by Jane Clewett

December 24, 2019 Jane Clewett

The UK’s foremost horror film festival is celebrating its 20th year. As they prepare for their Halloween event, we take a look at two decades of FrightFest...

The first time I went to FrightFest, I didn’t think of myself as a horror fan. I liked vampires, and I would tell anyone who would sit still for it about the time I’d seen The Woman in Black on stage and then couldn’t sleep until the sun came up, but I didn’t know much about the genre as a whole. However, FrightFest was hosting the first UK screening of Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch and I was desperate to see it, having fallen in love with its predecessor, Night Watch.

The film was preceded by a surprise short (In the Walls, a funny but genuinely unsettling story about a killer fetus) and a brief Q&A with its director. The atmosphere in the room was relaxed and eager; the audience both wanted to be pleased and were pretty sure they would be. At the end of Day Watch‘s biggest action set piece, a gravity-defying motorcycle chase, the crowd spontaneously applauded — something I’d never experienced in a cinema before.

More than ten years later, I do call myself a horror fan — but I’m not sure I’d call Day Watch a horror movie. It’s more of a hybrid, existing on the borders of action and thriller, fantasy and horror. As such, though, Day Watch fits in perfectly with what I now think of as a quintessential FrightFest experience. My first time out, I got all the hallmarks of the festival: a UK premiere; some surprise bonus content; interaction with creators; and a film which, while crowd-pleasing, illustrates how broad and permeable the boundaries of the horror genre are.

What is FrightFest?

FrightFest is the UK’s biggest horror film festival. It first ran for four days over the August bank holiday weekend of the year 2000, hosted by the Prince Charles Cinema. The festival was organised by the team who continue to run it today: film producer Paul McEvoy, distributor Ian Rattray, and journalist Alan Jones (publicist Greg Day joined as a co-director in 2006). Jones had previously run the Scala Cinema’s ‘Shock Around the Clock’ festival in the 80s, and later programmed a horror season for the British Film Institute called ‘Fantasm’ — an event he afterwards considered mismatched to the ‘rarefied’ atmosphere of the National Film Theatre. FrightFest was to be a more ambitious undertaking than either of these; the intention was to create a horror fantasy festival which could compete with the likes of Sitges or the comprehensively-named Brussels International Fantasy Fantastic, Thriller and Science Fiction Film Festival.

It quickly became clear that there was a UK market to meet this ambition. To accommodate increasing demand for tickets, the festival moved to the Odeon Leicester Square in 2005, and then to the UK’s largest cinema screen at the Empire Cinema in 2009. Following some last-minute additional screenings in preceding years, the festival’s running time officially increased from four days to five in 2007. Today, FrightFest takes place across six screens in Cineworld Leicester Square and its original home the Prince Charles Cinema, with one main screen line-up and three competing ‘discovery’ screens. It features more than 70 films in addition to interviews, previews and short film showcases. The FrightFest umbrella now also includes FrightFest Glasgow, a three day event in March, the single day FrightFest Halloween, and FrightFest Presents, a distribution label.

What makes a FrightFest film?

The only thing all FrightFest films have in common is that they’ve been watched (and presumably liked) by one of the festival’s directors. English-language films predominate, but a typical five day line-up will include one or two films in other languages even if you never venture beyond the main screen. Most of the films will be new, but a couple will be genre classics — of either the beloved or the forgotten variety. A few major upcoming releases are featured, but they’re outnumbered by smaller, more independent films looking forward to much more limited distribution. For some, their screenings at FrightFest will be the only time they see the inside of a UK cinema.

Most interestingly, the festival’s organisers interpret their ‘fantasy horror’ remit very broadly. They certainly don’t shy away from slashers, monsters, ultraviolence, or the latest instalments of horror franchises like Chucky or Puppetmaster. On the other hand, they’re equally happy to feature movies that break away from the horror mould. This year’s festival closed with crime drama A Good Woman Is Hard To Find — a wonderfully tense, oppressive film, but one that could only possibly be called horror because of the extremes of violence the protagonist is forced to in the third act. Previous offerings have included They Call Me Jeeg, an Italian deconstruction of superhero tropes, Anna and the Apocalypse, the self-styled ‘zombie Christmas musical’, and Steve Oram’s frankly unclassifiable Aaaaaaaah!, a story about a modern society with the mores of cavemen. The discovery screen line-ups have also featured a number of documentaries about horror films, filmmakers, and fans, including the charming Best Worst Movie (about the cast and fans of Troll 2) and last year’s very funny King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.

Should you go to FrightFest?

There are three levels of FrightFest tickets: single films, day passes, and weekend passes, covering the whole five days of the festival. Pass holders are automatically entitled to see every film on the main screen; they can also enter a lottery to see films they’re interested in on the discovery screens. The festival isn’t cheap, but it’s not outrageously expensive; the £15 price for single tickets is roughly on a par with the £10-20 an individual ticket at the London Film Festival costs.

Whether the festival is worth it to you depends very much on your tastes. Despite my own positive early experience, I wouldn’t recommend FrightFest to non-horror fans, or even to people who feel unsure about the genre. There are plenty of individual films that might appeal to fans of crime, thrillers, genre pastiches, or fantasy, but the festival as a whole assumes that you like horror, and you’re likely to see some fairly graphic violence and splatter in trailers, advertising, and even the festival idents. In addition, there’s never a guarantee that the film on the schedule is the only thing you’re going to see — any showing might also include a surprise short film, television pilot, or sneak preview of an upcoming movie. These can be a wonderful bonus for fans! But for people planning to see something just within the levels of their tolerance they could be an unwelcome addition. If you don’t like gore it’s also worth noting that FrightFest screenings tend to be uncut versions of the film in question; even if you know a film is going to be released in the UK as a 15, the version you watch at FrightFest could well have 18-rated content.

As mentioned above, FrightFest’s programming is broad and eclectic. A typical day’s line-up might include something genuinely scary, something that leans more towards comedy, something that clings tightly to genre tropes, and something that you barely register as horror at all. It would be pretty unusual to see two films from the same subgenre on the same day unless you actively went looking for them. If you are generally picky about your horror, FrightFest may not be the festival for you.

For me, though, FrightFest’s eclecticism is its greatest strength. It’s a unique and joyous experience to settle down for a full day of movies having almost no idea what you’re going to get, and be swept along for the ride. The festival’s focus on smaller productions also means that FrightFest gives you the chance to see films you mightn’t otherwise see in a cinema — or possibly at all! Some of my favourite films of the last decade have been my ‘film of the festival’ at FrightFest, and later went straight to streaming services, where I would never have known I ought to look for them. The festival’s other big draw is its friendly atmosphere; clap for the films you enjoyed, chat to their creators and the festival organisers, and introduce yourself to your fellow attendees — they’ll generally be very happy to talk to you.

FrightFest is not for everyone. It’s not even for every horror fan. But bring an open mind and a strong stomach, and you just might have the time of your life.

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