Monday, 26 October 2020

Frightfest Halloween day 5: 'Lucky', 'Slaxx', 'Scavenger', 'The Nights Before Christmas'


 SCAVENGER - Carroña

Directors: Luciana Garraza & Eric Fleitas

2020, Argentina

Writers: Sheila Fentana, Luciana Garraza & Eric Fleitas

Set in a post-apocalyptic world… no land for vegetarians … ‘Mad Max’ with misogyny turned way up. A woman (Nayla Churruarin) – an assassin and organ-trader –  with a near-permanent grimace goes on a mission of revenge on the gang that massacred her family, with lots of rape and degradation. But it’s not the kind of film asking for any validation. The nihilism is total, the exploitation is nasty rather than fun, but this Argentine film must surely win an award for the scuzziest aesthetic ever. 

Slaxx

Director: Elza Kephart

2020, Canada

Writers; Patricia Gomex & Elza Kephart

“When a possessed pair of jeans begins to kill the staff of a trendy clothing store, it is up to Libby, an idealistic young salesclerk, to stop its bloody rampage.” But this IMDB summary misses the vital ingredient that the jeans are out for revenge for the abuses of Indian sweatshops. It’s broad in its satire – director Elsa Kephart herself says it isn’t subtle - so although the jeans being able to hypnotise its victims with logos and the corporate nonsense-mantras are acute, the manager willing to do anything for promotion doesn’t hold any surprises. Perhaps it’s best melding of the ridiculous and meaningful is the Bhangra-dancing slacks then turns out to have relevance. The film occasionally struggles to reconcile these twin poles of the silly and the political, but both sides score points along the way.

Lucky

Director: Nathasha Kermani

2020, USA

Writer: Brea Grant

I am a sucker for failure-of-reality genre, and this fits that. She says, “There’s man outside!” And husband replies, “Yeah, he comes every night to kill us,” in a tired this-is-routine way. And from there, a seemingly supernatural daily recurrence of slasher danger defines her life. But Brea Grant’s script (I was a big fan of her ’12 Hour Shift’) is after bigger game as allegory takes hold and squeezes until, with the final reveal, there’s a deep-rooted sadness. It’s the horror of being unmoored of certainty in yourself: “I don’t know the rules,” she says at one point. The general tone of misogyny and gaslighting is baked into experience and encounters with authority and people rather than any meanness or cruelty on any individual’s part. And that’s perhaps the slyest, most subtle trick of Grant’s script, so that there really isn’t any recognisable villain to pin this on: it’s there but not quite obvious; it’s a lifelong experience. The horror of That’s-Just-The-Way-It-Is. The move from straightforward plot to being trapped in allegory is not something that is often successful, but ‘Lucky’ pulls it off and grips right to that final reveal … and the inevitability is what’s sad.


The Nights Before Christmas

Director: Paul Tanter

Writers: Paul Tanter and Sean Phillips

A wannabe Joker storyline – teeth; a hysterical homicidal pig-tailed sidekick; crazy games; totally "unpredictable" psycho – but there’s no wit or satire here, just a lot of empty madman pontificating and police procedural hokum. 

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Frightfest Halloween day 4: 'Relic', 'The World we Knew', 'Blood Harvest, 'Broil', 'Cyst'



The World We Knew

Director: WW Jones & Luke Kinner

2020, UK

Writers: Benjamin Jones & Kirk Lake

The concept is Gangster’s versus Ghosts, with a concentration on the psychology. But British gangsters seem to come with that talking in cliché or colourful criminal style that is quickly tedious. Jones and Lake’s script is better than just ugly men snarking, but it’s still a group of criminals talking tough to each other. There’s the young’un, the psychopath, the veteran, etc. The cast is good, though, with what they have. You know there’s going to be speeches about the good ol’ days, about their dad, and there will storytelling and monologuing. Hiding out in a house after a job-gone-wrong, these men have to reckon with the ghosts of their past. It’s not jump scares, it’s about the characters. And then confrontations with ghosts just end up being more tough talk. A slow-burn is fine, but perhaps this depends upon how much you invest in a bunch of near-cliché men being sentimental and/or having a conscience about a reprehensible past. It doesn’t build to anything, but it does have a good endnote.

 

The Cyst

Director: Tyler Russell

2020, USA

Writers: Tyler Russel & Andy Silverman

A gleefully silly creature-feature that reminds of early Roger Corman, or Frank Henenlotter, or  the films like ‘TerrorVision’ released on the Charles Band’s Entertainment (I always had a soft spot for ‘TerrorVison’… not exactly sure why). Set in the Sixties in a clinic where an increasingly off-his-rocker doctor (George Hardy having heaps of fun) treats cysts, it’s limitations are part of the fabric: as with  most mad scientist scenarios, it’s hilarious to think he made such a breakthrough device in his squalid clinic – it’s just a big block of dials and buttons made from whatever sciencey-looking equipment was seemingly left around his garage. The cyst monster is a glorious old-school practical effect with lots of squirty pus and a beachball eye (Russell said in the post-screening interview that about 80% of the effects were practical). A short run time, things kept just this side of zany although continuously ridiculous, with Eva Habermann greatly appealing and up for anything make this a lot of fun.

 


Blood Harvest

Thomas Robert Lee

2020

 

A somewhat generic horror title that does the content only nodding service. Originally called ‘The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw’, or ‘The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw’, which are far more appropriate. But Alan Jones’ introduction referenced ‘The Witch’, so immediately upping my expectations.

Secretly living as occultists on the edge of a Protestant town, a mother and daughter collide with the community as the daughter’s asserts herself. Eerie things happen and soon it’s more than just crops not growing to contend with. There’s a good portrayal of a town besieged by witchcraft and Black Magic, menace and tragedy become the default with the story perhaps going not quite where you expect it to. Good performances; generational clashes run parallel with clashes with the community which is apposite for a coming-of-age tale; a consistent atmosphere of unease and washed-out tones dominate. I note accusations of loose plotting, but the bubble of dread besieging an isolated community, where seemingly random tragedies build up a bigger whole, is consistently the focus. A quiet, understated horror-drama of a whole town receiving the brunt of a girl’s displeasure. 


Broil

Director: Edward Drake

2020, Canada

Writers: Edward Drake & Piper Mars

Any plot synopsis is likely to spoil ‘Broil’s drift. It starts like a typical high school scenario but the information and story then comes so thick and fast that for a while it’s uncertain what conventions it will follow. It uses many tricks of shuffling perspective and expectation so that when it does settle down, it doesn’t take too long with exposition and keeps up the speed and therefore maintains an entertaining momentum. It’s colourful, smart, and excellently played: one of its successes is that even the minor characters leave a mark. It’s a little more conventional than its razzle-dazzle surface, but it’s always engagingly played. There’s the theme of rich-people-are-different and Family Secrets, but it mostly services as a fun ride peppered with nastiness and a little genre-mashing.

 

Relic

Writer & Director: Natalie Erika Jones

2020, Australia

One of those horrors that is so rooted in relatable, sad and difficult reality – a mother and daughter facing grandma’s apparent Alzheimer’s – that when it slips into genre, you hardly see the joins. Satisfyingly chilling and emotionally authentic that it is no wonder it’s been getting a lot of praise. It has the kind of resonance that people with a narrow view of the genre wouldn’t expect. It uses the uncanny to both indicate illness and the genre: for example, it wasn’t a surprise when writer-director Jones said her grandma lived in a house that scared her. It probably goes without saying that the three female leads are exceptional,. Robyn Nevin's performance is brave and captivating, warm and unsettling, covering the whole gamut. Mortimer and Heathcoat are wonderfully grounded, with the edges between the younger mother-daughter dynamic implicit without obvious dramatic conflict. With an emotional resonance that gives it crossover appeal, even as it sticks to genre and analogy to the very end, this is a gem.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

FrightFest Halloween day 3: 'The Returned', 'Breeder', 'Babysitter Must Die', 'The Reckoning'


The Returned

Writer & Director: Laura Casabé

2020, Argentina

1919 on a South American farm, driven by the grief of another stillborn child, the wife of a vicious landowner tampers with indigenous magic. And the title hints at the rest. But it’s not quite straightforward or predictable, mostly because it plays with shuffling the narrative and the revelations around across its three chapters. There’s a lot of underlying outrage at the treatment of the tribes with the ultimate appropriation surely being that of its children. A slow-burner that’s always picturesque and intriguing.  It has eeriness to spare, allows a certain mystery and a central story that is straightforward and engrossing once all the pieces are in place. And when it’s brutal, it doesn’t hold back.

 

Breeder

Jens Dahl

2020, Denmark

Writer: Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen 

A slightly different mad-scientist scenario, but it’s obvious as soon as she appears with all her icy glamour that Signe Egholm Olsen as Dr Ruben will do anything for her bio-hacking experiments into aging. When Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) stumbles on the truth, this involves dodgy boyfriends, grim basement prisons, something resembling torture porn, sadists, etc. It has a clarity and directness typical of Nordic drama (as opposed to a more hysterical US aesthetic) and it’s serious about medical and misogynistic abuse of the female body. It muddies the waters by having its key antagonist as a woman who sells her discovery to vain men, but it’s ultimately as straightforward in its viewpoints as any other mad-scientist scenario: it spends a lot of time establishing that the bad guys aren’t redeemable. Writer Thomsen introduced one of its themes as female empowerment, but it’s more a revenge fantasy against abusers of women of all kinds. The Female empowerment elements are surely more when the ladies work together to escape (my favourite is the chain-strangulation).

Babysitter Must Die

 Director: Kohl Glass

2020, USA

Writers: Julie Auerbach, Kohl Glass & Kevin Tavolaro

Just about to finish off a babysitting stint, uncool good girl Josie (Riley Scott) is suddenly under siege when a bunch of over-acting occultists do a home invasion. There’s plenty of fun to be had here with the best running gag being that Josie has a wealth of kick-ass skills learnt from Mustard Seed Scouts (my favourite, because it took me somewhat by surprise, was “drama”). Geek girls: your skills will be needed! All her suppressed anger is given free flow against the humourless invaders. gives a good rundown on the political subtext, where violent outsiders break into the homes of the bourgeoisie to reclaim what they say is theirs, via a Lovecraftian touch.

Even so, there’s nothing surprising or sharply satirical here like ‘Better Watch Out’, but it’s not as annoyingly smug and adolescent as McQ’s ‘The Babysitter’ (although continuing the story through the end credits doesn’t work for me). It’s fast, a little brutal, and shows that just a little spin and speed on familiar tropes can be entertaining, if undemanding.

The Reckoning

Neil Marshall

UK, 2020

Writers: Edward Evers-Swinell, Charlotte Kirk & Neil Marshall

In which a woman wrongly accused of being a witch gets her own back on behalf of all victims of Witchfinder Generals. Through everything, Charlotte Kirk always looks glamourous, and luckily being in a dungeon and abominably tortured doesn’t really dirty the defiance on her face or impede her ability to run and fight back. Sean Pertwee as Witchfinder Moorcroft probably gives the most intriguing performance of sinister whisper and delusion, perhaps inevitably reminding of Vincent Price’s control and menace is a similar infamous role. Moorcroft’s  female burnt-up-former-witch assistant with a  bad case of Stockholm Syndrome probably the most potentially interesting character. But this isn’t a study about how the delusions of religion are played out violently on women’s bodies: it’s mostly just a revenge fantasy (‘Breeders’, by comparison, wanted to say something about science’s appropriation and violation of women’s bodies). Everything is in italics and bold so there’s probably camp amusement to be had, but there are also some gorgeous vistas photographed by Luke Bryant in the first half.

Friday, 23 October 2020

FrightFest Halloween day 2: 'The Sacrifice' & 'The Banishing'

 SACRIFICE 

Andy Collier & Toor Mian 

2020, USA

Screenplay: Toor Milan

Originally called ‘The Color of Madness’. An American couple go to a Norwegian island to wrap up some family business concerning property there. The locals act unwelcoming and weird at first, but then… Perhaps this scenario is so familiar, especially when you throw in HP Lovecraft, that there surely needs a pay-off of distinction. Even ‘The Deep Ones’ had man-in-a-monster suit, but ‘Sacrifice’ arguably ends just when expectations are highest, resting on a feint of expectations. There’s decent playing: Sophie Stevens gives some nice no-nonsense gravity to the increasing craziness; horror icon Barbara Crampton applies an accent that occasionally seems to disappear, providing camp amusement value to an otherwise sturdy, nuanced performance. There’s a gorgeous location and a nice uneasiness (Americans: don’t go to Europe), with the linking of tradition to misogyny, but there isn’t quite enough to distinguish this from overt familiarity. 

The BANISHING

Christopher Smith 

UK, 2020

Writers: David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich & Dean Lines

A repressed Reverend moves into a manor that is tainted with scandal as much as his wife and her child. They are neither as safe from the rise of fascism or vengeful ghosts as they might believe. 

Haunted manors and ghostly monks will do it for me, and I jumped at one appearance. Actually, it had me at toy monks surrounding a toy bed. Otherwise, there is an agreeable quietude, some very eerie play with mirrors and the manor is a good old-fashioned location for hauntings. Sean Harris is there, chewing scenery whilst muttering “This place is cursed”, one of those characters who knows all the details of the plot and the haunting and can be relied upon as the font for exposition. When he says about going into the “Beyond”, it’s a little too ‘The Conjuring’ for my taste, but the film has built up a lot of goodwill by then. ‘The Banishing’ swings between agreeable understatement – therefore generating much creepiness – and obvious tropes, not quite failing either and not quite exceeding them either. There is a contemporary edge with a lot of play with the inherent blinkered faith of religion and fascism – made explicit with the character of Malachi (John Lynch) – and Marianne’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) defiance. But a definite success on such a micro-budget. Chris Smith says that his mind doesn’t work in the way of ‘The Woman in Black’, but I didn’t find this so far from that: belief, denial, period context, human frailty, angry irrepressible past... All the ingredients for a haunting are correct.


Thursday, 22 October 2020

FrightFest Halloween: 'Held' & 'The Sinners'


These digital festivals have been much-needed oases in these stay-at-home times, and I am sure there are many others I’ve missed. These digital alternatives have proven great, carrying over some of the party atmosphere still and delivering Zoom interviews that have often been a little untethered from restrictions: I remember the ‘A Ghost Waits’ interview-Zoomchat being a particularly long highlight. I was wondering how the Leicester Square in-person event was going to be successful with all the Covid19 restrictions, and I wouldn’t have gone, but the FrightFest team were forced again to go fully digital. So here we are.

I did get a little confused for a moment, thinking this was a bank holiday weekend – as the August event is – but adjusted quickly. A second full-blown FrightFest this year? Good stuff! 

There so many films to choose from this Halloween with a programme that dwarfs the August selection, so I just know I am sure to have made the wrong selection here and there (already regretting I didn’t choose Hayden J. Weal’s ‘Dead’ from the vibe I’m getting), but that’s all part of it. So, you know: let’s see.

Now, I do wish to say that these views are of course my own, and however empirical or critical they may seem, I don’t intend to be mean. Especially when the filmmakers are right there with the FrightFest audience, taking the feedback directly. I am frequently humbled by what a great bunch of people they are. There are plenty of others that got more from ‘Held’ and ‘Sinner’, for example (ref. social media) and that takes precedent over any reservations I may have. So here I am offering criticisms in good faith, just glad to be here.


HELD

Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing

USA, 2020

Screenplay: Jill Awbrey

Traumatised Emma (screenwriter Jane Awbrey) is off with her husband (Bart Johnson) to a secluded house to sort through some relationship kinks. But the house is primed for technological lockdown and pretty soon they are locked in with an ominous, omnipresent voice telling them how to behave as a married couple. …Filmed before lockdown, but there’s extra analogy to it now.

It’s twisty enough (although my early suspicions proved right, so  a gold star for me) and the sound design is great – that’s Brandon Jones, who did ‘A Quiet Place’. Actually, a little campness, a little humour might have served the scenario well to indicate satire and not just peril. It’s the kind of film where she overcomes with a knowing and triumphant smile on her face rather than trauma, topped with a punchline. But it’s well-played and executed, claustrophobic and underpinned by gender-war themes to give it topicality. 


The SINNERS

Courtney Paige, 2020, USA

Writers: Courtney Paige, Erin Hazlehurst & Madison Smith

Mean-girl revenge pranks at a religious school get out-of-hand and then the dark side of small-town America is revealed, etc. It is intriguing when kidnapping and murder are introduced, and there might have been something interesting by keeping usual slasher inflections off-screen for the most part, thereby focusing on characters; but how much to invest in a bunch of self-obsessed privileged bully-girls? It’s beautifully filmed and nicely played but doesn’t quite overcome some lags (there’s a fully redundant subplot concerning city cops) or an unconvincing showdown that surely belonged to a tackier film. So: almost.


Monday, 12 October 2020

Grimmfest Day 5: 'Death Ranch', 'Urubú', 'Fried Barry', 'Ten Minutes to Midnight', 'Revenge Ride'

 

DEATH RANCH

  • Director and screenwriter - Charlie Steeds

·        2020, USA

 A blaxploitation homage where the homaging provides a pass for some retrograde exploitation as well as some modern ultraviolence. In passing, there are so many homages now that I wonder where nostalgic cinema will be given twenty years time? Homages to homages?

On the run and holed up in a disused barn, three black characters find themselves under siege by a small army of KKK animals. Charlie Steeds’ film is a crude, righteous and ultraviolent unapologetic revenge fantasy, with funky music and a subtext about bettering yourself. Of course, it’s all informed by a very contemporary anger and awareness: in the Q&A Black Lives Matter came up in the first question, and Grimmfest’s Miriam Draeger brought up the word “integrity” in regards to ‘Death Ranch’: that wouldn’t  be the first word I’d associate with it (it’s an unapologetic revenge fantasy, after all) but it’s sure nice to have worthy zombies at the end of the retribution.

Although the film makes them cannibals too, there isn’t really any need for elaboration – i.e. a prolonged prerequisite torture scene as justification – because the redeemability is inbuilt to the KKK. When director-writer Charlie Steed chose the defining line calling the KKK “dumb cunts” as justification for all the silliness, etc, it’s obvious that he knew exactly what he was doing. When Steed spoke of how hard this was to get greenlit, and how the Q&A panel discussed how rare it is, comparatively, to have the KKK as an obvious villain, it’s obvious we shouldn’t take this for granted.

 There are other pluses too, such as the vulnerability in Dieandre Teagle’s performance (he takes punishment that no one could get up and kick ass from, but he doesn’t forget to wince, limp and look tired from his injuries) and Faith Monique written as more than just as sexy love interest (she’s a caring sister).

 

Urubú

  • Director - Alejandro Ibáñez
  • Screenwriters - Carlos Bianchi, Alejandra Heredia, Alejandro Ibáñez
  • 2019, Spain

 So I went into this completely blind, thinking it might be a creature-feature in an exotic location. The set-up is long, with a photographer going into the Amazon to hunt a picture of a rarely seen, mysterious bird. The music swells with majesty over the aerial shot of the river and forest: Arturo Díez Boscovich’s score is deliberately old-school to create a ‘70s feel. And then, of course, things get odd and dangerous. As we got deeper in, I was thinking of ‘Vinyan’. And then, of course, it became obvious what this was. And if I didn’t recognise it, a character says the name outright, which was a moment of unintentional humour.

 

Of course, had I read Grimmfest’s blurb, I would have been forewarned: “Writer-Director Alejandro Ibáñez Nauta, is the son of Narciso  Ibáñez Serrador, and describes this as a “tribute” to his father's work. A ferocious, visceral reimagining of Serrador's most famous – and notorious – film, WHO COULD KILL A CHILD?” So if anyone can get away with having that line spoken out loud, it is surely him.

The central pull is going to be the exceptional location work, out in the jungle under undeniably taxing conditions. Ibáñez spoke of how they had to improvise according the weather and conditions. The central agenda of ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ is that children are so abominably treated historically that the whole adult world is guilty by association, and that’s why the youngsters turn vengeful. ‘Urubú’ follows that line of thinking, and nothing has truly changed: there are still plenty of appalling and heart-breaking statistics to be had.

It’s beautifully constructed and intriguing enough, although one could argue that the jungle setting mitigates some of the sinister familiarity of the children. But this is posed as just the start of a larger picture and the jungle provides a different kind of mystery and panic, as well as alluding to those Italian Seventies exploitation pictures, etc. (And it is notably better than Makinov’s ‘Come Out and Play’ (2012).)

And I’m going for the piranha death, even if it is offscreen.

 

FRIED BARRY

·        Director & Screenwriter - Ryan Kruger

·        2020, South Africa

Scumbag Barry is abducted and replaced by what seems to be an exploratory alien who is dropped into a multitude of crazy and/or sleazy South African scenarios. Or maybe it’s the alien’s holiday? We never know.

 Filmed without a script, ‘Fried Barry’ has elements of ‘Under the Skin’, ‘E.T.’, ‘Starman’, and ‘Being There’. I say ‘Being There’ because Barry is a blank slate that people and the scenarios impose their expectations upon. It’s crazed, kinetic, unpredictable, darkly funny and just skating around on the possibilities with no agenda other than to be thoroughly entertaining. Which it is. The abduction and experimentation/cloning sequence is trippy and a highlight. Gary Green – who has experience as an extra – has such a distinctive face and his expressions are treats in themselves: he won Best Actor at Fantaspoa International Fantastic Film Festival. It’s beautifully filmed: Gareth Place won Best Cinematography at RapidLion Film Festival. It’s crazed, impressive, unpredictable and dynamic right the way through. And an obvious instantaneous cult hit.

10 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT

  • Director – Erik Bloomquist
  • Screenwriters – Erik Bloomquist, Carson Bloomquist

Another character study using genre to address the personal. ’10 Minutes to Midnight’ uses vampirism to interrogate one woman’s confrontation with aging and potential obsolescence. Genre staunch Caroline Williams is Amy, a veteran rock DJ facing her last night on the job, being replaced with someone younger and turning up already with puncture wounds on her neck. The film relies on symbolism, surrealism, 80s veneer and folding in on itself to convey Amy’s difficulty with dealing with this phase of her life, as played out as a transformation into a vampire. Williams is great and the genre-bending and mind-games wavering in effectiveness.


REVENGE RIDE

  • Director - Melanie Aitkenhead
  • Screenwriter - Timothy Durham

An old school biker girl revenge flick with fine performances and capturing of a sub-culture. The girl bikers are all survivors of abuse and are triggered when another girl is the victim of being drugged and gang-raped by frat boys. The school covers up and the women feel betrayed: it feels relevant, post-#MeToo. It’s one of those revenge flicks that wants to dwell equally on the consequences: Trigga (the marvellous Pollyanna McIntosh) can’t let go of her trauma, has never been properly treated for it, giving further layers of tragedy. The film makes sure it is evident that in all of this, it’s always the innocents that ultimately pay the cost. There are no real winners.

It hits all the obvious beats, but it’s well played and looks good.

 

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Grimmfest Day 4: 'I Am Ren', 'Rent-a-Pal', 'Monstrous', 'Triggered, 'It Cuts Deep'

I AM REN – Jestem REN (AKA PANACEA)

·        Director & Screenwriter - Piotr Ryczko

·      2020, Poland

After some mysterious domestic incident, Renata must come to terms that she is a faulty android. But the truth is a far harder thing to establish when her memory has such gaps.

Using the language of sci-fi, Ryczko’s film addresses domestic abuse, gaslighting, mental illness, the tragedy of not trusting yourself. It’s heady, uses genre to lead the audience to sympathy and maintains much of its mystery to the end; the uncertainty of the character defines the pervasive ambiguity to its conclusion. It’s a very personal work, derived from Ryczko’s own experiences, and once the genre feints are understood, it’s a smart and sympathetic film that conveys a most tragic topic without judgement. Although rendered with dourness, it is always compelling rather than depressing. The depth of its sadness and deftness is only revealed upon reflection. This one lingers.


RENT-A-PAL

  • Director & screenwriter - Jon Stevenson

·        2020, USA

Recently I saw a twitter thread where someone was commenting a criticism of a horror film (I forget which) saying that they didn’t approve of horror exploiting mental illness. Now of course they could have been trolling, but there probably isn’t any other genre as centred on mental illness as horror, albeit mostly exploitative and wrongheaded. But then there are examples such as ‘Rent-A-Pal’ offering convincing character pieces that come from sympathetic and intelligent intent. This expands on how ‘I am Ren’ used genre to illustrate psychological breakdowns with empathy.

David is the 24-hour carer for his dementia afflicted mother, living in her basement with crippling loneliness. This is the age of VHS, and not having much luck with the VHS dating agency he is trying, he picks up a “Rent-a-Pale” tape. At first, he is sceptical, but its set script and phony friendliness starts to be just what he needs.

Brandon Landis Folkins and Kathleen Brady give raw, brave performances; Amy Routeledge brings all the warmth and Will Wheaton is so sinister and slimy as a kind of Fred Rogers for misogynists. It’s an exemplary cast. The script is alert to the manipulations of abusers, to the isolation of carers and to the mental health issues caused by loneliness – in the Q&A, director/writer Stevenson spoke of his personal experiences with dementia in his family.

There is a ‘Videodrome’ vibe to the promotion with David’s face near the screen, and certainly there’s a merging of screen-fiction and reality as things slip out of hand. How real is the threat or is it increasingly all in David’s head? A little overlong, possibly, but there is no doubt that by the end we are fully immersed in David’s limited world and tragedy. It’s relatability is both scary and compassionate.


The one-two punch of ‘I Am Ren’ and ‘Rent-A-Pal’ certainly offered strong examples of how genre can emotively tackle deeply difficult personal and sociological subjects with intelligence, entertainment and sympathy all thoroughly balanced. They don’t offer cheap thrills, but they are excellent character studies.


MONSTROUS

  • Director - Bruce Wemple
  • Screenwriter - Anna Shields
  • 2020, USA

Ostensibly a Bigfoot creature-feature which starts with some great monster silhouettes, but in truth is a mash-up of sub-genres. This might disappoint some. Following up on her friend’s disappearance in sasquatch country, Sylvia goes to Whitehall, NY, with a woman who might hold some answers. It’s not the mashing-up that disappoints so much, but it does get less intriguing once its cards are revealed. Like most sasquatch films, it forgets to display its monster enough*; (it’s mostly silhouettes but hey, it looks decent in the close-up flash we get). No, it’s the why-didn’t-you-tie-the-psycho-up-when-you-could? And follow-up jump-out-coz-not-really-dead duds that really undermine the credibility. 

·        *‘Willow Creek’ gets a pass because it’s my favourite creature-feature with unseen creature, and ‘Exists’ is a less interesting film than ‘Monstrous’ but I love the monster reveal. I guess I prefer the unapologetic monter-suit Dagon from ‘HP Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones’: I can fill in the credibility blanks myself.

 


TRIGGERED

  • Director - Alastair Orr
  • Screenwriter - David D. Jones

A bunch of typically annoying young Americans out in the woods find themselves strapped with bombs and must (a) confront their high school misdeeds and themselves, and (b) kill each other in a ‘Battle Royale’ to survive detonation. You could get past the high-concept contrivance of the set-up for fun, but if you invest yourself probably depends upon your tolerance of bratty young Americans emoting over past sins and becoming killers. It’s the kind of film where getting axed really doesn’t slow anyone down so much, especially psychos.

 

IT CUTS DEEP

  • Director and screenwriter - Nicholas Payne Santos
  • 2020, USA

Obviously coming from a fun place, ‘It Cuts Deep’ has a couple of very likeable leads in Charles Gould and Quinn Jackson, with nice funny performances and banter emerging very quickly. He can’t quite commit and she wants marriage. And then there’s a mysterious murder in the background and an old friend appears and sexual jealousy disrupts everything. Despite Grimmfest’s blurb signalling it’s unpredictability, I had it pegged long before the revelations because, really, there’s only a few places it can go (and I am not trying to claim cleverness here: I am typically useless at second-guessing and predicting). After all, it’s really a three-hander. So notwithstanding likeable potential and the short running time, ultimately it felt more miss than hit.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Grimmfest Day 3: "HP Lovecraft's The Deep Ones", "The Unhealer", "The Ideal Host"



HP LOVECRAFT’S THE DEEP ONES

  • DIRECTOR- Chad Ferrin
  • SCREENWRITER- Chad Ferrin
  • 2020, USA

· Taken from Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos featuring The Deep Ones, Chads Ferrin’s film is bright and breezy but surprise-free. Of course, having Lovecraft’s name up there will pull ‘em in, and of course there is some tentacle action. It does have a defiantly retro man-in-a-monster-suit that might make some laugh, but I found it more endearing than any CGI effort. Otherwise, a sunny coastal setting, a just-less-than-serious feel and a decent cast make for an enjoyable watch that doesn’t outstay it’ welcome, even if it’s unlikely to leave a real dent.

 

THE UNHEALER

  • Director - Martin Guigui
  • Screenwriters - Kevin E. Moore & J. Shawn Harris
  • USA, 2020

Another bullied kid gets supernatural powers to exact revenge on his relentless tormentors when they go too far. Of course this sub-genre this plays on unfairness, but 'The Unhealer' does so more than just revenge. This is built-in even more obviously when his power is that where they hurt him, they suffer the effects; meaning the extent of the revenge depends upon their brutality to him. But victims can’t catch a break, however cruel the bullies are, supernaturally empowered or not. That’s the bitterest horror and the meanest aftertaste.

Elijah Nelson makes a sympathetic lead in Kelly, the script making consistent use of his eating disorder throughout. And of course, Lance Henrickson makes a mark in his cameo. Moore and Harris’ screenplay is more concerned with the human interest than showcasing the kills, with sadness and unfairness dominating the proceedings. In this way, ‘The Unhealer’ distinguishes itself and lingers more than most.

 

AN IDEAL HOST

  • DIRECTOR - Robert Woods
  • SCREENWRITER - Tyler Jacob Jones
  • 2020, Australia

Usually at FrightFest there’s an Antipodean crowd-pleasing genre-comedy that really stands out: ‘Deathgasm’. ‘One Hundred Acres’, Two Heads Creek’, ‘Mega Time Squad’, ‘Turbo Kid’. This is my first time at Grimmfest, and the trend continues with ‘An Ideal Host’, showing again that Australian genre-comedy is just a cut above (or at least, those that we see).

A somewhat precious couple are planning to the minute a dinner party with old friends to stage a marriage proposal, but an old, uninvited and unwanted friend also gate-crashes to upset proceedings. But she’s not the only gate-crasher…

The brevity of the credits reveal how low-budget this is: one location, few cast, director Robert Woods also co-produces, edits, is the cinematographer, etc. But Tyler Jacob Jones’ script and the ensemble cast – mostly from a comedy group Woods is part of, it seems – are consistently lively and funny without over-egging the pudding that any obvious limitations don’t come to mind. (Regarding over-egging: one of my favourite gags is when the film interrupts a cliché montage of the protagonist dressing up to kick-ass with “Enough of that!”).

Like ‘The Special’, there’s a sense that anything might be on the table until it we get some grounding, so there’s some mystery as well as the humour to spike the attention. It even throws in some proper gore. And the effects were all practical too with inventiveness coming thick and fast (the windshield-wipers-as-weapon also a favourite).

 A delight.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Grimmfest Day 2 ‘The Special’, ‘Unearth’, ‘They Reach’

The SPECIAL

·       Director - B. Harrison Smith

·       Screenwriters – James Newman, Mark Steensland

The kind of genre film that goes into streets and corners that those with bigger budgets just don’t. With toxic masculinity firmly in its target sights, it’s starting point is when a guy is persuaded to go to a brothel to get revenge at his wife’s infidelity, and to try “the special”. And then the film runs on the question, “what’s in the box?”

Darkly funny but played straight: it reminded me of Henenlotter films ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Brain Damage’ but not so tongue-in-cheek; or even reminiscent of  early Cronenberg. It deals with monster fetish, sex, addiction, body horror; although, for the most part, it’s quite discreet. Although the suffocation by plastic bag is disturbing. But then, for the finale, it is thoroughly satisfying as it lets loose and rip roars, putting an exclamation mark to all the repugnancy going on. Its targets are well-and-truly skewered. Delightfully absurd, a little rough, and as neatly tied and bundled as tale from an EC comic (As the Grimmfest blurb says). It has that quality of the real deal. Only Horror can do this kind of satire.

 

 


UNEARTH

·       Directors: John C. Lyons, Dorota Swies, 2020, USA

   Screenwriters: Kelsey Goldberg, John C. Lyons

 A horror very much rooted in socio-economic concerns of American farming communities. There is much careful contextualising with a great cast – including genre legend Adrienne Barbeau – and a washed-out look to let you know this is serious. So assured is this setting-up that it’s a disappointment that the chaos of the final act, which kicks in a little too late, has a far less certain hand and descends into shaky-cam and close-up incoherence. Although there is plenty of topical dread to be had in the poisoned water due to fracking, and a dissolving baby is truly chilling, but there isn’t quite enough of the genre transcendence to satisfy. For a script so aware of detailing the horrors of making a living, it then goes on to leave so much unspecified and unanswered. Intriguing, but it ends up more a worthy tantalisation.


THEY REACH

  • Director - Sylas Dall
  • Screenwriters - Sylas Dall, Bry Troyer

Another retro-horror homage, this time a 70s minor horror vibe. An untypical teenage girl – she’s into robots – unwittingly unleashes demons on her small town by bleeding on a reel-to-reel tape recording of an exorcism. As so often with these things, the kids steal the show in a scenario that leads to things like ‘Stranger Things’. Yep, director Dall cites Stephen King and John Carpenter and ‘The Goonies’ as influences.  There’s the annoying dad, comedy cops, unexpectedly cool librarian, but the adults are the less engaging, because it’s all about the kids. There’s a nice small town backdrop and the retro-feel is nicely done. Strangely (like 'Unearth') it doesn’t seem to play as much as it could with its horror assets – not enough of the demon-kid make-up? Or the demon revealed at the end? But mostly it’s demon-hands in doorways. Likeable horror comfort food.

 

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Grimmfest: "Alone"

… so of course, Grimmfest is also available online. It’s a Manchester horror film festival and therefore normally out of my range, but it’s all digital this year so I will be dipping in as much as I can (that is, as much as work allows). I am hoping this sets a trend, post-pandemic (although right now, that doesn’t seem a thing) that festivals will be offering both physical and digital options. There has to be money in that, right? (but what do I know?) And as I am not going on holiday this year, these digital film festivals are a welcome simulation. 

Anyway… 

Alone

John Hyams, 2020, USA

Writer: Mattias Olsson

In the Q&A afterwards, there was a lot of talk about duality and so on - "What are you running from?" -  and all that existential stuff is there, but mostly ‘Alone’ is a very decent woman-in-peril-woman-as-survivalist film. It doesn’t waste time: of course that guy is a threat and she’s right to be paranoid. Pleasingly, it doesn’t waste time on the set-up feints that we know. Suffering from overwhelming grief, Jessica sees the world as threatening, and here comes the man to manifest that.

It’s mostly a two hander, but it doesn’t spend too much effort on exposition and dialogue. Jules Willcox as Jessica is another in the ongoing list of excellent performances in horrors that are unapologetically female centred. Her reactions and descent-ascendance into a manic phase are more credible than usual. Mark Menchaca is distinctively average as an everyday guy that happens to be a killer: it’s a performance that makes the disturbing “normalcy” of serial killers believable, how such sociopaths are so convincing – it’s just that she isn’t in the frame of mind to be conned. As it goes on, Menchaca conveys clearly and wordlessly that he, too, is having a bad day. He has one speech about his unforgiving world view, as egotists and nihilists tend to give, but again, there’s a notable lack of serial killer sermonising.

 Rather, the film lets the locations and the sombre tone do the talking: the road, the river, the forest, the clearing. There’s some lovely cinematography by Federico Verardi. It’s not original, but it’s well executed, nicely shot and appealing in it’s unfussy, relentless drive into a familiar scenario.

 ________________


And then it was '12 Hour Shift', which I had already seen and was a favourite of mine from this year's FrightFest.



Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Unfairness in horror

Todd Tucker’s ‘The Terror of All Hallow’s Eve’ (2017, USA) is the kind of thing that I might consider my “comfort watching”. It is never going to be on anyone’s list of favourites, but it calls on my affection and enjoyment of this kind of B-horror, and especially the bildungsroman horror. I will always have a fondness for, understandably, the kind of thing I really took to as a teenager like ‘The Gate’, ‘Phantasm’ , ‘Basket Case’, ‘The Deadly Spawn’, Joe Dante flicks, etc. ‘The Terror of All Hallow’s Eve’ captures the tone of those Eighties video hits effortlessly. Limited locations, ambitious analogue puppet-monsters, underdog protagonist, etc, all present and correct. Its pleasures are those coveted by horror fans – no crossover appeal here, no “Art Horror”. It’s the kind of film that gets the type of criticism that Trevor Johnson says of ‘Phantasm’: “…a surprisingly shambolic affair whose moments of genuine invention stand out amid the prevailing incompetence.”*

 

But the reason I like and can’t quite shake ‘The Terror of All Hallow’s Eve’ is that it possesses that quality that horror as a genre centres on all the time but rarely gets discussed as an essential ingredient: unfairness.

 

All Tim (Caleb Thomas) wanted was a little payback for his tormentors: whether that’s right or wrong may be debatable, but it’s unquestionably understandable. When I saw this at FrightFest, director Tucker said it was semi-autobiographical which made its ultimate message, for me, even more thoughtful. Because ‘Hallow’s Eve’ goes just beyond the revenge fantasy to a further, more uncomfortable but deeper message: don’t be tricked into losing your temper, because you will pay the consequences of your anger. Our protagonist Tim’s vulnerability and anger are understandable, and it’s easy to see how he was tricked, but it’s unfair. Bullied into tragedy.

 


Unfairness
: It’s why ‘Summer of ‘84’ ends up having such an unexpectedly upsetting resonance, and why it suddenly turns from enjoyable to deeply troubling. It's there in ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Phantasm’, ‘The Vanishing’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Vivarium’, ‘Spiral’, most werewolf tales, ‘Sleep Tight’; in the World Cinema outrage at the treatment of women in ‘Under the Shadow’; in the surreal grief cul-dsac of ‘Koko-Di Koko-Da’, etc. It is a straight route to tragedy. It’s in every film where people just want to go out and have a good time, or just get on with sorting things out, but meet something terrible: like ‘Vacancy’, ‘The Strangers’, ‘Wolf Creek’ and ‘Willow Creek’, et al.

 

I don’t think I’ll include the ‘Friday the 13thor ‘Final Destination’ or the ‘Hostel’ franchise, that particular strain of horror, because part of the point in those seems to be that the victims are superseded by the spectacle, or are somehow deserving (perhaps because they are obnoxious, sexually active, privileged, etc). It’s not unfairness these films are interested in, but in the kick of shock-violence, the delights of schadenfreude. There must be some empathy and sympathy to generate the haunting quality of unfairness to the undeserving that I am speaking of.  

 


Unfairness is one of the society’s true horrors. Dramas like ‘Kes’, ‘The Bicycle Thieves’, and ‘Calm With Horses’ have it, that’s very much engaged with political context and subtext. It’s why ‘Pelo Malo’, ‘Libero’ and ‘Leviathan’ bug me, capturing a quality of life that is both mundane and empirically cruel. The horror genre stretches these anxieties to surrealistic heights, manifests them. It is not so much injustice that permeates the genre – although there is that political centre to ‘Get Out’, and 'Spiral' too because they're talking about race and class - but more the horrific randomness of luck. Even titles such as ‘Dark Skies’,Krampus’, ‘Sinister’ are elevated by this “unfairness” aftertaste. ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ has an edge of unfairness that gives it more than average gravity (although mitigated with the hint that it might not be over…).**

 

Recently watching episode 1 of ‘Wolf Creek: season 2’, and it’s an episode dedicated to setting up the bus of tourists that are going to be subjected to the horror of Mick Taylor (a terrifying John Jarratt): the episode cliff-hanger was predictable enough, but by the time it came, the characters had been established enough as ordinary, decent people that it gave me the dread required because what was going to happen to them was – at the very least – unfair.

 

It’s why the body-swap plot in ‘Tales from the Loop’ had a deep-set sadness.



It’s why ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ achieves tragedy and haunts. Poor Laura.

 

It’s why ‘Them’ is so much more disturbing, and why it achieves wider range when class enters the context.

 

For comparison, ‘Better Watch Out’ doesn’t linger as a downer because unfairness is not allowed to win, even if the damage is already done (unfairness surely belongs to Luke’s pal, and that’s the distressing part).

 

Unfairness is such a troubling, unshakable ingredient that it makes any horror handiwork reach deep down into our outrage, paranoia, fear and empathy. It's upsetting. Horror seems superficially to be considered and graded by how “scary” it is; but for me unfairness is horrifying, for it is merciless and indiscrimination. It stains much deeper.

 

 

  • * Trevor Johnson, ‘Phantasm’, ‘Time Out Film Guide 2011’ (Ed. John Pym, Time Out Guides, pg. 824
** ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is like ‘Goosebumps’ done with less temperance. A note here that in regards to RL Stine who, however hokey and cliché his stuff is, is surely the gateway to a lifetime of horror fandom for many: Stine’s  ‘The Haunting Hour’ is harder stuff than ‘Goosebumps’ in that there’s a lot of unfairness going around. The twist of the episode ‘My Robot’, or the meanness of ‘Pumpkinhead’ for example. Or even ‘A Creature was Stirring’ where the fact that the snow has disappeared at the end would, as an incongruity, surely be indication