Phoenix FearCon 2012

The Holding (2011)

Rating: B

Dir: Susan Jacobson
Star: Kierston Wareing, Vincent Regan, Skye Lourie, David Bradley

Cassie Naylor (Wareing) struggles to manage her smallholding in the Derbyshire Peak district, since the disappearance of her husband. What the locals don’t know is, she buried him in a remote spot on the moors in the middle of the night, for reasons that are, at least initially, unexplained. Despite the part-time help of veteran farmhand Cooper (Bradley), Cassie and her two daughters are on the verge of giving up, when an ‘angel’ arrives, in the shape of transient Aden (Regan, who looks like a roughed-up version of Gerard Butler). He’s prepared to help out around the farm, in exchange for board and lodgings, though the teenage Hannah (Lourie) quickly decides his intentions are more about getting “into my mum’s knickers”. While he proves fiercely loyal to anyone who poses a threat, it turns out that doesn’t scratch the surface: he is a great deal more unbalanced. Not only is the new employee intent on turning the Naylors into “his” family, Aden also knows a great deal more about the secrets they keep than he should. How is that possible, for someone whom they’ve never met before?

Crisply put together, this is clearly influenced by The Stepfather, but adds enough new ingredients to the mix to become an example of Britsh pastoral horror, not dissimilar to Straw Dogs. What seems initially a lush, inviting countryside, gradually degenerates into a dark, water-drenched nightmare, as the truth gradually becomes apparent of the danger in to which Cassie has put her family. This kind of thing can often come off as contrived, but it helps that the protagonists here generally behave in a way not too dissimilar from the way intelligent people would – which is a lot rarer for the genre than you’d hope. It’s subtle when it needs to be subtle then, when it has finished with the tension thing, ramps up the action for a no-holds barred battle, that is more than adequately satisfactory. Helped by good performances from the leads – even Lourie, who could easily be just the irritating brat she appears to start with – this is a slick, yet still uniquely British, twist on survival horror.

The House with 100 Eyes (2013)

Rating: B

Dir: Jay Lee, Jim Roof
Star: Jim Roof, Shannon Malone, Larissa Lynch, Liz Burghdorf

Snuff movie-maker Ed (Roof) and his equally-deranged wife Susan (Malone) have decided to make their magnum opus. A triple-killing in their house, which has been converted into an inescapable fortress, wired for sound and vision in every room. To this end, and after a few false starts trying to acquire talent for their new production, they bring in three young ‘strays’: Jamie (Lynch), Crystal (Burghdorf) and Clutch (Andew Hopper). Initially, the trio think it’s just going to be a porn film, but when one of them has second thoughts, they soon discover the fate Ed and Sue have in store for them: “You’re already dead,” says the latter in response to a plea for freedom. However, the shoot doesn’t go quite the way Ed wanted, and in a fit of rage, he makes a mistake that could be his undoing – which, in this company, is likely to be a fatal error.

This started off looking like it was going to be more found-footage pseudo-snuff, along the lines of dreck like the Amateur Porn Star Killer series. Fortunately, in terms of both style and content, that was soon dispelled in favor of something much more disturbing: in fact, the words “This is supremely fucked-up” passed my lips on more than one occasion. The two leads are genuinely scary: Ed can calmly discuss the tactics and methods one minute, then erupt into psychotic rage the next, and there are enough hints about Susan’s past to make it possible she may actually be the more lethal of the two, simply because she can appear so absolutely normal, almost maternal at times. In some ways, this is an example of the much-derided “torture porn”, though the actual torture is more mental than physical, even if a sequence involving a nail is still pretty harrowing. There’s an impressively sick and twisted creativity at work here, with elements which will stick in the mind for a lot longer than many of its colleagues.

Inbred (2011)

Rating: B+

Dir: Alex Chandon
Star: Jo Hartley, Seamus O’Neill, Nadine Rose Mulkerrin, James Burrows

Four “troubled youths” and their two care counsellors head off for a weekend of team- and character-building in the remote Yorkshire moors, much to the chagrin of the kids, who are unused to the countryside, being separated from their mobile phones and having to interact with normal people. Not that there are exactly many of those to be found: it’s not long before they encounter the locals at the neighbourhood pub, ‘The Dirty Hole’, and the landlord, Jim (O’Neill). Oh, he seems friendly enough, though his home-made pork scratchings have an unusual flavour, and the rest of the folk appear to have been wading in the shallow end of the gene pool, if you know what I mean. The next day, the group set out for their work in a yard of abandoned railway carriages, but a noble, if misguided, attempt to stop an apparent case of animal cruelty leads to a confrontation, and things then rapidly escalate from there. The residents clearly have little patience for outsiders, and have a particular way of dealing with them, turning their deaths into Grand Guignol theatre.

Wow. Alex Chandon is one sick little puppy. That’s clear from the get-go, which will have you wondering whether you are watching the wrong film…for about 90 seconds. After that, things calm down in terms of manic slaughter for a bit, though there’s no shortage of unease, and bad enough signs that you’ll find yourself yelling “Get out! GET OUT!” at the screen. Of course, they don’t until it’s just too late, and from there on, this plays like Frontières or Sheitan, directed by the League of Gentlemen. To some extent, it becomes an exercise in spotting references, and criticism of it being derivative is fair enough: you’ll be able to see any number of other influences, from the nude organist of Monty Python, through to Texas Chainsaw and even Todd Browning’s Freaks [with one of the yokels being played by Thalidomide-affected performance artist Mat Fraser]. But there’s still plenty of originality on view, and the technical skill on view is remarkable, especially given almost all the effects are in-camera rather than CGI – you’ll find yourself rewinding more than once to see if you can spot the join. And you won’t.

We actually were genuinely surprised with the level of performances, which can often be over-looked in this genre – it’s probably the biggest improvement over Chandon’s previous work. Hartley, as the rather more sensible counsellor, initially seems like a soft touch, but the more things disintegrate, the greater the degree of steel shown by her character. However, it’s O’Neill who steels the show, sliding effortlessly from the group’s friend to their nemesis with one swipe of the cleaver, when all around him are chewing it up [justifiably, admittedly]. He certainly deserves to stand alongside Brian Glover from American Werewolf in terms of great pub landlords in the history of British genre cinema. Between this and The Holding, the line “It’s grim up North” seems to have been particularly appropriate at this year’s FearCon…

Zero Killed (2012)

Rating: B

Dir: Michal Kosakowski

For the past 15 years, the director has been asking people about their murder fantasies, and giving them the chance to act them out in staged scenarios – with the sole stipulation that they, themeselves, must take part, either as victims or killers. These films are mixed here in to interviews with the participants, who provide their personal perspectives on their fantasies, and also express opinions on other death-related topics, such as capital punishment, and whether they’d be able to take revenge on the perpetrator if someone dear to them was killed. The results are chilling, not least because of the absolute normality of the participants: no criminal records, and the final sequence shows their professions, ranging from farmer to English teacher, and none of them would exactly be the kind you would expect to have such morbid thoughts.

Mind you, perhaps I am surprised by them, because I have genuinely never harboured such fantasies myself. Is that because I have seen so many murder-death-kills on the screen over the last two decades or more? The fantasies, and the interviews, are a bit of a mixed bag, but the former are likely more successful than the latter, Some of them are incredibly effective, feeling almost as if a camera happened to be present during a genuine murder. The level of gore on view is, perhaps surprisingly, not directly correlated to their success: perhaps the one which will stick in my mind most is someone commiting suicide by taking cyanide. I still would need to be convinced that wasn’t real.

The interviews are less effective, as it’s not always the case that the targets necessarily have anything interesting to say. However, sometimes they do, and when they are explaining the motivation behind their fantasies, in a matter-of-fact way, it’s still a disturbing glimpse into the darknest abyss of the human psyche – for instance, when one cheerfully admits to what can only be described as a literal God complex. It’s difficult to view without coming away possessing a more jaundiced view of your fellow citizens, wondering how many of them harbour elaborate fantasies about snuffing out life.