, struggling single dad Chris (Peter Marshall) begins a crusade against a cabal of gym junkies responsible for plying his 17-year-old daughter with drink and hard drugs before having group sex, filming the results and selling it on the open market. After an anonymous tipster sends Chris a copy of the tape he begins a crusade to find everyone involved in the production, from distributors to the ‘cast and crew’. Posing as a handyman with a toolbox always to hand Chris dishes out no small amount of pain, going not so much for the jugular as softer, more sensitive parts of the male anatomy.

The bodging together of a taut, set-piece-driven narrative with a torture porn aesthetic actually works quite well here. It makes for abrasive viewing, yet at times the audience empathises with Chris’ rage. It’s hard to fault him, no matter how abhorrent his actions may be.

Balance is also provided in the shape of Alice (Caroline Marohasy), a pregnant teenaged runaway. Obviously in need of a father figure, the relationship between Alice and Chris looks to be heading in one direction only, until a subtle twist sparks a showdown of Jacobean proportions.

Having sat through the bulk of Horrorthon ’09, it was plain that the dross to quality ratio had been substantially improved. Singling out Grace, Tony and The Horseman for particular mention, it could be argued these films represent something better for the genre coming down the road. These smaller, more personal films, dealing with simple emotive themes of family and one’s role in society, seem particularly prescient given a current economic climate where families are being forced to deal with new uncertainties: the length of marriages, dissolution of family bonds, unemployment. On a purely practical level, with less money to go around to make movies it only makes sense that smaller scale pieces become the norm, or at least more popular. The challenge is to be smarter than the average slasher, accessible to all without impinging on core values. If that means toning down the make-up effects, fine. If it means more no-budget classics like Paranormal Activity then yes, please.

Of course the other end of the trope is the aforementioned mid-budget remakes of ‘classics’ like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Too mean-spirited to inspire any kind of affection, for a fan base fond of the imperfections that defuse the chills, a horror movie too well made is a joyless experience – its own worst enemy. In this sense Horrorthon ’09 has done the genre an immense service in creating a snapshot of a genre and argued the Faustian pact for its very soul. This writer hopes the road of quality features of modest means is not eschewed for Michael Bay’s knack for getting teens to part with cash. Surely he can be offloaded to do another Transformers while the rest of us get on with enjoying a genre in resurgence. Now there’s a real horror of a movie.

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