Frightfest 2017: Outliers

DHOGS

I’m a genre lightweight really, a dilettante. Of all the films I saw at Frightfest this year, only one – The Glass Coffin – could really be called a horror film, and that was probably the least of them. Why, I wasn’t even wearing a black T-shirt.

Dhogs isn’t horror either. Hard to know what it is really, apart from Spanish – although apparently no, not even that, it’s Galician. Its ambiguities were further enhanced by the fact that the Prince Charles (it’s always the Prince Charles) forgot to turn on the subtitles and had to stop it and start again.

The title is helpfully defined at the start as a compound word uniting dogs (defined as essentially passive) with hogs (defined as filthy and perverse). It doesn’t tell us where these creatures might be found but I suspect that the answer is: all around me. Does the director mean us? I think he does. Or me, at any rate.

Dhogs is a film that is anxious to acknowledge its audience. When a woman picks up a businessman in a bar and goes back to his hotel room, their encounter is observed by an auditorium full of people – it’s a bold move and outside of its self-reflexive implications around the complicity of the audience it has a real sense of the uncanny about it, even if the audience don’t look remotely like the one at Frightfest (no black T-shirts).

Aside from a few obscure digressions (a couple of blokes talking about the Marxist implications of Parcheesi; a male taxi driver donning women’s clothes to be filmed chopping meat) this largely sticks with this woman’s story as, following her one-night stand, she is kidnapped and taken out to the desert to be shot. She is saved, however, by a man who then puts on a rabbit mask and rapes her. Seeking help at a nearby gas station, she is locked in the toilet by the owner, who fancies her as a prospective daughter-in-law.

This may sound like a traumatic whirlwind of events but it unfolds at a stately pace which hopes to mesmerise and somewhat does. Eventually these events are revealed to be transpiring on some kind of interactive device, now under the control of a small boy, who gets to choose whether the woman escapes or suffers further abuse.

‘It will divide you’, promised the guy introducing this, and it did indeed divide me. Was this just a rehash of themes already explored by Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé or a boldly original statement by an exciting new talent? I really have no idea. There is at least the suggestion of a sense of humour, which Haneke is not know for. However, I would quite like to reserve judgement until the director Andrs Goteira’s next statement and luckily I can since no-one is reading this. Apart from you. I take it you’re OK with that though, Audience.

A GHOST STORY

Further compounding my disloyalty to genre I found that my favourite film of the weekend was this, on general release, which I took the opportunity to see at the Odeon Panton Street. It isn’t a horror film either, though technically it is a ghost story. A ghost’s story, even. Though maybe not enough of a ghost story to satisfy the couple who came in half an hour late and left half an hour early, and who might have been expecting something more along the lines of Annabel. This, however, uses a supernatural gimmick even more hackneyed than a possessed doll – and amazingly it works. It just doesn’t deliver many scares.

Casey Affleck is C, a musician in a relationship with M (Rooney Mara). They live in a possibly haunted house but no sooner have we got used to this idea than he is killed in a car crash. Unready for his demise, however, he gets up off the hospital gurney (still under the sheet) and returns home to haunt M and (moreover) the house. The sight of his sheeted presence balefully regarding his ex through the customary eye holes is effortlessly riveting somehow. She can’t see him, and he does little active haunting (outside of one poltergeistic tantrum after her departure). Still, the time just flies by, even during the very long scene where he watches her eat a pie and then throw it up.

If you were thinking that the sheeted figure symbolises her reluctance to let go, it comes as a surprise when she does let go, and (in a scene that would mark the end of a conventional film) drives off, leaving C behind to haunt the house. After this a Latino family speaking unsubtitled Spanish move in (it is they who witness his tantrum) and later Will Oldham plays a party guest holding forth on the futility of existence. Across the road is another ghost, in a patterned sheet. Observing each other through a window, they exchange the odd subtitled comment, without troubling our eardrums with actual sound.

Mainly, time passes – and at quite a lick.

The film is exquisitely lit and shot, and although it does threaten to get a bit too Terence Malick when our hero goes back in time, always maintains its deadpan charm and poignancy. Eventually (SPOILER ALERT) our ghost ‘dies’ – the sheet suddenly collapsing untenanted to the ground.

This sheet is quite interesting. Surely the only reason ghosts wear sheets is to make themselves visible, which C (if we can still call him that) clearly is not, so this brings up a whole question of the sheet’s nature – to what extent is it ‘real’? I can imagine writing a book-length treatise upon the metaphysical aspects of this sheet, and the ways in which it comments upon materialism (it’s noteworthy that in this film it is houses that are haunted, not people). On the other hand maybe director David Lowery (not to be confused with the lead singer of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) just decided one day to throw a sheet over his leading man and thought: yeah. This should work.

It does.

Should I try to explain it? The static sheeted figure says on the one hand that belief in ghosts is a silly, childish thing and on the other hand it says, quite explicitly, that, nonetheless, here is one. It evokes the melancholy of separation and also questions the possibility that identity could survive death, since who is under that sheet after all? Like sheeted furniture it evokes the sadness of forgotten things. Like Dhogs, it suggests an audience, looking on, as if the face under the sheet might even be our own.

Finally, however, it’s strength lies in that fact that Lowery unapologetically sticks with this goofy image until it becomes strangely profound. It can’t be explained away any more than I can really explain why this has become one of my favourite films of the year. It just is, OK?

THE LIFT (1983)

My other excursion off piste during Frightfest was to see this in Michael Blyth’s ‘Cult’ strand (long may it continue) at the BFI.

Like A Ghost Story, Dutch director Dick Maas’s film opts for an improbable spectre: a malevolent elevator. Given that he has had the chutzpah to go with this idea, you somehow assume that he will be able to pull it off. Sadly, not quite – this falls into the obvious trap that awaits any film about a lift, namely that even an evil lift can only go up and down. It isn’t going to be chasing you down any dark alleys. In order to be menaced by it you have to go to the building where it is, and even then you can always (as the posters urged) take the stairs.

In fact the scenes with the lift are very effective. There’s a palpable sense of menace and mischief as the lift suffocates a party of diners descending from the rooftop restaurant, causes a blind man to topple into the shaft by not being there when the doors open, or plays sinister games with a little girl and her doll.

The scenes away from the lift showing the lift operator hero’s domestic life, which he disrupts by hobnobbing with a female journalist as they investigate the lift’s mysterious workings, are perfectly well done but seem disconnected from the central threat, which fails to resonate much beyond the shaft that it is confined in.

The explanation turns out to be ‘scientific’ rather than supernatural, down to an operating system worked by ‘organic chips’ – no, not potato chips: microchips coated in quivering green jelly. This might have been plausible in the early ’80’s; now you wish they’d gone with good old reliable demonic possession. Demons don’t date.

LOW LIFE

Back to Frightfest for Ryan Prows’ blackly comic thriller that owes a lot to the Coen Brothers and Tarantino but still comes across as fresh and feisty. Its first scene, where illegal immigrants are rounded up by fake police and hauled off to have their organs ripped out and sold feels unnervingly true to ‘the current climate’.

The plot, centering around a woman trying to get a kidney for her dying husband on the black market, is kind of messy, as messy as the process of organ trafficking as depicted here. Indeed, you can’t help but feel that even black market transplants require a degree of organisational skill which the chief villain Teddy (Mark Burnham) does not seem to possess – hard to see anyone buying a used kidney from this man. Well, unless they were really desperate, and I suppose this is the point: Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the emotional centre of the film, is.

And if the film is a little messy, then so is life, and so are relationships, especially in this benighted part of LA, seemingly unvisited by the real police. The kidney sourced for Crystal’s husband is coming, so it transpires, from her (pregnant) daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) who doesn’t know Crystal is her mother and doesn’t know about the transplant either – Teddy, who is Kaylee’s adoptive father, seems to think nothing of arranging to have her kidnapped, and harvested.

By the end of the film I’d rather lost track of what Teddy was trying to accomplish, he just seemed to want to be as evil as he possibly could, but he’s undeniably a colourful character among a lot of other colourful characters, who include a Mexican wrestler called El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) who never takes off his mask and an ex-con called Randy (Jon Oswald) who emerges from prison with a swastika tattoo all over his face, though he only got it so he could fit in (‘You don’t know my struggle’ he protests when people react badly). In a neat transition at the end he turns into a flawed hero, adopting El Monstruo’s mask when he is (SPOILER ALERT) killed, in a scene that is surprisingly moving. After the initial organ snatch this is not an especially gory film but it sure has plenty of heart. I left Frightfest 2017 with a tear in my eye. Just the one though.

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