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Frightfest 2019 review: we can’t wait to go back!

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Frightfest has come a long way since it began in 2000. The festival now plays over five screens with over 75 films to entice attendees, ranging from grounded thrillers to out-and-out horrors and intriguing indie sci-fis. 2019 was my debut year as a full festival attendee, having first fallen in love with the festival at a screening of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List

And what a terrific weekend it was.

Day 1: Thursday

As I stepped through the door of Cineworld Leicester Square, I was hit with a wave of excitement. I couldn’t quite believe that Frightfest was here and the treats that lay ahead of me. There was a bustle of activity, but it was easy to locate my weekend pass and accompanying bag (packed with a wealth of treats including an ultra-rare three-disc Blu ray of Dawn of the Dead). 

Seat located it was time to watch the first film of the weekend. Frightfest began with an evening triple that felt particularly strong: a world premiere and the directorial debut from Ant Timpson (producer of The Greasy Strangler, Deathgasm and Turbo Kid) as well as a pair of Hollywood previews (Crawl and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark). After these three, we left filled with excitement and confidence that this was going to be an excellent festival line-up.

Film of the day: Come To Daddy – As a son attempted to impress his estranged father, the film spent much of its running time wrong-footing an audience who weren’t quite sure what to expect. At times heart-breaking, at others deliciously violent, it also contained perhaps the funniest line of the festival.

Sadly missed: Rock, Paper and Scissors – On a lighter day for Discovery films, Rock, Paper and Scissors stood out. The pick from Argentina offers a dark look at a warped family and sounds like an intriguing watch.

Day 2: Friday

From three films to six, Friday was the first full day of the festival. It started with a difficult choice, a four-way split with each screen offering something worth an audience’s time (ambitious British sci-fi, Tunisia’s first horror, slasher fare from the writer’s of A Quiet Place, a classy horror set on the American frontier). I went for the latter and The Wind proved an effective little chillier and the first pleasant surprise of the festival. And this was the mark of the day. 

There were a few disappointments – hyped films that left me cold. But the surprises are the ones that linger, the films that I was unfamiliar with proving to be the highlights of the festival.

Film of the day: Harpoon – Sometimes all you want is a film about a group of horrible people doing horrible things to each other. And Harpoon does exactly that, perfectly slotted in as the evening film on the Discovery screen. A delightfully violent romp, with a hilarious voice over from Brett Gelman (Fleabag, Stranger Things), Harpoon immediately became one of my favourites of the festival.

Sadly missed: Freaks – Having debuted at Frightfest Glasgow, Freaks received a much-deserved showing in the main festival, proving a ticket impossible to come by. An indie sci-fi with a killer premise and oodles of twists in the telling, it gave many of us FOMO at missing out on such a festival must-see.

Day 3: Saturday

Saturday is the day when festival fatigue sets in, where I found myself far more irritable when it came to the films I caught. But the day still has highlights: a pair of debuts sandwich the day, leaving a strong impression. A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is a terrific Brit flick and I Trapped the Devil has a nightmarish atmosphere, a palpable tension and a terrific set-up (a man claims to have the Devil locked in his basement). Plus, I caught the Arrow Video Podcast, which proved an opportunity to further wallow in the genre love that makes Frightfest so great.

Film of the day: A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life – I immediately fell in love with A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life. Like Sightseers with more heart or a more violent Thelma & Louise, the film follows the shy Louise who is taken under the wing of life coach (and serial killer) Val for a road trip across the South of England. A funny, oddly sweet, cathartic watch powered by a pair of terrific turns, this is the kind of film you hope will find a wider audience outside of the festival screening.

Sadly missed: Death of a Vlogger – Sneaking into many peoples’ films of the festival, Death of a Vlogger feels like a fascinating modern horror, embracing the terror of a life spent online. This is another terrific debut given wider exposure by this festival.

Day 4: Sunday

A lighter day for me (family commitments meant the first two slots were missed), so I was able to shake off the Saturday fatigue with ease. Sunday was marked by the best double of the festival, a pairing that thrilled and chilled in equal measures. Daniel Isn’t Real was my film of the festival, while Ready or Not was a hilarious, tense, cathartic joy, with a post-wedding family tradition that turns violent. 

Film of the day: Daniel Isn’t Real – Here’s a film that makes the entire Frightfest journey worth it. A demented imaginary friend flick, it began as a strange, fitfully funny watch before becoming darker and even cosmic. There is much in here about mental illness and toxic masculinity, without losing what makes the film so scary. The pairing of Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger is a superb choice, with Schwarzenegger bringing a cool, dangerous swagger to the part that feels like the actor’s Tyler Durden moment. Daniel Isn’t Real is the film that lingered for me, terrifying in its final act and the one I haven’t stopped talking about since.

Sadly missed: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers – Frightfest is a mix of more mainstream genre fare with more esoteric choices. Here’s a lost 80s Japanese musical that feels immediately destined for cult status.

Day 5: Monday

And just like that, almost as soon as it has started, Frightfest reaches the end with the most consistent day of the weekend. 

Each of the five films I saw had something to recommend them. For We Are Many was a fascinating idea (thirteen shorts each focusing on a different demon) with some interesting execution. Satanic Panic was a weirder, gloopier watch than expected with a strong strand of body horror. Tales From the Lodge proved a lovely treat, a funny wallow in British horror. Rabid was an effective remake of a cult classic and the final film was a festival highlight.

Film of the day: A Good Woman is Hard to Find – Frightfest saved the best of the day for the last, ending as it began with a violent, powerful thriller. Abner Pastoll directs the tale of a single mum in Belfast coming to terms with her partner’s murder with aplomb, giving the film gravitas and emotional heft to match its austerity-era relevance. All this and one of the performances of the weekend, with Sarah Bolger giving an emotionally-grounded, complicated turn.

Sadly missed: The Barge People/The Perished – The third slot of the day offered a wealth of choices, with two of the smaller films being particularly difficult tickets to come by. Charlie Steeds’ violent, 80s-hued The Barge People, looks a delightful throwback, as fish people interrupt two couples’ weekend getaway. Paddy Murphy’s The Perished offers a unique look at a traumatic topic in Northern Ireland, coupled with one of the monsters of the festival. Both have become immediate must-sees to seek out after the festival.

And with that Frightfest comes to a close, with 22 films watched across 6 days. 

You leave remembering the great watches, the lovely people you chatted to (Frightfest is one of the friendliest festivals I’ve attended) and with plans to attend again. And again. And again – the addiction is immediate. 

Once you’ve been to Frightfest, you can’t see a year without it in your life.

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