Thursday, 1 September 2011

London Frightfest 2011, Part # 1.

Armed with a one day wristband and a couple of additional screening tickets, I made my second annual visit to the appropriately hellish environs of The Empire in Leicester Square last weekend to check out a few of the more exciting offerings at this year’s London Frightfest. Although I was only present for a fraction of the full four day programme, I still managed to clock up nearly twelve straight hours spent in and around a multiplex in the centre of London’s foremost tourist trap hellhole, and I’m telling you readers, it hurt. But along with my hard-earned status as a guy who wastes time writing about weird movies on the internet comes a certain responsibility, and if at least once a year I can make the effort to keep myself- and by extension, yourselves – up to date on developments in the field of movies about people running around in the dark being murdered in horrible ways… well the discomfort is all worthwhile.

Here is what I saw with my eyes.

Troll Hunter
(André Øvredal, 2010)

I know this is the same crack I made at the start of last year’s festival write-up, but the fact remains: when you find yourself setting your alarm on Friday night to ensure you get up in plenty of time to make the 11am showing of a movie called ‘Troll Hunter’, something is going very right in your life.

Most likely you’ve heard a thing or so about this singular Norwegian production by now, given the (justifiable) hype that has grown up around it in the past few months, but in case you haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis:

‘Troll Hunter’ takes the form of a Blair Witch-style ‘found footage’ effort, following a trio of youngsters who are attempting to make a documentary investigating illegal bear hunting in rural Norway. Latching onto an eccentric and unfriendly man they believe to be a poacher, they begin following him around, eventually trailing him on a nocturnal excursion deep into the woods where, well… let’s just say they get more than they bargained for. Pissed off with his working conditions and the attitude of his superiors, the man subsequently admits to the filmmakers that he is actually a government employee, working for a covert Troll Security Service within the Department of Wildlife, and invites them to film him as he goes about his business, keeping the country’s troll population under control.

Beyond that, there is little that can be said about ‘Troll Hunter’ that wouldn’t spoil the numerous surprises and delights that first time viewers have in store for them, but suffice to say: on every level, this is a really great film.

There is something so awesome about the way that, rather than reinventing the trolls as some kind of scary, fast-moving modern horror type beasties, the creatures here basically still look like old fashioned storybook trolls, complete with knobbly noses and hairy kneecaps and all the rest of it. The special effects through which the monsters are realised are pretty incredible too – I don’t know how they did them exactly, but, speaking as someone who probably watches more than his fair share of monster movies, I thought it was remarkable the way that instead of thinking ‘oh right, they’ve got a guy in a suit’, or, ‘oh yeah, that’s some CGI’ when a troll lumbers on screen, the audience basically shares the astonishment of the characters in thinking, ‘fuck me, that really IS a troll’.

The trolls are rendered frightening simply through their size and physical presence, and the scenes in which they attack our protagonists are pretty intense, especially with the booming THX-whatever sound mix in the cinema. Rather than a conventional scare-the-pants-off-ya horror film though, ‘Troll Hunter’ is really more… I dunno - a comedic study in absurdist wildlife management, maybe?

With a blend of dry wit, weird low-key satire and constant visual invention, and a small cast who manage to establish themselves slowly and naturally without compromising the ‘found footage’ conceit (which remains eerily convincing throughout), it’s basically just very, very funny. By turns, it is also exciting, thought-provoking, humane and strangely melancholy and somewhat awe-inspiring - a really unique movie and one that I’m sure will find a healthy audience well beyond the niche horror fraternity.

If you only see one new film at the cinema this year… etc.

The Wicker Tree
(Robin Hardy, 2011)

I wish the same could be said of Robin Hardy’s 40-years-later sequel to ‘The Wicker Man’, but let’s face it… this was always going to be a bit of a car crash, wasn’t it? Taking the view that a pessimist is never disappointed, I went in not expecting much beyond a bit of a chuckle and some incidental weirdness, but sadly the film failed to even deliver on that modest level. ‘Wicker Tree’ is a meandering mess of a production that never really manages to get an angle on its own ideas and ambitions, or even to provide much in the way of entertainment.

Trying to run down everything the film got wrong in the process of updating and rethinking the premise of the original would be both needlessly cruel and extremely tedious, so I’ll try to restrict myself to just discussing some of its most chronic missteps.

Most crucial to the film’s overall failure I think is the way it bungles the attempt to replicate the unsettling clash of ideologies that was so vital to its predecessor’s success. In ‘The Wicker Man’, the reactionary clichés of horror storytelling are challenged from the outset as the pagan islanders’ way of life is presented as being essentially healthy, joyous and rather enticing, as opposed to the repressive, self-denying angst of Sgt Howie’s Christianity. It is only with the gradual realisation that the islanders practice human sacrifice to appease their strange gods that we too become shocked at their amoral behaviour, forcing our sympathies back toward the safer boundaries of Howie’s more puritanical worldview. It is this basic ambiguity, this questioning of easy dualistic thinking, that gives the film much of its enduring power and beauty.

No such subtleties are at play in ‘The Wicker Tree’ however, as the cultists orchestrated by Scottish borders landowner Graham McTavish fail to really rise above the level of weird, misguided villains, no more convincingly motivated in their beliefs or practices than the aristocratic devil-worshippers in the cheesy gothic horrors that the original film’s script set out to transcend. Similarly, the young Texas evangelists who are lured across the Atlantic to provide the cult’s annual sacrifice are little more than brain-washed dimwits – a liberal British director’s cardboard cut-out idea of right wing American culture, with none of the heartfelt intensity that made Edward Woodward’s character such a convincing central presence.

In spite of Hardy’s warning in his pre-screening intro that we “shouldn’t expect a conventional horror movie”, the failures of his script sadly reduce the narrative here to the level of the most banal modern horror, in which pointlessly evil baddies menace obnoxiously shallow ‘goodies’, with the end result that we basically don’t give a shit what happens to any of them, let alone the finer points of their respective belief systems.

Things aren’t exactly helped by poor performances across the board, and some of the most excruciatingly clumsy dialogue I’ve heard in a real world-set film for some time. The more experienced actors in the cast do their best to soldier on and keep things low-key, but hearing the young leads make a meal out of their soap opera level proclamations is absolutely cringeworthy (if I remember correctly, the male lead at one point announces “I’m just a poor, dumb cowboy, a long way from home”).

Perhaps conscious of such drawbacks, the first two thirds of the movie are basically played for laughs, throwing in a bunch of dated nudge-wink humour and ill-advised slapstick silliness that seeks to pre-empt criticism by blurring the line between intentional and unintentional laughs, although frankly neither raises much more than frequent eye-rolling and the occasional snigger of disbelief.

In fact, the more I think about it, it’s definitely the writing that puts the kibosh on this whole venture. The technical aspects of Hardy’s direction are pretty decent for a man who’s only made two films in four decades, and the cinematography, which utilises a kinda high gloss contemporary sheen, is actually very good, providing some atmospheric moments that successfully capture the eerie incongruity of an ancient country estate living on into the 21st century.

Better writing might have inspired better acting, which in turn might have allowed the film to capitalise on at least some of its potential. But with Hardy’s screenplay essentially little more than a load of rambling nonsense devoid of drama or insight, so clearly lacking in the kind of vision that Anthony Shaffer’s script or David Pinner’s source novel brought to the original, it’s hard not to cry ‘abandon movie’ and head for the lifeboats long before the toothless conclusion hoves into view. The final straw for me was when it starts desperately throwing in supposedly audience-pleasing tropes from post-Chainsaw Massacre modern horror, but then fails to actually go the distance and give us any real gore or nastiness, and…

Aah, forget about it, who cares. I think this particular post-mortem has gone on long enough.

Hopefully in a couple of years memories of this one will have faded away, and we’ll be able to remember Robin Hardy as a man who at least made one really great film with the word ‘wicker’ in the title.


Kev D. said...

Seriously, I can't wait to see Troll Hunter.

"fuck me, that really IS a troll"


Vanessa Morgan said...

Hi! I was at FrightFest as well and saw both The Troll Hunter and The Wicker Tree. The Troll Hunter didn't work for me and I found it quite boring. As for The Wicker Tree, I liked the concept and themes that were quite similar to the original Wicker Man, but the introduction of humour was definitely a bad idea. Other movies I saw at FrightFest were Blood Runs Cold (amateurish), Fright Night 3D (commercial but hugely entertaining) and The Woman (brilliant). Looking forward to your other reviews.