FrightFest: Blood Moon

Blood MoonWORDS Kevan Farrow

Set in late 19th century Colorado and relying on Native American mythology for its central premise, Blood Moon represents an unusual take on the werewolf film. Director Jeremy Wooding has dabbled with western motifs before — albeit in a modern setting — in his previous film The Magnificent Eleven, but here he goes all out with a period piece set in Old West towns and featuring an ensemble of archetypal western characters.

The film’s narrative is sparked with a violent bank robbery perpetrated by the unhinged Norton Brothers, who immediately flee the scene. Guessing where they are headed, local lawman Wade decides to follow them to a small, abandoned town by the name of Pine Flats, enlisting the help of a local Native American woman named Black Deer. Shortly after setting out, Black Deer tells Wade about ‘skin-walkers’ — people banished from their tribe for practicing shape-shifting, and who are active on nights like tonight, when a blood moon hangs in the sky. Meanwhile a group of travellers passing through Pine Flats is taken captive by the outlaws, but although tensions between the brothers and their prisoners run high, outside lurks a far bigger, hairier threat, intent on killing the group one by one.

The performances make what could have been stock characters individual and very watchable. Anna Skellern is a joy to watch as sassy, streetwise widow Marie, and gonzo Canadian comic Tony Law puts in a hugely enjoyable turn as coachman Yancy. Barnsley-born Shaun Dooley seems to be steering his roles more and more towards horror, having appeared in Eden Lake, The Awakening and The Woman in Black, and brings a real conviction to his role as the moody and mysterious Calhoun. The actors are however given a hell of a starting point with a sharp script brimming with snappy dialogue — “You couldn’t find your ass in the dark if it was on fire” — which makes for a world where characters effortlessly espouse witty one-liners and cutting comebacks. This can admittedly get a little wearisome, but does frequently force a wry smile from the viewer.

The skin-walker itself is more or less your classic modern werewolf: towering, thick with hair and frighteningly well-clawed. Its attacks are swift and bloody, though wounds are rarely leered upon by the camera, the kinetic flurry of the violence favoured over gore content. The few shots we get of bodily transformation are controlled but impressive, with practical effects very much leading the way. Also, the set design is fantastic, and highly ambitious for such a modestly budgeted film. Mud roads are lined with shack-like saloons and swinging wooden signs, and interiors are lavishly decorated and cluttered with period trinkets.

But, while undeniably quite remarkable in overall aesthetic, Blood Moon seems to build to a climax which never fully materialises. The narrative closure makes perfect sense, and the film has a well-controlled pace, it just feels like this needs to be forced to a breaking point, exploding into a more frenzied final confrontation between the surviving characters and the beast. Blood Moon is however very difficult not to like, with its matching of period authenticity and monster-movie motifs.

Blood Moon screens today at 13.00

FrightFest: The House at the End of Time

WORDS Rich Wilson

The House at the End of TimeYou’d think there’s not a lot of mileage left in the old-dark-house scenario, but The House at the End of Time is a genuine surprise. Not only is this Venezuelan production genuinely chilling, it offers a new variation on a classic theme, partly through a clever script that pulls the metaphorical rug from beneath the audience’s feet on more than one occasion, and also from a superb lead performance from Ruddy Rodriguez, who takes her character on a 30-year journey through the supernatural.

Writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo shows his influences — there’s a lot of Hammer here, as well as more recent fare like The Others — and creates some real atmosphere, particularly in the opening act when mother Dulce (Rodriguez) searches frantically for her missing child, and instead finds the body of her husband, whose murder she is convicted for. Three decades later she is released under house arrest, locked inside the titular homestead both physically and mentally. As she starts to recall fond memories of the past, with regular visits from a priest in an attempt to restore her faith in God, the truth is gradually revealed through a series of supernatural visits.

When The House at the End of Time works, as it does often, it’s a superbly constructed film with real depth and layers just waiting to be peeled away, with an emotional core often missing from this genre. Told from multiple angles and viewpoints, it’s guesswork until the end, and the film contains several standout set pieces: a séance that throws the screen into complete darkness and relies only on sound — an aspect often criminally overlooked in horror — is guaranteed to raise the heckles. It’s hard to believe this is Hidalgo’s first feature; there’s real talent on display here which marks him as a serious director to watch.

The House at the End of Time screens today at 20.45

FrightFest: Doc of the Dead

Doc of the DeadWORDS James Gracey

Attempting to explore why contemporary society has so embraced the figure of the zombie, Doc of the Dead arguably doesn’t really have anything new to say, but there’s no denying that all involved in its making share a genuine enthusiasm and passion for the subject, which, like the zombie itself, proves rather infectious.

Alexandre O. Philippe isn’t just interested in the popularity of zombie cinema, but this is his jumping-off point. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its eerie somnambulistic antagonist, is cited as an early example of the zombie in its most traditional form: a pitiful being forced into subservience by those who have taken away its freewill. An all too brief glance at early examples of films highlights White Zombie, generally regarded as the first horror to feature them, but does no justice to Jacques Tourneur’s poetic masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie; summing it up with a throwaway quip describing it as being “about black people menacing white women”, Philippe doesn’t take into account the subtle subversions of stereotypes and race representations evident in this Val Lewton produced classic. Another gripe is that fascinating genre crossovers from the 1950s, such as Invisible Invaders and Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space, which posited zombies in sci-fi scenarios, are merely mentioned before Doc of the Dead quickly moves on to, again all too briefly, touch upon the traditional aspects of zombie and voodoo lore. In a fascinating (but brisk) interview, Max Beauvoir, a high priest of Haitian Vodou, provides some background information on the traditional African folklore surrounding zombies.

The tone is consistently light throughout, and many of the contributors — including George Romero, Alex Cox, Robert Kirkman, Simon Pegg, Bruce Campbell, Stuart Gordon (whose splatter hit Re-Animator and the H.P. Lovecraft story it is based upon are criminally ignored), Gregory Nicotero and Tom Savini — have their tongues wedged firmly in their cheeks. All clearly adore the subject matter though, as evidenced in the heated debates concerning fast versus slow zombies, and the difference between an ‘infection’ film (28 Days Later) and a traditional ‘undead’ film (Night of the Living Dead, etc). A lot of time is given over to hearing about the contributors’ zombie invasion contingency plans (Bruce Campbell’s in particular is hilariously frank), and this is enhanced by various boffins discussing how conceivable viral outbreaks are, and how quickly society could collapse.

Another area glossed over is how Romero has moulded the perception of the shambling zombie as it continues to infiltrate pop culture. For all the credit heaped upon Romero, his films are only covered in around a quarter of the running time, and his more recent work isn’t even looked at. Romero suffused his films with barbed social and political commentary, and this is acknowledged in discussions of how the rise in the popularity of zombie-orientated entertainment has paralleled various civil crises, such as the Y2K scare, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and mass outbreaks of swine flu; crises that seem to have spurred society to crave more extreme forms of cathartic entertainment. This is hardly news though and has been covered before in the likes of Adam Simon’s American Nightmare.

Criticisms aside, Doc of the Dead is a decent and light-hearted introduction and jumping-off point for anyone new to zombies, and it should provide them with just enough know-how to cope when the dead do begin to rise and feast on the flesh of the living… Any day now.

Doc of the Dead screens today at 15.30