Kurtis David Harder, 2019, Canada
In the ‘90s, Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Ari Cohen) move into the suburbs with an eye to improving their general quality of life and that of their daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). But being a same sex couple, they do stand out a little, even in this apparently accepting community. Pretty soon there’s an old man lurking outside, house break-ins and what seems to be weird rituals going on in the house over there. Bowyer-Chapman’s performance is exemplary so that it’s painful to watch this character being broken by malicious external forces. So grounded and real is the context that Harder’s deceptively non-intrusive direction and Bowyer-Chapman’s performance creates that even when the other stuff closes in, this central character and his struggle never feels undermined.
The look is clean, a little washed out in a stylish hue, like a spread in a home-and-lifestyle magazine. The feel is all increasing paranoia and something sinister closing in. With its starting point being that those that are different are the most vulnerable and with an ending that draws a direct straight line to modern prejudices, ‘Spiral’ is disturbing and upsetting with none of the catharsis of ‘Get Out’. The dread is palpable with Colin Minihan and John Poliquin’s script tapping into that most troubling of genre themes, that the worst can happen to good people for no reason, or because they’re trying to improve their lives.
EAT BRAINS LOVE
Rodman Flender, 2019, USA
An agreeable enough zombie rom-com: he’s a slightly dim slacker and she’s somewhat of a popular girl and they are finally bonded when they contract a sexually-transmitted virus that turns them into zombies. It’s bright and sometimes amusing without really bringing anything new to the table. Well, there is a full-on naked zombie banquet… You know how it is: zombiedom symbolises, X-Men style, outsiderism and the persecuted with our blighted couple soon going with the idea of being zombie vigilantes whilst pursued by shady military interests. And little forbidden love when one of the pursuers has a crush on the undead guy. More interesting is the Cronenbergian aspect of the zombie outbreak as a STD, also a touch of ‘Scanners’, but aside from the banquet shocker, this is a bright, cheerful but standard young adult horror. Entries such as ‘Warm Bodies’ and ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ utilise zombie tropes for youthful angst but never quite aim for more than just romantic superficialities (although previous FrightFest film ‘Life After Beth’ is one of the best).
DANIEL ISN'T REAL
Adam Egypt Mortimer, 2019, USA
Mortimer’s ‘Some Kind of Hate’ showed a filmmaker with a genuine affinity for capturing that uncomfortable edge of self-hatred and -harm that haunts young people, and ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ taps into that same vein of troubled psychology. By turns an Imaginary Friend horror and a phantasmagoria shuffling the protagonist’s reality, ‘Daniel’ was almost as visceral and trippy as ‘Bliss’: the interludes with the void accompanied by an overwhelming ambient drone sounded transcendental on such a big screen and big sound-system (“By the producers of ‘Mandy’” will perhaps help sell it you).
Luke (Miles Robbins) had an imaginary childhood friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) that he banished when things got a little weird, but now Daniel is back to give Luke confidence in adulthood; the imaginary friend now a kind of Brett Easton Ellis rich kid narcissist lifestyle advisor. He's big on toxic masculinity. A highlight is Sasha Lane as an anarchic skateboarder-artist with oddles of charisma, providing yet another example of a tough and assured FrightFest female character without the recourse to the tired cliché of being kick-ass. The trajectory from one person’s mental health to cosmic horror conveyed the failure of reality to protect against the genre and, throughout this festival, offered as much tragedy as disturbance. With the people I spoke to, this was a festival favourite.
READY OR NOT
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, 2019, USA
Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying Daniel (Adam Brody), who is part of the mega-rich Le Domus family – and a rich family is usually eccentric and dangerous in horror and the Le Domus’ aren’t an exception. She’s genuinely excited to be joining the family – she’s an orphan – but it involves playing one of those ritualistic party games that the rich like to play, in this case, a lethal game of hide-and-seek. There’s a lot of humour in the bad guys trying to learn on-the-hoof how to hunt – it gets a lot of mileage from the crossbow – a lovely location in the huge house and a lot of satisfaction in Grace having a no-nonsense response to her predicament. Considering the current climate when it’s high in our political consciousness, horror about class divides isn’t likely to take a back seat soon.
As proceedings become gleefully ridiculous and cruel, and although the entire cast are finely attuned to the material so that it doesn’t crumble under predictability, Weaving’s performance centres it all with a vulnerability and resolve that fleshes a character that could have been just two-dimensional. No, she doesn’t feel like an incapable victim. As long as the rich are targeting and abusing the lower classes is prevalent, horror will always have payback tales. But this one is fast, fun, peppered with nastiness and knowing performances. Like ‘Crawl’, it’s a crowd-pleaser.
Kiah Roache-Turner, 2018, Australia
It starts with one of those animated expositions and narrations that warn you this is going to be chock full of stuff that could be found in Black Metal lyrics. But here, demons get you through social media. I have never found the internet scary and adding demons doesn’t make it more so. A couple of sanitation workers – a Chosen One and his Dim Comedy Relief friend – find themselves caught up in the battle between the Underworld Queen (Monica Belluci, obviously having a great time) and Nekromancers, who are on permanent kick-ass mode. There’s 3D-printing of demons, and…
Well, you see, where other off-the-wall titles like this do so with self-awareness and gonzo-humour (‘Bullets for Justice’ and ‘Ghost Killers vs Bloody Mary’) or even just jet-black humour (‘Why Don’t You Just Die!’), ‘Nekrotronic’ seems to want us to take it seriously as an epic. This means that whilst we are meant to be having fun, it wants us to invest genuine emotion to the plight of the one-dimensional sisters. But it’s full of deux ex machinas, overly complex world-building and the humour has long drained away by this point.