The Bottom Shelf: Frightfest, Faults and Killer Klowns

Indie horror Faults and Venezuelan chiller The House At The End Of Time are two of the films in this month's Bottom Shelf...

Summer holidays, barbecues on the beach and weekends decimated by relentless weddings: this is August for some. For other, more discerning types, it is about Frightfest, otherwise known as the chance to spend those rare sunny days ensconced in a darkened room for a horror movie marathon. This year’s Leicester Square event featured the usual mix of gonzo gore, copycat-killings and premiere screenings of future favourites; we managed to catch a few highlights.

The latest film from writer and director Riley Stearns (Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s husband, fact fans), Faults, received a European premiere last month. Massively enjoyable from start to finish, Stearns’ black comedy mostly eschews the genre necessity of scattergun bloody slayings in favour of an intelligent script focusing on the gaping voids left in desperate characters’ lives.

Perennial underrated character actor Leland Orser (Alien: Resurrection) for once takes centre-stage as he plays a down-on-his-luck religious cult specialist hired to abduct and ‘deprogram’ a middle-aged couple’s 20-something daughter (Winstead), who has apparently been brain-washed by the mysterious ‘Faults’ group of fanatics. 

With an often tragicomically brilliant performance from Orser, alongside Ramona Flowers herself at her deceptively alluring best, the film’s real strength lies in its casting, with familiar faces Beth Grant (Donnie Darko), Lance Reddick (The Wire), Jon Gries (Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite) and Chris Ellis (The Dark Knight Rises) all on top form. 

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Building tension in a semi-realist manner, this slow-burning curiosity stood out for its skillful manipulation of the viewer’s expectations and sometimes hilariously bleak subject matter. Mixing subtly-nuanced yet brutal insight with the odd sheer physical, well, brutality, Faults demands to be seen.

A little less subtle was the self-styled “slasher-musical” Stage Fright from Jerome Sable, the director of silly singalong short The Legend Of Beaver Dam. Essentially a high-camp attempt at fusing the savagery of masked-baddie movies (Friday The 13th’s Camp Crystal Lake an obvious reference point) to wittily postmodern musicals in the vein of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, this entertainingly stagey romp is nothing if not ambitious.

The film opens with an opera star (Minnie Driver) encountering a mysterious killer in her dressing room. Ten years down the line and Driver’s twin son and daughter, now teenagers, are working in a summer stage school for precocious brats. Meat Loaf (okay, he’s not called that in the film but who cares?) is the siblings’ stepdad who runs the camp and agrees to stage a production of the thinly-veiled Phantom send-up, The Haunting of the Opera, 10 years after Driver starred in the ill-fated show. 

Driver’s daughter (a stand-out performance from Allie McDonald) now auditions to star in the feudal Japanese spin on the original, complete with Gilbert and Sullivan-style numbers, which is where our killer, the cleverly-named Metal Killer comes in. Face hidden by kabuki mask and each murder accompanied with screeched 80s metal vocals, the unknown assailant’s USP is that he hates musical theatre, prompting many laugh-out-loud stabs of hair-metal madness.

Though undoubtedly good fun, Sable’s film sadly collapses a little under its own ambition. In trying to be everything to everyone, the delicate balancing act doesn’t quite pay-off. For all the knowing (sometimes scathing) theatrical reference to Sondheim and co, there’s an awful lot of unfunny, dull soap opera whinging from our young leads. The lyrics burst with amusing ideas, though the songwriting itself remains bereft of the necessary hooks, just like much of the oddly bloodless build-up to the underwhelming final massacre.

Still, the Metal Killer is a great addition to the slasher gang and Meat is good value (there’s a joke about supermarkets and horse fraud somewhere in there) in this inferior cousin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cannibal: The Musical.

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Oddly lacking in the song-and-dance numbers was the last of the Frightfest highlights, Venezuelan director Alejandro Hidalgo’s tale of child murder and the grieving process, The House At The End Of Time. Apparently the first horror feature to make it out of Venezuela and onto western shores (this was its UK premiere), this glossy haunted house flick is easily the equal of its million European equivalents.

Former Miss Venezuela Ruddy Rodriguez affectingly plays Dulce, a mother imprisoned for the murder of her husband and son, who recalls none of what happened. When released 30 years later to the same house she used to live in, various things go bump in the night as the mystery unravels.

Nice production values (you wouldn’t be surprised to see Guillermo Del Toro Presents somewhere on the poster) and some decent shocks from the talented Hidalgo are given a human edge by touching performances, particularly from the charismatic child actors. The House At The End Of Time emerges as classy as similar Hollywood fare though hampered just as badly by that genre’s familiar ludicrously silly plot-twists (we’re talking Shyamalan-level here) and exhaustingly drawn-out end reveal. 

All of this Spanish-language creepiness is well and good, you might ask, but where the hell are the demon-fighting ninjas you came here for? Thankfully, this shocking lack of masked martial-artists is rectified this month by SFX journeyman Lloyd Lee Barnett’s post-apocalyptic bargain-basement brawl Ninja Apocalypse on DVD.

Loosely following the Raid and Dredd template of ‘group of tough guys battling their way up and out of a bad situation’, translated to an underground nuclear bunker, there’s something going on here to do with post-nuclear war clans of ninjas, zombies and mutants kicking the shit out of each other for some reason or other. Throw in some cheap spooky effects and a cameo from Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung (don’t tell me you don’t remember that name), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and you have a forgettable batch of Z-list chop-socky ridiculousness.

Also dealing with the aftermath of Armageddon this month is the UK Blu-Ray debut of Thom Eberhardt’s 80s cheese-fest Night Of The Comet. A curious mash-up of The Omega Man and The Breakfast Club, two teenage sisters and a boy they meet (Robert Beltran/a young Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager), are apparently the sole survivors of a poisonous red mist that has vaporized most of humanity and left the rest as Matheson-esque bad’uns.

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With some terrible 80s pop on the soundtrack (anyone remember Skip Adams? Thought not) alongside shopping montages and idiotic permed rebellion, this sci-fi-zombie malarkey has plenty of laughably bad moments. Still, Eberhardt’s use of red-filter over eerily deserted US streets offers some genuinely haunting images that nearly match the ace cover artwork so much of the film sadly falls short of. Throw in a pleasantly sinister appearance from Clint Eastwood’s sidekick Geoffrey Lewis as an iffy scientist and you have an uneven yet sometimes compelling doomsday  John Hughes rites-de-passage movie.

More earthbound and infinitely less agreeable is the irritating found-footage also-ran Raised By Wolves, about an utterly detestable group of skater-kids (one of them former porn star Jenna Haze, which does nothing to redeem the Butcher Brothers’ film) who discover a dodgy-looking cabin in the middle of the Californian desert.

In a way, it’s a shame that this is the same month that we cover the sublime Faults, as Raised By Wolves will always come up stinking against such quality. This DVD covers slightly similar ground (a Manson Family-esque cult has a profound effect on vulnerable individuals), though presents it in such a clichéd, unimaginative way (dark landscapes and shaky camera?) that, by the end, you’ll find yourself wishing you’d been one of that group’s victims.

Banishing that unpleasantness to the great chasm at the edge of the world, we finish this month’s round-up with something far more succulent, the Chiodo Brothers’ 80s kind-of-classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space. This was the siblings’ 1988 debut, chronicling the emotional journey of a group of aliens that land on earth and are misunderstood because of their close resemblance to grotesque circus clowns. You should probably take ‘emotional journey’ to mean ‘bloody rampage’ and ‘misunderstood’ to mean ‘not misunderstood’, but you get the drift. 

Adhering to that grand tradition of getting punk acts to provide the main theme, sure enough, LA’s The Dickies do the honours this time round as massive clown puppets are wrangled clumsily around a small backwoods town, covering residents in candy floss and offing the rest in progressively more inventive ways.

With a cool circus-themed spaceship and puppets, pervy ice cream-men brothers along for the ride for some reason and a hero named Mike Tobacco, what’s not to like? That is, assuming you don’t need a decent script, characters or plot, right? Anyway, with The Return Of The Killer Klowns From Outer Space In 3D rumoured to be in production, the prospect of these red-nosed bastards hitting our screens again in three glorious dimensions is nothing short of wonderful.

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