Sunday, 11 October 2020

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


·        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.


  • 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.


  • 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.



  • 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.



  • 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.

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