FRIGHTFEST 2020 REVIEW
The Covid-19 Pandemic has affected all industries and few more so than TV and Film. Production has come to a virtual standstill and for fans, being able to see new features on the big screen or showcased at film festivals has all but stopped. The UK's biggest horror film festival Frightfest is one that has had to adapt and this year they offered audiences a chance to still enjoy the Frightfest experience, albeit in a virtual way. The festival ended yesterday and although it could never hope to replicate the experience of the physical event, the whole thing ran as smoothly as possible from a view experience and allowed viewers to communicate and chat on social media, during and in between films. 25 premieres were shown and we managed to catch 13 of them, and we're here to fill you in on some of the hits (and misses).
THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS VAMPIRES
Director: Logan Thomas
Strangers, Joshua and Ariel, crash into each other in the dead of the night. Before long they find themselves pursued across the North America desert, the target of an unstoppable supernatural force.
A low-budget vampire road movie horror that feels like a surreal mash-up of Jeepers Creepers, Terminator and The Night Flyer, There's No Such Thing As Vampires is quirky and fast-paced 80 minutes or so. Unfortunately, the further it goes the more it runs out of steam and its efforts to build up a sense of mythology weigh it down in an underwhelming final act.
Propelled by a synthy Carpenteresque score and some energetic central performances by Josh Plasse and Emma Holzer, the first thirty minutes or so are quite a lot of fun. On the open road being pursued by an unknown menace, the film promises much. However the shifting tone and uneven pacing muddle things somewhat and once the antagonist is revealed the film loses most of the intrigue it had built. How that scene with a group of characters discussing Friday 13th and Halloween got left it is a mystery too. Fun in an early 90's monster flick kinda way but ultimately it flatters to deceive a little.
There's a sequel planned, which we're kind of curious about though...
12 HOUR SHIFT
Director: Brea Grant
It's 1999 and over the course of one 12 hour shift at an Arkansas hospital, a junkie nurse (Angela Bettis), her scheming cousin (Chloe Farnworth) and a group of black market organ-trading criminals (Mick Foley, David Arquette, Dusty Warren) start a heist that could lead to their imminent demises.
Brea Grant directs this entertaining mad cap crime caper that's more black comedy than horror, truth be told. Angela Bettis' (genre fans will know her from 'May') cynical turn is sublime and a perfect partner to the absurdity that Chloe Farnworth offers up. The score, by Matt Glass, is also a winner too. Some will dig its chaotic style and frenetic pacing but its tightly wound plot begins to unravel a little the further it goes on. There are almost too many moving parts and the film struggles a little to manage them. However amongst the mayhem, there are some great moments of tension, gore and pitch black comedy. To set a film amongst terminally ill patients and focus your story on a bunch of rather reprehensible characters and still manage to get some form of levity is no mean feat. Yes, Arquette's involvement almost feels superfluous and it's sense of nihilism won't be everyone's cup of tea. But we kind of dug it. This is only Grant's sophomore feature, 12 Hour Shift is proof that she's one to watch for the future.
THE HONEYMOON PHASE
Director: Phillip G. Carroll Jr
Struggling young lovers, Tom and Eve, must endure a 30-day scientific experiment. Room, board, $50,000 and a month alone together in research facility housing. What could possibly go wrong.
It feels a bit reductive to say that any sci-fi horror nowadays feels like a feature length episode of Black Mirror, but that's EXACTLY what this feels like. The Honeymoon Phase is a self contained psychological thriller that deserves credit for creating a world and exploring ideas bigger than its budget should really allow for. However, for the most part, it manages to pull it off. It's a carefully controlled movie with a few twists and turns that freshen things up just when things threaten to become a little stale. You do wish that the main plot twist wasn't so obviously signposted but fortunately there is enough juice left after this to keep things interesting. Two leads are solid (despite the leading man's haircut that makes him look a little like a toddler) – something that's especially important for a film that is essentially a two-hander. Themes of domestic abuse and toxic masculinity are explored here too – it kinda feels like Sleeping With the Enemy for today's generation. It will be obvious to most where the story is heading and the final five minutes or so may feel a little underwhelming in that regard. But all in all a tense relationship drama that will keep you engaged throughout.
Director: Fionn Watts, Toby Watts.
In a remote Scottish castle, an irreverent writer faces terrifying consequences when his daughter falls prey to an evil curse lurking within the walls.
A beautifully shot Scottish horror that is perfectly primed to deliver some old school gothic chills but ultimately fails to frighten. It's a real shame because there are some likeable elements to this. A wonderfully eerie Caithness location is utilised well by the directors (the Watts brothers) and they do a competent job behind the camera from an aesthetic point of view. This is matched by some really good central performances, especially Grace Courtney, who steals the show as Jack Travis' troubled daughter. However, there are issues here that prevent Playhouse from realising its potential. The script is clunky, the plot is meandering and the focus on the lead characters mental state at the expense of any actual tension mean that it's difficult to fully engage with the story. The father-daughter relationship also feels a little off and not buying into has a big impact on everything else that follows (especially the climax). If you like slow burn character driven stuff then you'll probably quite like this but those looking for some scares will be a little let down.
While filming a documentary about an agoraphobic woman, a celebrity psychologist is drawn into supernatural events.
Unlike a lot of genre fans, we're unashamed lovers of found-footage horror. Sure, there were a host of clangers after The Blair Witch came onto the scene but it's a format that offers an accessible storytelling format for low budget film-makers. Unfortunately, despite it feeling a little resonant of the aforementioned and The Wicker Man, They're Outside is a film that squanders it's promising premise with a couple of fatal flaws. Firstly, the central character is just detestable. You don't have to make your protagonist likeable but he's such an arse here that you just want bad things to happen to him. Secondly, the film runs into a narrative road block about thirty minutes in and struggles to inject a sense of impetus or intensity thereafter. The final few minutes see the film crank things up a little but it's too little too late. Again, the ending doesn't really work either. Emily Booth is good value as always and it has its moments but the lack of scares means that it's difficult to overlook its weaknesses.
Directors: Kodie Bedford, Perun Bonser, Rob Braslin, Liam Phillips, Bjorn Stewart.
An anthology of horror tales filtered through the post-colonial experience of the aboriginal Australians.
Anthologies are notoriously a bit of a mixed bag, especially if they have no central theme that runs throughout. Fortunately Dark Place has a rather unique one and it's focus on indigenous film-makers and post-colonialism makes for intriguing viewing. The five shorts are all around fifteen minutes in length and are all impressively put together. Addiction, sexual slavery, single parenthood and cultural genocide are all heavy subjects that Dark Place explores but there are enough supernatural elements and, in the case of the last short, black humour to stop things feeling too despondent. The horror here is quite brutal at times but the reality is that it still pales into insignificance compared to the horror suffered by the first Australians who had to deal with European invasion. An important and relevant anthology.
SKULL THE MASK
The feature film is an action-packed horror flick depicting a supernatural serial killer based on pre-Colombian mythology in a hunt for revenge in the metropolis of São Paulo.
Jason Takes Sao Paulo! That's effectively what this barmy Brazilian slasher is. There weren't many slashers on the Frightfest schedule this year and Skull doesn't disappoint in terms of everything you'd hope for in a low budget slasher. Buckets of blood and gore? Check! Cool mask and weird mythology? Yep! Convoluted and messy B-story that is a bit boring? Check! Bad guy pulling out a whole host of wrestling moves? (amongst the stabbing) Check! Wait, what?! Yep – there are chokeslams, clotheslines and even a stone cold stunner at one point. It's fabulously absurd and a bunch of mystical nonsense but damn, it's pretty entertaining. It is undoubtedly messy and the script is uneven but there is more than enough here to satisfy those who like their horror bloodsoaked and full of action.
HAIL TO THE DEADITES
Director: Steve Villeneuve
A documentary about the fans of the EVIL DEAD films and explores the classic franchise's undying and ever-growing popularity.
An intriguing look at the world of superfandom – in this case, avid followers of the Evil Dead franchise (there are worse things to be obsessed over to be fair). From the hoarding of memorabilia, to a couple that gets engaged at a fan convention to people who dress up as Ash, it covers a wide base and offers interviews with fans and cast and crew alike. For those who are unaware of this extreme type of fan culture, it may all feel a little odd and weird. The levels of dedication that some of the people in this doc have is startling at times. However, the key takeaway here is that these are passionate, loyal fans and their love of the franchise offers a basis for friendship both in person and online for hundreds of people. And let's face it, we're all a bit nerdy in some way aren't we? These guys are just a lot better at it than us.
Director: Francesco Giannini
When a debilitating sickness spreads across a long hotel hallway, a few scattered victims fight for survival, and try to escape from the dark narrow stretch of isolated carnage.
You can't have a horror festival during a pandemic and NOT have a film about infectious diseases! Hall is a movie that carefully constructs its characters and setting but which ultimately drops the ball at the last minute. It's a shame because the quality of the first hour in particular is actually quite high in terms of building a sense of foreboding and tension. Director Francesco Giannini lets everything simmer away quite effectively and is quite happy to focus on the family drama elements. However just when you expect the film to boil over and deliver the goods it gets cold feet and rushes through a final act that feels lightweight and unsatisfactory. It also contains some odd character decisions and logic gaps and the post scene credit is really very bad. If you're into football analogies then this is the equivalent of passing the ball around nicely for ages before blazing the ball out of the stadium when faced with an open goal.
A GHOST WAITS
Director: Adam Stovall
A man's job requires him to clean a house, which turns out to be haunted. In the course of trying to exorcise the ghost, he falls in love with her.
Who'd have thought that a romantic comedy horror about a handyman falling in love with a ghost would be one of the best films of Frightfest this year? Probably not us, yet here we are! It takes a few minutes to get to grips with the offbeat sense of humour and the films languid style but once on board it makes for a great ride. It's quirky, it's funny and most importantly it's moving. Every great horror-comedy has something important and relevant going on at it's heart and here we have a sweet and surprising look at loneliness and existence itself. First time Director Adam Stovell's decision to shoot in black and white gives the story a timeless feel and MacLeod Andrews and Natalie Walker are both perfectly cast as the leading pair. Critics may point to the fact that their love story isn't allowed to blossom for very long and thus feels a little forced, however the romance isn't laid on too thickly and the bittersweet (and brave) ending rounds things off perfectly. For a festival full of films that failed at the last hurdle, A Ghost Waits certainly delivers a payoff.
Director: James Mark
A young woman with enhanced abilities finds herself hunted down by a sinister government organization. But when an even stronger enhanced serial killer emerges on the scene, agents and mutants are forced to question their allegiances.
Another film that probably doesn't include enough horror elements to be considered genre. It's also a movie that is unashamedly generic and unremarkable in its themes and plotting. It's pretty much a mash up of Terminator and X-Men, albeit on a much smaller budget and obviously not as good as either of them. However, it scores points for some decent action scenes and solid production values. What elevates it above SyFy fare (which is what some have compared it to) is the quality of it's cast, with Alanna Bale especially watchable in the lead role. No, it doesn't offer up anything new and the final scene is pretty frustrating but for a by the numbers sci-fi actioner, you could do a lot worse.
AV: THE HUNT
Director: Emre Akay
After being caught with her lover, a woman becomes hunted by her own relatives who want to kill her for their family's honour.
If there has been a running theme that connects a lot of the films in this year's Frightfest line-up, it would be an examination (and criticism) of the patriarchy. AV: The Hunt is perhaps the most extreme observation of that subject. This is a brave film – and a pretty brutal one too. It's got an unfussy, minimalist aesthetic that enhances the tension and suspense, particularly within the first hour. The bulk of the action is set within a woodland wilderness and the beautiful landscapes make for an ironic backdrop for the blood and violence. We've had some great female central performances this year and Billur Melis Koc's portrayal of a woman fighting for her life is up there with the best. Although the film deserves credit for wasting no time in getting into the action, the bluntness of the ending unfortunately leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. Still, it is one of the most powerful films of the festival. Because you know what's scarier than being hunted down in the woods by people intent on killing you? When the assailants are your own family.
Director: Dean Kapsalis
The dark secrets of Holly's seemingly perfect life are exposed, when an unwanted intruder spins her life out of control forever.
The final film we caught at Frightfest and boy, what a way to go out. It's a sullen, disturbing portrayal of a woman's mental disintegration and will admittedly be a bit too bleak for some. However, for our two cents, this is a compelling and troubling look at the fragility of the mind and the unhealthy state of society and an examination of one woman's role within it. Holly may appear to be living the American dream – she is married with kids and has nice home and a stable job. But somewhere along the way the dream has become a nightmare and she has lost her identity. It makes for a rather profound viewing experience and to think this is Director Dean Kapsalis' first feature film makes it all the more impressive. However, it's Azura Skye – who plays our tormented protagonist who deserves special praise. It's an undeniably difficut role to play but she nails it. A tough watch and one that isn't technically horror (although admittedly it's quite horrific in places) but still one of the best of the festival.