6:30pm. Thursday, August 23rd, 2012. The Empire Cinema. Leicester Square. The world’s greatest horror film festival, Frightfest, kicked off its aptly titled 13th year – Frightfest the 13th – with a mixed bag of horror offerings as is per usual for just about any festival (unless you’re lucky). Unlike the snotty prestige of awards-courting festivals like Cannes, Toronto, Venice and London, Frightfest always has a warm, familial feel to it, such that if one takes a wander in the lobby prior to any film’s screening, you’re liable to find half the cast and crew out there talking with fans; note how Sean Pertwee, no small name himself, mingled at great length prior to the kicking off of the fest tonight.
The night began with an introduction from Ross Noble (whose own film, Stitches, receives its premiere tomorrow), who went on to make jokes about horror fans’ threshold for the insane, before jumping off to land some hilarious jibes about Frankie Boyle. Once the festival’s organisers – now known to longtime Frightfest attendees – said a quick hello, it was time to get on with the first film of the fest.
#1 – The Seasoning House
British master of make-up effects Paul Hyett (The Descent, The Woman in Black) has a go at directing in Frightfest’s opening film, The Seasoning House, a visceral, technically impressive effort that certainly gets points for gusto, but can’t quite get the blood pumping in the end. Hyett’s near-silent opening fifteen minutes set the tone from the outset, as a deaf mute girl named Angel (Rosie Day) navigates her way around her prison, a nightmarish Balkan brothel, and at the behest of her captors, helping keep the girls – each of them kidnapped and imprisoned there - defencelessly drugged up. In a strikingly-photographed flashback sequence, we see that Angel was brought there after a gang of vicious soldiers, led by the cruel Goran (Sean Pertwee), murdered her mother and sister in front of her eyes. When Goran and his buddies coincidentally show up at the brothel looking for a good time, Angel recognises a chance for revenge.
Though The Seasoning House is far from a great film – both slow and occasionally harbouring ill logic – it is an enticing calling card for its director, who not only manages to make RAF Uxbridge resemble the war-torn Balkans, but keeps the central and titular location compelling and mysterious through fluid camera-work, chasing Angel as she sneaks through the house’s various vents and shafts. On the flip side, Hyett’s overuse of dutch angles and slow motion reminds us that he’s still got lots to learn. The majority share of the plaudits should go to young Rosie Day, however, making her feature debut in diverting fashion, with a transfixing and challenging performance that asks her to say a lot without, well, really saying anything at all. Add to that the physical demands of the role – namely a messy fight with one of Goran’s hulking cronies – and you have a real scream queen in the making.
Although the intensity does ratchet up considerably in the final act, the film feels for the most part a little slow to get to where it wants to be. It also throws out one especially head-scratching moment right near the end, before we climax with a predictable – if quite amusing – sting in the tail. Hardly a terrible start to the festival, yet not the dynamite opener we might have hoped for, The Seasoning House is grim and beautiful to look at, but also plodding and occasionally illogical.