Ever since its first event in 2000, FrightFest has served up a wealth of fascinating horror and horror-adjacent films across the August Bank Holiday weekend. Some are highly anticipated, but many grow from word of mouth as the unsuspecting audiences discover gems worth recommending. As a result whilst many become cult-classics released on boutique labels, some unfortunately fall through the cracks of distribution.
With the 22nd edition of the festival coming up, it’s the perfect time to highlight the best the fest has had to offer. And to celebrate both those which are readily available in the UK, and those which are harder to track down, we’ll be running down the Top 5 in each category.
Top 5 FrightFest films… available in the UK
5: Audition (1999)
If you aren’t familiar with this subversive gem from prolific director Takashi Miike, a first viewing may make one pause to wonder if they’re watching the correct film. Seven years after his wife’s death a company executive sets up auditions for a new wife, and falls for a former ballet dancer. The story plays out like a sweet-natured – if problematic – romcom about a widower finally allowing himself to love again, before shifting gears halfway through and plummeting down a nightmarish hellhole, with a finale won’t easily be forgotten. All together now: Kiri Kiri Kiri.
4: Oldboy (2003)
Abducted one rainy night, obnoxious drunk Oh Dae-Su wakes up trapped within a windowless hotel room / pirson cell for reasons unknown. Unexpectedly released after 15-years of captivity he becomes intent on wreaking revenge upon his captors. From the single-shot corridor fight to the shocking reveal, Park Chan-wook adapted the manga series of the same name into a haunting tale with a gut-punch twist.
3: Let the Right One In (2008)
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Tomas Alfredson tells the story of Oskar, a bullied outsider who dreams of revenge. Befriending his 12-year-old neighbour Eli he’s unaware she’s been that age for over 200 years. What unfolds is a sweet relationship with haunting undertones, as Eli helps Oskar come out of his shell and give vent to his bloodlust whilst he accepts his neighbour for her vicious nature. A mesmerising tale as unforgiving as its wintery landscape, the climatic swimming pool scene is an all-timer.
2: Martyrs (2008)
If one film was the poster-child for visceral FrighFest reactions, it may well be Pascal Laugier’s devastating masterpiece. Opening with a young girl fleeing captivity and torture, a flash forward shows she’s grown up and is hunting down those she holds responsible. That’s all the plot you need going in, a whip-crack twist at the half-way mark abruptly changing the film into something transcendental. There’s plenty of gore and magnificent make-up, but what truly bruises is the emotional brutality and unflinching examination of human pain. An endurance test, but one well worth taking.
1: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
After its world-premiere at Cannes, Guillermo del Toro chose FrightFest as the very next screening for his future-classic, the Mexican filmmaker believing he belonged at the festival he’d call “The Woodstock of Gore”. Following 10-year-old Ofelia as she lives with her pregnant mother and tyrannical stepfather, she discovers a maze guarded by a mysterious faun who claims to know her destiny. Blending civil war terrors with dark fantasy, the brutality of General Vidal sticks in the mind, though it’s eclipsed by the nail-biting scene involving the Pale Man, a horror sequence for the ages. An affecting masterpiece which will reaffirm your love for cinema.
- Donnie Darko (2001) Bursting with originality and ambition, Richard Kelly’s stunning feature debut follows the titular teen whose near-death experience plagues him with visions of a man in a large rabbit suit who says the world is about to end.
- Excision (2012) Disturbed teen Pauline dreams of becoming a great surgeon, influenced by a desire to help her younger sister’s cystic fibrosis. Richard Bates Jr marries horror and humour, but will leave you haunted by the closing moments.
- Kill List (2011) After a botched job a hitman takes an assignment which promises a big payoff for three killings. What begins easily soon unravels in Ben Wheatley’s unnerving genre-mashup. Will leave you shaking.
- One Cut of the Dead (2018) The perfect example of a film to be watched knowing as little as possible beforehand. Opening with a 37-minute single-take it follows a hack director and film crew who are attacked by zombies.
- Train To Busan (2016) When a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea those on an express train must fight for survival. A white-knuckle ride which effectively wrings tension and emotion out of the confined settings.
Top 5 FrightFest films… not available in the UK
5: King of The Hill (2007)
Nothing to do with Mike Judge’s animated series, this Spanish feature follows a driver lost in the woods who’s suddenly shot at. Fleeing the gunshots, he joins forces with a lost young woman as they try to evade the snipers randomly attacking them. Switching perspective between protagonists and antagonists, Gonzalo López-Gallego directs a simple yet effective feature that delivers suspense and brutality.
4: To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story (2017)
Known for being the man behind Jason’s mask, Derek Dennis Herbert’s documentary focuses on the humanity of Kane Hodder, the 6ft stuntman who may be cinema’s most prolific onscreen killer. Before working up to that, he endured a childhood of bullying and survived a fire stunt that went horribly wrong, leaving much of his upper body with 2nd and 3rd degree burns. In his own words, the injury made him a far more empathetic person in general, his kind-hearted nature apparent through archive footage and the stories told about him. A lovely tribute to the beating heart beneath many undead maniacs.
3: Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema (2014)
Chances are you’ll have heard of Turkish Superman or Star Wars.s. As it turns out, these unauthorised remakes are just the tip of the iceberg for what films Turkey churned out in the 1960s and ’70s: over those two decades, the country was one of the biggest producers of film worldwide, and to keep up with demand screenwriters and directors copied scripts and remade movies from all over the world. This documentary talks with the talent who committed eye-watering amounts of plagiarism during a time when the country had no copyright law.
2: Tragedy Girls (2017)
Considering it closed 2017’s FrightFest to enthusiastic reactions, it’s surprising nobody has picked up this feature for a UK release. Tyler MacIntyre’s film follows two teens who run a true crime blog and are desperate to get more followers. It’s an issue many creatives face, although this pair take a more drastic approach by deciding to commit murders themselves. Described as a cross between Heathers and Scream for the Instagram era, that’s a concoction which deserves to be seen in all its grisly glory.
1: Happy Face (2019)
Set in Montreal 1992, 19-year-old Stan is estranged from his cancer-stricken mother. Disguising his face in painful tape and bandages, Stan attends a therapy workshop for people with physical differences to reconnect with his mother as her health deteriorates. One of the most thrilling aspects about FrightFest is what a gamble each film can be, and for those who caught this showing none expected it to reduce the audience to tears (as detailed in this powerful piece by Becky Darke). The fact UK audiences still can’t watch this is a tragedy.
- The American Scream (2012) Documentary following three families in the same small town, charting their journeys to preparing their home-made haunted houses for Halloween.
- Attack Of the Bat Monsters (1999) A film lost soon after it was made, this love-letter to low-budget filmmaking follows three friends trying to shoot an impromptu monster movie in the three days left over from the film they’ve just wrapped.
- Frankenstein’s Creature (2018) What if Mary Shelley’s iconic tale became a Lynchian nightmare of a one-man show? While available to order from HexMedia, it isn’t as readily available as some other titles so deserved highlighting on this list.
- Man Underground (2016) Enlisting the help of small-town residents, a reclusive conspiracy theorist documents his experience encountering aliens in this bittersweet flick that resonated with audiences.
- Night Fare (2015) When two hard-partying friends stiff a taxi driver on the fare they find themselves hunted in this French slasher.